The Natural Georgia Series: Barrier Islands

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Taylor Schoettle: Giving a Voice to the Barrier IslandsTaylor Schoettle on Blackbeard Island's boneyard beach. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.

By Drew Davis. Photos by Richard T. Bryant

When Taylor was a boy, his mother suggested that he start collecting butterflies. The youngster quickly developed a deep interest in this new hobby, and after a year he had amassed a sizable collection. Then one day he saw a tiger swallowtail butterfly emerge from its cocoon, and he decided that he was more impressed with the process of life than he was with mounting dead specimens. Despite his enthusiasm for his collection, he resolved that day never to kill another butterfly. Instead, he started studying natural history.

In the ensuing half-century, that study has led him through an unusually varied career, as a teacher, a zoo curator, a marine education specialist, and most recently an author who has written extensively on Georgia's barrier islands. All of this work has reflected not only Schoettle's abiding love of and interest in nature but also his desire to communicate his knowledge to others.
"He's probably the finest teacher I have ever known," says Mac Rawson, who used to supervise Schoettle at the Marine Extension Service. "He has a power about him that really makes students want to learn."

During Schoettle's years as a marine education specialist with the Marine Extension Service, Rawson was assistant director. Today Rawson is director of the Georgia Sea Grant College Program, which published Schoettle's first two books about Georgia's barrier islands (A Field Guide to Jekyll Island and A Field Guide to Sea Island). More recently, Schoettle has written two more books: A Naturalist's Guide to St. Simons and A Guide to a Georgia Barrier Island.

The books have been especially helpful in explaining the state's coastal islands, according to Rawson. He says that Schoettle manages to instill "his enthusiasm for learning" into his books.

That enthusiasm is evident as Schoettle leads a visitor around his yard in the coastal town of Darien, near the islands he has come to know so well. In his greenhouse and the surrounding garden, he points out a flowering tree from Hawaii, an orchid that smells like chocolate, a cactus whose leaves resemble a mule's ears, a stapelia (which achieves pollination by attracting blowflies to lay their eggs on it), and a wide variety of bromeliads, among numerous other specimens.

Outside, Lucy, his pet goose, alternately chases and runs from a visiting kitten, which has temporarily joined two other stray cats that Schoettle has adopted. Nearby, a younger goose waits to be hand-fed. One of nine migratory birds that stay in the yard at night, it remains during the day as well, one of its wings accidentally clipped too short when wildlife officials banded one of its legs.

The animals roam freely among Schoettle's house, his greenhouse, the shed where he keeps his sailboat, and a dock that extends into the Altamaha River. From his comfortable living room, one can look through a picture window across his backyard at the river as it spreads ever wider to flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Less than a mile up the river and a world away, traffic passes ceaselessly up and down I-95.

"It's a beautiful life," he says of the picturesque setting.

Some live in these surroundings all their lives and never give them a second thought. Schoettle, though, cherishes the coastal environment, having been drawn here by pictures he saw of the majestic, moss-covered live oaks on St. Simons Island. Yet even before that move, even as a child, he felt drawn to study the natural world.

A Student And An Educator Schoettle at home in his greenhouse. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.

The middle of three brothers, Schoettle was born in 1935 to a family of business people in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore. Business, though, held little attraction for him. "It seemed like there was just nothing out there that interested me more than nature," he says.

That interest showed in his schoolwork, where he excelled in biology and to a lesser extent in chemistry. He also received good grades in music, but otherwise his grades were unremarkable. He was hampered by a lack of interest in history, a low aptitude for math, and the effects of a dyslexic condition on his work in English. As he grew older, he developed an ambition to be a doctor, but friends and family knew better, predicting that he would become a zoologist.

"Biology was always my love, and so it continues to be," he says.

Upon graduating from high school, he enrolled at Penn State, where he began majoring in the premed program. After struggling with math, physics, and chemistry, though, he pursued a major in zoology and physiology, and some of his original research in those subjects was impressive enough to be published, even though he was only an undergraduate at the time.

