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.

Flying solitude

Between 7 and 21 November I flew across the country and back two times. Once for the Entomological Society of Canada Joint Annual Meeting (in lovely Montreal) and the other time for the annual CCUBC meeting (again in Montreal). I don’t normally travel this much, let alone in such a temporally concentrated manner. As a bit of a homebody, I am not a big fan of travel and prefer to keep my periodic migrations to a minimum. Don’t get me wrong, I benefitted greatly from attending both of these events, and I wouldn’t have missed either. But if there had been a way to teleport me to and from Montreal, I would have taken it even if I would have risked scrambling my atoms in the process.

No matter the complaints about the mounting security- and fee-based inconvenience of air travel, this mode has always been and will always be a heck of a lot easier than much of the travel that our near ancestors experienced. As a passenger I get to transition between climate-controlled airport gate to climate-controlled airplane with the only winter chill sometimes encountered on the boarding ramp. The food isn’t always great, but it’s not terrible, and I can find meals, snacks, and drinks (a glass of Merlot, even!) easily between flights and on the aircraft. Long travel – keeping in mind that on these trips “long” is measured in hours instead of the days or weeks of the past – can be somewhat boredom inducing. But there are in-flight entertainment systems, and I hear that we’ll all be on WiFi on aircraft pretty soon.

So this all means that I can move thousands of kilometres in a few hours; I can stay warm and fed; and I am given tools to zone my brain out. All I need to do is plug in my headset and pick a movie. And voilà! Next thing I know we’re landing, brain happily disengaged the whole way.

This time, however, I was not as lucky. Or scratch that, maybe I was especially lucky, although I didn’t immediately think that I was. Specifically on three of the four legs of my flight I was assigned to the same seat in what I suspect was the same plane. The entertainment system in seat 30K had something wonky with its sound production, which meant that the music tracks of movies worked, but the spoken track sounded a lot like adults in Charlie Brown animations.

The first time that I experienced this “horrid” inconvenience I thought about buzzing the flight attendant to see what they could do about my predicament. But – perhaps because the selection of movies was iffy, or perhaps because I subconsciously knew that my brain needed a break – I decided to see how things went without a few hours of eye/brain candy. In the end I spent 15 or 20 hours during that two week span with nothing but a couple of books, the music supplied by Air Canada (decent little jazz selection, as it turns out), and my window to keep me company.

Having silence imposed on me reminded me of how little silence I generally get on a regular basis. And it also made me wonder once again if the lack of what might be called “boredom” in our daily lives has curtailed our ability to simply think. In fact I suspect that what we call boredom is really better thought of as solitude. And from what I’ve experienced it can be the best natural state of my brain – the state in which it can work at maximum revs.

During those hours in the air I read this fantastic book of poetry, and I plan to write a review at some point in the future. Short review: get it, you’ll be glad that you did. I also reread a few chapters from this book, and read some portions of this book, which I picked up from the ESC students’ silent auction.

I also stared out of the window a lot of the time. And, when you really think about it, there’s no way that if one of our ancestors – if she were transported from the past onto a plane 40,000 feet above the Rockies or the prairies or the Canadian shield – would stare aimlessly at a terrible rendition of The Fantastic Four. She’d be at the window the whole time. We’ve become so used to the technology of flight that we really don’t even care that we are doing something that humans have dreamed of from the time that they contemplated the birds around them. The only time we really even notice the amazingness of what we are doing is when we hit turbulence.

So, here are a few of my in-flight window musings:

  • We are so tiny. At 40,000 feet I am told that the furthest that one can see due to the curvature of the earth is about 400 km. Assuming that’s true (someone feel free to correct that if you would like to do the math), and that the distance as the crow flies between Vancouver and Montreal is about 3700 km, I would have had the opportunity to see about 1.48 million square km. Again, feel free to correct my rough estimates here, but one way or the other it’s a big number. During much of that time there were very few to no blatantly visible signs of humans below me. Perhaps a single road here or there, but that was about it. Even accounting for such a massive trip there was still a bit of Canada to the west, a larger bit to the east, and a vast swath to the north. At one point we passed a few dozen kilometres south of Calgary at night, and even such a sprawling city was just a moderate collection of lights on a vast sea of dark prairie. The ultimate tininess of humanity really hits home at 40,000 feet.
  • We punch above our weight. But just the fact that I was flying in a metal tube at 40,000 feet and traveling at over 800 km/h says something else. It says that though we are small, we have a massive impact. My carbon footprint on all four flights is calculated at 2.34 metric tons. An average stone in the Egyptian pyramids weighs 2.3 metric tons. That’s how much my trip, alone, spewed out – a pyramid stone’s worth! That’s big impact, multiplied by many, many people. Crossing the prairies I was reminded of how that entire ecosystem has been radically reworked by humans, another example of our bigness. And even above some of the areas that I thought would be the most isolated, I could still see the telltale little lights of small human settlements dotted here and there on the landscape.
  • We are connected. Below me I saw the various cities where my extended family lives. I passed within sight of both of my alma maters. I flew almost directly above many of my friends, professional colleagues, and various acquaintances. (One nice thing about the in-flight screen is that it shows all of the cites and towns on a map as you pass by them.) As I flew near each place I had some moments to think of each person who I knew below. There was pretty much no spot across Canada where I could say that I did not know someone within sight of my plane.

