Return of the Native
Biology professor Dave Warners wins top teaching award
by Myrna DeVries Anderson ’00

Dave WarnersBack in 1981, a struggling Calvin student with a love for the outdoors, a “GPA in the twos” and a yen to be a forest ranger up and quit college. His lowest grades, he confessed, were in biology. “I was confused about what I was doing,” Dave Warners remembered that time in his life. “I didn’t like Calvin very much.”

While the 20-year-old ex-student meditated on his future, he worked for a while in landscaping, then spent four-and-a-half months hiking all 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail. “It really convicted me of my love for the outdoors and my love of creation,” said Warners of his long nature walk. “I found myself missing school, and I realized what a privilege it is to be in school and spend your time learning things. And I found myself missing Calvin.” Warners decided to pursue a biology degree, no matter what kind of grades he earned. He re-enrolled at Calvin in 1983. “I was a different kind of student when I returned because I had a direction. And then things went so much better academically for me,” he said.

Professor Warner's award press release

In February, Warners, now a Calvin biology professor, accepted the highest honor granted to a faculty member, the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching. The 17th recipient of the award, the third scientist and the first biologist to be so honored, Warners responded thus to the distinction: “I feel completely inept. I am completely surprised by the award because I think there’s still so much I have to achieve in my teaching.”

Real community
For a substantial period of his life, Warners said, teaching was not something he felt equipped to do. He is, however, the son of two teachers, and he grew up within sight of the old Calvin campus on Calvin Street.

“There was a lot of passion, and there was a lot of unrest,” he described his neighborhood in that era. Warners remembered that there were days when it wasn’t safe to walk home from school, and the staff at Oakdale Christian arranged rides for the students. Despite the daily dangers, however, he loved his neighborhood: “I was part of a real community, and I felt that way at my church, too.”

Warners attended Grand Rapids Christian High School and moved on to Calvin in 1980. It wasn’t only academic confusion that caused him to drop out after three semesters. He had a potent fear of speaking in front of people. “I would get really nervous. I was always worried, too, that I’d forget a word or that I’d mess up and have to backtrack,” he said.

Surprising affirmation
Because Warners struggled so mightily, it meant a lot to get encouragement from faculty like English professor George Harper and biology professors Al Gebben and John Beebe and Randy Van Dragt. He was pleasantly surprised, for instance, when Harper asked for permission to copy and save his paper on Of Human Bondage and when Van Dragt walked and talked with him on field trips. “They showed confidence in me and affirmation that I didn’t have in myself,” Warners said.

One day as Warners was working in the lab, Beebe offered him a bit of affirmation that startled him: “Well,” Beebe said, “you should think about grad school.”

“I was shocked the same way as when Harper asked for a copy of my paper,” Warners said. He was also inspired.

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Discovering the enemy
Warners graduated from Calvin in 1985 and moved on to the environmental studies program at the University of Wisconsin. “A big shift for me happened at Wisconsin on an early field trip in a conservation biology course,” he reminisced, “a place called Picnic Point.” There, growing all throughout an old oak forest, were European buckthorn and privet and honeysuckle and myrtle, all non-native species, species that were devouring the native habitat, species Warners had used many, many times in his work as a landscaper.

“I felt like I wanted to dig a hole and crawl in it,” he said. “I didn’t want people to know how many of these plants I had planted.” It was the beginning of Warners’ awareness of the pernicious nature of non-native (invasive) species and of his love for native species.

After earning his master’s in environmental science from Wisconsin in 1989, Warners spent a year teaching at Calvin, filling in for Van Dragt, who was on sabbatical. To his surprise, he loved the experience. Then Warners and his wife, Teri, whom he’d married in 1988, spent three years doing community development work through the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) in Tanzania, East Africa.

Cookstoves, malaria and love
Of his short sojourn in Africa, where he and Teri planted trees, taught nutrition and demonstrated how to make a cookstove out of a termite mound (and where both of them contracted malaria and numerous intestinal parasites), Warners said simply: “There was so much emphasis on community. There was so much love shown ’round.”

Though the CRWRC offered the couple a full-time position, Warners decided to earn a PhD. He applied to graduate programs from Tanzania, pounding out his applications on an old typewriter. The couple returned to the States in 1992, and Warners entered a PhD program at the University of Michigan.

When he graduated, Calvin, in the form of Van Dragt, came wooing: “I made it part of my sabbatical work to coax him to come over here,” said Van Dragt. “A lot of my goal in the early part of the 1990s was to build a big plant ecology part of the department.” Because of his background in botany and in wetland restoration, Warners was a desirable addition to that department.

