Jun 152017

Every culture has its own origin story. They may be short anecdotes or elaborate narratives that help explain the mysteries of our existence. “Big History” is an origin story unlike any other. Instead of being rooted in a specific culture or geography, it presents a science-based perspective and is therefore the story of all of humanity. The Big History Project was started by Bill Gates and David Christian to enable the global teaching of what they describe as “the attempt to understand, in a unified way, the history of Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity.”

This week, I’d like to present readers with a greatly simplified version of the Big History story in a form that can be shared with children – maybe sitting out in the backyard under a starlit sky. By knowing this story, they will understand that humans are deeply embedded in the natural world and hopefully be inspired to protect the myriad species and habitats with which we co-evolved. Learn the story yourself, and tell it to the children in your life. More information can be found at bighistoryproject.com

Humans are the Universe becoming aware of itself (Photo by Halfblue)

“Tonight, I’m going to tell you the most amazing story you’ve ever heard. And, even better, it’s true. The story is based on everything that science has discovered. Remember, science is the tool we use to find out what’s really true about the world around us. Let’s begin by looking up at the sky and at all those stars. It’s a big Universe out there. Bigger than you or I can possibly imagine. If you’re like me, you can’t help but wonder how and when all of this began. How and why are we here?

This story takes place over 14 billion years, which is an incredibly long time. It would take five human lifetimes to count to 14 billion. So, to make this easier, we’re going to imagine that the story is squeezed into one calendar year. In other words, the story will begin on January 1 and end on December 31.

Let’s get started… In the beginning, there was nothing. There were no humans, no dinosaurs, no rocks, no stars and not even space or time. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it, but it’s true. Then, all of a sudden, there was a flash of very bright and very hot light. It was like an explosion, but brighter and more powerful than any explosion you or I could ever dream of. It was called ‘The Big Bang’ – the time when the Universe was born. It was January 1 on our time scale.

The Big Bang to the first stars – Wikimedia

At first, all there was heat and light. But, as the Universe began to cool, clouds of tiny particles called atoms began to form. These were the atoms of hydrogen – the main component of water – and helium – the gas we use in party balloons that float on air. Eventually, gravity started compacting these clouds of hydrogen and helium atoms. The temperature at the centre of each cloud grew higher and higher until, suddenly, there was a huge release of energy and Boom! – we had our first stars. Billions of them across the Universe. On our calendar, we are in mid-January.

Now, stars are like people; they are born and eventually die. When very large stars die and explode, they are called supernovae. They become so hot and their gravity so strong that the helium and hydrogen atoms are actually squeezed into new kinds of atoms like oxygen, iron, carbon and even gold. If you are wearing gold jewelry, the gold was made in a supernova explosion. So were all the other atoms in your body except hydrogen. These atoms include the calcium in your bones, the iron in your blood and the oxygen that binds with hydrogen to create the water that you drink.

Take a moment to think about what I just said. These old stars were actually our ancestors. They had to exist so that we could be here. We are made of their dust – stardust! Doesn’t knowing this make you feel like the Universe is a more wonderful place to live in?

Now, with all these different kinds of atoms swirling around younger stars like our Sun, they eventually combined to form asteroids, comets and planets. This is how our solar system and our Earth were formed four and a half billion years ago. On our time scale, we’ve jumped all the way to early September.

As the new planet Earth began to cool, rain fell for the first time and gathered into oceans. Beneath these oceans, at cracks in the ocean floor, heat seeped up from inside the Earth. New chemical reactions began to take place and atoms combined in all sorts of new ways. Some of these combinations were able to make copies of themselves and to eventually form an amazing chemical (molecule) called DNA. It’s the molecule in the genes of all living things. Scientists believe that this is probably how life began. Some think life may also have travelled here from another planet, maybe even Mars. On our time scale, we are now in mid-September.

Structure of the DNA molecule – Wikimedia

One of the most amazing things about DNA is that it’s not perfect. When it copies itself, mistakes sometimes occur. A mistake can have a positive effect, a negative effect or no effect. A positive effect, for example, might give a bird a bigger bill than other members of its species and therefore allow it to survive more easily. This new trait, which will be passed on to its young, can eventually result in whole new species. We call this evolution.

For most of the time of life on Earth, living organisms were very simple. Like present-day bacteria, they were made up of a single cell. However, these cells were still quite complex. Early plant cells, for example, evolved the ability to use the sun’s energy to make food through photosynthesis in which sunlight, water and carbon dioxide (the gas we exhale when we breathe) are converted into sugar and oxygen. On our calendar, this happened in late September.

