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70 THE MICHIGAN BOTANIST Vol. 54
“SNAPPY ANSWERS ANY TIME I’M IN”: BURT THE MENTOR
Daniel M. Kashian Department of Biological Sciences Wayne State University Detroit, MI 48202 email@example.com
Like countless other students who crossed paths with Burt Barnes, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who steered the ship of my career more or less from the day I met him face to face. This was the case with almost every student with whom he crossed paths. Burt mentored every single author in this issue and others all across the country in one form or another, many of whom could do a better job than I of describing the experience of being a “Burt mentee.” This was what made Burt different, special, and beloved. Whether it was an undergraduate student in a Woody Plants class of 150 students or a fourth-year M.S. student, Burt had a way of making every student feel as though he or she was being given individual attention from day one. For over 40 years he welcomed everyone with a small sign on his office door—it yellowed through the years—that read “Snappy answers any time I’m in.” It was no secret—it was the way he worked— and my experience is but one example.
Burt mentored at all academic levels (Figure 1). He was rigorous but under- standing in his teaching approach, and he demanded that both graduate and un- dergraduate students perform well in his courses. He was quick to counsel un- dergraduates who showed any level of interest in forest ecology, whether or not they showed promise. His exams—“performances,” he called them—always in- cluded long essay-type questions that a couple of undergraduate students typi- cally missed completely on any given exam. In such cases, Burt was known to call the student quietly into his office a day or two after the exam, explain that he or she had completely missed the point of the question, and hand the test back to them to try again. He explained that he was more interested in encouraging stu- dents than in failing them, and that their grade in the course would work itself out in the end. “We’re not here to pull weeds,” he would say, “we want to plant seeds.”
Few undergraduates saw Burt “behind the scenes,” however, and that is what it took to understand fully the levels of his ability to mentor and to teach. Most of Burt’s graduate students witnessed his extensive and detailed ecological and botanical knowledge and his attention to detail in the way he taught his courses. In the demonstration and exam materials for Woody Plants, no twig could be un- clear, no leaf atypical; in his Forest Ecology course, every soil pit had to be pris- tine, every plot line perfectly straight. Burt prepared his field courses like a mad- man, but at the same time it was clear that his expertise was boundless and not “prepped for.” Name a species, and Burt could tell you its shade tolerance, nutri-
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FIGURE 1. Burt Barnes teaching students in the field at the University of Michigan Biological Sta- tion, June 2005. Photo from University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment Flickr page under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; desaturated from original; original at www.flickr.com/photos/snre/14420734587/.
ent requirements, fruit type, and dispersers; the soil type it prefers; its tolerance for temperature variation; its tendency to hybridize; and its competitive ability, all off the top of his head. We used to snicker in the back of the class as Gradu- ate Student Instructors (GSIs), because we were certain he had to be making it all up. But we were wrong. Looking back, I am still amazed at his ability to in- terpret the landscape, to predict and then to find plants where nobody else could. But this was part of his approach—the idea that you needed to know your sur- roundings extremely well in order to learn something further about them. Per- haps Burt’s most well-known advice to students was “Ya Gotta Know the Terri- tory,” and it was much more than just an entertaining bit he performed in front of the class. For a student, it was a daunting, exhausting, and somewhat impossible charge—but certainly effective.
A bedrock principle of Burt’s philosophy was hard work. Burt was born and raised in the Midwest, and he certainly had that stereotypical Midwestern work ethic. He was not a believer in idle hands; he expected hard, steady work. While I was digging soil pits with him in dry jack pine forests in August heat, he once told me, “If you’re gonna die, die with your boots on.” As his students, we all had to follow this same mantra, and in most cases we did so willingly, because this is how we thought it was supposed to be. He did not permit free time during field labs or field research, either for himself or for his students, except perhaps what
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might be carved out of a break for lunch or dinner. “Free time?” he once sarcas- tically answered an undergraduate, “What’s that?”
Another important principle in Burt’s work ethic was that as a student you needed to “pay your dues.” At least in the latter half of his career, he strongly be- lieved that you needed to come up slowly through the ranks. He often identified the best undergraduates in the Forest Ecology course and recruited them to be field assistants for his graduate students. Very often those field assistants would then turn into his Master’s degree students; if they were joining an established project, they would tag along with the more experienced graduate student in the field for the first year before being allowed to embark upon his or her own re- search the following summer. Such an approach often made for very slow progress, but it also ensured success, as well as field hardiness. It also made for an enormous list of completed M.S. degrees under Burt’s tutelage.
