Explorer’s Log, 8 June 2023

This entry continues the story of the Walker explorations, following the one posted on March 13

The Walker

Stitched up. Somehow in 50 years of living, these were my first stitches. I’ve had plenty of bruises and scrapes, and a few minor bone fractures. But no previous major lacerations. Maybe this means I’ve been too cautious and should fling myself harder at life.

Buki is safely back at home, bleary-eyed and sad this early hour of the morning as I depart again for the Walker. It’s always difficult for a dog to be left at home. To Buki, it means she’s rejected while the rest of the pack (me, solo in this case) heads out for the excitement of exploring and (to a dog’s understanding of the world) the hunt. But in this case, after Buki’s intense experiences in the Walker over the previous two days, I’m sure she feels especially devastated to be left out of the trip. But it just wasn’t going to work out between her and the big, rambunctious, intimidating dogs at the accommodations.

Now the rest of this trip is a hobbling job on my cut and patched-up foot. It hurts, but there’s a job to do, and it doesn’t matter very much how I feel. I won’t remember the pain after the wound heals.

After four hours of driving, I meet Shane in the town of Mcbride for breakfast at the Beanery 2 Bistro, a favourite of mine. It’s a cafe in a historic train station, filled with train lore, paintings, knick-knacks, potted plants, and antiques. The ultimate reason why I became a botanist is because I’m drawn to the dazzling variety of the world’s plants, and this cafe, with its packed yet tidy decor appeals to that same sense of fascination I have in all arrays of variation. There’s a lot for the eye to explore all along the walls. The proprietors are kind people, the food and coffee are good, and it’s where you can sit back and chat with the locals. The diners at the table next to Shane and me strike up a conversation with us, first about fire fighting (that’s another story). And then they express curiosity about what we’re up to. I mention the Walker project, and they lean in to the conversation, eager to express their admiration for that nearby wilderness. They hunt, they explore. They know the wilds. I like this town.

It’s time to go. There’s work to do. We drive up the Walker Forest Service Road to get our first look at the western edge of the study area. There’s a lot for my eye to take note of, as always on these summer days in the wilds. If you take most people and place them where I’m standing, and then ask them to look at what I’m seeing and describe it all, they would report “trees”. Asked what else they see, “um…mountains?”. What else? “Aaah, a butterfly!”. And that’s all good. Great, in fact. But they will never see much more than that. But if you bring in a birder, they’ll rattle off the names of warblers, sparrows, flycatchers, raptors, ducks, all kinds of species I can’t even identify, let alone notice. I have a botanist’s senses. It does my work no good to notice the mobile beings. For me, motion is distracting, so I filter it out. When the wind blows through the grasses, I have to see only the grasses, not the grasses in motion. I have to filter out the flights and songs of birds; they’re distracting. But I’m happy to complement the work of birders.

Ever heard of the “Invisible Gorilla Experiment”? It’s a psychological demonstration of selective attention. The subjects are asked to watch a video showing several crowded basketball players passing two balls. Half the players are wearing black shirts, and half wear white shirts. The experimental subjects are asked to count how many times white-shirts pass a ball by the end of the video. In this short video, someone in a gorilla suit walks into the middle of the crowd, looks right at the camera, drums their chest, and then walks onward out of view. When asked if there was anything odd about the video, only half reported the gorilla. The rest were too focused on the action to see the ridiculously obvious. Even when told that there would be a gorilla in the video, many did not see the gorilla. I quickly lost count of how many times white-shirts passed the ball; I found that boring and couldn’t force myself to concentrate on all that commotion. I was more interested in the players’ hair, their slouched posture, the colours of their pants, their frumpy shirts, the letter S scrawled on the wall behind them, the scuffed floor, the ugly portals (elevator doors?), and then, obviously, the gorilla. I noticed nothing about the two balls, who had them, who passed to whom how many times.

This describes how I see the world. My selective attention goes for the colours, the patterns, the lines, the shapes, the variation. And so I see the grasses as if they were stationary, even in a stiff wind. A botanist with a trained eye scarcely notices the bird’s flight across the view of the grasses. A good birder sees the bird’s flight and ignores the grasses and all else that is affixed to the ground. I see the gorilla. The passing of the basketballs is irrelevant and uninteresting. I never could get interested in basketball–it’s all motion, dozens of arms and legs and elbows and knees all in non-stop motion, and I find it exhausting to watch.

