(This 868th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 11, 2007.)
photo by Scott Lembitz of Earth Spirit
Herb Burgasser in his element.
Another of western New York's fine naturalists died last May. Environmental educator Herb Burgasser was, with his University at Buffalo colleague Sandy Geffner, a founder and leader of Earth Spirit Educational Services. Among his many contributions, Burgasser envisioned and designed the rebuilding of the old 4H Camp in Sardinia, turning it into the bustling environmental education camp "The Woodlands." He also designed and implemented a program for Native American teens through Daemen College, working with the students on community-education programs at the Tuscarora Reseervation and ecological field research throughout Western New York.
I didn't know Burgasser so I asked Bill Michalek, former director of Beaver Meadow Sanctuary, for his impressions. Here is part of what Bill wrote:
"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 is identifying noises, sharing stories of the wildlife and the ecology of the surrounding landscape, but 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 and possibly receive a beating. Herb, on the other hand, was one of those people who 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 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.-- Gerry Rising"