The wrong side of the orbit

I can’t help it;  we’ve just passed into spring but there was snow falling all day yesterday and I’ve been playing with images from the other side of the orbit.  My appreciation for these two sections of the orbit that we call spring and fall equinox increases with each year.  It’s a time of balance–something that is so lacking during winter’s press or summer’s extravagance.  Light equals dark.  Desire always fuels my springtime investigations; despair (relief?) dogs my autumn excursions.   Maybe it’s just emotion, maybe it’s just the reality of falling headlong into another school year, but if I give any seasons short-shrift in my field notebooks, it’s autumn.  So yesterday when the snow kept me inside, I pulled out my file of reference photos and field sketches from Autumn in the Thompson River Valley.   It’s palette is not unlike that of spring.  I may be paying attention to the wrong side of the orbit, but at least the colours resonate with those just emerging from the snow. 

Path into Pine Park, along the Tranquille River





Winter’s Gradient


Marc, Maggie and I snowshoe into the upper slopes of Botany Pond.  Maggie asks us to leave early enough that we’ll arrive in the “pre-dawn.”  We don’t make it that early, but early enough that familiar contours are draped in low-lying clouds–shades of gray upon gray.  I keep thinking about diffusion gradients, especially when we find lichen icicles.  Elongate extensions of hoar frost draping low-lying Douglas-fir branches in downward pointed spears of white. 

On the way out, I fill the page with an event map, reveling in the chance to look closely.











“Not Just a Snapshot” on CBC’s North by Northwest Program

To my utter delight, earlier this week I spoke with Sheryl MacKay, the host of North by Northwest on CBC radio, about the work in Not Just a Snapshot:  The Thompson Drainage through Field Journal Art.  In anticipation of the interview (which is airing this morning, Saturday January 18), I’m posting images of the pieces Sheryl and I talked about in the interview.  The link to the podcast can be found here

Scroll down to the entry for January 18 and my segment of the program starts at just about 20 minutes into the podcast.


Hill and River.  Shadow box containing two field journal volumes. Pen and Watercolour, with accompanying artifacts.



Tranquille River Image

Winter’s Press.  Shadow Box with Field Journal Painting.  Pen and Watercolour on Paper.

June’s Roar.  Shadow Box with Field Journal Painting.  Pen and Watercolour on Paper.

Not Just a Snapshot: The Thompson Drainage through Field Journal Art

It’s happening!  Much of the work that I have completed over the last 12 months will be on display during January at the Kamloops Art Council, and over the next little while I will post more work from the show here!

My good friend Beki suggested that I make postings to this blog more regular, so I will endeavor over the next 12 months to make sure I post on the first Friday of each month (more often if I can, but on the first Friday for sure).

For now, I’ll just include a written description of the show:

“Every landscape is storied and we all come to know these stories in our own way. Natural history field journals, with their easy confluence of art and science, promote a multi-layered conversation with the land. Within the journal format (bound in a book or spread across a full sheet of paper) watercolor paintings erupt between lines of handwritten text, poetry jostles for space alongside natural history observations, and “to do” lists languish beside sightings of returning songbirds. Too often overlooked, the Thompson Drainage runs rich with the stories of a living, breathing world. In this exhibit, field journal art documents and celebrates the natural history we can find just beyond our backyards.”

Rocks don’t lie

But paint does.

I can’t help it;in early March, the layered landscape of the Tranquille River burgeons with the beginning of spring, but oh so slowly.    Out with Maggie and Marc and Shasta on the floodplain of the Tranquille River, the shape of the hills to the north are lyrical.  Their colour, however, is of dust.  This is a world in which green has been sapped by winter’s press.  Home at my desk, playing with paint, I can’t help but push the colours further than reality.  It is a exercise in wishful thinking, of dreaming in the spring.

The reality is one of layered debris.  Nearly everywhere I look, I find the debris of the last fecund season.

Broken twigs of the last season litter the ground beneath the cottonwood trees; golden brown flower capsules curve on the ground.


This is a layered landscape, built of the shifting debris of the Tranquille River and the flooding Thompson River. Down on the delta, along the shores of Kamloops Lake, rocks pile in cobble bars and build terraces.  Their forms are varied and I collect them, weighting my pockets with their history.

Each year, each beginning spring, I haunt this landscape.  In the Thompson Valley, it is one of the first places to hear meadowlarks sing, to feel the sun ray’s build into warmth, to sense the building biology.  We come out here often, but this is the first time, Marc and Maggie have come with me out to the toe of the Tranquille River.  At 9:00 am, our walk is rich with biology:  redpolls flocking, beavercut stumps, pileated woodpecker holes.  There is the enormous eagle nest perched in a tall cottonwood and the hanging sock of an oriole nest.

