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.

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.

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.

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?

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).

Of dictionaries, buttercups, and time

Perhaps it’s because I live in a small city that is variegated with forests and that is surrounded for hundreds or thousands of kilometers in each direction with wilderness.

Perhaps it’s because my own kids are fortunate enough – in this increasingly technology-cloistered time – to be able to spend large chunks of time outdoors, often with minimal adult supervision.

Perhaps it’s because I work at an institution whose founding vision was towards the natural world around us; and with immediate colleagues who all spend a great deal of their research time in the outdoors.

Perhaps it’s because I work in a field where my closest research colleagues nearby and abroad conduct much of their work in forests, fens, and farmyards.

Perhaps it’s because many of the scientists who have influenced me most – past and present – approach their craft with a view to nature in its full and complex glory.

Just look at my personal Twitter community and you will find entomologists, ecologists, zoologists, botanists, microbiologists, paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, astronomers… and the list goes on. These are all people who – while much of their work is necessarily indoors – cannot answer the questions that they ask of nature without also spending time in nature. And these are a partially representative sample of the people who have influenced me.

So I think that I am often a bit blind to the reality of much of the world where increasing detachment from nature is commonplace. A world where, to quote T.S. Eliot, we are all becoming more and more “distracted from distraction by distraction.” It’s pretty easy, but not excusable, in my situation to forget that the larger culture beyond my family, colleagues, and vocation is changing in ways that bode longterm ill.

This – perhaps subconsciously willful or wishful or wistful? – blindness on my part hit home a month or two ago when I bumped into this article by Robert MacFarlane in which he describes and eloquently comments on the removal of a variety of “nature” words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Some of those words are:

…acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.

New words have taken their place – words that are corporate-economic, screen-driven, and solitary-making.

(As an aside, I deeply shudder that “committee” is among those replacement words. Please, let children grow up without that abomination infesting them until they’re at least in high school.)

The reality, of course, is that removal of a few words by a dictionary is not the cause of the problem, it is merely a symptom. Dictionaries change over time, and they change in a way that reflects the culture in which they exist. If new words emerge and come into common usage, they may show up in a dictionary. If words become unused, they may disappear from the pages or at least be marked as archaic. So what do the recent changes to the Oxford Junior Dictionary mean? I think it’s fair to say that it means that school-aged children – the target audience of this dictionary – aren’t holding buttercups under chins. They aren’t catching amphibians. They aren’t listening to birds. They aren’t playing games among tangles of willows. They are, instead, being influenced toward corporatized indoor loneliness instead of towards a corporate outdoor solitude.

This is is not just happening to the younger generation. If each of us were honest with ourselves, I expect that many – most? all? – of us would also see a shift in our own behavior in fairly recent years. This shift is happening at a time when the conservation crisis is more dire than ever. I don’t imagine that the co-occurrence of detachment and mounting environmental crisis is merely a coincidence. A detached and consumer-driven culture is by definition concerned with distracted consuming, not mindful conserving. How could rampant consumerism, then, ever contribute to conservation of the uncommodifiable natural world? Why should we expect a commercialized, buy-and-dispose attitude to instill exuberant appreciation of nature in its citizens, young and old?

As my former Ph.D. supervisor often says (I’m paraphrasing here, and he may be quoting someone else, but I’m not aware of who that would be):

Nature always answers your question, but you need to know what your question is or you will misinterpret the answer.

My worry is that most of the people who we rub shoulders with each day are less and less equipped to even recognize that nature is speaking to us, let alone to know how to ask the correct questions. So I, along with others, interpret the unfortunate nature-stripping of the Oxford Junior Dictionary as a bellwether and a challenge. The challenge for those of us who are concerned with conservation is to step beyond our small communities, which are not representative of the rest of society, and to incrementally bring a conservation mindset to our own family, friends, and neighbors.

Our shifting culture is a reality, and it would be magical thinking to insist that things are going to change anytime soon, or ever. A few in our concerned community have larger megaphones than others, and we need to encourage and help them to get the word out. But nothing beats the influence that each of us has on our immediate community, and it is there where most of us can work effectively.

If*:

Persuasiveness ∝ (Closeness of a trusted relationship)(Efficacy of the message)

then either factor in the equation can work in our favor.

