Under the big sky

Anyone who has grown up on the prairie knows that it is not the sort of place that is easy to capture in a few words. Upon first glance, of course, it is a simple place. Mainly flat. A few trees here and there. Not extravagant like the mountains, nor mysterious like the forest, nor boisterous like the ocean. Even the word “prairie” is unbecoming. Two syllables, quickly and quietly said. Of course, those of us who have spent ample time on the prairie can easily tell others that this apparent subtlety is just that – apparent. If you have ever experienced the full blast of a January blizzard, or if you have stood under those never-ending blue summer skies, or if you have watched a pronghorn skim across an expanse, you know that the prairie is a glorious and amazing place. While appearing subdued, it is anything but. Even after so many decades of intense human influence, it is still a place of beauty and wonder with a powerful story to tell.

Telling that story, and telling it well, is certainly a gargantuan task. But it is one that Candace Savage has accomplished in her book “Prairie: A Natural History” (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation, 2011, 320 pp, ISBN: 1553655885). I ran into this book via my local library, and I’m glad that I did because I have appreciated reading every page of it.

One interwoven message in the book is that the North American grasslands are likely the most human-impacted ecosystem on earth but that they and their denizens are also (so far) highly resilient. In much of the prairie – particularly the tallgrass prairie – it is difficult or impossible to still find substantial areas that remain fairly untouched. That said, however, it is amazing that there have also been very few known extinctions – passenger pigeons and the Rocky Mountain locust being the most obvious examples that Savage notes. In all honesty, this outcome is probably more due to dumb luck as it is to good planning or a cautious approach to development. This is particularly the case when you consider that this is an ecosystem (or, actually, a collection of interrelated and distinct ecosystems) that has historically received short shrift. Early on in her book Savage quotes Daniel Webster:

What do we want with this vast worthless area; this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?

Even John James Audubon while in the Dakotas wrote:

The prairies around us are the most arid and dismal you can conceive of. In fact these prairies (so called) look more like great deserts.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

So it is not a surprise that the Great Plains have been used and abused by settlers and their descendants for most of the past couple of centuries. Throughout the book, Savage details changes in human land use patterns that were driven by economics, societal changes, shifts in technology, and legislation. In each case she draws attention to particular flora and fauna that benefit – or seem to benefit – and those that lose out. And in doing so she shows the extent that all of life – human and otherwise – is deeply connected as far as the grass grows and the wind blows.

Implied in much of that story is the fact that settlers have rarely given much thought to their actions beyond their own benefit and perhaps the first rank of consequences (if that). What would it mean to other predators (foxes, coyotes, and others) to extirpate wolves from most of the Great Plains? What birds would benefit, and which ones would lose out, with new crops or cropping practices? What do tillage practices and the introduction of vast monocultures mean for the native pollinators and their plants? What does our profligate use of surface and aquifer water and damming of rivers mean for aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, sturgeon, and other fish? In the Great Plains Anthropocene it has been rare for such questions to have been asked. And while that is hopefully changing, nowhere on earth is it etched more deeply than on the tablet of the prairie.

Savage works her way through the natural history of the prairie from its deep history and geological formation, to its soils, its meteorology, its plants and its animals of all conceivable types, and to our collective human influence, past and present. Throughout this epic journey across time and space – accompanied by many maps and amazing photographs – she brings out the wonder and beauty of this dynamic landscape and its inhabitants. Every story weaves into the next with nary a seam, and each chapter builds from start to end. There were times in her writing where I could practically smell the spring cottonwood buds while watching American white pelicans fly by my favorite fishing hole on the Bow River. At other times the melody of red-winged blackbirds called out from the cattails of the pages. My guess is that this book will speak most deeply to those of us who have deeply experienced the prairies, but that it will also draw out a new appreciation in those who have spent little or no time there at all.

Most of all, this book is a book of hope. As a young boy driving with my family across Alberta and Saskatchewan I often dreamed of what it would be like to see the prairie open and unfenced. Those days are not going to return again soon, if ever. But the prairie is still there in river valleys and along ridges, along the side of highways, in aspen groves, and in a few conserved expanses. And the more people who realize its beauty and its vital function (beyond food, and now fuel, production) in our lives, the more likely we will be to live to see more of it conserved.