How do I tie this all together? Honestly, I’m not sure. These are simply some of the places that my thoughts went while in enforced solitude. In 15 or 20 hours, of course, I’d like to think that more than only these thoughts happened in my brain. Indeed, those thoughts and others continue to come back to me days after my travel is over. The question is, how do I ensure that I let my brain get back to being “bored” – or, rather, naturally active – again?

Ode to the Corvidae

When spring comes to this part of the world, so do the birds. In a mere couple of months or so – perhaps less in the case of some species – we’ll start to hear their singing in the morning. They’ll stick around all summer and into the autumn. But eventually all of them leave. All, that is, except for a select few whose domain is the Canadian winter.

Right now in January, of course, those winter birds are the rulers of the air and the glades. And chief among them are a few species from the family Corvidae. The corvids include crows, ravens, magpies, and jays among others.

These birds have long been reputed to be not just the most intelligent of birds, but among the most intelligent of non-human animals. In fact, they are often referred to a “feathered apes.” Their brain is very large in comparison to the size of their body, and this is a general marker for intelligence. It is not difficult to believe that they are highly intelligent either because they can naturally learn, or be trained, to do some amazing things.

But I am not writing this ode simply to expound upon their intelligence and amazing behavior. Both are completely obvious to anyone who spends any time at all watching them. Rather, I am writing to appreciate these birds because of the joy that they have brought me over the years.

Growing up in Calgary meant growing up with magpies. For some reason Calgary (and Edmonton) are inundated with magpies, while crows and ravens are more rare and are more often found in the outskirts. In other places that I’ve lived – for instance Vancouver and Prince George – crows and ravens are more common in the city and magpies seem to stay further to the edges of the urban sprawl. If someone out there can tell me why this is the case, I’d be very interested.

In any case, I can remember waking up many summer mornings to the raucous calls of magpies, all dressed up in their tux-and-tails. At one point as a young teenager I fashioned a predator consisting of a couple of pieces of carved balsa wood and a thick rubber band. I had come across the design in my Outdoor Canada magazine, and the writer promised that using it would bring surprising results. And it did! I could sit out in our front yard and make sounds like an injured rabbit. Very quickly one magpie would arrive. Then another, and another, until the two big cottonwood trees in front of our house were alive with calling birds. The whole neighborhood must have wondered what on earth was going on.

Magpies are seemingly as intelligent as their crow and raven kin. One autumn day, watching our front yard from the verandah, I spied a squirrel dutifully digging a nut into the ground as a provision against the coming winter. Above the squirrel, on a branch, a lone magpie watched the proceedings. As soon as the squirrel had hopped off and out of the picture, down swooped the magpie and uncovered the nut and headed off. Smart bird; poor squirrel.

About a decade ago, while living in Davis California, I got to know the beautiful western scrub jays very well. Our apartment complex had a group of them that roved around looking for scraps and other remnants of student parties. Like all of the other corvids that I have known, they were never shy about letting everyone know that they were around.

We had a tabby cat at the time named – appropriately for California – Sequoia. Sequoia would make a point of sitting at our second-floor apartment window next to a burst of tree branches. As soon as the jays would see her, they would congregate on the branches and holler at her. She would sit there, seemingly saying “just you wait.” The jays would let her know what they thought of that attitude. It would get very loud at times, and was a complete riot to watch.

Once in Maligne Canyon, in Jasper National Park, I had the honor of watching a family of ravens nesting in a small cave. I was able to take a few photographs of them, and I still enjoy going back to look at these years later. I hope one day to go back to the location during breeding season and take some better photographs than these.

Now that we live in Prince George, I am privileged almost every winter morning to be greeted by ravens and crows who make their way from one roosting point to another while I catch the bus. Some of them live in the small forest and creek area near to my house (although lately the group of ravens that was there seems to have moved on elsewhere). Some days they just fly straight along above the road toward the local fast food joints (breakfast!). Other days they tussle and rustle in the sky above me, most certainly oblivious to my presence as they enjoy each other.

