“…Man has a natural right to a beautiful home, a beautiful city, a beautiful world…”
“Let’s brainstorm,” I say suddenly to Ryan, who sits at my right behind the front desk. It is a command, more or less. Now that I’m wearing a freshly-minted Education Staff nametag, I figure I’ve earned the authority to dictate such orders to a volunteer—never mind the fact that he has logged twice the number of working hours as I have, and that he would surely have my job, were he of age.
Ryan looks at me quizzically, mostly because I have outright interrupted his long-drawn exposition on the proper utilities of Facebook and Twitter. He was about to set forth in detail why he keeps an account with the latter site for the purpose of safeguarding his online identity.
“Is this one of your philosophical mind games?”
“No, it’s for this article. I’m stumped on what to say. Why write about Thomas Macbride?”
“The building we are sitting in is named after him…” says Ryan, blunt and befuddled as to how I could require further justification.
“But you can pay to have your name on a building,” I reply. “There’s a name for every building in town. Why does Thomas Macbride deserve an article? Why should we care?”
“Let’s see. What exactly did he do?”
I am well prepared to answer. After I was assigned to write on Macbride it only took me a day to hunt down his biography and a day after that to read it from cover to cover. But Ryan’s question is rhetorical; he intends to answer himself, so as to illustrate just how simple it should be to spot the virtues in a university forefather. And so, lifting open the countertop to exit the desk, he moseys to a display on the opposite side of the lobby where, below a black and white photograph of the pensive, long-whiskered Macbride, there is a brief description of the professor’s work.
A minute passes as Ryan reads, and the birds chirp from above the Pikes Peak diorama.
Then, “I know why we should care about him,” he announces assuredly, turning from the display.
I am doubtful. “Why?”
“Because he started to get people thinking about the environment here in Iowa. That’s why we have all of the natural areas that we have today.”
“He was known as the ‘Father of Iowan Conservation,’” I admit, entertaining the lad. “Here’s a nice quote of his on the topic: ‘…Man has a natural right to a beautiful home, a beautiful city, a beautiful world….’”
“Start with that,” Ryan states, reentering the desk and dropping down the counter with a proud, conclusive thud. “Start the whole thing with that. The only reason we have places like Lake Macbride and other state parks is because he started the idea. He was the revolutionary who said, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got to take care of the land we still have here unless you want to see it gone.’”
But I am not enticed. Perhaps he was the father of Iowan conservation, but they do not call Macbride the “Father of Conservation.” He was not Roosevelt, nor was he Muir. That Macbride was the first president of the Iowa Park and Forestry Association is not the stuff of an essay. I offer my rebuttal to Ryan.
“Someone would have done it eventually—out of necessity if nothing else—because otherwise we would be living in a garbage dump. Does that really interest you enough to read an article about Macbride? Sure, he had his merits. But what makes him interesting?”
The point hits home. Ryan stares blankly at the neon green patches on his Babolat tennis shoes, and groans a soft sound of perplexity.
“I don’t know,” he concedes. “I guess I’d have to know more about the guy before I could tell you what’s interesting about him.”
He’s reached my same stumbling block.
“Well, let me introduce some facts,” I say. I’m not sure that an entire encyclopedia of facts could make a long-dead botanist any more enthralling, but it’s worth a shot. Flipping open my computer, I begin to read down my list biographical notes. “Thomas Huston Macbride was born in Tennessee, 1848, the son of a Presbyterian minister. His family crossed the river and settled in the prairie of southeastern Iowa in the early 1850s. Young Thomas grew up on the prairie and was fascinated by its diverse flora and fauna. He learned to read by age five, attended local lectures, and was substitute teaching in Latin by fourteen.”
Ryan interjects. “There you go—a professor, who, at age fourteen, was already teaching. That’s interesting.”
“Sure, good,” I remark halfheartedly. “Perhaps we can turn that into something. Keep it coming.”
I continue my monotonous recitation.
“He was schooled in the languages and mathematics, first at Lenox College in Hopkinton, Iowa, and then at Monmouth College in Illinois. At Lenox, he was a student of Samuel Calvin, who would grow to be his closest friend. The two encouraged each other to investigate the natural sciences, a mutual interest. They would make weekend field trips to surrounding areas to collect plant specimens and search for fossils. After college, Macbride began his teaching career, mainly in math and language. But his passion was for natural world. When Samuel Calvin was chosen to occupy the chair of natural science at the State University of Iowa, he called upon Macbride to be his assistant.
“Thus, Macbride enters ‘Old Gold’ as Assistant Professor of Natural Science in charge of Botany in 1878. It is during his time as a professor that the new Hall of Natural Science—our building—is constructed. One of the items placed in its 1902 cornerstone was a picture of Macbride, as if fate had already determined that the structure would one day bear his name. Ironically though, botany classes would not be held in this building during Macbride’s life; the university required a library, auditorium, and classrooms for other disciplines more urgently.”
Ryan lights up. “That’s interesting too—the fact that botany was rejected from the new building. It just goes to show that Macbride had a passion for something that people didn’t care much about at the time.”
He is right in this respect. The discoveries of Darwin and Mendel were just decades young at the close of the nineteenth century, and the study of natural science was only beginning to gain widespread traction as a veritable university discipline. I am pleasantly surprised.
