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dwarf birches

dwarf birches and tundra


suddenly – reindeer!


The morning broke grey and brooding outside the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station and after a quick breakfast, we were on the trail, hiking up Saana Fjell, guided by Erich Berger of the Finnish Bioart Society. The idea was to familiarize ourselves with the geology, ecology and cultural history of the vicinity so we could dive into our research plans as soon as possible.

The Australian bio-hacker, Oron Catts had already been here for a week to do some scouting for his group’s ‘Journey to the Post-Anthropogenic’ project. They planned to perform a comprehensive bio-archeological survey of the crash site of a German Junkers 88 bomber that came down on Saana in 1942, which included a metagenomic analysis of the plane’s debris field and a recreation of the crash trajectory using a remote-controlled drone.


debris field

debris field

It wasn’t long before we passed the tree line where the mountain birches gave way to an expanse of open tundra sweeping out before us in a swath of russet heath and exposed rock, with quivering patches of silver cloud here and there snagged on the crenellations of the topography. As if on cue, a small herd of reindeer appeared over the crest of a nearby hill and galloped across our field of view, cocking their heads as they past us and then just as quickly melting into the gloom of the opposite horizon. It is hard to judge distances here in this cold desert. An unusual rock formation in the distance might be small and quite close by or enormous and very far away.

I felt for a moment as if I had been transported back to the Pleistocene, as the landscape I was looking at was what much of Europe and North America would have been like at the end of the last Ice Age, though (other than the reindeer) there wasn’t any of the charismatic megafauna such as the woolly mammoth and the cave lions I would have had to concern myself with back then. Semi-domesticated, reindeer have sustained the local Sami people since ancient times and they are of the few creatures (other than snails) to manufacture the enzyme lichenase, enabling them to survive on lichen during the winter months.

How this delicate ecological balance will be affected by climate change is unclear but to my mind it doesn’t look good. Lichens exist in fairly specific temperature and humidity conditions and in Kilpisjärvi many are symbiotic with the birch trees, themselves a cold-dependent species. A continued warming trend in this region is bound to mean diminishment of suitable reindeer habitat. This has already occurred in North America, where the closely related Woodland Caribou has steadily disappeared from the southern portions of its range.

Standing in the middle of this iconic subarctic landscape, it is hard to imagine rapid changes occurring. For thousands of years, the processes shaping it have been gradual and incremental – the slow scouring of glaciers advancing and retreating, the infiltration of frost with its insidious heaving and splitting, the seasonal flows of meltwater into the lakes and rivers. The cold accentuates the sense of Deep Time here. Rocks dragged by ancient ice flows sit solemnly in place as if they stopped moving only yesterday. The sparse, slow growing vegetation is no match for the overwhelmingly geologic feeling of the place. Even minor disturbances stay visible for centuries.

But add even a small degree of warming and there would be potentially huge changes. Vegetative growth would ramp up, allowing trees to flourish in areas that were once windswept barrens. It is easy to imagine the slopes of Saana darkening as the Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris), now found only intermittently in the Kilpisjärvi area but quite common further south, finds conditions more suitable to it and becomes a dominant species. True tundra and the flora and fauna that depend on it could disappear from the area entirely.

scots pine

lone Scots pine

Fast-forward a little further and there could be a whole host of new species that find the once frigid environs of Kilpisjärvi newly tolerable. A good many of these are likely to be weeds, which thrive on man-made disturbance. Investigating the grounds around the research station, I soon found  a small clump of English plantain (Plantago major) a cosmopolitan weed, dubbed the ‘white man’s footprint’ by North American First Nations, who noticed it growing wherever European colonizers had disturbed the original ecosystem. The humble plantain is just the beginning. I predict that larger weed species will soon be gaining a foothold at Kilpisjärvi;  their seeds imported on tire treads or blown in with the wind.

I wondered how it might  look here when Ailanthus altissima, a tree variously known as the ‘Ghetto Palm’ or ‘Tree of Heaven,’ moves into the Finnish subarctic. Originally from China, Ailanthus is exuberantly invasive, and has already moved into ruderal (ruin) ecologies throughout the world without any signs of stopping. This tree has the astounding ability to feed off concrete, allowing  it to thrive in cracks in pavement, the roofs and facades of under-maintained buildings and pretty much any other place its myriad seeds are able to lodge themselves long enough to germinate.


