A pioneering scientist and world expert on wetlands, Dr. Rebecca Sharitz passed away on October 20th, 2018. To her family, friends, colleagues, and students, Dr. Sharitz went by Becky. Formal memorial statements will be released in the coming month. I wanted to share some memories that illustrate how Becky was a mentor and role model to me.
Becky was functionally a scientific advisor while I worked as a Master’s student at Auburn University. Becky was a senior scientist at one of the best ecological centers at that time, the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) in Aiken, South Carolina. Although she was not the only scientific advisor for me, she and I mostly talked science when I visited her on my way to or from a place she loved, the Congaree Swamp National Monument. The Congaree is now a national park, no doubt in part due to her efforts to give it recognition and lasting protection.
Being a Yankee at the time, 1991, I did not like getting my feet wet. I had just driven from New York State to the southeastern US to start my MS degree program. Being paid through a grant Becky led to study a forest with some of the biggest trees in the eastern US was all that was needed to lure me to a different ecosystem and culture. I still remember driving along Old Route 17 in South Carolina at dusk, rolling the windows down after a hot August day and breathing in what I later learned was the wonderful aroma of loblolly pine after being baked by summer heat. It is a perfume to which I love to return.
Soon after arriving in the South, I met up with Becky and her students at SREL. We climbed into a large blue 4 WD Suburban and headed out for my introduction to the Congaree. Little did I realize I was really being introduced to the rigor and greatness of Dr. Becky Sharitz.
We were on the eastern edge of the Congaree where a dirt road on top of the bluff above the wetland ecosystem separated a young loblolly pine plantation on the east and a deep cypress-tupelo wetland on the west. The people at SREL had already prepped me for this field trip by taking me to the room with live, but caged cottonmouth, timber rattler, and canebrake snakes. These were the large, potentially dangerous herps whose territory I was going to work in during the next 2-3 years. We in the north are not used to big, poisonous snakes. I once witnessed a logger on a 6 foot high skidder freak out over seeing a puny green snake slinking around the ground. The people at SREL also helped me pick out waders because, you know, I was a Yankee and we were going to visit a wetland. I chose chest waders because I heard the water would be deep.
We pulled up to the opposing ecosystems, the young loblolly pine plantation and the deep, ancient cypress-tupelo swamp, and parked next to an opening into the swamp. I went to the back of the vehicle, figured out whether or not to keep my shoes on inside the waders, and clumsily pulled the waders on. I used to not like getting my feet wet…until Becky Sharitz.
Around the corner of the Suburban comes Becky, all 5’10”-6’ feet of her. Whatever her height, she projected a tall presence. And, Becky was wearing tennis shoes and jeans, not waders. I said, “Aren’t you going to put on waders?”
“Nah”, Becky scoff-smiled, throwing her head back a little bit.
In we went. Coming off the road, we dropped 4-5 feet into the wetland. We immediately went from the warm, bright early-morning Carolina Sun into the cool dark. The dense canopy of swamp tupelo, bald cypress, and, in slightly elevated areas, various oaks, sugarberries, and other many species, created a local environment that felt exactly the opposite of the loblolly pine planting. Of course, thigh-high water switched the environmental conditions quickly, too.
If you are unfamiliar with baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) systems, please go to your nearest southeastern wetland now. Soon. Baldcypress is an amazing tree in all seasons and creates an ecosystem that can reach the primal portions of a human’s mind. These systems are, I’m told, dinosaur habitat. At the very least, it has now been proven that these incredible trees can live well over 2000 years. These prehistoric-looking conifers with small gill-like leaves also have another wonderful feature: knees. Ah, there is a scientific name for these (pneumatophores), but I like knees. Baldcypress knees rise up out of their root system above the water (for much of the year). Whether their function is to exchange oxygen for roots, stabilizing giant trees in an unstable, waterlogged environment, both, or more hardly matters to hikers of southeastern cypress swamps. They exist. These trees have knees, and, as I was warned before that visit, these knees are also called shin busters. Hiking in a dark wetland during the middle of the day in thigh-high water, you cannot see all of the knees. They are lurking beneath the water (with what other creatures? cottonmouths?). Somehow, your shins find them (or they find your shins). Always. And, wearing chest waders, you have to be careful: falling down in a deep wetland with chest-high waders could fill them with water and that could be the end of you.
Becky led the way and didn’t look back. Not once. Not for at least 40-45 minutes.
I’m not sure how fast we were going. It felt fast to me. And it was quiet. Hardly anyone said anything. I’d say there were at least five of us. Becky didn’t say anything, for sure.
At about 40-45 minutes in, it was a deep swamp in many ways. Becky paused, turned, and said to me, “How ‘ya doing?” I felt relieved and squeaked out a “Fine.”
Honestly, I was a little on edge. Notorious snakes that could swim, dark waters, shin busters, an uneven swamp bottom, not knowing where my feet actually were, the potential to fill my waders was great.
