Weekends away on a whim are a delight. I have been wanting to get away for a few weeks now. While I had a solo trip to a cabin in the woods where I could disconnect (from obligations and stress) and reconnect (with myself and nature), this was not logistically possible. But, the opportunity to spend time in the Kawarthas last weekend was a superb consolation! It is a little funny to me that going to the Kawarthas is now a treat. When I was living in Peterborough it was a given, but now that I am a year removed and living in Kingston it is something I look forward to. And I look forward to it because I am familiar with this region and the possibilities it offers, but this doesn't mean I can't be surprised too!
I want to highlight one particular place in the Kawarthas - Eels Creek - about 45 to 60 minutes to the north of Peterborough. This patch of land is owned by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, it can be access from Northeys Bay Road, and is a short way down the road from Petroglyphs Provincial Park. I want to highlight it because, first it is a nice park, and second because it surprised me on my Kawarthas weekend expedition.
When I lived in Peterborough I visited Eels Creek countless times at all times of the year and made numerous observations of an array of plant and animal species there. In fact, it was one of the first places I visited in the Kawarthas while on a bus trip for a first year physical geography course. We stopped at the creek, a couple students put on waders and ambled into the middle of the creek so we could do a simple ball drop and time experiment to measure stream velocity. I wasn't looking at the flora or fauna that time, but I knew it would be a good place to do so and was excited to have the opportunity to visit again and explore. And I did revisit it a lot, but never in all my visits did I observe Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) until last weekend.
This is one of the reasons I recommend visiting the same park, and doing so often, because you will always be making new discoveries. And I think that this is one of the greatest joys of getting to know nature.
A comment made to me by a friend on a hike a couple months ago has sent my mind racing with ideas. We were walking and chatting along a trail back from Belle Island in Kingston. My eyes were darting up and down and all around and my ears were listening for any interesting sound amid the cacophony. This behaviour is involuntary.
An acute awareness of my surroundings and recognition of what I am seeing has been learned from the countless hours I have spent outside. And the ability to do this was learned from generations earlier as people moved across the landscape, it would have been evolutionary advantageous to our hunter gatherer ancestors to be able to do this.
Anyway, we were walking and talking about this and that, and I kept pointing out birds and snakes and frogs and more, and of course distinguishing plant species from one another. Eventually, after hearing me excitedly report the next thing that we encountered, my friend suggested that I would be great at teaching people to see in nature. It sounds so simple to say - teach people to see in nature - but I think this is the starting point of a rather complicated ongoing exploration that needs to be nurtured continually.
I think the motivation for knowing is important too. I am often frustrated by people who ask me whether plants are edible. Yes, I forage some plants myself, but I also care about the biological and cultural histories of those plants. I know the plants for more than just some purpose. I think that seeing in nature is a first step to knowing nature, and that should be the goal. There are different ways to relate to nature, just as there are different ways to relate to people. But exploitative or extractive relationships are not good in any instance, and so we should strive to know plants for more than just some purpose. This reads as kind of preachy, I know, but I think this is good to establish unequivocally.
My friend's comment keeps coming up in my mind and has made me reflect on how I relate to nature. It's given me ideas for things to share here and ideas for other associated projects in the future. And then over the weekend my closest friend unexpectedly came over, which is always the best kind of surprise. We had to pick somebody up and as we waited for them to arrive we walked the perimeter of the parking lot. Parking lots may not be the first place one thinks of to botanize, but there was nature there too. And so the same message keeps coming back: look around, adopt explorers attitude and recognize that nature can be found in even the most mundane of places (like parking lots), and get to know what you see.