“I think that maybe you’re beginning to strike at something important.”
“That’s right,” he says. Ryan has rebounded, assured once more in the magnificence of Macbride. “He wanted to teach people that nature mattered, and that’s why he pushed for conservation of Iowa’s natural resources.”
“He also founded the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory,” I add, scrolling to find my notes over the facility, “which was and is an ecological learning center on Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa. Macbride said that ‘Lakeside Lab is a place where students study nature in nature.’ Add to this the fact that he initiated the university’s extension program, which was aimed to bring academic research to the population that made it possible. For Macbride, this meant lecturing on natural science in small town settings statewide. One year, he delivered 60 lectures in 50 weeks. He was a celebrity of a speaker—with his background in the liberal arts, it is said that Macbride’s talks were just as eloquent as his essays.”
Our coworker Kelsy slips behind the desk, returned from her lunch, and stands with a confused expression, curious in our conversation at the mention of Macbride.
“Ryan’s helping me brainstorm for that article,” I explain.
“I’m co-writing it,” he interjects plainly.
“You know about the slime molds, right?” asks Kelsy.
“I’m looking for something a little more moving.”
She shrugs. That Macbride was a scientific leader in the identification and classification of mold is a fact hardly more interesting than mold itself. (Granted, his specialty was in myxomycetes, a class of fungi that look like the plants of an alien planet.)
“We’re trying to discover what it is that’s interesting about Macbride. Ryan’s been on the trail of this brilliant idea…” Brilliant was a big word let slip. Too big a word, perhaps. I cringe inwardly for admitting that Ryan is the brains of our brainstorm. But I have to hand it to the kid, even if he does plan to be picked up by his mom at the end of his shift. “So far, we’ve traced his conservational efforts and their enduring impact on Iowa’s modern landscape back to his passion for natural science education and the prairie roots from which that passion bloomed.”
Kelsy’s interest is lost in my verbose thesis statement.
Again I continue, turning back to Ryan. “Let’s see if we can’t squeeze anything more out of these last few facts: Like I mentioned, Macbride fostered a strong friendship with Samuel Calvin. It is said that ‘one of the finest things to be said of either man is that he loved the other.’ When Calvin died in 1911, Macbride seriously contemplated resigning from professorship, though he opted to remain and would soon go on to serve as president of the university from 1914 to 1916.”
“You could say that the only reason he stayed in the profession after Calvin died was because of his love for teaching and natural history,” Ryan offers. “Make it really sappy.”
I chuckle at his suggestion. But maybe it’s not sappy at all. Maybe that’s just the truth. Macbride was productive and energetic educator, and persisted to be into his late age. In 1907, a twenty-year old worker at the Lakeside Lab resigned because he “just couldn't keep up with Professor Macbride,” who was then 61 and still actively overseeing the work at the field station. When the professor finally left the university in 1916, he kept speaking and writing on botany, conservation and a miscellany of other topics. His last article was published in the Des Moines Register in 1934 just three days before he died.
“I forgot to mention what I found yesterday when I was looking through some of Macbride’s papers in the university archives,” I tell Ryan, reaching below my seat for my notebook. “I’ll just read the poetic blurb that I wrote about it. Don’t laugh: Thomas Macbride’s legacy as an instructor is best seen in the ornately-bound book stowed in the university archives, its some hundred or more gold leaf pages each offering an inset letter of appreciation to Thomas Macbride, hand-written from former students and colleagues, lawyers and teachers and prominent officials countrywide.”
“That’s amazing. Obviously he was made to teach people about nature. He changed their whole perspective about the natural world—that’s what those letters mean,” says Ryan, this time a little more awestruck than speculative.
“Yeah, he did.” I lower my voice to an emphatic whisper, not so much for sake of the visitors who have just entered the lobby as for the fact that I can feel the climax our discussion approaching. Ryan may have started this thing but I’m going to sell it. “I read that no other professor has had so many dinners held in his honor. The man was adored by his students, commended by his colleagues, heralded nationally as a scientist—he was a naturalist with evangelical zeal, moved to teach not for any other reason than the subject of his teaching. That’s what it means to be a professor, in the truest sense: not to work a classroom gig on the side of your research projects, but to make a priority of pedagogy. To profess. And you can see that it worked; you can count the fruits of his educational labors. There are 85 state parks in Iowa today. Before Macbride, there were none. He spoke, and Iowa heard.”
“I think you’ve found the point of your article,” Ryan says.
I close my laptop and look up at him, and then over his shoulder at the Thomas Macbride exhibit. Two young parents with their stroller-strapped child stand before the case, investigating the professor’s fossilized plants on display below his contemplative visage.
“Yeah, maybe there’s something to work with there.”
-Nathan Kooker, Education Staff
Materials referenced during research for this essay:
"About Iowa Lakeside Lab." Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. N.p., n.d. Web.
Schertz, Mary Winifred Conklin., and Walter Lawrence Myers. Thomas Huston Macbride,. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa, 1947. Print.
Shimek, Bohumil. "Thomas Huston Macbride." Mycologia 26.5 (1934): 379-83. Print.
Thomas H. Macbride Papers, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa.