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28 THE MICHIGAN BOTANIST Vol. 54
BURT AS I SAW HIM: 44 YEARS OF FRIENDSHIP AND MUTUAL RESPECT
Sylvia M. Taylor 10353 Judd Road Willis, MI 48191 firstname.lastname@example.org
Burt Barnes was my friend and professional associate for 44 years. Burt loved trees. The southern Illinois farm country, where he grew up, had a significantly better summer comfort level in the shade of his hometown’s street trees than in the surrounding countryside. This did not escape the attention of young Burton in the days before air conditioning and when children were free to spend their summer vacations roaming the neighboring landscape. Perhaps the shade trees of his youth influenced his decision to become a forest ecologist. It might also ac- count for the fact that he did not become a traditional forester, with a focus on the sustainability of forest products. Burt was an inquiring student of the biology, life histories, ecological settings, and broad landscape associations of all tree species. As a charismatic teacher, he mentored hundreds of students and inspired them to broadly expand their concept of the elements of forest science.
I met Burt in 1968, shortly after he had received tenure at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources. I was a graduate student, studying plant ecology in the Botany Department. Burt had been collaborating with botany professor W.H. Wagner, Jr., to upgrade a traditional dendrology course into a more rigorous version in which all woody plants were included and with emphasis on ecology and field identification (the course would become “Woody Plants”). One field instructional difficulty was with the common local species of ash trees (Fraxinus spp.), which exhibited taxonomic differences and site prefer- ences inconsistent with published material. Since I had not yet set up a doctoral committee, Dr. Wagner recruited me to take on the problem. Although I had not even met Burt and was in a different university department, my faith in Dr. Wag- ner’s advice was richly rewarded. Dr. Barnes became co-chair of my doctoral committee and my primary project manager. I joined Burt and his first two doc- toral students, Terry Sharik and Bruce Dancik, at the University’s new Matthaei Botanical Gardens, where Dr. Wagner was Director. We shared Burt’s large lab and filled the research greenhouse with seedlings of the hybrid aspen Burt was studying at the time (Populus .smithii), Bruce and Terry’s black and yellow birches (Betula lenta and B. alleghaniensis), and my ash trees.
At the time, I was an unusual student for a forestry professor. I was a local housewife with four children (three of them teen-aged), my undergraduate de- gree was in chemistry, and my new professor was only three years my senior. One might have expected difficult personal adjustments. Burt, however, was a man who easily built relationships of mutual respect with a great diversity of per- sonalities. Bruce and Terry had dubbed him “BVB,” and he greatly enjoyed
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being addressed as such by any student in a setting where students usually ad- dressed their professors as “Dr.” “BVB” made sure I was given in-depth instruc- tion in forest genetic methods; then he turned me loose to investigate my thesis problem using elements and ideas from both our backgrounds. Over his long ca- reer, this fundamental approach, with respect for the intelligence and good judg- ment of serious students that enabled them to investigate scientific problems in- dependently, has undoubtedly been a vital ingredient in the development of the many highly recognized scientists that Burt mentored at the University of Michi- gan.
Burt’s family was an integral part of his academic life. Although his wife Dixie had her own career as a physical therapist, she was both a hostess and a group member at the many pot-luck gatherings at their home. All of Burt’s grad- uate students and teaching assistants—not to mention any former students or TAs in the neighborhood—were invited. His son and two daughters also partici- pated. As the years went by, special get-togethers were staged to include former students who happened to be in town, and they took on the flavor of family re- unions. Dixie also had fantastic editorial skills, and she spent long after-hours time in their home office working with Burt on publication drafts. In later years, with the new challenges of digital publication, Burt’s daughter Ginny became his technical assistant. Ginny and her family lived next door, giving Burt and Dixie the joy of close contact with growing grandchildren.
Burt developed important new undergraduate field courses. The Woody Plants course, cross-listed with the Department of Botany, was a huge success and drew large classes, each with several field sections, and he continued to offer the course annually with Herb Wagner throughout their long careers. Initially, Herb was the charismatic lecturer, trading off with Burt, who was a more serious and detail-oriented teacher. Over the years, Herb’s lecturing techniques rubbed off on his former student and now teaching colleague. Burt developed a unique showmanship style, often entertaining his audience with inventive illustrations that drove home important concepts. His Forest Genetics course incorporated all the material he had taught me, along with interesting lab exercises, such as preparing fresh meiotic figures of the chromosomes of northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) in the middle of the winter. This course expanded in content and was eventually replaced by “Forest Ecology,” which used the textbook of the same name he had co-authored with his former advisor, Steven H. Spurr. That course became a strong follow-up to Woody Plants and was a standard feature of the curriculum, and versions of it were widely used elsewhere across the country in forestry education.
