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20 THE MICHIGAN BOTANIST Vol. 54
CHASING BIRCHES, LIFE, AND ART WITH BVB
Bruce P. Dancik Department of Renewable Resources University of Alberta Edmonton, AB T6G 2H1 CANADA email@example.com
After growing up outside of Chicago and in rural northern Wisconsin, I came to the University of Michigan in the fall of 1962 to major in forestry at the School of Natural Resources (SNR). Two years later, in the fall of 1964, I met Burt Barnes soon after he had returned to Ann Arbor, when I took his Silvicul- ture course (which really emphasized forest ecology rather than silviculture). His enthusiasm for the topics, his intense interest in all of the students, and his good humor were infectious. He readily brought his knowledge and appreciation of art and music into the classroom, which included performances of “You Gotta Know the Territory,” “76 Trombones,” and other numbers from the Music Man. Just re- cently I found the postcard from Burt that reported my final grade, with a little handwritten congratulatory comment (“top banananana!”) in his distinctive, tiny penmanship next to the final grade.
By the summer of 1965, when I was a teaching assistant at Camp Filibert Roth for the SNR’s Forestry summer camp, Burt asked me to be a teaching as- sistant for his Forest Ecology and Silviculture courses the following academic year. I thought I had learned a lot as a student in his classes, but serving as a teaching assistant for Burt Barnes intensified and increased that learning. His in- sights and gentle prodding helped guide and develop, not only critical thinking abilities, but also mentoring and teaching skills. Those assistantships immensely enriched my undergraduate experience.
It seemed only natural to step right into a master’s degree program when I completed my undergraduate degree in December 1965. Terry Sharik and I were among Burt’s early grad students at a time when students did not address or refer to professors by their first names. “Dr. Barnes” seemed a bit too formal, how- ever, so we hit upon using our initials to address each other. Burt became “BVB,” Terry became “TLS,” and I was “BPD,” forms of address and reference that con- tinue to this day. Under BVB’s supervision, I studied a population of yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), bog birch (B. pumila), and their hybrids around Walsh Lake in the Waterloo Recreation Area northwest of Ann Arbor. My project mostly involved the study of vegetative and reproductive morphology, but I also investigated the pollen of all of the plants, and that got us thinking about the often poorly-formed empty pollen grains and the occasional huge, seemingly normal, pollen grains of the putative hybrid plants. That investigation was ex- tended later to some observations we had about a couple of unique birch trees that grew in the lowland forest around Third Sister Lake at Saginaw Forest and that Frank Murray, then forest manager for the University’s Forest Properties,
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had asked us about. We later published our proposal that those unique birches were specimens of a new species, B. murrayana, the Murray birch, a species that resulted from pollination of a female yellow birch by pollen of an unreduced hy- brid (yellow birch x bog birch). After I completed my Master of Forestry degree with BVB, I continued on to work on a PhD with him, studying natural variation in leaf morphology of yellow birch across the Great Lakes region. While he was on sabbatical in Germany in 1970, I taught his portion of the Woody Plants course with Herb Wagner.
I have many fond and humorous memories from those years. One day, just be- fore TLS and I were heading out for our summer field work and collecting, we and a few other students were riding with BVB from the Matthaei Botanical Gar- dens. BVB, driving with a zeal only his family and students would understand, zoomed swiftly up the hill to Dixboro Road, gave us last-minute instructions for our summer of field work, and admonished us, “Now remember, no more than 10 miles an hour over the speed limit.” BVB, TLS, and I had a few memorable collecting trips for birches through southern Indiana and the southern Ap- palachians and through New England and adjacent parts of Canada. We were once stopped along a remote road in the Appalachians by a train engineer who had stopped his train on the adjacent railroad track and asked, “Are you all the boys who are pickin’ leaves?” (We had arrived late the previous day in the nearby town, and word must have spread about these strange guys with pruning poles, tree ladders, collection bags and envelopes, and plant presses.) We forded streams of indeterminate depth with our rented University sedan (Figure 1), and I was known to utter, “I hereby relinquish all responsibility for what happens here.” What cherished memories of our adventurous times in grad school!
FIGURE 1. Burt Barnes and Terry Sharik fording the Little River, West Virginia, in a University sedan, June 1966. Photo by Bruce Dancik.
