Dec 012016
 

“The woods are wide and full of wonders, but we boys were mere counters, nibblers and sniffers at her mysteries. Just two skinny lads roaming fields like foxes searching for whatever we could find. Here a quartz rock, there an emerald snake, and over there a woodcock’s nest.”

Local author Gord Harrison’s new book, ‘My Cousin & Me: And Other Animals’ is a powerful natural history memoir of two young lads chasing wildlife in the hinterlands of Haliburton County. Scattered throughout the pages are more than 350 of the author’s fabulous wildlife photos of everything from eastern wolves and snowy owls to Cecropia moths and orchids. Harrison’s heartfelt love for the land where he grew up and now calls home rings true on every page.

Gord Harrison's new memoir evokes a Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn childhood (Gord Harrison photo).jpg

Gord Harrison’s new memoir evokes a Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn childhood (Gord Harrison photo).jpg

Themes

“My Cousin & Me” is many things. First, it is a celebration of a childhood that few kids today will ever know – a Huckleberry Finn childhood, free of the shackles of over-protective parents. At the same time, the book is an invaluable guide to seeing nature through the lens of evolution by natural selection – “the single best idea anyone has ever had”, as the philosopher Daniel Dennett famously stated. Finally, “My Cousin and Me” is a tribute to the diversity and wonder of nature in central Ontario.

Enthralled by the glorious life all around him, Harrison came to realize that all of this beauty is the result of natural selection, namely the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. As Harrison explains in multiple, fascinating ways, predators and prey like flowers and bees ‘dance’ together in the struggle for existence. Each shapes the other.

In a chapter on white-tailed deer, the author demonstrates how nearly every characteristic of a deer has been molded by millions of years of “descent with modification”, as Darwin liked to call it. While humans would quickly and miserably perish in the conditions that deer must face, the latter “appear to have just walked out of a grooming salon.”

Harrison is a proud, unabashed non-believer; but he knows his Bible. He is especially critical of creationism which, in addition to simply being wrong, reduces the wonder of nature to “God did it. End of story”. Nor is he a fan of authority. He explains how blindly obeying the powers that be – parents, priests, politicians  – can often lead to bad outcomes. “If all you know is to follow authority and imitate your parents, how do you judge novel situations? If a plague hits your region, you pray; the plague persists and millions die… However, science recognizes no authority but reality.” Thankfully, knowledge derived from science now saves countless millions every year. His mistrust in officialdom and ‘business as usual’ is also grounded in the sad reality that humans have treated the wilderness and its wildlife as the enemy to be subdued, killed, eaten or skinned. He adds, “It has been a long night’s journey into light, and we’re not there yet.”

Harrison’s book is not just for nature lovers, but will delight anyone who is curious about science and critical thinking. It will also resonate with readers who remember what it was like to grow up in rural Ontario in the 1940s and 50s. The author recounts the story of how is ill-natured, superstitious aunt suffered from goiter and actually believed in the healing power of snakes. She asked Gord and his cousin to go out and capture a snake long enough to “wrap around her neck twice”. Local wisdom affirmed that doing so would cause the goiter to shrivel up and disappear. Because the boys didn’t particularly care for their aunt, they decided to grant her wish by catching a garter snake for the job, knowing all too well that the foul-smelling musk the snake exudes would linger on her neck for days! And it did. The book is full of similar amusing anecdotes.

You'll find an entertaining story of Barney, the black bear, in the book. (photo by Gord Harrison).jpg

You’ll find an entertaining story of Barney, the black bear, in My Cousin & Me. (photo by Gord Harrison).jpg

I couldn’t help but be impressed by Harrison’s first-hand insights into animal behaviour and how ‘received knowledge’ is not always accurate or the whole picture. He tells the story of a female black bear leaving her 18-month old cub to fend for itself. Rather than aggressively driving the cub away as many books describe, Harrison observed how she commanded her obedient cub to stay in the middle of his field. She then shambled off into the forest only to return in 20 minutes to see her cub again. Then, once more, she left. “This coming and going repeated itself half a dozen times over a period of three hours. It had every appearance of a long, sad goodbye. Finally she left forever.”

