– Dr. Thomas G. Barnes
At some point in every funeral, the phrase “celebration of life” is used. Today at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Corbin, Kentucky, I heard those words at the funeral of Tom Barnes, biologist and contributor to The EcoTheo Review. At 56 Tom was way too young to go, he had a lot left to accomplish. He wasn’t just a respected academic and habitat restoration researcher; he was a tireless advocate for biodiversity and the preservation of natural areas. Each year he crisscrossed the state giving dozens of presentations on biodiversity issues to groups ranging from local garden clubs to activist political groups. He would talk to anyone who would listen. But he had a host of medical problems that he just couldn’t overcome. He knew his time was running out, but he never stopped working, he never lost his optimism, he never lost his faith.
Tom was also an author, mostly focusing on native plants and natural areas. His latest natural history book, Kentucky, Naturally: the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund at Work, was just published a couple of months ago and he was hard at work on another book about Kentucky’s waterfalls. An accomplished nature photographer, Tom was happiest sprawled out in the mud, getting just the right angle for a picture of a rare plant or butterfly. His photos were displayed all over the country, from the Chicago Botanical Garden to the Smithsonian to the Bronx Zoo. He truly loved nature for its beauty, as well as understanding its scientific importance.
And he was a devout Catholic. Not many tenured faculty members in university science departments are churchgoers nowadays, not even in Kentucky. But Tom couldn’t help but see the world around him as evidence enough of God’s presence. After photographing painted trilliums on Black Mountain, Kentucky’s highest peak (and surrounded by surface mines), Tom gave the local newspaper a taste of his theology:
When I am up there, I find it hard not to believe in a God who would make such a wonderful place for us to enjoy, because you know, we all think we should please God, but we never seem to consider that God is also trying to please us. It really is a beautiful gift, and we should not destroy for some short-term gain.
A couple of years ago Tom combined all these roles– author, photographer, Christian- in The Gift of Creation: Images From Scripture and Earth, a book with theologians Norman Wirzba, Calvin DeWitt, Matthew Sleeth, Ellen Davis, Sylvia Keesmaat and several others. He provided the incredible nature photography and they provided the essays. It is perhaps Tom’s most important work, and one of which he was very proud. Tom left quite a legacy – several books, dozens of scientific research papers, hundreds of magazine articles, and thousands of photographs. But (besides his children) his lasting legacy is the faith that shared with others – faith in God and faith in His creation.
I had a hard time celebrating in church today. But I know I will celebrate the next time I’m with the trilliums on Black Mountain.