Dave Warners with studentReturn of the native
After a long period of praying and talking it over with Teri, Warners returned once more to Calvin in 1997. “In a lot of ways, it looked like a different place than I remembered as a student,” he said. “The student body was more diverse. There was talk about making the faculty more diverse, and I really liked the emphasis on research and teaching.”

Warners brought with him to Calvin not only a love for the natural world, but a passion for living gracefully within its precincts: “We are not the only ones who bear God’s image. What we are slow to recognize is how much a part of God’s creation we are. I think that we’ve too often seen ourselves as existing outside the creation and somehow not dependent on a healthy creation. And I really think we need to fit in better so that our presence isn’t so much a detriment to us in creation—but instead that our presence would be a blessing to creation.”

In communicating that philosophy, Warners makes sure his classes spend a lot of time far afield of the conventional classroom. They plant native plant gardens at local schools and libraries; they plant rain gardens to slow erosion on the banks of local streams; they work at eradicating purple loosestrife and other invasive species; they perform botanical inventories of natural areas in west Michigan townships.

These efforts to bring creation care to a wider community have also earned Warners a 2006 Faculty/Staff Community Service-Learning Award from Michigan Campus Compact, a coalition of Michigan college and university presidents committed to fulfilling the public purposes of higher education. “The earth-keeping theme has really grown and matured in his teaching,” Van Dragt said. “One of his great contributions is … (showing) that the earth isn’t just resources, it isn’t just the backdrop to human activity, but it’s a living, breathing creation.”

The outdoor student
Warners loves the outdoor component in his classes, and he loves what the outdoors does for students. “You find students who are really challenged by the formal lecture style. You get them into [the outdoors] and they’re the best student in the class—because their style is tactile, hands-on, olfactory, and it’s not just sitting, reading a lab in a book,” he said.

There is one characteristic that all of Warners’ outdoor classes share, according to one of his students. “At least two of the students will come back having fallen into open water,” said former student Peter Hiskes ’08, laughing. “He’s not thinking about, ‘Oh boy, are those students keeping up, and am I leading them safely?”

Warners copped to the charge, explaining that this, too, was a teaching tactic: “If it’s uncomfortable they’ll remember it,” he said, chuckling. “A little bit of cold, a little bit of wet. That just adds to the whole experience. I love to introduce students to that, too.” His fondness for leading students into hazard hasn’t diminished Warners’ popularity. In 2006, he was voted Professor of the Year by the senior class.

Dave WarnersSelling, connecting
His desire to fit more gracefully into the created world has led Warners, who has three children, to grow an all-organic, mostly native yard, to bike or ride the bus to work and to try to eat locally. It led him in 2006 to create the native plant sale, an annual event at the Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center, where preserve staff sell native plants that Warners and students have grown in greenhouses. The sale benefits Calvin summer camps.

“We started the native plant sale because we wanted to get more native plants out there in people’s gardens. The more native plants we have in our community, the better chance they’ll be found by pollinators and seed eaters,” he said.

The desire to live gently within nature also led Warners, in 2006, to try to save the woodlot on the north side of the old Calvin fieldhouse. And, when one-third of that old-growth forest was sacrificed to construction of the new Calvin fieldhouse, Warners led the effort to rescue and replant the species that were growing there.

This type of mitigation effort can only be partly restorative, he emphasized: “Replacing a lost natural area with our best attempt is an expression of regret or lament or whatever. It shows that we really did feel badly about the loss, and we want to do what we can to make up for the loss.”

Warners is heartened to see his students actively engaged in creation care. A class he taught last semester plans a reunion at a site that they inventoried in west Michigan. “That tells me that something meaningful happened in terms of community in the class—they came to know each other and like each other—and also something happened in terms of connection to a place,” he said.

Along with building a sense of community in his classes, Warners works to build the kinds of relationships that meant so much to him when he was a student. “He is really good at striking a balance between being a friend and a mentor and someone you look up to and respect,” said Hiskes.

“He’s very comfortable to be with in class. He lowers the guards of students by his friendliness and his approach, what I call the ‘Dave Warners Aw-Shucks Factor,’” said Van Dragt, a person Warners still considers a mentor. “He’s a very great colleague to work with.”

The Presidential Award comes with a custom medallion and a significant financial stipend from the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment Fund, established at Calvin in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin board of trustees. Of this honor, Van Dragt added: “I don’t know anyone who I know well who would be more deserving of this. … Every time I teach with him, I learn something.”  

Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s senior writer.

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