Morality

As this story suggests, Harrison is convinced of the innate morality of animals – not something God-given but rather the result of natural selection. In other words, being ‘moral’ is beneficial to the survival of the species. In an amazing story charged with heart-breaking emotion, the author describes how he came to know a paraplegic mother bear – probably the victim of an encounter with a vehicle or a hunter’s bullet. Despite the pain of warn-away fur and exposed flesh, the bear literally dragged herself by her front legs in the service of her cubs. Harrison contacted to the Ministry of Natural Resources who told him that if the sow made it through to hibernation, the cubs would have a better chance of surviving the winter. Harrison decided to feed “Mother Courage” and her cubs and put the food outside his back window. He watched for several weeks as the cubs always arrived first, followed by their heroic mother dragging her bleeding backside out of the deep forest, only to collapse in exhaustion. He discovered that mother and cubs were travelling nearly a kilometre over arduous terrain from their winter den to his house. “I was stunned by the magnitude of her endurance and the power of her instincts. Neither torn flesh, nor exhaustion, nor death itself I thought would prevent her daily rounds… Clearly, this mother bear was exhibiting behaviour that can only be described as moral.”

Math in Nature

Anyone with a love of mathematics – Harrison was a high school math teacher himself – will be intrigued by a chapter entitled “The Young Pythagoreans”. It highlights the famous Fibonacci sequence in which the next term in a number series is simply the sum of the previous two terms. For example, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55… Amazingly enough, the sequence can be found in everything from the florets of composite flowers to the spirals of pine cones. Harrison recounts how he and his cousin stumbled upon some terms in the Fibonacci sequence by counting flower petals. With composite flowers – those with multiple florets on their heads like daisies and sunflowers – there is actually a double Fibonacci pattern. Ox-eye daisies have 21 spirals going clockwise and 34 going the other way. Although different sizes and species of composite flowers have different numbers of spirals, they’re always neighbouring pairs from the Fibonacci sequence. The same is true for pine cones. Harrison goes on to discuss how nature molds such order out of what appears to be chaos. As it turns out, a Fibonacci spiral is the best method to pack seeds closely, and evolution is “on a close-packing quest: produce more seeds, have more progeny, be fruitful and multiply, or perish.”

A majestic Algonquin (eastern) wolf photographed by Gord Harrison on his Haliburton far.

A majestic Algonquin (eastern) wolf photographed by Gord Harrison on his Haliburton far.

You have probably gathered by now that Harrison crafts beautiful sentences, which is yet another way to enjoy the book. He holds nothing back! In talking about wild turkeys, the author writes, “…let it be said that turkeys dispatch bodily liquids and solids through a single orifice. A combination not unlike rain and hail having the colour of gray gravel glazed with an indescribable stench…”

At almost 300 pages, “My Cousin & Me” covers a lot more territory than I can do justice to in one article. Harrison also takes the reader on fascinating journeys into the lives of bumble bees, Cecropia moths, fishers, flying squirrels, owls, hawks, moose and especially wolves. The book contains many of Harrison’s exquisite photographs of the Algonquin (eastern) wolves that he regularly sees and hears on his property. The book concludes with a chapter on the human history of “The Land Between” where Harrison’s farm is located. But it’s not just any human history. Harrison tells the ‘deep’ human past as revealed by his own DNA, an epic story he traces all the way back to Africa. “We are all one tremendous family; ideas of race are false, totally false! We are all Africans.”

