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I am an ecologist because baselines are shifting

I grew up in Calgary, which is in southern Alberta. The city itself sits right at the intersection of the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountain. The Elbow River flows into town from the south and meets the Bow River where downtown now sits. The Bow itself flows from Banff in the west, through Calgary, and to the south and east until it joins up with the Oldman River, which empties into the South Saskatchewan River, which joins with the North Saskatchewan to form the Saskatchewan River. The water that started up in the moutains at Bow Glacier eventually ends up in Lake Winnipeg, and from there in the Arctic Ocean by way of Hudson Bay.

The flow of the Bow — image by Karl Musser (CC BY-SA 2.5)

My family home was on the edge of downtown Calgary. In that respect you won’t find too many people who had as urban an upbringing as I did. But Calgary is a special place, particularly in its river valleys, because of the easy access that good civic planning (which has thankfully continued to this day) provided a rather “free range” kid like me to urban-wilderness spaces. I spent a great deal of time on the hill outside my house. At a young age — surprisingly perhaps in the contemporary era of nature deficit disorder, but not at all unreasonable in the 1980s — my parents were quite fine with me wandering down winding paths on the hill, fly rod in hand, to the Bow to see if I could rise a trout or two. Family holidays were never at a preprogrammed resort, but were spent in the mountains of Alberta or British Columbia; or on the prairies east of town and out to visit family in Medicine Hat; or further east exploring Saskatchewan.

Pica hudsonia — Louis Agassiz Fuertes (public domain)

Because of all the time and freedom that I had to spend on my own fishing the Bow, or calling magpies — always and forever my favorite bird — with homemade predator calls in front of my house, or sitting in the back seat for hours on end driving across Canada’s three western provinces on family holidays (and no iPads in the car, of course), I had more than ample time to contemplate the natural world around me.

I saw the Canadian Rockies and other ranges, mainly untouched except for ribbons of roads in the national parks, but substantially logged outside of those protected areas.

I saw the Bow and the Elbow, and felt the water on my legs rise and fall with upstream dam releases.

I caught beautiful brown trout that I knew had been introduced in the past in a mistaken stocking event.

I watched grass fires on the hill in front of our house, likely started by a discarded cigarette on the path at the bottom, burn through the prairie vegetation like fire is supposed to do, although we rarely let it do so anymore.

On long drives beneath the prairie sky dome during family vacations I looked across vast fields of canola, glowing yellow under the never ending blue, and wondered what it would have been like to see Saskatchewan before fences, before the bison were gone.

By my early teens I realized that the things that I was experiencing were not the way that they had always been. Despite how wonderful the world around me was, it had been diminished — sometimes in small ways, sometimes very dramatically. This is not to say, of course, that humans weren’t sometimes taking care of it and using it in good ways to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and other humans. Rather, simply that something had been lost and that sometimes in our valid efforts to satisfy our needs we neglected the animals, plants, soil, and water in the rush to extract. Even that early in life I realized that neither I nor my children nor their children would ever experience an unfenced prairie out to the horizons, or an un-dammed Bow River. Although I didn’t call it that, I understood that there was a baseline that was now lost. And I understood that even though I wanted to imagine what had been there before I saw it, I never could truly know. I could surmise, extrapolate backward in time, and imagine. But I could never actually live it.

Whether I knew it or not, those incipient thoughts were similar to what Daniel Pauly called the Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Speaking about fisheries management, Pauly wrote, in a short, influential article:

Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.

In other words, relatively short-lived humans are prone to take the current situation as the “way it always has been” and to react to that rather than to what can be often lost to the memory hole of the past. This tendency needs some form of inoculation, because no one is inherently immune. That inoculation is having people here and now who are committed to measuring the baseline and ensuring that our records travel in time to the future. It is also up to those of us who are here now to do our own time traveling to the past by making sure that we are reading those sometimes very hard won records of our predecesors.

