Saturday, December 4, 2010

Red-Tailed Hawk

The Red-Tailed Hawk in the photo above is about to die. A co-worker brought it to our job site dazed and immobile. We guessed that it had been struck by a passing vehicle, sent wheeling to the edge of the road. Its breath was shallow and its eyes were fixed.
So a debate ensued about our relationship to this beautiful creature. Was it our duty to attempt a rescue? Would killing it be a mercy? And, incongruously; is it efficacious and proper to attempt a divine intercession on its behalf?
A young woman that I work with was in favour of calling Fish and Wildlife for rescue and calling on God while we waited. Another co-worker thought we should twist its head from its neck, to speed up a foregone conclusion. I wasn't sure what to do.
When I was young I encountered a sparrow on the side of the road. I only noticed the bird because it didn't fly away as I approached. So I crept closer, being careful, interested in seeing how close I could get before it flew away. But it didn't fly away. It just stood there blinking in the gravel and short grass at the edge of the road. I bent down, certain that it would take flight. I'd never been so close to a bird before and it felt strange and thrilling. My heart was beating fast and loud as I put my hand near it, moving so slow. Eventually I picked it up in my palm. I remember thinking about how odd its feet felt on my hand. It cocked its head. Hopped.
And then it was gone. I was so shocked at its flight that I nearly fell over.
So I thought about that experience as I held that hawk in my hands. Could it be stunned? Will it suddenly writhe from my hands and fly away?
Meanwhile we talked about our options. A prayer was being muttered. And the hawk died.
The three of us all agreed that it was a beautiful animal. And I think we all felt that we had been offered a rare experience that morning. But the girl and I disagreed about the import of it. I wondered aloud what made that hawk special, that God would let it live if asked. It was arrogant, I said, to think that our gaze should somehow confer on that hawk an exemption, that once we notice something it becomes more important than the unseen life all around us. I struggled with the proper words to explain what I thought was important about holding that hawk while it died. Something about awe, about fragility; the idea that the experience was a gift, whether you believe that it was a present from God or not.
I can't help thinking that this girl missed an opportunity to be thoughtful, to see and feel something strange and special. A chance to have something brought to eye-level that we normally only see as a speck in the sky. She missed it by making it about herself, casting herself as arbiter and hero, presuming to speak to God on that hawk's behalf. She missed it by thinking that a dying hawk is a problem to be solved. She missed it by believing that she had something to offer that hawk, never thinking that it was the other way around.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Beaver Sculpture

This piece of sculpture was found as part of a beaver dam near Dried Meat Lake, Alberta. While the artist is using some traditional elements in the overall composition, this work is clearly of the new Second-Growth school of sculpture. It represents the ascendancy of Second-Growth as a style capable of addressing both methodology and ardency.
While recent exhibits in the Eastern Willow style have received some critical discussion, most serious collectors and curators have shifted their focus to Second-Growth. The name stems from an emphasis on using aspen and poplar, two trees that were once derided as "too much work to get to." But the so-called G2 artists have been challenging the dominance of willow. They've moved away from the silty creek beds, away from the saplings that helped launch so many careers in the lowland galleries. By broadening their range of materials, the G2 artists have drawn attention to the more subtle aspects of the new style.
This piece in particular shows the potential of Second-Growth. It represents the most dynamic use of form to come out of Dried Meat Lake in years. The artist has eschewed the typical double-V notches in her cut in order to create a form that is tenuous, vulnerable. There is an unsettling asymmetry to this work, a reminder to audiences that for all their seeming friendliness, standing trees are capable of a devastating kinetic violence. But the artist hasn't made an alarmist political work; you can see the careful placement of her lower incisor marks near the center of the wood. She has balanced the bold, precarious form with subtle embellishments. Because there is little of the upper-incisor in this sculpture, she draws attention to chewing as a deliberate act. This work also typifies the G2 emphasis on sensitivity to grain, an obvious response to Eastern Willow's bulky tooth-work.
Adherents of the Eastern Willow style would do well to take note of this work and other G2 offerings. This Dried Meat Lake sculpture exemplifies a challenge to some traditional ideas about material selection and form. Second-Growth has taken on the task of making sculpture that is both graceful and startling. Many curators and audiences, myself included, think they are succeeding admirably.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Wasp Gall

