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English Ivy on Douglas Fir

English Ivy on Douglas Fir

licorice fern on chinese elm

Licorice fern on Chinese elm


Much has been made of the damage caused to ecosystems by so called ‘exotic’ species but things can get pretty complicated when you look at them more closely, particularly in urban environments, where the built landscape so obscures the preexisting  ecological underpinnings that all kinds of strangeness can result.

During the early days of Cottonwood Gardens,  we had a hard time growing such common natives as Oregon grape (Mahonia) and Salal (Gaultheria) because growing conditions were too hot and dry and the degraded urban soil too alkaline for the comfort of these native woodland plants. Even the ubiquitous Red alder (Alnus rubra) hadn’t yet managed to move in, though it flourishes in the Grandview Cut,  just a mile or two away. Instead what had established itself was a so-called ‘ragamuffin’ ecology dominated by exotics such as Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), tansy (Tanacetum) and Scotch broom.  Black cottonwoood (Populus) was the only native growing widely on the site, though I did find one stressed-out looking clump of sword fern and a straggly Nootka rose hidden among the dense thickets of blackberries.

In the intervening 20 or so years, conditions at Cottonwood Gardens gradually changed enough to allow the establishment of native species, due largely to the increased humidity under the maturing canopy of trees and the soil becoming more acid with the accumulated inputs of leaves and compost. Yet is this natural?  Of course not. It was a completely man-made intervention, albeit one that might well provide ecological benefits such as furnishing habitat for native butterflies and other pollinators. I would argue that Cottonwood’s combination of native and exotic species is a ‘hyperecology,’ potentially more ecologically diverse  than the native ecology that long ago preceded it. On my several visits to Cottonwood this year I was once again delighted to see bald eagles, icons of British Columbia’s wilderness, soaring over the exotic groves of  Chinese chestnut, Paulownia and bamboo. It is important though to note that the native keystone species, Black cottonwood, is still part of the system and indeed a necessary one because it provides the lofty nest sites required by eagles and other native raptors.

Yet exotic species often do become invasive and a threat to biodiversity. But why?  Take English Ivy (Hedera helix) for example, widely reviled for its invasive tendencies in the Pacific Northwest. It is most troublesome in areas where the ungulates, such as the native black-tailed deer no longer no longer are allowed free reign. In such places ivy can soon overwhelm even the tallest trees, sometimes literally pulling them down with its sheer rampant mass. English Ivy is much less a problem where deer are still abundant and the native ground covers such as salal have already filled any available niches.  On Cortes Island where I live, in second growth, coastal rainforest, any English Ivy that grows beyond my garden fence gets immediately eaten by hungry black-tails. As a result, it manages to establish itself in the wild only occasionally, in places that deer have trouble reaching and where some other disturbance has taken place. In that light, English Ivy should be considered invasive only when the host ecosystem is already compromised through other factors such as fragmentation and the removal of key herbivores.

Instead of expending a lot of money and effort pulling out ivy, why not bring ungulates back to such out-of-whack ecosystems? In places like Vancouver’s Stanley Park, where the re-introduction of native deer might not be practical, why not bring in goat herders to take advantage of the ivy’s vegetative bounty? According to the old song:  “A kid’ll eat ivy too. Wouldn’t you?” Well I wouldn’t but I’d certainly eat some delicious chèvre prepared perhaps by a cadre of anarchist urban goat herders, who might one day tend their flocks in the dappled groves beneath the din of the Lion’s Gate Bridge.  Though this has yet to happen in Vancouver, Los Angeles has already instituted a trial program to use goats for weed control, a strategy particularly effective on highway hillsides where mechanized mowing can be hazardous. A few crusty kids with mountain bikes and herding dogs is all it would take to start a goat-based ivy control program in Vancouver. Maybe they should be allowed to live in Stanley Park too, in picturesque goat sheds of their own construction, lovingly fashioned out of cob and wattle. Are there any takers out there? The tourists would love it!

