A stand of white birch trees in a northern Wisconsin winter. Photo by Tom Nicholls

Almost every time I see a beautiful stand of white birch, two names come to mind, Hugh Iltis and Robert Frost.

Hugh Iltis was a noted University of Wisconsin-Madison plant geographer, educator, conservationist and mentor to botany students from across the Americas. He died Dec. 19, 2016, at the age of 91. He was the director of the University of Wisconsin Herbarium where he helped build one of the nation’s top research collections of pressed plants.

Robert Frost is one of America’s most celebrated poets, known for his realistic depictions of rural life, who died Jan. 29, 1963, at the age of 88. He used poems to examine complex philosophical and social themes, winning four Pulitzer prizes during his lifetime.

Iltis and Frost overlapped each other during parts of their amazing lifetimes. Both were an inspiration to their students and readers through their deep commitment to studying nature and understanding social issues though their research and writings.

I was fortunate to take a plant geography class from Iltis. He was a complex man of many scientific interests, who was an excellent teacher and mentor. I am not sure how many plants I remembered from his course as I took it long ago, but what I do remember clearly were two important events.

The first was when it came time to take the final exam for his course. He took our class of about 15 or so students out to a hillside prairie with a splendid view near Madison where we sat on the ground or on rocks among wonderful blooming prairie plants to take his exam. What an inspiration that was.

The second was when Iltis had us read Frost’s 1916 poem “Birches.” After the class read that poem, Iltis took us out on a field trip to the Baraboo Hills near Madison, and guess what we did? We swung from birches just like in Frost’s poem and learned everything we could about birches, their habitat requirements and the many species of animals that depend upon them for food and shelter. We learned that birches are slender yet supple trees that will bend down and return you to the ground when you climb them, like a fishing pole under the weight of a catch.

I will never forget those experiences and later on realized that we should never underestimate the importance of teachers and how they influence our lives — sometimes forever!

The private Nature Education Center in Fifield operated by Tom and Mary Lou Nicholls is open seasonally by appointment only. Nicholls can be reached at

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