It seems like there is no limit to how complex parasitic relationships can become in the natural world. There are some great examples of mutually beneficial relationships (think of the shark and lamprey cruising the seas together) but this wasp gall is certainly not one of them. In this case the arrangement is between a female wasp and a wild rose plant. It is not a happy marriage. The closest human corollary would be rape.
Here's how it works: A female wasp uses her sharp ovipositor (a surprisingly long tube that deposits her eggs) to stab into the stem of the plant. Once the eggs are laid she flies away with no additional parenting duties to perform. Then it gets a little crazy. Instead of simply providing a safe home for the eggs to hatch, her egg packet actually contains a chemical payload that subverts the plant's survival mechanisms. It tricks the plant into diverting it's resources to producing a gall which functions as a home for the larvae as well as a nourishment node. This is not in the rose's best interests at all. Once a gall is produced it takes a disproportionate amount of resources from the plant.
But it gets better. Not only are some animals capable of making completely unrelated species rear their young, but other parasites are adept at using existing galls to provide their young with comfort and ease as well. According to Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America (an amazing resource) when galls are reared in the lab naturalists often find that more than one species of insect will emerge. Consider: larvae eating stolen plant resources only to be eaten in turn by some other insect larvae only to be bird food upon leaving the gall but the bird gets parasites from contact with the gall, etc, etc.
Remember that song from The Lion King The Circle of Life? This is what Elton John should have been singing about; parasites on parasites on parasites. A daisy chain of complex fuckings-over, where even evolving totally effective chemical simulacra to give your young a chance doesn't guarantee success. Make that into a clever ballad and try to sell a soundtrack.

Friday, April 16, 2010


This crab is one tough MF. And why not? He is a representative of mighty Crustacea. This subphylum has been offering up super-weird armored animals for at least 350 million years. The exoskeleton has proven to be a great adaptation for crabs, especially the ones that spend at least some of their time on land. The exoskeleton provides some protection from predators and it also helps the crab maintain moisture. Lots of crabs live a mostly terrestrial existence but a dried out crab is a dead crab.
OK. So the crab has armor plating, some claws and evolved from a good family. But I also have some firsthand knowledge of this particular crab's never-say-die attitude and Relative Pinchiness. (RP is a standard qualitative field measurement.) When I first grabbed him on the beach in Mexico on a fine moonlit night he pinched me in his dominant claw. I shook him off, cursed him a little. Picked him up again. Got pinched again. I decided that I liked his vim and his moxie. I stuffed him in an empty cigarette pack and carried him back to my hotel room. When Wes and I got back we dumped our crab haul in the sink and grabbed some test tubes from our luggage. We didn't have enough isopropyl alcohol to use for killing and preservation. But we did have a lot of tequila around. It was truly foul stuff, to be sure, and we thought that using it to kill the crabs would serve a dual purpose: it would preserve the crustaceans and it would save us from drinking any more of that cactus-rot. So we dumped the crabs in cups of the stinking amber liquid and retired to the balcony to drink the rest of the bottle.
After 20 minutes we decided that our new specimens were probably ready to be transferred to test tubes. They were not. They were still as pinchy and upset as ever. So we waited a little bit. Went back to the sink and discovered that they were still alive. Wes and I stuffed them into the test tubes, trying to ignore all the frenzied pinching.
Was this cruel? Conventional wisdom and early research traditionally supported the view that an animal like a crab was incapable of feeling pain. This was good news for everyone that wanted to pretend that they were not responsible for a lot of suffering because of their diet and habits. But it turns out that this view may be wrong. Are you surprised? Animals with complex nervous systems having no perception of pain seems a little convenient and far-fetched to me. I offer you some words from Professor Bob Elwood from the School of Biological Sciences at Queen's University, Belfast, whose research into pain led him to use crabs as research subjects.
"The results are consistent with the idea of pain being experienced by these animals."
Researching pain in non-mammals gets pretty complex, introducing all sorts of thorny biological and philosophical questions to deal with, so this quote shouldn't be read as fact. It is offered here as something to think about, Wes Hunting, the next time you, Wes Hunting, kill animals in such an unreasonable way for such spurious reasons, Wes Hunting.

Monday, April 12, 2010


This millipede was found grazing on dead leaves in Pennsylvania. Unlike other many-legged arthropods like the centipedes, millipedes are slow moving herbivores. When they're bothered they are more likely to roll into a ball and hope you go away than to attempt an escape. A bite is really unlikely.
But if you enjoy the taste of millipede (and who doesn't?) be warned: some millipedes are capable of venting hydrogen cyanide through gaps in their chitinous exterior. Yup. Brewing and emitting poisonous vapours. For a human this is no big deal. It causes irritation, some discoloration of the skin. But to an ant or bird the gas would be a major deterrent. It's not surprising that millipedes have evolved some truly gnarly ways to defend themselves, since scientists believe that they were one of the first types of land creatures. That's a lot of time to evolve even the most outlandish and complex physiology.
Is this millipede that Wes and I caught capable of venting hydrogen cyanide gas? I don't know. There are like 1400 species of the damned things north of Mexico and I can't identify a single one. Did it vent gas at us when we picked it up? I don't remember, as we were drunk.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ant Farm Sculpture