I don't get sick often, but when I do it's always a nasty one. I have low energy days now and again, as I imagine most people do, and I try to stay attuned to my body to keep the real nasty ones at bay. So a couple weeks ago when I found myself tired for no real reason, I made sure to sleep well that night. The following day I woke up feeling refreshed. Typically I would repeat the next night, as this usually does the trick, but I had plans. I had a commitment to spend time with my closest friend who I hadn't seen in a little bit, and not wanting to disappoint someone who's friendship I treasure I was hopeful that one night's solid sleep was enough. I knew she would understand if I had cancelled and there would be no hard feelings, but I was optimistic! And we had a great time together, as we always do. We enjoyed a hike at Macaulay Mountain Conservation Area, chatted about our lives, ate delicious food, and joined up with a great group of women to dance barefoot in the dunes and chase the sunlight from peak to peak at Sandbanks Provincial Park (stopping of course to botanize along the way).
But... now I have been out and in bed sleeping, coughing and sneezing for nearly two weeks.
Being sick is incredibly boring, but I am very happy to have had a really good time beforehand, and am also very happy to be on the mend! I haven't quite the energy for a foray into the forest, though I know I will be reinvigorated when I do. But this afternoon I have ventured to my favourite café, it's a short walk from my house in Kingston and has a lovely patio on the waterfront, and that is a good start.
Last weekend I travelled to the Niagara Region. This is where I am from, where much of my family and some of my friends still live, but I don't get there too often. This is partially for logistical reasons - I don't drive and it's a tedious trek by transit. And partially because it's not the same home as when I was a child - people have moved and changed, and I have too of course. This visit was prompted by the closing of my high school and its fifty year anniversary. A new building will be erected that is more appropriate for the declining student body. There seems to be declining enrollment trend in all schools but the French public school system seems especially low. Because we assign values and memories to places I wanted to visit the building. And my friends from high school were insistent on my presence! There was a big to-do at the school and later in the evening at the French social club. While in the Niagara Region I visited St John's Conservation Area, Mud Lake Conservation Area and Nickle Beach.
St John's Conservation Area is along the Niagara Escarpment in Fonthill. The terrain is hilly at times, with small peaks and lowlying wetlands. The trees are diverse, mature and several of them tower quite high, like the stand of tulip trees we spotted in a valley. I had been here a number of times growing up with my parents and with my elementary school. On this hike we spotted a number of spring ephemerals (including trillium, spring beauty and marsh marigold) that I had not yet spotted in Kingston. I also saw some plants (like bloodroot) that had finished flowering here that I had yet to see open at all. Some areas were such a vibrant green from all the skunk cabbage (pictured) gone to leaf!
The following day my mother and I set out for Port Colborne. We had planned to go to Nickle Beach and I convinced her to stop at Mud Lake as we were passing by it anyway. Mud Lake, as the name suggests, can be a rather wet park with its numerous ponds, wetlands, streams and other transient water bodies and features one expects in spring. There are also some dry areas (pictured), where the sun scorches the earth. Red-winged blackbirds were abundant and vocal, but there were also large flocks of cedar waxwings and a pair of rose-breasted grosbeak, both of which were pleasant surprises. On our way in to this conservation area neither my mother nor I looked at the map, as we walked by it she was telling me about my father and her strolling through here. I assumed she was familiar with the trails. This was not the case, we got a little turned around and what was intended to be a short stroll ended up being a longer trip. Fortunately the park is not particularly large and it is bordered by a highway and canal on two of its sides, making it relatively easy to find your bearings. It is also fortunate that neither of us minded having to spend more time in nature!
Nickle Beach has become a regular stop for my family. It is a pleasant walk along the shore of Lake Erie (pictured), there are a number of polished pebbles of all colours along the beach. Waterfowl can be seen bobbing up and down with the waves. Seagulls are calling out to one another. In the dunes there are more birds still. When I was visiting my parents in the winter and we walked this beach we had seen a bald eagle flying high above, but there was none today.
I was happy to have gone - it was nice to catch up with friends, family and other familiar faces - and to make some time to walk some of my favourite trails once again. It is a joy to see old friends, whether these are people or parks.
After having been invited to speak to the Peterborough Horticultural Society, last night I had the great pleasure of addressing an eager crowd of about a hundred fellow flora appreciators. I spoke about my favourite places to wander in and around Peterborough and all the wildflowers that flourish in the various habitats across the landscape. I hope that my introduction to local flora and enthusiasm for exploring the outdoors sparks an interest in you and that you are inspired to search out wildflowers in local parks. And I hope that you will all share your findings and experiences with others, that you will in turn inspire them to get outside and stop to see the wildflowers.