Licorice fern in artificial cliff habitat with pigeon

Licorice fern in artificial cliff habitat with pigeon

Glaucous-winged gull on rooftop

Glaucous-winged gull on rooftop


Though it it might not be obvious, the coastal rainforest is always angling for a foothold even in Vancouver’s most built-up environs. I have posted previously on how black cottonwood and big-leafed maple form emergent forests on disused parking lots and vacant industrial lands. Lately, I’ve been encouraged to find licorice fern, usually found growing on drippy forest cliffs or festooning ancient trees, happily attaching itself to concrete warehouse roofs and (horror of horrors!) the crotches of much loathed  Chinese Elm. It is just a matter of time before more rainforest species make the jump to live among us in the West Coast’s cities. We certainly could design buildings to be more amenable to such natural re-colonization, perhaps creating buildings that more overtly emulate sea cliffs and nurse logs. Certain sea birds such as glaucous-winged gulls have already made themselves at home in our built environment’s plethora of niches. Why not start attracting others through the deliberate inclusion of nesting shelves in buildings? The guano could be harvested to amend plantings in city parks and community gardens and the bird watching opportunities might be mind-blowing! One thing is for certain though: as native species return, exotic species will always be part of the mix, resulting in more examples of hyperecologies where they gradually learn to adapt to each other. To keep things in balance, the occasional, mindful intervention such as bringing in a few goat herders might be just the thing. But mostly we should just sit back and watch. Nature in the city will always surprise us.


running wild: canucks, class, and the rage against nothing

the joy of authenticity

the joy of authenticity


As post-hockey riot Vancouver sweeps the last shards of glass from its sidewalks and processes a myriad insurance claims, the hand-wringing and finger pointing are proceeding apace in the mad rush to save the reputation of the so-called ‘most livable city on earth.’

But my question is – why were we so surprised?

To make sense of the images of water-polo playing sons of surgeons setting fire to police cars and private school toffs rampaging through the ruins of bank lobbies, we might learn more from the words of a dead science fiction writer than from any of the outraged utterances of the mayor and the chief of police.

J.G. Ballard would have loved this riot. In fact he consistently imagined situations like this (and worse) in his dystopian novels and short fiction. In his novella Running Wild, the children in a gated community of middle class professionals band together and slaughter their parents within the tasteful grounds and interiors of their designer homes. In High Rise, the residents of a luxury apartment tower wage tribal warfare against rival floors in an effort to alleviate the boredom of their cosseted and privileged lives.

J.G. Ballard's Running Wild

My copy of 'Running Wild'


“Unable to express their own emotions or respond to those of people around them, suffocated under a mantle of praise and encouragement, they were trapped forever in a perfect universe. In such a society, madness is the only freedom.”

J.G. Ballard: Running Wild (1988.)

In many ways Vancouver’s hockey riot was likewise an expression of raging bourgeoise ferality; essentially, a riot about nothing – a ‘Seinfeld’ of riots to which it is a mistake to ascribe any political motive. In the wake of the play-off defeat, with the Canucks scoring ‘zero,’ something had to take the place of that nothing even if that something was pointless violence. At least that could be remembered, tweeted and socially networked. To read any more into this is to be mistaken, yet for me, the underlying message is clear:

Beware of the middle class.

Especially its young men. For they exist increasingly in a state that could be described as a deficit of the real, which is dangerous and unstable place, full of unfocused outrage and an overdeveloped sense of personal entitlement that constantly simmers just below the surface. The riot wasn’t a conspiracy of any kind but rather the lack of one – a set of preconditions where a massive charge of nothingness had accumulated to which the riot was an almost electrical response; the closing of a circuit to the unmet expectations of an ontologically bereft, predominantly suburban, mob. With the loss of the game, the value of the Canuck brand (temporarily) evaporated for them, triggering a wave of buyer’s remorse through the hyped-up expectations of the crowd. In the brutal logic of the situation, the outpouring of rage had to be taken out on the city itself, the brand’s associative container. In that sense the ubiquitous slogan: ‘We are all Canucks,’ proved truer than it needed to be. The ensuing riot and looting were pure reification, a desperate desire to wrest meaning from the void, to be part of an authentically ‘real’ experience outside the purview of the corporate machine that had so spectacularly failed to deliver. No matter how one feels about it, the hockey riot unarguably ‘happened,’ the physicality of its burned-out automobiles and pillaged storefronts comprising an iconic collective experience that will be remembered for a long time to come, despite the almost immediate attempts by civic boosters to re-narrative-ize it by drawing media attention to isolated acts of heroism and the bonhomie of those engaged in the clean up effort.

Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto


sports fan ferality

sports fan ferality


The Stars of the Riot:

White Riot – I wanna riot

White Riot – A riot of my own

The Clash – White Riot 1977

But getting back to the situation of those young, suburban men…

What would prompt a privileged Maple Ridge kid like 17 year-old Olympic hopeful, Nathan Koytlak to be photographed in front of a cheering crowd, holding a lighter and stuffing a rag into the gas tank of a police cruiser?

he's 'caught up in the moment'

he's 'caught up in the moment'

Not to pick on young Nathan, who like so many others has issued his legally-vetted and suitably contrite public apology. In keeping with his class privilege, Nathan’s ‘brand of one’ might someday be rebuilt, but such scenes were played out countless other times, the perpetrators more or less interchangeable, all of them egged-on by appreciative, live-blogging audiences recording each detail on a panopticon of socially networked devices. In a sense the individual stars of the riot, served as avatars for the feral aspirations of the many, a kind of crowd-sourced, ‘Vancouver’s Got Talent,’ reality TV show, where in order to distinguish themselves, participants vied against each other in contests of escalating ‘bad-assedness.’

There are parallels also with computer gaming, though it would be too simplistic to call it a cause. One wonders if the ubiquitous Grand Theft Auto trope of flames and pixelated blood spatter against the backdrop of a burned out city has so thoroughly colonized the optical subconscious that it now seems natural somehow, even reassuring, a kind of default habitat where young men in particular are used to operating. The post play-off anomie created the perfect psychological environment for the unleashing this pent-up, first-person-shooter energy against the bland, manufactured seamlessness of the theme-parked urban landscape, every broken window and burned-out car as unique as a snowflake and a marker of the perpetrator’s now extended personal space.


Lek Behavior:


sage grouse lek diagram


And what of the grand old game itself? Much ink has been spilled about the gratuitous violence in professional hockey. But it isn’t hockey per se. As in other sports, there is an obvious mimetic component that compels some spectators to re-enact the gladiatorial dynamic of the game outside the confines of the arena. This isn’t exactly new. Sports riots have been recorded from as far back as Roman times and have more to do with tribal rivalry than anything intrinsic to specific games. Soccer isn’t a particularly violent sport but English football hooligans are some of the most brutal fans on earth. That team sports serve as a kind of proxy combat onto which spectators project their own polemical aspirations is well known, and the environment around high stakes matches can provide ideal conditions for territorial violence by concentrating large numbers of adrenally stimulated and often intoxicated young males into confined spaces. The resultant eruptive behavior closely resembles a form of animal territorial display called ‘lekking,’ prevalent in such species as sage grouse and certain ungulates. It works (to paraphrase Wikipedia) like this:
In a lek, males of the same species meet at a preordained place (actually called an ‘arena’) and take up individual positions, each occupying and defending a small territory or ‘bubble’ where they intermittently or continuously spar with their neighbors or put on extravagant visual or aural displays. The higher the male’s status, the larger the size of the bubble he can occupy and the better and more central its location. Physical contests in these situations are frequent and females choose their mates in accordance with their dominance.
By funneling crowds containing a large proportion of young men into the so called ‘fan zone,’ the city of Vancouver unwittingly created the perfect conditions for an enormous, testosterone-charged lek. From the standpoint of biology, the mayhem that ensued was pretty much inevitable.

sage grouse lekking behavior

sage grouse lekking behavior

The only surprise to this whole sorry debacle was that police and civic officials were so woefully under-prepared. Though a similar situation had occurred back in 1994, the city was once again caught on the back foot. One can only speculate as to why. Against its spectacular backdrop of snow capped mountains and unspoiled forest verdure, the haze of magical thinking frequently occludes acknowledgement of some of Vancouver’s most pressing problems. This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular, but a kind of climatic reality – an endemic social viscosity and an overarching cultural attachment to the pursuit of personal bliss. The result, unfortunately is that some pretty big issues get swept up under the rug. The riot of 2011 affords this odd, little adolescent city an opportunity to take stock and finally begin to grow up. Let’s hope that happens soon.


the future is feral

the future is feral

fuck you said the shrew



Fuck you said the shrew. Fuck you for feeding the cat that plucked me from my grassy itinerary and left me to die on the ignominious vinyl of this nineteen-seventies kitchen floor. Fuck you said the shrew, for ending my life before I was ready and the lives of my unborn shrew-lets asleep in my belly, who now will never taste the sweetness of milk from my swollen teats. Fuck you for making me die so slowly and for making me twist my tapir-like proboscis at your human stink to try and make sense of it all. Fuck you too, to the ticks that still hold fast to my neck’s velvet nape, even as my life seeps away from me and my little swarm of fleas skitters toward the baseboards.

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





box turtles

Marmaduke (left) and Isadora (right) in a postcopulatory moment

For forty-one years I have been intensely fond of her. Then one morning last week, I found her lying on the wood chips of her terrarium, frozen in mid crawl, her eyes closed tight and oddly withered into her leathery, beaky skull. Neither prodding nor cooing nor a soak in a dish of tepid water elicited the hoped for wriggle of the neck or the twitch of a scaly leg. Isadora at long last had died, though I can still scarcely believe it.

