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58 THE MICHIGAN BOTANIST Vol. 54
BURTON V. BARNES: AN EXTRAORDINARY TEACHER DEVOTED TO STUDENT LEARNING
Jean MacGregor Graduate Program on the Environment The Evergreen State College Olympia, WA 98505 email@example.com
Melanie Gunn Point Reyes National Seashore Point Reyes, CA 94956 firstname.lastname@example.org
For thousands of his students at the University of Michigan and its Biological Station, Burton Barnes was a stand-out teacher—a teacher who helped us not only to learn about and appreciate woody plants and their ecosystems but to forge deep connections to their landscapes and to the processes on which all life depends. Although the two of us encountered Burt Barnes (to us, “BVB”) at the opposite ends of his teaching career, our recollections of BVB the person and BVB the teacher were remarkably congruent. It is our great pleasure to share some of our happiest memories of BVB, who loved learning and loved creating learning occasions for us, his students.
Jean was a student in the first offering of the Woody Plants course (then called “Dendrology”) fifty years ago, when BVB and Warren “Herb” Wagner, Jr. co-taught it for the first time in 1965. She took BVB’s first offering of Forest Ecology (then called “Silviculture”) the following fall. (The course names soon changed to reflect their actual content!) Although she went on to concentrate on interpretive natural history with Ross Tocher and then, as a graduate student, on environmental education with Bill Stapp, Jean became lifelong friends with BVB and his wife Dixie, occasionally babysat for their kids, and kept in frequent touch with them after leaving Michigan. Over the decades, they shared many memorable forays in the field in the coastal forests of Georgia and Washington and in Canada’s Algonquin Park. She had the great privilege of reviewing the 1998 edition of Forest Ecology in its draft form and of joining BVB and his For- est Ecology class on his last Great Smoky Mountains field trip in 2003.
Melanie took Woody Plants from BVB and Herb in 1989 as a pre-med senior in the Biology Department at Michigan in need of one last science lab course. The course changed her life. After graduating from Michigan in the spring of 1990, she stayed on as the collector for Woody Plants, took Forest Ecology the following fall, and became a research assistant in BVB’s lab. In 1993, she en- rolled as a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment with BVB as her advisor and mentor and was a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) and later the Laboratory Coordinator for Woody Plants from 1993 to 1995.
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When BVB was on sabbatical in 1998, she co-taught Woody Plants with Herb and co-taught Woody Plants after Herb passed away in 2000 and until BVB re- tired in 2006. She co-taught Woody Plants for the final time with Chris Dick in 2007. She assisted BVB with the last edition of Michigan Trees, and is co-au- thoring Michigan Shrubs & Vines with BVB and Chris Dick, due out in 2016.
A Quintessentially Conscientious Teacher—with a Sense of Fun
BVB took his teaching—and his students’ learning—seriously. Meticulous planning went into every lecture, lab, and field trip. BVB would carefully pre- pare for every lecture, going through every slide, right up to his last lecture at the end of his career. He had that rare ability to explain concepts, even complicated ones, with clarity and enthusiasm. From the first day of class in Woody Plants, for example, students sensed they were in for a treat because of the evident ex- citement they saw in BVB and Herb Wagner playing off each other; it continued unabated through the entire course. It is hard not to conclude that BVB and Herb both became much better teachers from their many years of collaboration, both in lecture settings and in the field.
From the very outset, BVB was a reflective practitioner who knew how de- pendent student learning was on good teaching. Jean recalls one instance when he wasn’t sure he’d adequately explained a concept. “In Forest Ecology, I was usually a front-row student; BVB’s lectures were so densely packed, I wanted no distractions! A few weeks into the course, BVB approached me in the hall and said, ‘I have a favor to ask. I’ve noticed that you seem to take copious notes in class.’ ‘Yes, I guess so,’ I probably answered, not sure where this conversation was headed. With some hesitation, BVB ventured, ‘Would you allow me to read over your notes from yesterday’s class? I’m not sure I adequately explained is- sues around . . . .’ BVB went on, ‘It’s pretty important for what’s coming next in the course. I figure if you didn’t get it, I will need to review it to make sure everyone understands it.’ Self-consciously, I handed over my notebook. Sure enough, I had apparently missed the point—or BVB hadn’t fully explained it. In the subsequent class, BVB gave me back my notebook and started the class with, ‘We need to go over something once more, I am pretty sure that I didn’t explain it adequately last week.’ I was astonished. No teacher I’d ever encountered was so open to admitting having made a mistake or so intent on making sure his expla- nation of a concept was completely clear to everyone.”