After Penn State, he was invited to attend the University of Pennsylvania Medical School on a research fellowship-one of only eight students in the country selected for the program. Unfortunately, the pace of the program was too fast for someone still compensating for dyslexia, and he decided to enter the school's graduate program, eventually receiving his master's in zoology and physiology.

He then completed the research for a doctorate, but he was unable to achieve the results he needed and thus was deprived of the higher degree. His work involved correlating brain surgery in rats to behavioral changes, and he soon realized that this kind of arduous, tedious research was not how he wanted to make a living.

During this time, though, he taught through an assistantship in order to pay for his research, and he discovered that he enjoyed teaching. "Actually, I should have been doing the research to pay for my teaching," he says. "I've always wanted to share nature with others."

While he was still in graduate school, he met his future wife, Marie, having known her older brothers in school when he was growing up. They were married not long afterward, and they remain together today after 36 years. Marie Schoettle describes her husband as "outgoing, taking advantage of the opportunities at hand, looking for the positive in each situation, trying to turn every negative situation into something good."

During their years together, they have watched four sons grow up. Christopher is a vice president in a computer firm, John is a veterinarian, David is a corporate pilot, and Steve is a carpenter. Schoettle's wife still chuckles when she thinks of the gifts she received from her naturalist husband when their children were born. When Christopher was born, he gave her a large popcorn plant; when John was born, she received a lithograph of insects. She believes that the family's penchant for keeping pet animals was what led John to become a veterinarian.

After graduate school, Schoettle worked as a high school biology teacher for the next 12 years. He spent 8 years at Haverford School in Philadelphia, where he taught advanced and regular biology, comparative zoology, and seventh-grade life science. He brought to Haverford a large animal collection, including several pythons, a screech owl, a macaw, an armadillo, and a capybara, and he made his classroom, a high-ceilinged lab, into a virtual arboretum, which his students helped him maintain after school.

He also taught summer sessions at the University of Pennsylvania and coached during some of his teaching jobs.

Although he enjoyed teaching biology and related subjects, Schoettle disliked some aspects of his profession. In particular, he disliked grades. He identified with students who did not test well, and he saw that some students who made high grades did not truly understand the material. As time went on, he became more distraught over the effects of grades on his students.

"Grades are not doing what they're supposed to do," he says. "They're not really evaluating a student's knowledge. They often evaluate his performance on tests. I find that median students are elevated to high positions without having much knowledge of the subject."

Disillusioned with the grading system, Schoettle became interested in zoo work. He began to look for a curatorial position but found that it was hard to break into zoo work at that level. An opportunity arose, though, after he and his wife started taking high school and college biology students on summer field trips to St. Croix and St. Johns in the Virgin Islands.

The Zoo Years

While in the Caribbean on one of these summer biology trips, Schoettle took an extra week to visit a large zoo on Puerto Rico, and he healed birds that were sick and fed snakes that had not been eating. The zoo immediately offered him a job as a curator, and he accepted. His family joined him there.

Schoettle found the year he spent at this zoo to be highly educational, in part because the operation was so limited in its resources. Because there were no holding facilities, Schoettle learned how to deal with the animals in their cages. Like a modern-day Daniel, he learned how to safely enter the lions' den, as well as the cages of other animals such as primates, tigers, and elephants.

Yet with time he became disappointed with the set-up. The zoo owner was building an amusement park next to the zoo, and the buffer zone between the two slowly diminished. When plans were announced to move the giraffe exhibit next to the amusement park's bumper cars, even though the owner had promised to respect the zoo animals' needs, Schoettle refused to allow the move. Afterward, he never felt that his position was completely secure.

Thus, when the zoo in Oklahoma City decided to begin an education program, he moved there and spent the next two years as an education curator. He enjoyed the job, including having his own education building, a group of 45 docents to serve as guides on a voluntary basis, and frequent visits by youth groups.

An opening for a general curator at a zoo in El Paso next took Schoettle to Texas, where he rearranged exhibits and gave the zoo a more educational focus by concentrating on exhibits of native animals.

"I tried to make each of the zoos I went to an education-oriented zoo," he says. He also tried to make the animals happier and more comfortable and to give them more freedom, Schoettle says.

