Manning S. 2013. Dogs Help Cheetahs Overcome Breeding Fears in New Zoo Project. Huffington Post. Available from:

(image source:

One of the biggest attractions at the San Diego Zoo is the 100 meter cheetah run where visitors from the park can witness the speed and agility of adult cheetahs. Cheetahs can go from 0 to 60 in 3.4 seconds, faster than any car on the market. Their top speed is 60 to 70 mph. Along with the magnificient cheetah, The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is now hosting a less exotic animal, the domesticated dog. These aren’t the lovable pets of the zookeepers, however, these dogs are actually companions to the resident cheetahs. In fact, out of the 19 cheetahs at the zoo, four have dog companions. The zoo has a had great breeding success, producing 135 cheetahs in the last 40 years. Definitely take 2 minutes to watch the video below.

Dogs and cheetahs in action

It is estimated that there are less than 12,000 cheetahs left in the wild. This graceful cat has also been extirpated from 13 countries. While a formidable predator, cheetahs are actually notoriously skittish. Most cheetahs live solitary lives, which is tricky because female cheetahs only go into estrus when stimulated by the presence of a male. Their independent lifestyle makes this event incredibly rare. To calm these scaredy-cats down, The San Diego Zoo is now pairing up cheetahs and puppies at 3 months old. These puppies usually come from shelters. They develop relationships and learn to play and live together. Part of the benefits from this relationship is that these captive cheetahs learn to be comfortable around their human handlers and visitors. Teaching cheetahs social skills may also aid in breeding success, as the cheetah’s first instinct may not be to run away. These cheetahs seem to look to their dogs for guidance and an example. The dogs are the dominant party in the relationship, often being very protective of their cheetahs.

Dogs are also aiding cheetah conservation efforts in Africa. Anatolian shepherds, weighing in at 150 pounds, were brought to Namibia to protect goat herds. Since this new tactic has been deployed, the ranchers aren’t having to shoot cheetahs anymore for preying on their herds. The dogs are that good at chasing them away! For the first time in 30 years, cheetah populations in the wild are increasing thanks to our furry canines! I especially like this idea because it is helping cheetahs in their native habitat. Training these dogs to guard goat herds should be simple enough and cheap to implement in rural villages that would be willing to participate. I am still unsure how dogs help with breeding shyness in cheetahs, but it sure makes for some cute youtube videos.

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Schnell IB, Thomsen PF, Wilkinson N, Rasmussen M, Jensen LRD, Willerslev E, Bertelsen MF, Gilbert MTP. 2012. Screening mammal biodiversity using DNA from leeches. Current Biology 22(8):R262-3.

Fulltext available from:

Supplemental data available from:

Let me start by saying that any creature that can suck my blood disgusts me (sorry Twilight fans). Here I’m talking specifically about leeches. I’m pleased to say that I’ve never had the pleasure of plucking one of these bloodsuckers off my skin. However, researchers are happily searching for these little monsters in the dense jungles of central Vietnam. This area contains some of the most poorly described threatened mammal fauna in the world. Mammal populations in this area of the world are becoming depleted by hunting, making them wary of humans. Their habitat also consists of dense, humid jungles that are hard to navigate, making these mammals even harder to identify. Because of this, many of these species are listed by IUCN as “data deficient”. This makes conserving these animals incredibly difficult. The solution? Haemadipsidae leeches (pictured below) are now being used in conservation projects in tropical Asia. These micropredators prey on a wide range of species and are keen to attack humans, making them easy to collect.

Figure 1.  Haemadipsidae leeche (image source:

Ida Schnell and colleagues are now proposing and describing a new screening tool: analyzing the blood meals collected from these leeches. First, to test whether or not mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) could be identified in these leeches, 26 leeches were fed freshly drawn goat blood and were then sequentially killed over the course of 141 days. This was to see how long prey DNA remained intact in the body of the leech. It turned out that mtDNA was recognizable for up to 4 months after their meal (fig. 2). With this in mind, the team set out and collected 25 leeches in the Central Annamite region of Vietnam. When taken back to the lab and run through a PCR, 21 out of the 25 leeches tested had mammalian mtDNA which represented six species spanning three orders (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Mammals identified (left to right): Annamite striped rabbit, small-toothed ferret-badger,Truong Son munjtac (coat coloration and markingsremain unknown), and serow.

