by Annette Hinkle
As a child growing up in the Setauket, Stony Brook and Port Jefferson area, Greg Drossel remembers being outdoors constantly.
“I came from a very large family with meager means, but they always found a way to take us away — and it was camping,” says Drossel.
And when he wasn’t camping with his family (and sneaking snakes into the car which he inevitably had to let go on the side of the road on the ride home when his sister ratted him out), Drossel was spending his virtually all his kid time and energy outside — like many of us did.
“I remember grouse hunting in Stony Brook where the medical center and the college are now,” recalls Drossel. “I used to go swimming around West Meadow Beach using a broom stick with an eel spear on it to try to stab flounder for lunch.”
“I was constantly catching things.”
Drossel is still catching things and in fact, has made a career of it. As a naturalist and teacher, he shares his extensive knowledge of the environment with kids in his Naturalist Explorers program at the Ross summer camp and recently returned from the Galapagos Islands where he led an M-term trip for Ross High School students.
One thing Drossel has come to understand over the years — often children are tuned into nature in ways their parents — due to their stressful lives or different priorities — just are not.
This can be especially true on the East End where the focus, especially in summer, is on glitz, glamour and the high life.
But what many are missing are the treasures to be found through a little well-considered quiet time in the woods, by the bays or at the beach.
Realizing how much adults have to learn about their own backyard, so to speak, Drossel is gearing up to offer “Natural History of the East End” a 10-session “in the field” course for grownups through the Ross School. It starts next week and is one of several adult courses Ross School is offering this spring.
“A lot of people out here don’t spend a lot of time out in the wilds here,” says Drossel. “As a society I think we’ve gotten away from ‘basic nature.’ I know it’s a cliché, but we’re all from there. And sometimes we miss the trees for the forest.”
“What I find very entertaining and interesting is people who have lived out here 10, 20, 30 years — and from a Bonac standpoint are still outsiders — have no idea that Cedar Point Park or Morton Wildlife Refuge exists,” he says.
“The people who can afford to build multi-million dollar houses are coming to the East End for the good life,” notes Drossel. “But it’s about more than the house you’re living in.”
Which is why Drossel is focused on making sure the adults who take his course will come to understand a great deal about the natural world around them.
He’s keeping the itinerary loose and will let his students help set the agenda — but it’s fair to assume this course will involve hiking trips to local woods, ponds and beaches. There may be a seine net session on the bay, birding with binoculars and a primer on tree and shrub identification.
Participants will also keep a field journal detailing their encounters. While journals often include scientific based renderings of what is discovered along the way, that’s not necessarily the whole of it.
“It could be about a bird you saw, for reference you’re taking home the description and going through the Peterson or Audubon guide to identify the bird,” explains Drossel. “Also, a lot of what goes into a naturalist sketchbook or journal are personal feelings, thoughts about a certain sunrise. If you want to write personal feelings, you can.”
In many ways, Drossel is structuring his class like his own childhood — offering an outdoor exploration where anything can happen when “nature takes it’s course,” so to speak. And because the class runs from April to June, participants will witness the dramatic changes that take place over the course of an East End spring.
“Everything is coming alive,” says Drossel. “First and foremost you’ll see a definite green-up in woods — the understory coming alive and budding.”
“Pairs of birds are also starting their courtship,” he adds. “The flight of the woodcocks is amazing. You also have broods of wild turkeys — the growth of the poults and the break up into bachelor tom groups.”
And by the way, if pressed, Drossel can do a pretty good imitation of a turkey hen.
“I stand outside doing the bus arrivals in the morning at Ross, and if a whole bunch of toms are displaying on the field, I can call them,” he notes.
If Drossel seems like a guy who’s has never grown up and come in from the woods, it’s kind of true — and, by the way, something we all should aspire to. Because lets face it, these days adults are often just as caught up with their digital devices as their kids are.
Drossel points to the book by Richard Louv, “Last Child in the Woods,” which highlights what society has lost by shifting kids focus away from the outdoors and onto screens … and what, they’ve unfortunately gained — lots of weight, which has led to increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.
Beyond giving kids much needed exercise, there are other very valuable benefits for kids in the wild.
“You want to get a kid involved in geometry and science? Get them in the woods,” he says. “A pinecone is geometry in nature. Float a stick down the stream and learn physics. And it’s ok to climb a tree. In this technological age, all you need is a little push. So put it down and go outside.”
Drossel feels that embracing and acknowledging nature is vital in saving it. Like those once wild corridors from his childhood around Port Jefferson that have largely disappeared due to development, Drossel stresses the need to educate people of all ages to stand firm in the face of development.
“There’s a balance,” he says. “And if more and more people are aware, maybe these last frontiers have a bit more of a shelf life.”
Greg Drossel’s “Natural History of the East End” meets Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. April 2 to June 4. The cost is $425 (plus a $100 trip fee). Register at www.ross.org/adult or call 907-5555.