My Cousin & Me can be purchased at The Avant-Garden Shop on Sherbrooke Street east, Chapters Peterborough, Hunter Street Book Store, and through Amazon.ca

 

2017 Peterborough Pollinators Calendar

I am proud to announce that a group I belong to has just published a calendar & nature guide to our gardens and yards. It contains a year’s worth of plant and pollinator explorations. Each day of the year has its own nature happening, suggested activity, local event or garden task. The calendar is illustrated with 80 beautiful colour photographs of bees, butterflies, birds, plants, trees and more. All proceeds go to Peterborough Pollinators, which is working to create a pollinator-friendly community for citizens and pollinators alike. The calendar sells for $20 and is available at Avant-Garden, Peterborough GreenUp, Hunter Street Books, Bluestreak Records and Happenstance. Order online at calendar@peterboroughpollinators.com

March photo spread from new calendar. (Ben Wolfe)

March photo spread from new calendar. (Ben Wolfe)

Cover of Peterborough Pollinator's new 2017 calendar (photo by Ben Wolfe)

Cover of Peterborough Pollinator’s new 2017 calendar (photo by Ben Wolfe)

Calendar page for December 2017 (Ben Wolfe)

Calendar page for December 2017 (Ben Wolfe)

 

 

 

Apr 212016
 

The lovely spring weather we’ve enjoyed this past week has caused an explosion of plant growth. Buds are swelling, grass is turning green, and a half-dozen species of wildflowers are in bloom. The blossoms are already attracting the first bees. Although I’ve witnessed this rebirth of nature over too many springs to count, the wonder of flowers and their pollinators never ceases to amaze. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than to take some time to understand and appreciate the extraordinary story of pollination and to think about what you can do to welcome pollinators to your garden or balcony.

A Monarch butterfly drinks nectar from a New England Aster - Tim Dyson

A Monarch butterfly drinks nectar from a New England Aster – Tim Dyson

To human eyes, flowers embody beauty and vitality. We rave about the colours, the shapes, the symmetry and, of course, the intoxicating scents. It’s therefore tend to forget that human beings are not the target audience for these alluring plant structures. Flowers have evolved for one thing only: to produce seeds and thereby assure another generation. The mechanism by which this occurs – pollination – is one of nature’s most fascinating phenomena and a crowning achievement of evolution. Yet, the beauty, intricacy and importance of pollination is often taken for granted, as is the role played by a host of pollinator species, many of which are in serious decline.

What is pollination?

To understand pollination, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the parts of a flower (see diagram). As with human beings, some flowers are either male or female. Separate male and female blossoms can be on the same plant – most often a tree or shrub – or on separate plants. A willow tree, for example, is either male or female, with only the female trees producing seed. Other flowers , known as “perfect” (like the one in the illustration), have both female and male structures. The latter produce pollen, which is the source of male sex cells and analogous to sperm in animals. Pollen production takes place in the anther at the top of the male flower part known as the stamen. The eggs (ovules), or female sex cells, are located in the ovary at the bottom of the pistil, the flower’s female part. At the top of the pistil, there is a sticky surface called the stigma – think of “stickma”. Pollination occurs when pollen grains are transported by the wind or on the body of an animal from the anther of one flower to the stigma of another flower of the same species.

The parts of a flower (Drawing by Judy Hyland)

The parts of a flower (Drawing by Judy Hyland)

The second step in the pollination process is fertilization. A flower becomes fertilized when a pollen grain on the stigma grows a pollen tube, which makes its way down through the style and into the ovary. Inside the pollen grain, male sex cells are then produced. These cells travel down the tube and fertilize the ovules. The fertilized ovules grow into seeds, and the ovary wall becomes the encasing fruit around the seeds. The next time you bite into an apple, take a moment to reflect that you are actually eating an apple flower’s ovary! Similarly, a milkweed pod is simply a ripened ovary containing seeds.

An analogous process occurs in conifers. Male cones – the small, delicate ones that litter the ground in late spring – produce pollen. They are yellowish when ripe, because of the pollen dust they contain. The pollen grains are carried by the wind and, by dint of their astronomic numbers, some come into contact with female cones. These are the familiar woody “pine cones” and contain ovules. The ovules are located under plate-like scales. The scales open temporarily in the spring to receive the pollen. They then close during fertilization and maturation. The scales re-open again at maturity to allow the seed to escape. Depending on the species, seed maturation takes 6–8 months in conifers such as spruce but from 18 – 24 months in most pines. Female cones are quite different in size and shape from one kind of conifer to the next.