Savage opens her final chapter of the book as follows:

In a century when the natural world is slowly dying all around us – when wildness has been pushed to the margins – the wide open spaces of the Great Plains are a landscape of hope. Here is an ecosystem that has experienced the full onslaught of modernization in one brief historical instant and that, though battered and torn, still inspires us with its splendor. This is a country filled with light. It is a place where city streets flow out onto the prairie and draw us along until, almost before we know it, we find ourselves rolling down a dusty gravel road, with warm gusts of meadowlark song blowing in through the open window. It is land where the seasons surge over us like tides, from the sudden upwelling of spring to the languid heat of summer and from the rushing retreat of autumn to the great sparking silence of winter.

Hope, indeed! I highly recommend this book; and then I even more strongly recommend that you find a way to take some time in your future to physically read and enjoy the book of nature spread out before you under a vast dome of sky.

Beetle Byte (28 October 2014 edition)

“Ancient” data; ancient DNA; zombies; other algae-covered creatures… and more.


“Ancient” satellite images

‘All of it’ turned out to be 25 boxes full of tins containing several thousand 60-metre rolls of photos, and quickly-deteriorating magnetic film with infrared imagery – unopened, and labeled with useless information on orbit numbers rather than locations. But the prize was too great, and he was running out of time: with the surviving NASA scientists who had taken the original images well into their 80s, he knew it wasn’t long before the knowledge he needed to decipher the data would be gone forever.


It makes sense to be slothful

Slowness is the ultimate weapon in an evolutionary war against eagle-eyed, fleet-footed predators. What better way to blend in with the forest than to cosy up with algae and fungi. Ritual defecation is the sloth equivalent of speed dating, just without the speed.



This morning, our friend Rebecca at Calipidder alerted us via a Facebook post to a woman named Casey Nocket who had traveled to the west coast from New York for a few weeks. Ms. Nocket had been enjoying her time in the outdoors so much that she decided to document her trip on Instagram. And apparently Nocket was so moved by all the natural beauty she saw that she just had to paint all over it.


Fossil forest… in a mine

But it was a different thing entirely when John Nelson and Scott Elrick, geologists with the Illinois State Geological Survey, examined the Riola and Vermilion Grove coal mines in eastern Illinois. Etched into ceilings of the mine shafts is the largest intact fossil forest ever seen—at least four square miles of tropical wilderness preserved 307 million years ago. That’s when an earthquake suddenly lowered the swamp 15 to 30 feet and mud and sand rushed in, covering everything with sediment and killing trees and other plants. “It must have happened in a matter of weeks,” says Elrick. “What we see here is the death of a peat swamp, a moment in geologic time frozen by an accident of nature.”


In time for Hallowe’en… zombie corals

Last year, marine biologist Peter Mumby took a dive into the Rangiroa lagoon, in French Polynesia. What he saw shocked him so much he thought he might be lost.He’d expected to be surrounded by death, by a reef of dying coral whose skeletons were slowly crumbling into the sea. Instead, majestic, olive-green Porites corals, the size of large hippos, carpeted the sea floor, providing a playground for parrotfishes and the occasional shark that weaved between the cauliflower-shaped giants.


You won’t catch me doing this

The 57-year-old leapt out in a specially-designed space suit, reaching speeds of more than 1,300km/h. He exceeded the speed of sound, setting off a small sonic boom, and set several skydiving records in the process.


Human evolution is always fascinating

But Petraglia sees Ust’-Ishim’s genome differently. “I think this is part of a population boom that’s going on around 45,000 years ago, which means modern humans got to the ends of the world by 45,000 years ago,” he says. Their numbers might have swamped human populations that arrived in earlier migrations.

Book review: Translations from Bark Beetle by Jody Gladding

While many people don’t think about it too much, insects are extraordinarily communicative animals. Perhaps this tends to escape notice because, as with most animal communication, the “speakers” and “listeners” use forms of language that are wholly unfamiliar to us. Insects use chemical pheromones, vibrations in the air (sound) and through solids and liquids, visual cues, and touch. And oftentimes, just like we do when we talk and simultaneously gesture, they will use two or more of these methods at once to transmit complex messages.