Maggie finds an eagle feather in the debris; later I find another.  

 Two mature eagles and one juvenile soar and float overhead, intent on their own business.

In one week–from one Sunday to another, this delta, warmed by it’s south-facing aspect goes from slumbering to alert.  I watch nearly an entire flock of blackbirds (mostly females with a few males–wing colours just coming on) raise up a ruckus in the cottonwood trees, juncos call, and the ducks gather in ever-increasing flocks on the small pond in the wildlife management area.  Bighorn sheep cluster on the sleeps just above the CN tracks–remarkably nonplussed by the long train rumbling by.

It’s all a wash, a jumble of sediment and rock, a mix of decaying debris and returning life.  I’m not the only one to spend spring days out here.  By the time Maggie and Marc and I turn to walk back out to a car, the narrow parking lot along the road is filled.  There is no denying that this land carries the trace of human activities, some recent, many more distant.  Even so, there is such rich biology here, so much that it overwhelms, nearly exhausts a body trying to keep up.  Layer me a land.

February Depends

February has me alternating between low and high–at least in elevation.  Looking back at my journal pages over the last month, time outside alternates between the unravelling of winter’s transformation at low elevations and opportunities to play in winter’s depth at high elevations.

Along the Tranquille River just above its confluence with the Thompson River/Lake Kamloops delta, February is the unrevealing.  The layers of snow peel back–a microscale re-enactment of the last Pleistocene deglaciation.  Rivulets of water rampage with muddy water sluicing off snow banks and then eddy into pools allowing the silts to drift to the bottom.  This unearthing proceeds in fits and starts–influenced by the shape of the land and its shade.   Within the river bed, ice extends, broken here and there by dark water rushing downhill.  Out on the flats, Tortula moss gleams green under the sage-blue umbrella of individual old sagebrush.  Does less snow accumulate here in the winter, allowing Tortula‘s photosynthetic machinery to start chugging earlier?  I’ve never totally understood the abundance of Tortula beneath large sagebrush before;  today’s pattern of snowmelt offers up one more potential hypothesis to consider.

In the unearthing, brown crawls upward from the valley bottom, hounding the irregular line of remnant snow on valley slopes.  The pond at Tranquille Wildlife Management Area is still frozen.  I’m disappointed, missing the stately forms of swans on its smooth surface.


A conference takes me up into the lean Subalpine Fir-Engelmann Spruce forest surrounding Sun Peaks.  I spend one glorious afternoon out alone gliding down the long slopes of the Holy Cow trail before diving into an intense two day meeting of teaching and learning scholars.  On the ski down, there is the deep comfort of muscle rhythm  with only a few stops to notice the little things–the sap green underside to the developing alder catkins, the solitude of lunch alone on the side of McGillivray Lake.

The final morning I leave my hotel room before it is fully light to glide through deeply falling snow.  I have  a full day  of meetings before me and I have only enough time to warm my muscles and quicken my heart before it is time turn around.  But it is in that one moment of stillness at the height of my morning ski that I realize the hidden weight of winter’s silence.

As I stand there, breathing hard, resisting the call of work, the world is alive with movement.  Snowflakes fall, drift, lurch earthward.  The muffled loss of winter’s sound echoes deepest when the normal noise associated with motion remains absent.   Only in deep winter can objects fall from the sky in an endless stream without accompanying thwacks and whacks and thuds.

Winter’s silence is expectation denied.


A way into winter

Since the Solstice, I’ve been searching for a way into winter, not the dirty, grimy winter that piles up on the edges of sidewalks, but the exhilarated winter  found in good fiction or natural history books.  After several attempts, winter reveals itself, not just as a period of time, but a place.  A place where known landscapes are inverted by the cover of snow, where a heavy fall of snow transforms conifer saplings into lumbering snow dragons and magicks cut stumps into madonnas or hobgoblins, where weasel tracks are revealed in the impressionable tapestry of freshly-fallen snow.


With my field journal in hand, investigating winter becomes an lesson in blue.  In this simplified winter palette, there are strong lights and darks and then surprisingly variable shades of blue.  Are the shadows in the snow phthalo blue or French ultramarine?  The literal scientist in me reaches for French ultramarine, while the artist in me argues for the strong pull of phthalo blue.  I dither, going back and forth with different sketches.

