Stephanie Pawlik’s fifth-grade Greenport students swapped their desks for an outdoor classroom last Thursday during a visit to Widow’s Hole Preserve.
ExxonMobil donated the 2.4-acre tract on the Greenport waterfront to the Peconic Land Trust in 2012. The company had operated six above-ground fuel oil storage tanks there from the mid-1920s through the ’80s. Since then, the land trust, in collaboration with Cornell Cooperative Extension, Southold Town and Greenport Village, has been planning restoration efforts to bring the spot back to nature.
Phase one of that effort — making the site safer by shortening exposed pipes and seawalls — has been completed, and the next steps include replacing invasive plants with native species. Also on the horizon are plans to bolster the shoreline with stone and beach grass that will prevent erosion, preserve manager Denise Markut explained to the class.
The fifth-graders, who Ms. Markut referred to as “junior stewards,” aim to visit the preserve each month. When she mentioned that the PLT needs people to volunteer to work on the restoration projects, several hands shot up.
“I would!” those students said.
The class, the second group to visit the site that day, then pulled out their observation notebooks and took off in all directions on the preserve’s meadow. They spotted pieces of concrete, which were remnants of the former ExxonMobil facility.
Before the students went down to the water, Ms. Markut pointed them to where high tide had left a thin stretch of beach. Their task was to hunt there for different types of mollusks. They also collected shells, rocks and sand to drop into clear ornaments in an arts and crafts project.
“It’s great having students, or anybody, interact with the nature preserve,” said Yvette DeBow Salseda, vice president of the Peconic Land Trust. It is more than a chance to experience nature, she said, as the class learned about the history of the site, its natural resources and conservation, and took on a creative project.
Student Daniel Rivas said that although it was cold that afternoon, his favorite part of the experience was looking for oysters shells.
“I like what we’re doing,” he said. “I get to look with my friends and see something awesome.”
Classmate Olivia Nockelin said she liked finding bay scallop shells along the beach.
“It’s awesome to see all the shells and wild animals,” she said.
Ms. Pawlik recalled a time about five years ago, when she was out on a boat with students who struggled to point out a bay scallop shell.
“I thought, ‘We have to do something,’” she said, noting that families have changed over the years and have less time to focus on nature. At the preserve, her students picked up shells and quickly identified the mollusks they found, from whelk to slipper shells. And when they didn’t know what they’d picked up, they wanted to find out.
“I’ve been teaching for a long time and I think in this part of my career I’ve come to realize what’s most important and the students that we have are very curious about their environment,” Ms. Pawlik said. “I think, to me, I know it’s simple, but it’s everything.”