Ailanthus trees

As the global south becomes uninhabitable due to increasing drought, wildfire and relentless heat, it isn’t hard to imagine a newly temperate Kilpisjärvi becoming a major magnet for climate refugees, human and non-human. Higher annual temperatures, as well as attracting different flora and fauna, could make the cultivation of cereal crops a possibility and  perhaps other kinds of intensive agriculture, now more characteristic of Central Europe. This could transform the wild, transhumance landscape into a ‘Kulturlandschaft,’ the subarctic wilderness giving way to ploughed fields, perhaps even orchards. There might be a property boom as the open range lands once suitable only for reindeer husbandry become hosts to cash crops and  housing estates. The effect on the traditional Sami lifestyle would be incalculable.

A climate-changed Kilpisjärvi would be a kind of ‘hyperecology’– a co-mingling of adaptive, cosmopolitan weeds, perhaps a few resilient local organisms and a steady in-migration of biota from the south. Outside the national parks and reserves, post-climate change nature will have even less of a free hand. There is massive industrial development afoot for Lapland, particularly mining and its ancillary industries which threaten to blight vast tracts of  the relatively pristine landscape with  open pit mines, tailings ponds and processing infrastructure, which, as well as inevitably introducing all sorts of pollution will create a new  terrain vague of  slag heaps and factory wastelands. These ‘brownfields,’ ubiquitous in much of the industrialized world are the preferred habitats of  the globally distributed ragamuffin flora: Ailanthus, Buddlea and Robinia, which find the toxic and impoverished soils to their liking.

Industrialized, intensely cultivated and densely populated, the Kilpisjärvi of the not-to-distant future might look strangely familiar to any present day resident of a more temperate latitude. Yet what has been predictable there for so long will soon become much more extreme. We may all find ourselves moving north.

But climate change isn’t likely to stop at this arbitrary point. The heat will likely continue to build, especially if mankind continues dumping carbon into the atmosphere and particularly if the much feared ‘runaway greenhouse’ effect kicks in. What then for Kilpisjärvi? The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum that happened some 55 million years ago gives us a clue. In those days, the weather north of the Arctic circle was sultry and humid the year round. In addition to the Sciadopitys trees I described in my previous posting, vast swamp forests of  Metasequoia and Taxodium  spread out across the far north of Eurasia and North America, with turtles and crocodiles plying through the black water and mire. It would have resembled the bayou country of Louisiana or subtropical China, with snow and ice pretty much non-existent, a far cry from the frigid Kilpisjärvi of today, which can be icebound 200 days a year.


Eocene landscape

Northern regions are well on track for a repeat of these subtropical conditions according to the most agreed upon climate change models, which predict an up to 4 degree Celsius rise globally by the end of the century, with a strong likelihood that changes in high latitudes will be more extreme. Though the biota will surely be more impoverished than it was in the Eocene, not having had anywhere near as much time to evolve, an anthropogenically tropical Lapland would be a mind-boggling yet disturbingly real possibility.

Though our species’ effect on climate can (and will) precipitate far-reaching changes in areas like Kilpisjärvi, there are many planetary processes playing out over which we have no control. The evolution of biota over Deep Time is as much happenstance as forward movement, with periods of great flourishing such as the infamous ‘Cambrian Explosion’ interspersed with ‘reversal’ or mass extinction, either organically or extraterrestrially engendered, which often obliterate whole classes of once dominant organisms and provide opportunities for minor ones to come out of the wings.

Past instigators of mass extinction have included: asteroid impacts, widespread volcanic eruptions with concomitant ocean acidification, even  the evolution of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria, which released the toxic gas oxygen into the atmosphere to the detriment of the once dominant anaerobes. Any and all of these scenarios will likely play out again somewhere in the fullness of Deep Time, but barring the elimination of all life on the planet, it is worth speculating on the impact such upheavals would have on the vegetated landscape.

