A river’s voice: A review of “Skeena” by Sarah de Leeuw

I’ve spent a lot of time around rivers over the course of my decades – fly angling, research, hiking, contemplating. Rivers and streams are, in many ways, the circulatory system of our continents, and they ooze life of all sorts within their flow and along their banks. That riparian life has the tendency to make watercourses in forested areas fairly inaccessible. Forest rivers, in a way, nurture their own (in)accessibility. Any researcher or angler will tell you how valuable a bare few access points along many kilometers of a river can be.

There are three things that allow physical access along a flow. The first is the action of the river itself over time carving out seemingly fortuitous access points from the landscape. The second is the cycle of annual weather accompanied by long term climate change that sometimes leaves banks bare of water for intrepid hikers to walk below the high-water line. The third is both ancient and current human activity – the camps, villages, railroads, resource roads, clearcuts, pipeline crossings, and parallel highways that we build, inhabit, and use.

Dr. Sarah de Leeuw, a faculty member in the Northern Medical Program and Geography at UNBC, takes readers on a journey along the Skeena River, guiding us to access points along its course in her poetry in  Skeena (Caitlin Press, 2015). Along the journey, people, places, animals, plants, and soil weave through the river’s currents, around the roots of its trees, and into its riparian forests. 

We meet “Ephemeral ephemeroptera” and their “Sticky transparent/wings wet with our waters”. We feel “Invertebrates nuzzling my bowels”. We experience the “Taste of grizzly shit shot through with tannin/leached through peat”. And we smell the “stench of elk urine/sliding into me”. There’s the blinding pain of a mother moose’s “snapped leg” as its calf runs away alone, intermixed with the softness of “My surface silky with eagle down/thistle fluff.

There is death, and there is new life: “Our babies will grow/into men   fat with the fish    you lover/you mother/you will feed them.

Along the way we hear the stories of the river and by the river. Some of the stories are very old: “(A) story of three/young men felled by frogs    a story of Pelemqwae    the giant beaver who shot arrows/and felled a chief”. Others – the account of Ali Howard swimming the full length of the river in 2009 – are very new.

Early in the book – early along the course of the Skeena – the river asks us: “Who chose to name people?     Who chose?    The people?

And then the names along its length flow through the pages in eddies, ripples, and torrents: Wet’sinkwha, Edziza, Kispiox, Gitanmaax, “slow-and-full-of-water-with-lily-roots-thick-as-a-young-doe’s-knee-knuckle”.

Who, indeed, chose the names? Was it the river all along? In her prologue de Leeuw tells us that she has “written the river’s voice.” She has made the Skeena’s voice accessible and it flows into its listeners with each reading – leaving us filled with its sensations, stories, and sounds.

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)

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.

Skiffs and shifts

Over the past few summers, I have been spending about a day a week (give or take) on the Crooked River just north of Prince George. This little river, just a few dozen kilometres in length, flows north from Summit Lake into McLeod Lake. Its source is just on the north side of the Arctic watershed, which in itself makes the river somewhat unique compared to the rivers just to the south. Its low-gradient, meandering nature, plus ample and fertile forest all around it make it a very rich habitat for birds, mammals, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. A quick kick sample of the river will bring up a screen writhing with all sorts of little creatures waiting to be discovered.

Part of the river is protected by a provincial park, but much of it is not. Even though there is copious logging activity (and the logging roads and bridges that go along with that), a major highway, and a rail line right alongside the river for part of its course, it is in great shape. But there is always a worry that cumulative impacts, or a substantial environmental accident along its banks could cause damage. The river is a real jewel, seemingly resilient, often overlooked by residents in the area, and potentially vulnerable to catastrophe. And it’s a place that has become important to me.

In previous summers one of my colleagues (Dr. Daniel Erasmus) and I, along with an undergraduate student (Claire), have sampled nymphs on the river, with a general focus on mayflies, but also collecting stoneflies and caddisflies. This year, in an effort to create a fairly complete checklist of the mayflies of the Crooked River, we sampled only adults. The nice thing about nymphs is that they are always there. The difficult thing is that they may be present in early (and hard-to-key) instars, or they may reside in hard-to-reach places in the channel. After substantial nymph collecting we decided that a focus this year on adults would potentially reveal a few species that we had missed, along with some further aspects of their natural history.