An artist’s rendition of photosynthesis – Wikimedia

Then, about 700 million years ago (around December 5), living things made up of multiple cells began to appear. In the oceans, animals such as sponges and jellyfish emerged. The first ancestors of insects appeared in mid-December, followed by the first fish. On December 20, the first plants colonized the land when algae (seaweed) evolved ways to survive outside of water. Some of these plants were able to grow into trees when changes in their DNA led to the production of sturdy wood in the stems.

On about December 21, the first true insects appeared. Some, like dragonflies, have hardly changed since. Amphibians, like salamanders, evolved from fish that had developed the ability to crawl out of the water and breathe air. One of these, a fossil called Tiktaalik, was discovered in the Canadian arctic. It is part fish and part amphian. Next, reptiles like turtles appeared on the scene and, by Christmas day, the dinosaurs. The first mammals appeared December 26, the first birds on December 27 and the first plants with flowers on December 28.

An artist’s recreation of what Tiktaalik looked like – Wikimedia


Occasionally, there were disasters. Sixty-five million years ago (December 30 at 6 am on our scale), a 10 kilometre-wide asteroid smashed into the Earth near Mexico. It caused winter-like conditions over the entire planet. For a long time, it was impossible for plants to grow. The dinosaurs were wiped out. Many of our mammal ancestors, however, managed to survive and to flourish in the habitats left empty by the dinosaurs. Through evolution, they changed into many different species.

By late on December 30, some of these mammals had evolved into primates that lived in trees and evolved fingers and toes to hold onto branches. One group of primates, probably looking a little like today’s chimpanzees, learned to walk upright. These were the first primitive humans. They appeared on December 31 – New Year’s Eve – at about 10 pm.

Over time, because of changes in DNA and reasons that we’re just beginning to understand, the human brain tripled in size. With bigger brains, humans were able to develop language and became much better at learning, remembering and passing on information to the next generation. They adopted wolves, which became the dogs we know today. The dogs helped them hunt and provided protection. By eight minutes before midnight on December 31, these early humans looked almost identical to us.

About 70,000 years ago, some humans left the plains of Africa and began migrating to new continents like Europe, Asia and North America. Each migration involved learning — learning new ways of dealing with their surroundings.

Model of Homo erectus – an ancestor of today’s humans – Wikimedia

Then, just 10,000 years ago (18 seconds before midnight) humans learned to farm. With all the food they were able to produce, the human populations got much larger and different groups of humans became more connected to each other. Written language was invented and humans learned to read. At two seconds before midnight, Christopher Columbus traveled to the Americas.

In the last second of our time scale, all of modern history has taken place. With cars, airplanes, radio, phones and now the Internet, humans have become more connected than ever. This has allowed us to learn faster than ever, too. And, in the last 200 years, something else has happened. We stumbled on a cheap, incredibly powerful source of energy in the form of fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil. Fossil fuels and connected learning together explain the modern world we see around us. At the same time, however, burning fossil fuels is changing our climate and making our future less certain. It may be difficult to live as we are now in the climate that is coming.

So, hear we are at the campfire. We’ve been on a journey of almost 14 billion years. Don’t you feel lucky to know the true story of how we humans, along with all the other species and modern civilization came to be here? Where the story goes from here is largely up to us. How will you help?”

























Apr 202017

One of the greatest gifts you can give a child is a sense of wonder in the natural world and how everything in nature can be explained by science and critical thinking. And nowhere is there a better example of the power of critical thinking than when it comes to evolution. Even though a full understanding of the mechanisms of evolution requires an understanding of genetics, children can usually grasp the essential components by age seven or eight. These components are variation (individuals in a population of the same species can vary somewhat in their traits), inheritance (traits are inherited from parents and passed on to offspring), natural selection (life forms with traits that help them to survive and reproduce are most likely to pass on these traits to the next generation) and time (major change usually takes thousands of generations or more).

Effective questioning 

Thoughtful questioning not only serves to clarify the components of evolution but also helps elicit a sense of wonder, curiosity and deeper appreciation of nature itself. Start by encouraging children to look in detail at the organism or behavior in question. Ask them to describe what they see and why they think the plant or animal looks or behaves that way. Always use the language of beauty and awe: “Isn’t a woodpecker amazing! Imagine yourself making a living this way!” Ask open-ended questions starting with “Why?” or “What do you think?” Encourage the kids to do the same. If they don’t know the answer, help them come up with a reasonable hypothesis — an educated guess. Model this yourself. Later, follow up with an Internet search. Remember that it’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t know” or “Scientists don’t have an answer yet.”