Let's file this under Experiments That Failed. Last summer I was walking home and discovered an ant swarm. This is a yearly event much anticipated by anyone that happens to be a weirdo. It is the time when an ant colony, in response to internal biological pressures, begins producing fertile females. Usually a colony is made up of a queen, her sterile daughters (numbering in the hundreds or thousands) and some male drones. The pheromone tyranny of the queen renders all her daughters unable to produce young, even if they had the sperm to help things along (and they don't have the sperm, either.) But as a colony grows, the queen's stink-shackles reduce their hold and some winged, fertile females are born. Coincidentally, there are winged males born at the same time. The swarm occurs when these flight-capable youngsters fly out of the colony to mate. They do so in the air. Mated males drop to the ground soon after. They die. Unmated females lose the energy to fly after a while, too. They drop to the ground, crawl around. They die. Mated females, on the other hand, drop to the ground and begin searching for a good place to begin a colony of their own. If such a place is found, they burrow into the ground and chew off their own wings in an effort to get enough protein to lay their first eggs. Often they will feed a portion of the eggs to any larvae that emerge. Tough love, Mom.
But sometimes a swarm is interrupted in mid-flight, scooped into a jar and taken to a downtown apartment. There, they toil for a new purpose; ant farm sculpture. I wanted to keep an ant colony for a while, let them tunnel and feed and grow. Then I would pour plaster into the vivarium, coating the entire network of branching tunnels, murdering the innocent insects inside. When it all dried, I would be left with a negative image of their progress, their architecture.
So, here I am with a brand new ant colony. We've all heard about how ants are capable of lifting many times their own weight. But what's amazing is that they do this relentlessly. The ant farm seemed to be going really well, what with all the many-times-their-own-weight-lifting. My plan for ant farm sculpture was working out so far. But I left town for a couple weeks. With no honey and water to feed themselves, the colony died. I imagine that there were some grim times at the end; cannibalism, betrayal, tender moments, etc.
But for me it just meant that I got to try out the plaster experiment a little earlier. I prepared the plaster, poured it in and waited patiently for it to dry. But it didn't go well. The ant sculpture I had hoped for didn't emerge from the mold. I was left with only a partial image of Ant Colony A. There was little of the detail that I wanted to display. I wanted the ant's efforts writ large and coated in smooth white for all the world to see.
Did my plaster mix need a little more water? Did it need a little less? Or is it possible that the ants failed me?

Sunday, April 4, 2010


The terrarium has long been a popular tool for naturalists. It allows you a great degree of control over a created environment, which is an ideal way to study an ecosystem. Monitoring changes in humidity, temperature and species interaction make it possible for a naturalist to gain insights into how these forces affect animals and plants in the wild.
But what if you get a new terrarium and you're so impatient to see it green that you forego the research and footwork of transplanting part of your area's natural plants? Well, the terrariums pictured above are just a mishmash of semi-tropical plants chosen for similar light and water needs. The high-minded ideals of the gentleman naturalist have been forgotten for a while; I just wanted a healthy, awesome looking terrarium.
Sure, I think that some scientists would frown on miniaturizing a bear with a Shrink-O-Scope just to put him in a terrarium. But their stupid scientific ethics are preventing them from having some really cool terrariums.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Bison Horn

I found this bison horn underground during a pipeline excavation on a low plain at the base of the Battle River watershed. Not too long after our work was finished in the valley another pipeline was being installed nearby. Work was halted there when workers discovered bison remains. An archeological survey team found evidence that the area was used as a bison run.
This Aboriginal hunting technique was similar to the more well known Buffalo Jumps, where hunters would force a bison herd to stampede through a V-shaped corral ending in a steep cliff. The bison would stream over the edge to an ever-growing pile of smashed meat. In the absence of a gorge, hunters would build the corral to end in a ring. Instead of harvesting the bison from a bloody assemblage at the base of the cliff these hunters would actually have to do the dangerous killing work.
This image has a hold on me. Huge beasts run shoulder to shoulder at full gallop down the hill, kept inside the ever-narrowing corral by fire and arrows. Thousands of steaming bison threaten to break through at any moment, trampling the tiny hunters. The terminus ring is an anarchic vision of bison Hell as the valley fills with smoke and the bellowing of the wounded and dying. Hunters with arrows and spears surround the circle, hoping desperately that the fires keep the powerful animals inside.
Think about that the next time you buy a cheeseburger and be thankful that the Europeans brought domesticated ungulates to North America. Because hunting bison sounds like a real bitch.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Swallow Nest

