February Depends

5 03 2013

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

26 01 2013

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

2 01 2013

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

21 12 2012

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.


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
E-mail: env.minister@gov.bc.ca


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

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

Email: steve.thomson.mla@leg.bc.ca

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.