Bark beetles are no exception to this. In terms of chemical communication, they are one of the longest-studied insect groups. This is because learning how to mimic their chemical “words and sentences” can also help us to control their behavior. Bark beetles are an important part of any ecosystem in which they are found, but they can also be very economically destructive. They use their chemical language to, among other things, coordinate their often-fatal mass attacks on trees so that they can mate and their larvae can eat the tree’s tissues. Much of the research into bark beetle pheromone communication has been done with at least a background objective of developing new and better control methods. That is, if we can figure out how the insects are communicating with each other, we can send them false messages to lure them into traps, force them away from trees, or at least monitor their presence or absence in a forest or city park.

Bark beetles also “communicate” with researchers. One of the best things about working with this group of insects is that once they attack a tree, the parents and then the hatched brood etch their marks on the wood of the tree as they mine through the tissues just under the bark. The under-the-bark patterns of bark beetle galleries are about as diverse as the number of bark beetle species. In general terms, one or both of the parents excavate a main gallery, the female lays eggs on the walls of that tunnel, and then the hatched larvae bore outwards from the parental gallery. This means that an interested observer can strip back the bark of a tree – whether attacked recently or in the rather distant past – and can measure the length of the parental gallery and the length and number of the larval galleries. These measurements and counts give information on the number of eggs laid, the number of larvae hatched, and the success of the larvae among other things.

In other words, the beetles etch their story onto the wood, and we can read these “messages” as well as we can read a book.

Of course this isn’t real communication, per se, because the insects are not really passing a message on to the observer… or are they? Do the insects have something to say to us? What are they (collective) saying? These are questions Jody Gladding implicitly asks in her volume of poetry entitled “Translations from Bark Beetle”.

The cover of this book is the first thing that grabs the viewer – perhaps particularly if the viewer is an entomologist (click the thumbnail above to enlarge). The cover features pinned adult specimens of Hylurgopinus rufipes (a.k.a. the native elm bark beetle or the american elm bark beetle) and Scolytus multistriatus (a.k.a., the European elm bark beetle) along with an example of a bark beetle gallery etching. And this visual is the first poetic feature of the book. Here we see, juxtaposed, two insects that infest elms, but one that is supposed to be in North America sitting next to one that should never have arrived on our shores. The native elm bark beetle is a part of the system. While it can be destructive from a human perspective, it does what it has always done where it has always done it. The European elm bark beetle, on the other hand, is not supposed to be here, is not a natural component of the North American ecosystem, and is, if anything, even more destructive than its native cousin. The cover’s visual poetics, then, reveal that what we see as “natural” or “unnatural” (or “artificial”) may in fact have overtly similar symptoms, but that the deep reality differs in ways that matter.

And it is this deep reality that Gladding seeks throughout this volume. Bark beetle translations bookend this volume with a variety of other poems in between. In each case of bark beetle translation Gladding includes a rubbing of a gallery system and then provides the translation of the beetle-collective poetry. Gladding provides some indication of how she went about the translation, including this:

Certain elements of the grammar make translating Bark Beetle problematic. There are only two verb tenses: the cyclical and the radiant. Prepositional phrases figure prominently and seem necessary for a complete syntactical unit. The same pronoun form (indicated as •) is used for the first and second person in singular, plural, and all cases.

It is difficult – impossible, actually – to recreate any examples of the bark beetle poetry sufficiently in a blog format as the lineation necessarily follows the organized-but-chaotic shapes of the galleries. Certain sections stand out on their own, however, including this one from “Engraver Beetle Cycle”:

• think •’m repeating m•yself/there are rumors of flight and fungi/(of light and lying)/the death of a tree’s

“(R)umors of flight and fungi”… exactly what one might expect the yet-to-metamorphose larval collective under the bark to consider. This presents us with the question of what we (plural) contemplate in our (plural) larval stage, for ours is a continual procession of metamorphoses, whether we are willing to recognize that fact or not.

Ultimately the best way to appreciate the poems in their entirety along with the accompanying rubbings – besides buying the book, which I highly recommend you do – would be to take a look at a sample of the poetry linked at this page at Milkweed Editions. That short sample exemplifies the physical-natural aspect of Gladding’s poetry. In other instances she creates poems on objects – natural and artificial – ranging from eggs to tongue depressors to slate to change-of-address forms. This interplay between natural and artificial is a theme throughout the volume.

