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Q & A with C. John Burk

Reprinted from Botanic Garden News, spring 2007

C. John Burk, E.D. Simonds Professor in Life Science, began his career at Smith in 1961, after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina. He has studied the flora and vegetation of freshwater wetlands and coastal areas. His initial work was conducted on the Outer Banks of North Carolina shortly after the establishment of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Locally, he and his students conduct research on floodplain and marsh vegetation and the roles of pollution, beaver activity, and changing hydrology. In addition, his research projects examine the role of environmental factors, including acid rain and flooding, on individual plant species, the ecology of threatened or endangered plants, the effects of introduced exotic species, and the interrelationships of closely related species within wetland habitats.

John has taught many courses while at Smith, most notably Plant Systematics and Plant Ecology, both with large enrollments, a testimony to his wonderful teaching style and broad knowledge. Many of his students have gone on to botanical careers. After officially retiring he’ll still be botanizing nearby and even teaching at Smith.

We are grateful for all John has done to support the Botanic Garden, promote our causes, research our history, and serve on committees for us.

Michael Marcotrigiano, director of the Botanic Garden, recently interviewed C. John Burk.

Michael Marcotrigiano: Every botanist has a reason for choosing the study of plants as a career. What is yours?

C. John Burk: It just seemed the appropriate thing to do. In the late 1990s, my mother came across a group of photographs taken sixty years earlier, perhaps in 1938 or 1939, at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario. Some of these show me at the age of three or four with my great-grandfather, looking intently down from a bridge into a pond full of water lilies (admittedly there might have been some frogs or goldfish in the water also). Certainly by the time I was in the fourth grade I had a collection of houseplants, and that interest has carried on at various levels since.

MM: You’ve taught many different courses at Smith. Which ones do you think had the most impact on your students’ lives?

CJB: In the spring of my first year at the College, I added a course in Conservation of Natural Resources to what was then the Botany Department’s offerings. This was taught through the 1990s, quite often with such high enrollments that I didn’t really know many of the students. Nonetheless, from time to time, a seeming stranger will approach me at the grocery store and say, “You won’t remember me but I took a conservation course with you back in… [1973 or so] … and that got me interested in … [one topic or another] and now I’m on my … [local conservation board or the like].” Of course I have consistently taught upper level courses in Plant Ecology and Plant Systematics, and a satisfying number of students from these classes have gone into careers in related fields.

MM: What role has the Botanic Garden played in your own career?

CJB: The Botanic Garden, and particularly the Lyman Plant House, played a major role in my decision to come to Smith in 1961 (against the wishes of my dissertation adviser, who viewed Smith College as “a hoity-toity girls’ school” and wanted, partly for reasons of his own, to see me hired by a large southern university. Within a year or so, he visited Northampton and changed his views entirely). I cannot imagine teaching either plant ecology or systematics without the Garden’s resources. The 1980 renovation of the Lyman Plant House, which provided classrooms where laboratories for these courses could be taught, added a new dimension to our teaching botany, allowing the opportunity to bring students into contact with living plants on an almost daily basis.

MM: Which of your various research projects has been your favorite?

CJB: I’m tempted to say it’s whichever one I’m involved with at the time. Of course, much ecological and taxonomic work is by its nature ongoing -- it never really comes to an end with a real conclusion. In general, I think botanists are becoming increasingly aware that plant communities and the plants themselves are constantly changing, as are our views and understanding of them, so there’s always something else to look at, something new to say.

MM: What groups of plants excite you the most? Do you have personal collections at home?

CJB: Two questions here -- the most exciting plants to me, I believe, are those one finds growing “out of place”… outside their normal ranges, additions to the flora. There’s a little Asian geranium that has established itself on campus and up along the Mill River. It has a wonderful scientific name, Geranium thunbergii (formerly Geranium nepalense var. thunbergii -- Carl Peter Thunberg was a student of Linnaeus and author of Flora Japonica). It’s found in only in a very few places here in New England, and one wonders how it got here and why it seems so much at home. The second question… I had a collection of African violets when I was in high school; and I have one now. I’ve tried with some degree of success to reassemble the varieties I owned in the early 1950s. Some of these are no longer in cultivation and have apparently disappeared; one was saved only as a pass-along plant, kept successfully now for more than forty years by two retired members of our faculty.

MM: Without giving away the location of your special places, what areas in the Pioneer Valley do you find the most fun to explore from a botanical perspective?

CJB: I’ll gladly give the location away -- it’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, just down the Mill River from the College. We went there on my first Plant Systematics field trip in September, 1961. The staff was surprisingly welcoming, given that we were in the midst of the drought of the early 1960s and the Massachusetts woodlands had been officially closed. The sanctuary contains a rich assortment of habitats -- upland woods, floodplain forest, grasslands, and freshwater marsh. Documenting their vegetation and observing changes in the plant communities through time has been a major component of my research and the research of my students.

MM: Your first exhibit is on display in the Church Exhibition Gallery in the Plant House. How does preparing an exhibit compare to your more conventional teaching methods, and did you enjoy working on it?

CJB: I can’t complain about working on it because I urged us to do it in the first place. Actually, I’ve been involved in several other exhibitions at the College, including, at the Museum of Art, Orchids and Artists in 1991, a display in collaboration with the Massachusetts Audubon Society of plates from Audubon’s Birds of America in 1995, and Idea <>Form: Looking at the Creative Process in 1999, for which I wrote an essay to accompany Dwight Pogue’s images of cacti. I think a strong element of show biz is involved in putting an exhibition together. One has to catch the attention of the intended audience and keep them interested and, if possible, entertained. Otherwise they can simply walk away. There’s undoubtedly an element of show biz in teaching too, but it has to be secondary to the subject matter.

MM: You’ve spent much of your adult life at the College. What exciting plans do you have now that you will have more free time?

CJB: I remind myself to say that while I plan to retire from teaching, I do hope to remain professionally active and involved in writing, reviewing, editing, and carrying out at least some research, including long-term projects in collaboration with my former student Marjorie Holland (now at the University of Mississippi) and with Hamburg University colleague Kai Jensen. That said, retirement will free me (and in time my wife Lâle) up for more extended travel in the spring and fall, at times we would otherwise be mostly in the classroom.

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