One change he instituted in Puerto Rico involved taking various animals in smaller cages and placing them together in a large field more like their natural habitat. In El Paso, he separated a male baboon from the female being kept in the same cage because in nature the much larger male usually has his choice of mates, who in turn have space to get away. In the zoo the male's frequent and violent mating attempts were threatening to kill the female. Also in El Paso, he helped make the porcupine exhibit a surprising favorite among visitors by offering free quills for people to take home.

As the improvements took place in El Paso, Schoettle felt a desire to focus his educational efforts on a natural environment.

"I really love animals," he says. "And I always did well with animal collections. But zoos can be very political places. And I decided I could keep animals and work with animals without being a zoo curator."

The Call Of The Barrier Islands Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_t_bryant@mindspring.com.

Still in Texas, Schoettle was ready for a change in his life when he saw the movie Conrack and fell in love with the St. Simons Island background shown in many scenes of that film. "I couldn't believe that big live oaks tumbled their way all the way down to the marsh edge and overhung the marsh," he says. "That didn't happen any place I'd ever lived before. Usually where there's salt marsh, you don't have too many trees."

As a child of 12, he had visited St. Simons, and he was struck even then by the island's natural beauty. This time he decided he needed to live in the area.

When he told his wife his plans to go to "heaven on earth," she knew the look in his eye too well to try to dissuade him. He had been teaching biology at El Paso Community College, and soon he found a teaching position at Southwood, a private school in Waycross. He came to Georgia in 1974.

For the next two years he taught at Southwood, enjoying his proximity to the marshes and live oaks of Georgia's coastal islands, as well as to the Okefenokee Swamp. Unfortunately, reminding him why he left teaching in the first place, he discovered that, at least in his view, both the school administration and the National Honors Society class he was teaching were more interested in grades than in learning. The school eventually closed, but by then Schoettle was finally living on St. Simons, where he had accepted a position at another private school, Frederica Academy. In the months after his move to the island, he and his wife could sometimes be seen walking along the beach with the goat, the dog, and the duck that had traveled with them from El Paso. For Schoettle, one of the fringe benefits of teaching at Frederica was that, in teaching coastal ecology, he had a chance to learn along with his students about this habitat that had so captured his imagination.

When the school developed some financial difficulties, Schoettle had to be let go. The year was 1979, and around this time a friend told him that he should approach the Marine Extension Service, a branch of the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension Service, in Brunswick about the possibility of filling an educator's position. Accordingly, Schoettle made an appointment to see the interim director for an interview.

When he showed up for the interview, Schoettle had little reason to think he would get a job. The interview seemed at first to be a disaster. It was Friday afternoon, and the interim director, who could not make any hiring decisions anyway, seemed uninterested in Schoettle's ideas for educating local residents about their heritage and knew of no plans for such a program. He passed Schoettle on to his replacement, who would also serve on an interim basis. This man was obviously in a hurry to leave for the weekend, and he also appeared uninterested in Schoettle's presentation; in fact, he even said as much. But Schoettle forged ahead anyway, explaining his plans for educational programs for the public.

Two weeks later the director from the Marine Extension Service on Skidaway offered Schoettle a job as a marine education specialist in Brunswick. Schoettle accepted the position, where he remained for the next 12 years.

It was a "wonderful" time, he recalls. He was able to enjoy and study the island environment while educating and exciting people about it. "The University allowed me to program my own job," he says. "I was told, 'Go out there and do what your heart tells you to do.'"

The heart of his educational work with the Marine Extension Service was a docent program he established. He had determined that there was "a considerable amount of interest" in nature walks on Jekyll, St. Simons, and Sea Island, and he decided to create a docent program similar to what he had started during his zoo work. He wanted to teach people enough about the islands' ecology and geology that they could lead tours themselves and in the process grow as guides according to their individual interests and experiences. Twenty-five people signed up for his first class and met twice a week for six weeks. At the end of that first class, he told his students, "I've taught you enough to get you in trouble, but from here on out is where you're going to grow."

The number of students who became docents totaled 12 following a second class, and the nature walks being conducted by Schoettle and his docents became increasingly popular. The docent program continues today, having reached many thousands,
from Elderhostel to school groups, through nature walks, boat rides, and classes on Jekyll, St. Simons,
and Sea Island.

