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The thing about Spring...

I recently moved back to my hometown in the suburbs of Vancouver, and am concurrently missing the city and relieved to have some peace and quiet after a tumultuous end to last year. I am in a state of transition right now, and there is a lot of uncertainty as to how my life will unfold over the next year.

Fortunately, very close to my home is a small parcel of forest that I've been exploring. It is land that I lived close to as I came of age, but I am just now opening my eyes to all the plants and trees that dwell within it. For the past few months, I've been observing the changes to nature brought about by the warm weather. The dull brown sticks of winter now bloom with salmonberry leaves and flowers,  Indian plum plants bear blushing fruit, tiny white flowers adorn the elderberry trees, and a large patch of nettles carpets a special corner of the forest floor.

 The tiny fruits of the Indian plum shrub ( Oemleria cerasiformis)  hang and ripen in the sunshine. 

The tiny fruits of the Indian plum shrub (Oemleria cerasiformis) hang and ripen in the sunshine. 

 An umbel of elderflowers adds a cheery splash to forest walks.

An umbel of elderflowers adds a cheery splash to forest walks.

The thing that both pleases and frustrates me about springtime is that nature unfolds at its own pace, and reveals itself slowly, in stages. While there are plants that I can identify easily by a leaf or a flower pattern, there are others that remain a mystery to me. Take, for example, the flower buds of these plants:

thimbleberry.jpg
currant.jpg

I can guess that the top image is that of a thimbleberry and the bottom image is some kind of currant, but I can't be sure until the flowers grow in and I can do some positive ID-ing. The forest is unwilling to reveal all of its cards to me at once, and I must learn to be patient.

In her wonderful book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Robin Wall Kimmerer makes an astute observation about teaching and learning. She writes:

"In traditional indigenous communities, learning takes a form very different from that in the public education system. Children learn by watching, by listening and by experience. They are expected to learn from all members of the community, human and non. To ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken; it must instead be given... Much learning comes from patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience" (pp. 76-77).

This lesson - that much learning happens at a pace set not by humans, but by nature - is one of the most important things that I've learned over the course of the Stanley Park Project. I can leaf through countless nature books, studying forest ecology as I would a school subject, but I must wait patiently for an encounter with a plant before I can truly know it. On top of this, it often takes a number of seasons to get acquainted with the ins and outs of a plant's appearance and personality.

As I've been relishing the slow springtime reveal of more flowers and leaves, I've also decided to release my desire to control the aspects of the future that are not within my reach. I will continue to work on paving my way at a measured pace, but will leave a clearing for the unknown to root and blossom along the path. 

 

New Beginnings for Fall

Late summer has officially morphed into autumn, and for the past few weeks I’ve been feeling a bit disoriented with my independent nature studies. I’ve spent the spring and summer of 2013 with a specific focus: identifying and observing the wild berries of coastal BC. Now that most of the berries have been devoured by birds and people, or hang morbidly on their shrubs after they’ve peaked and rotted, I need to choose a new aspect of the forest to watch.

 It's official... fall has arrived!

It's official... fall has arrived!

In late August (when the panic of an upcoming berry-less existence set in), I started searching for a new learning direction that would fit with the fall. I attended a bird walk at Stanley Park, where I learned that the male mallard ducks would be growing in their colourful feathers in October and starting to mate with the females in the winter. I signed out a mushroom field guide from the library, as I knew that the forest fungi would be thriving in fall. I savoured a wonderful cross-disciplinary book about moss and memory (Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I’d like to tell you about in more detail sometime), and began taking close-up photos of shaggy rocks and logs. Though I find all of these things (ducks, fungi, and moss) interesting, the information overload made be feel paralyzed. I was grasping at the intricate details of feathers, single cells, and tender fruiting bodies, when perhaps I needed to ground my learning in something more solid and simple.

 A moss party in the forest.

A moss party in the forest.

 Fall is a fine time for finding forest fungi.

Fall is a fine time for finding forest fungi.

After a head-clearing walk through Stanley Park last Sunday, I officially settled on a point of focus. And it’s the most obvious thing: I’m going to learn more about trees.

It’s funny – I’ve never paid much attention to trees. I mean, I like them as a concept, and I enjoy the canopy and oxygen that they provide. I would notice and be upset if they suddenly disappeared from a local street or park. However, if pressed to describe the features of a specific tree, to identify a species of tree on a walk through the forest, or to figure out which tree a cone had dropped from, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Time to change that!

 I'm realizing that conveying the power of trees photographically is very difficult. The detail in the bark! The shadows and depth! The height! Well... I'll try my best. This is a tree at Stanley Park, by the way.  

I'm realizing that conveying the power of trees photographically is very difficult. The detail in the bark! The shadows and depth! The height! Well... I'll try my best. This is a tree at Stanley Park, by the way.  

In addition to exploring the physical and scientific aspects of trees, I’m also curious about their connection to the human and the sacred realms. How were trees used and honoured by people in the past? What kind of legends have people told about trees? What are their interior lives like? How do they govern each other and the plants around them? What magic, and what medicine, do they provide to those beings who know them intimately?