Yesterday I skied in to the upper slopes of Lac Du Bois with Daire and Alex, two students who are exploring field journals as part of their final undergraduate projects.  We sat in a companionable cluster, munching on the home-made granola bars that Daire and Alex had made, playing with colour and light.  We learned how quickly the water in our paint sets freezes when rested atop snowbanks, how readily the heat from our own bodies melts the surrounding snow, and how quickly shadows change in the afternoon sun.

Skiing out, the sun slipped behind the conifers on the western horizon, casting the blue sky into peach and gold lead (at least from behind my rose-coloured sunglasses).    One final gift–a winter moon, full and luminous, appeared just moments later on the far horizon.   Biologists say that the ecology of winter doesn’t begin until at least 20 cm of snow accumulates.  Subject to the physical processes of water evaporation and snow melt, each new snowfall transforms itself through a regular, often predictable, sequence of physical changes.  Even as it changes, snow has its own role to play in this game of winter ecology.  The fresh snow across these hills bounces nearly all of the sunlight back away from its surface, yet it can capture most of the radiant heat released by the earth.  Snow is both mirror and blanket. For many species, the full tide of the year depends upon the transformation of winter.  The wildflowers that fill this grassland in June won’t germinate without a sequence of cold days; the full surge of our rivers depend upon a vigorous snowmelt.  But as Daire and Alex and I ski the short distance back to our cars, I am content, reassured that winter has advanced fully in our valley; that come summer, the rivers will fill, the wildflowers will germinate; that right here, right now, the ecology of winter dances beneath a cold moon.














Holiday Images

The day after Solstice, we bundle into the van–driven west early by the threat of oncoming snowstorms.  I don’t want to leave, but we have told family we would come for Christmas and it seems better to take advantage of a snow-free window.  Compared to the bichromatic landscape of home, the coast is verdant and alive.  Marc and Maggie and I explore coastal rainforest and regenerating wetland.  Even as I wonder what’s happening at home, I console myself with the idea that there are many weeks of winter ahead.  Over the five days in Washington, my favorite spot to visit becomes Hovander Farm.

The first time we visit, it is a four woodpecker day:  hairy, downy, flicker and pileated  all make themselves visible.   Ruby and golden-crowned kinglets call from the red alder/bigleaf maple canopy.  Natural history, big and small, is everywhere.




There are small chartreuse bits of lichen clinging to grey bark,




and the larger-than life activity of the pileated woodpecker–we hear a pair before we catch sight of their insane red tops.

And finally, there is the light falling on the golden land.

A Solstice Beginning to the Expeditionary Art of Home

Solstice–from the Latin sol meaning sun and sistere meaning stopped or stationary.

For weeks, I had great plans for this day–an adventure up in the hills, preferably on skis, preferably away from city streets and traffic.  But when I woke this morning, it felt much more important to spend this day attending to the natural history just outside my backdoor.  Shortly before sunrise at 8:00 am, Shasta, the dog, and I headed out the door to walk the high alley sandwiched between our neighborhood and the Trans Canada highway.  In my neighborhood, solstice is starlings and magpies, gathered in groups, punctuating the city noise with garbles and chirrups and abrupt calls.  I get caught up in the stark juxtaposition of the lower slopes of Mt. Paul emerging from beneath the inversion layer.  At the end of the alley, out of habit, Shasta turns to go home,  but on today, this day when the earth has tilted the northern hemisphere so far (23.5 degrees) away from the sun, when the sun has sunk to its lowest point in the northern horizon, I want to see more.

We wind our way through icy streets to the mad roar of Columbia Street.  Neither Shasta nor I are happy about the roar of the traffic.  At the intersection, the Dean of Science drives by in the little blue car, on his way to the office.  Even with the slush and the snow, with too much traffic noise and too little planning for pedestrians, the sight of others headed into work makes me grateful that I can be outside.

And then we are safe in the remove of the new pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks.  A quick walk down past the water treatment center has us on the dike above the South Thompson River.  Abandoned pilings lead down to the water’s edge.  Even as I hear the school bell ring from Lloyd George Elementary and imagine my daughter in her desk, I see it.  The great blue heron is solitary,  head tucked, shoulders hunched, legs immersed.

This is what I came in search of–the sight of other species immersed in their lives,  intent on living or hunting or even just enduring the cold.  This is what I want to spend the next year attending to and representing.  As Shasta shuffles impatiently, a common goldeneye pops up and disappears, in the shrubbery, a song sparrow (?) jumps from branch to branch, above the cottonwoods, a flicker flies up…down, up…down.  Most of my walk this morning has been cobbled together from scraps of city property unwanted or ignored.  The river is an exception to this and the natural history here is bigger and more exuberant.  My fingers are bone-cold but I’m content to go home, for now.

