Gib's Tree

Professor Emeritus David "Doc" Larson remembers the late Professor Emeritus Garry "Gibber" Gibson.

Doc Larson - 27 March 2023

Photo of Garry Gibson and Doc Larsen leaning against a tree in outdoors clothing.
Garry "Gib" Gibson and David "Doc" Larson with Gib's tree.

The white pine was killed but still stood its ground. For decades, the fire-hardened 20-foot snag weathered in the seasons. Heat, wind and moisture polished the wood into a honey-gold, accented by the blackened grain on its twisted trunk. Even as neighbouring trees killed in the fire fell to the hillside, this one persisted as life returned to the valley slope and a new forest began to grow.

Two backpackers — both professors — first came across the charred sentinel while exploring the area during their spring outdoor education program; each year afterward, they were drawn back. The tree was hardened by adversity, bowed, bent and burned, but still standing. Fire had transformed it and also preserved it. The pine was a link between the forest that was and the new one reclaiming the slope. This was forest succession.

At least that’s how Gib and I saw it.

A few years ago, we backpacked that valley once again, accompanied by four former students. We were looking for a tree in a forest full of trees — a quest to find, as Gib put it, “My tree.”

The trip into that valley was different from others ones we had made before it. Gib and I wore new boots, having worn out our old ones. We carried brightly coloured internal-frame backpacks instead of the old tubular-frame ones, and Gib’s was remarkably light. His Achilles tendon was weak from injuries and hard use, so the rest of us shared his load. It would be our last trip to the valley with Gib.

This time was different in another way, too. We missed the tree! We backtracked over the slope, searching for the snag until we heard Gib whistle. He had found it in a small meadow surrounded by a young forest that was now tall enough to cut it off from view.

We watched silently as Gib reached out to touch the tree — his tree. A tree that, in each of our minds, had come to symbolize him.

The tree had stood through fire. It had made it through rain and wind and snow. Now the surrounding forest protected it, not unlike the five of us surrounding Gib, carrying his load so he could find his tree one more time.

Gib died in October 2021. Reflecting on our friendship, I realize why I never missed the opportunity to walk with Gib. He drew me — and many others — into new places and new understandings. He always insisted on doing things right. He persevered. 

Gib instilled the importance of a healthy, caring community in the next generation of students, and those who knew him continue to feel the effects he had on us. It’s another kind of succession. The new forest grows on but we each have a bit of Gib’s tree inside us, one we can revisit anytime for inspiration. 


David “Doc” Larson is a professor emeritus who taught biology until his 2016 retirement from Augustana. Larson assisted Garry “Gib” Gibson, ’66 MA, ’77 PhD, in the latter’s outdoor education classes, which taught students about teamwork within the context of river canoeing, wilderness backpacking and other outdoor activities.

This piece originally appeared in the Winter 2022/23 Circle alumni magazine.