BVB knew that laughter could lighten and bolster learning—as anyone who experienced the traditional “Halloween Howl,” the first indoor identification exam of Woody Plants, can attest. This event was the capstone of the Woody Plants mid-semester exams. With the outdoor field exam and written exam on lecture material behind them, students then faced the “Howl”—50 stations of herbarium sheets, twigs, fruits, and fresh specimens. This exam typically oc- curred in the evening at the end of October and morphed through the years to the point where BVB encouraged students to dress up as their favorite plant, thereby bringing out incredible levels of creativity and turning an otherwise stressful exam into an event of lore. Students and TAs alike dressed up as witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), white ash (Fraxinus americana), American beech
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(Fagus grandifolia), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), prickly ash (Zanthoxylum amaericana), white oak (Quercus alba), and more. Students represented plants both literally—pieces of hanging bark with a squirrel fitting beneath (shagbark hickory)—and figuratively—a preacher with arms spread wide (prickly ash). One student even dressed up as “poop-on-a-stick,” the Woody Plants name for a gall that grows on species of Prunus and that is often helpful in winter identification. All this was capped by BVB showing up in a bat outfit, complete with a long black wig and white face makeup, and by plenty of howling. Prior to the exam, the students nervously staged in a room outside of the exam area, the lights were turned off and then flickered, the howling began, and suddenly a black figure with wings (BVB!) ap- peared. Exam directions were given in a creepy, batty voice. BVB never once broke character at these exams, and could be found wandering around the exam room during the testing period, rearranging specimens with his bat wings or standing silently with wings and head tucked in a resting state and the occasional dramatic flap. This was one way BVB managed to create a learning atmosphere in Woody Plants that required a great deal of mastery and attention to detail, but made it collaborative, engaging, and loads of fun.
Getting to Know the Characters; Understanding the Play
BVB’s approach to Woody Plants and Forest Ecology was a holistic, field- based, ecosystem approach. To understand forest ecosystems was to weave to- gether site factors such as climate, physiography, and soil with the biology and ecology of vegetation and other organisms. In Woody Plants students learned the trees and shrubs of Michigan in the field where they naturally occurred, with hands-on experience. Although the focus in Woody Plants was on learning plants, BVB emphasized that plants did not stand on their own. BVB used to say “you can’t understand the play if you don’t first get to know the characters.” Woody Plants was getting to know the characters—the trees, shrubs, and vines— and Forest Ecology was understanding the play—the ecology and interconnec- tion of the parts.
During the early offerings of the Forest Ecology course, students were divided into teams at a field lab at Stinchfield Woods and asked to completely excavate a single root of a single tree without breaking it. Teams of four or five students were each assigned to a different type of mature tree, either coniferous or decid- uous. This turned out to be a physically demanding, but hilarious, endeavor, the students taking turns keeping the root intact while others were digging. As ever more slender portions of the root were exposed, shouts of encouragement and shrieks of “Careful!!’ accompanied the work of teasing each rootlet to its tiny end, less than 2 mm in diameter. Once the roots were fully exposed, the teams came together to visit each tree and its exposed root to compare root sizes, shapes, and directions of growth. BVB asked the students to visualize a lateral view of the entirety of the tree—roots and all—and then an aerial view. He was trying to get everybody thinking about competition as not being just for light with respect to crown coverage, but also as competition among the many root systems in the ground. He challenged the teams to discuss ways they would mea-
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sure all the biomass of our given root system. Finally, after taking measurements, the students reburied the roots. This exercise built a brilliant and tangible scaf- folding for BVB’s subsequent lecture on root biomass, root function, and inter- tree competition.