My first glance at tree literature, which was intended to be for basic identification purposes, yielded insight into the anatomy of trees that was deeper than I expected. A small guidebook from the library called Native Trees of British Columbia (by Reese Halter and Nancy J. Turner) introduced me to vocabulary terms such as “cambium” – a layer of living tissue-producing cells located between the bark and the wood of a tree. Sandwiched between the cambium and the rough visible outer bark of the tree is a living inner bark that transmits energy from leaf to root. There is a human softness in the solidity of the tree, a flowing circulatory and regenerative system that rests between the hardness of its skin and bones.

I also had a read through The Global Forest, a book of short essays written by botanist and bio-chemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. In the book, Beresford discusses some of the medicinal properties of trees, the connection of trees to the growth of fungi and wildflowers, the need to protect the future of tree fruits and nuts in a global food landscape of genetically modified crops, and the effects of forest clearcutting. Two of the most interesting essays in the book were about the communication of trees. In one essay, Beresford notes that trees interact with each other in the forest – when one tree isn’t doing well, it sends out molecular signals that help to attract beneficial insects. The other trees in the area also receive these signals and send carbon to the ailing tree in order to help it out. In another essay, Beresford describes “infrasound” – a long-waved sound that travels long distances. Infrasound is produced by various things on earth, including trees, and is audible to some species but not humans (except, for the highly sensitive, in the form of an emotional response). There is some evidence that suggests that trees may be able to communicate with each other sonically, and to send out unique, mournful waves when a tree in the local community is being cut down. Step into a forest, close your eyes, and enjoy a barely perceptible massage of interactions pulsing above, below, and through you. If the trees are sending messages to each other, are they trying to tell you something as well?

 What secrets lie within and behind this bark?

What secrets lie within and behind this bark?

A few paragraphs above, I describe trees as “solid and simple”. In a sense, this is true. They are a basic unit of the forest, an easily recognizable object, a frequent feature in a small child’s drawing. Trees are structurally and conceptually strong beings. I wonder, though, if they are so easy to grasp not only because they are tall, visible, and ubiquitous, but also because they are the most human of the beings in the forest, a subject of unconscious recognition. Something to ruminate on as I observe the trees in Stanley Park this autumn…

 

Beginnings

Hello, and welcome to The Stanley Park Project – the blog that explores nature in the Pacific Northwest from a beginner’s perspective! You can read more about Stanley Park and the project here.

Over the course of this project, I’d like to share some significant events that led me to pursue a self-directed education in nature. One such event occurred in June 2011, when my good friend and I decided to meet up at Finch coffee shop in downtown Vancouver, take the bus to Stanley Park, and go “foraging”. My friend knew a little about plants, and I almost nothing at all, but I was still excited about the idea of looking more closely at the plant growth in the forest and maybe having a few nibbles as we went along.

Our venture through the park that day was pleasant, but our “foraging” consisted of us knowing the names of a whopping two plants, sniffing at flowers, wishing we had a nature handbook, and snapping off a few leaves for take-home identification purposes. (I’m sad to admit that my share of the leaves eventually just rotted away, forgotten, in my shoulder bag!). Feeling a little overwhelmed by the mystery of the forest, we soon made our way onto the Seawall. After awhile, my friend wanted to go back amongst the trees and do more exploring, but I was content to circumnavigate the park and let my mind wander away into the sunshine and the blissful sounds of the ocean.

It was a fun day, and a significant one. I realized that even though I’d lived in Vancouver on and off for almost 10 years, I had spent almost no time in Stanley Park. Though a project involving plant identification was not yet on my radar, the feeling of strolling down the Seawall pathway, sandwiched between a shoreline and a wall of vegetation, was delightful. Why hadn’t I done this before? All of the things that people appreciate Vancouver for – the sight of the mountains, the feel of the ocean breeze, and the cool enclosure of old growth forest – were all present in this one place.

I also reflected on the slow pace that my friend and I took during our walk through the forest. We stopped, examined, and talked about all the micro-elements that comprised our surroundings; we gave a well-deserved nod to the little things that work to keep the forest functioning smoothly. My prior dealings with the forest had been much more rushed. While I’ve long appreciated North Vancouver mountain trails for the feel of mulch under my feet and the huge quantities of oxygen that fill my lungs when I’m amongst their trees, I’ve always seen these trails as a conduit for hiking and exercising – essentially, moving at a good pace from one point to another. Stanley Park felt different to me. It seemed like the Seawall (which stretches around the outer edge of the park) was the place to do running and speedwalking, and that the curved and branching park trails, which challenged my sense of direction, invited me to move at a more measured pace toward the inner chambers of the forest.

 This slug has the right idea - he is taking his time, and really savouring his surroundings.

This slug has the right idea - he is taking his time, and really savouring his surroundings.

Though my friend and I didn’t have much luck with our “foraging” during that day in the park, I was happy to have an experience that was new, slow, and local. In a time when we can easily jump on a train or plane to get out of town and see other parts of the world, it is nice to think that there is still a sense of mystery in our local surroundings, and that if we make a little time to slow down and explore, we can train ourselves to see local places in surprising and appreciative ways. As I embark upon this new project, I will try to move through nature slowly, and to approach my findings with the mind of a beginner.