Gratitude Celebration 27: Salamanders

I’m celebrating my 60th birthday with 60 essays of gratitude for significant people in my life. Today, I’m remembering a college professor who planted a seed of Nature Exploration.

I was excited to return to Thomas More College for my sophomore year. I had spent the previous summer mostly outdoors, working as the “Nature Lady” at a Girl Scout Camp. As a sophomore Biology major, I would take the next required courses in Anatomy and Chemistry.  I looked forward to another year with my roommate, Kelly, my Physics friend, Donna, and my favorite Biology buddy, Mark.

Mark and I both lived in the dorms, and usually had weekends free. Our Comparative Anatomy teacher, Bob Williams, invited us to go with him on weekends to help him find salamanders, Gyrinophilus porphyriticus his study species. We would go to Pike and Adams Counties, OH and spend the day turning over rocks to find and collect these unique salamanders. As we walked the southern Ohio forests, Mr. Williams would also teach us the spring wildflowers, rolling off their names like old friends. My first awareness of the subtle beauty of Blue Cohosh and the golden blankets of Barberea vulgaris (Yellow Rocket)  delighted me and headed a growing list of tantalizing Latin names and the even more fulfilling relationship with the woods and hills that supported such lush diversity.  Those walks with Mark and “Buck” grounded me in my love of Nature and its exploration. Although I was not a top-notch salamander finder nor really interested in examining them back at the lab, I reveled in the beauty and diversity of the plant world that Mr. Williams made available to me on those trips.

A year later, as our field trips continued, we badgered him to create a course in Field Biology that could be offered in the month-long May Term. He did! He and Dr. Bryant, another Biology professor, led us for a whole month on field trips in Northern Kentucky. We explored marshes, fields, and a forest preserve I visited often for several years after college, Boone County Cliffs. What nourished me most was the sensory immersion in the wondrous natural diversity of Northern Kentucky, while I respectfully digested the intellectual nomenclature and scientific language of the Mixed Mesophytic Forest and its Geologic Substrate.

Mr. Williams only taught at Thomas More a few years and then moved back to his native Illinois. On our drives in southern Ohio, he would often reveal with a touch of melancholy that his wife, Becky, wanted to move back to her hometown where Buck could team up with her dad in his sporting goods company. I don’t know if he did that, but I sure am grateful to have been a recipient of his passion for Nature exploration while he was active in it himself.

Before he left Thomas More, though, Mr. Williams was able to introduce me to someone who rolled out a red carpet for me to dip my toes in my own professional passion.  In the Fall of my senior year, I was experimenting with my friend, Mike, in the young field of Outdoor Education. Bob Williams suggested that I talk with Paige Burke at the Cincinnati Nature Center. I called her and went out for an interview, landing a position as an intern for the Spring Semester. It worked out great, because I had completed all my classroom course credits and could use the internship to satisfy my student-teacher credits for my Secondary Education Certification. Thanks to Mr. Williams’ referral, I had the opportunity to live on the grounds of the Nature Center, work alongside the full-time naturalists, and even create teaching materials to add to their huge book of lesson plans. As far as I was concerned, it was perfect! So, thanks, Bob Williams, for taking me under your wing and helping me fly!  Whenever I see Blue Cohosh, I think of you!


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