Jekyll Island resident Jean Poleszak, a longtime friend who considers Schoettle a mentor, remembers being in the first docent class 15 years ago. Schoettle was knowledgeable, interesting, and entertaining, she recalls, and after the class ended, she began leading nature walks herself.

As school groups from throughout the Southeast began to visit Jekyll Island more frequently, Schoettle worked with the University of Georgia 4-H Program to plan the Jekyll Island Environmental Education Center. Today more than 10,000 students and teachers annually come to the center and learn about coastal Georgia. Schoettle also helped to develop two other centers along the coast, one on Tybee Island and one on Dover Bluff.

Moultrie resident Carol Pickens, now a science specialist who works with 11 school systems through the Coastal Plains Regional Educational Services Agency, was a Colquitt County teacher when the Cooperative Extension Service bought an old motel for use as the Jekyll Island Environmental Education Center. When she took a group of seventh graders to the center, they were the only group there; today there is a two-year waiting period. Since that time, she has noticed that an unusually high percentage of that early group entered the field of marine biology.

Looking back, Pickens says of Schoettle, "Probably my love of the Georgia coast came directly through his influence." Today she uses field trips to Cumberland and Sapelo islands as part of a course in coastal ecology to help teachers renew their teaching certificates. Naturally, her old friend Taylor Schoettle is a frequent speaker at these classes. She calls him "a man who radiates love and compassion and knowledge of the subject that he presents to us as educators."

Writing About The Islands

During his years with the Marine Extension Service, Schoettle began thinking about ways besides formal programs to reach people. He began producing works, such as the publication A Study Approach to the Georgia Coast and the videotape The Blue Crab, through the Georgia Sea Grant College Program to help people better appreciate and enjoy Georgia's barrier islands. His first field guide was A Field Guide to Jekyll Island, published in 1984; it was followed by A Field Guide to Sea Island, published two years later. Both were very popular; the Jekyll Island field guide went through six printings over a 10-year period.

Schoettle explains his philosophy on writing his books this way: "I want people to have a sense of the islands-not just knowledge of the islands."

In planning his third field guide, one on St. Simons, Schoettle wanted to produce a more visually exciting book than the format imposed on him by the University of Georgia would allow. He decided to write and publish this book on his own, but his obligations to the Marine Extension Service never seemed to leave him enough time. Then, what would normally be a tough blow turned into a stroke of good luck. He lost his job.

State budget cuts eliminated his position and freed him up to make headway on the new book.

As he worked on A Naturalist's Guide to St. Simons, he also served as an adjunct professor at Brunswick Junior College (now Coastal Georgia Community College) for five semesters. Finally, in late 1993, he had the St. Simons guide published himself through Darien Printing and Graphics in Darien.

Schoettle was ready for a break from his writing when he was contacted by the Sapelo Island Research Reserve and offered a position as an education coordinator. He worked on Sapelo for four months, until he was told that plans had changed and his position was no longer needed. In the meantime, he had acquired enough firsthand knowledge of Sapelo to use it in yet another book.

Schoettle had always wanted to redo his Jekyll field guide, and the University of Georgia had just told him that, because he was no longer an employee of the university system, it would no longer be reprinting the book. He devised a solution that would yield his most ambitious work yet: a guide to barrier islands in general, using Jekyll, St. Simons, and Sapelo as prime examples. The book would include a section on a field trip to Jekyll, which is less developed than St. Simons and more accessible than Sapelo. It would also include a section on the physical setting, geology, and ecological environments of the barrier islands; a glossary with a conceptual approach to explaining terms; and several appendices, including guides to flora and fauna of the barrier islands, a list of recommended books and field guides, a bibliography, and even a guide to personal safety on the islands.

Schoettle published A Guide to A Georgia Barrier Island through Darien Printing and Graphics in 1996. Like his previous works, the book was designed to be useful and interesting for laymen as well as educators and naturalists.

The latest guide is an example of Schoettle's holistic approach to his subjects. "I want people to be able to tell the story and understand the story of the islands," he says.

