Nov 052015

“November comes
And November goes,
With the last red berries
And the first white snows.

With night coming early,
And dawn coming late,
And ice in the bucket
And frost by the gate.

The fires burn
And the kettles sing,
And earth sinks to rest
Until next spring.”
–  Elizabeth Coatsworth


This week, I would like to propose some things to do to more fully enjoy the often-maligned month of November. A number of these suggestions  are part of “The Big Book of Nature Activities:  A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning” that I am writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. The book should be available in late spring, 2016

A  Nature Table

When you are out for a walk this month, collect some items for a home or classroom nature table. These could include a milkweed pod; different fruits and seeds such as acorns, bittersweet and winterberry holly; any remaining colourful leaves, which can be pressed, dried and placed between sheets of plastic wrap; the seed heads of different grasses, sedges and rushes; a bracket fungus from a tree or stump; tree bark covered with lichen; the ball-like gall found on goldenrod stems; abandoned bird nests; and the cones of different species of conifers.

Sketching and photography

If you enjoy sketching or doing photography, November offers all kinds of interesting subjects. Among these are fruit- and seed-clad vines like wild grape, Virgin’s bower, wild cucumber, American bittersweet and Virginia creeper; close-ups of different fungi, lichens, mosses and club-mosses; fallen leaves on the ground or floating in water; the interesting shapes of leafless trees and branches; a tree canopy as seen when lying on your back; and the ice forming around the edge of a pond.

 Winterberry Holly - Drew-Monkman.

Winterberry Holly – Drew-Monkman

A nature walk

We all enjoy going for a walk with our children or grandchildren, but often wonder what we can do along the way to make the walk more fun. Here’s a few suggestions.

●        Stop every once in a while and do a micro-hike using a hand lens or magnifying glass. Some interesting subjects include a rotting tree trunk or areas where there are different kinds of moss.  Closely investigate everything from leaf veins, seeds and the underside of mushrooms to lichens, bark, feathers and invertebrates under logs.

●        Have everyone lay down on their backs in the leaves of the forest floor – they smell great! -and look up at the leafless canopy and clouds as they pass over. Can you find arrangements of branches that match the lines on the palm of your hand?

●        Play Basement Windows. Gently roll over a log, or a rock and peer underneath. Can you find a salamander, a centipede, a pill bug, or maybe an earthworm?

●        Stop to feel and smell a leaf, bud or even a piece of mushroom.  Rub it gently between your fingers. How does it smell?  Share with others. Wintergreen smells wonderful all year-round. You can also stop at different kinds of conifer trees  and snip off some foliage. Using a small twig, gather some resin  from a pine and maybe a balsam fir, too. Place each item in a separate small plastic bag. Crushing the foliage with the sides of the bag, which will keep the oils off your fingers. Tell the children the name of each species as you pass around the bags and smell what’s inside. Have everyone describe the odour as best they can. Perhaps write the name of the tree on a piece of paper and place it in the bag. Practice smelling for a few minutes, while looking at the name. Then, working in pairs, try to identify each odour, maybe while wearing a blindfold. Who has the most accurate nose?

Wintergreen stays green all winter - Drew Monkman

Wintergreen stays green all winter – Drew Monkman

●        Play Exploration Dice. Get two wooden blocks or cubes of any kind. On one cube, place a direction on each face – N, S, E, W, NW, SE.  On the other place 6 numbers 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24. Roll the dice and walk in the direction and the number of paces indicated (e.g., NW for 12 paces) Then yell “hunker down.”  Ask kids to find something interesting close to where they crouched.  The dice will bounce you around the landscape to places you might never have explored. There is always something interesting to discover.

●        Do a barefoot walk. If the weather is mild, take off your shoes and socks. Put on a blindfold and have another person guide you as you walk across a lawn with patches of sun and shade or across a forest carpeted with leaves or areas of moss – anywhere that is safe and free of sharp objects. Did the ground temperature change?  What textures did you feel? Change roles.

●        Find an oak tree with acorns lying on the ground. Take the off the cap and place your thumbs over the hollow (on the underside) in a V shape. Blow across your knuckles and over the hollow. You should hear a sharp, whistling sound. If you don’t, try repositioning your thumbs. Watch out for incoming dogs!

Acorn Whistle - Jacob Rodenburg

Acorn Whistle – Jacob Rodenburg

●        Make a forest tea. As you walk, harvest a handful of  white cedar foliage (scale-like and flattened) and white pine needles (long, soft needles in bunches of 5).  When you get home – or stopping along the way to make a fire –  toss the greenery in boiling water and let it steep for 10 minutes.  The resulting tea will be bitter but refreshing, and your tongue will dance with a pungent but evocative taste of the forest.

●        A rainbow hike. This activity will help you to see and appreciate the multitude of colours in the forest, even in late fall. You will need paint chip samples (e.g., yellows, reds, oranges, greens, browns, rusts, etc.) or small pieces of paper of different colours from magazine adds. Provide each member of the group with an assortment of different colours. As you are walking, try to find a leaf or other natural item that matches each chip.

●        Meet a tree. In this game, children work in pairs. One child is blindfolded and led through a forested area by the other to a given tree, perhaps 10 meters (30 feet) away. The blindfolded player explores the tree with their arms and hands and tries to get an idea of the diameter, the texture of the bark, whether any branches, lichens, holes or large roots are present, etc. The child is then guided back to the starting point, taking a circuitous route. The blindfold is then removed and the child has to find his or her tree. Switch roles.

Meet a Tree - Drew Monkman

Meet a Tree – Drew Monkman

●        Give each child an index card with an X in the center. Tell them the card is a map and the X is where they’ll be sitting. Each time they hear a sound, they should mark its location (direction and distance) and represent it with a simple symbol (e.g., a few parallel lines for wind, a musical note for bird song, a number after the note for each different bird). Show them how to cup their hands in front of and behind their ears to hear sounds from all directions (see focused hearing page X). Make sure that each child finds a listening place well-separated from other children. Listen for 5-10 minutes, depending on the variety of sounds and the age of participants.  Encourage kids to share their maps with a partner, identifying natural and human-related sounds. Bring the group together and discuss the following: How many different sounds were heard? Which sounds did you particularly like? What sounds were new to you? Who/what may have made them? Which were natural and which were caused by humans?  Do some of these sounds have a purpose?  If so, what might they be?






