The time was 1:15 P.M. on a Thursday, right after a delicious lunch. Semester 59 climbed into two vans destined for Popham Beach, the site of this week’s science field trip. I had just eaten two chocolate chip cookies, Lucie had three more in her bag and I had already reserved one; I knew it was going to be a good trip. We drove forty-five minutes along roads that have become familiar over the last month. The business of route one —its constant stream of cars and strange diversity of strip malls, antique shops and beautiful, seaside communities — has come to mean adventure for the forty-six of us. The van was loud, as always, filled by the sound of country music, with Reid and Matty B. singing along to every word.
As we climbed out of the vans and into the expansive parking lot of Popham State Park, we were met with cool, ocean air. After an initial circle-up we marched toward the beach, breaking up into three study groups along the way. James Kary, Semester science teacher, led my group over the edge of a dune and we stepped onto Maine’s most famous beach. We huddled around him, our bright yellow field journals in hand, to hear about different species commonly found in Maine’s dunes.
First, he told us the story of Lathyrus japonicus, or Beach Pea. I wrote furiously in my notes about the leathery texture of the leaflet that allowed it to maintain moisture while living in the dry sand. It’s usually located in the foredune and its root nodules hold a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixating bacteria. I have never felt so amazed by a green stock on the side of a sand mound.
James continued, transitioning to the Beach Pea’s close neighbor, Ammophilla brevigulata, or American Beach Grass. These are the familiar light green or tan colored stalks covering the tops of dunes. How is it that I have looked at these plants my whole life and never asked why they are there? Our science teachers, Eric, James, and Becca, leave me with this question daily. James describes the ramet of the plant, and how it grows vertically out of the dune. He talks of rhizomes with more excitement and intensity then I have ever encountered. I find myself smiling and in awe of the stiff leaves that can curl in dry weather to create a microclimate for the stomata.
We continue along the dune, discussing the placement of plants and the processes that put them there. James introduces us to Rosa rugosa, Myrica pensylvanica, and Hudsonia tomentosa, all the while expressing a distinct love of the natural world and everything it provides. I feel like I am seeing the beach with new eyes.
Continuing on, we are asked what conditions make life difficult for the five organisms we just met. What can they deal with that most plants can’t? They have to be strong, able to stand up against exposure to wind and salty spray, and tough enough to handle “sand blasts.” They have to be stable, in an environment where ground and soil is mobile and loose.
We are then given instructions to make a site description and site map. I love this part. We get to map out our surroundings, describing the very specific places we are in. It takes time. You have to focus on the little things. I draw the dune as if it were cut in half, detailing the groups of species I had found from the ocean to the parking lot.
We gathered back up, and a couple of us began stripping down to our bathing suits, feeling a chilliness that hadn’t existed in the weeks before. We follow Becca and Eric down the path toward the water. All at once we sprinted into the crashing waves and dove into the frigid water. I am used to that feeling in August, but not October. It was shockingly cold!
Climbing out of the water, we head for the vans and drive back to Chewonki. We make our way through the business of the outside world and back into the tall trees of Chewonki Neck. Back to warm showers and incredible meals, and to people who get excited about shrubs that grow in mounds of sand.
Sophia, Casco Bay High School, ME