Sisyrinchium montanum

Standing on the side of the Walker Road, looking at what’s growing in forest clearings or at the epiphytes on the conifer twigs, or in the sedge fringe around a beaver pond, I have to see (not just look at, but see) dozens of species at once. I have to filter out the ones I’ve already recorded and notice only the novelties. Sometimes they’re stand-outs, not at all hard to notice, like the paintbrushes (Castilleja), or blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum, a new find for the Robson Valley). But most are inconspicuous, the mosses, liverworts, crust lichens, or the smaller grasses and sedges. Searching like this for a species inventory is like the “Where’s Waldo” books in which you scan across the complicated illustrations to look for the amiable-looking fellow named Waldo in his characteristic coke bottle glasses and red-striped shirt & cap. Except you’re also at the same time having to recognize and name everyone of the hundreds of beings in the illustration. And you can’t turn the page to the next illustration until you’ve accounted for everyone. It’s exhausting. I have little leftover attention for the bird that flies across my view, so I fail to notice most of the avifauna on my jobs. And I fail to notice much else. Like the caribou that moved out of the corner of my view. I saw the motion, but I zoned it out. If Shane hadn’t said something, I would have missed it altogether.

This was only the second caribou of the deep-snow subspecies that I had ever seen. We saw their tracks in our first days in the Walker, so I’d hoped to get to see one of the animals live, but didn’t hold out much hope. This subspecies is rare and has been in fast decline for decades. They used to be common, but the widespread industrialization of the BC landscape, done with the blessing of government, has nearly wiped them out, and the remaining herds are reduced to such small population sizes that they’re bottlenecked into vanishingly small chances of continuation. The local subpopulation is one of the larger ones, but how much longer can they last as the province condemns more and more wilderness to the devourings of the feller-buncher machines? So to see this caribou, loping down the road, is a splendid treat. Shane took off his hat and gave the animal a deep bow. We were charmed by the caribou’s gait. Such a beautiful, dignified looking deer, and yet we couldn’t help but to laugh at the way it trots: each leg swiveling wide in an outward semi-circle. The bureaucrats in the “Ministry of Silly Walks” would have a special file on deep-snow caribou.

Rhinanthus sp.

Rattlebox (Rhinanthus) is blooming early. Not surprising in such a hot year. This is one of the genera whose species in North America can be identified only with a “who-knows?” It’s taxonomic terra incognita. A few names are given to the various North American species, both native and non-native, but in reality, the taxonomic certainty stops at “who knows?”. The taxonomic work is lacking. It’s a difficult genus to study in the herbarium, which is where most botanical taxonomic heavy-lifting happens. No matter how carefully the plants are pressed and dried, the resulting specimens are always blackened, looking as if they rotted in the press. So the characteristics become obscured. The genus must be learned “in the field”, as botanists say of the study of live plants in situ.

The least satisfying plant taxonomies in North America apply to those genera that make poor specimens (Lupinus, Taraxacum), or for which specimens don’t really capture the key characteristics of growth form or seasonal variation (Artemisia, Huperzia), or that grow mostly in remote, hard-to-access regions (Oxytropis). Rhinanthus is a triple-whammy in all these regards, so it doesn’t surprise me that the existing taxonomies are unrealistic. Most of the native species grow at high latitudes and/or elevations. You need time, energy, and funding to get from home to the field see them in their living state. I’m one of the few botanists who is paid to explore the North American northern wilderness, so I’m in as good a position as anyone to study this genus; it feels like a responsibility. Slowly, slowly, I’m trying to piece together a taxonomy that works. But there’s a long way to go. Neither of the two roadside Robson Valley Rhinanthus species are clearly identifiable.

I’m not even certain whether those two Rhinanthus are introduced European species, or native species that benefit from the disturbed habitats of roadsides. Most road fringe plants in British Columbia are European invasives. Landscape industrialization comes with a lot of road-building. Roads, including the astonishing total length of logging roads in British Columbia, are conduits of weed invasions. The weed populations spread along roads and establish new colonies like metastasizing cancer cells spreading along the veins of a body. The weeds follow the roads, then go off-road. It’s a progressing ecological catastrophe that almost no one knows about (due mostly to selective attention).

Whole horizon-to-horizon landscapes in western North America have become nothing but ugly European invasive weeds. And the locals end up feeling ashamed of where they live, because it’s ugly, though they may not understand why they see it as ugly. Most people are blind to plant diversity, but no one can be blind to the ugliness of a landscape that is nothing but cheatgrass or tumble-mustard or Halogeton as far as the eye can see. Landscape industrialization comes with such dire costs. If the Walker Wilderness is logged, wherever roads are cut in, the vegetation will be invaded by weeds. All those clearcuts in surrounding landscapes, and their feeder roads, and their weeds, are ugly, and that’s not how I want the Walker to end up. But for now, it’s beautiful, at least where you look away from the clearcuts around its fringes. And Rhinanthus, native or not, is harmless. It grows with a light touch. And in fact, it can help to reduce the potency of spreading invasive grasses, on which it is parasitic.

As I’m writing this, months later, I realize that today is the first day of spring. There’s much to be done in the garden. No time for blog posts or reminiscing. So I’ll close, abruptly, with a glimpse of the sundew patch Shane and I admired in the calcareous fen where we ended our day. So much more could be written about all we saw. But enough is enough.

Thanks, Shane, for being such a good field assistant and for seeing the caribou. Cheers, my friend!

Drosera anglica

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