For example, what would happen if flowering plants, also known as angiosperms, dramatically declined, perhaps taken out by some pandemic or selective evolutionary pressure?  They’ve really only been common since the Cretaceous and it isn’t hard to imagine Kilpisjärvi’s abundant so-called ‘lower’ plants – mosses, club mosses and liverworts, moving into the vacuum and attaining gigantic proportions, as was the case during in the coal swamps of the Carboniferous Period.

club mosses

Neo-Kilpisjärvi with giant club mosses

A reduction in the availability of sunlight due to volcanic ash or widespread dust storms could have equally bizarre consequences. With green plants and algea in decline because of the challenge to photosynthesis, there would be a selective advantage for fungi, which might take over Kilpisjärvi forming bizarre, colossal structures as they did during the Devonian Period, some 400 million years ago, and again during the mayhem of the Permian mass extinction. Whether our own species would survive under such extreme and alien conditions is an open question, but life of some sort is almost certain to find a way. Perhaps fungi will regroup to form the planet’s supreme intelligence. Some would say, they already have!

It is this last point that gives me a vestige of hope. We Homo sapiens are a problematic creature, a classic, invasive species that thrives on disturbance, tends toward monoculture and displaces competing biota from its habitat. Yet in the overall scheme of things we are likely to be a transient phenomenon. We will either precipitate our own extinction, (and if the surviving ecosystems of the planet could sigh in relief, they surely would!), or we will find a way to live within our ecological means and develop a more equitable arrangement with the fellow denizens of the biosphere. My stay at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station offered me the ideal vantage point to consider this conundrum. What we are in now is not so much of a ‘watershed’ moment but more of a ‘timeshed’ moment!

giant fungi

Neo-Kilpisjärvi with giant fungi

still here…

wolf investigating my neighbor's garbage

wolf investigating my neighbor's garbage

Another spring is upon us here on Canada’s West Coast, replete with its promise of respite from the brooding winter sky and the months of cold, slimy rain. The occasional few hours of sunshine, the unfurling of tender buds and in the hollows – the din of tree frogs in their tremulous nuptial chirping; it all reminds me that this is the season of new life and new beginnings.

Though Timothy Morton describes the current ecological moment as a kind of planetary ‘charnel ground’, i.e. we have basically already died and just haven’t realized it yet, I am perhaps stubbornly holding out for some hope. Despite the epic damage our species has wrought on its fellow organisms and on the very climatological systems that keep everything in its finely tuned balance, I am seeing signs here and there that the processes of planetary repair are kicking in, and that one day, the worst of what we have done will be obscured beneath layers of unquenchable biomass.

Which is not to say I am in denial about the severity of our present situation. Accelerated extinction and human-induced climate change are all too real and many of earth’s more fragile ecosystems have been badly diminished or at reduced to ‘museum’ status, surviving as relics only within the confines of national parks, constantly under threat from illegal logging, poaching and the abrasions of excessive tourism. Though I think it premature to declare the ‘end of nature,’ it is safe to say we are at the end of wilderness.

But what does this mean exactly? To be sure the figure/ground relationship between man and nature has changed fundamentally, perhaps irrevocably, as Bill McKibben pointed out in his prescient book, way back in 1989. A single species, ours, is now the greatest driving force behind species biodiversity, climate change and even geomorphology, via the amount of the earth’s crust we move and the structures we build, activities that geologists calculate now use up more energy annually than is expended by the natural growth of mountains and the deposition of sediments. Yet there are also signs that species are responding to us by evolving at an unprecedented rate. The New Scientist describes a type of ‘fast-track’ evolution, in which significant morphological traits of animals can evolve in mere decades to help them adapt to changing environmental conditions, provided there is enough genetic diversity in the original population to allow the expression of ‘back-up’ genes. Several of Darwin’s iconic Galapagos finches are already changing their beak sizes as they literally evolve into new species as the conditions of their Galapagos habitat are altered by changing climate and by the selective pressure of being fed leftover rice by the throngs of eco-tourists who have come to see them. The article also cites the now classic case of ‘industrial melanization’ in peppered moths, which rapidly evolved darker pigmentation in response to the contamination of the English Midlands by coal soot during the Industrial Revolution. Blackness too confers a survival advantage to organisms, especially birds, living in the ‘zone of alienation’ around the Chernobyl reactor site. It turns out that darker pigmentation frees up a molecule called glutathione (GSH), an antioxidant which protects tissues from radiation damage. So darker birds succeed, while their lighter cousins don’t, which has already skewed the way birds in the area look in the past twenty-five years since the explosion. Amazingly, a conspicuously black, radiotrophic fungus now thrives in one of the most radioactive places in the whole disaster area – the inside surfaces of the concrete sarcophagus that was hastily constructed to contain the radiation spewing from the stricken reactor as they continued to melt down.

