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


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.