Explorer’s Log, 9 June 2023

This entry continues the story of the Walker explorations, following the one posted on March 21.

The free-flowing Fraser

Nature is never ugly. If human economy leaves it all alone.

I have preferences for one landscape over another, but all wild places are delightful if you really open your eyes. Deserts, arctic tundra, coastal bogs, aspen parkland, alpine pinnacles, canyon walls, rain forest, savanna. It’s what this planet has given us. It’s all we have, and we should treasure it as it is.

The accounts of European explorers and settlers to western Canada found beauty in landscapes that they found familiar, that are similar to their origins. The oaks and meadows of southern Vancouver Island, so England-like. And the rest they found “gloomy”, or “desolate”, or “savage”. The error of cultural reference. In this case, the error of cultural landscape reference. The colonizers weren’t really seeing the landscapes they were conquering and settling. They were only looking for familiarity, wealth, comfort, and safety. The criteria for what, to them, was “beautiful”. Not much has changed. The European implant cultures are tenacious and still haven’t put down the tools of colonization. Still haven’t let go of European ideals. Still haven’t learned to live here.

Now that I live in the north and have few chances to return to my old botanical stomping grounds, in the inland northwestern U.S., I miss (and sometimes really long for) the Scablands, the Oregon High Desert, the Challis Valley, the Lemhi. But now, I face north. I arrived desiring and expecting the familiar, but I had to learn that my points of reference were left behind and that I had to learn to be truly present in my new landscape.

I came to Canada with a prejudice against northern biota. I expected utter boredom in the vascular plants. The lichens seemed pretty OK. But they felt like a consolation prize for having to turn my back on the more southern vascular plant flora that was my botanical first love. Wells Gray isn’t quite boreal. It’s a south-facing valley that takes in a milder southern climate compared to other drainages at this latitude, so it’s essentially at the northernmost limits of the inland temperate. It is, in fact, the location of the northernmost lizards in the New World. Many temperate-climate plants reach their northern limits here, and not so many boreal species reach their southern limits here. So I can keep some of my points of reference in the Wells Gray Country, but I had to learn to be receptive to what the north actually offers. That took some time.

My first job going north from Edgewood into the true boreal left me feeling reluctant to go. I thought it would be a waste of time. “Oh, the boring boreal, there’ll be nothing interesting, just the same species you could see right across northern North America”. That’s what most western North American botanists would think. But it’s only a prejudice. It’s only botanical points of reference. I even expected the boreal plains to be “ugly”. But not at all. That land is beautiful.

Now I know there is much for a botanist to discover in the north, at least because it’s so neglected. And since I track my daily catch of plant and lichen species, I have informal data that show that there is a lot more to see in a day’s work in the north than in the south, even in areas known for high floristic diversity (Oregon, California, for example). My average in the botanically famous Siskiyou-Klamath region of California and Oregon was around 250 species per day. My average in the Peace Valley of boreal northeast British Columbia was over 400 (sometimes topping 500) species per day

The Walker was certainly not anyone’s botanical Mecca. Prior to the 2023 fieldwork, only eight specimens of lichens and plants from the study area had been databased in herbaria (archives of scientific plant specimens). All of those were from the easily accessed fringes. And none of those eight species were anything a botanist would find unusual. Much could be expected from the Walker, but essentially nothing was known.

On these early days of the Walker project, I was justified often in commenting “Wow!”. There is so much diversity packed into that landscape that it’s overwhelming, even for me after 30+ years of botanical inventories. Even if it weren’t so diverse, it would still delight me. It’s wild. And, despite my expectation of boreal ugliness, I know now that wild places are never ugly, no matter the climate, no matter whether the landscape is steep or flat. Even the highest arctic latitudes, with precious little plant diversity, would still be spectacular for any botanist, as well as dazzling to the eye. The Walker certainly does not disappoint. It is spectacular.

Rosa engelmannii nothosubsp. britannicae-columbiae, a regional specialty, growing along the Morkill River.

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