Science Story March 2022

Caroline McLean

Mother Nature lover

Caroline McLean wears many hats, and they’re all Earth-friendly — biologist, teacher, nature photographer, RMBL volunteer, to name a few. As a volunteer for RMBL, she assists Dr. Rick Williams, curator of RMBL’s herbarium. She demonstrates a biologist in action for people who come through the Visitor Center. The action happens to be pressing plants for the herbarium’s collection.

It’s not just for show; these plants are pressed and mounted on archival paper and labeled to identify the species, collector, date of collection, location, and other relevant information so they can be cataloged and stored in the herbarium, which will have nearly 11,000 specimens by the end of summer.

“People can drive up to the Visitor Center to find out who we are, what we do, and why it matters to be collecting data at the upper end of a watershed and how that’s significant for making decisions about the environment across the planet,” she said.

The plant pressing demonstrations are one of the ways Caroline is expanding RMBL’s educational outreach. This summer, there will also be wildflower and biological tours to extend that outreach further. The activities are a natural fit for Caroline, a certified secondary science teacher who for years took Denver high school students on biological field trips through the Southwest. She also has worked as a wetland biologist for the State of Colorado.

With the plant pressing at RMBL, Caroline hopes to educate people about the importance of herbariums, which are historical records of plant distribution, flowering phenology, chemical and physical changes in plants over time, as well as a reference for students and scientists and a basis for naming new species and subspecies. RMBL’s herbarium is particularly valuable as the earliest specimens date back to 1929, collected by the noted botanist Dr. Harriet Barclay (1901–1990).

Caroline started volunteering at RMBL shortly after she and her husband became full-time residents of Crested Butte in 2016. They had been second homeowners since 2004. Before then, they made frequent visits, having fallen in love with the mountains at first sight. Caroline declared the area, “the most beautiful place on Earth.”

It certainly makes good subject matter for her fine art photography, another vocation. You can see her work at

A few years ago, Caroline visited Bhutan, a high alpine environment not much different from Crested Butte. She was struck by the many prayer wheels she saw. Prayer wheels are common in Tibet and other parts of Asia. These elaborately crafted cylinders hold handwritten prayers for such things as good weather, a prosperous harvest, good health, and other hopes and aspirations.

Caroline was inspired to bring prayer wheels to Crested Butte, a town already fond of displaying prayer flags. She says she felt, “Bringing prayer wheels would be a great way to educate people about our community and what is important: our watershed, our creativity, our kindness, our collaborations.” For her, it’s a way to create a public art project that’s interactive and uplifting, and brings all the positive aspects of the community together.

She and her artistic partner, Neil Windsor, are heading up the Crested Butte Wheels of Intention project, a public arts initiative that will bring eight theme-specific wheels that relate to the values of the community, with titles like Community Collaboration, Life in Paradise, and Thirst for Knowledge. Each wheel is a partnership between an artist, a nonprofit organization, and a sponsor. They’ll be placed in public spaces throughout downtown. The project is now collecting individual intentions for enhancing the community’s well-being. If you want to learn more or submit an intention for inclusion, visit

In her work with both the RMBL herbarium and the Wheels of Intention project, Caroline is fulfilling two prongs of her overarching passion for education and the Earth. With Wheels of Intention, she is helping reveal the spiritual essence of her home. With RMBL, she is striving to awaken people to our responsibility to the planet. “I’ve always wanted people to know the world and how it functions and how to take care of it better,” she said.

She believes that introducing people to the purpose of RMBL’s herbarium is one way to do this. She said, “It’s to make a record of what’s on the planet before it’s gone.”

Caroline McLean is a biologist and retired certified secondary science teacher who has worked as both an outdoor educator and biologist. She was a wetlands biologist for the State of Colorado. A former resident of Boulder, she was the founding director for Boulder’s Procession of Species Earth Day Celebration Event and a selected artist with Boulder’s Open Studios/Open Arts Event. She likes to ski, hike, practice yoga, travel, and spend time with friends and family.