Nov 202014

“Take one child. Place outdoors in nearby green spaces. Leave for several hours at a time. Repeat daily. Sprinkle in a dash of adventure. Fold in a generous portion of exploration and discovery. Top with wonder and awe. Let rise…”

Not long ago, my friend Jacob and I took a group of children out for a hike to a nearby wetland. Along the way, we came across some Northern Leopard Frogs. “Let’s catch ‘em,” some of the boys yelled out, ready to pounce. “No,” we suggested, “let’s watch instead.” So we did. We hunkered down and stayed as still as we could. We observed how one frog hopped slowly against a backdrop of sedges and wildflowers, its spotted, wet skin glistening in the sun. We watched, too, how its pink tongue snapped out and grabbed an unsuspecting grasshopper. “Did you see that?” the kids exclaimed. “That was awesome!” And it most certainly was.
In an increasingly urbanized world, children (and many adults) experience far less contact with the natural world. Our children are far more likely to watch the flickering screen of a video game or hear the sounds of traffic than see tadpoles in a woodland pond or hear the rhythmic chorus of frogs in spring. They are also more likely to recognize hundreds of corporate logos or cartoon characters than be able to identify more than a handful of local plant and animal species.

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis -Sept. 2007 Drew-Monkman

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis -Sept. 2007 Drew-Monkman

As I have mentioned in several previous columns, I am working on a nature activity guide with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha. The book calls on all of us to reclaim the natural world as an integral part of the human sphere. It also asks that we encourage our children to value nature-based experiences – the kinds of experiences in which we hear birds, feel the mud between our toes and stare in wonder at the night sky.
Just as family, friends, neighbours and colleagues form a very real community in our lives, there is also a very tangible sense of belonging and connection that arises from being immersed in nature. More than ever, children need opportunities to learn and feel that they are part of this larger community, too. And, like any relationship, this requires commitment, time and effort.
We want parents, grandparents and educators alike to think about how to raise caring, responsible and engaged citizens who recognize that their community includes both the living and the abiotic (e.g., air, water, soil) systems that support and nurture us all. While it is true that we enjoy a world of amazing technological tools from smartphones to apps of all kinds, we’d like people to think about selecting technologies that enhance outdoor learning – rather than getting in the way of it. We all need to help kids – and, increasingly, ourselves – to see the value of connecting to nature, not just to addictive screens.
In 1980, Thomas Tanner, an environmental education researcher, interviewed close to 200 professionals from around the world, who were involved in the conservation movement. He wanted to know what childhood experiences these people had had in common, which inspired them to want to protect the environment. Not surprisingly, almost all the respondents described rich encounters with nature while they were growing up. They lived on farms, they tramped through marshes, they visited cottages, they hiked, they canoed and they discovered. In short, they engaged with their natural surroundings. However, today, many of us are asking where tomorrow’s environmentalists will come from? Who will advocate for shrinking habitat and the containment of urban sprawl? Who will speak for threatened and endangered species and for our own green spaces, when the very formative experiences that make for caring environmental stewards are removed from childhood?
As a society, we pay a huge price for our disconnection from nature. The rate of childhood obesity in North America has almost tripled over the past twenty years, partly because children are spending less far less time outside and are therefore not participating in regular exercise. Research has found that children who explore and play in natural environments tend to be less competitive and more co-operative than those who play in areas dominated by asphalt and play structures. Playing in nature also enhances creative thought, stimulates imaginative play and improves a child’s ability to concentrate during school.
But nowhere is the cost of our disconnection from nature greater than when it comes to climate change. Now, more than ever, we need to be paying attention to the myriad changes – many of which are subtle – that are occurring all around us. Yes, climate change is partly about wrenching disasters, but it’s also about numerous “canary in the coal mine” events: the early arrival of migratory birds, the early blossoming of wildflowers, the increased frequency of unseasonal weather events, etc. Noticing these small changes and understanding that they represent a kind of climatic early warning system requires a critical mass of “citizen naturalists” that have first-hand, detailed knowledge of local nature and care deeply.

Student working in her nature journal - Drew Monkman

Student working in her nature journal – Drew Monkman

Overview of book
Tentatively entitled “Nature Activities through the Seasons – a guide for families, educators and youth leaders,” our book will be a collection of things to do outside over the course of an entire year. Part of the inspiration came from my 2002 book “Nature’s Year in the Kawarthas” and a desire to provide activities to accompany the many events in nature described within. Although the activities are geared mostly to children and adolescents, many will also be of interest to adults – including seniors – and to families looking for ways to enjoy nature together.
The book will be divided into four sections, which include an introduction, basic nature skills, core concepts (e.g., evolution, phenology, climate change, why we have seasons) and activities specific to each season. They include fun activities (e.g., games, arts and crafts, nature collections, scavenger hunts) as well as more serious activities such as species identification, nature photography, journaling and ways to enhance sensory awareness. The book will also strive to help children and adults alike develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for evolution in everyday plants and animals. Each season also includes activities based on “Big Ideas” that are key to acquiring nature literacy. For example, in the Fall chapter we look at the Big Idea of metamorphosis and how it can be seen and understood by raising Monarch butterflies.
Readers will also find hints on how to raise a naturalist, how to be an effective mentor to children and how to get kids outside – even in an age of busy schedules and heightened concerns for safety. The extensive skills section will provide an introduction to year-long activities such as birding, insect-watching, botanizing, reading animal tracks, geocaching for naturalists, sketching, photography, Citizen Science projects and connecting with nature in a digital age. Informative side-bars cover topics such as common misconceptions about nature, species to learn to identify each season, nature-viewing from a car, what to sketch or photograph and ideas for what to focus on during a neighbourhood walk. There is also an “At-a-glance” chart of what to look and listen for each season.
The book is being published by New Society Publishers and should be available in the spring of 2016.

Student sketching in Edmison Heights Habitat Area - Drew Monkman

Student sketching in Edmison Heights Habitat Area – Drew Monkman

Break from column
In order to devote myself more fully to this project, I have decided to take a break from this column until early next fall. I have arranged, however, for a number of very knowledgeable local naturalists and educators to fill in for me during my absence. They are:
Martin and Kathy Parker – Martin is the president of the Peterborough Field Naturalists and, together with his wife Kathy, was a long-time nature columnist for the North Bay Nugget
Rick Stankiewicz – past president of the Peterborough Astronomical Association and award-winning photographer
Tim Dyson – naturalist with special expertise in moths and birds of prey
Paul Elliott – professor in the School of Education at Trent University with a special interest in environmental education as well as bat ecology and conservation
Jim Schaefer – professor of biology at Trent University whose lab focuses on the population ecology and conservation of northern mammals, especially Woodland Caribou. Jim has been a regular contributor to the Examiner for many years.
Lisa Nisbet – assistant professor of psychology at Trent University whose research focuses on connectedness with nature and the links with health, well-being (happiness), and environmentally sustainable behaviour.

Sep 182014

Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in how to make people more aware of evolution and how it manifests itself in even the most common backyard species. The evolutionary “story” of the Monarch is every bit as compelling as that of the whale. Understanding how the pressures of the environment have shaped the behaviour and appearance of plants and animals – through the process of evolution – adds a great deal to our enjoyment of nature. Little by little, all of the life that surrounds us becomes far more interesting and wondrous.
A focus on the wonder of evolution will be a big part of the up-coming nature activity book that I’m writing with Jacob Rodenburg of Camp Kawartha. This week, I would like to share a few examples from the book that deal with this important theme.