There is much to see!
Thank you also to the Peterborough Horticultural Society for inviting me to speak. I have spoken to a number of groups and at conferences over the years, but am not often asked to speak on this topic. While I have an extensive academic background in biology and geography, and have spent countless hours familiarizing myself with the natural landscape, I am not a professional botanist, horticulturalist, or holder of any such title. Often I speak about more specialized topics relating to my formal skills, training or study - things like spatial data analysis or habitat niches - but it is an immense pleasure to speak about my passion. Thank you for inviting me and thank you for your attention, thoughtful questions and kind words to all those in attendance.
Last year I made a move - both physical, from one place to another, and metaphorical, as in life changes - from Peterborough where I did my undergraduate studies at Trent University to Kingston to pursue graduate studies at Queen's University. I talked about change in my previous post, it was the thread that held the last year together and I feel it will be the theme of this year as well. And with changes come adjustments.
There was a park right around the corner from where I was living in Peterborough. I was in a newer subdivision at the north end of the city, right at the urban-rural fringe where just beyond the manicured lawns in my neighbourhood were untouched areas and farmland. There was a park around the corner from me; it wasn't particularly big, as far as area goes, but it was packed full of wildflowers from snowmelt to snowfall. Now I live in Kingston, in an older area near the university with the lake right across the street. This area has been developed for a over a century with rows of brick or limestone homes. There are parks nearby, but they are more the pristine city park type with playgrounds that limit the activities a child can imagine, benches that prescribe where you are meant to sit, grass kept short and if there are gardens they are filled with easy to grow ornamental flowers. Regrettably, these are not the wilder lands, filled with possibilities and surprises that in turn fill me with excitement. There are other parks, the kind of parks that I favour, but they are farther away. I did visit Marshlands Conservation Area - a gem of a park to the west end of downtown - the other day, and I look forward to cleaning up my bike when the weather gets a bit warmer so I can visit it more frequently.
While I find the nearby parks disappointing, I admire the gardens in my neighbourhood. The gardens at homes in the newer subdivision I lived in while in Peterborough were also new, if they had been put in at all. It was a clean slate of a neighbourhood, what had been there before had been razed and nothing new had yet established itself.
Here in Kingston my neighborhood is full of older homes, with the majority easily standing at least a century, and these old homes have old gardens. Plants have had a chance to establish themselves in these gardens, and may even have escaped the confines of the garden and stolen away into yards, in this neighbourhood. Any new plans a person may have for their gardens this year must consider, incorporate, and adjust to the decisions from years past in this neighbourhood. I like the idea of gardens in this neighbourhood. There is a continuity with history. The clean slate that existed long ago, when this neighborhood was new, has been filled as the years have gone by.
There are snowdrops in this neighborhood. And I like these too.
I did little exploring in my neighbourhood when I first came to Kingston. The first month I was here it rained every day. The following month I was away at conferences and when I was here it was raining still. The subsequent two months I was doing fieldwork elsewhere. And then it was it was September, school started. While I had a break over the winter holiday the sidewalks were treacherously slippery.
Now that the spring sun has melted the snow I crave the outdoors. But with the end of the semester rushing towards me I find myself with little time to seek out the wilder parks I prefer, at least not on a daily basis. And so I find myself strolling around my neighbourhood for the first time. And I find myself gaining a deep appreciation for this place that I have made my home. While my local parks disappointed me instantly, I love looking at the gardens of these century homes and look forward to observing them throughout the seasons.
The promise of spring has been present for some time now as we proceeded through winter - from the warming days to the lengthening daylight hours - and finally today we have begun this new season!
I've always felt that spring is an exciting season, it is fresh and new and full of the promise.
Soon wildflowers, like the spring beauties pictured here from yesteryear, will bring flashes of colour to the landscape, putting the limited colour palate of winter firmly behind us.