Late yesterday afternoon, I received a letter with happy news.  My sabbatical application has been approved.  This means that I will be able to spend most of the next year working on a project that I’m calling The Expeditionary Art of Home.  As part of this project, I will make an expedition to home, using the scientific and artistic tools of a naturalist, to investigate and illuminate the natural history phenomena that can be found here.  Traditionally, expeditions, whether civilian or military in nature, were made in service of a larger purpose:  colonization, pursuit of economically important species, national prestige or political strategy.  The orders governing my expedition are simple:  to celebrate the natural history of home using my field journals as an investigative tool.   In this project, home is defined as the watershed of the Thompson River, from its headwater in the Columbia Mountains to its confluence with the Fraser River.

Somehow it seems fitting to start this project on this day–this shortest day of the year.  Later in the afternoon, I pull the entire family, Shasta, Marc and Maggie, back down to the river just before sunset.  I want to spend both sunrise and sunset outside.  At the river’s edge, two swans (trumpeter, I think, although I’m never quite sure) glide stately upriver amidst a court of Canada geese.  Midstream, a muskrat v’s through the water.   Big fat flakes of snow fall gently on the water’s surface.  Cottonwood buds clench against the cold.  On a day burdened with night, I am giddy with excitement.  There is so much to see, to attend to, in this grand world.  After 8 years caught in the maelstrom of a new professorship, as our planet spins through its orbit from one solstice to another,  I get to.


I think we all have places in our hearts that hold us, places that speak to us even when we have left.  Over the last eight years, I have developed such a relationship with the Upper Clearwater Valley–just outside Wells Gray Provincial Park.  Over the last eight years, I have been fortunate to visit this area many times–bringing students from TRU on field trips, collecting specimens for botany labs, or making extended visits to TRU’s Wells Gray Education and Research Centre.  My field journals are full of the images and wonderings that each trip has brought.

I think we all have rituals that accompany our visits to such place.  Mine is small, but always heartfelt.

Each time I go to close and lock the gate of the research centre, typically with students waiting nearby in an idling van, I take a small moment to say thank you.  Thank you to the community members (many of whom still live in the Upper Clearwater Valley) who  donated their time and land to help lay the foundation of our research centre.

Thank you to the diverse group of stakeholders that participated in the land-use planning process that began in 1996 and culminated in a consensus-based agreement between valley residents and BC Ministry of Forests.  This agreement clearly designates much of the Upper Clearwater Valley to be reserved from large-scale harvesting.  It is this agreement that has ensured that the view captured in the painting above remains intact and whole.  It is this agreement that has so increased the value of this landscape as a living laboratory for my students.

It is this agreement which has now been jeopardized by a forestry harvesting plan set forth by Canfor.  Folks much more eloquent than me have provided extensive and well-reasoned arguments about why this proposed harvesting should not be allowed to proceed.  See here and here.   Simply put, such a proposal violates the guiding principles of the land-use agreement signed in 2000, poses great risk for the water quality and road stability relied upon by valley residents, diminishes the ecological value of the buffer that the Upper Clearwater provides for Wells Gray Provincial Park, eliminates the potential of this area to provide critical habitat for threatened Mountain Caribou, and poses a threat for the large influx of tourist dollars that flow into Clearwater each summer.

I believe in balance.  I believe that there are many right places for responsible forest harvesting.  As a professional ecologist, I have worked closely with forestry companies to evaluate the value of adaptive management techniques.  In many areas, I believe forestry operations can occur sustainably.  But not here, not in the Upper Clearwater Valley.  Some places are just the wrong place to begin large-scale harvesting.  This is one of them.

I believe in balance.  Most times, this means I spend my time teaching university students about the natural world, about the ecology that underlies all that we do.  But there are also times to speak out for those places that we hold in our hearts.  This is one of them.

Speak out.


If you do, here’s who should hear your words:

Honourable Terry Lake, Minister of Environment

Telephone: 250 387-1187
Fax: 250 387-1356


Honourable Steve Thomson,  Minister of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations

Telephone: 250 387-6240
Fax: 250 387-1040


Mr. Don Kayne, President and CEO, Canfor Corporation

100–1700 West 75th Ave
Vancouver, B.C.
V6P 6G2 Canada

Tel: 604 661-5241
Fax: 604 661-5253