Mark Baptiste’s unique blend of folk music and classic American songs is familiar to concertgoers at the Landis music series. But the transition from cancer research to music is no doubt unfamiliar to Arboretum members, and indeed to all his fans.
In 2007, Mark retired from a more than three-decade career that included not only medical research, but also work for the New York State Department of Health and teaching epidemiology at SUNY Albany. Since then he has had the time to devote himself to both writing and performing music. “Music is a lot more fun than epidemiology,” he said.
“You might say that I came to music naturally,” he added. His father was a classical pianist who put aside music to make a living. Mark never heard him play until the family acquired a piano when Mark was in his teens – and he was “blown away.” In high school, Mark began playing the guitar, and like his father put aside his talent due to the demands of family and career.
One might say that he found his way to the Arboretum “naturally” too. He credits his wife Jan, a dedicated gardener, as the driving force since she appreciated the Arboretum’s plant sales. Then Mark was invited to participate in Landis’ active musical scene. The couple has always found peace and beauty at Landis, particularly walking to the Old Growth Forest and passing the Great Oak. “The trees have been here for so long .… [I am ] reminded how small we human beings are, how tiny a part of Nature we are. It puts you into perspective,” he mused.
His parents moved from sunny San Diego to the Northeast when he was a child – “and I never forgave them,” he quipped, adding that he and his wife had “his and hers snow blowers” to deal with the harsh winters at their home in Delanson. Yet it was in the Northeast that Mark met Jan at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst during freshman orientation. “We’re as close to high school sweethearts as you can get,” he said, noting that Jan has inspired many of his songs.
Nature is also featured in many of them. The beauty of the Schoharie Valley in particular was the motivation for tunes such as “In These Hills” and “O Schoharie.” Even the disagreeable winter has yielded a song: “Even Snow Can Be Pretty.”
Performing at the Arboretum’s Meeting House, with its expansive view of the Valley, seems a natural fit for Mark. He is as appreciative of his audience here as they are of him. “They come here to listen .… to the words as well as the music,” he said. He, too, comes to listen to the musicians whom he most admires.
While the Baptistes have relocated to Halfmoon to be closer to the newest of their three grandchildren, Mark insisted that they will continue to visit the Arboretum and actively participate in its programs.
Some of us take that “road less traveled” – or the detours. In Mark’s case, both have led him to music – and the Arboretum.