We should each do our best with efficacy, of course. But we can also take comfort in the fact that however effective our message is, its impact is going to be multiplied by by our relationships. In other words, don’t worry about how loud your megaphone is. Whispering to a close friend still has more impact than shouting in a crowded room of near-strangers.

———
*Addendum:

Time spent in relationship is a factor in the development of close trust in a relationship.

Practice is a factor in increasing the efficacy of a message, and time is a factor in practice.

So one can argue that time is a factor in persuasiveness. If that is the case, then it behooves us to dispense with looking for insta-fixes and instead buck the culture of the here-and-now for approaches in which we take time deeply into consideration.

Conservation basic training

I’m always a good several months behind in reading my National Geographic subscription. Recently I was working my way through the August 2014 issue and got to a fantastic article (I can’t remember very many National Geographic articles that aren’t fantastic) about Franz Josef Land – an isolated archipelago in Russia’s region of the Arctic Circle.

I enjoyed the entire article, of course. But a particular quote that caught me quite off guard and has caused me to ruminate for the past few days. Digesting that glossy cellulose can be difficult for gut microbes. Here’s what I read:

(National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala) was a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, teaching grad students about food webs and marine conservation but dissatisfied with his contribution to the world. “I saw myself as refining the obituary of nature, with increased precision,” he tells me during a conversation aboard the Polaris. His distress at the continuing trends of ecosystem degradation and species loss, in marine as well as terrestrial realms, led him out of academia. “I wanted to try to fix the problem,” he says. So in 2005 he assembled a SWAT team of scientists, including experts on marine microbes, algae, invertebrates, and fish, and sailed for the northern Line Islands, a remote cluster of coral outcrops in the Pacific about a thousand nautical miles south of Hawaii.

Oftentimes there is a disconnect somewhere between what a person thinks, what they say, what a journalist thinks they said, what an editor decides, and what ends up being printed on paper. I’ve experienced that, as has anyone who has been interviewed by the media for just about anything. So I’ll give Dr. Sala the benefit of the doubt here, but will comment on the way that this has been presented by National Geographic.

The implication in this clip of text, intentional or not, is that the job of teaching biology and natural history is task that does not have important conservation implications. I beg to differ.

In fact, I would argue that teaching is at least as important as data collection. Yes, there are the more obvious conservation roles that are more easily noticed than a professor in front of a lecture hall or guiding a group in the field or the lab. These include conservation officers, engaged politicians, park rangers, environment/agriculture/forestry/parks ministry employees, thoughtful farmers and foresters, academic/industry/government scientists, environmental consultants, NGO employees, public health nurses and physicians, and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. Those individuals are analogous to the soldiers fighting the battle on the front lines. But, as with any army, those front line soldiers would not do well if they were just dumped in front of the enemy with a loaded rifle and a “good luck.”

Winning battles, and ultimately winning a war, requires that soldiers be trained. Trained to operate independently. Trained to work in teams. Trained to understand the terrain. Trained to work with the equipment. Trained to get results. Academic teaching done correctly and enthusiastically – and with a focus on natural history and conservation – is a vital part of the basic training that conservation professions require in order for efficacy. Dr. Sala is undoubtedly the engaged conservationist and excellent scientist that he is in some very large part due to that basic training in an academic setting.

Beyond that, those of us who collect and synthesize data have not done our jobs completely if we do not also bring those results and their implications to a wider scientific and lay public. By participating in this National Geographic feature (indeed, by working for National Geographic) Dr. Sala has simply exchanged his teaching role from a classroom to the pages of a magazine. When we conduct research and then present it at a conference, in a scientific paper, in a classroom or field course, in a textbook, in a magazine, or on a radio or television program, we are teaching. Teaching, in whatever context, goes hand-in-hand with the scientific endeavor. I am taught when I read a colleague’s paper, even if I am reading her paper decades after she wrote it. She wrote it to teach me and others about phenomena that she had observed. When I take what I have learned from her study into the classroom and present it well, my students, I would hope, are better off for it and are better prepared as engaged conservationists as they prepare to work to protect habitats, species, ecosystems, and societies.

