When Bill Schiller graduated from college, he learned about a position at the American Museum of Natural History as a Lecturer in Botany and "grabbed that job." That was in 1961, and ever since a favorite part of his many-faceted position has been taking interested peopleteachers and the general publicon walking tours of New York City's green spaces. By surprising participants with what they can discover about plants just by looking closely, he builds an appreciation of how nature works and a sense of responsible stewardship that begins at their own doorsteps.
Bill's tours often start off in the Museum's Hall of North American Forests, to introduce the basics of flower identification. "Many times people tell me something like, they saw a beautiful red flower in Central Park and want to know what it is," says Bill. "I then have to ask, can you describe it in a little more detail? They might say, 'It was on a stalk about two feet tall.' When I ask how were the leaves arranged, or how many petals did the flowers have, people generally didn't think to look for such identifying features." At the exhibits, Bill often draws attention to members of the lily family, whose big flowers and large, open parts can be clearly seen through the glass of the diorama case. "We develop what's called a floral diagram of the flowerwe count the petals and other parts, and note how they're arranged. Then I say, Let's imagine we're plant hunters sent out by a pharmaceutical company, and do a little treasure hunt for such flowers." After trying out observation skills in the Museum's halls, the group heads out into one of New York City's green spaces, its quarry dependent upon the season, the destination, and the lesson of the day.
Mastering the Plant-Hunter's Perspective
On a good spring day, a birder might spot up to 100 bird species in Central Park. In contrast, says Bill, "I can show you over a thousand plants." The identification challenge is completely different. There are only so many sparrow-like birds, after all, and after a while their shape and coloration make them recognizable. With plants, on the other hand, "the outline of the plant can reveal a great deal about survival strategies and adaptation to the environment, but it won't tell you whether it's a rose, because you can find rose-type flowers on tiny plants, or on bushes, or on trees. You need a different mindset." To that end, Bill distributes hand lenses, the trademark of the botanist, which enable his followers to look closely for the characteristics previously identified back in the Hall of the North American Forests.
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Looking at the details of flowers can help one form an appreciation of their diversity, and that can lead to curiosity about what roles plants play in living systems. "A basic discovery in ecology is that the animals and plants in an area are a system in which materials move in cycles. The plants grab energy from the sun and make it usable to the rest of the living world," says Bill. As a botanist, he introduces the system in each of his walks, throwing out questions like: What leaf adaptations do you see, and what do they reveal about the plant's environmental tolerances? How is a tree important? How does a tree work? Sometimes the group stops right on the sidewalk when Bill explains that "most of the water a tree takes in is drawn up from the roots and out, molecule by molecule, through pores in the leaves, like a giant wick."
Tours of the city's large natural forests, like Van Cortlandt Park or Pelham Bay Park, introduce the concept of stewardship on a larger scale. In springtime Bill takes a group past ball fields and a weedy roadside to a particular, relatively undisturbed part of Van Cortlandt Park. "About a hundred feet into the forest itself, I ask, What do you see here in the way of diversity? At that time of year I hardly have to ask, because under the trees is a solid carpet of wild flowersspring beauty, bloodroot, Solomon's seal, wild geraniumone next to the other in a solid blaze of colors." Further down the path, where both sides of the path have been completely taken over by Asian climbing bittersweet, he stops to ask, What's wrong here? Bill describes the scene as "an example of an invasive species wiping out all the native plants. This is the second most important cause of endangerment and extinction globally, of animals as well as plants."
Time permitting, Bill's tours end up back where they started: at the Museum. After his audience learns about damage to wetlands and forests, as well as efforts at restoration, Bill facilitates a self-guided study on these topics in the Forest Hall and the Resources section of the Hall of Biodiversity. His goal is to encourage stewardship by teaching people about destructive and constructive behavior. A discussion of the toll taken on small animals and ground-nesting birds when owners let their dogs run loose makes people far less likely to surreptitiously violate the leash laws, and leads to an investigation of misconceptions about the causes of species loss. "In that sense, consciousness-raising about the fragility and interdependence of living things is fundamental," says Bill. "That's the most important aspect of what I do as an educator: raise consciousness."
A colleague of Bill's who also conducts walking tours of New York City's open spaces is Urban Park Ranger Bob DeCandido, Ph.D. Along with enforcing park rules and regulations, Bob teaches city-dwellers to look closely at their wild neighbors and become better environmental stewards in the process. "When people see what's in their own backyards, and realize that it's indeed their heritage and part of their culture, they appreciate and take care of it," he observes. Bob begins the tours by highlighting high-profile park inhabitants like birds of prey, most recently conducting night walks in Central Park to track newly released Eastern screech owls. Discussion of the owls' diet might lead to a discussion of how to control rats, and whether some rodenticides are better than others. "Ask questions instead of showing off what you know," he recommends. "Encourage people to rely on their own ears and eyes instead of counting on the leader to point out what's important." Every park provides multiple avenues for inquiry, from micro to macro, from insects to geography. "How did the climate change when we walked into this park?" Bob asks. "Is it more humid? Is the wind different? What role do trees play?" Questions like these encourage people to see beyond what Bob sees, and build confidence in the merit of their own observation skills.
Bob compares visiting a park to visiting a museum. "Suppose we walked into the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and decided we didn't want the Audubon paintings, and then got rid of the Winslow Homers, and the Thomas Eakins. At what point does it stop being a museum?" he asks. "It's the same with nature. You can declare something a park, but it's made up of individual species, and you can lose some of them along the way without recognizing it right away." On his walking tours he makes the point that we should treasure our biological heritage the way the Europeans prized their great painters. His favorite stop at the AMNH is the Wall of Life in the Hall of Biodiversity, where specimens ranging from spiders to sea turtles are panoramically displayed against a backlit wall. Bob asks people to consider why a certain shell has projections, or why the deep-water fish tend to have horizontal stripeswhatever engages his listeners and gets them thinking. "If they have fun, they'll come back and do it again, no matter who the teacher is," he says with a laugh.