The imaginary Deeg (Wikimedia)

The imaginary Deeg (Wikimedia)

Can you Deeg it?
Here is a story to help kids better understand how evolution works. We’ll see how small mutations (mistakes or errors in the genes) can lead to big changes – so big that one species can even split into two. How? Let’s imagine a species of deer-like animals that live in a grassy valley. We will call them Deegs. Male and female Deegs can breed (have babies together) because they are members of the same species and find each other attractive.
However, let’s see what happens when some of the Deegs are forced to move into a nearby, but isolated, valley. Imagine, too, that instead of tender grasses to eat, there are only trees with tough, leathery leaves. An ability to eat and digest grasses is essential for survival in the original valley but being able to reach up, then chew, and digest tough tree leaves is necessary in the second.
Slowly, over many generations, differences would start to appear in the Tree Valley Deegs, because of mutations. Natural selection – “nature” deciding who will survive – would favour any Deegs that are born with bigger and tougher teeth and mouths as well as longer necks. In other words, Deegs with these characteristics would have a better chance of surviving and passing on their genes.
Now imagine that once every few generations a Deeg from one valley wanders into the other valley and wants to mate. For many years, mating would be possible because they would still be the same species. However, as the generations go by and differences in the genes continue to build up, it would become harder and harder for the Deegs from the two valleys to produce healthy babies together. For example, female Deegs from one valley may no longer find the males from the other valley attractive and refuse to mate. When it becomes virtually impossible for the Deegs from one valley to breed with the Deegs from the other valley, they would have evolved into two distinct species.

Leaves = evolution!
September is a month when our attention is drawn to the beautiful colour display of leaves. For much of the year, however, leaves can easily be taken for granted. To help children appreciate just how amazing these structures really are, ask them to look closely at a tree leaf, to feel it and to describe it. Then, ask some of the following questions:
• Why does a tree have leaves? (to capture sunlight and take in carbon dioxide and in order to use photosynthesis to make the food it needs to grow)
• Why are leaves green for most the year? (green is the colour of chlorophyll, the pigment or molecule that absorbs the sunlight used in photosynthesis)
• Why do leaves change colour? (as summer ends, the chlorophyll in the leaf decomposes and other pigments – e.g., yellow, orange, brown – that were previously hidden become visible)
• What are some of the challenges or problems a leaf faces? (getting eaten, drying out, over-heating from exposure to the sun, etc.)
• Why do you think these pine leaves (needles) might be so hard and waxy? (conserve water, deter insects)
• Why do you think some leaves are so fuzzy or leathery? (conserve water, deter insects)
• Why do leaves come in different sizes? (small leaves conserve water better and don’t heat up so much in the sun; large leaves gather more light and therefore necessary in shady areas or low down in a tree)
• Why do leaves come in different shapes and have different edges? (complex edges and lobes allow leaves to get rid of absorbed heat more quickly; smooth edges are more common in shade-loving plants since heat absorption is less a problem)

Oak leaves - Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

Oak leaves – Evolution has made them deeply lobed and leathery. (Drew Monkman)

Viceroys and monarchs
The next time you think you’ve see a Monarch butterfly, be careful that you are not actually looking at its look-alike cousin, the Viceroy. These two species have evolved near-identical wing colours and patterns. However, they are only distantly related. The reason they look so similar is because of mimicry, which is the ability of a species to imitate something other than what it really is. Why would mimicry have evolved? In the case of the Viceroy, the purpose is to trick predators into thinking that it is an inedible species. Predators quickly learn that Monarchs are distasteful and eating them causes vomiting. They therefore learn to avoid them. Viceroys therefore find protection by closely resembling their distant cousins. However, there is also some newer research showing that the Viceroy itself may actually be poisonous and that both the Viceroy and Monarch mimic each other. Now, isn’t evolution amazing!

Monarch (left) and Viceroy Comparison - Can you see the difference on the lower (hind) wing? Wikipedia

Monarch (left) and Viceroy Comparison – Can you see the difference on the lower (hind) wing? Wikipedia

BIG IDEA: Metamorphosis
The Monarchs that we see flying south in September have just recently completed an amazing transformation known as metamorphosis. This is the process by which an animal continues to develop and change its body structure and behaviour, even after hatching out of the egg. Some animals that undergo metamorphosis include amphibians, insects, molluscs and crustaceans. In insects, metamorphosis can be incomplete or partial (egg, nymph, adult) or complete (egg, larva, pupa, adult).
In incomplete metamorphosis, the immature stages are called nymphs. Nymphs closely resemble adults but are smaller and lack wings. Some common insects that go through this kind of metamorphosis include grasshoppers and dragonflies. This type of metamorphosis evolved first and is therefore much more ancient than complete metamorphosis.
In complete metamorphosis, the immature stages are called larva. Depending on the insect group, other terms such as caterpillar, grub, maggot, etc. are also used. Unlike nymphs, larvae look very different from adults. Larvae eventually enter an inactive or resting state known as a pupa. In the case of butterflies and moths, we often use the terms ‘chrysalis’ and ‘cocoon.’ During pupation, adult body structures replace the larval structures. The adult emerges from the pupal stage.
Metamorphosis has long been a cause of misunderstanding and mysticism. One early scientist even thought that metamorphosis in butterflies began by the accidental mating of two different species: one, an earth-bound crawler and the other, an airborne flitter! Scientists now use the theory of evolution to explain how a larval and pupal stage came to be. They believe that the larval stage is actually a walking form of the embryo that was developing in the egg. Rather than continue to develop in the egg, natural selection found it to be more advantageous to the animal to get out of the egg as soon as possible and simply to continue to develop while on the move. Scientists think of the pupa as very similar to the nymph stage in incomplete metamorphosis. The difference, however, is that the pupa goes through all of the nymph stages while resting and being completely immobile.

Monarch caterpillar (larva) - Drew Monkman

Monarch caterpillar (larva) – Drew Monkman

A Climate Change Rally will take place at Millennium Park on Sunday, September 21, from 1:30 to 2:30 PM. The goal of the Rally is two-fold: to explain the impacts climate change is already having right here in the Kawarthas and to encourage local, provincial and federal politicians to take decisive action to mitigate the problem. The event is being organized by the Peterborough chapter of For Our Grandparents and is part of the Purple Onion Festival.


Sep 112014

“From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes’ sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies
By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather,
And autumn’s best of cheer”
– Helen Hunt Jackson

This week, I would like to propose some activities for people of all ages to more fully enjoy the wonderful month of September. They are part of an up-coming book on seasons-based nature activities that I am writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha.

