TCU’s prairie prophet taught ‘urban shamans’ about life and mortality

Posted Monday, May. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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— Standing knee-deep in a restored patch of prairie in the middle of the Fort Worth, Tony Burgess — a renowned botanist, naturalist and natural-born teacher — is a man immersed in his element.

Aryn Young, a research assistant at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and one of Burgess’ former TCU students, is recording his running monologue on how the native grassland he helped create on BRIT’s grounds represents the very heart of Fort Worth.

With an Amish-style beard, a floppy hat, overalls, work shirt and his trademark suspenders, Burgess is garbed for the field, which isn’t far from how he appeared on the TCU campus, where as one former student happily noted he stood out “like a sore thumb.”

Students and colleagues say he’s a Pied Piper of the prairie.

“Tony’s a modern-day prophet in terms of the way human beings gather knowledge and particularly the way we gather knowledge and in the way we build knowledge as a community,” said April Sawey, a BRIT education specialist with a Ph.D from TCU’s Department of Environmental Science, where Burgess has been a professor of professional practice since 2004.

Young, who graduated from TCU last year, said Burgess isn’t just her former teacher and adviser, he’s her beacon.

“I, and I know a lot other students feel the same way, owe all of my current and future success to Tony,” she said.

On this day, Burgess, 64, is savoring a final field trip at BRIT, where he has been doing double duty as a research associate since he came home to Fort Worth in 2004 after spending 19 years as a botanist on the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona.

Before inspecting spiders in the prairie grass, Burgess was atop a nearby building, where he checked on the progress of BRIT’s 2-year-old 20,000 square foot “living roof,” which he helped design along with two of his graduate students.

A host of Burgess’ academic and scientific colleagues and 100 or so of his former students, many wearing his standard field garb, recently traveled from around the country for a bittersweet celebration in his honor at BRIT.

What was unspoken amongst the songs and skits was that the man who’s an expert on nature’s life cycles knows his is running out.

And he’s dealing with mortality in the same way he taught, with unfettered curiosity, boundless good nature and remarkable clarity.

A Vietnam veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange, Burgess got prostate cancer 13 years ago. Three years ago, Hodgkin’s lymphoma took hold.

Now the cancer has spread into his bones, and he doesn’t blink when he says his “prognosis for survival is somewhere around two years.”

He knew he couldn’t continue to teach while undergoing more chemotherapy.

“That was the wake-up call that it was time to get out of here and make room for something else to happen rather than having a catastrophe,” Burgess said during a break from grading finals in his cubbyhole of an office at TCU that’s just a few blocks from where he grew up.

“I might have more time, I just don’t know. One thing you learn as a two-time cancer survivor is that you make every day count and be as grateful as you can for everything you’ve got.

“You always know what the end is going to be, so you’ve got to make it count. Existentially, it’s no different from anybody else, I just have a clearer window,” he said.

So he’s heading north to Alaska to live out his days with his 27-year-old son, Beauregard Burgess, a city councilman and small business owner in Homer.

“I get to learn a whole new ecosystem. I’ll learn about spruce forests, I’ll learn about muskeg [a grassy bog] and moose,” said Burgess. “I’ll be my first student, just like when I came back to Fort Worth.”

Small-town Alaska will be a culture shock, he admits. There are no secrets in Homer, except for one, and that’s long underwear, he said.

‘Claimed his destiny’

Burgess, a 1966 Paschal High School graduate, was interested in the natural world from the “very beginning.”

He grew up camping on family land at what is now Eagle Mountain Lake with his father, John Jarvis Burgess, one of the founders of Carter & Burgess Inc.

He “claimed his destiny” at 14, when his father took him to Big Bend National Park.

“I never looked back, I decided to spend the rest of my life studying and learning about deserts,” Burgess said.

The result of that quest, said Bob O’Kennon, a research scientist at BRIT, is a rare broad-based authority on the natural world, with an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, animals and birds.

“Tony’s really a complete naturalist, and there’s not many of those,” he said.

Burgess followed his love of the stark dry lands to the University of Arizona in Tucson and the Chihuahuan Desert.

After a “disorienting experience” as an Army draftee in Vietnam in 1971-72, Burgess studied botany in grad school at Texas Tech.

He roamed the desert across West Texas and into Mexico and even discovered a new species, “a really ugly little shrub” now on the Texas endangered plant list known as Lepidospartum burgessii .

Burgess then returned to Tucson for a doctorate in ecology and more field work from the Baja Peninsula to the Mojave Desert.

“It took me a long time to get the Ph.D; they threatened to throw me out,” he said. During that time he also worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, where he helped write an atlas of Sonoran Desert plants.

Then his brother, who was working for their father’s firm, called in the early 1980s about an intriguing project — designing the desert dome for the Caravan of Dreams, a performance center in Fort Worth financed by billionaire Ed Bass.

Biosphere 2 project

That entry in ecological design led Burgess to a much bigger Bass-financed project, Biosphere 2, a $200 million, 3.14-acre glass enclosure in Oracle, Ariz., designed as a prototype for a space colony.

In 1991, eight men and women and thousands of plant and animal species were sealed into the facility. The experiment to simulate the Earth’s ecology ended after two years when the food crops had failed, gasses had built up and the water had turned acidic.

When Columbia University bought the facility in 1995 and turned it into a research facility and remote campus, Burgess joined the faculty.

Columbia backed out of the program in 2004 and Burgess “was on the street” for a few weeks until Leo Newland, then director of TCU’s Environmental Sciences Program, asked him to come to Fort Worth to pair up with BRIT and to implement some of the “immersion” teaching methods he practiced at Columbia.

For Burgess it was also a chance to reconnect with his native ground.

“This prairie and Cross Timbers, coming back to it has become one of the highlights of my life. I came back and saw it all over again after I had got an education,” he said.

He also “transformed” the TCU environmental program in terms of immersing students into the field, said Michael Slattery, chairman of the department, who spoke last week from Costa Rica, where he was leading just such a field trip for 14 students.

Urban shamans

Burgess said he has realized that he has been teaching “the fundamental skills of an urban shaman.”

Traditional shamans lived halfway between the village and the wild, staying attuned to both sides and seeking balance between the two.

“They don’t let people do something stupid to hurt the wild and they keep the wild so that people know how to get the resources without abusing it,” he said.

“I’m trying to train new skills for this new generation of shamans who broker the negotiations, the dialogue if you will, between the mega-cities of society and the rest of the living Earth,” he said

The crux of what Burgess did, said Becky Johnson, a professor in the department, was teach students to succeed.

“For some of them, that was the first time they’ve ever heard that,” she said.

“He has amazing credentials, but his heart sets him apart. He’s one of the kindest, most compassionate people I’ve ever been around. The students all talk about how they have grown as human beings because of him,” she said.

Now Burgess is guiding his students and friends through an exercise on mortality.

“This end of life for him is an example of how he’s dealt with everything. This is the situation that has been given to you and you find the inspiration to make the best of it,” Sawey said. “You find the nugget of hope and truth in your own mortality. It’s what he taught all his students to do with the frailty and mortality of our planet and species.”

Aryn Young of BRIT is archiving Burgess’ “place-based curriculum” on the Fort Worth prairie to be used as a future resource for educators.

“We’re saving Tony for posterity,” she said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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