Though he demanded that his students work as hard as he did, Burt also un- derstood that pushing his students hard required a sensitive touch. This type of mentoring often seemed to come out of the blue, when we needed it the most. One particular weekend, I was working alone in the field, trying to accomplish everything I thought I needed to for the summer. I was miserable. I remember distinctly getting home that Saturday night, frustrated and exasperated, and call- ing Burt at 8 pm. The specifics of the phone conversation that night have faded, but after two hours (Burt’s bedtime was always 10 pm), I hung up the phone feel- ing everything was all right. In the toughest of times Burt was always grateful for hard work, always encouraging, and always made me enjoy what I was doing.
Burt’s work was his life, and he never strayed far from it. My wife and I in- vited Burt and Dixie to our wedding in the early 1990s. Burt disliked attending weddings—he told me as much—but he attended ours because it was near cam- pus. He wore a light blue suit and bow tie, and so he stood out well in most of the resulting photos taken in the church and at the reception. In looking at the photos later we noticed that Burt had been constantly reading a German paper called Das Pflanzenleben der Schwäbischen Alb (Plant life of the Swabian Alb). Apparently he was having trouble translating as he read, because the photo- graphic evidence indicated that he must have been reading it from the time he en- tered the church to the time the cake was cut. Also caught on video was Burt gra- ciously introducing himself to my parents—as the groom, I either had been too busy or had never guessed he’d be interested in meeting them—and my father’s remark about how much I had talked about Burt. When I later explained to Burt that my parents had since spoken very highly of him, he remarked “Well then, I’m very glad I made a good impression!”
Burt’s frugality was legendary, but it was part of his character to take care of his students within the bounds of his thriftiness. He often bought copies of books for his GSIs, or gave copies to them, at the end of successful fall teaching terms, or he brought home trinkets from his travels out West or overseas. When he vis- ited his graduate students and their crews in the field (Figure 2), Burt was sure to splurge and take the entire field crew (often two graduate students and one or more undergraduate field assistants) out for dinner. I remember my own field work near Mio in northern Michigan with Burt and another graduate student be- tween 1995 and 1997. Burt had a wheat allergy that prevented him from partak-
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FIGURE 2. Burt Barnes (center) clowns around in a cowbird trap with graduate students Glenn Palmgren (left) and Wayne Walker (right) near Mio, Michigan, July 1996. Photo by Dan Kashian.
ing of the fried cuisine of the local restaurants in the smaller northern Michigan towns, so he always wanted to go somewhere that had a salad bar. At the time, that meant Wendy’s. So the three of us would drive the 45 minutes or so to the nearest Wendy’s in Grayling, where Burt would treat us to dinner. Back in the 1990s, Wendy’s would give you a breadstick when you ordered the salad bar; of course Burt couldn’t eat it, so he would give it to one of us. During the two and a half field seasons of our work, Burt carefully kept track of whose turn it was to get the Wendy’s breadstick for each of our 10 to 12 or more visits to that estab- lishment.
Although the consummate mentor, Burt also often gave subtle reminders that he would not be outdone by his graduate students. I first recognized this as his GSI in Forest Ecology on one of the weekend class trips to the Great Smoky Mountains, which he used to lead each year in late October. We used to hike to a large waterfall called Ramsey Cascades, but on that particular trip the weather was unusually dreary, the temperature was only about 40°, and the water was very cold. Burt had a custom of walking in the water to the base of the falls in front of the class, but that year, because of the cold, he stopped short of getting himself wet. Then, since the other GSI and I had dressed too warmly, we stuck our heads under the freezing water to cool off. “You guys really went in that water?” asked Burt. He smiled, quickly disrobed down to his underwear, and
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took an extended bath in the icy water to the deafening applause of students, other visitors, and park rangers. Somebody snapped a picture, and it remains on my office wall to this day.
