26 09 2012

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


Field School Excerpts

21 09 2012

On August 22, we (nine students and two faculty) pile gear and more gear into vans and then drive the two hours from TRU to the Wells Gray Education and Research Centre 25 km north of Clearwater.  The beginning of field school rests in chaos–bins of field gear to be sorted from personal gear, perishable vegetables that need to find a place in one of our two refrigerators, dry goods that must be organized into plastic totes.  Eventually the chaos diminishes into a semblance of order as we turn a vacant field station into home.  Over the next two weeks, we have the great glory of exploring the natural history of the Clearwater Valley and Wells Gray Provincial Park-venturing from the expansive heights of the Trophy Meadows trail, into the subdued stories of Placid Lake’s unique ecosystem, behind the pounding spray of Moul Falls.

Field school is intimacy in teaching, field school is immersion teaching, field school is the hope that carries me through the arcane traditions of academia, field school is about knowing the little things.  Most importantly, field school is remembering that natural history matters.

Field school is being surrounded by images best captured in a field journal.

Enroute to Trophy Meadows



Looking down into Lake Sylvia over lunch, Aug 27, 2012


The iconic plants of Placid Lake–each with their own secrets that never fail to astound and delight me.


Field school is also about endings when you’re not ready to leave, yet you can already feel the absence of a daily rhythm that has marked your days for the last 10 days.








Wells Gray Canyonlands

19 08 2012


From the edge of an old lava flow–peering into the deciduous canopy of the Canyonlands below.  Shasta and I have hiked along this ridge, scouting a navigation exercise for the upcoming 4090 class.  It’s hot.  Too hot for a black dog entering old age and I modify my route as I watch her normal bouncy behavior settle, sag, into a determined plod.   It is only on the way back that I notice a small perched pond just off the trail.  I can’t help but wonder what else I missed on this walk, engrossed in plans for the upcoming class.  I have to turn back well before I want to–consoled that I will be back next week for a longer stay.

Sketches from Lund

11 08 2012

Summer time brings travel to the coast.  Big trees, white sand, sea creatures big and small.  After the full rush of work, I am content to record simple sketches and let the full wash of a family reunion wash over me.


In the ferry lineup at Horseshoe Bay


Quick sketches from the trail and beach, Savary Island and Lund


Intertidal life from Okeover Inlet, Lund

Cottonwood Flowers

4 05 2012

Living and dying—it’s the necessary beat to all things biological. But one is easier to see than the other.

Late this last winter, in the small cottonwood forest along the lower reaches of Petersen Creek, the dogs and I came across the ruin of a cottonwood.  The shattering was immense.  Pulpy white wood had been torn from its interior and exposed to the elements.  Pieces of bark, broken twigs and last year’s leaves covered the frozen ground.  The dogs sniffed around the broken debris of a life, parsing this destruction through their noses.  I paused, not in horror, but in commemoration, wondering what ended the life of this particular cottonwood tree.

cba_cottonwood_smallThat day, there was little tree left.  I could find pieces that I recognized—a terminal branch tip, scraps of bark still covered in tenacious lichens, and a few browned, but miraculously intact leaves from last year’s growing season.  As startling as it was, this shattering was only the beginning of the cottonwood’s ruin.  At the tail end of winter, the motor of decomposition idled slowly.  But with the arrival of spring, as our oddly canted earth dipped its northern latitudes toward the sun, the chewers and the eaters and the decomposers rose up.  Fungal hyphae spread.  Bacteria proliferate, invertebrates tunnel.  It might take several years, but the ruin of last winter will fuel other growth, other lives, until all evidence is erased.

Spring brings with it not just decomposition but also the frenzied necessity of sex.  Perhaps it was the sight of last year’s ruin, but I have haunted the cottonwoods this spring, impatient for the signs of spring.  And in searching, I have learned more.  I have long known that cottonwoods (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa) are dioecious (male and female flowers on found on separate plants) but it was not until this spring that I took the time to inspect their flowers carefully. When I did, small packages of glory appeared beneath my hand lens and through the microscope lens.

cottonwood_male_flr_smallMale cottonwood twig with flowers

In the Thompson River Valley, the blood red to fuschia purple male flowers appear before the more sedate, mostly green female flowers. By the time the female trees are in full flower, the male flowers have mostly dropped to the forest floor.

