Joyce Gibson Roach

Tony Burgess, a man for dry seasons (nomination for Texan of the Year published in Dallas Morning News)

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) spotlighted Global Warming, pointing out all the horrors, naming the consequences, hopefully scaring the designer socks off us. Prince Charles’s Harmony ( Nov. 19, 2010) didn’t spend time on a litany of disaster, but rather showed international examples of working with nature rather than against it.  Simple. But overall that’s what the Green Movement is about.

But what about right here in North Central Texas?  Do we have a person of such stature doing anything? Yes. Not a politician or a prince, Tony Burgess, TCU Professor of Professional Practice in Environmental Science, is Our Man of the Brown Movement. Not enough green around Dallas or Fort Worth to call anything Green.

It is the arid, prairies and plains that contain examples of land—plants, trees, wildlife—that can survive the climate with little water, adapt to a variety of changes over the eons. Even the wind and the sun, if harnessed, provide nature’s support.

Teaching in a climate controlled classroom is not what he does. His classroom is more often outdoors and down in the dirt.  And he’s a Texan, born and bred.

Burgess’s ancestry is tied to illustrious pioneer names in Tarrant County, Van Zandt and Jarvis. He grew up in Fort Worth but headed west for his education (MS, Texas Tech; PhD, U of AZ), and sojourned in the Southwest as a desert biologist.  

For 19 years he worked with the Biosphere 2 Project north of Tucson. Remember  Biosphere?  It was described as a far fetched science experiment, wherein life was created in a self contained “terraquarium.” It met its demise because it was an idea whose time had not come and at a time when global disaster was predicted but nobody believed it.  We believe it now.

Burgess is a has-been: He has been a professor, botanist, ecological engineer, consulting biologist, site naturalist, coordinator for environmental and conservation work with prestigious universities and organizations nationally and internationally. He came back home, an unrepentant Texan, and to TCU in 1995.

But what about his vision as he tramped the desert like Moses wandering in the wilderness looking for the Promised Land?  Burgess apparently realized that the rain starved lands of the Southwest were his promised land.

It’s one thing to teach interested degree-seeking students cutting edge thinking and methods of the Brown Movement. It’s another to get ordinary citizens interested. A lot of us do our part by recycling, becoming more attuned to wastefulness and such. But how do you convert large-land owners, corporate businesses, legislators, developers?

You teach, speak, suggest, encourage, but mostly demonstrate over and over again at workshops, conferences, classes, club meetings, schools, dinners, and on the street corner, if necessary, in dramatic and doable ways what can be accomplished in the city, town, ranch, campus, neighborhood. You bring to bear every nature centered group’s participation in an idea larger than themselves.

Landscape with plants, shrubs, trees that require little care and minimal watering. Grow organic foods, practice water conservation, refuse and waste management; use reusable materials to build.

Among the many examples I might offer of Burgess’ work, a recent one brings all his expertise and passion to bear: putting a 20,000 square foot roof on the new headquarters of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas at the Botanical Gardens in Forest Park. Using such roofing methods was an idea born of masters’ thesis work by David Williams and Jon Kinder, two of Burgess’ students.

It’s called a living roof and constructed from native soil and plants requiring little care. Such are found on the Fort Worth Prairie, a vestige of ancient grasslands of the Grand Prairie west of the city in need of being rescued by private and public means. It was a collaboration of BRIT and the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge.

Burgess consults and works on the project, spending week-ends and afternoons in the field, a new kind of hunter-gatherer. He continues teaching, speaking, meeting, inspiring even while recovering from successful cancer treatment. He’s the go-to guy in almost every Green/Brown project in North Central Texas.

I believe this quiet, determined, tireless, practicing natural scientist will someday find his place among the likes of Johnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone. Someone will no doubt report seeing a solitary man, wind blowing a gray beard against his face, gathering things from plants and bushes somewhere in the Southwest.

The work of Tony Burgess fulfills the call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless who, in a few more generations, may be us.  (700 words)