Celebrating B.W. Wells

Today we remember the late B. W. Wells, plant ecologist, conservationist, and author of The Natural Gardens of North Carolina. On March 26th, Rock Cliff Farm, Wells’s place of retirement, is celebrating B.W. Wells Heritage Day, with tours, activities, giveaways, and exhibits that recall the life and work of this pioneering ecologist.  His work lives on through this event and at Rock Cliff Farm, and through the generations students, naturalists, and lovers of North Carolina whose appreciation for the natural gardens of North Carolina springs in whole or in part from the passion of Bert Wells. 

Rock Cliff Farm is located at Falls Lake State Recreation Area, between Durham and Wake Forest, north of Raleigh. For more information, visit the event webpage here.

If you’re unfamiliar with Wells’s contributions to the field of ecology and conservation, here’s a sample of what Larry Earley had to say in his introduction to the revised edition of Wells’s classic book, published in 2002. From Earley’s introduction we get a sense of Wells falling in love at first sight of the North Carolina landscape:

In 1919, Wells came to North Carolina State University (then North Carolina State College) to take the position of chairman of the Botany Department, a job he would hold until 1949. He was thirty-five years old. He already had a national, even international, reputation as an authority on insect galls, a specialty he had pursued for almost ten years. But in the year after his arrival, on a train trip to Wilmington, the view outside his window changed his life. “Out of the railroad car window, I saw a vast flat area literally covered with wild flowers,” he recollected years later. “I immediately made up my mind to see it again. . . . I became convinced there was no such area of equal size and perfection with over a hundred species of herbaceous wild flowers blooming in profusion from late February to middle December.”

It was the Big Savannah, a 1,500-acre treeless wetland near Burgaw that was half a mile wide and nearly two miles long. It was the first of several natural areas throughout the state that he was to call “natural gardens.” The spectacle of the year-long flower show dazzled his eyes, but new kinds of questions engaged his mind. Why did these plants grow here and not elsewhere? What factors made them grow in such abundance? He was looking not at individual plants but the way they related to each other and to their environment, an approach that embraces what we mean by the word “ecology.”

Today the concept is almost commonplace—when we look at the interrelationships between plants, animals, soil, and water, we’re talking in ecological terms. But we forget that even as recently as forty years ago the word was known only to specialists.

Now is the perfect time to get outdoors and celebrate the world’s “natural gardens.” Whether you head out to Rock Cliff Farm or find another spot where you can revel in spring, get outside this weekend and take a moment to appreciate the relationships among the natural elements that give us such great joy.

Excerpt from The Natural Gardens of North Carolina by B. W. Wells. New introduction and afterword by Lawrence S. Earley. Copyright © 1967, 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press.