Watch day-to-day colour change in the same tree like this White Ash  (Drew Monkman)

Watch day-to-day colour change in the same tree like this White Ash (Drew Monkman)

A September walk
We’ve known for a long time how beneficial walking is to our physical health. Now, we are becoming increasingly aware of huge benefits to our mental health, as well. Daily walking enhances concentration, creativity, mood and general psychological well-being. Here are some ideas to add a dose of nature to your daily walk.
1. Watch how a specific tree changes colour over the course of this month and next.
2. Collect leaves of different shapes and colours and try to identify them when you get home.
3. Take note of the health of the trees. Do you see dead crowns, diseased leaves, “tar spot” fungus on maple leaves, fall webworm “nests” on the branches, etc.?
4. Pay attention to the amount of fruit – seeds, berries, acorns, keys, and the like – on trees and shrubs. It varies considerably from one year to the next.
5. Listen to the steady background of the insect chorus. How many different voices can you hear?
6. Take note of the absence of bird song. Listen, however, for the calls of Blue Jays and crows.
7. Pay attention to smells such as sun-heated vegetation and fallen pine needles.
8. Keep an eye out for squirrels digging holes in the lawn to store food items.
9. Watch for flocks of birds. By September, even robins are usually in flocks.
10. On hot, muggy days, watch for swarms of mating ants milling about on the sidewalk and flying overhead.

A typical orb spider web  (Chen-Pan Liao)

A typical orb spider web (Chen-Pan Liao)

“Pish” in birds
If you’d like to see birds close up, try this activity. When you hear chickadees calling, stop and make loud “pishing” noises for a minute or two. Pishing consists of making the sound “shhhh” but adding a “p” in front. You will be amazed as chickadees and nuthatches often approach to within one or two metres of you. Don’t stop then, however, because migrating vireos and warblers are probably also present but are usually just a little slower to approach. Although some of the warblers are sporting their dull fall plumage, others look surprisingly like they did in the spring and are therefore easy to identify. Look for distinctive markings such as eye rings, splashes of colour and stripes. Don’t expect to identify everything. You can see and hear pishing in action by going to YouTube and searching “pshing!”

Curious Red-eyed Vireo responding to pishing (Drew Monkman)

Curious Red-eyed Vireo responding to pishing (Drew Monkman)

It’s feeder time
If you want a close-up look at some of the migrant sparrows passing through in early fall, September is the time to set up your feeders. Be sure to also scatter some niger seed or finch mix in small piles on the grass under your feeder and around the edge of shrubs and conifers. These will attract Dark-eyed Juncos, along with both White-throated and White-crowned sparrows. You can also scatter sunflower seeds about if you don’t mind losing some to the squirrels! Many of the sparrows will be juveniles making their first migration south. Use your field guide to learn the differences between adult and juvenile birds.

Salamander sleuthing
Hunting for salamanders is great fun. They are most commonly found in low-lying wooded areas or around country homes and cottages. Look under fallen logs, old boards, and flat rocks and even in old piles of firewood. Carefully lift up the rock or piece of wood and peak underneath. The most common species are the Spotted, Blue-spotted and Red-backed. If you find a salamander, observe the counter shading (darker on top and lighter underneath). Notice, too, how stream-lined they are – slim and flat – for fitting into tight nooks and crannies. Red-backed salamanders can resemble earthworms, so be sure to look carefully. After you’ve examined them and maybe taken a picture or two, carefully put the rock, board or log back just the way you found it. Please be careful not to crush the animal.

Red-backed Salamander -Drew Monkman

Red-backed Salamander -Drew Monkman

Close-up with insects
Take time this month to see how many different insects and other invertebrates you can find in a patch of goldenrod. Don’t worry if you can’t identify them all; just focus on the diversity. Pay special attention to the bees. You should be able to see the large, yellow pollen baskets on their hind legs. Watch, too, for insects that haven’t moved for a long time, because they may still be in the clutches of a well-camouflaged predator like an ambush bug or a crab spider. To be comfortable, you might also want to bring a lawn chair. Don’t forget your camera, either, because you should be able to get some great pictures, especially by taking advantage of the macro settings. If you are worried about allergies, remember that ragweed pollen is the allergen to be concerned about. Goldenrod pollen is not spread through the air, being far too heavy. Rather, it is spread by insects. Don’t worry about getting stung, either. You can get right into an insect’s face with your camera with almost no danger of being bitten. is an excellent on-line resource. You can even post pictures for identification purposes.

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod - Drew  Monkman

Tri-colored Bumble Bee on goldenrod – Drew Monkman

Catch a spider web
Locate an easy-to-access web. Apply a spray adhesive to a piece of black construction paper or cardstock. With the black paper behind the web, slowly bring the paper towards you until it touches the web. Then, with the web on the paper, carefully cut the guy-lines holding the web in place. On the back of the paper, you can make a note of the date, location, type of web and the species of spider that made it.

A rainbow hike
This activity will help you to see and appreciate the multitude of leaf colours produced by different trees, shrubs and other plants in autumn. Try to obtain some paint chip samples (e.g., yellows, reds, oranges, greens, browns, rusts, etc.) from a hardware store. Provide each member of the group with an assortment of different coloured chips. As you are walking, try to find a leaf that matches as many of the chips as possible. You may wish to collect the leaf, photograph it or simply show it to the other members of the group.

Measure your shadow
On a sunny day close to the fall equinox, go outside at noon with a measuring tape or metre stick. Stand up straight on a flat surface (e.g., lawn, asphalt) with your back to the sun. Have a friend measure the length of your shadow. Record the length in your nature journal. Don’t forget to do it again at the winter solstice, spring equinox and summer solstice. You’ll be amazed at how much your shadow length changes!

Organize an “Equinox Experience.” Since night (black) and day (white) are of equal duration, black and white can be the theme of a party. Just use your imagination. You might, for example, want to serve sandwiches with one slice of pumpernickel and one slice of white bread, make a cake that is half-chocolate and half-vanilla, dress half in white and half in black and maybe even decorate with black and white balloons. For a table centrepiece, use dark objects (e.g., bark) and bright objects (e.g., goldenrod blossoms) along with black and white candles. Have a countdown in the last minute leading up to the Equinox. This year, it is at 10:29 PM on September 22.


May 152014


“How sense-lucious the world is.”
– Diane Ackerman

In this second article on how to use our five senses to more fully experience the natural world, I am presenting some simple activities that can add an element of fun to any nature outing. These activities, which can be done alone, with your family or with a larger group, have been taken from an up-coming book I am co-writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, on seasons-based nature activities for kids.

