Prime Time: Ruth Schottman, 85, still educating others on the environment
BURNT HILLS As a child growing up in Austria, Ruth Schottman developed a close bond with the natural world.
"I think I loved trees from the time I was very small because I loved to climb them and make them sort of my special home," she said.
As time went on, the 85-year-old acquired an affection for all plants and animals, and made it her mission to share her knowledge of nature with others by teaching natural history courses, a pursuit she still enjoys.
In January of 1939, Schottman left the familiar trees of Austria behind when her family fled the country.
"We were fleeing because my family was Jewish and this was after Hitler had annexed Austria to Germany, and after Kristallnacht, where all Jewish men were rounded up during the night and then sent to a concentration camp," she recounted.
Her father was one of those men.
Fortunately, the family was able to get him released, after relatives in the United States helped them all to obtain visas.
After seeking refuge for nearly a year in Holland, they made their way to the United States.
Schottman finished high school in New York City, a place known more for its skyscrapers than its natural wonders. But her heart was still firmly rooted in the natural world.
Studied at Cornell
Thanks to a scholarship established by Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City at the time, she was able to study practical agriculture and genetics at Cornell College of Agriculture.
During college, she worked with famed geneticist Rollins Emerson, and after his death, as a lab technician in the college's pomology department.
In her third year of college, she married her husband, Tom. Over the years, the couple had five children. The family moved to Burnt Hills in 1959.
Schottman kept busy raising her kids, but once they were older, she turned her attention back to nature.
She began instructing others on the subject in 1965 and hasn't stopped since. She has taught continuing education classes for the Schenectady City School District, natural history courses for the Schenectady Museum and ECOS: The Environmental Clearinghouse, and for years led spring wildflower workshops for the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Her courses typically have had an emphasis on plants.
"I knew more about them and they stay still. You could prepare and presume the plant would be where you saw it," she explained.
On Thursdays, year-round, she takes a group called the Thursday Naturalists on local field trips. She also teaches 7-week-long ECOS natural history courses in the spring and fall, and sometimes during winter, tree identification classes.
Her goal, she said, is to help students form a relationship with nature and to teach them how everything in the natural environment interacts.
Offering the courses has been a source of much pleasure for Schottman. "I've met a lot of nice people. A lot of my friends came out of these classes," she said.
Kay MacLaury of Rexford is one of those friends. They met when Mac- Laury attended a course Schottman was teaching for ECOS. As the students were introducing themselves on the first day, MacLaury realized something interesting:
"I think there were probably a dozen people there and I found out I was the only one taking the class for the first time," she said.
"I went on to take it I think three more times. Many people take it over and over again. It's pretty neat. She's an excellent teacher. She's really patient. She challenges you in very nice ways."
Schottman has been an active volunteer with ECOS since its founding in 1972 and has assisted in the research and writing of many of the books the organization publishes, according to Executive Director Patrick Clear.
"She has shared her tremendous interest, knowledge and expertise in local plants with thousands of people through the Natural History with Ruth Schottman classes she offers through ECOS and the countless field trips, nature hikes, slide shows and other classes she has given over the past 40 years with ECOS," he said in an email.
Nancy Slack of Glenville, who has known Schottman since the 1960s, said she has learned a whole new way of looking at the natural world from Schottman.
"Yesterday she and Tom sent out beautiful pictures of a rare Adirondack bird, the Bohemian Waxwing, and Ruth pointed out that all three things these birds were eating — barberry, bittersweet and buckthorn — are invasive species that we would like not to have in our woods," she recounted in a phone interview Feb. 3. "Ruth notices everything that many of the rest of us miss."
One day in late January, Schottman was looking out the window at the white pines in her yard, lamenting that some have fallen over the years.
"White pines tend to do that. Quite a number had to be taken down, but we still have a good number," she noted.
She said she still feels that kinship with the trees that developed when she was a child, living a world away.
"I haven't climbed them the last few years, but I watch them," she said, a smile evident in her voice.