In this study, two IUCN threatened species were identified (see picture below). Along with these, the small-toothed ferret-badger (Melogale moschata) was also identified, an important discovery since it cannot be discriminated from the related M. personata without handling. However, there are some drawbacks. MtDNA can only be detected from the leeches’ last meal, not from all the different species it has fed upon. This method is however, inexpensive, simple and can be carried out by non-professionals.

Figure 3. The truong son muntjac and Annamite striped rabbit respectively (image source:

While this method is certainly exciting, research still needs to be done on leech feeding and disperal behaviour. This provides an estimate of geographic range and total occupancy across a landscape of a species, but it does not necessarily tell us about pressures facing these species such as disease and predation. These leeches are also common in South Asia, Australia and Madagascar, suggesting that we could use these techniques in other harsh environments where species are hard to track down. While limited in some areas, this method could revolutionize mammal detection surveys in tropical habitats.

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  1. Scientists Using Holiday Snaps to Identify Whale Sharks [internet]. Science Daily.; [Cited 2013 Feb. 12]. Available from:
  2. ECOCEAN [internet]. Whale Shark Photo-ID Library.; [Cited 2013 Feb. 12]. Available from:
  3. Tim K. Davies, Guy Stevens, Mark G. Meekan, Juliane Struve, J. Marcus Rowcliffe. Can citizen science monitor whale-shark aggregations’ Investigating bias in mark–recapture modelling using identification photographs sourced from the public. Wildlife Research, 2012. Available from:

Has anyone else ever dreamed about diving with the giant whale shark? For myself, it’s a bit of an internal battle between the 8 year old who saw the movie Jaws and is forever scarred, and the biologist who loves to scuba dive and explore this incredible world and the creatures within it. The whale shark, Rhincodon typus, is a slow-moving filter feeding shark – often called the world’s largest fish1. It is listed as vulnerable to extinction by IUCN Red List of Threatened Species2. While great white sharks still terrify me, the whale shark is a docile beast and lacks the huge teeth of Hollywood’s Jaws.

Source: (ECOCEAN)

Some people have had the privilege of experiencing these gentle monsters in the wild. Tourists scuba diving and snorkelling in the Maldives often capture underwater pictures of these creatures. While these photos usually just make it into a Facebook profile picture, there is actually a way these photographs are helping conservationists trace the shark’s life history, relationships and geographic distribution.

While these photographs have been available for some time, only recently has a study come forward to investigate how useful they are. In 2012, Davies et al., compiled whale shark photographs from both public sources (flickr, imgur, etc) and research projects. It was found that the use of publicly sourced data for use in mark-recapture studies of whale sharks was effective, especially when research funding is limited. Approximately 85% of photographs taken by tourists were useable in tracking and identifying whale sharks.3 On considering their results, Davis said “…In the Maldives in particular, where whale shark tourism is well established and very useful for collecting data from throughout the archipelago, our results suggest that whale shark monitoring effort should be focused on collecting tourist photographs”1.

ECOCEAN, a whale shark photo-ID library, collects these photographs from tourists and provides guidelines for how to take a picture that is suitable in identifying a whale shark. Figure one below shows the precise area that researchers are interested in. The photographer should aim to be perpendicular to the shark’s left side and take a photograph of the area just behind the gill slits. This area is unique to each shark and the patterning can be analyzed by computer software to find matches. Photographs of scarring on the head, fins and body can also aid in the identification process of previously marked individuals2.