Pileated Woodpecker – Jeff Keller

Time activities

One of the hardest things for kids and adults alike to grasp is the concept of evolutionary time and numbers like a million or a billion. Counting can be helpful here. Ask a child to count to a 100. This might take 30 seconds if they count quickly. At that rate, counting to a 1,000 takes about 5 minutes, to 100,000 takes a day’s work (10 hours), to a million takes two weeks work, to 100 million takes five years work, and to a billion takes a whole working life. Imagine how long a billion years is!

Toilet Paper Timeline: This is a fun way to help children visualize the massive amount of time that life on Earth has had to evolve. You’ll need a roll of toilet paper of 450 sheets (tear off 50 from a roll of 500), sticky notes and a long hall or open area outdoors. Explain that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and that life first emerged about 3.5 billion years ago. You might add that we don’t yet fully understand how life began, but scientists are getting closer and closer to the answer.

Toilet paper roll

If you are going outside, choose a calm day. Unroll the entire roll of toilet paper. Each square of toilet paper represents about ten million years. Write down each stage (see below) on a sticky note. Attach the sticky notes to the squares indicated. Take the kids on a walk along the timeline and discuss as you go. Be enthusiastic and use the language of wonder! Note: BYA = billion years ago; MYA = million years ago 4.5 BYA: Earth is formed, along with the other planets (square 1), 3.7 BYA: Earth’s crust solidifies (square 80), 3.5 BYA: first life appears in oceans (square 100), 3.25 BYA: photosynthesis begins in oceans (square 125), 2.4 BYA: oceans contain significant amounts of oxygen (square 260), 1.9 BYA: first cells with nuclei appear in oceans (square 310),  650 MYA: first multicellular organisms appear (square 385), 500 MYA: first land life (square 400 ), 250 MYA: massive volcanic eruption kills mass extinction of 96 percent of all life (square 425), 245 MYA: Age of Dinosaurs begins (square 426), 200 MYA: the first mammals appear (square 430), 150 MYA: supercontinent breaks up and continents drift apart (square 435),  65 MYA: Asteroid impact ends Age of Dinosaurs and kills 70 percent of all life  (square 444),  3.5 MYA: first early humans appear in Africa (last square, 3.6 cm from the end),  100,000 years ago: first Homo sapiens, our species, appears (last square, 1 mm from end),  10,000 years ago: recorded human history begins (last square, 0.1 mm from end)

More activities

1.  See your DNA: Believe it or not, it’s easy to see your own DNA, the recipe that makes you. Mix a half-quart (500 ml) of drinking water with 1 tbsp (45 g) of salt and stir until salt is dissolved. Transfer 3 tbsp (14 ml) of salt water into a clear glass. Swirl the salt water around in your mouth for 1 minute. Spit the water back into the glass. Cheek cells will be suspended in the salt water. Gently stir the salt water with one drop of clear dish soap. (Note: Soap breaks down the cell membranes, releasing the DNA.) In a separate glass, mix 7 tbsp (105 g) of isopropyl alcohol and 3 drops of food coloring. Tilt the salt-water cup and gently pour the alcohol–food color mixture so that it forms a layer on top (about 1 in. /2 cm thick). 8. Wait 2 ½ minutes. You should see small white clumps and strings forming. That’s your DNA!

2.  Camouflaged Eggs: The eggs of birds that nest on the ground (e.g., killdeer, ruffed grouse) are highly camouflaged, not just in colour but in pattern, too. These birds will also choose ground (e.g., dark sand instead of light sand) that offers the best match to the egg color and pattern. In other words, birds and their eggs have evolved to maximize camouflage. Species that nest in cavities often lay all-white eggs, since camouflage is not a concern. For this activity, you’ll need hard-boiled eggs and different colored markers or tempera paint.

Show the children pictures of real eggs from ground-nesting birds. Discuss the most effective colours and patterns. Visit a natural area where the eggs will be hidden. Ask the children to think about how to best camouflage their eggs. Each child then takes two to three eggs and uses paint or markers to colour and mark them. Have them hide their eggs in a designated area. Hide a few unpainted white eggs as well for comparison. Excluding their own eggs, how many can they then find in two minutes? Which were the best camouflaged?

Cedar Waxwing nest with eggs – Wikimedia

3. Adaptations Scavenger Hunt: For many plants and animals, spring is a time of mating and reproduction. Over millions of years, special adaptations have evolved to make this process possible. These include adaptations for attracting a mate, defending a breeding site and, in the case of plants, evolving ways to have their genes spread by the wind or by animal pollinator.