Some, maybe many, of poems seem playful on first glance – for instance “quarrying” poems from Robert Frost  – but contain a poignant, serious depth that is apparent with close contemplation. While this entire volume could be read in one sitting, each piece could, and should, be chewed and digested slowly, slowly. To riff on the natural/artificial divide, this volume is not a Big Mac that you devour in a rush. Rather it is a hearty soup and fresh bread eaten alongside conversation with good friends and a bottle of fine wine.

I will close by pointing to one of my favorite poems in this excellent collection. In “Look Inside to See if You’ve Won” Gladding shines a glaring light on the uncaring effect of human artifice on the natural. Describing blundering cars, big box stores, and fast food in the midst of a flight of butterflies being crushed on radiator grilles she writes:

                        The butterflies were not trying to tell us
anything and anyway we wouldn’t have noticed. It was
such a pretty drive.

If you think that short passage stings, buy the book, slowly chew that whole poem as a bark beetle would work its way through the tissues of a tree. And then go on to digest the rest of them. Slowly, slowly.

Translations from Bark Beetle, by Jody Gladding, is published by Milkweed Editions and is available from Milkweed Editions, your local bookseller, or various online sources. A Q&A with Jody Gladding, along with links to further written and spoken examples of her poetry, can be found at the book description page.

Beetle Byte (21 October 2014 edition)

Porcupines? Spiders? Canadian inside baseball politics stuff? Yes!


Ok, here’s the porcupine (video)

Pumpkin, pumpkin, and more pumpkin! What respectable porcupine could resist this Halloween feast?


So, about that big spider

For some reason, probably related to the proximity of Halloween, my blog post about the Goliath birdeater spider received an inordinate amount of attention, and has been republished, reinterpreted, outright stolen, and vilified all over the Internet. This one post on my obscure blog is now receiving in excess of 120,000 unique visits every day, and comments are pouring in. Alas, most of them are somewhat less than positive, and I am beginning to wonder if I really am a “HORRIBLE person” who “will destroy the earth.” (I must admit that some of the trolls were touchingly tactful – they might have said ” F&*K you, a$$hole”, but they modified the foul words as not to offend my sensibility.) But why the vitriol?


Trust me on this: Canadian politics are interesting

Forty-seven years ago, perhaps in the outsized spirit of Expo 67, the retired major general and author Richard Rohmer put forward a bold proposal in Mid-Canada Development Corridor: A Concept. It described a vast landmass stretching from Newfoundland and Labrador across Quebec, Ontario, and the Prairies, to British Columbia and up through Northwest Territories and Yukon, occupying the area between southern settlements and the treeline—a band dominated by boreal forest. His idea was to implement a national strategy to develop and populate it.


Anti-vaccine politics

What about those red states? Texas does have a lack of people being vaccinated, but defenders of anti-vaccine progressives are choosing to skew the statistics there. We want to think about people exempting their kids, not to try and claim that poor people whose children did not get a Hep B vaccine at 19 months of age is the same as Jenny McCarthy. Legitimate medical exemptions are why we want herd immunity for people will immune issues and Texas leads in those. California, on the other hand, has 8X as many ‘philosophical’ exemptions as Texas has medical ones. There is a big difference between a school-age child whose parents have chosen not to get a vaccine and an illegal immigrant or a poor person who cannot afford it.


“Antisocial networks” (video)

You need not delete your social networks or destroy your cell phones, the message is simple, be balanced, be mindful, be present, be here.

Beetle Byte (14 October 2014 edition)

Yesterday the Canadian readers of this blog had their turkey bites. Today, everyone gets some beetle bytes!


A report from the Endangered Species Coalition

Vanishing: Ten American Species Our Children May Never See


Time to say good-bye to the tumbling tumbleweed

Dana Berner wants to start an epidemic among tumbleweeds. Berner is a pathologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service who studies the diseases that afflict plants. One of his projects has been a search for something that’s able to infect and kill the iconic, spiny, rolling weed of the American West.


Take a look at this beautiful creature

When threatened, P. wahlbergii exhibits deimatic behavior, a threatening and startling response intended to discourage predators.  The mantis spreads out its body, raises its forelimbs, and opens its magnificent wings to expose patterns which resemble two large eyes.


12 tips for talking to science faculty about new teaching strategies (by Terry McGlynn)

Don’t push technology as a solution to a pedagogical challenge. We’d like to see what works, but not to have it marketed to us. (For example, tell us about clickers. But don’t claim that they make students learn better, because they don’t. They promote active learning, problem-solving and reflection, which causes learning. Scientists dislike false claims that often accompany technological promises.)