Our approach this summer was a combination of Malaise traps hung at the bank just over the water, and hand collecting. Malaise traps are not necessarily the best for mayflies as they don’t scuttle around too much after landing and so don’t always end up in the traps, but we had some success. Our best success though, it seems, was simple hand collecting. To do this we would enter the stream at several locations and would spend a cumulative hour of effort catching any emerging or egg-laying or otherwise flying and water-alighting mayflies that crossed our path. Often there were only two of us on the river, which meant about a half-hour of silence at each of our several sites. Silence, but for the sound of the water, or a kingfisher’s call, or a trout rising a few feet away (“darn, it took that mayfly on the water that I was about to collect”), or the grackle of the ravens that often greeted us at site CR2B. And the shush of a light summer breeze through the bank willows. So not-so-silent silence. But mind silence. And soul solace. The harmony of stillness.

That was a few months ago now, both temporally and metaphorically. Two nights ago we had our first skiff of snow here in Prince George. It is all melting now, but it is a reminder that we are soon to move from days of warm color to days of cool monochrome. On one hand that shift can be difficult for me and for others, not only because of the sudden change to sparseness on the landscape, but also, it seems, the concomitant increase in desk work and similar activities.

On the other hand, there are things to embrace about the shift as well, and embracing these can be helpful:

  • all of those mayflies need to be sorted, curated, and turned into tables and graphs. Each one, represents a singular moment in the past summer. A memory of the river. Claire is currently working on this as part of her thesis project and it’s exciting to think about what we are going to learn.
  • lots of other data from other projects; winter is the time where we get to learn to tell the stories of our summer data collection.
  • the ravens that visit me at my bus stop almost every morning during the winter.
  • my exercise regimen shifts from mainly outside to mainly inside. As a bit of a natural introvert (i.e., I don’t get charged up by crowds), this also means moving from a few passers-by to a zillion other people on the track at the gym. But that also means social interaction from time-to-time, or at least the presence of other humans. And that is as vital sometimes as the exercise.
  • the annual Entomological Society of Canada meeting, this year in lovely Montreal (and where I’ll have a poster up with some of our Crooked River caddisfly work), with plenty to learn about and colleagues and students to catch up with. And poutine.
  • in the winter semester I’ll be teaching three courses (yikes!) including my perennial favorite Animal Behaviour, and a new course for me that I’ve always wanted to teach, Invertebrate Zoology.
  • more community moments with family, friends, and colleagues while we spend more time indoors and in closer contact with each other.

Chris Buddle wrote (and videoed) a great discussion about not always being “fine”. For him and many others November can be a tough month. Personally, sometime around February is often my yearly nadir. I have found, though, that thinking ahead to that time in a mindful way can reduce the depth and, in some years, even make February a real time of hope as I see the transition to spring and the return of the light.

This year one of my plans is to think back to those moments of stillness on the Crooked River this past summer, to seek out quiet moments in the monochrome of the Prince George winter, to seek out family and friends as the winter deepens, to grab onto the good things that come with the season, and to look forward to a new spring and the rivers and forests that will still be there after they awaken from their blanket of snow.

 

 

Danie and Claire head off to collect from one of our Malaise traps on the Crooked River (upstream/downstream panorama at site CR2B).

Book review: Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra
by Elena Johnson
2015, Gaspereau Press
48 pages
$17.95

 

 

 

 

One of my favorite poets, Dylan Thomas, once wrote the following in response to being questioned on his definition of poetry:

I, myself, do not read poetry for anything but pleasure. I read only the poems I like. This means, of course, that I have to read a lot of poems I don’t like before I find the ones I do, but, when I do find the ones I do, then all I can say is ‘Here they are’, and read them myself for pleasure.

…..

You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship’. But you’re back again where you began.

You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsman always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in.

This has been my general approach to poetry over the years as well. Poetry is sort of like wine. You don’t need to explain why you don’t generally like Syrah, no matter the vintage, but can appreciate a good Merlot. When you find a poem or a poet or a school of poetry that rings for you, you will know it. Why? Because, as Thomas wrote, there is a “mystery of having been moved by words.” Elena Johnson’s “Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra” struck that mysterious chord with me. I suspect that this collection would have a good chance of doing that with any other naturalist who regularly engages in field work, whether on the alpine tundra or elsewhere.

I first noticed this book via a tweet from Nikki Reimer:

Three short lines – field notes, in fact. But lines that invoke an immediate image, right down to a slight chill in the air and the colorful lichens on the rocks all around. Reading those lines, I was drawn to that place, in that place.

This collection succeeds because, at its heart, it is all about place. In this case, the place is a research station in the Ruby Range mountains in the Yukon. Johnson spent a few weeks in 2008 there with several teams of scientists working out of the camp. The collection is a result of her time spent there and exhibits her abiding connection to the place.