And the smell…all spring I have been trying to name the smell that accompanies the break of cottonwood buds.  The closest I’ve come is  to call it a musty sweetness.  Regardless of its name, the moment when I caught the first ghost of its appearance, I felt such relief, such joy.  It is a sign that the sap is rising, that rebirth has begun–the necessary counterpoint to last winter’s ruin.cottonwood_female flower_small

Female twig, with flowers


With magnification, male and female flowers

Naturalizing springtime

18 04 2012


On Good Friday, we are a gaggle–4 instructors and a crew of students– content to wander up the narrow dirt track alongside Tranquille Creek.  The male cottonwood flowers color the upper branches fushia purple.  This is what makes me happy–wandering with intent.   I become fascinated with the small moments of time that I have missed in previous years.  How many times can I watch cottowood leaves emerge before I notice how the first green pokes out as small green linear protuberances.  In the company of other biologists, the world is fuller.  I probably would have missed the Townsend’s Solitaire and while I have been watching the kestrels in the big cottonwood at the trailhead, I definitely would have missed the moment of their “cloacal kisss.”

This, then, is the beginning of spring:  marked moments of time accumulating with frustrating slowness in late March, and then exploding into a crescendo of overlapping events in mid April.


Art to take home

14 02 2012

Is lived experience borne in the interior (the negative space) or in the exterior (the edges of form)?


This week, mapping the negative space of orchid flowers, orchid flowers +leaf, bamboo, geranium, and asceplias, I found hidden forms/shapes caught within the confines of well-known plants.  The bamboo shoot had vaulted spaces stacked atop one another.  The inferior ovary of the orchid flowers became known to me through the space that its stair-stepped inferior ovary makes with the arching pedicel above.  We are a story-telling species I tell my students, each time I know that I’m about to dive into arcane terminology.  Know the terms so that you can hear the story.  But how easy it is to gloss over the details.  How easy it is for the mind to construct a mass of light and dark shapes into one—“overlapping leaves”—and skip merrily along.  With each new negative space drawing, I found unrealized space.

Space in relation to space.   I was lost in negative space territory until I made midlines across the view finder and the space on the page.  Then I feel myself settling into the known terrain of spatial orientation—this blob goes above that, that blob of space goes off in this direction relative to that.  Finding space.  I know there are structural ligaments—microscopic lines of cells with thickened walls and other cells ballooning with turgor pressure—that support the architectural expanse of each bamboo leaf, but drawing space somehow convinced me that it is the shape of negative space that supports the leaf.  If I can trace the correct shape below, beside, above each leaf, the structure will come.  It feels like a parable for my life.

There is another story here.  I think that negative space is to plant form as the process of art is to finished work.  The fold in the geranium leaf is much easier to find when I focus on the space it encompasses than when my eye seeks the stability of the edge.  In drawing the edge, I am seduced by the sharp contrast and gloss over the lighter leaf underside—the exposed belly.  But when I squint my eyes to see the supporting shape, the fold of negative space is actually pointing in the opposite direction as the edge of the folded leaf.  When I redraw that tiny piece in the sketchbook, the leaf fold becomes real.

leaf_neg space_small

So much of what I respond to aesthetically envelopes authenticity.  I’ve been casting about for a favorite piece of art and find I can name no finished piece.  I don’t know that I have the language, visual or verbal, to elevate a particular work to favorite status (except of course any of Dale Livezey’s oil paintings of Montana and that’s because they so strongly evoke my childhood landscapes  Instead, what comes to mind, what I love to linger over are the sketches of any work in progress.  Any of da Vinci’s sketches of course, but even in Picturing Plants, by Gill Saunders, the plate that stopped my breath was Jenny Braiser’s Cyclamen intaminatum page which includes both pencil diagrams, painted leaves and a complete colour chart for the cyclamen. It may well be that I am a slave of science—always pining for the elusive process that underlies the observed pattern—but I think it’s more.