It was the spring of 1969 when I’d first got her, sending away for her from a mail order pets ad at the back of a comic book. I was a small boy living in suburban Toronto. I had wanted a friend for my box turtle Marmaduke, whom I had acquired two years before in the pet section of a brand new department store, in a new shopping plaza that had just superimposed itself onto the sleepy, Upper Canadian streetscape of my small town home. I still remember sealing my five American dollars into an envelope and dropping it into the red void of the corner mailbox.

As if by magic, a couple of weeks later, a package arrived, postmarked Hermosa Beach, California, an impossibly exotic sounding place at an impossibly exotic southerly latitude. I imagined a place full of Flintstones style houses and curly-fronded palm trees, (which was not far from the truth as I found out many years later) I carefully cut through the packing tape, lifted off the lid of the little carton and caught my first glimpse of her exquisite horn-colored shell. She’d sealed herself in, the way box turtles do, barricading her soft bits behind her hinged plastron to wait out the long, bumpy journey into uncertain future.

Of course turtles might not have a sense of the future. But they live so very long. Perhaps life for them is some kind of infinitely extended present. It took over an hour for her to relax just enough to give me a glimpse of her mottled head. For the longest time , even the smallest movement would cause her to pull it back into her shell with a hiss of expelled air as its horny scutes snapped closed again.

It was my mother who named her Isadora, though no one remembers why. Isadora remained shy throughout her life. She was already an adult when she arrived. No doubt she was traumatized, wrested perhaps from some peaceful forest glade by some gruff collector. I hadn’t thought about her provenance at that time, but to acquire a wild-caught turtle now would be unthinkably immoral, given the imperiled state of turtles world wide. After she’d settled down, she would range the perimeter of my bedroom during the day and nap in a corner or bask for awhile in a pool of ephemeral sunlight. In warm weather, I would take her (and the rather libidinous Marmaduke) into the yard to feast on earthworms and sun-softened fruit. The pair of them would spend the nights and cold spells sequestered in their terrarium, which, with the aid of a ramp, they could enter and leave at will.
And so it went on through the decades. I grew up fast and by seventeen left home, but I took my turtles with me almost everywhere, even mailing them to myself on occasions when I had to cross the continent. Over the years, they have shared the hovels, artist lofts, apartments and houses I have lived in, seeing me through the highs and lows of my with their somber reptilian eyes – Isadora’s a warm brown and Marmaduke’s flaming red. Despite their steadfast attempts at procreation, it makes me sad to think that I was never able to successfully incubate a single one of the leathery eggs Isadora laid. Somehow they always shriveled up on me, despite the elaborate contrivances I came up with to keep them warm.

I’m not sure how, or if, box turtles grieve. Right now, Marmaduke is methodically devouring a ramekin of organic dog food after which he will probably bask under his heat lamp for a while before retiring beneath the book shelf for a couple of days of napping. Meanwhile, the relentless Pacific rain pounds against the window of my room and the corpse of his mate of forty-one years lies buried under a hazel tree in the yard. Everything must end, I suppose, even the lives of a very old turtle, although exactly how old she was remains uncertain. She might have been as old as twenty when she came into my care all those many years ago. So goodbye Isadora, my shy and ancient friend. A long time ago, you crawled out of the soft earth somewhere as a little hatchling, packed in your own armored suitcase to make your way with in this world. Thank-you for spending so much of your time with me. May you have the sweetest turtle dreams. You will always be in my heart.

in search of lost asphalt

Untitled from oliver kellhammer on Vimeo.

In this video, I search for an abandoned tennis court that is slowly getting eaten by a hungry forest.

an end and a beginning

mittens napping

Happier Days – A once plump Mittens napping on a sunny couch


I wanted to inform all of my cat-loving friends about the passing here on Good Friday of our dear and ancient friend Mittens. She’d been withering away for the past year or so, becoming progressively more matted and skeletal till finally, reduced to a dusty husk, she decided it was time to die. What had kept her going these past few months was her indomitable appetite. Deaf and nearly blind, with an arthritic spine and fur falling out by the handful, her tiny clotted heart still quickened enough for a hobble over to the dinner bowl if she caught the scent of an open can of “Fancy Feast”. Mittens lived for food and when she stopped eating a few days ago, it was clear what was to come. In the end, she stumped down the basement stair and curled up under the work bench to die. When we brought her a little heater, she dragged herself away and settled onto the concrete floor. Warmth was not what she wanted. Perhaps she had a fever. It was there that we found her the next morning, stiff and cold with her eyes still half open, like she was trying hard to pay attention. Goodbye old friend. We’ll miss you…

a single cell

a single, giant cell

Newly hatched duckling

Newly hatched duckling

two day old duckling

one day old duckling

10 day old duckling

10 day old duckling

But with ending comes new beginning and the three Khaki Campbell ducklings that hatched out in the incubator last month continue to grow apace.