The poems tend to be short featuring short – sometimes one-word – lines but containing intense imagery. There is not a poem in this book that would take you more than two minutes to read if you were to simply read it as you might prose and then move on. There is not a poem in this book, either, that will not cause you to linger and perhaps sip again like a complex Merlot. Each poem will provide a new surprise, a new flavor, upon second and further readings. In this way the poems are, indeed, field notes. Well-written field notes should contain substantial information in even a few words. These poems contain concentrated place-imagery, each word or short stanza bursting more detail onto the page with each reading than its short length belies.

Here is a stanza that many field scientists will appreciate (from “Topographic Map 115 G/1):

We hefted saws / and tubs and ropes / to drag it. / Slunk / through fog / in grizzly country / stopping briefly / to shout.

Lugging of miscellaneous field gear, the movement into the unknown, the heightened awareness, and the general silence of work punctuated by “hey bear” shouts. It is easy to feel like you’re right there, hoping that a bear is not ahead shrouded in the fog.

Or, in “Silent for the Dry Season”:

So little noise here; sound / becomes a feeling. My own blood / a humming constant.

This short stanza not only brings out the depth of silence that is encountered when we leave urban and even rural environments for the true wilderness (“sound/becomes a feeling), but Johnson’s choice of enjambment focuses the reader’s attention to the sound of their own heart ricocheting in their arteries. Silence is truly a reminder that we are alive, the counter-implication being that constant noise and distraction and resulting movement are, at times, more a pointer toward death than life.

A number of the poems are found poems taken from scientific field notes. For instance “Ptarmigan Observation Sheet” places five days of August field work – including time, GPS point, and behavioral details – into a poetic context. Those of us who take field (or lab) notes on a regular basis probably have never thought of our jotting to be poetic. Perhaps Johnson is suggesting that we rethink that. Reading our old notes should bring back images of what we saw, smelled, heard, did. Others reading those notes should have the same experience. Besides being drawn into a few days of ptarmigan life, this found poem also represents a lesson to field scientists. Specifically, if you begin think of your notes as poetry, you might take better notes.

Johnson’s book, as with any well-curated and well-edited collection, works as a larger poem in its entirety. The poems move in a series from first arrival to later departure. The first poem, “Mountain List” is a short four lines that indicate the author’s first impression of the “mountain lonely with sparrows.” Poems then range toward field work (including those found-poem notes) and losing count of time in day-to-day camp life:

I scratch lines onto a rock. / But I can’t remember if I marked yesterday, / if I already marked today.

In a poignant moment Johnson finds herself “Alone at the Base”:

The other tents / flap, flap, flap. No one / is ever coming back.

Is she worried? Or in some way wishing for deeper isolation? Or both?

The book ends with the author “Hiking Out”:

Two sandpipers clear / the brook’s edge, where / I tilt my bottle in.

The author drinks the last of the mountain and thus makes the alpine tundra a part of her, echoing the almost-eucharistic desire of field scientists to imbibe – and in a sense become a part of – their place of study.

The physical book is a work of art in its own right. The jacket features, when entirely opened up, a photograph of two caribou appearing over a nearby lichen-encrusted ridge visualizing one of the poems. Remove the jacket, and you will find a grey-on-black repeated motif of caribou. The font – Mauritius, designed by Georg Trump – on rich ivory paper in a quality binding reminds the reader that this is a book to come back to.

I highly recommend that you read a few of Johnson’s poems from the book and – if the “mystery” of being “moved by (the) words” manifests – that you purchase the collection.

Book review: The Book of Beetles

The Book of Beetles: A Life-size Guide to Six Hundred of Nature’s Gems
Edited by Patrice Bouchard
Contributions by Patrice Bouchard, Yves Bousquet, Christopher Carlton, Maria Lourdes Chamorro, Hermes E. Escalona, Arthur V. Evans, Alexander Konstantinov, Richard A. B. Leschen, Stéphane Le Tirant, and Steven W. Lingafelter
2014, University of Chicago Press
656 pages, 2400 color plates
$55 (cloth), $33 (eBook)

Last autumn, while I was wandering around the poster presentations at the Entomological Society of Canada annual meeting in Saskatoon, I came across very inconspicuous display highlighting a book that was about to be released. Inconspicuous or not (and “display” might be a generous word to describe what simply amounted to a pile of handouts on a side table), it immediately caught my eye. And why wouldn’t it? The subject, beetles – in all of their glorious shapes, sizes, colors, and life histories – is always eye- and mind-catching. Upon returning home, I immediately pre-ordered it and received it from my local bookstore shortly after it was published. It has taken residence on the coffee table in our living room, and I have been enjoying it ever since.