By the time A Guide to A Georgia Barrier Island was published, Schoettle had established himself as an independent writer, deriving his livelihood not only from book sales but also from work as a freelance consultant, speaker, and tour guide. He was becoming known as an authority on Georgia's barrier islands, and his life and work, particularly in regard to his interest in the coastal live oaks, resulted in a profile in the fall 1993 issue of the Georgia Forestry Commission magazine Georgia Forestry. His most recent work, dealing with barrier islands, was commissioned by the Georgia Wildlife Federation for this edition of its Natural Georgia Series.

Georgia Graves, a marine educator at the Coastal Encounters environmental education center on St. Simons, arranged for Schoettle to speak at the Georgia Wildlife Federation's annual membership celebration. She met him 10 years ago through the Georgia Association of Marine Educators. "He's really done a pretty selfless thing here because he's shared all of his knowledge with us through his books," she says. "His books are a wonderful educational tool for anyone, whether you're a naturalist or a first-time visitor." She predicts that the environment of Georgia's coastal islands will benefit from the greater understanding that Schoettle has brought to his readers.

Standing Up For The Environment

Schoettle moved to his home in Darien five years ago, and there he continues his work as a naturalist and writer. He still has to compensate for his dyslexia, and his wife, a writer of religious essays, serves as his proofreader. He also pursues interests in poetry and music, often writing songs about the coast, environmental ethics, and God and accompanying himself on the guitar when he sings them.

His interest in music goes back to high school, when he began formal piano training as a sophomore. By the time he graduated, he had mastered the instrument. In addition to the piano, he played the conga drums and the harmonica over the years, although he did not learn how to play the guitar until he taught himself to play for prayer meetings he attended in Waycross.

His strong belief in God stems from his childhood upbringing, although he admits that he left the church before moving to Puerto Rico. His faith was revived during his tenure in Oklahoma, and today he is an active member of the Nativity of Our Lady mission church in Darien. He believes that God has channeled his life in the directions it has taken, and he lives his religion through such activities as visiting local shut-ins.

"I think that one of the faults of many naturalists is that they fall so much in love with the creation that they forget about the creator," he says. Along the same lines, he says, "As I learn more about nature, I find myself more in awe of what I don't know."

While he maintains his current lifestyle largely with revenues from the sale of roughly 125 books a month (mostly his newest book but also his St. Simons field guide), he is making plans for another book, this one on the Okefenokee Swamp. "I've always had a love for the Okefenokee," he says, adding, "It's probably one of the most misunderstood areas on this earth." He undertook the project after preparing for a walk that he had been asked to lead through the swamp. He decided that, like his docents, he had learned enough from those preparations to get himself into trouble. Since then he has been researching the swamp with an eye toward better explaining it to people.

"I don't know a lot more than other people," he says. "I've just integrated my knowledge more than most people do. I don't mind asking questions."

Explaining the ecology of such areas as Georgia's barrier islands and the Okefenokee Swamp is Schoettle's way of promoting the environment. "If you don't understand something, how can you help it to survive?" he asks.

Schoettle sums up his environmental attitude this way: "Mother Nature doesn't know what economy is-has no idea. There's nothing in the genes that move the world and nature that involves anything like money. Is it not odd that Western man makes about every decision he makes on the basis of money and economy?"

Schoettle hopes that, by understanding nature better, people will learn to better respect it. He brings to his task of explaining coastal Georgia his formal training in biology and his experience as a teacher
and a curator, as well as the natural love for the barrier islands that first brought him to southeastern Georgia.

That love and his accompanying concern are embodied in one of his poems, "Lady St. Simons," which includes the following lines:

Lady St. Simons, she sits by the sea,
Veiled in her gray-green, live oak canopy.
A queen among beauties which close to her surround,
The sandy barrier islands of Georgia abound.
... Can we restore to her her dignity maligned,
The sheer beauty that nature had designed,
That same beauty that enchanted mankind?
Can we live with an island more naturally inclined?

If Taylor Schoettle has his way, the answer to those final questions will be yes, and his legacy of books
and tour programs may help make the difference.

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