Make up a list of common adaptations to look for and give each child a copy. Briefly discuss the purpose of each adaptation. Here are a some ideas: 1. brightly colored flowers (attract pollinators), 2. flowers with a strong scent (attract pollinators), 3. flowers with lines or spots on petals (guide pollinator to nectar), 4. a “catkin” flower (e.g., poplar) hanging like a caterpillar from the twig (easily jostled by wind, thereby spreading the pollen), 5. a bird chasing another away (defending nest or territory) 6. brightly colored male birds like a mallard or cardinal (attract a mate), 7. a dull-coloured female bird (camouflage on nest), 8. male birds singing (attract a mate, defend territory)

Visit an area where the kids are likely to find the flowers and birds in the list. They may want to use a camera to take pictures of the adaptations. Encourage them to add other probable adaptations that they see. Share and discuss.

4. Meet the Beast Within You:  In this activity, kids will learn about our remnant body parts and behaviors that link us to our distant past. Our ancestors needed these “vestiges” in order to survive. Our bodies still carry dozens of reminders of how we used to be millions years ago. However, humans are very different now. We no longer walk on all fours and don’t wear a thick coat of fur. Over time, we have evolved into the bare-skinned and big-brained creatures we are today.

Ask the kids to try the following: 1. Feel their coccyx at the bottom of their backbone. It is the remnant of a lost tail. 2. Using a mirror, look at their canine teeth. They were very useful to early humans for tearing tough flesh. Compare to those of a dog (show picture). 3. Using a mirror, have them make a big, toothy smile. Smiles were a way for early humans to scare away an enemy. Their meaning has changed! 4. Ask if anyone can wiggle their ears? Early humans could do this to help in hearing, just like dogs today. Because of a genetic mutation, only some people can do it now. 5. Have them put their arm in cold water until goose bumps appear. These bumps were the body’s way to erect the thick fur we once had. This made us look larger and more ferocious. Show a picture of a dog with its back hair raised. Ask why our hairy coats may have disappeared?

Coccyx (in red) (Photo by DBCLS)

Earth Day should be about more than picking up litter. Make it a celebration of our planet’s amazing biodiversity and the process behind life’s myriad forms – evolution.






Apr 132017

Kids make great amateur scientists. They love to ask “why” questions. “Why is the monarch butterfly so colourful? Why does it start life as a caterpillar? Why does it migrate? Thanks to Charles Darwin, we now understand that questions such as these are entitled to an evidence-based answer – and it is the theory of evolution that provides the answer. To quote evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Rather than taking away from the wonder of nature, understanding evolution only adds to it. There are so many mysteries in nature that we’ve not yet solved.

Children merit a truthful and passionate introduction to the natural world around them, especially if we are to harness their innate curiosity. Once children get a sense of how evolution works – and eventually link it to themselves – their eyes light up with wonder. I remember one little girl in grade 4 saying, “You mean we’re animals!” Without a basic understanding of evolution, nature study – and much of biology – risks becoming the memorization of species names and facts.

Students watching Monarch emerge from chrysalis (Photo: Drew Monkman)

Unfortunately, there’s a perception among many parents and teachers that evolution is hard to explain, or that they’ll get something wrong. It’s really not that difficult at all. Conversations about evolution should be done in context. Allow the children to think the process through themselves. A discussion might go something like this. “Look at that animal over there. What is it? (a squirrel). Is a squirrel a bird, an insect or a mammal? (mammal). How do you know? (It has hair). Okay, well if we lived at the North Pole and we saw a squirrel, do you think it would have more or less hair? (more) Why? (to help it stay warm). So, if the weather here was to get colder and colder every year, what do you think would happen with the squirrels? (develop more hair). Well, you’re right, because there’s always a chance that when baby squirrels are born, some may have more hair than others. This will help these lucky ones to survive, find a mate and have babies. They don’t “try” to have more hair; it just happens by chance. Eventually, all of the squirrels may end up with more hair, since they might be the only ones to survive the colder weather.”

In a nutshell, evolution can be explained to children like this: 1. All creatures struggle to survive and have babies, but many fail. 2. Creatures born with a helpful trait (e.g., a longer bill) are more likely to survive and have babies. 3. Parents pass on the useful trait(s) to their young. 4. Over time, these new traits can lead to a new species – one that can only have babies with its own kind.