One particular winter morning, after a heavy snowfall the night before, two ravens tumbled together above me and the snow-laden trees. It was perfectly silent as it always seems to be after a snowfall. The only sounds were their gentle murmurings and the light clatter of their wings and feathers against each other. A single black feather floated through the still air and onto the white world below, fluttering right next to me on its descent. It was a haiku moment, and I immediately wrote this in my notebook as soon as I stepped onto the bus a few minutes later:

Two ravens tussle
Above the snow-heaped forest
A feather drifts down

I’m the first to admit that I’m not really much of a poet, so I don’t even know if I got that right. Likely some more work would make it better. Never-the-less, it was just one more instance in my love affair with corvids, and I still remember that moment as vividly as yesterday.

I’ve probably gone on long enough now, and to all of you who have bothered to read this far, I want to offer you one more corvid-inspired creation of mine – a small gallery of photographs that I have made over recent years featuring these amazing birds. And I certainly hope to make many more in years to come.

Beetle byte (4 October 2013 edition)

Hey, I’ve kept this up for a few weeks in a row!

Here are the now-regular (hopefully to stay that way… we’ll see how it goes) half-dozen Coleopteran mandible dainties.

You’re checking your smartphone too much!

The take-home, Ballard says, is that being connected isn’t always entirely a bad thing. “The benefits are only sustainable, however, when these tools are used in ways that are a good fit for each individual’s needs, skills and preferences.

 

Although your iPhone might be just fine

One option would be that rather than keeping the virtual and the natural worlds separate — turning off our machines, taking e-sabbaticals, or undergoing digital detoxes, in order to connect with nature — we think about them all as integrated elements of a single life in a single world. There is already a growing sense in the wired community that connections with the natural world are vital to digital well-being, both now and in the future. This same community needs to pay attention to biophilia and to its implementation in biophilic design. With the help of biophilic insights, we can connect the planet beneath our feet with the planet inside our machines.

 

Then again…

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.

 

One very sad place with no internet and minimal time for play

Before I talk about what I learned, I’d like to quickly say hi to whomever from the North Korean government is reading this. Only the highest-level officials have access to the internet in North Korea, and I learned that the job of one of them is to scour the internet for anything written about North Korea and keep tabs on what the foreign press is saying. So hi, and haha you can’t get me cause I’m back home now and I can say all the things I wasn’t allowed to say when I was in your country.

Now that I’ve jinxed myself to certain assassination, let’s get started—

 

Conservation and the fact that everyone is a taxonomist

Without even realizing it, we have traded a view of ourselves as living beings in a living world for a view of ourselves as consumers in a landscape of merchandise. We have unwittingly traded a facility with living things for a savant-like brand expertise that exchanges the language of the living world—the names of real plants and real animals—for a vocabulary of Tony the Tigers and Geico geckos. The world we live in, our simple reality, is the world of purchasable items. We have, without even trying, absolutely gotten what we’ve paid for. You might need a naturalist interpreter to help you make sense of things as you walk through the local forest, but you would never need such assistance when wandering through the mall.

Not surprisingly, we are also simultaneously trading the actual world of living things for a world filled instead with human-made products, with factories to build them, with stores to sell them, with homes to fill them with. While we’ve been busy shopping and the world’s diversity of human-made things has been increasing, the world’s wealth of living things has been dwindling.

 

Technology and nature swim with the sharks

Explore dozens of satellite tracks by selecting a species and individual shark…

These shark satellite tracks are part of an ongoing research project by RJD scientists to better understand the migratory routes and residency patterns of Tiger, Hammerhead, and Bull sharks in the subtropical Atlantic.

 

Bonus byte: Tubas

Watching hockey

A found poem that I was given while hanging out with some Vancouver Canucks fans a few playoffs ago… in celebration of the first regular season face-off of the 2013/2014 season.

—–

Watching hockey

Look at that.
Did you see that?
How could they miss?

Did you see that?
Just dump it in.
No!

You can’t do that,
You know?
Just sit back like that
On your heels.

C’mon. Let’s put one in guys.
I can’t watch.

C’mon guys. Get it out.
I can’t watch.

See!
We haven’t won one face-off yet.

OK dump it in.
Carry it now!
Offside!

Oh no!
How did that not go in?

Oh man!
What happened there?
That should be a penalty shot.

Too many men on the ice,
Again!

I can’t watch.
Settle down boys!

Whoa!
That would’ve been close.
Maybe one of these times.
Maybe an odd-man rush?

Noooo…
Don’t let him walk in.

Oh my goodness!
How did that not go in?
Look at that open space!
That goalie’s good.

Offside,
You turkeys.

I told you.
They have one of the best
Goalies in the league.

Looks like…
We’re going into second overtime?

Maybe a goal on the face-off?
No such luck.
Is this game gonna go to midnight?

Oh I hate that.
Just dumping the puck.
C’mon.

Oh!
That hurts.

Noooooo!
Game over.

