Grandmother of glades guides environmental preservation
Bertha Crietzberg’s home is filled with framed pictures of flowers and wildlife. Field guides line her shelves, and she pages through them still, with hands worn paper thin with age.
She flips one open and points. The lavender petals of the pale purple coneflower extend gracefully outward and down from its yellowish brown center.
This flower is the showiest plant of Rutherford County’s native cedar glades, she says.
And she would know. Bertha, now in her 90s, has spent her life learning about the glades. Though botany was not her life’s work, she researched the unique habitats, and when Murfreesboro’s burgeoning infrastructure and development began to threaten the glades in the 1970s, she protected them from destruction.
In her later years, Bertha has been nicknamed “Grandmother of the glades.” She bears the name proudly.
Environmentalism had been a hobby of Bertha’s long before she moved to Rutherford County in 1964. Her passion for plants was born in childhood, on the farm where she grew up near Montgomery, Ala.
The farmland had a large river bottom running through it that contributed to an abundance of flora and fauna.
“I had plenty of places to roam and find wildflowers,” she said, articulating her memories in that old Southern drawl that strings along the vowels and drops the ‘r’s’ entirely.
That simple desire to roam and find wildflowers never left Bertha. After graduating from the University of Alabama, Bertha married her high school and college sweetheart, and they began their life together. James was an Army man, and their life was one of constant relocation.
Their family moved from Alabama to Georgia, to Virginia and Texas, and finally settled in Tennessee. The creases around her eyes grow deeper as she smiles and lists some of the various plants she loved in each state, in each place that was home for only a few years.
“Each place I’ve been, I’ve studied the botany of it,” she said.
When her husband took a job as the assistant ROTC director at Middle Tennessee State University, and she took one as a physical education instructor, her work with the cedar glades began.
According to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the cedar glades are environmental habitats native to the central eastern United States. Middle Tennessee has one of the largest concentrations of glades, but due to the urbanization of Nashville, Murfreesboro and the surrounding areas, these globally rare environments are put at risk.
But back in the early 1970s, none of that was common knowledge.
“The first cedar glade I went to was out on Factory Road,” Bertha remembers.
Her interest was piqued, but there was a lack of resources available for her to learn more.
So she made an appointment with now-retired MTSU biology professor Dr. Thomas Hemmerly.
“He was the first one who really gave me some background, and he had a great deal,” she said. “He was the one, I guess, who really got me into it, since he was really knowledgeable about it.”
Surrounding the glades are cedar trees, and in the center are the native and often endangered wildflowers that Bertha studied and cared for, including the purple coneflower, sunnybells and the leafy prairie clover.
Because of the rarity of these wildflowers and habitats, Bertha solemnly explained that there was a great need to protect them against development.
When Route 840 was in its planning stages, her need to protect the glades became dire.
“They were going straight through the glade,” she explained. “I literally went up to the wall where they had the maps…and redrew the route of 840 around the coneflowers. And they built the road that way.”
Her crusade was a constant source of joy and pride.
“There’s a big curve in the road, and that’s the reason,” Bertha said happily.
In Bertha’s physical education classes, she often took students camping. “I was never the person who was going to stay indoors with kids—if I didn’t get those kids outdoors in the field, they wouldn’t learn what was out there. I taught them primarily protection of the outdoors.”
Bertha sadly admits that she does not believe children today are being taught to protect nature. She explained that without field experience, children learn to only see fields of grass that need mowing instead of flourishing ecosystems made up of unique plants.
So Bertha partnered up with elementary school children for a project called “Rescue Glades.” The idea was to create a small cedar glade at Campus School.
“We were rescuing the flowers—buildings were going to go in there and we had to get the nice wildflowers out. The idea was, I think, to let the students all know they needed to protect things like that,” Bertha explained.
Protection has always been Bertha’s biggest concern.
“We live on this Earth, and we’re building so much today that all the natural areas are being taken over, and we’re not protecting enough of them and setting aside enough of them so they can be enjoyed by the youth,” she said sadly.
But protection is also Bertha’s legacy. And every time a driver rounds that unusual curve on Route 840, they are unknowingly bearing witness to what Bertha says she is most proud of—protecting Middle Tennessee’s glades.