When I ask myself, “What did I do in the past month?” I don’t come up with much. But a duck egg develops from a single, albeit giant cell, into a fully formed, walking, squawking, opinionated ball of fluff in just about the time between two credit card statements. A duck egg gets fertilized about 10 days before it is laid, and then takes 28 or so more to hatch. The math of cell division is astonishing. I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations: It is commonly estimated there are about 10 to the power of 14 cells in an average human – which is 100 trillion, in non-geek terms. Assuming the average weight of a human to be, say 70,000 grams (70 kg), and a duckling weighing around 50 grams at the time of hatching, the duckling already has 7 trillion cells when it pecks its way out of the shell. Seven trillion cells that have divided, differentiated and self-assembled into a coherent constellation of throbbing, sentient life, made up of the same raw material that might have been my breakfast. And it happens in a month!

Though our technology might be enthralling, nothing we as a species have ever constructed comes even close to the amazingness of an egg. Not surprisingly, in many cultures the egg is seen as the foundation of the universe.

In the Kalevala or Finnish national epic, the world unfolds from a duck egg that is laid upon the knee of a goddess:

One egg’s lower half transformed,
And became the earth below,
And its upper half transmuted
And became the sky above;
From the yolk the sun was made,
Light of day to shine upon us;
From the white the moon was formed,
Light of night to gleam above us;
All the colored brighter bits
Rose to be the stars of heaven
And the darker crumbs changed into
Clouds and cloudlets in the sky.

egg in the snow


It’s that time of year when the days are short and the color has been sucked from the world.
I woke up this morning to find an egg lying out in the snow. Even the air has changed somehow, stuffing my ear canals and sealing me into the blood-throbbing confines of my memories. I think of last spring and the redwood grove I saw, ancient and sighing, oblivious to the sliver of time in which I must be satisfied. Yet there among the swirling gloom had grown the child of their ghosts, its needles white as a tapeworms, glistening with formaldehyde. It tried to kill me, you see, and hurled a branch in my direction when I got too close. And now after all those months, the great gray quilt of sky has pulled down over me and breath itself seems difficult. But high above the ragged trees, the white wraith swans churn savage wings again toward the ends of time. With bleating songs of ice and metal. I thought they’d gone extinct. . .

ghost redwood

albino redwood

winter of wolves


Canis lupus


A scene of rural domesticity:

I’m in my yard, stacking firewood beside the satellite dish. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse a movement in the salal bush at the edge of the forest, about fifty feet away from me. A deer, I figure. The woods up here are full of black tail deer and they are perpetually making forays into the lumpy meadow behind my house to nibble on the grass or sample the ornamental shrubs and fruit trees. I carry on stacking my wood, unconcerned. Another movement and I look up again. This time I see a long, black, canine snout and a stiff pair of triangular ears. I am met by a gaze that is at once curious and calculating. It is sizing me up. I suck in my breath and the face melts away into a viridian quiver of leaves.

As timber wolves go, this wasn’t a particularly large one. Wolves are a normal part of the ecosystem on Cortes Island and in my experience, they had always kept to themselves. I considered myself lucky to have gotten this close. Yet the wolf had seemed a bit brash. Unnervingly so.

I asked around a bit and soon discovered there had been a rash of wolf sightings by neighbours and those farther afield. Wolves were being spotted all over the place, loping through people’s backyards in the middle of the day and lurking around houses and barns. Dogs were getting killed. A neighbour’s Schnauzer was snatched from beside a popular hiking trail, a few feet away from its owner. The local wolves seemed suddenly to have lost their fear of man. A sense of alarm crept though the usually quiet community. Some folks already talked about instituting a wolf cull.