Time has a funny way of escaping me, and I don't think that this is a unique experience that I alone have. Last year saw a lot of changes in my life - I moved from Peterborough to Kingston and started graduate school - time seemed to move faster last year. And while I do my best to take time and make time to explore the world beyond my window, I didn't feel like I could add enough minutes or hours to my days. Before I knew it the greens were turning to browns and the world was carpeted in the quiet white of winter. I can't say whether this year will be any different, I feel a new suite of changes laying ahead in wait for me. But spring is full of promise, and I can hope that it promises to afford me more time to wander the fields, forests and fens that I am so fond of.
Kingston will be my home for the next couple of years as I complete a master's of science in geography. Officially I start this autumn, but I received a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) award that is allowing me to get a jump start on my research and data collection.
So far I have been doing a literature review with a handful of field days. This week I was testing field equipment in advance of my field season later this summer. Best to make sure everything works now instead of finding it out when you need it in the field.
After a bit of a hiatus to get adjusted to a new routine in a new place, I am excited to continue to share my flora finds and other outdoor adventuring with you all! That said, the range of my explorations has expanded and shifted beyond the Peterborough area, so now the name PTBO Flora seems limiting. I have been thinking about how best to reimagine this site to make it more reflective of my new scope of exploration.
As always, I am open to suggestions.
While the calendar says January 1st is "officially" the first day of the new year, I am not quite convinced! I had always associated spring with the new year.
It is a time of new growth. Colour returns to the landscape as the snow melts and is replaced by vivid green grass and flashes of bright wildflowers. It is a time of awakening. Trees dust the snow off their limbs as they wake up to reach to the sky and unfurl their leaves to catch the warming sun. It is a time of activity. Animals return from their winter homes to the south, those that stayed are energized by the excitement and anticipation for a new season. It is a time of promise and potential. New ideas are formed, new friends are made, and new adventures are had.
Welcome spring, and all that you bring!
As this is the last post in my "best of 2016" series I am going to tell a bit of a different story. This is still a story about finding one of my fave wildflowers for the first time, but it is also tied into the story of how PTBO Flora was born.
Sometimes my first encounter with a wildflower is not in the field, but online. Before developing PTBO Flora, I had started to feature wildflowers on my personal Instagram feed. When I moved to Peterborough from Toronto I was, quite frankly, bored and felt isolated. Like any newcomer, I didn't know anyone in Peterborough, and while I knew about the great parks in or near the city I didn't drive. Living in large cities I had never needed a car, so I never got a licence. But I found that cycling and taking the bus can only take you so far in Peterborough. Eventually I met some amazing people, including my partner who I later moved in with. As amazing as it was to start a life together, when he wasn't home again I found myself isolated and bored in our north end home. I had always lived downtown, even in Peterborough, where everything was nearby - from shops to restaurants to entertainment to friends and more. Now I found myself, basically, in the suburbs. And I was starting to get cabin fever.
Fortunately my suburb has a park. I started visiting it nearly every single day, sometimes more than once, watching the wildflowers come and go over the course of the seasons. While I had spent a decade living in large metropolises, growing up in a smaller city in southern Ontario I had spent a lot of time adventuring in nature with my very outdoorsy parents. Serendipitously, moving to the the suburb rekindled my relationship with nature. Perhaps predictably, wildflowers eventually took over my Instagram feed entirely!
My partner encouraged me to do something more with all the wildflower specimens I had observed, something more than just posting on Instagram. And so, I began work on a compendium of local flora while also continuing to share my flora finds to Instagram and seeing what fellow flora enthusiasts were sharing. My boredom and isolation was replaced by wildflower and an amazing online community of fellow flora appreciators.
And that is how I first saw a curious blue bloom - with its flowers that never opened - on Instagram. Knowing that it had been found locally, I excitedly asked the person who had posted a photo of the flowers where they had stumbled upon a patch of these blue beauties.
I found bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), as promised, along the banks of the Otonabee River.
See my other faves from 2016 here.
News, reflections, notes and other ramblings from the trail by PTBO Flora founder Rachel.