Are you a naturalist? Have you ever wanted to be one? Here's one that was far ahead of his time...
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the world’s most famous naturalist, having spent much of his 89 years traveling four continents to observe, record, and illustrate the natural environment. His prolific writing includes more than 36 books and 25,000 letters to a network of correspondents around the globe.
Similar to the thinking of his friend and fellow explorer, Charles Darwin, Humboldt developed the premise for a unity of nature, where all aspects of the planet are interconnected – from the outer atmosphere to the bottom of the oceans. His scientific efforts hypothesized continental drift via plate tectonics, and how air and water create climate at different latitudes and altitudes. He tracked what is now called the Humboldt Current in the Pacific and created isotherms to chart global mean temperatures.
Von Humboldt was an environmentalist at a moment in history when European colonists, particularly the Spanish, were destroying thousands of delicate ecosystems in South America in their lust for gold, silver, and other precious commodities. He recorded the relationship between deforestation and changes in local climate; he discovered the fossils of plants and animals in geological strata. Humboldt acknowledged species extinction before many others through both nature and the activities of humankind, and he decried the “unnatural slavery” of indigenous people in many of his writings.
After spending his considerable inheritance to finance scientific efforts, von Humboldt lived modestly while beseeching the European monarchy, the Prussian King, and his own wealthy friends to fund a quest to explore and document the Asian frontiers. His vast journeys led to a predicted discovery of diamonds in the Ural gold mines and the accumulation of data for an isothermal world map.
Starting in 1804, while in Paris for 23 years, Humboldt wrote 30 volumes about different field studies while lecturing and discussing his research with contemporaries. In 1827, Humboldt visited Berlin to give public lectures. These orations became so popular that he decided to compile his life’s research into a corpus called “Kosmos” (meaning orderly or arranged). The first volume was published in 1845 when he was 76 years old. Five volumes in total were published, the final volume posthumously. After two years of ill health, Alexander von Humboldt died in 1857.
If you would like to learn more about this gifted naturalist, see Andrea Wulf (2015), The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World. Amazon Kindle: IOS version, or the print version: Wulf, A. (2016). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World New York: Random House.
John Anderson is a volunteer with the Morrell Nature Society.
Morrell’s Nature Interpreters recognize diverse species and the seasonal changes which modify a rich tapestry of life. At Morrell, we have several resources to help educate the public by categorizing the wealth of organisms within this urban forest. The Society has published two versions of Morrell Nature Sanctuary Guidebook, and a third one is forthcoming. With the aid of pictures, the Guidebook introduces visitors to the common plant and tree species within the park. But there is something which works in real time to do the same work: the website iNaturalist.ca and their iPhone or Android app.
iNaturalist allows anyone with a cellular phone to identify and share their findings to the iNaturalist community’s inventory of nearly 4 million observations worldwide. Using this app on an iPhone or Android device, you can take pictures of mushrooms, lichen, and tree bark in the Sanctuary. When you upload your images to the iNaturalist website, it proposes a genus for the items, and then specifies one or more species. For example, it took just seconds for my photo of the Northern Redbelt lichen (Fomitopsis mounceae) in the genus Complex Fomitopsis pinicola to be accurately identified. And that just the beginning…
The software will pinpoint the geographical location of your photo via a smartphone or camera (if the latter features geo-tracking). From the iNaturalist website, you can see on a map your image contributions and those of others in the same area. Each picture is accompanied by the user’s name, date of capture, and the genus/species. Other users will agree with the categorization proposed by the software or suggest another species and ultimately, the consensus from users gives your picture a “Research Grade”. Notably, many users of iNaturalist are botanists, biologists or naturalists who have expertise in North American plants and trees. This is what makes it a premier learning tool for identifying the diversity of life in our forests.
Perhaps one of the more interesting uses of iNaturalist is its usefulness to scientists who are measuring the changes to our ecosystem from global warming. As species migrate from one temperate zone to another in sufficient quantity, evidence accumulates about these trends. Sometimes, a picture is taken of a species thought to be extinct which becomes a major story on the iNaturalist website.
Some folks just want to enjoy the forest air in its myriad greens; others would love to know what they’re looking at. If you’re in the latter category, check out iNaturalist.org.