Palette of colours similar to paint chips

Palette of colours similar to paint chips

As Diane Ackerman wrote in her national bestseller, “A Natural History of the Senses”, our eyes are the great monopolists of our senses. In other words, it is primarily through our eyes that we experience the world. Here are three fun activities to boost our ability to really see the natural world around us.
• Rainbow Colors: Go to a paint store and ask for paint chips (small cardboard pieces each with a different shade of colour) to take along on your next outing. Try to find natural objects along the trail that match the colour of the paint chips exactly. Once you start looking closely, you will be amazed at how many colours there are in nature. To make the game even more challenging, look for different shades of each colour – especially green.
• Look-Alikes – Look for objects or patterns in nature that remind you of something else (e.g., a pattern in the bark looks like a human face). Study the palm of one of your hands. Reach up under a tree and try to find a branching pattern that exactly matches the wrinkle pattern in your lower palm. How many examples can you find?
• The Human Camera: This is an activity for a group of children. You will need coloured pencils as well as pieces of stock paper or cardboard of about 4″ X 6″. Working in pairs, partner A (the human camera) closes his or her eyes. Partner B (the photographer) leads partner A to an interesting, close-up scene such as wildflower or a mushroom and positions the “camera” to get the best view. Partner B then pulls gently on partner A’s ear lobes to “open the shutter”, namely his or her eyes. Partner A stares at the scene for 30 seconds or so, remaining perfectly still. Partner B then says to Partner A “take a picture in your mind of what you see and then close your eyes once again.” Partner B carefully leads partner A back to a central location. Without the photographers watching and using the crayons and paper provided, the human cameras must now draw the scene they just took with their eyes and their mind. Now, put all of the “photos” on display. Can the photographers identify their scene? Switch roles and try the activity again.

Cupping your ears to enhance hearing

Cupping your ears to enhance hearing

From the buzzing of bees to the trilling of toads, every natural area is characterized by a unique soundscape. Recognizing the common bird, frog and insect songs not only provides a great deal of satisfaction, but it also avoids the hard work of having to actually see the animals each time to identify them. Like acquiring a new language, however, learning to listen to our nonhuman neighbours takes some effort and a little patience.
• Sound Maps – Find a comfortable place to sit for a few minutes, preferably out of talking range of another person. Place an “X” in the middle of a sheet of paper to represent your location. Each time you hear a sound, mark it on the sheet, showing its approximate location. Name the sound if you can or simply draw a picture or write down a few words to describe it (e.g., a little horn if the bird had a horn-like call). Afterwards, discuss what you heard with the rest of the group (e.g., natural sounds, human-made sounds, something you had never heard before, etc.)
• Focused Hearing: Squeeze your fingers together, take your two hands and cup them behind your ears. At the same time, gently, push your ears forward. This simple procedure can increase your hearing by up to 10 times. In a way, your ears have become “deer ears” – large parabolic dishes that capture sound waves.
• Contrast Walk – Block out all sounds by plugging your ears with your fingers as you walk about 50 metres. Stop, and without saying a word, heighten your sense of hearing by slipping on your deer ears. With ears cupped, turn towards different sounds you hear as you walk another 50 metres or so without talking. Discuss the contrast.

From the smell of the damp earth and abundant blossoms in spring to the spicy fragrance of fallen leaves in autumn, each season has its signature scents. When you are out for a walk or hike, get into the habit of smelling flowers, buds, green leaves and needles, conifer sap, etc. By gently rubbing plant parts, more of the chemicals they contain are released, which greatly increases the smell. In addition, take the time to think about how certain smells make you feel. The nerves that sense smell are directly connected to the emotional part of your brain, making smell a strong trigger for a flood of emotions.
• Lick, Rub and Sniff – Next time you go for a walk and want to smell something, try licking your upper lip. As with dogs and their cold, wet nose, wetness under the nose helps to distinguish more odours. Try a little “rub and sniff.” See if you can notice a difference between smelling with your upper lip dry and then again with it wet.
• Smell Cocktail: You will need some Dixie cups and small twigs. As you hike, encourage everyone to selectively harvest tiny “bits” of the forest and place them in the cup: a small pinch of leaf mould, a part of a rubbed leaf, etc. When you have a four or five items, stir them with your twig. This is your smell cocktail! Give each creation a name – perhaps “petaltopia” and let everyone smell each other’s concoction. Can you identify the smells?

Taking time to "smell the roses"

Taking time to “smell the roses”

When you are out on a walk, or just in the backyard, take a moment to think about what you are feeling – not just with your hands, but with your entire body. Feel the breeze, the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the shade. Run your fingers over the bark and leaves of different kinds of trees and notice how different they are. Compare, for example, the texture of oak leaves (thick and leathery) to those of maples (thin and more fragile).
• Barefoot Walk: Take off your shoes and socks and, wearing a blindfold, have a friend guide you as walk across a lawn with patches of sun and shade or through shallow water with a sandy bottom – anywhere that is safe and free of sharp objects. Change roles. Talk about how the temperature and the texture of the ground changed.
• Meet a Tree: This wonderful activity works best in an open area with lots of trees. You will need one blindfold for every two people. To demonstrate, blindfold a volunteer and say, “I’m going to introduce you to a special friend.” Gently and carefully guide the person in a circuitous route to a pre-selected tree – preferably one that isn’t too big. Have him or her feel the texture of the bark, the arrangement of low branches, the shape of the leaves, the girth of trunk, etc. The more tactile clues you offer, the better. Now guide the volunteer back to the starting point – but not the same way. Gently spin him or her around a few times and remove the blindfold. Say, “Can you find your tree?” Often this is easier said than done. Now, let everyone try it.
• Simple challenges: While walking through the woods, challenge group members to find objects in nature that really awaken our sense of touch. To get started, these could include the smoothest, roughest, softest, furriest, bumpiest, slimiest, spikiest, warmest and coldest!

Introduce kids – and maybe yourself, too – to the edible wild and the wonderful tastes to be experienced from the landscape. Some plants with edible leaves (generally the young leaves taste best) and flowers include Chicory, Dandelion, Fireweed, Wood Sorrel and all of the different violets. A delightful and familiar-tasting breath freshener can be had by chewing on a leaf or berry of Wintergreen. Simply spit it out when the taste starts to fade. WARNING! As always, be sure you absolutely know what you are tasting.
• Forest Tea: As you walk, harvest a handful of Eastern White Cedar and White Pine (long soft needles in bunches of 5). When you get home, toss these in boiling water and let steep for at least 10 minutes. The resulting tea will be bitter but refreshing, and your tongue will dance with the evocative taste of the forest!


May 082014

Do you ever wonder why some people come back from a hike with colourful stories of close encounters with interesting plants and animals yet when you return, all you’ve seen are mosquitoes, trees and a couple of annoying crows? Why do some people observe so much? Granted, seeing nature is partly knowing where and when to look and knowing what to be looking for. However, it is also all very much about venturing forth with a healthy dose of curiosity, activating all of your senses and having your patience primed.