The book is simply titled “The Book of Beetles” and is edited by Dr. Patrice Bouchard (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) with contributions by a number of experts. Much like “Snakes on a Plane”, the title tells you what it is about. But unlike that movie, this book is much more than its simple title. The idea of covering the full diversity of beetles sufficiently is, of course, a pipe dream. This book runs over 650 pages and covers 600 of the hundreds-of-thousands of known, not to mention the likely millions of more unknown, species of beetles. The full spread of beetle diversity is immense and, as is pointed out in a brand new (and open access!!) paper, “The beetle tree of life reveals that Coleoptera survived end-Permian mass extinction to diversify during the Cretaceous terrestrial revolution” by McKenna et al., “…(beetles) account for ∼25% of known species on Earth and ∼40% of insects”. To cover every known beetle species on earth would require well over 600 more of these volumes.

Also from McKenna et al.:

Curculionidae [snout and bark beetles, commonly referred to as weevils or “true” weevils] is the second most diverse family of metazoans (surpassed only by the rove beetle family Staphylinidae, which is older) with more than 51 000 named extant species in more than 4600 genera. Conservatively, it is estimated that there are more than 200 000 additional undescribed species of Curculionidae alone.

In other words, if we knew every single species of weevil extant today, we would need to compile more than 400 volumes of this size just to cover that one group within the beetles.

So the authors the The Book of Beetles were obviously required to complete the daunting task of choosing a mere 600 beetle species – a bit more than 0.1% of known beetle species – to highlight in this book.

In the introduction the authors set out their criteria for inclusion in this book. The authors chose among beetles that, variously:

  • are “scientifically compelling”
  • have “curious natural histories”
  • are “culturally significant”
  • are “economically important
  • are “rare and threatened”
  • are “physically impressive”

Again, certainly many, many other beetle species besides the chosen 600 met all of these criteria but could not be included. But I would argue that the editor and contributors did a fantastic job of selecting 600 compelling examples of these amazing insects that highlights a small, but still immense, range of their diversity.

Upon first encountering this large book (the cloth version, weighing in at 2.2 kg, is not one that is easily read in bed, but there is also an eBook option for those so inclined), the reader is immediately struck by the beauty of the jacket featuring an array of impressive insects surrounding the title. Remove the dust cover, and you will find three more gorgeous photographs of beetles on the front, spine, and back. These photographs all should simply whet your appetite for what you will find when you open the book.

The book begins with a short introduction to the volume followed by eight nicely illustrated chapters entitled “What is a beetle”, “Beetle classification”, “Evolution and diversity”, “Communication, reproduction, and development”, “Defense”, “Feeding behavior”, “Beetle conservation”, and “Beetles & society”. Each chapter is accessible for the non-expert, but engaging and full of enough detailed information to also keep career entomologists and expert naturalists interested. The chapters are short, ranging from about two to six pages each; and by p.30 the real meat of the book – the description of the 600 chosen beetle species – begins. The book, at this point, is divided up into four parts covering species from the Archostemata, the Myxophaga, the Adephaga, and the Polyphaga. The latter, of course, comprise by far the largest portion of the book

If you want to take a good look at what each species page entails, you can download a PDF sample of the book here.

Each species page contains information on one beetle species, so each open pair of pages features two species. From top to bottom each page has a generalized range map (entire world minus Antarctica mapped on each page) for the species; a table of generalized taxonomic and natural history information (family, subfamily, distribution, macrohabitat, microhabitat, feeding habits, and a note); a dorsolateral line drawing of the insect along with a note on the typical adult length (sometimes for both male and female if divergent); the species name in both italics and in all caps, along with the taxonomic authority and date; a paragraph on the natural history of the insect; a paragraph detailing related species of note; a photograph of the insect at actual size; a dorsal macro photograph, always of high quality; and a small figure heading next to the macro photograph with a bit more interesting natural history.

The level of detail in both the photographs and in the text is exceptional. For the photographs, you will have to look at the sample linked above to see what I mean. In terms of the text, each and every species is a joy to read about. For instance we learn about the cigarette beetle (Lasioderma serricorne; p.372) that specimens have been found in Tutankhamun’s tomb; and that the larvae of the Florida tortoise beetle (Hemisphaerota cyanea; p.555) build up strands of their own feces over their bodies to protect themselves from enemies. And on and on it goes, page after page in rich and amazing natural historical detail.

The book ends with several short appendices including a glossary, a classification of the Coleoptera, and a list of other beetle-based resources.

This is not the sort of book that most people would likely read through one page at a time front to back and then put away. Rather, it is a book that can be read much as one might open random drawers in an entomological collection, with the benefit of having a studied natural historian at your shoulder to tell you what you are looking at. In other words, this book is a sheer pleasure to read and to look at, and everyone will learn from it. It definitely belongs in the collection of every practicing entomologist or other naturalist who is interested in insects.