Figure 1: example of the area to be photographed as well as the method of identification. Source: ECOCEAN

What’s really cool is that once you submit your photograph, ECOCEAN will send you an e-mail telling you how your data is being used and will even notify you whenever the shark you reported is resighted. You can even adopt a shark! To date, ECOCEAN has successfully collected 43,000 photos, reported 20,000 sitings, tagged 3,800 individuals and has a total of 3,400 data contributors!

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Malakoff, D. Shrink to Fit [internet]. Conservation magazine.; [Cited 2013 Jan. 30]. Available from:

Does anyone remember the North American House Hippo? Do you also remember adamantly believing in its existence? If not, here’s a clip to refresh your memory:

While the House Hippo, sadly, does not exist, in an online article in Conservation Magazine, David Malakoff suggests that perhaps the world’s megafauna (Fig. 1) are in fact shrinking. Often times the media is most concerned with species that are being completely wiped out by human development. It isn’t often discussed how some species are getting shorter, thinner, and lighter due to human influence, which raises many different issues. When we consider our more primitive beginnings, we know that hunting often involved picking off the small, sick or young (those we could actually get our hands on). With the arrival of guns, trucks and even airplanes, we’re not able to do something he hadn’t done before: trophy hunt. Humans are considered “superpredators”. Because of our influence, natural selection is now favouring those individuals that are smaller and that can mature earlier to get their genes out there before they are killed. The startling fact is that species are now shrinking 300% faster than in natural systems.

Figure 1. Examples of megafauna (

Now for some numbers. Historically, as human populations (another megafaunal species) boomed, we lost over half of our land animals that weighed more than 97 pounds (encapsulating more than 101 genera). This happened over a 4,000 year time span which finished about 11,000 years ago. The brass tax of it all is that Australia lost 88% of its big mammal groups, South America 83% and North America 72% to name a few. This event is called the Quaternary Megfauna Extinction (QME), something I’d never heard of. As human populations increase and the globe continues to warm, are we going to see a repeat of the QME? Speaking of global warming, the author puts forth the idea that natural selection should favour small bodies when it comes to increased global temperatures. Smaller bodies have a high surface area to volume ratio, which allows for more efficient cooling. However, whether global warming is causing species to shrink is not yet clear.

On earth today, there are 100 species that are subject to size selective harvesting (fish, trees, etc.). So what do we do? The author brings up a species of fish called Atlantic silversides. They were intentionally fished to remove the largest members for five generations and then allowed to recover. It was estimated that it would take 12 generations for this fish to recover. Not a very resilient species! The author also puts forward an idea published by Susanne Fritz (in PNAS) that ecosystems are more resilient if there is a huge variety in body sizes, perhaps by keeping the interspecies hierarchy intact.

While we have talked about this in class before, I found this article very interesting and prodded me to think about this issue a bit differently. As it stands, I’ll hold off on putting out toast and peanut butter for the House Hippo. For now.

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Mitchell, A. M. Wellicome, T. I. Brodie, D. Cheng, K. M. 2011. Captive-reared burrowing owls show higher site-affinity, survival, and reproductive performance when reintroduced using a soft release. Biological Conservation 144: 1382-1391.

Scott Martin Photography, 2012

The Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) is considered nationally and provincially endangered (COSEWIC, 2006). It is found throughout North and South America but their habitat is being threatened partially due to control programs for prairie dogs.  While prairie dogs are considered pests by farmers, the burrowing owl uses their burrows as homes. According to Mitchell et al., burrowing owls reach sexual maturity at 10 months of age. The general goal of reintroduction programs is to release captive-reared owls in mating pairs at one year of age. Most often, a hard-release technique is used, which involves releasing the pair directly into the wild from their burrow. The authors investigated the idea of switching to a soft-release technique which involves temporarily enclosing the pair’s burrow before releasing them to the wild.

In the short term, releases of animals have three main objectives: (1) settlement into release areas, (2) survival following release, and (3) successful reproduction in the wild (Teixeira et al., 2007). Over a seven year study, Mitchell et al. used these three indicators to determine the success of soft versus hard-releases. The study took place between 2001 and 2007 between Kamloops and Merritt. Soft-releases involved an enclosure being placed above ground over the burrow for 2 weeks. Below is a figure from Mitchell et al. showing the different methods used for hard (A) and soft releases (B and C).

