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Edges of the Williston

Four of us,
three spare tires two jerrycans
just in case

make our way up the Finlay road
down the Davis road hanging on to ragged edges
above a submerged forest

Alien Kokanee surged up past slimy sculpins and mayflies
in September — past stones and stoneflies —
to their deaths in mistaken cemeteries

Another truck in the bush
bullet holes smashed windows rust
south of Tsay Keh: “My dad flipped his truck last night.”

“Oh, is he ok?”
“I don’t care, he left me when I was five – if he was
in bad shape I’d have heard about it by now.”

Lynx porcupine hare wolf fox grouse
the burbot with a broken back in October snow
the abandoned donkey on the Swannell

Three swans and a sow and her cub
and two bear hunters
and the horses at Fort Grahame looking for oats

Aley Stevenson Bruin Tenakihi Osilinka
tree-choked arms of the Ospika and Omineca
we’re all hanging on to ragged edges

The magpies and the boy

The boy had spent the previous late-evening – when he was supposed to be sleep-dreaming – clandestine-reading Field & Stream. Cloaked in quilt. Instructions for the next-day’s project: two balsa wood rectangles, one inch by two inches by one-half inch; pen-knife-notched one-quarter inch deep by three-quarters inch wide in the middle of each; wrap a fat rubber band around one; place notches together; tighten band just so; blow; an injured rabbit screams. Now in this evening August-still, the boy sits in the front yard on a green-web-woven lawn chair and summons the rabbit. And summons magpies. One lands in the old cottonwood. Rabbit squeal. Magpie skrawk. Two magpies. Three. Four. Arriving like tuxedoed meteors. Until the branches are dappled with dancing noisy expectant iridescence.

Sleep

You know that moment just before you sleep? A moment you never remember when it ends in sleep, but that you feel deeply when it doesn’t. A moment on the edge, tipping. Which way? The day just passed compresses all into that one instance that seems like all instances since the world began. Since earth dust was mixed with Mars and Jupiter dust, motes breezing in the centrifugal vacuum. Since the blazing heat of coalescence. Since the first sparks of movement in that little warm pool over there. Since swimming things swam, walking things walked, flying things flew. Since this blip of consciousness; as you slip into the unconscious and for that one moment you are simultaneously all moments.

Live, work, be passionate

While eating my morning toast (with saskatoon jam!) and tea I ran into what seems to be a perennial conversation on science Twitter. Specifically: how much time should a student put into their research and related studies and how much into the rest of their lives? This is a good question, and there are at least as many answers are there are practitioners, so the best I can do is present my own answer as it relates to my life and, thus to some large extent, what I hope for my own students.

My situation as a graduate student was quite simple compared to some students, although I also expect fairly typical of many. I was single and also childless. I was living a substantial distance from my known support group of family and friends with whom I grew up. I had a great supervisor who cared about my life and my progress. I was generally living close to the poverty line (particularly living in the Vancouver area, which even then was not cheap). And I wanted to finish well and in a reasonably timely manner.

I certainly realize that the “single and also childless” part made, and makes, a huge difference. Speaking from that perspective, I fully know that it meant that I had way more time to devote to my studies as there was no one waiting for me back home or relying on me for a portion of income or for emotional or other support. That said, neither was there anyone built into my life who could act as a support – emotional, financial, etc. – when I needed it. And that latter fact amplified the situation of being quite suddenly thrust into a new context where my main contact with family and long-term friends was via the phone, email, or occasional visits back home when I could scrape up the money for a plane ticket.

There were a number of times in my graduate studies where I felt discouraged and alone. Science is like that; those times never really end for any of us. But even though I have somewhat introverted tendencies, I also knew that I would need support in my new home. Building a network of friends both at my university and beyond was vital. I cannot overemphasize how important those people were to me at the time, and remain to me today a decade-and-a-half later. I can’t imagine having made it through graduate school, with my passion and general sanity intact, without my network. I am forever grateful to them.

I’m also extremely grateful to my Ph.D. supervisor. He knew how to push me when I needed a push, but he also was cognizant of when I needed a break or a pep talk. He set a good example by being at school at a reasonable time in the morning and going home to his family around dinner hour most days. He took holidays with his wife during the summer. When field season came along he often worked longer hours when needed and expected the same from us, but those long days were not the year-round norm. He understood life and let me live it.