This swallow nest is from the underside of a bridge near Amisk, Alberta. There were dozens of the mud-daubed homes there. Most were out of reach but by climbing up and stretching out I could grab some of them. Seven or eight of the damned things broke off in my hands and I soon exhausted the easy possibilities. So I had to get serious about this nest collecting business. I went back to my truck and got a ratchet strap. I got myself strapped around one of the supports of the bridge, leaning precariously with hands free. I still failed to harvest a nest without breaking a few, showering myself with dirt and spider webs.
Then I felt a peculiar crawling feeling on my neck and face. I looked closer at the nearest intact nest. Parasites. Lots of them. Good God. And because I was stretched out over the Amisk Creek with just a looped ratchet strap giving me stability I couldn't do what instinct demanded I do; squirm around and flail my arms, try to brush the little vampires off me before they dug in for a blood meal. But I could whimper and curse, so I did.
I calmed down a little and decided that since I already had a bunch of filthy mites on me I might as well get what I came for. I managed to get two nests off, climb back down to ground. I set my fragile treasures down. Then I squirmed around, flailed my arms and tried to brush the little vampires off me before they dug in for a blood meal.
I called Wes on my way back to the truck. I left him a screaming message. "WES! I'VE GOT FUCKING PARASITES! AGAIN!"
He called me later. Yup, those are some swallow bugs you got there. Yup, they specialize on birds but will take a mammal if they can. Well, it's tough to say whether they'll stay with you and rear young. They kill a lot of young birds. Thanks, Wes.
The nest pictured above is a gift for my pal Darla. It is coated with plaster for strength and beauty. It is one of my favourite examples of animal architecture, along with the nests of the mud-dauber wasps which are fundamentally the same. I'm thinking about making casts of them so I can mass-produce replicas in plaster for home decoration.
Replicas I can produce in my home would be ideal, really. Because I don't want to get parasites again. It's getting old.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tick and Young

This tick had in many ways an ideal life. She was one of the lucky ones clinging to a blade of grass that managed to latch on to a passing mammal. Secreted in the thick fur of a terrier, she gorged on blood. She was probably a few millimetres across when she began feeding. But when she was discovered by the dog's owner she had swollen to nearly an inch, engorged with the blood that she needed in order to give birth to thousands of live young.
So far, so good, Tick. But this tick was also the catalyst for one of the best practical jokes I've ever seen. My entomologist pal Wes Hunting worked in the Strickland Museum of Entomology while writing his Masters Thesis. Sometimes people would drop into the museum with weird bugs that they were distraught about, seeking information and reassurance from the experts. This tick was brought in by a worried woman who had found it on her pooch. Wes assured the lady that everything was fine, that her dog had been playing host to a blood-sucking parasite for a while and no, the tick hadn't yet hatched thousands of live young in her home. No big deal.
So Wes took the tick home with him that night. He showed it to our roommate Chris and told him in worried tones that he'd found it in his bedroom. Wes suggested that maybe Chris should check his bedroom too, y'know, just in case. When Chris found a blood-swollen tick beneath his pillow he lost control of himself in revulsion and terror. He made high strangled sounds in his throat. He started feeling phantom biting under his clothes. Wes did his best to calm him down, of course, and took the offending insect and 'flushed it down the toilet.' Chris had already starting tearing apart his bedroom, looking furtively in nooks, baring his teeth at shadows. Wes, ever the helpful friend, helped look for any other ticks. And, wouldn't you know it, he found one between Chris' sheets. And another, beneath his bed. This is about when I came home. Chris was wild-eyed and sweaty, carrying all of his belongings to the front lawn, throwing them in heaps, yelling curses. He blamed everyone for his disgusting misfortune; the landlord, our roommate John, our friend's dog, God, the Devil and even, for a brief moment, himself. It was only a case of beer later that he calmed down enough to learn who he should have been blaming all along.
The tick survived the entire ordeal with less damage than Chris did. She even lived long enough to birth a few thousand progeny. Then her and the little ones were dumped into a jar of alcohol so that they could one day decorate my apartment.