North Korea’s “Winston Smith”

Because Jang was required to write in a foreign style, he was one of the few people in the country permitted to read South Korean newspapers. Jang was shocked to learn that everything he’d learned as a child was a lie — and that South Korea was a thriving democracy many times more rich than its northern counterpart. More shocking still, he learned, writers in South Korean newspapers were permitted to criticize the government, a capital offense in North Korea. (In fact, everything in North Korea is a capital offense, as a sampling of public posters described in the book attests: “Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Disobey Traffic Rules!” “Death by Firing Squad to Those Who Waste Electricity!” “Death by Firing Squad To Those Who Gossip!”)


A great primer on the poetic line

If you want to understand poetry, and maybe learn how to write it, you definitely want to learn about the different kinds of poetic lines and the uses of line breaks in poetry. The more poetry you read, the more you’ll notice some poets use short lines, some use long, some set all the lines on the left side of the page, and some indent lines differently all over the page. The relationship between the poetic line (including its length and positioning and how it fits into other lines) and the content of a poem is a major aspect of poetry. Some critics go so far as to say that lineation is the defining characteristic of poetry, and many would say it’s certainly one major difference between most poetry and prose.

To whom it may concern

Throughout the year, but particularly during certain periods when students are applying to graduate or professional schools, I am asked to write reference letters or to fill out reference reports. As a faculty member, this is one of those jobs that can be a positive experience or, frankly, less than positive. But in either case, writing reference letters and reports is an expected responsibility of my job, and one in which I take considerable pride in putting out a good product. The quality of a reference letter says almost as much about the referee as it does about the applicant.

When I am writing about excellent students who I know well – e.g., students who have committed substantial time and effort to our research program here and whom I have interacted with on a regular basis – I find this to be a pleasant task. However things become much more difficult, verging on near-impossible, if all that I know about a student is that they were in my class and they received a particular mark.

One of the biggest questions that a student should consider before asking a faculty member to write a letter for them is “does this person know anything about me other than a mark that I received in their class?” This means that the student should also begin to think about references early in their undergraduate career. So they should also ask themselves, “if I were an employer or on a professional/graduate school selection committee, what sort of references would I take most seriously?”

Having been on the committee side of the reference letter equation, I know that letters from referees who have had substantial experience with the candidate are taken far more seriously than are more tangential relationships. Any good reference form asks for how I know the applicant, and for how long; and I always make that sort of statement in letters that I write. And most good reference forms give the option of “have not observed” when asking for rankings of various criteria. Too many “have not observed” marks on a completed form tells the committee that the referee knows only very little about the applicant.

When I write a reference letter, I commit to:

  • being completely honest and enthusiastic about what I see as the candidate’s strengths and other indicators of excellence.
  • being equally honest about anything that I feel the candidate needs to work on, particularly in light of the position that they are applying for. My credibility relies on my honesty, and I will be fully honest.
  • delivering a letter or report that is clear, concise, and professional. I will ensure that whatever is asked for will be delivered in an appropriate manner and that the output will be a credit to the candidate’s application package.
  • delivering the letter or report on time. I will not irritate selection committees by being “that” referee who they have to badger for a report.
  • ensuring, if possible, that my snail mail or electronic letter reaches the recipients. Some organizations make this possible, others don’t. But if and when I verify that the letter has arrived, I will also notify the applicant so that they can cross it off of their to-do list. I will definitely notify the applicant that I have sent off the reference letter.

I expect the applicant to:

  • think carefully – before approaching me for a letter – about whether or not I will have enough information to be able to write anything that will be useful for the selection committee.
  • work with me to find a time to sit down and have a discussion about their plans, if we haven’t talked about this in the past. This allows me to write in a credible fashion and perhaps even include some tangential-but-relevant information that committees like to read about.
  • provide me with unofficial transcripts if I request them. It’s hard for me to say much about what courses an applicant has taken and their trajectory over the course of a degree if I don’t have this information.
  • ask me for the reference with sufficient time to spare before the deadline. In all honesty, if I don’t feel that I can write a good letter in the time that I am given, I will say no to the request. And keep in mind that reference letter requests often come near or during the end-of-semester rush when professors are under as much pressure as are students. Any deadline that is less than a week away is more than likely too little time, because by that time much of my upcoming week is already planned out.
  • realize that if I don’t know them other than from a mark in a course, that I will do my best but will not be able to say much, if anything, beyond what their transcript tells me. The applicant should also then realize that my letter may be of less value to the committee than would be one from someone who knows them better.