The cycle that he presented to me (and I assume other students in his lab from my observations of my “sisters and brothers”) was one that I attempt to emulate to this day in my work-life-passion balance. He loved what he did and worked hard at it when it was time to do so, but he also put a boundary around that work for other aspects of his life. In the same way I loved my studies then, as I do now, and put my nose to the proverbial grindstone with focus and care when it was time to work on my research, coursework, TA-ing, or thesis writing. And, with each of those, after I had accomplished what felt like a good solid chunk in a given day, I knew that I could step away for time alone or with friends.

Science is, I believe, best done in that slow and somewhat plodding way. Last-minute bursts often are disastrous because they do not give the burst-worker the time to contemplate and consolidate during and after each step.

My Ph.D. studies had a circannual rhythm that influenced a varied circadian rhythm. My year began just before Douglas-fir beetles began flying near to Lytton, BC, sometime around mid-April. This was followed up by moving those traps to capture spruce beetles and then western balsam bark beetles elsewhere in the province in May and June. Then the traps went to Princeton, BC, to capture mountain pine beetles from mid-July to about mid-August. And I ended the field season trapping pine engravers, usually in or near those mountain pine beetle stands, until about mid- to late-September. During that April-to-September period my life was consumed with my field work. I know that I missed out on a lot of the summer fun activities around Vancouver that many of my friends took part in. But I also saw some beautiful parts of the province and had many memorable days in the field enjoying the warmth and smell of a sunny summer forest. I still can close my eyes and put myself back into some of my field sites in mid-August form.

Once the traps were all back safely stored for the year, I began to sort trap catches. That, as anyone who does it knows, is no small task. I worked with five species of bark beetles and conducted two to five replicated (12 to 15 replicates of usually five or more treatments) experiments with each of them each year. This meant sorting through hundreds of trap catches under a microscope each “off season” with the goal of collecting and analyzing all of those data before field season began again the next spring. Sorting trap catches, as anyone who has done it knows, is not something done in a flurry of a last-minute overnighter. It is a contemplative process that requires a consistent effort over weeks and months. It is perhaps this practice in my sub-field of science that has helped to influence my overall life work patterns of slow-but-steady. Or perhaps my personality influenced my choice of sub-field. Or perhaps there’s a useful feedback between the two. I’m not sure how that works, but it does.

During the contemplative work of sorting, my mind would also wander to my upcoming plans. And my network of graduate student friends and my supervisor were there to talk about my ideas so that by about January of the following year I was able to start the process of planning field sites, ordering pheromone baits, fixing traps, and generally planning out the next year of field work. In April the process started again. During this entire yearly cycle my circadian rhythms would shift from necessarily rather long days in the field in the spring and summer to what one might consider an approximately normal eight-hour day in the autumn and winter. There is, after all, only so much time that a pair of eyes can stare into a microscope on a daily basis, both physiologically and mentally. I tried to do my best (with varying success) to listen what my body and mind were telling me.

Overall there was an ebb and flow to to my graduate studies, because of the field work, that I know from later experience can get lost if the research is all lab all the time. But is it possible to recognize, and perhaps amplify, the more subtle ebb and flow of purely lab-based research? Perhaps some of the circannual rhythmic aspects disappear, but certainly the circadian aspects can remain. Moving into the role of a PI over the past decade I certainly know that there are circannual rhythms and that those influence my daily rhythms across the year.

Ultimately this whole discussion really points to one undeniable fact:

Graduate school really doesn’t start with graduate school. And a career in science doesn’t begin they day that you walk into your first job post-graduation.

Unlike professional school (medicine, law, dentistry, etc.) or a number of undergraduate degrees (education, nursing, engineering, etc.), there is no likely predefined path awaiting a student at the end of graduate school. When (or if) you do land a job related to your field of study it will likely be reasonably well-compensated, but certainly not at the level of some of the professions mentioned in the previous sentence. In other words, the pay will be fine, but a large part of your “pay” also relates to the fact that you are doing something that you love. So you need to love it. You need to be passionate about it.