As well as appearance, animal behavior is rapidly changing as the evolutionary pressure to adapt to the ubiquitous humans presence steadily mounts. These ‘cultural’ shifts are cropping up all over the place as in the case I wrote about previously concerning the extirpation and subsequent recolonization of wolves on Cortes Island, BC (where I live part time.) What is amazing about this situation was not that the wolves came back; they weren’t after all extinct on the nearby mainland; but that they adapted their behavior in response to the denser human settlement they encountered on their return. They now unabashedly lope through populated areas even during daylight hours to feast on a bounty of domestic animals, yard-fattened deer and household trash. Though normally a shy, secretive species, wolves on Cortes are now pushing the envelope in their interactions with the people, maintaining very little distance between themselves and us, their primary predator, and acting nonchalant. I’ve encountered them several times now and I have to say it is quite something to be given the once-over by one of these iconic predators, as is saunters nonchalantly down the same dirt road I frequent on my morning jog. The wolves’ adaptive strategy is clearly working on Cortes as the numbers of wolves remain more or less stable, despite occasional shootings by locals and Provincial Conservation officers, who get called in to cull overly habituated ‘problem’ animals. On the whole, the benefits of associating with humans must outweigh the risks them. The population of their main prey items, raccoons and black-tailed deer, explode in the disturbed, edge habitats humans create such as residential gardens and former clear-cuts that come up in lush alder groves after the conifers get logged out. Though not nearly as successful in our presence as their smaller cousin, the coyote, it’s only natural, I suppose, that some wolves; which are after all a highly intelligent species; have learned to live in our midst. Yet it is an open question as to whether this has a genetic basis. They sure are acting differently though. During the past week, I have heard two reliable reports of wolves, individually and in packs, chasing cars along the roads of Cortes. Clearly their behavior hasn’t stopped evolving yet.

A similar situation has arisen in upstate New York, where fishers, previously trapped out from much of their North American range due to the demand for their valuable furs, are returning in droves – not to the remote wildernesses we thought they preferred, and where they continue to decline, but to the fragmented suburban forests and the margins of golf courses of cities like Albany. Like the Cortes Island wolves, these over-sized weasels are learning to exploit the rich food resources available in the interstices of human settlement, hunting down house cats and dodging highway traffic, in marked contrast to their secretive wilderness cousins who abandon habitats frequented by people. These are decidedly cultural shifts from a species we thought categorically could not co-exist with us. Something has definitely shifted within this eastern population of fishers. Human induced hyper-evolution seems a likely explanation.

Perhaps most lovely of all is the oft-blogged spectacle of the thousands of Vaux’s swifts that have colonized the disused smoke stack of a school in Portland Oregon. Swifts, small, swallow-like birds, traditionally need the large hollow trees, once characteristic of the region’s now largely extirpated old-growth forests, in which to communally nest and roost. Yet the Portland population has somehow transposed this crucial requirement onto what seems a very different set of circumstances.

It makes me wonder how many other species are rapidly adapting to our built environment to use as their primary habitat, in the face of the massive evolutionary pressure to do so. Hawks certainly seem to be making this adjustment. During my last few winters in New York City, I was delighted to observe red-tailed hawks roosting in the stately American Elms of Tompkins Square Park, disemboweling the rats they’d snatched right in front of squealing crowds of spectators. These magnificent birds have spawned a new class of paparazzi, who blog their behavior in minute detail and lobby for their protection. A similar situation arose after a group of fellow squatters and I started Cottonwood Gardens in Vancouver. For a short while we were plagued by rats, attracted by the sudden availability of compost piles and the produce we were trying to cultivate. Just as we were about to despair, a pair of red-tailed hawks established a nest on a nearby cottonwood tree and they soon made short work of the rodents. They resided there every nesting season for several years until they were themselves supplanted by a pair of bald eagles who increased the size of the already enormous nest. Twenty years later there are now two bald eagle nests at the Cottonwood Gardens site, in close proximity to each other and one can regularly thrill to the site these apex predators soaring over the factories, warehouses and trash-littered terraine vague of what at first glance seems a most unprepossessing habitat from a wildlife point of view.