Reference letters are an important part of career progression, and I take this task very seriously.

I’d be interested to hear from others – applicants and referees – who may want to add to either of my lists.

Beetle Byte (19 September 2014 edition)

(Extinct) grizzlies, maybe-extinct aliens (or us?), prairie plants and pollinators, pollinator (and other insect) poetry, and a bit of balance.

Cloak and dagger natural history in California

When Johnson and Grinnell returned to Booth’s shop to follow up, they found Booth with a cleaned skull, which he promised to hand over when the job was done. But Grinnell recognized that the specimen was the skull of a polar bear. Grinnell kept quiet—he worried that confronting Booth would only diminish his chances of ever getting the real grizzly skull. Later Booth told Grinnell that if he wanted the skull (the polar bear skull that he was falsely presenting as a grizzly skull), he would have to bid against Grinnell’s good friend Frank S. Daggett at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art.


ET may not be as nice as the creature in the movie

Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life—a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth)—who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck.


You’ll probably spend the rest of your afternoon on this site.

Museums across Canada protect and preserve collections of plants and insects along with their collection data. These data are used to help scientists determine habitat preferences, and changes in species’ distribution and abundance over time. These specimens are therefore used to determine whether a species is in danger of becoming extinct! The gallery pages for each species will allow you to see actual Museum research specimens and photographs of the organisms in a natural setting.


Every insect order, in verse.

Now he is taking on insects in poetry as third co-editor of a new eBook called The American Entomologist Poet’s Guide to the Order of Insects, which includes about 90 poems that date from the seventeenth century up to the present, with at least one poem for each insect order. Contributors include three U.S. Poets Laureate (W. S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, and Ted Kooser), and luminaries such as John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Jonathan Swift, John Donne, and many others.



There is a blending of work and life that woos us with its promise of barbecues at work and daytime team celebrations at movie theaters, but we’re paying for it in another way: a complete eradication of the line between home life and work life. “Love what you do,” we say. “Get a job you don’t want to take a vacation from,” we say—and we sit back and watch the retweets stream in.

I don’t like it.


How to unplug. For a year.

One night, late in the summer of 2012, discussion at my dinner table turned to the venerable topic of What to Be When You Grow Up. My older son, Griffin, then nine years old, wanted to be an “underwater paleontologist.” His little brother, Huck, then seven, wanted to be a monkey.

“Do you know what I do for a living?” I asked Huck.

His eyes grew wide. “All you do is sit on your computer and say, ‘Blah blah blah Congress, blah blah blah Mitt Romney’!”

Beetle Byte (9 September 2014 edition)

You never know when you’ll be bytten by a beetle. Turns out, today’s the day!

Canada’s coolest university towns

The Spruce Capital of the North (pop. 84,000) – locally known as PG or the Notorious P-I-G – is a frontier town turned fun zone. Surrounded by ancient forests and mountain peaks, the green-minded University of Northern British Columbia combines small class sizes with the great outdoors: on a clear day on campus, you can see all the way to the McGregor Range. Just watch for wandering moose on the hike up to school.


Get your hands dirty

“We don’t yet know how much exposure to environmental bacteria (for example, through activities that involve contact with the soil) is enough to confer health benefits,” says Lowry. “It is clear, however, that exposure through breathing or consuming specific types of environmental organisms has the capacity to reduce inflammation and confer health benefits.”


Experience dirt by getting out to play

“Parents should think about why their child is in a particular program and whose needs are being served,” she says. “Is the program to keep the child busy while the parent is busy? Is it something the child really wants to do? If so, how much time is taken up with activities during the week? Is it reasonable? Does the child have time to complete school work and take responsibilities for other commitments at home? What about time to engage in simple play?”


You’re going to have to wait awhile to read this

A forest has been planted in Norway, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.