But you can’t start graduate school expecting to fall in love with science. You need to love it before you do it, and that means figuring out if you love it before you enroll. As an undergraduate I worked in a lab for a few years in a rather unrelated field to what I do today. I ended my degree by taking a field-based course to see what that was like. I attended as many departmental seminars at my undergraduate institution that I could fit into my study and exam schedule. By the time that I got to the stage of looking for a graduate school I had a reasonable idea of topics that I might like to study, and I knew that this was something that I was passionate about.

This gets me to my final point about how to balance time as a student (and, I would argue, as a PI). In the discussion on Twitter I tweeted that:

I stand by that statement. If you are not heading into STEM graduate school with a passion for science – instead merely merely “doing” graduate school as the next seemingly required step in life – your studies (or job) will be a disappointment even if you finish the task and cross the stage. But if during the course of your studies (or job) the passion is lost due to the pressure of a poor work-life balance, then the outcome is sure to be similarly disappointing.

My hope for students in my lab, and for myself, is that we enter our work with passion and we leave it to the next step with enhanced passion. I know that along the way there are dark periods. I have experienced them both during graduate school (ask me about the second year of my Ph.D. sometime) and during my subsequent career (the UNBC faculty strike last year was one such moment, and there have been others). I am thankful that during those times I have had a network of family, friends, and other social helps that have seen me through. As a PI I work to do my level best to help students to maintain their passion, to celebrate their success, and to be understanding and to provide help as possible during their dark times. (As a professor I hope for the similar treatment from my administration for my students and for me, although I suppose that’s a topic for another blog post some day.)

I am certainly thankful for the excitement of discovery that this career has given me, despite the more difficult times. Those moments of discovery, made by ourselves or others, should be why we ultimately headed down this path to research, teaching, and service to society in the first place. It is what continues to drive my passion and, I hope, yours.

The stuffed arctic fox

What the hell am I
doing underfoot of a
polar bear damn it?

Coffee kiosk polar bear

This podium is no
ice floe
and those creatures aren’t
seal meals.

I’m just hoping that one of them walks
a bit too close
to that cordon.

I’m hungry.

Plus I hear the lattes
are to die for.

An ode to the muskox in the lab building basement

 

Imagine for a moment that you’re a muskox
and it’s damned cold and even more damned

windy.

You scrape your hoof over a rock
to get at a veneer of moss under
a drift of snow which

incidentally

is blowing around you and your herd
in diagonal-horizontal mini-tornadoes.

A threat appears
out of the snow gusts

and like you have so many times before
and like your ancestors have done for

eons
eons
eons
eons

you form a head-outward ring
around the calves.

Only this time its not
wolf or bear.

A clawless
dull-toothed
stick-bearing beast.

The ear-shattering thunder
shatters your skull.

 

Imagine for a moment that you’re a muskox

on a pedestal
with styro-snow
in the basement
of a university lab building
by an elevator
tucked in a corner
partially covered by a

black
plastic
tarp.

It’s much warmer here.

But if it were up to you
you’d prefer the tundra.

Vast. Silent.

Around 1.3 billion years ago, a vast distance from where you are sitting, two massive black holes completed their eons-long spiral tango and merged into a blacker (is that possible?) hole. A massive event; a collision of pure darkness. But one that no one could have heard in the vacuum of space, were anyone actually there to witness the cataclysm. Outward streamed light-speed, invisible waves, on an interminable journey through the cosmos. Ripples in spacetime, perhaps felt by very occasional motes suspended parsecs apart in the emptiness. An occasional silent molecular quivering.

Around 1.3 million years ago, perhaps directly next to where you are sitting right now, in a small, warm pond of salty water that to them was an entire universe, some single-celled living beings – eukaryotes like you and I – were quietly living their short lives, as had multitudes of ancestors, and ancestors of ancestors, before them.

At some point far earlier, a billion or more years prior, cyanobacteria had begun to use light energy as plants do today, filling the atmosphere with oxygen in the process. That changed everything. The little eukaryotes swimming in their universe-pond were the result of that toxic-yet-life-giving shift. But they’d never know it. Other than the sounds of waves and wind, our earth was as silent as space.

Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life.

A minuscule bit more life than death.

An occasional genetic ripple in the silence, quivering through subsequent eons.

An occasional asteroidal punctuation mark.

Time moved forward, as it always has.

One-point-three-billion rotations of our earth around the sun.

Silence in space.

Mostly silence on earth.

Mostly unwitnessed…

…until yesterday, when the great-great-great-great(…) grandchildren of those ancient silent silt-dwelling cells heard the silent sound of the distant cosmic collision, and learned something new about their limitless universe.

A tiger in your back yard?

When we think of endangered animals, among the first things to come to mind may be creatures like rhinoceroses, tigers, or condors. Large animals, lots of press, and pressing concerns. There are an estimated 799 eastern black rhinos~400 Siberian tigers, and 237 California condors left in the wild. In some cases, as with these animals, their numbers have been reduced by human assaults of various sorts. In most cases there are plenty of ongoing issues, often related to habitat loss, that either keep populations in decline or which make recovery difficult.

But these animals and their attendant situations all seem pretty far away. Their distant geography lends itself to experiential distance as well. We hear about them, we see photographs and documentaries about them, but we will likely never have a chance to encounter them in the wild. Of course, even with geographical and experiential distance, concern is still warranted, and we might donate some money to one or another of these causes, or at least keep up with the issues via the news media. But beyond that, what can we do? The situations for these animals, and many others like them, may be dire, but we realistically can’t be present with them.

What if I told you that there is an animal in our own back yard (if you live in the Vancouver area) with population numbers and threats akin to – or perhaps worse than – those facing a Siberian tiger? What if I told you that, like a tiger, it is a ferocious predator?

What if I told you that it’s a spider?

Gnaphosa snohomish. Drawing by Robb Bennett, used with permission.

The animal that I’m talking about is the Georgia Basin bog spider (Gnaphosa snohomish). It is quite likely that you’ve never heard of it until now, and very likely that you have never seen it, even unintentionally. That is because although it lives in heavily populated southwestern British Columbia and the surrounding area, it is restricted to a few small patches of habitat where, even in such a major population centre, few people ever go. And because few people ever go to where it lives, those spots are often under pressure for development – “if no one uses that area presently, why shouldn’t we turn it into something ‘useful’?” goes the thinking.

Because of where it lives – as the name implies, in boggy wetlands – the Georgia Basin bog spider’s population numbers are not fully known. Thankfully, though, some people do go and look for this creature, and what we do know is that, indeed, the population levels and threats are likely similar to some of the bigger animals mentioned in the preamble. This is not a situation that many often consider to be a problem for spiders and insects, and perhaps that is because we know so little about so many of them.

One of the main problems for this spider is that humans don’t live in bogs, at least not while they remain in their boggy condition. We tend to either drain bogs for development, harvest their moss for other uses, or use their natural conditions to grow crops like cranberries. In some cases other development, such as roadways, can have draining and polluting impacts on nearby bogs. All of these factors, and others, mean that when humans and bogs meet, the bog loses, as do many of its denizens. The Georgia Basin bog spider in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland is one of those creatures currently on the losing side of that ledger.

In recent years some detailed work has been done on the Georgia Basin bog spider. You can find some of the most recent assessments of its status and coverage of its known natural history here and here. Both of those links are PDFs.

In a nutshell (you can find all of this information, and more, in those two PDFs):

  • The Georgia Basin bog spider has been found only at fifteen sites – seven in southwestern British Columbia, and eight in northwestern Washington state. Recent work has also detected the spider at Island View Beach in Canada.
  • Take a look at this aerial view of the Burnaby Marshlands. You can see at that link the level of pressure on the habitat there. That location was the Canadian site at which the greatest number of spiders were detected in a previous (1998) survey. There is good reason to believe that this population has been extirpated between that survey and now.
  • All of this means that the overall area of occupancy for the spider in Canada is roughly only about 16 km2.
  • This also means that the spider populations are extremely isolated from one another, limiting gene flow. It is thought that these spiders “balloon”, which is when young spiders cast a silk thread and catch breezes to disperse to new locations. Spiders have little control over where the wind takes them. So one can imagine that a ballooning Georgia Basin bog spider is pretty unlikely to land, by happenstance, in a suitable sphagnum bog within its current range, let alone survive to maturity to find and successfully mate with another Georgia Basin bog spider.
  • From collection records, it seems that the spider requires wet, and seemingly preferably, peat bog conditions.
  • Of the five sites in Canada with presumably established populations, four are at 3 meters or less above sea level. So besides impacts of human activity, there is a distinct risk of seawater inundation following a seismic event (i.e., a tsunami).