I recoiled at the prospect. I was familiar with the stories from the 70’s, when pick-up loads of dead wolves got paraded around the island after a concerted eradication campaign. Back then, the local ranchers poisoned, trapped and shot every wolf on Cortes Island in the name of protecting their livestock, which in those days was allowed to range freely through the bush. With the wolves gone, the deer population escalated, swarming onto the farmers’ fields, and into clear cuts, where they browsed the alder scrub that came up after extensive industrial logging operations. With such a bonanza of prey available, it was just a matter of time before new wolves started swimming over from the nearby mainland to take advantage of it. In the mean time, it had become less fashionable to kill wolves and so the migrants prospered, slowly returning the ecosystem to a sort of balance. Though rarely seen, wolves could often be heard howling on moonlit nights, invoking a frisson of wilderness in the hearts of the New Age refugees and dope farmers, who themselves were spreading out across the island. Occasionally someone’s dog would go missing or rarer still, a calf might get killed, but mostly the wolves kept a low profile.

Over the past few years though, their attitude was beginning to change. The wolves no longer seemed to be avoiding interactions with human beings and in a few cases, they were actively seeking us out. Several people had been surrounded by wolves while out in the woods, and they reported that they had come in uncomfortably close. Amidst a growing sense of unease, Sabina Mense, a local naturalist, invited a couple of wolf experts to field our questions at a public meeting. Speaking before a packed hall of what I knew to be some of the island’s more wolf-friendly people, Bob Hansen, a wildlife management specialist with the Pacific Rim National Park and Ben York, a provincial Conservation Officer, quickly disabused us of some of our more romantic wildlife notions.

Despite what I thought I had known from years of watching television documentaries and reading Never Cry Wolf as a kid, wolves can and will, under certain circumstances, attack people. This had recently started happening elsewhere on the coast and was about to, warned Hansen and York, happen in our neck of the woods, if we didn’t take necessary precautions. The irony was that wolves have changed their behavior in part as a reaction to our increased admiration for them. York recounted a recent incident in which a wolf badly mauled a sleeping kayaker, who had been camped out on the Broken Group Islands— a popular eco-tourism destination, famous for its spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife. The area’s wolf population is a prime attraction, providing a great photo opportunity as they forage on the beaches. But the Broken Island wolves were becoming pugnacious, lurking around camp sites and snatching provisions, abandoning their traditional wariness of people. On several occasions, campers were literally driven off their tent sites by marauding wolves, and had to fend them off with paddles, while hastily breaking camp and pushing their boats back into the sea. The wolves remained aggressive and several had to be shot by conservation officers, who then closed the campsites in the interest of public safety.

So what did this mean? Are wolves now suddenly more inclined to eat us? Should we revert to our childhood fears of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs? The problem, say York and Hansen, is habituation. The wolves had learned to associate sea-kayakers with food. In a perverse permutation of the observer effect, the same nature lovers who had traveled so far and paid so much to view the wolves in their wilderness habitat, were changing the animals’ behaviour and getting them shot. To counter habituation, eco-tourism operators are now being asked to let clients view wolves only from a distance.

On Cortes Island, the situation proved somewhat different. What brings wolves into contact with people here is not so much the prospect of being fed hot dogs by tourists but rather the black tail deer and delicious, easily-killed house pets that thrive in our lushly horticulturalized landscape of rural sprawl. Nevertheless we were advised to aggressively haze any wolf that approached populated areas and to take serious precautions with domestic animals and compost heaps. The wolves on Cortes are just at the point of getting dangerous, advised Hansen and York and we need to turn back the clock.

Mike Davis in his Ecology of Fear details an analogous situation with cougars (a.k.a. ‘mountain lions’) who are recolonizing the affluent fringes of Los Angeles. Despite being persecuted since the early days of European colonization, the cougars there are making a comeback – paradoxically by hiding out in the canyons and foothills adjacent to suburbia, from which they emerge to stalk the lawn-fattened deer, wayward lap dogs, and sometimes the occasional human. Davis estimates there are now more cougars in the hills around Los Angeles than in the entirety of Yellowstone National Park – a place that for many Americans, epitomizes large carnivore habitat. As rural exurbs continue to ooze further into the hinterland, the real back country has become much less hospitable to the wolves and cougars that once belonged there.

On Vancouver Island, this is largely due to the delayed effects of industrial, clear-cut logging. Bob Hansen recounted the phenomenon of ‘ungulate barrens’ now surrounding Pacific Rim National Park. From the satellite photographs he showed, it was easy to see how the original stands of old-growth rain forest have been obliterated from outside the reserve’s boundary. For a while, the removal of forest cover actually increases deer and elk habitat, due to an initial flush of deciduous browse, but the landscape soon becomes useless to them as it grows up into an even-aged plantation of tightly spaced, coniferous trees, with very little of the underbrush on which they need to feed. The ungulates die off and the starving predators abandon the depauperate tree farms and head for the park. Hansen described a rash of incidents where emaciated cougars crawled out of the forest to die on the beach in front of horrified tourists. They were literally starving to death. Others, terminally weakened yet still able to move, stalked hikers along the park’s busy trails, until they too got shot, in the name of animal control.