Poetry, translated from original bark beetle inscriptions

Translations from Bark Beetle (Milkweed Editions) is made up of two basic types of poems. In the first, Gladding translates notations left by bark beetle (those squiggly inscribed lines one sometimes sees in wood) into poetry; and in the second, she inscribes her own poems on natural materials such as quarried slate or found objects—a pair of tongue depressors, for example, or a scan from a doctor’s office. The collection is an ambitious work that presses the reader to see and read language (and resituate it in the world) anew.

Addressing each other

After many years of postsecondary education, there came a day in the Convocation Mall at Simon Fraser University when a hood was dropped over my head, I shook hands with my graduate supervisor, and I was given the right to refer to myself as Dr. Huber. Getting to that point was no small feat. It meant spending more time in school and living in general privation than many of my friends who chose different career paths. It meant periods of high levels of stress (candidacy exam, I’m looking at you). It meant taking on a career where landing a job was in no way a given. And it meant hours, days, weeks, and years of intense study.

On the other hand, I was studying subjects that fully intrigued me. I was able to spend large amounts of time doing field work in the forests of southern and central British Columbia that I love so much. I made lifelong friends. I received, and continue to receive, amazing mentorship from some incredible scholars who I’ve met along the way. And many of those people have become close friends as well. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

The moment I was given the title “Dr.” I knew that it represented all of those things. The hard times and the good. The failures and the successes. The friends I had made and would made. The continuation of my journey as a scholar. Because of all of that, I took the title seriously then, and I take it seriously now.

Some folks reading this will likely currently be thinking “elitist.” And I hope that I don’t come across that way in this post. If you know me personally, you will also know that I work to stay as far away from that charge as possible. If you don’t know me, please bear with me for the remainder of this post and see if your mind is changed.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, thanks to one of my friends and excellent colleagues, Bill Owen, I read a great piece by Katrina Gulliver entitled “Too Much Informality,” and it really hit home because it’s exactly what I have said and thought for a long time. I would like to support her excellent and comprehensive thoughts and perhaps add a few of mine.

So, I’ll start with this: In the academy, professors with PhDs or MDs (or similar) should be referred to by undergraduates as “Dr.” Other instructors with varying academic qualifications should be referred to as “Ms.” or “Mr.” This includes, I believe, TAs.

And, while I have been completely remiss in doing this, Dr. Gulliver points out that it’s a two-way street. Professors and other instructors should really be addressing undergraduate students as “Mr.” or “Ms.” as well. While it’s too late for this semester and precedents have already been set, I plan to think about this more and potentially implement it in upcoming teaching semesters.

I should note that I have spent time, as a student, in just such a system. For a period in 1989 my family lived in what was then the final days of the entity that we knew as West Germany. I attended “gymnasium,” which is pretty much the equivalent of what we call high school in North America. There we called all of our teachers “Herr” or “Frau.” In return they addressed us a “Fraulein” (“Miss”) or “Herr.” I don’t know if this style of classroom address is still in practice in Germany, but if it is I am guessing that 25 years later “Fraulein” has chaged to “Frau.”

While, to a North American, it seemed rather stiff and formal at the time, I also saw a level of two-way respect in my classrooms that I had never experienced in high school back in Canada. Some time thereafter I completed my undergraduate studies in zoology at the University of Calgary, and we certainly called all of our professors “Dr.” back then.

Then there is today, and the pendulum has swung all the way the other direction. In fact, even my 5-year old son in preschool is asked to call his teachers there by their first names. This amazes me, and I’m not sure that it is the best thing, because from preschool to the senior year in university, the classroom is a place of professional activity and a place where respect is required to flow in both directions.

What are the main reasons that I prefer to be called “Dr.” in my undergraduate classroom?

Privilege – Dr. Gulliver outlines this reason well, so please read her piece. It is easy for those of us who are privileged by gender, race, or various accidents of genetics or birth to not notice the struggles that our fellow professors and instructors go through. Respect comes to us easily, but not always to our colleagues. When we downgrade our own title for the sake of fostering a more informal atmosphere in the classroom – as noble as the intent may be – it has knock-on effects for others. It’s not possible to force anyone to use a title that they would prefer not to use, but it would be good for some of us to think about the effect that not doing so has on others. Of all of the arguments, this is the one that carries the most weight for me, and is the one that I hope others contemplate the most.