There is no doubt that the work of conservation in the face of massive, global anthropogenic influence is a vital and growing concern. Looking at the data, it sure seems that we are too often losing important battles. Dr. Sala is correct to be concerned about being caught up in “…refining the obituary of nature…” But the best way to stop writing that obituary is to bring the wonder and amazement and necessity of our natural world into the metaphorical “classroom” by bringing relevant research results (our own and those of others) to students. This is one of the best ways to create authentic, engaged, and active young conservationists who will fill traditional conservation roles or who will be conservation vocationists and ambassadors in whatever profession they ultimately choose.

Teaching is the hard and often unnoticed basic training work of conservation. And that’s why I choose to do it.

Goldilocks conferences

Last week I, along with dozens of Canadian entomologists, was in beautiful Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at our annual Entomological Society of Canada/Entomological Society of Saskatchewan Joint Annual Meeting. I had a great time there. There were five talks from my research program (including one of my own). I was very proud of all of my students and postdocs, as they all gave great talks. One of them, Sharleen Balogh, won the President’s Prize for her talk. And UNBC’s very own Staffan Lindgren became President of the Society for the next year.

Besides all of that, I was able to visit with many colleagues and students. We were able to “talk shop” and discuss our ideas easily, almost like an ongoing, really large lab meeting. We had time to get to know each other a bit better as actual humans, not just another name on a co-author list. And we were treated to all sorts of inspiring and informative regular talks, symposium addresses, and poster presentations. By the end of the four days in Saskatoon, I was tired but also elated at the state of entomological research and teaching in Canada. Our discipline is in very good hands for the foreseeable future, and that makes me happy.

All of this got me thinking a bit more about conferences on my plane flight back (while trying to avoid a conversation about “chem trails” with an insistent fellow sitting next to me). I’ve been to some very large conferences with attendees numbering in the thousands. And I’ve been to some very small conferences with maybe 20 or 30 attendees. The ESC JAM is an order of magnitude smaller than the former and an order of magnitude larger than the latter – nestling right into a bit of a sweet spot, in my opinion.

I do truly appreciate the smaller conferences for a number of reasons. There are no concurrent sessions, so you never are forced to miss a talk. They are really great venues for early-stage students to present their work in a thoroughly non-threatening atmosphere. They are a great place to reconnect with your closest – geographically and often in terms of discipline – colleagues. On that latter point, in a discipline like entomology where many of the issues that we deal with are regional in nature, this aspect cannot be stated too strongly. Having some time to compare notes on regional conservation or pest issues in a semi-formal setting with regional colleagues is vital.

I also like the larger conferences, but not quite as much. And the fact that I haven’t been to a large conference in several years now is perhaps a bit of a testimony to my deeper current mindset. Large conferences have the advantage of having something for everyone. With thousands of attendees giving talks or posters over a three- or four-day period, there are also many – sometimes dozens – of concurrent sessions. Organizers have a ton of resources, and they can bring in big speakers and a great trade show. This means that no matter what, I can find talks and items of interest to me at large meetings. But it also means that I feel required to preschedule myself to such an extent that it is unlikely that I’ll just stumble into a talk (or remain in a session after the talks that I was interested in) that truly but accidentally blows my mind. Pure organization is key at a large conference, and that reduces spontaneity.

I also find that I’m often more prone to being “lonesome in a crowd” at large meetings because you have to be pretty lucky to meet someone you might know just in time for lunch or dinner with so many concurrent sessions going on. Again, this can be overcome with planning (“hey, let’s meet at the registration desk for lunch at noon on Tuesday”), but does not really allow for surprise meetings with known and yet-unknown colleagues.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to large conferences. They are amazing events, and I have always benefited from being at them. But perhaps it’s my somewhat introverted tendencies that make me more comfortable at the small-to-medium-sized meetings. It’s at those venues that I find that I can see presentations that are both exactly relevant to my work and also tangentially interesting. I can easily meet with people who I know. I can meet a few who I didn’t know before. And I can make a gracious retreat when I’m feeling a bit tired of interacting.

Ultimately I suppose that each of us has a Goldilocks Zone for preferred meeting size. Mine generally matches what I experienced last week. Preferences, of course, will vary. And the benefits of all meeting sizes mean that we should all also step away from our personal Goldilocks Zone from time-to-time to experience meetings of all sorts.

(And a quick addendum: Thanks so much to the organizers of the ESC-ESS JAM 2014. Having been part of an organizing team in the past, I realize how much work that was. I hope that you all are feeling proud of the great work that you did, because that was an excellent meeting all around.)