Burt’s establishment of a “pecking order” was not just for show; many of his skills, in addition to his academic brilliance, left his graduate student shaking their heads in disbelief. When he was an undergraduate, Burt’s summer job with the US Forest Service required him to climb to the tops of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and western white pine (P. monticola) trees to collect pollen from the male cones and entire female cones for their seeds. After climbing the trees, Burt and his co-workers would leap among the treetops like wood sprites in order to save the time that would be needed to climb back down one tree and up the next. This skill never left Burt; he used to teach conifer reproductive biology at Stinch- field Woods, where the GSIs were required to scale the white pines (P. strobus) during the prep trips for the field lab to collect cones from the tops of the trees. Most of us did this gingerly and often too slowly and carefully for Burt’s taste, but he always let us try first. Each year that I taught the course with Burt, the GSIs were given their chance to climb, but then were asked to get out of the way so that Burt could fly up the trees—he was 65 or so at the time—and then smoothly move from treetop to treetop. Even as we gained confidence as Burt’s graduate students, it was clear that sometimes we just needed to step out of the way.
Burt did not appreciate cockiness, and an important part of his mentoring was instilling the importance of humility in his students. Burt led by example in this regard; for example, as much as he talked to students about “The World’s Largest Organism”—a giant aspen clone he discovered in Utah in the late 1960s—he purposely avoided the media attention that it and its investigators attracted in the 1990s. He had an unspoken expectation of the same from his students. He was not an overly “atta-boy” or “atta-girl” mentor, but small doses of praise from him were golden. Although he was effusive with praise for his undergraduates, with famous lines like “Mighty fine!” or more often “Toooo much!” written on suc- cessful exams, his graduate students would more often hear of his approval only indirectly from associates or other colleagues. On rare occasions, however, he would open up about his satisfaction regarding a student’s performance. I re- member my last day in Ann Arbor before leaving the state to pursue a Ph.D.: I was loading my office materials into my car, and Burt was helping (of course!). As we said our goodbyes, he turned and, in a brief moment of sentimentality, said quickly, “Well Dan, what you’ve done here might be the best work you’ll ever do.” It was Burt-speak, I assumed, for “good job.”
Burt impressed upon his students—without selfish motives—how much he appreciated his own mentors. He talked at length about Steve Spurr, Herb Wag- ner, and Stan Rowe to his students, to the point that we felt as if they, too, were our mentors. But he never relied on them too strongly, and he made a point of being his own person. Burt advised his own students to do the same. Even as we remembered Burt as our mentor, we knew that he would surely downplay his own influence. In speaking of his relationships with his mentors and, in turn, of his own relationship as a mentor with his students, Burt used to like to use the analogy of an aspen clone (who would have guessed?): the new ramets arise from
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FIGURE 3. Burt Barnes discusses an aspen ramet with the Forest Ecology class at the University of Michigan Biological Station, September 2003. Photo from University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment Flickr page under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license; desaturated from original; original at www.flickr.com/photos/snre/14420525698/.
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the roots of the genet, and are nourished, supported, and sustained by the root system of the genet for a period of time, but eventually the connection between the new and the old disintegrates, and the ramets become independent (Figure 3).
As he did with many of his other students, Burt remained in close contact with me throughout my graduate school and postdoctoral years after I left the state. Postcards between us were common, as were long emails detailing any- thing of interest. He would often call long-distance and talk for two hours about whatever was on his mind. And—as with a parent—it was the time away from Burt that really instilled an appreciation for him and that made you realize that he was right about so many things. I remember that when I finished my Master’s degree at Michigan, I was skeptical of Burt’s approach to ecosystems—the idea that site factors of climate, landforms, and soil were just as important to forest ecosystems as the trees and shrubs—having toiled with it for so many years. Five years later, as a postdoc in Colorado, I began a study attempting to explain why some aspen clones were dying while others seemed to be thriving. One day at the end of the field season, it became clear that “site” was the strongest explanatory factor and that ignoring site factors was what had made it all so confusing to me and to so many others before me. For Burt, this may have been obvious all along, but for me, it was my re-christening, so to speak, and I rushed home to call Burt to tell him about it. He laughed that familiar Burt chuckle—“Ha ha, ho ho ho”— and said knowingly, “Well, Dan, I think you’ve finally got it.”