The tracks of process—in a diagram or in the sketch that comes before a larger work—tell a tale about the lived experience.  Art teaches me about the multiplicity about perception.  My view of reality changes if I draw a geranium leaf from the front, from the side—and that’s with the same set of eyes.  How does my student, my friend, a stranger see a geranium leaf?  I know enough about plants to reject any Platonic ideal.  There are lives captured in the gnawed edges of a leaf.   What seduces me, what brings me to my knees, is the art that encapsulates the experience of both the painter and the painted.   Art that can give me the little moments, the missed moments, is art I want to take home.


Tracing lines

6 02 2012

Many years ago, I traded Calculus tutoring sessions for lessons in Sumi-e brush painting. David, a good friend, had spent many years in Japan, but was hopeless at math. He was small and compact, typically clad in much nattier apparel than my faded Levis and t-shirts. But each Sunday morning for a semester, in a small airless room in the Science Building at Bennington College, David would exhort me in his precise British accent, “Feel the bamboo, Lyn, feel the bamboo moving in the wind as you make the mark.” At that time in my life, I was better at calculating a second derivative than I was at sensing the intrinsic movement of a plant I had not seen. My sumi-e brushes have been long misplaced, but this week, the crow quill pen has its own lesson to teach.


Over this last week of drawing, I have sensed how the movement of a reflexed petal or leaf might transfer to a downward pressure in the pen, thickening the line, embracing the curve.  But these pens and nibs have a discipline, an intent, all their own.  Toward and away, my hand understands with this pen, but horizontals require not just a shift in muscle but a clear intent to alter the pen orientation or shift the paper, or there is a terrible scratching sound that I think will break the nib.  But within this discipline, there’s also this sensuous sweep and swoop that is far beyond anything I’ve felt with the Sigma Micron pens or even the Rotring Artists pen.


I draw like I garden.  I rarely have the whole plan in mind, but instead putter with this shape and then that and then get tempted by something new, something unrealized.  In many ways, pencil suits this muttering back and forth, but I often end up disappointed with the remnants of the mutterings erased over and over again.  It seemed fitting however, to use one form of carbon, graphite, to trace the contours of the faded leaves, built of another form of carbon.  Pile on the carbon, press hard on the page and the line jumps forward.  The entire time I drew the leaves, I heard Francis Halle’s words from In Praise of Plants, “Plants are fantastic animals, their insides turned out, bearing their entrails like feathers.”  Plant feathers, indeed.  The work of this week has caught these “plant feathers” in mid-cycle, from living to decomposed, from coloured to not, from carbon-fixing to carbon-releasing.  At this time of the year in the South Thompson Valley, when so much is grey and drab, it’s helpful to be reminded of the commonality between the organic and inorganic worlds.


Illustrating with Contours

30 01 2012

Draw the line.  Investigate form.  Preferably without looking at pencil or paper, but with eyes steadily trained on the object you are

Claire Walker Leslie describes the blind-contour drawing, “Imagine your eye is an ant crawling slowly over the whole shape.  Either go from right to left or left to right.  Using a continuous and careful line, draw the wanderings of the ant over the contours of the object, in and out of each part your eye follows.”


It took me years to learn the true seduction of this exercise.  It took me years to stop cheating.  To cast myself upon the whimsy of process rather than standing on the known terrain of product.  But today, process opens the door.  I am delightfully beset with questions.

What happens with the 8B pencil in comparison with the 2H pencil; the PILOT GTEC C4 pen versus the purple PILOT HI TECPOINT pen?  Each tool alters the alchemy of eye-mind-hand.  As I play, trying one after the other, I imagine different species of “ant-toolpoint” wandering the contours of the hollyhock skeleton I gathered this morning from my snow garden.  Each species develops its own intimacy with the contours, the hills and valleys, of the golden brown carcass.  Each ant-toolpoint has its own way of knowing.  I fall in love with the friction-imposed slowness of the 8B pencil.  It is a way of knowing that is in stark contrast to the racehorse speed of the slick pens—their muscles bunching and leaping, gathering up ground.


12 01 2012

Aspen_road003_smallWith the full fall of autumn turning into winter, work in my journal progresses with less completion. Instead trapped inside, I return to images collected from field days and work with them in larger format. For once, I can relish the relative sedentary of the cold season. Freed from the incessant need to see what is happening outside, I can play with colour and line, form and shadow. Aspen shadows results.