Davis (somewhat ironically) quotes Gary Snyder:

The wild is perhaps the very possibility of being eaten by a mountain lion. The risk, even if vanishingly remote, is a trigger toward heightened evolutionary awareness and enjoyment of an environment shared with large animals

It’s hard to know what such a sentiment even means now. In this topsy turvy world, the best habitat for some of our most emblematic carnivores turns out to be the interstitial landscape outside our cul-de-sacs and sliding patio doors. Though timber wolves aren’t likely to invade big cities any time soon, their little cousins the coyotes are thriving in our urban environs. An image that will stay with me forever is that of a coyote I once saw, scampering along Vancouver’s heavily industrialized Clark Drive, at three in the morning. In the insalubrious glow of the sodium lamps, I could just make out a house cat hanging limply in its jaws – the fat, as it were, of the asphalt land. For its own part, the coyote looked proud and alert. The lord of its realm. It was here to stay.


I am the walrus

I am the walrus

I am standing on a slippery rock next to a two thousand pound mountain of leathery blubber. Steam is coming out of her nostrils and she is turning her head toward me, wanting to get her whiskers rubbed. I’m a little freaked out but I oblige, and before I know it, I’ve fallen in love. Welcome to the walrus enclosure at the New York Aquarium. I recently spent the day there, looking behind the scenes, with a friend who has worked with the walruses, seals and sea lions there for years, training them and tending to their needs. Most of these creatures arrive at the aquarium as foundlings – in the case of the walruses, orphaned pups, whose mothers were killed in a subsistence hunt off the Alaskan coast. It didn’t take long for me to notice how mutually affectionate the relationships were between these animals and their caregivers – relationships that were so full of nuance and tenderness that it was obvious I was dealing with some pretty special creatures. Pinnipeds, as the members of the seal and walrus family are called, are easily as smart as dogs, maybe more so although it is hard to judge these thing precisely. They have complicated social hierarchies, can learn to respond to complex commands and like to play. They are the kind of animals we should feel a great fondness for but our species’ interactions with them have been violent throughout history. Perhaps it is because pinnipeds carry out the most graceful parts of their lives submerged in water, invisible and unknowable, that we have always felt compelled to set upon them as soon as they haul themselves out into our more solid environs. On some level, we must have always wondered what it might be like to be one of them, transiting at will between the world of land and air and the alien depths of the sea. Maybe we were even a bit jealous. But are the minds of animals really so unknowable? What is this separation between us and them? Is it all in our perception?

John Berger writes in his (1980 ) essay, “Why Look at Animals?” :

The eyes of an animal when they consider man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognized as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.

There is, as Berger points out a built-in asymmetry in our regard for other creatures. Yi-Fu Tuan, in his (1984) ‘Dominance and Affection,’ makes the case that our affection for animals is essentially inseparable from our desire to dominate them. This seems especially apropos to Western culture. Über-naturalist David Attenborough concurs, specifically blaming Genesis 1:28 :

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The exhortation to dominate other creatures has wreaked havoc on the planet ever since Attenborough points out. As God’s favored species, we stopped wanting to see the world through the other animals’ eyes and we soon found ourselves looking over at them from one side of an un-crossable gulf. The Industrial Revolution didn’t help either. Abandoning what vestiges of mystical attachment we might still have had for our fellow creatures, we used our new-found science of economics to reduce them to conglomerations of commodities – meat, fur and oil – to be commandeered, processed and sold to the highest bidder. Donna Haraway argues that an emerging science fetish exacerbated the disconnect between nature and culture, enshrining narratives of dominance into the Western world view, whereby it became axiomatic that nature had been put in place exclusively for our use. With nature reduced to something external, the industrialized killing of animals proceeded apace. Enter the golden age of whaling and the extermination of the bison. Our faith in the ‘naturalness’ of our dominance put an end to our qualms Devastation ensued, but the attitude continued.

So who cares? Whether by accident or divine right, our species made it to the top of the shit pile. For those of us living in the (as yet) affluent West, animal products such as meat and leather are cheap and readily available. Surely we can tolerate a bit of cruelty to afford us the things we, after all, deserve. So what if we wiped out a few species along the way? We have been ingenious. It didn’t take long for us to invent substitutes for whale oil and buffalo skins. Yet many of us have pangs.