From the beginning, BVB was eager to try out new approaches. One year, to- wards the end of the term, the Forest Ecology class assembled for an indoor lab with less enthusiasm than usual; perhaps the darkening autumn days and the un- relenting pace of the semester were sapping the students’ energy. There were no directions for the lab, just random piles of nuts and bolts and screws of various sizes and shapes and colors along with some chalk on each of several tables. BVB called the students together with a mischievous smile. The goal of this lab, BVB explained, was to imagine two or more contiguous ecosystems with which “everyone in the class should be familiar by now.” They could be natural systems or disturbed ones, apparently older systems or younger ones. After the students had been divided into working teams of four or five, one assigned to each table, the teams were each to decide how to create a simulation or map of these sys- tems, choosing which nuts, bolts, or screws would represent their most represen- tative species, chalking in some boundaries if needed. After the teams had cre- ated their simulated ecosystems, BVB asked them to move as teams from table to table to identify what each of the other teams had created and to make their as best guesses as to the major species being represented by the various bits of hard- ware. Students were engaged! There was intense quiet, then the buzz of ideas, and then, explosive laughter as riparian systems, overgrazed woodlots, hardwood forests with shelterwood cuts, and spruce bogs took shape (Figure 1). Students saw this as intriguing and fun, but the exercise was extremely powerful. It chal- lenged students to conceptualize a landscape and its spatial characteristics, and then the species they would expect to find there. It was amazing that teams could
FIGURE 1. The Forest Ecology class participates in the “nuts and bolts” exercise, December 1967. Original photos by Jean MacGregor.
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identify most of the other landscapes that were created. It drew on the students’ knowledge as well as their imaginations. And creating puzzles for others to solve added to the magic.
Understanding the Territory
Throughout his career of teaching Forest Ecology and Silviculture, BVB stressed how important it is to pay attention to the entire ecosystem, seeing not only the trees, but the larger ecosystem as well. The seeds of this thinking were quite likely planted by BVB’s mentors, Stephen Spurr and Gerhard Schlenker, a key colleague in Germany, and then further developed through his collaborations with Bob Zahner, Stan Rowe, and Don Zak.
In the 1960s, BVB would lecture on the German notion of the local (“örtlichen”) and the iron law of the site (“Eherne Gesetz des Örtlichen”), stress- ing that deep knowledge of the total ecosystem was crucial to any management decision. As this ecosystem approach deepened and expanded over time, it in- fused BVB’s teaching and significantly framed his research and writing (Barnes 1996). As the years progressed, BVB found creative ways to convey this message in his courses. In the second lecture of the Forest Ecology course beginning in the 1980s, much to everyone’s surprise, BVB sang the entire song ‘Rock Island’ from the opening scene of The Music Man. ‘Rock Island’ takes place on a train with a group of traveling salesmen and is sung to the rhythm of the train move- ment. It is a complex song in rhythm and meter and in the number of characters partaking in the lyrics, and BVB played them all while accelerating and then slowing down to a stop in making the point ‘You’ve gotta know the territory.’ Students had seen BVB perform in Woody Plants before: recreating the drama of the ‘world largest organism,’ putting on a Mao suit while giving a lecture on the plants of China and Japan, and dressing up as Batty Burt for the Halloween Howl, but this was a new level of boldness. This theme, ‘you’ve gotta know the territory,’ was central in Forest Ecology, and BVB’s catchy but significant way of getting students to think holistically in understanding the concept of a landscape ecosystem hammered the concept home.
A big component of BVB’s approach to teaching involved “können und wis- sen” from the German for “doing and knowing.” The crowning achievement of the field component in Forest Ecology was known as the ‘Ecosystems of Mys- tery,’ where students were shown a new and unfamiliar place in the field and asked to assess the landform; explain the horizons in soil pit; identify plants in the overstory, the understory, and the groundcover; and finally put it all together in explaining the local ecosystem and ‘what’s happening?’ The Ecosystems of Mystery component took place towards the end of the semester as an opportunity to pull all field skills together in an individual (and later a group) exercise. Stu- dents had a lot of nervous anticipation with respect to the Ecosystems of Mys- tery: Where would they take us? What would they ask us? Would there be any tricks? Up to this point in the semester, students had spent extensive time in the regional landscape ecosystems of southeastern Michigan and had taken long weekend field trips to the Biological Station in northern Michigan and to the Great Smoky Mountains (Figure 2). The “doing and knowing” approach was best
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FIGURE 2. Burt Barnes, in coonskin hat, warns Forest Ecology students of their time constraints be- fore allowing them to explore on their own at Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, October 1992. Photo by Dan Kashian.
demonstrated in the Ecosystems of Mystery—an opportunity for students to demonstrate what they knew while learning in a novel environment. In addition to the actual Ecosystems of Mystery, there was a practice Ecosystem of Mystery at Stinchfield Woods, which nobody knew was coming except BVB and his GSIs. Coming down the road, students stumbled upon a large flagged off area with a soil pit. Former students will undoubtedly remember the anxiety—will I know all the plants? Will I be able to determine the soil textures? Was this ice contact or moraine? Invariably, however, as students moved through the exercise, taking in the physiography, inventorying the overstory, understory, and ground- cover, and then assessing the soil pit (Figure 3), it all started to make sense! This is the core of how BVB taught—how to see and understand the natural world, and at the same time, marveling in the mystery.