We can’t go to the end
With one goal.

It’s too thin.

20130930-225944.jpg

Beetle byte (27 September 2013 edition)

It’s been a great week of (mainly sunny and crisp) autumn fieldwork for me, so I haven’t worked up another blog post. I’ll try to get to that soon as well. But for now here are a few links that I found to be interesting/amusing/useful on the web this week.

Some thoughts to consider on GMOs

On 8 August 2013, vandals destroyed a Philippine “Golden Rice” field trial. Officials and staff of the Philippine Department of Agriculture that conduct rice tests for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) had gathered for a peaceful dialogue. They were taken by surprise when protesters invaded the compound, overwhelmed police and village security, and trampled the rice. Billed as an uprising of farmers, the destruction was actually carried out by protesters trucked in overnight in a dozen jeepneys.

 

I’m a big fan of the Felidae

On cold winter days, comfort-loving house cats of Nippon, Japan gather around charcoal braziers, snuggle under figure-silk quilts wrapped around their mistresses’ knees, or step into styling made-to-order garments. Once upon a time the Japanese ship’s cat was commonly classed as a member of the crew and might earn a rank higher than the cook.

 

My love of cats is tempered with deep respect

A young deer is the unfortunate star of a new viral video, as it was caught on film being killed by a cougar near Powell River, B.C.

Try to get this out of your head the next time you go for a relaxing nature hike.

 

My regular “not encouraging” link

The South African government said that 688 rhinos have been poached so far in 2013. There are still three months left in the year, but the number has already surpassed last year’s total of 668 slain rhinos.

 

Are you actually reading these links?

When we read on screen, the translucent surface holds the text at a remove from our fingers, displaying it under glass like an archaic specimen. This distance blunts our immersion in the words, causing us to regard them with irony even when we are enthusiastic about what they say. By making all events equally available (and equally distant), the screen engenders a simultaneity that nullifies the words’ ability to forge an alternative chronology or a summation of what the world is like. The screen’s imposition of historical simultaneity, in which events that occurred centuries apart appear side by side in undifferentiated sameness, is accentuated by the more agitated simultaneity of the multi-window experience. Whatever I may be looking at, I feel hectored by other screens that want my attention: email, Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, work-related sites.

 

The extensive impact of neonicotinoid pesticides

Widespread preemptive application of neonicotinoids (or any pesticide) represents a fundamental shift away from Integrated Pest Management, since chemicals are frequently applied before pest damage has occurred, and often in the absence of any current pest abundance data.

Beetle byte (20 September 2013 edition)

Just a few links to kick off your weekend.

Amazing bristlecone pines

I am not a fan of the desert. It seems unnecessarily brutal. Being a person is a huge disadvantage in the desert, where there is nothing interesting to do besides getting lost and dying.

 

Peer review: The more things change…

With an appropriate celebrity endorsement tweet too.

 

Speaking of tweeting your science:

Projects will be focused on specific species found in our region, from trees to beetles, to mushrooms and mammals. Each week, students will be tweeting facts, anecdotes, and observations about their study species (and some of these tweets should come directly from the field).

 

Don’t you wish that you had this job?

Last May, Google sent 13 camera-equipped researchers to capture the beauty of the Galapagos Islands, both on land and in the surrounding sea. Now, Google has unveiled the results: the newest addition to Street View is a tour of the islands Darwin made famous after he first visited them, 178 years ago this week.

 

Not encouraging:

Arkansas government figures showed, for example, that licensed collectors had removed more than half a million wild turtles from the state between 2004 and 2006; data from the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, airport showed that “more than 256,638 wild-caught adult turtles” were exported to Asia between 2002 and 2005. Overall, the experts estimated, the total trade in U.S. turtles likely added up to “thousands of tons per year.” After mystifying trips halfway around the world, most of the animals probably ended up in the stomachs of Chinese diners.

 

Neologisms and ephemerality (or lack thereof?)

apols, A/W (“autumn/winter”), babymoon, balayage (“a technique for highlighting hair”), bitcoin, blondie (small cake), buzzworthy, BYOD (“bring your own device”), cake pop, chandelier earring, child’s pose (yoga), click and collect, dad dancing, dappy, derp, digital detox, double denim, emoji, fauxhawk, FIL (“father-in-law”), flatform (shoe), FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”), food baby (“a protruding stomach caused by eating a large quantity of food”), geek chic, girl crush, grats, guac, hackerspace, Internet of things, jorts, LDR, me time, michelada (“drink made with beer, lime juice…”), MOOC, Nordic noir, omnishambles, pear cider[see comment below], phablet, pixie cut, prep (v. “prepare”), selfie, space tourism, squee, srsly, street food, TL;DR, trolly dash (UK supermarket promotion), twerk, unlike (v.), vom (“vomit”)