John Anderson is a volunteer with the Morrell Nature Society.
When was the last time you found yourself in an intact, pristine forest that had never been logged? How far did you have to travel to arrive there?
You might be misled into thinking that a forest with large cedar trees is one of these unlogged areas. However, look closely and you will probably see large stumps of Douglas fir which became the choice of forest companies at the turn of the century. There are exceptionally large cedar trees in the Morrell Nature Sanctuary, some of which are more than 400 years old. (“Old Doug” is one such tilting giant, located on the northwest side of Morrell Lake).
It takes approximately 175 to 250 years for nature to nourish an old-growth forests under natural conditions. The forest needs at least 2 species of trees that are over 250 years old to be classified “old growth”.
A stand of ancient trees closest to Nanaimo is found 65 kilometres to the west in Cathedral Grove. The largest trees are 800 years old and measure 250 feet in height and nearly 30 feet in circumference. This park covers an area of 300 hectares, some of which people can walk through groomed paths to experience this green, breath-taking canopy. This is a remnant of our province before logging changed it forever.
Cathedral Grove on the busy Alberni Highway displays much like a “forest museum” similar to a tourist attraction by the same name near Duncan on Vancouver Island. For many children, this latter venue will be the closest they every come to being in one of BC’s rain forests. You will have to travel much further west to experience a “wilderness of trees”. The Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is one such treasure!
The good news is that forests like the one in Morrell will re-establish their colossal trees in another century if the climate remains like that of today.
John Anderson is a volunteer with the Morrell Nature Sanctuary
British Columbia’s lush rainforests are vivid tapestries of towering western red cedars, Douglas fir, giant hemlocks, Big Leaf Maples and sweeping emerald sword ferns emerging through thick moss carpets.
To be designated a “rainforest”, an area must receive a minimum of 250cm of moisture (100 inches) annually. That’s more than twice as much as Nanaimo receives in a year! You’ll know you’re in a rainforest when you see
You can experience these ancient, protected forests in places such as the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, where cedars are estimated to be over 1,000 years old. Another popular view for ancient landscapes is in the Pacific Rim National Park near Tofino (the Rainforest Trail).
The recreational value of our forests cannot be understated. They are awe-inspiring cathedrals teeming with life, from the microscopic mycelium transporting nutrients under the forest floor to majestic trees. The more we learn about the connectivity within our forests, the more we will be able to appreciate what they mean for our health, and the planet generally.
We are fortunate to have urban, second-growth forests such as the Morrell Nature Sanctuary where you can find ancient cedars left untouched by early forestry practices.
If you haven’t visited the sanctuary, please come and wander through one of Nanaimo’s gems.
John Anderson is a volunteer with the Morrell Nature Society.
Forests don’t have to cover hundreds of hectares. We can create them in our back yards.
The trees we plant prevent soil erosion from heavy rain, and attract biodiversity, especially those flowering species which attract birds who may subsequently build nests. Depending on the size of your property, in BC you can cultivate Douglas firs or Western Red Cedars which will eventually tower several hundred feet. (Some older properties in Vancouver have huge old growth trees which were never felled). Conversely, there’s species such as popular Japanese elms which can be kept trimmed to 20 or 30 feet.
When thinking about trees for your yard, local nurseries sell species which thrive in our provincial climatic zones. You may be surprised about what you’re able to grow!
Our climate is warming: some parts of Vancouver Island are now classified as “9a” – a zone which previously did not exist in Canada. Updated climatic maps show areas in Northern BC that have moved up to three zones higher. Eastern Canada does not show the same extremes as the west coast.
If you need some guidance about growing your own forest, see Natural Resources Canada’s (NRC) “My Tree” app which helps you choose the right tree for your backyard. NRC’s website also allows access to their database (Explore Plants in My Area) where you can enter a city and see a list of plants which grow in that locale.
If a forest is not your first choice, another resource for creating eco-friendly lawns and gardens comes from the UBC Botanical Garden. And yes, they do have an IOS app for “Vancouver Trees” which describes commonly cultivated deciduous and evergreen trees in the Metro Vancouver area.
