Aya Suzuki, left, and Isabel Cumming, both 8, study a stink bug through a magnifying glass during a lesson on biodiversity in a new homeschool program at The Desert of Maine. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

FREEPORT — Isabel Cumming, 8, lay on her back in the sand, making a sort of sand angel in the dunes of Freeport’s Desert of Maine on Tuesday. Simultaneously, she answered questions about the biodiversity of plant and animal species within “Maine’s most famous natural phenomenon.” 

Others absently sifted the sand through their fingers while asking questions and many had their shoes off, burying their toes while they listened. 

Isabel and the six other students gathered in the dunes are students in a special 10-week homeschool course offered at The Desert of Maine for kids between the ages of eight and 14, for “an in depth, integrated journey through the history, geology, and ecology of this special place,” according to a course description. As an added bonus they get to do things, like making “sand angels” that they might not in a normal classroom. 

The class, currently in its second week, meets onsite on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 p.m., where students can learn about the land through lessons, but also through play and exploration. Following the in-person class, they also meet online on Thursdays from 1 to 2 p.m.

Isabel Cumming, 9, sifts sand through her fingers as she learns about different plants growing in Maine’s “desert.” Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

The Desert of Maine, which receives too much rainfall to actually be classified as such, consists of a 20-30-acre “desert” of silt – not sand– that functioned as a successful farm until overgrazing sheep caused widespread erosion, exposing the silt beneath the topsoil. 

Marketed as a tourist attraction for nearly 100 years, Mela Heestand, who bought the property with her husband Doug Heestand in December 2018, is hoping to showcase instead the wide educational opportunities in the “desert.” 

Students will work with Mela Heestand as well as Josh Smith, a geologist who has been studying the “desert” for the last several months, and Deborah Perkins, a Poland Spring-based ecologist to provide expert-led lessons as they seek to answer questions like “why is there a desert in the middle of a Maine forest?” 

Students will learn about the Tuttle family and other Europeans who in the 1800s farmed the land that once belonged to the Wabanaki people, and how the two groups approached land use in different ways. 

The class will also turn its eyes to the future to imagine what might lie in store for the desert, factoring in the potential impacts of the natural and human worlds.

The final portion of the class will be project-based, and students will develop and present a capstone project about what they have learned. 

The class is just one of many Heestand hopes to be able to offer in the coming months and years, and with so many schools in hybrid or distanced learning models, “it’s a good moment to offer something.” 

Deborah Perkins, an ecologist, teaches about the ecology within the Desert of Maine while her daughter, Ada Stenhouse, 12, takes notes. Thursday is Ada’s remote learning day through her school’s hybrid program, so she was able to supplement some of her work through the new program. Hannah LaClaire / The Times Record

The course can supplement a hybrid plan, enhance a homeschool curriculum and provide social stimulation for kids who are either not in school or who are not in school as much as they ordinarily would be, she said. 

“I’d like them to develop a connection with the land and have a stronger relationship with the natural world” and “know there are many ways of living on the land and that they have options,” she said. 

Any kid can benefit from an outdoors, hands on classroom experience, she added, but the kids “who are inspired and motivated by exploration-based learning” will really flourish in the program. 

Kaz Suzuki, 11, is one of those kids. 

He’s especially excited to delve into the deep history of the place, he said, and he’s fascinated by the biodiversity and the fact that it’s not actually a desert. 

“Everything is the best, even if the wind is blowing,” he said. 

Jeff Cumming, Isabel’s father, said his daughter has been having a fantastic time. With her school’s hybrid model she goes to school in the morning but not in the afternoon, so she misses her science class. The class at the Desert of Maine fills that gap. Isabel comes from a family of scientists, loves history and is always picking up facts about birds, animals and plants, he said. “She’s a sponge.”
The program is a good fit, and the “local connection makes it an even more powerful experience.”

A new future for The Desert of Maine

The property opened as a tourist attraction in 1925 and while it’s still operating as such, Doug and Mela Heestand hope to breathe some new life into the property. 

To move forward with plans to expand, the Heestands are asking Freeport officials to create a Desert of Maine District at their 95 Desert Road property, which is located within a rural residential zone, according to The Forecaster. A commercial entity since it opened in 1925, the Desert was allowed to continue as such after Freeport adopted zoning in the 1970s.

“We really want to … invest over $1 million in the property, but we can’t really do that unless we have a viable business model, which we can’t do unless we get the zoning changes,” Mela Heestand told The Forecaster earlier this summer. 

“It’s a grandfathered use, but the business model itself is now pretty antiquated for the year 2020,” Heestand said, pointing out that the operation isn’t allowed to sell tickets to a performance in its 1827 Tuttle Barn, or run a cafe in the visitors center, for example, all pieces they would like to offer. 

These plans are still in the works, and the project is slated to go to a planning board public hearing next month. 

“I think it would be a really good thing for Freeport and it’s aligned with the strategic plan” to help make Freeport a destination not solely focused on retail, she said.

Cumming has lived in Freeport for almost a decade and grew up in Wiscasset, but had only been to the Desert of Maine once before his daughter started in the course a few weeks ago. He’s glad for the efforts he’s seen to revitalize the area and make it “more than a tourist trap,” he said. 

This is exactly what Mela Heestand is trying to do. 

“When people come here, we want to make it a really enjoyable experience and something you want to come back for,” she said.

Comments are not available on this story.