 Full-size image (106 K)

Figure 1 from Mitchell et al. 2011.

The two treatment groups were also equally provided with supplemental food every 3-4 days. Their results showed that of the hard-released owls, 66% stayed at their release sites compared to 86% of the soft-released owls. Approximately 70% of the soft-released owls survived the breeding season and produced 50% more offspring than hard-released owls (who had a breeding season survival of 50%). Furthermore, post-fledging survival from soft-release parents was 69% compared to 50% from hard-release parents. Using temporary enclosures for soft-releases requires a relatively low investment compared to the amount of time, effort and money involved in raising more burrowing owls in captivity. The authors of this study suggest that the enclosures remain intact for 14-17 days and for supplemental feeding to continue throughout the breeding season.

I feel like there are many practical and easy things we as a class could do to contribute. As seen in figure 1, the enclosures are simple and small and were used in the Kamloops area. We could easily build these enclosures or volunteer our time monitoring the breeding pairs in their enclosures or bringing the supplemental food. This program seems realistic and manageable, which gets me pretty excited about this particular conservation project!

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Smith, A. and J.B. MacKinnon.  2007.  The 100-mile diet.  Vintage Canada. Toronto.

Pop the popcorn, there’s some crazy shows on the discovery channel! A few weeks back my hubby and I were snuggled up watching the discovery channel, one of our favourites, and on came a show called “Doomsday Preppers”, or something to that regard. The basic premise is about families who believe in the 2012 Armageddon and consequently prepare for the inevitable apocalypse. What was most fascinating about one particular family is that they were nearly 100% sustainable on their little plot of suburbia. In their nearly empty in ground pool was growing a variety of garden fruits and vegetables as well as a thriving pond full of a small fish. The algae growing on the surface of the water was used to feed the fish as well as fertilize their crops (and was also discovered to be a fun additive to breakfast smoothies…who knew). They also raised chickens and baked bread in a little tin-foil lined cardboard box facing the sun. Troughs ran all over their yard collecting rain water that went into large tanks as well as into the covered parts of their garden. I was equally amazed a horrified. Amazed by the incredible efficiency of this family (the father and his son would fish for their dinner most nights…bonding time) but I was a little horrified by the speed drills their children had to do that resulted in them wearing radiation suits and gas masks. So this is one type of diet…the 1,000 square foot diet. This one was, and presumably is still being done (no apocalypse yet, right?) but for very different reasons than Smith and MacKinnon did.

The 100 Mile Diet, a slightly less crazy version of the diet above was the assigned reading, and endeavor of the authors, for this week. I’m going to be honest, I’ve not actually finished the book yet (gasp!) but what’s redeeming here is that I actually plan on finishing this book even after I’ve blogged (double gasp!). In all fairness, I’m more than half way through. It was that good! As I know many have mentioned, I love how this book is set locally. I read the chapter where they venture into the states while I was down visiting my in-laws, and my father in-law actually knew the various farms they visited. I also identified with them as they smuggled hazelnuts across the border (done that!). This book also proved that the 100 Mile Diet is not the faint hearted. I didn’t really consider the bounty of things I would have to forsake if I followed in this couple’s footsteps. No bread? No soy sauce? No mangoes, oranges, bananas or kiwis? No oil? And the list goes on and on!

This book gave me a huge dose of perspective. The part of the book that talked about we trade seafood with China because our local stuff is considered to be a delicacy and vice versa. The time required to eat a 100 mile diet is equally as daunting. I began to wonder if this couple did nothing else but search (on their little bicycles) for hours and hours for a suitable meal. And how about the 30 days they spent in a ghost town? I’m beginning to wish I had gone into journalism, not science!