I can honestly say that I don’t fully know why I chose a career as an entomologist and ecologist. Reasons for any large life directions are usually found in multiples, and like any ecologist I know that there are very few outcomes that result from only one influence. However, I suspect what I am passionate about today had a great deal to do with my freedom to explore as a child and my primordial understanding of the lost baseline. I certainly do know that is what drives me today — specifically the hope to understand and record the small part of the world in my current backyard so that someone in the future might look back to get a glimpse of what is now to me, but what will be “what was” to them. And so that a future society can make wise choices in their management of the environment and of the resources that they need to extract.

We need to catch the current baseline. We need to record it. And we need to make sure that the records move into the future after our personal constituent parts succumb to the second law of thermodynamics. No one of us can do all of that, nor could even an army of ecologists in a plethora of sub-disciplines hope to record the full baseline. The blessing of the Anthropocene is that we have access to just about any spot on the planet and we have amazing new tools that we can use to observe and record deeper than ever before. The anathema of the Anthropocene is that humanity’s joint effects are changing those spots faster than we can hope to measure them.

But, despite the challenges, we need to make those measurements because without them a future that we can’t imagine won’t be able to imagine our present, their past.

Earth at night in the Anthropocene — NASA (public domain)

Update: that transit facility

A few weeks ago I posted a letter that I sent to City of Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall and Council. My letter was just one small part of a massive community organizing effort regarding the proposed building of a transit facility in an urban green space.

Yes our city needs a new transit maintenance facility. No, we should not be building it in green space.

Today the Mayor and three councillors put out this report to council asking that at their next meeting (this upcoming Monday) council vote rescind the motions for approval of the facility in that location and instead direct city staff to work with BC Transit to find a better site for the facility.

Yes, this still needs to be voted on at council, but I’m optimistic that it will pass as it already has substantial support as evidenced by the Mayor’s report.

I hope that this groundswell of concern translates into a longer-term vision for preserving, expanding, and improving our urban green spaces here in Prince George – whether in our own backyard or in that of someone else.

Thanks to the organizers of this effort; to Mayor Hall and Councillors Frizzell, Scott, and Skakun for taking part in the disucssion and for being responsive; and to the many citizens who voiced their opinions in a variety of venues.

Let’s work to see this vision and passion for the value of our urban green spaces continue to spread like the forest canopy that we have now preserved in hope and anticipation of the benefit for future generations.


As I posted in my letter to council, here are some related resources that may be of interest:

Thoughts on a proposed urban development

Dear Mayor and Council members:

I am writing to express my concerns about the proposed transit facility at 18th and Foothills. I have previously written letters about the Ron Brent development (which unfortunately went ahead) and the North College Park proposal. As with those letters, my general theme here is that green spaces and parks – particularly those that are substantially used by the public and/or that provide other important ecosystem services – should not be open to residential or industrial development. Once we lose one of those spaces, we have lost it and the valuable services that it provides for decades – essentially forever.

As noted in a recent Prince George Citizen editorial, the City of Prince George has an unfortunate history of making poor decisions in situating both major and more minor developments. In the case of the proposed transit facility this is a much-needed facility in one of the worst possible locations. Please, let’s not continue the legacy of developing in the wrong locations simply because space exists.

I recently attended the annual Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution meetings in Victoria. One of the symposia that I attended was on urban ecology. The speakers were engaging, and the projects that they described were inspiring. The thing that stuck out to me the most, however, was that my own city is at least a decade behind in terms of our thinking on this subject. While other cities are preserving and rehabilitating parks and green spaces, we are looking for ways to reduce our green spaces and with it the biodiversity, ecosystem services, corridor connectivity, and recreation and health opportunities that they afford.

Ecosystem services have been shown to include (each word links a different resource):

  • a healthier (mentally and physically) and more active population
  • a reduction in human-wildlife encounters
  • more effective water runoff management
  • less toxic runoff to local waterways
  • cleaner air
  • reduction in soil erosion
  • reductions in sound pollution
  • more shaded areas and thus reduction in sun-related injuries and disease
  • carbon storage and offsetting
  • aquatic ecosystem health
  • higher property values

At the symposium the point was made by Angela Danyluk (Sustainability Specialist at the City of Vancouver) that “vegetation is the foundation of biodiversity” and thus of ecosystem services. Perhaps it is because we have such a richness of vegetated spaces within and beyond our city limits that we tend to see them as expendable; but we should embrace and enhance our richness as a long term investment, not exploit it for short term gains.