Jean recalls: “In recent years, BVB and I would enjoy ‘catching up’ phone calls, particularly when one of us was eager to recount a recent forest adventure. Sometimes this was simply storytelling. Other times, BVB made it another les- son in connecting the ecological dots. In 2005, just before he retired, we had a memorable conversation about thatching ant nests (Formica rufa) in the forests around Lake Baikal in Siberia, where my husband Rob and I have been support- ing the Great Baikal Trail, a Russian non-profit that marshals volunteers from
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FIGURE 3. Burt Barnes teaches in a soil pit as part of his holistic focus on forest ecosystems, Sep- tember 1983. Photo courtesy of the Burton V. Barnes estate.
throughout the world to create and maintain trails in the parks and protected areas around Russia’s magnificent—and still remarkably unspoiled—freshwater lake. I was telling BVB about the huge thatching ant (a.k.a. wood ant) nests—as much as two meters wide and high—that are ever-present in the forests along the lake and on the islands as well. Our Russian colleagues also pointed out that a highly disturbed or broken-apart thatching ant nest is a sure sign of the presence of brown bears. In the brief summer months, the ants move their eggs and larvae higher in the nest toward greater warmth; although it is perhaps beneficial to the ants, this location carries a risk: eggs and larvae are now more vulnerable to ma- rauding bears. But the thatching-ant-nest puzzle on which I wanted BVB’s take was the dramatic disparity between the sizes of these nests on the mainland and on the islands. The island nests were at least half-again as large as those on the mainland. Ever the teacher, BVB asked, ‘What did you observe?’ ‘Well, along the lakeshore, the conifers (i.e., the source of the plant material for the “thatch”) are pines (Pinus sylvestris and Pinus sibirica) and Siberian larches (Larix sibir- ica), but on the islands, the forest is entirely a larch overstory. But needles are needles; I wouldn’t think any one kind of conifer needle would necessarily lead to a larger colony. Maybe there would be more sunlight penetration because larches are deciduous; maybe the ant colonies have a longer growing-season?’ ’Very possible. What else?’ probed BVB. ‘Maybe bears would be more numer- ous on the mainland and therefore they’d destroy more nests. Though I’m not sure about this since bears have easy access to the islands, particularly when it ices up for at least four months each winter.’ ‘What else?’ BVB persisted. I was
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beginning to run out of ideas. ‘The bigger nests are on the islands, right?’ BVB hinted. ‘Oh, of course!’ I said, ‘Fire. Or the lack thereof. On the islands.’ ‘Yup.’ he said. ‘Pretty remarkable,’ I smiled. ‘Tooooo much!’ he agreed. I loved con- versations like this.”
Teaching and Mentoring
When BVB taught his Advanced Forest Ecology course for the last time in 2003, the students in the class came together to present some end-of-the-course gifts to BVB. Among them were The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and a hand- drawn diagram that portrayed a Populus tremuloides clone with BVB as the genet and all the students as ramets. In response, BVB wrote a note to the class. We think it fitting to end with his words, not ours, and to be reminded once again of his immense love of his field, of us, his innumerable—and deeply grateful— students. Here is what he wrote:
The I-love-BVB-clone is “tooooo much” because it not only links all of us together to the Earth, but points to an even more wonderful idea. We are each ramets of individuals who have touched and changed our professional and personal lives. I’m a ramet of people like Steve Spurr, Herb Wagner, Stan Rowe, Gerhard Schlenker, Bob Zahner, each of whom gave me inspi- ration, insights, and know-how. Certainly too, one is a genetic ramet of our parents and ancestors. And over the years, I have been sustained and en- couraged by many students whose talents and energy were amazing. More important is that we, as ramets, have passed on to each new generation the best of their ideas and lives.
Burton V. Barnes, 2003
Barnes, B. V. (1996). Silviculture, landscape ecosystems, and the iron law of the site. Forstarchiv 67:226–235.