Hints for Paying Attention
Seeing birds, mammals, insects and even plants depends to a large degree on minimizing unrelated “noise” in your head and truly paying attention to your surroundings. In many ways, paying attention is not unlike the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness.” Try to minimize the noise of extraneous thoughts and conversations and strive to be in the moment. Here are a few hints:
• Be patient. Paying attention requires looking and listening with complete concentration. As the Black-capped Chickadee suggests in his three-noted, slurred springtime song, “be-pa-tient”. This might mean standing motionless until the sparrow you thought you saw in a brushpile finally shows itself again or sitting quietly in your car at dawn scanning a meadow and fenceline, until the coyotes you’d been hoping to see finally make an appearance.
• Shhhh! To really pay attention, you need to be quiet. This doesn’t mean just talking in a low voice but rather keeping all unnecessary talking to a minimum, especially if your goal is to see birds or mammals. In addition, by minimizing noise, you’ll get that much closer to any animal you eventually do see. Be aware, too, of where and how you are walking. This means choosing where to place your feet so to avoid brittle branches or piles of noisy dry leaves. When you do see or hear something of interest, avoid the urge to yell out. It is just as easy to whisper, or better still, to slowly raise your arm and point at what you have seen or heard. By doing so, the bird or other animal will likely stay put for everyone to enjoy – including you.
• Avoid sudden movements. Sudden, jerky movements will scare animals away as quickly as loud noises. You therefore need to get in the habit of moving slowly, smoothly and deliberately, especially as you get closer to whatever you are stalking. Avoiding rapid movements can also be important when you bring your binoculars up to your eyes.

Our eyes are our most precious asset for enjoying nature.

Our eyes are our most precious asset for enjoying nature.

Engaging all of the senses
In today’s modern age, it is easy to be seduced by technology – whether it is a 3-D TV set, the surround-sound of a home theatre system or the amazing graphics of the latest computer game. However, we tend to forget that evolution, too, has endowed humans with remarkable sensory capabilities that can rival or surpass even the latest in technological innovation.
Take our eyes for example. As human beings, we have the sight capabilities of a predator. Stereoscopic vision helps us to see in three dimensions and to gauge depth and position. With the help of special “cones” in the back of our eyes, we can distinguish over 10 million different colours! Our ears are able to hear frequencies between sixteen and 20,000 cycles per second, which is sensitive enough to be able detect wind gently moving through grasses. We can also hear sounds from different locations simultaneously – one could say we even hear in three dimensions. And it doesn’t stop there. With every breath in and out, we also detect a myriad of scents. In fact, recent research by Dr. Andreas Keller at Rockefeller University in New York City has demonstrated that our sense of smell is sensitive enough to detect a trillion different odours! This wonderful sense is evocative enough to bring back distant childhood memories of everything from freshly baked pie to the smell of the spring air. Let’s not forget, too, that we are enveloped in amazingly sensitive skin. Special receptors in the skin called Meissner’s corpuscles can respond to pressures as gentle as the sweep of a cool breeze. Finally, some 10,000 taste buds in our mouth help us to detect the faintest of flavours, including bitterness in concentrations as small as one part per 2 million.
We therefore need to take the time to unplug technology and “plug in” to the natural world through the wonder of these highly-developed senses that we often take for granted. In a way – this is our green conduit – the most basic and arguably, the most powerful way to connect to nature. But, as we’ll see, to drink the world in through our senses takes practice.

More than anything, humans are visual animals. In other words, we have evolved to make use of sight more than our other senses. We therefore need to take full advantage of this amazing gift of evolution. Here are some activities that can help to maximize our use of sight.
• Use “splatter vision” – When we walk in a natural setting, most of us cast our eyes downward. This makes sense, for our inclination is to avoid stumbling. However, by focusing primarily on our feet, we are missing so much of what is going on all around us. Practice being an “all around watcher” and use what naturalists call “splatter vision”. This means not keeping our eyes in one place for too long. As you walk, remember to look up, glance to the sides, scan what’s happening off in the distance and occasionally take a look behind. By continuously sweeping your eyes in all directions, you are more likely to pick up animal movement in the landscape – perhaps a distant Fisher crossing the road or a hawk soaring overhead. When you arrive at a body of water, look for any dark objects (e.g., ducks, a beaver) swimming or floating on the surface. Also, make a special point of checking out telephone poles and wires, dead branches in the crowns of trees, fence posts, etc. – anywhere a bird might perch.
• Use binoculars – Our sense of sight can be greatly enhanced by learning to use binoculars properly. Many naturalists find 8 X 40 or 8 X 42 binoculars the best choice. They provide good magnification but also offer a wider field of vision. This makes it easier to actually locate a bird our insect with the binoculars and follow it as it moves around. Most serious birders purchase a roof prism design, because they are the lightest, most durable and most waterproof. Good nature-viewing binoculars should also have what’s known as “close focus”. This means that they will focus on objects only a metre or so away. Not only will you be able to study birds up close, but you will also be able to watch butterflies and dragonflies. Remember, too, to hold your binoculars with both hands. For added stability, brace yourself up against a tree trunk, car or building. When you do see a bird or other object you want to check out with the binoculars, begin by locking your eyes on the object. Then, slowly raise your binoculars to your eyes. If you have done this correctly, the bird, insect or mammal should be right in the middle of your field of vision. Don’t make the mistake of simply scanning randomly with your binoculars in the general vicinity of the bird in the hope of stumbling upon it.
• Use a hand lens: A good hand lens can open up an entire new world when used properly. Hold the lens as close to your eye as possible. Bring the object you are looking at towards the lens (or vice versa) until it is in focus. This usually means getting as close as a couple of centimetres away. For most nature study purposes such as examination of insects, plant parts and rocks, 10 X is an excellent magnification.

hand lens - Wikimedia

hand lens – Wikimedia

Next week, I’ll provide more suggestions and activities for getting the most from our five senses when exploring the natural world. This series of articles is part of an up-coming book I’m co-writing with Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, on seasons-based nature activities for kids.

Mar 132014



Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson

I hope you had a chance to watch the first episode of the wonderful new science documentary series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey that aired Sunday night. It is presented by the famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and is a follow-up to the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was hosted by Carl Sagan. Dr. Tyson reminded us how we as human beings have come to possess such incredible knowledge about the nature of the Universe and the story of life itself. “This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules. Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything. Accept those terms and the Cosmos is yours.” In my recent columns on evolution, that is what I have been trying to say: we have to respect science. Unless something better can be invented, it is our best way of knowing about the nature of reality.

Why I care

The natural world is under siege. Humans have brought about what scientists are calling the sixth great extinction. Up to 50 percent of all living species are in danger of disappearing by the end of the century – primarily because of climate change. Anti-science attitudes and religious fundamentalism are part of the reason why addressing this crisis is so difficult.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan

It has always concerned me that creationists and other religious fundamentalists have rarely made protecting living Nature an important part of their teaching. As E.O. Wilson asks in his 2006 book “The Creation”, “do they believe that human-centered ethics and preparation for the afterlife are the only things that matter?… For those who believe this form of Christianity, the fate of ten million other life forms indeed does not matter.” What is even more disturbing, creationism now seems to have coupled itself with a rejection of climate science. The very idea of science as a way of knowing about the world is being challenged.

In his column of March 1, Jim Mason, a retired physicist, biblical creationist and speaker for Creation Ministries International, presented 12 questions “requiring answers with scientifically supported data.” I will address these questions. First, however, I would like to remind readers of the nature of this so-called “debate”.