In addition to the usual class field trips in the Ann Arbor area, Burt led many regional excursions for his courses. While I was still working on my thesis, I was often invited to tag along. The long drives with vans full of students led to last- ing personal bonds among the students and between students and their instructor. Burt was always interested in contemporary student culture, and the students were there to fill him in (between Burt pointing out exciting roadside tree sight- ings). Once, when we were riding to the US Forest Service Northern Research Station in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, with the Forest Genetics class, while Burt and I were comparing memories of our youthful experiences growing up during
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World War Two, the van hit a pool of water which must have con- tained aspen pollen. Burt had de- veloped a strong allergy to aspen pollen when he was conducting aspen hybridization research (Fig- ure 1). His violent reaction while driving was quite disabling, but he managed to pull over, swallow a capsule, take a break, and drive on, all the while discussing various as- pects of plant allergies with the students. Our tour of current For- est Service aspen research was in- teresting, but I’m sure everyone in the group found the ride there much more instructive and memo- rable. The most popular and often- repeated regional excursion he conducted was to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in late October (Figure 2). Viewing old growth forest communities in scenic valleys in fall color and hearing firsthand observations about tree species and ecosystems that do not occur in Michigan was a treat for all. The usual van cama- raderie, occasional minor mishaps,
and class adventures left treasured memories of college days in the minds of many.
Burt kept track of the careers of former students and frequently interacted with their work. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I coordinated the State En- dangered Species program for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Burt invited me back to the University to showcase the program through guest lectures in his courses and as a speaker at special occasions at the School of Nat- ural Resources. When I switched to a field position in Mio, managing wildlife habitat within the breeding range of the endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, Burt took an interest in my questioning the then narrow characterization of Kirtland’s warbler habitat. He and his students cooperated with the Forest Service to ana- lyze a landscape that had been burned by the large 1980 Mack Lake Fire. Their work began in 1986 by a Master’s degree student (Xiaoming Zhou) and an un- dergraduate student (Corrina Theiss) and was continued throughout the 1990s by Master’s students Dan Kashian, Wayne Walker, and Glenn Palmgren. Using Burt’s published multi-factor system of landscape ecosystem mapping, his stu- dents were able to conduct groundbreaking research on the variations of ecosys- tem structure suitable for regenerating jack pine communities that would become
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FIGURE 2. Burt Barnes, with pole pruner and bag of plant collections, and students on the trail to Ramsey Cascades, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, October 1969. Photo by Bruce Dancik.
Kirtland’s warbler habitat. This kind of continued engagement with many of his former students and colleagues has been very productive and has knit together a broad band of scientific thinking.
Although Burt was ordinarily a very conservative spender, there was no fi- nancial barrier to his obtaining the best German cameras (Figure 3). He took them on his world-wide forest research projects and brought home stunning slide shows. I still treasure the postcards he sent from his trips. They typically had beautiful local forest scenes on one side and a finely printed full-length letter on the other. As one of the first post-Cold War American scientists to work in China, he set a favorable example for the welcome of those to follow and made lasting
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FIGURE 3. Burt Barnes taking photographs from the top of a University sedan, July 1966. Photo by Bruce Dancik.
friendships among Chinese foresters. His last overseas project before his retire- ment was with a Japanese graduate student, Ikuyo Saeki, whose dissertation compared the endangered red maple of Japan (Acer pycnanthum) with various North American red maples. Burt toured Japan with her to evaluate its native habitat. Back at the University, Ikuyo’s studies suggested that the closest North American match was likely a subspecies of red maple in the southeastern US coastal wetlands that was known as Drummond’s red maple (A. rubrum var. drummondii). Burt and Ikuyo then embarked on a collecting trip wading in swamps throughout the South. They ended up at my sister’s place in the Big Thicket region of southeastern Texas, near the Louisiana border. There, good representative trees were growing in the front yard and around her two ponds. It turned out to be a very enjoyable visit with important collections, an established outpost for future studies, and a comfortable finish to the foray. Dr. Ikuyo Saeki is back in Japan, still in touch with Burt’s family, and studying red maple on Hokkaido Island.
I retired from the DNR in 1991. Burt needed me that year as his sabbatical re-
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placement to teach Woody Plants. Next he asked me to partner with his student and assistant Mel Gunn as she established a course in Spring Plants and Ecosys- tems. He also gave me his space at the Botanical Gardens so I could resume my Fraxinus research. Although I followed his lead to a point, and still have an ac- tive involvement with the University, my days in public service had turned many of my interests elsewhere. Nevertheless, we still engaged in lively telephone de- bates (he never did convince me that you could draw an edge around an ecosys- tem), I occasionally collected plants for him, he used the back of our five-acre lot to store research tree seedlings, and we exchanged Christmas family newsletters. After his retirement, Burt sometimes joined the now traditional Friday evening (low-end) restaurant dinners that Ed Voss used to orchestrate as end-of-week get- togethers with staff and friends from the University Herbarium. Here Burt be- came socially acquainted with Tony Reznicek, a supporting collaborator during Burt’s weekly herbarium visits. The Herbarium provided Burt with ready mater- ial to examine an array of shrub specimens as he pursued his quest to finish an authoritative “Shrubs of Michigan” book before he was overtaken by medical is- sues. Burt, after all, was as much a botanist as a forester.