Tompkins Square hawk with rat

Tompkins Square hawk with rat

A recent report in the Guardian described a heavily contaminated refinery site, near Rochester in the UK, as a ‘Lost World,’ of critically endangered insects, which have been all but wiped out in so called ‘natural areas’ elsewhere. There is something about this ruin ecology’s unique interplay of disturbance and neglect that makes it an ideal habitat for these rare creatures. Yet perhaps it is the creatures themselves that have also changed, slowly adapting to live among us in the wastelands and ruins we have worked so hard to create. Our abandoned industrial sites and DMZs have become ‘disaster edens’ – a new frontier in ecological study. My first inkling of this happened during a visit to Berlin in the early 1980’s. I was astonished to observe a thriving diversity of wildlife in the land mine studded strip of no-man’s land between the two sections of the Berlin Wall. Clearly visible were scores of European hares grazing freely on a verdant meadow, too light to trip the lethal devices hidden mere centimeters beneath their twitching noses. They did not however escape the notice of the squadrons of kites, falcons and honey buzzards who regularly patrolled the air above them to pick off any stragglers. Though the Wall has long since been down, Berlin has lately been overrun with native wild boars who swarm in from the countryside to avail themselves of the city’s leafy boulevards, parks and gardens. Their population has grown so precipitously that urban hunters have been contracted to keep the numbers down.

In cities we get a preview of the larger trend toward ragamuffin ecologies or what has been called ‘Nature 2.0.’ Here native and exotic organisms co-mingle in hitherto unheard of combinations resulting in meta-ecologies that are adaptive and emergent. These are ecologies of disturbance, often first colonized by fast growing, cosmopolitan so called ‘invasive’ species such as Ailanthus (a.k.a. ‘Ghetto Palm’), Scotch Broom and Buddleja. These are blamed for wreaking all kinds of havoc, though I am increasingly convinced they often stabilize damaged landscapes long enough until native organisms can regain a foothold. I’ve seen this happen in the urban steppes of East Vancouver; abandoned car parks and railway sidings, which are first colonized by the nitrogen fixing Scotch Broom that move in quickly to cover exposed ground until the native Cottonwoods eventually dominate. Though they look different from the cathedral like groves of ancient conifers that are associated with the BC ecological brand, these emergent, pavement loving forests soon attract native birds such as the northern flicker and white-crowned sparrows as well as other creatures such as the coyote, only recently native to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland where it migrated from the province’s interior. Exotic species will forever be part of the mix though, despite the efforts of botanical nativists to ethnically cleanse the landscape of them.

a well developed emergent forest of both native and exotic species - East Vancouver (1994)

Well developed emergent forest of both native and exotic species (Himalayan Blackberry, English Walnut, Big-leafed Maple, Castanea, Corylus, hops etc.) - East Vancouver (1994)

Such processes of colonization and re-adaptation are important to track as they fall outside canonical notions of ecological restoration, which generally presuppose a return to a ‘native,’ prelapsarian kind of species composition, which is becoming increasingly meaningless in the now overarching context of the Anthropocene. I find these new hybrid realities fascinating and hopeful. It means we can do more than just wring our hands at the decline of nature as we thought we knew it. We might as well face it. There is no going back. Now is a good time to intelligently assess our limits and ask ourselves the Zen question: “What can I not do?” Nature might already be several steps ahead of us.

BTW: If any of you are in Vancouver from June 20th- 24th of this year, I am teaching a little Continuing Ed Course at Emily Carr University entitled: Open Source City: Field Studies. We’ll travel around town on the Skytrain, examining various emergent landscapes and also examples of temporary autonomous zones – places that people have created as urban commons, which exist outside the mainstream models of planning. I promise it will be a lot of fun, so please sign up if you can!


emergent cottonwood and birch grove

emergent cottonwood and birch grove in East Vancouver industrial zone

northern flicker in an abandoned industrial zone

northern flicker using the emergent forest habitat