Gnaphosa snohomish male, photo courtesy Darren Copley, RBCM.

The Georgia Basin bog spider – just like tigers, rhinos, or condors – has a limited range, a limited number of appropriate habitats in that range, and is increasingly impacted by ongoing development and other pressures.

And it may live in your metaphorical (or literal!) back yard.

In other words, keep an eye out for the little things that live where you live. Just like the big things that live elsewhere, they have some important stories to tell.

_____

Thanks to Robb Bennett, Jennifer Heron, Darren Copley, Patrick Lilley, and Andrew Baylis for assistance with various aspects of this blog post.

This is a cross post from A Rocha Canada.

Rezoning of Prince George parks – my letter

This evening the Prince George City Council will be discussing the rezoning of park-designated land for development. The planning philosophy of selling park land to presumably pay for maintenance of other park land seems to be something of a growing and unfortunate trend in our city.

In response, I wrote the following letter to Council.

—–

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to express my concern with the proposed rezoning – and presumably the eventual sale and development – of the park-zoned space near to Ron Brent Elementary School. Beyond that, I am writing to express a general concern about the overall direction that the city seems to be taking toward the rezoning of park land not just at Ron Brent, but also elsewhere.

To put it concisely, our city has more than enough non-park space that is either undeveloped or languishing in seemingly permanent semi-development. Much of it is at least as near to services as is the proposed-to-be-rezoned area, and would thus be appropriate for such development without having to remove space from park inventory.

In my decade-plus living here I have repeatedly seen vast tracts of land cleared for supposed upcoming development. After clearing work, development often happens at a snail’s pace – witness much of the land adjacent to Tyner. Some land is actually cleared and then sits so long that it regrows a small forest and needs to be cleared again. Even then, I have seen cleared-twice land just sit there again for stretches of time – a prime example being whatever is going on next to the Save-On shopping complex in College Heights. Other examples of prepared-and-then-snail’s-pace development can be seen all over town. And this doesn’t even take into account the plethora of empty lots and abandoned or barely-used buildings (and even partially-built buildings, like that next to the library) ranging from the downtown core out to the various communities.

If there is something in this city that we do not lack, it is unused or poorly used land. It would be much more prudent to focus on completing development on sites like those rather than permanently removing valuable park space from residents while leaving bare development scars and shuttered buildings and projects all over our cityscape.

I understand that there is an underlying philosophy at work whereby rezoned park land is sold to developers and the money is then to be used to improve existing park land or to create new park land. How about instead ensuring that developers make proper and timely use of land upon which they propose to work and then using some of the tax revenue obtained from fully-developed land to fund park improvement? How about giving precedence and encouragement to developers who have creative ideas for the use of abandoned or slow-to-develop land and shuttered buildings, thereby also increasing tax revenues?

I am not knowledgeable of the ins and outs of the carrots and sticks used to entice and enforce development decisions, but from trends easily observable around our city it seems that there is a lot of carrot to clear and very little stick to complete.

People buy in neighborhoods in part because of the parks that are zoned there. People use and care about those particular parks in their places. Those parks improve quality of life in myriad ways. Once park land is removed from park inventory, it is never going to return to that state again. When land is designated as a park, the city has an obligation to preserve those lands, not to simply use them as a bank from which land can be withdrawn for future revenue.

If Prince George’s population was exploding at the seams and we were hemmed in by geography or political boundaries, then perhaps a case could be made for judicious use of park land. However we are not affected by any of these issues, and so it is time for the city to work with developers toward a more prudent use of our land base that does not involve the removal of existing parks from the communities that have come to rely on them.

Sincerely,
Dezene Huber