Word to the wise: Entomologists are devious and will play upon your fears for sport.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pigeon Skeleton

I found over a dozen of these well preserved pigeon skeletons in the downy insulation of an old CPR rail station. There were adults, juveniles and even a calcified unhatched egg up there in the attic. While I was very happy to have stumbled upon this trove of Things That Will Make Me More Attractive To Women (TTWMMMATW), the skeletons brought up some questions. Why did all these pigeons in various stages of their development die here in peaceful poses? What contributed to their remarkable preservation? Why does it all make me so sad?
Well, I didn't get all CSI about it, but I did ponder a bit. I think it's likely that this group of pigeons fell victim to parasites. Predators seem to be out of the question, as none of the skeletons were ripped apart. There are a number of mites that prey on birds, for example, and while I think healthy adults can withstand external parasites pretty well, juveniles often don't make it out of the nest if there are too many blood-suckers growing fat on them. As for the preservation (often the ligaments are still attached) it might be attributed to the even temperature and dryness up in the attic. And the sadness was just an Internet pose of mine. I have never felt sad about these pigeons.
So: Pigeons have died, I am not sad about it, I don't know why they died and I don't know how many pigeon ambitions died with them. But I am glad that I own more pigeon skeletons than my Dad did at my age.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I call this little darling a Bug-Sucker. Most people call it a "pooter." I was introduced to it by Wes Hunting, an entomologist and friend. (I recognized the basic design from my homemade bong days.) The concept is simple; you suck one end, create a vacuum in the chamber, bugs are sucked into the chamber through the other tube. This machine is easily made in the home and is a great way to collect bugs that are less than pleasant to handle.
It is not without its drawbacks, though. If you fail to put some screen on the inside of the suction end you are liable to be chewing on some insects. And since so many insects have chemical defenses, you are almost assured a whiff of some of the following: steroids, alkaloids, cantharidin, hydrogen cyanide, histamine, or acetylcholine. Wes Hunting actually likes the smell of many defensive chemicals, and he taught me to enjoy most of them, too. The bug-sucker design has actually helped me to catch ants by using their panic pheromones against them. I collect a bunch of ants into the chamber, totally stirred up and positively reeking of panic and aggression.Then I blow gently, aiming the tube at another entrance to the anthill. The pheromones travel and lure more and more ants straight to the business end of the bug-sucker.
There are documented cases of entomologists using bug-suckers and inadvertently allowing their mucous membranes to host eggs to a larval state.
Wait. Was I unclear about that? Let me try again.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tree Fungus

This fungus can be found anywhere there is sufficient moisture and shade to encourage rot in deciduous trees. It goes by a number of names including Artist's Bracket, Artist's Conk, and this is surely my favourite; Flacher Lackporling.
Apparently there are artists that enjoy using the Flacher Lackporling and related fungi as their drawing medium. They mark the bracket fungus with something sharp, establishing lines and shading on the surface. This strikes me as being presumptuous. Is this another example of artists refusing to let beauty exist for itself?
What could their scratchings present to the world that this fungus hasn't already unobtrusively shown? It has graceful lines, careful tones and beautiful textures. It has a perfect visual harmony with the context in which it exists. This fungus is a masterpiece. It requires no intervention to make its beauty known.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wasp Nest

Wasps create these nests by chewing bark, mixing it with saliva and excreting the resulting paste. What I would really like to do is harness all of this wasp-power into making nests of my own design. Will wasps chew up any bark provided for them? If all the bark available to them was soaked in various colours of paint, would they still chew it? And if so, would the resulting paste retain any of the colour? Most importantly:
These are very important Scientific Questions. And the only way to really satisfy the legions of people that have been asking them is to trap a bunch of wasps and bend them to my will. OK. So the plan is to trap a newly emerged queen in the spring. I will attend to her needs. I will be nice. I'll let her build a nest in my apartment. Hell, I won't even be fussy about the placement of the nest. If it is God's Will that a wasp nest be built inside of my pillow, so be it. I will endure the frequent stings.
But if the TECHNICOLOUR WASP NEST ends up being a GREY HOUSE OF HURT, I will throw those yellow-jacketed motherfuckers to the curb.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Great Horned Owl

If you want to own a slightly abused owl head follow these steps:
Go on a beer-soaked drive through the valleys around Hardisty with a coworker. Knock over willow trees and smell the boggy lowlands of the Battle River. Lock up the hubs. Trace the path of a bull moose through the muddy grass. Watch a beaver in the dusk, hear his teeth at work. Talk about the languid switchbacks of the Battle, of the quiet. Go back to the farmhouse. Investigate a lifetime of hunting seasons arranged in no particular order staring down at you. Drink and cuss about The Work. And when your host explains that his dogs tore apart the rest of the stuffed owl but offers you the head, accept gratefully.