• Creationism is the product of faith: Creationism proceeds from the account of the world as told in Genesis and expects the world to conform to that account. Consequently, the conclusion is already held to be true. Instead of citing evidence for why creationism is factual – and presenting this evidence in peer-reviewed scientific journals – creationists try to show why evolution isn’t. Science, on the other hand, doesn’t really “believe” anything in the way that religious faith does. Science looks at the totality of evidence and determines what the current most likely answer is that is consistent with that evidence. At some point, scientists pass a threshold where it would be (to paraphrase Stephen Gould) “perverse not to agree with the scientific evidence”. Like the theory of gravity and the germ theory of disease, the theory of evolution passed this threshold of evidence long ago. The objections raised against the theory of evolution do not come from scientists.

• How creationists argue: Because creationism can’t really offer competing scientific evidence, they often present what are known as ‘arguments from ignorance’, which are questions that science has not yet completely answered. The implication is that because something is not fully understood (i.e., there are gaps in our knowledge) God must be responsible for that phenomenon. We call these “God of the gaps” arguments. There are also ‘arguments from incredulity’, which imply that because something is difficult to understand or seemingly amazing – the evolution of the human eye, for example – only a supernatural force could have done it.

• The real problem: The problem creationists have with evolution is not that it challenges belief in God, because it doesn’t. Their problem is that evolution – like geology and astronomy – challenges the accuracy and authority of a literal interpretation of the Bible -especially the book of Genesis as an exact historical account. Yet, many religious people accept the theory of evolution and still maintain devoted religious lives.




The questions

The questions that Mason has posed all come from the Creation Ministries International website. You can find them at If you wish to read a more detailed rebuttal than what I am providing, please go to Remember, however, that the answers to some of these questions involve complicated science and do not lend themselves to short answers. It is why scientists spend many years at university!

1. How did life originate? This question is irrelevant, because evolution does not claim to explain the origin of life. Abiogenesis, the natural process by which life arose from non-living matter, is not part of the theory of evolution. Still, science is getting closer and closer to answering this ‘God of the gaps” question.

2. How did DNA originate? DNA most likely evolved gradually from a simpler replicator; RNA is a probable candidate. What we have trouble grasping is the incredibly long period of time evolution has had to work with. Life has been evolving for 3.5 billion years. It would take you about 110 years to count to 3.5 billion, even if you counted day and night!

3. How could mutations create the huge volumes of information in the DNA of living things? There are many processes that increase genetic information. The most basic is that of gene duplication. Another mechanism is viral insertions – literally inserting new genetic material into a genome.

Sinosauropteryx prima feathered dinosaur plate Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation Liaoning China

Sinosauropteryx prima feathered dinosaur plate Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation Liaoning China

4. How did new biochemical pathways originate? This is basically an argument that biological structures and processes are too complex for a natural explanation to account for them. With time and proper mutations, completely new pathways do, in fact, originate.

5. How does evolution know living things weren’t designed? The claim that living things bear the hallmarks of design is, at best, a mere assertion. Complexity does not imply design; in fact, simplicity is a design goal in most designs. Historically, supernatural design has been attributed to lots of complicated things that we now know occur naturally, such as lightning, rainbows, and infectious diseases.

6. How did multi-cellular life originate? It was beneficial for single-celled organisms to work together. For instance, mitochondria, the “power sources” of cells, were once separate organisms. In a recent study by William Ratcliff and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota, single-celled yeast took less than 60 days to evolve into many-celled clusters that behaved as individuals.

7. How did sex originate? Sexual reproduction allows for evolution to occur at a much faster pace than asexual reproduction. Organisms that exchanged DNA were thus able to evolve out of situations that might have killed their asexual counterparts.

8. Why are countless millions of transitional fossils missing? They aren’t. Every fossil ever found is a link between older and newer forms. One of the most interesting is the Tiktaalik, a transitional fossil between fishes and amphibians. It is basically a fish with legs. Its “fins” have basic wrist bones and simple rays reminiscent of fingers. There are also transitional fossils between reptiles and birds, such as the feathered dinosaurs being dug up in China.

9. How did ‘living fossils’ remain unchanged? A living fossil – not a scientific term – is a species or group that has an extensive fossil record but also retains known living specimens, which show a similar appearance. It is quite possible, for example, that while living fossils have a similar exterior appearance, their internal biochemistry has changed dramatically.

10. How did blind chemistry create mind/intelligence, meaning, altruism and morality? Organisms develop from egg to full organism all the time through “blind” chemistry. Is that a problem? Also, evolution can be true regardless of the perceived moral implications. That being said, morality is actually part and parcel of evolution. It is linked to what happens when organisms live socially. Since humans are social animals and they benefit from interactions with others, natural selection – the mechanism by which evolution operates – has favoured behavior that allows us to get along better with others.

11. Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution? Evolutionary concepts are applied to everything from understanding how diseases and pests evolve resistance to the drugs and pesticides to providing alternate explanations for physical and many cultural differences between different peoples. This allows us to debunk judgemental explanations that have led to conflict in the past.

12. Why is a fundamentally religious idea taught in science classes? Evolution merely describes part of nature. The fact that that part of nature is important to many people and is pursued with zeal does not make evolution a religion. If this was the case, even stamp collecting could be called a religion. Religions explain ultimate reality and the origin of life. Evolution does neither.    

                Even in 2014, denying the science of evolution – and climate change – represents a real danger to science literacy, science appreciation and to finding solutions to the environmental crisis. Let’s hope that the remaking of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos documentary will help to usher in a new respect for science and inspire us all in how amazing reality actually is. Don’t miss it next Sunday night!     


Feb 132014


Cy Monkman -father

Cy Monkman -father

Gordon Monkman - grandfather

Gordon Monkman – grandfather

Edwin Monkman - my great-grandfather

Edwin Monkman – my great-grandfather

 Robert Monkman - my great-great-grandfather

Robert Monkman – my great-great-grandfather

 William Monkman - my great-great-great-grandfather  Grandfather)

William Monkman – my great-great-great-grandfather Grandfather)

model of Homo erectus - my 50,000-greats-grandfather

model of Homo erectus – my 50,000-greats-grandfather

8. 7 million year old  Sahelanthropus tchadensis  - similar to my 250,000-greats-grandfather

8. 7 million year old Sahelanthropus tchadensis – similar to my 250,000-greats-grandfather

modern Lemur - possibly similar to my 45 million-greats-grandfather

modern Lemur – possibly similar to my 45 million-greats-grandfather

Silvanerpeton - an early reptile - similar to my 170-million-greats-grandfather

Silvanerpeton – an early reptile – similar to my 170-million-greats-grandfather

Reconstruction of prehistoric fish Panderichthys - my 185-million-greats-grandfather

Reconstruction of prehistoric fish Panderichthys – my 185-million-greats-grandfather

            Genealogy  has never been more popular. It’s wonderful to be able to trace our roots back in time and to see how the choices and life experiences of our ancestors have impacted our own lives. Both of my  parents have done a great deal of research on their respective sides of the family  and organized  the information and photographs in book form for the rest of the family to enjoy. My father has been able to trace the Monkman lineage back seven  generations to the 1700s in Yorkshire, England.

