& 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.
director of the Botanic Garden, recently interviewed C.
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.
taught many different courses at Smith. Which ones do you
think had the most impact on your students’ lives?
the spring of my first year at the College, I added a course
in Conservation of Natural Resources to what was then the
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.
role has the Botanic Garden played in your own career?
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.
of your various research projects has been your favorite?
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
always something else to look at, something new to say.
groups of plants excite you the most? Do you have personal
collections at home?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
spent much of your adult life at the College. What exciting
plans do you have now that you will have more free time?
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.