Pollinators

Plants that rely on wind to move their male sex cells have light and dusty pollen. The male flowers often hang loosely and sway back in forth in the wind, which helps to release the pollen. Some, like those of poplars, oaks and birches, look like soft caterpillars hanging down from the stems. In most cases, these flowers lack petals, are dull in colour, and have no fragrance. There’s no need for the plant to invest in petals, bright colours and alluring scents since there’s no need to attract pollinators. Wind-pollinated flowers usually appear before the leaves come out, since evolution has “learned” that leaves would get in the way of effective pollen transfer.

A great many plants, however, depend on insects to transport their pollen, although hummingbirds and bats sometimes do the job. Collectively, these animals are known as pollinators. They visit flowers in search of food, which can be nectar or the protein-rich pollen itself. Bees intentionally collect both pollen and nectar. They feed the pollen to their developing offspring. Butterflies, moths and hummingbirds, on the other hand, feed only on the nectar. Markings in the flower sometimes guide the pollinator to the nectaries where the sweet liquid is located. As they feed, the pollinators brush up against the stamens and pollen inadvertently adheres to their body. Then, when they move on to another flower, the pollen is accidentally transferred to the sticky top of the pistil. Animal-pollinated plants produce pollen, which is too heavy to be moved very far by the wind. This is why goldenrod pollen is not the cause of hay fever. Rather, the light, wind-borne pollen of ragweed is the culprit.

Evolution

Flowers have evolved in remarkable ways to attract pollinators, which in turn have evolved in response to changes in the plants. In other words, each organism has developed adaptations, which work to its own benefit. For instance, flower evolution has produced an amazing array of colors, markings, shapes, fragrances and even different flavours of nectar. Some plants like skunk cabbage even go further. Skunk cabbage could almost be described as “warm blooded” because they generate heat. The warmth, along with the plant’s putrid smell, attracts early spring insects, which are looking for food and a spot to warm up. In exchange, the insects end up accidently pollinating the plant.

The flower-pollinator relationship is especially interesting when it comes to bees. Many species are attracted to the colours blue and yellow, to bilateral symmetry (e.g., the shape of a daisy) and to flowers with lines leading to the nectar. Consequently, over millions of years, many plant species have evolved these characteristics in order to attract bees. The bees, in turn, inadvertently distribute the plant’s pollen grains and optimize its reproductive success. It doesn’t stop there, however. Simultaneously, the plants have exerted pressure on the bees by favoring behavioural and structural traits that allow these insects to take advantage of the nutritional rewards offered by the plant. Hairiness is one such trait. Hairs all over the bee’s body actually have a strong positive charge with attract the negatively-charged pollen grains. This kind of relationship is known as co-evolution.

Honey Bee - Wikimedia

Honey Bee – Wikimedia

Richard Feynman, a famous American physicist, had an artist friend who said that a scientist can’t appreciate the beauty of a flower the way an artist can. His artist friend felt that by studying a flower scientifically and ‘taking it all apart’, the flower loses its beauty. Feynman disagreed. He said that, as a scientist, he sees more beauty and wonder in a flower – not less – than even the most sensitive artist sees. Scientists can imagine the cells, the complicated actions going on inside, and the fact that the colors evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate the flower. In other words, scientific knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. The more you understand the biology of plants and pollinators, the more your appreciation grows, starting in your own garden.

Peterborough Pollinators

      How do we empower citizens to protect pollinators and, in doing so, create, restore and celebrate natural environments in the Peterborough area? A group of local citizens has set out to answer this question. Peterborough Pollinators is working to encourage the creation of pollinator gardens throughout the city. Not only will these gardens help pollinators, but they will also bring greater food security, sense of place and community development to our neighbourhoods and daily lives.

We’ve all heard about the mysterious decline of honey bees. However, other bee species are also declining, largely because of habitat loss. You can make a big difference just by creating a bee- and butterfly-friendly space in your garden. To learn more about Peterborough Pollinators, take part in upcoming workshops, access resources and sign up for their newsletter, visit peterboroughpollinators.com Resource information is also available at   peterboroughdialogues.media/pollinators/