Burt was very pleased when I was able to return to the state in 2006 for a fac- ulty job, and we were able to take occasional trips together in the field. Most of those trips were his idea, to show me various teaching sites in the region or to do some field sampling. He was eager to share many of his secrets of teaching and research. We visited all of his favorite spots—Radrick Forest, Haven Hill, Hud- son Mills, and several locations at or near the University of Michigan Biological Station, including the Pellston Plain, Poor and Good Aspen, an old-growth red pine ecosystem, and Colonial Point. It was during these trips that Burt began to open up about his life and his thoughts about things other than forest ecology or landscape ecosystems. I noticed immediately that he had begun to spend a lot of time just enjoying being outside, work or no work; often we sampled plots in the field just to spend time in the woods. Once in particular at the Biological Station, someone had jokingly told him that if you pressed your ear against the trunk of an aspen tree, the wind in the leaves would sound like bells ringing. We therefore spent 45 minutes in the field one day—what would have been precious time lost in the old days—trying to hear those bells (Figure 4). I found myself relating to him more than ever. I once complained to him about the administrators at my university, knowing that he’d be sympathetic since he was never particularly fond of administration, to which he responded with a laugh, “Congratulations! Now you know what it’s like to be a faculty member.” To my surprise, he added, “How’s that for a snappy answer?” It was during these visits that Burt’s mentor- ing cycle for me was completed—I had reached colleague status, and we were working together.
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FIGURE 4. Burt Barnes listens for “the sound of bells” along the trunk of a young aspen tree as the wind blows its leaves, University of Michigan Biological Station, August 2013. Photo by Dan Kashian.
Burt sent me a short email on June 15, 2012, that said simply “I’d appreciate it if you would give me a call this weekend some time.” Short messages from Burt were not common, and this had some sense of urgency that was not typical since his retirement. Something was wrong.
I called immediately, and found out Burt had cancer. My mind was a blur be- cause of the news, and because Burt was asking that I take over an enormous list of things that he now felt he’d never complete. It was heartbreaking. When he came up for breath, I could only muster a few questions about his condition and prognosis.
“They say those that survive the surgery live 1 to 2 years 25% of the time,” he explained. In my stupor, I asked what happened the other 75% of the time. “Well Dan, it’s not good,” he said, half laughing and half crying.
True to form, and to the way he lived his life, Burt was part of that 25%, and with ease. We spent lots of time together during the two years he spent in remis- sion, including a week of sampling at the Biological Station. We also completed sampling for two manuscripts (“Just for fun,” he said), and he made a great deal of progress towards the completion of Michigan Shrubs & Vines. As his condi- tion worsened during the summer of 2014, he began to ask for help in the dispo- sition of his materials. When I saw him last, he had asked me to transport him to
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the UM Herbarium as he finalized some materials for Michigan Shrubs & Vines. It was difficult for him to walk and especially to speak, and he clearly was not feeling well physically or mentally. In my final image of him, he is walking back into his house when I dropped him off, shrub drawings under one arm, cane in the other, field vest on (why he wore a field vest to the Herbarium I’ll never know). He stopped to wave goodbye, a gesture not typical of Burt, who in earlier days had always been in a rush to get to his next task. I believe he knew what I was denying at the time. He lost his ability to talk within a couple of weeks, but still kept sending messages via email, I presume until he could no longer sit up to type. One of my last emails from him said “I can’t talk much any more— although I’d like to talk with you!”
Many folks are familiar with the feeling of the death of a mentor as leaving a major hole in their lives, and in their chests. I often catch myself seeing some- thing exciting in the field or having something funny happen in class and think- ing about calling or writing Burt to talk about it. I still have both his office and home phone numbers in my cell phone, where they always were, feeling like someday I might need them again. The final month of emails from him remain, as do his postcards on the walls of my office. He shaped a large part of my life and career, and he was my mentor and my friend. I miss him dearly.
So often we hear and read about what it means to be a mentor. Mentors teach, they inspire, and they shape lives with their advice and availability. They listen, sometime they collaborate, but always they nudge you down the correct path. Burt did all of these things as a mentor, but he also did so much more. His biggest and most successful accomplishment, which I surely hope he understood before he passed away, was the way he single-handedly changed the way so many people look at the world. In the last years of his life Burt felt that he had left too little a mark, too little of a legacy, behind him, despite his best efforts. But his legacy is enormous as measured by the work and livelihoods of every person he touched. Generations of former students are his legacy, and he has passed on a love of plants and ecosystems, of teaching, and of mentoring, to us all. His in- fluence thereby continues to propagate through the lifetimes of others. After all, how many of us have never thought to ourselves “I need to do it the way Burt did it”?