Carl John Burk
NORTHAMPTON, MA — Carl John Burk passed away on July 1, 2022 in Northampton, Massachusetts. He was born on Dec 30, 1935 in Troy, Ohio, “the other Troy” he was fond of saying, referring to the ancient city. The oldest of three sons of the late Louise Harris Burk and Carl John Burk, he attended Troy public schools and received his AB in 1957 from Miami University in Ohio. He pursued his graduate education at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, completing his MA in 1959 and PhD in 1961. His doctoral research involved the floristic study of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
In the fall of 1961 he joined the faculty of the then Botany Department at Smith College, starting what would become a long and rich teaching and research career. He met his wife de ella Lâle the next year, in 1962, when she arrived at Smith from Istanbul, her native city de ella, to start graduate studies in chemistry. They got married in 1966 and had two sons, John Seljuk (b 1970) and Nicholas Murat (b 1977).
The year 1966 was also important for the sciences at Smith. Botany became part of the Department of Biological Sciences, which now included Zoology and Microbiology. He has served his new department for over four decades, retiring in 2009 as Elsie Damon Simonds Professor in the Life Sciences Emeritus. “Retired from teaching,” he would emphasize. He pursued professional and research activities well into his post-retirement years. During this time, I have continued as associate editor of the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society. He enjoyed his editorial duties which helped him, he believed, stayed connected with colleagues and with current research in his field.
His research areas included the botany, biogeography, and ecology of coastal areas and freshwater wetlands, as well as historical studies including botanical gardens and botanical illustration. For decades he taught plant systematics and plant ecology in addition to courses in biogeography and conservation. I have cared deeply about the environment. The course “Conservation of Natural Resources,” which he taught in fall 1962, was among the earliest offerings at the College, if not the first, on sustainability. He was a dedicated teacher and productive scholar who published profusely. Local sites including the Mill River and Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton became his laboratory, where he and many of his students carried out floristic projects and long-term ecological studies. He was a supportive and encouraging mentor to his many undergraduate and graduate students and took pride in his achievements. His research from him in more recent years involved, in addition, collaborative work with German colleagues and focused on comparative studies of plants in New England and in Northern Germany. I have valued his international collaborations from him. His most recent paper by him published in 2020 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and titled “Forest and woodland replacement patterns following drought-related mortality” is co-authored by 37 scientists from different parts of the world; this pleased him greatly.
Over his long tenure at the College the curriculum underwent many changes, some of which he regarded as natural evolution. He particularly welcomed the newly emerging interdisciplinary offerings at the College. Appreciating his own undergraduate liberal arts background, he was a strong believer in bridging the disciplines not only within the sciences but also bridging the sciences with the humanities. He was closely associated with Marine Sciences, Public Policy, and with Environmental Science and Policy from the beginnings of these programs and was particularly gratified when Landscape Studies became part of the Smith curriculum. He enjoyed interacting and co-teaching with his colleagues in and outside his department, appreciated their expertise in their fields, and valued their friendships.
He participated fully in the life of the College, serving his department and the College in many capacities. He was an avid bird watcher and led the annual bird walk on campus for many years. He especially enjoyed taking visitors through the Lyman Plant House and Botanic Gardens, places very dear to his heart, where he would stop by daily on his way to his office. Contributing to the community was important to him, and he regularly welcomed area students to the campus, giving them tours of the botanical facilities. He served for many years on the Sanctuary Committee of Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and oversaw the permanent conservation of family property in Hatfield, now a popular hiking destination for the community.
He was an engaging speaker. His richly illustrated lectures on him were witty and informative. In talks to general audiences he was capable of making science accessible to non-scientists. In 1987-88 he gave the College’s annual Katharine Asher Engel Lecture, pleased to be talking about his research on the changing landscapes of New England to a wider audience which included his proud parents. Generous with his time, he was always happy to share his rich botanical knowledge with others. He was frequently called upon to identify some mystery plant; this he did with great pleasure and enjoyed advising colleagues and friends on botanical questions.
He was an informed traveler with a rich knowledge of history. He was grateful for earlier trips to the Amazon and to East Africa before these vulnerable places became more endangered. Highlights of later trips included travels to Turkey. An untiring hiker, he walked daily around the periphery of Büyükada, the largest of the Princes Islands off of Istanbul where Lâle’s parents summered. His bird watching there resulted in contributions to local bird count data and papers on bird migration patterns. Another favorite site in Turkey was near ancient Troy, the ruins on the hill in Assos which overlook the nearby island of Lesbos and home of Theophrastus, “the father of botany.” Other memorable travels were trips to Kula Botanical Gardens in Hawaii, to English gardens, to tulip fields in the Netherlands, and to historic gardens in Europe. He was happy on his last trip in the fall of 2019 to visit one of the oldest botanic gardens in the world, Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam.
He was an avid reader and had a deep interest also in art and in music. He was a constant visitor to the College’s libraries and to Forbes Public Library; I have visited the College’s art museum frequently. He greatly enjoyed opera trips to New York, and during stays in Hamburg, to the Hamburg Opera and Ballet. Special also were excursions in the summer to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown where he and Lâle went on their first date, and to Tanglewood, where in the shed the occasional bird song contributing to the music would delight him.
He was dedicated to his family, contributing more than his share to the running of the household. He was the family shopper and cook, enjoying what he called his “private time” in the kitchen. When his sons were younger he walked them to the Campus School, took them to piano lessons, to weekly trips to Forbes Library, to sports practices and games, and while on vacation at Cape Cod, on hikes at the National Seashore and on daily beach walks on the bay in North Truro. With an eye always on the wildlife and vegetation on such walks, he would wonder about changes to the landscape that were inevitable, and whether the cliff swallows would be returning to their nests in the eroding bluffs the next season.
He loved nature, gardened without pesticides, and the appearance of a rabbit around the flower beds did not upset him. His philosophy of him was “live and let live.” Indoors, he was proud of his heirloom African violet collection. He was funny with a keen sense of humor. I appreciated life’s ironies and could see the big picture, separating what was important from what was not. He was upbeat and optimistic, always positive.
He leaves behind his wife Lâle, sons John Seljuk and Nicholas Murat, his daughter-in-law Hai Ly, grandson Aydin and granddaughter Amelia. His youngest brother Richard (Marge) preceded him; he is survived by his brother William (Alice Ann), his nieces and nephews and their families, and other members of his extended family.
The family is extremely grateful to friends, colleagues, and neighbors for their memories, kindness, generosity, and support. We are also deeply grateful to the staff at Linda Manor for their loving care and warm friendships.
A celebration of his life is being planned on the Smith College campus in the fall.
Ahearn Funeral Home
Published by Daily Hampshire Gazette on Aug. 8, 2022.