The Morrell Nature Sanctuary is a wonderful place for families to explore forest life. Maybe we can replicate a small part of that experience in our own backyards.
It's the snow and not the amount of rainfall which sustains forests over the year.
Rainwater falls to the ground and quickly drains into rocky soil, quickly weaving its way to our streams and rivers. But snow melts from higher elevations and trickles down through the forest floor, retaining moisture in the soil over longer periods of time. Snow also insulates the soil from below-freezing air temperatures.
The annual snow pack melt carries organic nutrients to support the endless decomposition and growth cycles so characteristic of British Columbia’s coastal forests. Soil bacteria and fungi thrive in the dampness left by snow to create vast underground networks of mycelium (fruiting as mushrooms) which in turn produces enzymes to break down fallen and rotting logs. The gradual release of snow water into the forest floor every spring is critical to the well-being of our trees, young and ancient.
Conversely, a warming climate leaves less snow pack for this annual process, exposing the ground to lower temperatures and more frequent freeze-thaw occasions. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see very dry forests in the late summer, despite a having a rain-soaked winter. The stress on cedar trees from recent droughts is obvious when we see their scale-like leaves turn reddish brown.
The BC government now has a Drought Information Portal which provides up-to-date information on the drought conditions in the province. Locally, the Regional District of Nanaimo has watering restrictions which vary depending upon the local reservoirs and aquifers.
Fungi and Mushrooms
The word “fungi” conjures images we’d rather not find in our kitchens and bathrooms. However, we couldn’t live without the sprawling mass of fungi which quietly inhabits our forests.
Fungi were the first organisms to come to land from earth’s violent seas, 1.3 billion years ago. Mycelium is a network of fungi cells, and mushrooms are their visible “fruit”.
Despite their tiny size, fungi can break through asphalt and concrete for the benefit of other living creatures. In its micro-cavities, mycelium can hold 30,000 times its weight in wet soil. It prevents soil erosion by honey-combing the earth where water collects where it can be released over time. It has a critical role in sustaining plant life by collecting, storing and releasing nutrients and water to forest life.
Fungi cannot manufacture food through photosynthesis like plants do. Mycelium grows by producing enzymes which digest their surroundings, such as fallen and rotting logs. Over the years, mycelium breaks down organic material which helps form the forest floor. Fungi reproduce by releasing tiny seed spores.
The role of mycelium to a living forest cannot be understated. Mycelia draw nutrients from the soil and in a mutualistic relationship, receive needed proteins created by trees’ photosynthetic activities. Without this cooperative relationship, our forests would diminish or die.
Can mushrooms be eaten?
Any mushroom can be eaten – once! There are many poisonous mushrooms in British Columbia, some of which can secret poisons through the skin. Care must be taken in handling wild mushrooms.
One poisonous mushroom in BC’s forests is the Amanita pantherina. You can see what this group of mushrooms look like on the E-Flora website. A colourful but potentially deadly mushroom sometimes seen in the Morrell Nature Sanctuary is the Amanita muscaria, a bright red and white spotted variety. These mushrooms are also harmful to dogs!
Volunteers are the wonderful folks who sustain the Morrell Nature Sanctuary (MNS). Like thousands of other non-profit societies in Canada, the MNS depends upon the dedication and good will of volunteers to do many things, such as
It might sound like science fiction, but it's been shown that trees communicate with each other in a forest. The world-renowned researcher who studies this phenomena is Dr. Susan Simard at the University of British Columbia's Department of Forest & Conservation Sciences.
Her studies have uncovered an underground web of fungi which connect the trees and plants in an ecosystem. This mutual relationship or symbiosis shares the forests' resources, allowing the entire system of trees and plants to flourish.
Dr. Simard found that webs of mycorrhizal fungi have a mutually beneficial relationship with trees through their roots. Her microscopic experimentation shows that these fungi move carbon, water and nutrients between trees, depending upon their needs.
The saying, "not being able to see the forest for the trees" has some relevance in our experience in the wonderful stands of cedar, fir and hemlock in BC's coastal forests. Visit the Morrell Nature Sanctuary to walk in the forest.
To see and hear more about Dr. Simard's fascinating research, see the YouTube video, How Trees Talk to Each Other.
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