Professional distance – When I visit my physician, I always refer to him as “Dr.” I know his first name. Academically we are equals. But it is a situation of a power imbalance. And it is a situation where he may need to be completely frank with me about my health or a treatment plan. We are not buddies, and it is a a professional relationship. In the same way, while I really do like my students and often have a great time in class discussions with them, we are in a professional relationship in that situation. Ultimately I need to assess their proficiency in the subject matter, and I need to do it without bias. We, too, are in an imbalanced power situation. Students also need to respect the time that I spend preparing for class, and should show that they are prepared as well. Referring to each other as “Dr.” or “Ms.”/”Mr.” reminds us all that, while learning is a complete rush, there is serious side to it as well.

Signal of maturation for later-stage students – You may have noticed that I have been writing in the context of undergraduate students. When I arrived in graduate school instead of calling professors “Dr.” we were encouraged to call them by their first name. It was a signal that we, as graduate students, were seen as maturing as scholars and on a road toward becoming scholarly peers with our professors. In the same way I ask graduate students to address me by my first name. My policy goes even a bit further than that – I encourage undergraduates working in my research group to call me by my first name as well. That is because such work is a first step beyond their undergraduate lives and into the uncertainty and reward of scholarly pursuit.

Respect – I do my utmost to show respect to students in my class. I am sure that I could do better, and I work on that at all times. But when I receive an email with the salutation “Yo Dez!” (true story), I do not feel that respect is being reciprocated. In fact, I feel just the opposite. And, getting back to the idea of privilege, I am sure that others run into much, much worse than “Yo!”

I know that this post is not going to be popular with everyone who reads it. Some of you probably still think that I’m an ivory tower elitist. I simply ask that you think about it, and feel free to discuss it in the comments below or elsewhere. Perhaps those of us who think this way are wrong. Opinions and practice always vary, so I’d love to hear from anyone who feels that substantial informality in the classroom is the best policy. Until I’m convinced, though, I prefer to be called “Dr.” in a professional setting.

My favorite Christmas present

Either I’m over two months late in writing this little blog post, or else I am 9.5 months early (only 292 shopping days left). You pick. I’ll take the latter.

At Christmas I’m generally the kind of guy who’s happy with some new wool socks, a glass of egg nog, and watching the kids play. This year, however, by far my favorite gift has been a book entitled “Natural History: The Ultimate Visual Guide to Everything on Earth” given to me by my lovely wife. This book is completely epic. It was put together with help from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History. And it is stunning. Just plain stunning. There is not a page of this book that you can turn to where you won’t be completely amazed by the amazing diversity, color, and various facts about life (and other things) on earth. If you want to see for yourself, head over to the Amazon page for the book; there are a few sample pages there.

“Natural History” covers everything that you can imagine; the claim of “everything on earth” is not far off of the mark. There are excellent sections on evolutionary and geological history. There are impressive phylogenetic trees (the details of which I’m sure everyone will argue about). There are well-written essays about large-scale topics, and there are pages and pages and pages and pages of stunning photography. The book covers minerals, rocks, fossils, archaea, bacteria, protists, plants of all types, and a ton of animals. If it resides on our planet and you can imagine it, it – or one of its close representatives – is there. Besides the many pages covered in photographs and facts, there are also focus pages that feature one particular species of interest. One of the really amazing things about this book, if you think about it, is that even as massive a tome as it is, it doesn’t come close to covering what we know about the world, let alone what we don’t know or don’t even know that we don’t know.

And yes, this is a massive book. It’s not the sort of thing that you can comfortably read while sprawled on the sofa. Nor is it written to encourage linear reading, which is a good thing because the size would be prohibitive. I like to think of it as a nightly trip to a fantastic museum, and indeed, upon entering its front door I feel as though I’m browsing around the Smithsonian. I tend to open it up either randomly or to some group or topic that I happen to be interested in, and just see where my reading leads me. Each “specimen” has a short blurb of information associated with it. Often those little bits of information have prompted me to do a bit of deeper digging (PDF) on things that catch my eye, and in that way this book has taken me on some really interesting trips into nature.

Winter is coming to an end here in the northern hemisphere, and we’re all going to get out a bit more in the coming months. All of the animals and plants that we love will be making their annual reappearance. I’m guessing that my copy of this book will see a bit of an hiatus in use over the next while, but it has been a great companion during these past winter months, reminding me of all of the life that’s been sleeping under the snow and waiting to greet me soon.