We took a quick swig of water and kept going. Becky eventually slowed her pace, pausing here and there, marveling at the swamp, pointing out some of her favorite plants, chatting with her students. To this day, I do not remember what we went to go see. I cannot recall what our destination might have been. Were we going to see an ancient baldcypress? I have no memory of that. I only remember the prep and that initial 40-45 minute walk into the deep, dark Congaree Swamp with Becky. I hardly remember who was with us. I’m going to guess Loretta Battaglia, the PhD student who’d also mentor me during that period, and, likely Joy Young, the other member of Becky’s lab who mentored me as I began to wade into tree-ring analysis.
I later learned that this was one way Becky might test her students, to see who could handle the southeastern swamps. No matter in this situation, this was a trip that still makes me laugh. Wonderful. In fact, I have used her approach when bringing classes of college students into the field. I would tell them where we were going and suggest how they might dress: “You are going to wear sandals as we climb up onto this small weathered plateau and sample in areas with catbrier? OK.” After a short intro, we’d shoot up the mountains. I typically would look back after 20 minutes or so. We often weren’t going as deep as Becky would go.
Becky was a fabulous mentor. Traveling from Auburn to the Congaree or vice versa, I would stop by the SREL whenever I could. Although Becky was the Head of the Division of Wetland Ecology, she would always make time to see me. I would call ahead, speaking to Becky’s assistant Gwen, to see if I could just drop in. I don’t remember a no. I remember waiting a few times, but not a ‘no’. Becky would clear the desk, ask me how things were going, ask about what was happening in the Congaree, whether that be the water level or Harry (manager of the Congaree at that time) or how the paw-paw were responding to the canopy disturbance created by Hurricane Hugo.
Becky, somehow, always had the time. Those meetings were always a settling point for me. Moving from New York State to Alabama was not easy. Becky had a way of making it alright. Sometimes we talked specifically about that. Often we didn’t.
To maintain my assistantship I had to tally tree regeneration in 10 plots set up across the Congaree. The diversity of species was bewildering, and I cannot say I could identify everything correctly the first year….or the second year. When asked what I wanted to study for my MS degree, I said I wanted to answer the question in the park brochure: how did the enormous, towering loblolly pines established in the Congaree? The brochure said it was a mystery (it still is a bit of a mystery). Though not on Becky’s list of things to do, she ok’d my proposed project as long as I counted the seedlings, too. I relished the freedom Becky gave me.
Some days I was lucky enough to be present when Becky would hold her lab meetings. We would go into a lab space and people would either stand or sit in a large circle. I recall Becky having about 7-10 people in her group: Ph.D. students, M.S. students, technicians, and the occasional post-doc. She would go around the room – asking each person what they had done, what they were going to do, if they needed help, and often asking someone else in the group if they could help another person. Perhaps I was only in 3 or 4 of those meetings over two years, but it is what I model my lab meetings on 25 years later.
Becky was smart and insightful about many things, especially the dynamics of the wetland ecosystems she loved. In reflecting back on how I introduce students to the field and hold my meetings, I am a bit surprised that so much of Becky’s mentoring DNA is in me. She was a top-shelf mentor. Still, how Becky imparted some of her ways to me is a bit of a mystery in itself. On top of being a great scientist, she would often smile, and had a subtle, sublime way of making people feel at home. Who wouldn’t want to be like Becky?
I’ll never forget our conversation on paw-paw dynamics. She pushed me that afternoon to go beyond my observations on this strange, wonderful understory species. She asked me to consider how and why they pop up in dense colonies and how that recruitment might impact recovery of the floodplain forest over the coming decades and centuries. I wish I were able to have more conversations like that. I mean, among the many publications that Becky authored, she also co-edited a book on wetlands, “Ecology of Freshwater and Estuarine Wetlands.”
It cannot be overstated how much of a pioneer Becky Sharitz was, both with her science and in being a woman in science. She was one of two women at an international botanical congress in the 1970s. Becky earned her Ph.D. while studying with Frank McCormick at the University of North Carolina, in a quick four years after earning her B.S degree from Roanoke College in 1966. Over the course of her four-decade career, Becky became an international leader on the ecology of wetlands, directed a well-funded research group, and was an acting director and unit head at one of the most prestigious ecology labs in the world. She was awarded for her work with the National Wetlands Award for Research Science. Upon her receiving that award, a colleague noted that Becky’s research was the cornerstone of conservation, which, ultimately, was where the heart of her research could be found – preservation of the natural world, and especially the vulnerable but vital wetlands of the southeastern US.
Thank you Becky for all of your brilliant work and guidance. We were fortunate to have shared the Earth with you and bask in your deep knowledge and love of the natural world.
Much thanks to Dr. Loretta Battaglia, who helped straighten more than a few sentences while drawing away some cobwebs in more than a couple of the corners of my mind.