One of the points in that symposium was that municipal asset calculations often fail to take ecosystem services into account. A question that needs to be asked any time we are thinking of removing parks and green spaces from city inventory is “what value does this area provide, and what extra costs will be incurred if we lose this area?” In other words, quoting from one symposium participant (Michelle Molnar, an environmental economist with the David Suzuki Foundation), “…asset management should consider not just built areas, but also natural assets.

She presented a slide outlining a small portion of these considerations, which I have summarized as follows.

Green space vs. Built:

  • lower maintenance cost vs. higher maintenance costs
  • carbon-neutral or carbon sink vs. carbon intensive
  • can last into perpetuity vs. limited lifespan
  • climate change resilience vs. climate change vulnerable

Prince George seems to be growing and doubtless will grow further in the coming years. Do we want a city that is a hodgepodge of residential and industrial areas with declining green spaces that are only considered useful for their development opportunities? Or would we rather see healthy residential communities bounded by forests and parks that provide a vibrant and prosperous environment for our citizens?

I know which one I’d prefer, and judging from the success of the petitioning on this topic I suspect that I am part of a much larger majority.

As a daily transit user, I appreciate the attention being given to that vital public system. But it should not happen at the expense of valuable green space when there are many other options to be had in existing industrial areas. We need to move off of our current trajectory and to a more sustainable policy regarding our green spaces and parks. This means prioritizing and incentivizing infill and brownfield development instead of removing park and green space inventory.

(In fact, we should also incentivize rehabilitation of brownfield areas, but that is a topic that goes beyond the immediate intent of this letter.)

The following resources have been useful to me in my thinking on this issue, and may also be useful to you and to City staff:

Thank you for reading this, and I appreciate the work that you do for our fine city.

 

Sincerely,

Dezene Huber


This letter was sent to the Mayor and Council by way of email on 17 May 2017.

Vis-Po show at UNBC Rotunda – three broadsides

Three of my broadsides are on display for the next month or so in the UNBC Rotunda Gallery as part of a VIS-PO show. They’re below as part of this post (click any of the images for a larger view if needed).

Please swing by to see those, as well as works by Art Fredeen, Si Transken, and Rob Budde.

 

 

 

 

 

Some thoughts about Friday (and beyond)

I have lived in the USA twice in my life and, like many Canadians, I have many friends and relatives there. Like many Canadians, I appreciate Americans and, despite obvious setbacks and flaws, I have a great respect for the values of freedom and justice that America and its allies have represented in our world.

And so I am, along with many American friends and many others in many countries around the world, worried about what the next four years will bring – specifically for that great country but also for so many of us elsewhere.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

As an academic and a scientist I believe that ideas propagated in truth and then spoken with conviction make a difference in the world. It may become tempting to use the strategies of untruth against those who propagate untruth. But that would be extremely unwise because:

“…science and reason matter…” (Barak Obama, presidential farewell address)

 

“The good thing about science: it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

 

“Men argue. Nature acts.” (Voltaire)

 

“I am not presumptuous enough to tell reality what it should be.” (Alexander Vilenkin)

 

A great American poet, W.S. Merwin, said:

…one can’t live only in despair and anger without eventually destroying the thing one is angry in defense of. The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us. And you know, in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.

 

How to avoid despair and anger? Walt Whitman – quintessential American Poet, provides an answer:

Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)

 

America, do not recoil

Those of us in the scientific community, do not recoil.

Those in any walk of life who love truth, do not recoil.

The peaceful roads are splendid in all of their warm sun and scenery. But the harder roads of crisis provide opportunities to show the world that truth matters. It’s always more difficult to climb a long set of gravel switchbacks to an unparalleled summit vista than it is to drive a straight road through rolling meadows to nowhere in particular.

Working toward truth is difficult, essential, and well worth the effort. And the effort will crowd out anger and despair.

Read Whitman’s poem again on Friday – and again and again and again. Let’s continue to work for truth. The vista is there, even if we can’t see the peak from where we are now.

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?