2012-06-08 / People

Cape Elizabeth resident enjoys sharing knowledge of nature

By Jack Flagler Staff Writer

A fisherman on Swan’s Island asked Erike Rhile to identify a shark he had caught. Rhile and her son Owen pose with the porbeagle shark. (Courtesy photo) A fisherman on Swan’s Island asked Erike Rhile to identify a shark he had caught. Rhile and her son Owen pose with the porbeagle shark. (Courtesy photo) Last month, 14 students received their naturalist certification from the Maine Master Naturalist program after completing a course at the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset. However, the title of “naturalist” may not have the same significance for each student.

Erika Rhile, who was among the inaugural class of 14, said the diversity among the class of graduates is part of what made the program especially interesting to her. Rhile is a environmental and physical science teacher from Cape Elizabeth who was interested in learning more about Maine’s natural history to supplement the classes she teaches at Cheverus High School in Portland.

Rhile was one of a few educators among the students in the program. She said most students “were like-minded in that they had some background or an expertise already, but wanted to learn more.”

The group of naturalists included a man who worked with land trusts with the Audubon Society, someone who worked with invasive plants in Maine, and a retired couple who wanted to lead tours of Viles Arboretum in Augusta.

Rhile said each student brought a different expertise in the area of Maine’s natural history, and each also got something different out of the program. As an educator, she said the most appealing part of the program was the stories behind Maine’s natural history.

“I majored in biology. You’re not looking for a biologist to walk you through the woods and tell you about the haploid phase of that moss. You’re not interested in that. What you’re interested in is the stories about moss, how it was used in World War I to dress wounds because they ran out of supplies,” Rhile said.

“You learn these different things that are story-telling aspects of being a naturalist and people are going to walk away and they’re going to remember that. That’s a neat thing too, teaching about nature in a way that’s not like this oppressive professor of biology.”

Rhile grew up in the Philadelphia, Pa., area. She wentontoreceiveabachelor’s degree from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and then began work as a research biologist with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It was her work at Penn that drew her to Maine when she began research on Swan’s Island.

She saw a high quality of life and a culture that appreciated the outdoors in Maine. She and her husband moved to Cape Elizabeth in 2001.

The most rewarding part of her job as a teacher, Rhile said, is helping students discover the natural beauty in Maine that drew her here. She leads her classes and the Cheverus Outing Club on various trips throughout the school year, including trips to Mount Katahdin, Acadia National Park and the White Mountains.

“A girl came in the other day who had just graduated college – she did the outing club in college. She was telling me all the things she’s doing and she sent a picture from Colorado in front of the Red Rocks,” Rhile said.

“This is a student who, years ago, I kind of prodded like, ‘Hey, would you be interested in joining the outing club?’ and her being like, “Oh I don’t know, I’m not really into that,’ and now that’s just a part of her life. So that’s kind of the neatest thing is the kids who do fall in love with it and recognize what resources are outside their door here, which is wonderful,” Rhile said.

Rhile added that the new knowledge she has gained from the naturalist program will help her connect and share her love of Maine’s resources with her students, whether it’s with information on a trip or a humorous story to make them laugh. She said the program narrowed down broad issues such as climate change, specifically to Maine, which will help her connect with her students.

“Instead of teaching the kids these broad subjects like, ‘This is what climate change is. This is the greenhouse effect.’ How about climate change in Maine? What’s happening here? What are some of the things we’re seeing? And a great example is earlier ice out in lakes like Moosehead Lake. Close to home examples, especially with the teenage group, make more sense. They’re going to take that in,” Rhile said.

The Maine Master Naturalist program will expand to offer courses in two locations in 2012-2013, its second year. However, applications are no longer being accepted. The program is an independent, nonprofit corporation whose board members and staff are composed entirely of volunteers with a background and interest in Maine’s natural history.

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