Today I’d like you to join me as I continue my father’s work, only this time going back an additional 185 million generations! The science involved in this ambitious undertaking comes courtesy of  Charles Darwin, the father of the theory of evolution and whose 205th birthday was yesterday. The other tool we’ll be using is a thought experiment described by Richard Dawkins in his 2011 book, “The Magic of Reality”. In this beautifully illustrated volume for younger readers, Dawkins separates “too-little-known facts from too-frequently-believed fictions” about the Universe and nature. He writes: “The magic of reality is – quite simply -wonderful. Wonderful and real. Wonderful because it’s real.”

To do this experiment, I’m going to start with a photograph of myself. Next, I’ll place a picture of my father, Cy, on top. I’ll do the same with pictures of my grandfather, Gordon, my great-grandfather, Edwin, my great-great-grandfather, Robert, and my great-great-great-grandfather, William. In my imagination, I’ll just keep piling on the pictures of great-grandfathers going further and further back in time. Remember, this is a thought experiment so not having actual photographs is not a problem.Now, stacking pictures of 185 million great-grandfathers – or great-grandmothers, had I preferred – is going to make for an awfully big pile. Even at three photographs per millimetre, the pile will soon get unwieldy. So, to make the stack more manageable, I’ll tip it on its side and pack the pictures along a single, winding bookshelf. It won’t be just any bookshelf, though. It will need to be 60 kilometres long! That’s approximately the distance between downtown Peterborough – let’s say the corner of George and Charlotte streets – to just east of Cobourg.

Come along as I walk along the bookshelf and pull out pictures as I go. We actually know what most of my (and yours) distant ancestors looked like by studying fossils. Fossils can  be dated, so we can say how long ago the fossilized animal lived. Keep in mind, however, that every picture in the line will look almost identical to the pictures before and after it. This is because change through evolution is very, very gradual.  Think of yourself. There was never a day when you went to bed as a baby and woke up as a toddler.

Our first stop is just 13 centimetres down the shelf at card 400. This represents about 10,000 years  ago when my 400-greats-grandfather lived. Looking at his picture, we wouldn’t notice any real difference from a modern person – once he’d had a shower and a shave, of course. Carrying on, let’s stop at 1.3 metres down the sidewalk (one big step) and pull out  a card from a hundred thousand years ago. Here we’d see a picture of my 4,000-greats-grandfather. Well, now, there would be a noticeable difference. His skull, for example, would appear a little bit thicker, especially under the eyebrows.

Walking another 15 metres or so will take us to 1.25 million years ago and a picture of my  50,000-greats-grandfather. Now, we would be looking at someone dissimilar enough to count as a different species, the one scientists call Homo erectusHomo erectus probably would not have been able to mate successfully (i.e., have viable off-spring) with a modern human, if the two were somehow to meet.  It’s important to remind ourselves once again that all of this change was extremely gradual. We are Homo sapiens and our 50,000-greats-grandfather was Homo erectus. But, there was never a Homo erectus who gave birth to a Homo sapiens baby.

Resuming our journey, we’ll stop next at six million years ago – just 80 metres down the bookshelf or half-way between Charlotte and King streets. This is where we’ll find a picture of my 250,000-greats-grandfather. He would be an ape and probably look a bit like a chimpanzee. However, he wouldn’t actually be a chimpanzee. He’d be the common ancestor that all humans share with modern chimpanzees. He would also be the 250,000-greats-grandfather of a chimp living today. One of his off-spring would have started the evolutionary branch that led to humans, while another would have begun the branch that led to modern chimpanzees.

Carrying on, we’ll catch our breath in front of the Holiday Inn and pick out the card showing my 1.5 million-greats-grandfather. Yes, that would be a tail we’re looking at! This is not surprising, however, since even modern humans still have a tail bone. The coccyx is the final segment of the vertebral column and is the remnant of what was once a human tail. Over time humans lost the need for a tail, and evolution through natural selection got rid of it.

Let’s see what the picture looks like if we stop at 63 million years ago, about 2.3 kilometres down the shelf at the corner of George and Lansdowne. Here we’ll see a photo of my seven million-greats-grandfather. He would look something like a lemur and be the ancestor of all modern lemurs, monkeys and apes, including us. Jumping in a car and driving south to Fraserville – passing an unbroken line of tightly packed photographs in the book shelf as we go – we’ll stop to look at the picture of my 45-million-greats-grandfather. He would also have been the ancestor of all modern mammals. Although family pride makes this hard to admit, this “Monkman” would have resembled a mouse-like shrew. By the way, he would also be a great-grandfather that you share with your cat, dog and hamster.

At card 170 million – 56 kilometres from the beginning and approaching Cobourg – is where we’ll find my 170-million-greats-grandfather. This relative of mine would have lived about 300 million years ago. Family pride would have to be completely re-evaluated at this juncture, since he would resemble a big lizard.  I could, however, take solace in the fact that he would have been the ancestor of all modern mammals, all modern reptiles, all modern birds and all of the dinosaurs. Another five kilometres east down the 401 will take us to the end of the shelf to just past Cobourg, where we’ll finally meet my 185-million-greats-grandfather. I would really have to brace myself  because we’d be looking at a picture of a fish. Terrestrial animals did not yet exist.

Now, we could, of course, go back in further in time but a lack of fossils makes it hard to know what these older great-grandparents would have looked like. We do know, however, that at about the 1100 kilometres mark – 3.5 billion years ago and somewhere close to the New Brunswick border – we would see a picture of the first life-form to exist on the planet. If our journey hasn’t impressed you enough yet, we could drive on to 4.5 billion years ago – somewhere around Moncton – and see a picture of our planet forming.  Bouncing in the waves out over the mid-Atlantic – at 12 billion years ago –  we could peer over the edge of the boat at pictures of the first stars dying in stellar explosions known as supernovae, in which  helium and hydrogen atoms were transformed into never-seen-before atoms such as carbon, oxygen, phosphorous and iron – the stuff of  life.  At  13 billion years ago and approaching Ireland,  we’d see hydrogen and helium atoms forming and  gathering together to make the first stars. Finally, at 13.7 billion years ago as we dock our boat at Galway, Ireland, we would see pictures of the Universe flaring forth, expanding and cooling in what we call the Big Bang. Before that? Let’s just say that modern physics is working on it. Now, is reality not amazing stuff! 

Side-bar:    Great Backyard Bird CountThe Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) begins tomorrow, February 14 and continues through Monday.  Simply count the birds you see over a 15 minute period – or longer if you wish – in one place, and report your results on line. Go to for all the details. Be sure to explore last year’s Peterborough data by going to “Explore a Location”.