Consider the pinnipeds. Their lot is still a difficult one. As I watched the seals and walruses cavorting against the backdrop of the Aquarium’s artificial sea cliffs, I found it hard not to think of the plight of many of their wild brethren. Every spring, between two and three hundred thousand harp seals are bludgeoned and/or shot to death off the east coast of Canada – the largest annual kill of marine mammals on the planet. A war of rhetoric has raged for years between the proponents of the hunt, staunchly backed by the Canadian government and a well-funded animal rights lobby, who have effectively leveraged outraged celebrities as spokespeople for their side. The government touts the economic benefits of the hunt and has sponsored a veterinary study that concludes the clubbing of seals with a spiked implement called a hackapik can be acceptably humane, if carried out correctly. But in a hunt of this magnitude, there are inevitable lapses, where the seals aren’t cleanly killed and visibly suffer. Some escape, mortally wounded, only to die later. The animal rights people have documented several of these disturbing cases, posting them on the internet to great effect. The veterinary report, though comprehensive in what it focusses on, deals primarily with the effectiveness of the actual killing technique – that is the effectiveness with which the seals’ skulls are crushed and cerebral hematoma ensues, after which the sensation of pain is said to stop. The data by and large corroborates the government’s view that the majority of the seals taken suffer little pain before dying. But these are the best case scenarios, carried out in the presence of inspectors. The science of suffering is a complicated thing. To understand it more fully, one need

s to look beyond the mere
instant of a seal’s death and consider the agitation it experiences before being killed. We face the same old problem again. We need to get inside the animal’s mind.

Temple Grandin has explored the terrain of fear and agitation in her groundbreaking studies of cattle on their way to be slaughtered. Her genius was to rethink the entire killing process from the cow’s point of view and to then to modify slaughterhouse accordingly, to minimize the animal’s stress at every stage up to and including the moment it dies. Grandin’s work even garnered her a PETA award for its contribution to the reduction of animal suffering – an amazing feat given the organization’s general antipathy toward the meat industry.

By this sort of standard, taking the animal’s psychology into account, the humaneness of the commercial seal hunt leaves a lot to be desired. The shifting North Atlantic ice is a far less controlled environment than a slaughterhouse and corners inevitably get cut. These intelligent and social animals are often killed within sight of each other or are chased across the ice floes, bullet-riddled and bleeding, before being finished off with the spiked clubs. Not surprisingly, this isn’t exactly soothing for the seals and though this kind of brutality occurs in the recreational and subsistence hunting of other species, the sheer scale of the seal hunt – the huge number of animals involved and the commercial pressures which the sealers are under to meet quota – put it in a class by itself. Industrial hunting is a recipe for animal suffering, even though we might intend otherwise.

But does it matter? This is after all a moral question. Temple Grandin entreats us to understand that “animals are not things.” Surely then we should accorded them some basic dignity. If, like Grandin, we were able to imagine ourselves in the animals’ place, maybe we’d start to treat them better. Inhabiting the animal mind though, isn’t really as easy as it sounds, especially if one lacks Grandin’s unique cognitive gifts. They are like us and not like us, according to John Berger. To think of animals merely as fuzzier, more primitive versions of ourselves does them as great a disservice as turning them into commodities. Since we can’t easily teleport an animal’s mind, how then can we even begin to appreciate its needs?

An intriguing way to think about this was proposed, way back in 1934, by the biosemiotician, Jakob von Uexküll. In his ‘Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men,’ Von Uexküll introduced the concept of Umwelt, which he defined as an animal’s entire subjective, spatio-temporal world. This Umwelt is populated by a series of ‘marks’ or carriers of significance, which constitutes the entire universe of things a given animal cares about. This might include: others of its own species, predators and prey, or certain features of its habitat. Von Uexküll maps out the Umwelten of an assortment of creatures including sea urchins, honey bees and jackdaws. Sea urchins seem most concerned about the locations of shadows in their habitat, whereas jackdaws pay attention to their social networks and the dispositions of neighbourhood cats. Their Umwelt also includes internalized maps of the highly ritualized flight paths they follow around rooftops and trees. For a jackdaw, it is important not just to fly, but to fly in the right way.

Seen from the point of view of a seal’s Umwelt, the commercial hunt must be a horrific experience. There is, I think, a clear case to made for revisiting the standards under which the hunt is conducted and to focus on the agitation experienced by the animals prior to being killed. This hunt is a commercial enterprise and is allowed to continue primarily because of its contribution to the regional economy. But the cost to Canada’s reputation as a humane and progressive state should also have a place on the balance sheet. This debit has been building for years and is now accrued to the point where it might be too high.