Human origins

Eventually, the question of human origin will come up. You might say something like this: “In Africa, there were once primates (e.g., monkeys, lemurs and apes) that were similar to modern day chimpanzees. They became separated into two groups. One continued to live in forests, spent a lot of time in trees and usually walked and climbed on all fours. The other group moved into more open fields and had to spend more time on the ground. Over time, the second group started acting differently like walking upright, which is better for seeing long distances above the grass. Over about seven million years (it takes about three days to count to a million, non-stop) the differences between the groups increased, until the second group became more or less like we are today, and the first group became chimpanzees. That’s what evolution is: if living things find themselves in a new environment- let’s say living in fields instead of forests – they change over time in order to survive. As for humans, we evolved to have big, smart brains in order to “think” our way to meeting our needs. For example, we began to build tools and to develop language. Scientists have found fossils of many of our human ancestors.” A great video to watch with children eight or older can be found by Googling “Khan academy + human evolution overview”.

Model of Homo erectus, an early species of human – Wikimedia

If kids ask about explanations that don’t align with evolution, tell them not to accept what others say – even Mom and Dad – but to focus on evidence. This includes fossils, the amazing similarities in the fetuses and bodies of humans and all other vertebrates and the similarities in the genes, which you can explain as the recipes for making plants and animals. Tell them that when scientists look at chimpanzee genes, they are practically identical to those of human genes. We even share more than half our genes with bananas! Kids are great critical thinkers if you give them a chance.


1. Small changes: This activity shows how small changes over time make a big difference. Draw a simple bug on the first page of a stack of paper. Then pass the paper on to another person and have them draw the bug as exactly as they can. They should move the original to the bottom of the stack. Have them pass their copy onto the next person who will try to reproduce the bug. Don’t forget to hide the previous version under the stack. Do this at least ten times. Compare the original to the “evolved” bug. Was there much of a difference? All it takes is a small change (mutation) in each generation to create huge change over time. Think of how birds evolved from dinosaurs!

2. What’s bugging you? Here’s an interactive story about bugs, which can help young children understand the concept of evolution. “Let’s say I release 100 bugs onto a green lawn. Fifty are green and 50 are brown. Now, which bugs do you think will best be able to hide from enemies like bug-eating birds? (Most kids will say green ones.) So, if I go back in a few years, would I find more green or more brown bugs? (green again). And, what color will the babies of the green bugs be? (green). That’s right. Just as your mom or dad passed on a certain trait like your blue eyes, the parent green bugs will pass on the green color to their babies. (Now comes the tricky part.) Let’s say some green bugs that usually live on green lawns get blown in a storm to an island where there is mostly brown sand. Life will be hard. However, once in a rare while, a pair of these green bugs might produce a brown baby. This is because little mistakes sometimes happen in how an animal’s body makes a baby. Do you think those rare brown babies would escape enemies more easily? (yes). And, if the rare brown bugs live a little longer because they can hide better, do you think they may have more babies than the green bugs? (Most kids will agree.) What color would most of the babies be? (brown.)

As the years go by, brown bugs will become more and more common. Color isn’t the only thing that might change, however. Because a sandy habitat offers fewer places to hide, the babies that are born with other good traits for hiding — once again because of a mistake in how the parents’ body makes a baby — would end up surviving more easily. Such a trait might be bigger, stronger front legs that are good for digging hiding spots in the sand. Now, let’s say that hundreds of years later, there is another huge storm. Some of the brown bugs get blown off the island and end up on the grassy lawns where their ancestors came from. Would they have trouble surviving? (Kids should say, yes.) Well, that’s not the only problem they would have. Other than eating, what else do all animals do? (Prompt someone to say, “have babies.”) Well, imagine a male brown sand bug meets a female green lawn bug (or vice versa). She might just chase him away or completely ignore him. She won’t want to make babies with him because, being brown and having huge front legs, he looks so different. At this point, we can say that the green lawn bugs and the brown sand bugs have evolved into two different species. Just like horses and zebras!)

Kids are fascinated by living things and why they look and behave as they do (Photo: Drew Monkman)

3. Paper circles game: This is a hands-on version of part of the story above. It shows how nature “decides” (natural selection) who survives and has babies. Using a whole punch, make 50 sand-brown and 50 grass-green paper circles. You might want to use paint sample cards. Sprinkle 20 of each colour on a green lawn. Give the children maybe 30 seconds to remove as many of the little circles as they can (but only one at a time). Then, count the number of circles of each colour that were picked up. For every circle that remains on the grass (20 minus number picked up), add 3 or so of the same colour. This represents reproduction. Repeat the activity for a couple of more “generations”. The children will see how the “population” on the lawn shifts towards the colours that are hardest to see. You can then try the same activity on sand.

Next week, I’ll provide more activities and thoughts on teaching evolution. What better way to celebrate Earth Day than helping kids understand the reason for our Earth’s huge diversity of life!


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


“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.”


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.


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.


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/