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In the fall after those collecting seasons, we would often be invited to BVB and Dixie’s home for dinner. Those dinners invariably would be fol- lowed by a slide show of photos from our field season. The slides often included many images of bark of different birches (Figure 2), and, while those of us who were deep into our apprecia- tion of variation in the morphology of birches and the interpretations of the differences among genotypes might be “ooh-ing” and “aah-ing” over the images, our spouses or significant others were having a hard time staying awake or at least appreciating the finer points of birch vari- ation. BVB welcomed us and our spouses and friends into his home and his life and took an inter- est in everybody; he drew out the best in the group at hand (I was even re-
cruited as an occasional baby-sitter for the Barnes’ children!). He shared his per-
spective and expertise, his broad range of interests and his ability to draw others
into conversations, all with a compassionate and considerate demeanor. BVB’s
influence on so many of us and the esteem with which we held him was appar-
ent at “Burt’s Biostation Bash” that was held for him at the University of Michi-
gan Biological Station in 2006, when so many past students and colleagues came
from all over North America to honor him. After I had moved to western Canada, Burt and I kept in close contact and
shared many visits. Brenda and I introduced BVB to the work of a group of
Canadian landscape artists (the Group of Seven) who painted from the 1920s
through the 1960s, and he became enamoured with their work. BVB was espe-
cially enthusiastic about the work of one of the biggest influences and predeces-
sors of the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson. BVB felt that the Canadian artists
captured the essence of forest ecosystems (Figure 3), and he would often pick
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FIGURE 3. Burt Barnes preparing for a lecture in Woody Plants using Tom Thomson books as a demonstration, November 1997. Photo by Dan Kashian.
out individual shrub or tree species or ecosystem types from the paintings. He later used one of Tom Thomson’s paintings as the frontispiece of the 2004 edition of Michigan Trees (see Dick et al. this issue). BVB and I arranged to meet sev- eral times in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Victoria, and Washington, D.C. to visit, tour galleries, look at trees and forests, and catch up on our lives. BVB and Dixie also flew to Spokane and drove from there to meet us near Nelson, British Co- lumbia, where, among other things, we visited with Stan Rowe at his retirement home in New Denver, B.C. BVB and Stan were steadfast colleagues and friends who shared a passion for their work and a vision about landscape ecosystems, and Stan made the arduous trek by bus and plane to Ann Arbor more than once to give guest lectures in BVB’s courses.
BVB’s teaching, his natural approach to research questions, his interest in his surroundings, his love of music, wine, and food, and his life values all influenced me throughout my career and my life. His discipline, good nature, respect for others, enthusiasm in teaching, good humor, welcoming demeanor, humbleness, and generosity with time and advice should serve as a model for an excellent professor, researcher, or teacher anywhere. During the time I worked with BVB, I learned to be a better listener and a more helpful teacher. I taught a woody plants course at the University of Alberta for many years that was modeled after his course at Michigan, and I still rely on past lab experiences with BVB at Michigan when I lead tree and shrub tours around campus and at the Devonian Botanic Garden in Edmonton. Similarly, I modeled my forest genetics and tree
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improvement classes at Alberta after his course at Michigan, emphasizing an ecological genetics approach to forest trees with the graduate students I men- tored over the years. I value the many discussions we had over the years on ecol- ogy, genetics, evolution, politics, the military, pacifism, peace-keeping, and life in general.
BVB and I exchanged many packets of clippings over the years. I would keep him apprised of the Canadian viewpoint on many American policies, political practices, and various causes, and he kept me supplied with numerous New Yorker political articles and cartoons. While I was editor of the Canadian Journal of Forest Research in the 1980s, BVB served as an associate editor and was a frequent referee for many manuscripts. He wrote some of the very best, thought- ful, insightful, and just plain helpful reviews, and thereby helped dozens of au- thors. BVB and I shared a constant stream of letters, postcards, emails, and phone calls over the years, and I probably have hundreds of letters, cards, and hard copies of emails, and many fond memories of our frequent phone calls. I still sometimes pick up the phone when it’s ringing and almost expect to hear him on the other end saying, “BPD, this is BVB.” I am particularly happy that TLS and I were able to meet BVB at his home in Ann Arbor in June 2014 (which we realized was 50 years after Burt, Terry, and I had first met) just a few weeks before he passed away. Even though BVB obviously was very ill and in pain and knew he was not going to live very much longer, he exhibited his usual sharp wit and sense of humor.
Burt was a great teacher, scientist, and human being; those who were fortu- nate enough to cross paths with him will forever be grateful for his wisdom and companionship. He was a friend and mentor, and I know I am not alone when I say I miss him very much.