Saturday, July 9, 2011

Where I've Been and Why

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Forgive me for the delay in posting, but for the past several days I’ve been away. I was on a trip I take at the end of every school year, ever since Herb died in 2007. Herb Burgasser was, for an all-too brief time, my best friend and mentor, and if not for him, my life would be on a completely different path. Our first camping trip together was to the Bog River Flow in the Adirondacks, one of his favorite paddling spots in the park, and I return alone there every late June or early July to spend some time communing with him.

One thing I now regret about Herb’s too soon-passing is that Violet will never get to meet him, hear his stories, laugh at his antics (Linda often referred to him as “impish”, and I’ve never met anyone who better fit that word), or be influenced by him. So, it’s up to me to give her some picture of this man who had such an influence on her father. A good place to start is with a letter I wrote after Herb died. Gerry Rising, who writes the weekly nature column in the Buffalo News, contacted me and said he was writing a piece about Herb. He wondered if I could provide any background. After much mental hand-wringing and many stops and starts, this is what I came up with:

Since receiving your email, I’ve tried to formulate a list of “best Herb memories” in my head, but I’m afraid that they’ll either be too long or too difficult to relate to for your readers, especially for those who never had the pleasure of meeting Herb personally. So, after too much procrastinating, I’m sitting down to just type up what comes to mind and, I hope you’ll forgive me, but I’ll leave it to you to sort out what might be suitable for a newspaper article. Feel free to cut or throw out whatever you see fit.

To begin, imagine being led through a Florida swamp long after dusk. Herb is in the lead, guiding the group in a search for night sounds. Herb’s identifying noises, sharing stories of the wildlife and the ecology of the surrounding landscape, and suddenly he stops, pointing up ahead with quiet enthusiasm. He whispers to you, asking you to shine your light up ahead and there, poking out from behind a massive stump, is what looks to be the last few inches of an alligator’s tail. Not a large one, but a baby, no more than a few weeks old. He whispers again, pointing out how the yellow striping reveals its young age and he instructs the group to stay still; that he’s going to get closer. You can’t help but wonder if he’s lost his mind, but there’s no denying the intensity of the moment. Herb inches his way forward, and the group is so focused that no one makes a sound. Somehow, the baby gator doesn’t move and now Herb is right behind it. A few people in the group gasp as Herb reaches out for it. He’s going to pick it up! As his fingers close on the tail, his whole body gives a sudden jerk backwards and he lets out a scream. The group around you erupts into chaos, some shrieking, some stumbling back, some rushing forward to help Herb, who is now rolling in the shin-deep water, struggling with something unseen. When the first person reaches him, he promptly stands up, and with a wide grin, holds up the rubber alligator he had planted in this spot earlier in the day. Everyone is silent for a moment, staring, before Herb’s grin and the awareness of what just happened spreads from person to person, followed by much laughter.

In remembering that story, one thing strikes me. There are many people who, if they tried such a stunt, would end up upsetting the group. Herb, on the other hand, was one of those people that had the perfect mixture of mischief and charisma needed to pull it off and get exactly the kind of response he wanted. He wanted to give his students, whatever age and background, an experience they would not forget and one that was tied to the environment around them. He was not a naturalist who would drag a group through the woods, spouting facts (what some naturalists call a “drag and brag”). Herb instinctively understood, more than any teacher I’ve known, the power of a playful experience as a teaching tool, and his sense of humor made every walk an enjoyable, memorable experience. You can talk facts all day long, but most people won’t remember more than a few scraps. Herb believed that you needed to show them a good time while they learn, and then there’s a better chance they’ll be inspired to learn more on their own - to begin teaching themselves, and isn’t that the goal of any good teacher?

Herb was so lovable, knowledgeable, and funny that you couldn’t help but want to be like him – to know what he knew and to have a connection to the natural world like he did. At his memorial service back in July, one man put it well. He said, “I always knew there were men like Herb and Sandy (co-owner of Earth Spirit) out there – men who lived the way I knew I wanted to, but until I met them, I didn’t know how.” The same goes for me. I always knew I wanted to connect more deeply to nature, but I never thought I could be a teacher. Then, I met Herb and Sandy. Herb patiently, and with very little direct “instruction,” showed me how – by teaching myself and especially through teaching others. I still struggle with it, but I often ask myself, “What would Herb do in this situation? How would he handle this group of students?”

It’s difficult to know what else to include and what to leave out. It should be said that Herb was a storyteller of the first order. Whether it was for education or pure entertainment, Herb could charm any group into rapt attention with one of his stories, either personal, a folktale, or something made up on the spot.

He was original in how he approached problems. After buying land in the Adirondacks, hoping to turn it into an educational camp for Earth Spirit, he ran into legal obstacles with the state. The maze of contradictory restrictions and zoning laws prevented him from building anything usable “on the land.” So, what did Herb do? He designed and built a tree house, complete with a propane stove and refrigerator, as well as a clear, Plexiglas roof for star gazing!

Some other “career” accomplishments:

• Designed and implemented a program for Native American teens through Daemen College, working with the students throughout the year on ecological field research, community-based education on the Tuscarora Reservation, technology integration, and more.

• Almost single-handedly envisioned and designed the rebuilding of the old 4H Camp in Sardinia, turning it into Earth Spirit’s bustling environmental education camp “The Woodlands.”
• Inspired and co-designed the successful string of public “ecology expeditions” to the Florida Everglades and Algonquin Provincial Park.

If you’re going to write something about Herb, it is essential that you talk to Sandy Geffner, Herb’s friend and business partner of 30 years. Sandy would be able to shed so much more light on Herb’s accomplishments over the years (I've known Herb only since the mid 90s). The same should be said for Scott Lembitz, naturalist and the new co-director of Earth Spirit. Scott was Herb’s closest friend over the past few years and now lives in Herb’s house in the Boston Hills.

Even as I wrap this up, it seems that I’m leaving out so much. It seems impossible to me to encapsulate someone like Herb in words, but I’m sure a better writer such as yourself will do an admirable job.

Take care,
Bill Michalek
So, the letter is a start. I put it here with the hope that Violet will see it and read it. I hope she’ll read it many times, and combined with the other stories I tell her and the pictures I show her, and the stories she hears from our friends who knew Herb well, she’ll grow into an understanding of how unique this person was and the important part he played in my life. I hope she’ll ask me to tell her more about Herb and never grow tired of me asking her, “Did I ever tell you about the time Herb…?”

230 days old

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  1. Great stuff as usual.I can't wait untill November.Your friend sounds like a rare one of a kind mentor. You're a very lucky man to have known him.
    Saturday was a very enjoyable afternoon of conversation and relaxation at Hamlin Park.Spending time with you, Linda and Violet is always pleasant. I can't help but think you will be that mentor for some lucky person. Carrying on the "Herb" tradition.

  2. Tony,

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful comments and for reading. Linda and I were talking as we left the Park how nice it was just to sit and talk. Thanks for coming out. And you're right, I feel like I won the lottery because I crossed paths with Herb. I don't know if I have the right mix of traits to be the mentor that he was, but I'll be a different sort of one for Violet - close, but definitely not as funny as Herb. He was one of a kind.