Dan Barringer ’90: At Home (and Work) in Nature
After graduating from Haverford, where he worked in the campus arboretum, the former English major embarked on a career in horticulture. He now oversees the 621-acre Crow’s Nest Preserve in Chester County, Pa.
The only poisonous frog native to the United States, the pickerel frog emits skin secretions that are toxic to some of its predators. Dan Barringer knows these brown-speckled amphibians are harmless to humans, though, so when he encountered one while at work on a recent Tuesday morning, he felt lucky instead of afraid.
On any given day, Barringer might cross paths with a number of wild creatures: deer, foxes, beavers, mink, raccoons, and countless types of birds (among his favorites is the bright blue indigo bunting). As a preserve manager with Natural Lands—an organization that protects and cares for open space across eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey—Barringer oversees Crow’s Nest Preserve, about 600 acres of woods, meadows, and crop fields along French Creek in Chester County, Pa. After graduating from Haverford, where he worked in the campus arboretum, Barringer completed a year-long internship at Morris Arboretum and an ornamental horticulture program at Longwood Gardens. He’s been with Natural Lands ever since. Describing his profession as a “lifestyle choice,” he fully immerses himself in nature, living with his family on the preserve year-round. Barringer spoke to Haverford magazine about the expected and unexpected aspects of his work and how the College helped cultivate his passion for the outdoors.
Your bachelor’s degree is in English. How did you come to work in land management?
I think I always envisioned myself living in the woods. I went camping a lot as a kid and worked in my uncle’s elaborate Japanese-style garden during high school. That and working for Haverford’s arboretum gave me a foundation in the horticultural practices I use every day. But I actually do get to use my English degree! I write for Natural Lands’ blog and use social media to promote our work saving open space and caring for and connecting people with nature. What does a preserve manager do? My responsibilities vary widely—but in general, we handle the maintenance of the preserve. This means planting and pruning trees; taking trees down if they’ve become hazardous; maintaining trails and gardens; controlling invasive species; building relationships with neighbors and visitors; and making the preserve accessible to all.
Your other title is “invasives management coordinator.” What is an invasive species, and what risks do they pose?
Invasive plants aren’t evil—they’re just behaving badly. They are species that can take over the woods to the exclusion of others, threatening diversity. A community can become a monoculture if an invasive species physically displaces the native species that were there before. We want to prevent this from happening. Invasives are easier to control if they are recognized just as they are becoming established … we try to minimize their impact by cutting them back or replanting with more desirable species. One invasive plant that has had a good season this year is “mile-a-minute weed” (Persicaria perfoliata); it smothers a lot of other vegetation. Do you ever feel isolated working out in the woods? Well, nobody does this work alone. We rely heavily on volunteers on the preserve and enjoy great camaraderie with them. And while this is an environmental career, it’s also a social services career. I work to engage people and improve their lives through contact with nature. My greatest joy is sharing the preserve with others, giving tours to student groups or hiking clubs who come to learn about our land and how we manage it. I also help staff the Crow’s Nest summer camp and after-school programs. The idea is for kids to have supervised but unstructured playtime in the woods so they become comfortable in nature, doing things I might have done when I was a kid but that many kids today don’t seem to have time for. Winter is coming.
How will that affect your work?
You might think things would slow down, but they don’t. We’re out in all weather and still have to do everything we always do, except maybe cut the grass. Winter brings a lot of tree work. And since we can see more of the land more easily in the winter, it’s also when we monitor conservation easements. These are lands that are in private ownership, but their development capacity is restricted and we protect them as open space. We check every year to make sure nobody is building where they’re not supposed to.
Do you have any favorite memories of close encounters with animals on the preserve?
Once I was cleaning wood duck boxes along our creek, standing on a ladder, and reached in and felt something soft. I pulled it forward and came face to face with a red phase screech owl. I didn’t fall off the ladder, but both of us were pretty surprised!
What skills and traits are most important in your field?
Most importantly, you have to have a strong work ethic because you have to show up on the hottest of hot days and the coldest of cold days. You have to be comfortable using equipment like chainsaws, string trimmers, tractors, and bush hogs (a type of rotary mower). You have to be flexible. And you have to know how to identify all kinds of plants and the communities they make up.
How does your work today echo your work at Haverford back in the ’80s?
If my colleagues and I have done our jobs well on the preserve, it looks as though we were never there. Deliberate landscapes require care, but our purpose is to keep them looking natural and functioning naturally. The same was (and still is) true for the arboretum at Haverford. I go back for reunions and appreciate the campus more and more; you can tell people have been caring deeply about it for generations. I continue to carry with me the influence of mentors like Carol Wagner [who is still on staff at the arboretum]; former grounds supervisor Eric Larson; and former arboretum directors Floss Genser and Bill Astifan. Despite the fact that agriculture is not part of a formal curriculum at the College, there are a surprising number of graduates in the field, working in areas like organic or community gardening. I have the pleasure of working with Pete Smyrl ’69, who is retired from Natural Lands and has volunteered with our kids’ programs and nature clubs for years. And one of my classmates, Tim Abbott ’90, also works for a land trust.
Does working outside compel you to spend your down time indoors?
Not at all. Our family loves to go camping with our yellow 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia camper, which is our pride and joy. It has needed a lot of maintenance, but you meet the best people when you break down. Complete strangers have helped us out whenever we’ve ended up on their doorsteps—it restores your faith in humanity.
See Barringer’s blog posts at natlands.org/field-notes.