This was such a great read to end the class with. I think it really wrapped up this whole Plants and People saga. This book has made me very aware of where eat meal is coming from, and I can hazard to guess that more than 90% of what I eat is far from local…a sobering assessment. Like many people, I would love to eat more locally. Whenever summer rolls around I vow to go down to the farmer’s market and fill a little wicker basket with the produce I need for the week (a very idyllic picture in my mind), but alas, it seems to rarely happen as I’m sucked into the convenience and exotic delights of supermarkets. This book may have put the fire under me that I needed, so we’ll see how that turns out!

I didn’t find this book condescending of preachy, which was very refreshing. The authors were blunt and honest, even about the stresses it put on their relationship, and the lack of stress of put on their clothing (getting looser and looser…) which I really appreciated. It didn’t make me feel guilty for not eating withing a 100 mile radius, but it certainly made me consider the local options a bit more seriously. However, if I start fishing for my dinner in half drained pool and putting my hubby through nuclear evacuation drills, someone lock me up.

Note for Lyn – This class was awesome and so are you. Keep it up, TRU is blessed to have such a passionate and caring professor. Thanks for the inspiration.


 The Great Tourist

Hannah Iblings


Twelve to thirteen minutes and they are popping and hissing, the oils have risen to the surface and the beans look shiny. It’s sweetness replaced by the rich chocolaty body and aroma of a dark roast.


My knees press against my chest as I sit like an awkward leggy grasshopper on a tiny plastic chair made for a person half my size. Sheets of rain have blocked out most of the natural light, emphasizing the soft red glow from a nearby homemade shrine. Buddha peaks his serene face through loop after loop of half burned shriveled incense. At his feet lie what looks like a small peppershaker and an old can of Heineken beer. Christmas tree lights strung above his head highlight the chips in his golden crown and the plastic veins in the eight-pronged leaves of a twisting vine used to frame this decadent scene. A hunched Vietnamese woman wearing a pink cotton áo dài pulls me out of the faux Mecca of this tiny Buddha’s shrine. She sets a steaming mug in front of me; the mixture of musty rain and rich acidity reaches my nostrils quickly in the humid heat.

This morning I was a tourist in Hà Nội, Vietnam. This afternoon, however, I am driven indoors like everyone else at the sudden onset of a tropical typhoon-like storm. The haunt I chose as the first drops pelted my nose was a tiny coffee shop, no doubt nestled under this woman’s permanent residence. The shop consists of three walls, with the entrance wide open to the pouring street. Along one wall are rows of coffee beans stored in glass canisters, some beans swollen and reflective, others dull and stunted. I turn my attention back to the hot cup of Robusta coffee in front of me. She watches as I take my first sip. The taste is otherworldly. I’m no stranger to coffee of course, but this, for some reason, is a whole new experience.

What makes someone a tourist? Is it the length of time you are in the country? Or is it the purpose of your visit? I have lived in and visited many different countries at different times during my life – Cameroon, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, India, Vietnam and New Zealand – not really knowing where I fit in. In Papua New Guinea I remember encountering my first coffee tree, rubbing its waxy leaves between my finger and thumb, and admiring the ruby red cherries. I wondered how it got there. Had I encountered another confused tourist along the way?

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            People have gone to great lengths to have their coffee. In the Jewish community, there was a debate that the coffee bean, from the family Rubiaceae, was a legume, and therefore not acceptable during Passover. In 1923, Rabbi Bezalel Rosen put out a petition to classify coffee as a berry, which would allow coffee to be consumed over Passover. Christians also believed coffee to be the “devil’s drink” as it was widely consumed by Muslims. However, when Pope Vincent III tried the supposedly offensive beverage, he decided instead to baptize it, saying, “Coffee is so delicious it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it”.

The mythical beginnings of the coffee bean include a group of rambunctious goats and their Ethiopian herder, Kaldi. The legend is that Kaldi’s goats were seen gamboling from one coffee bush to the next, sampling the bright red berries while getting more and more excitable. Kaldi himself joined in on the fun and was soon frolicking along with his goats. A monk on his afternoon prayer walk was said to have spotted the exuberant creatures and stole a few berries away to his brothers in the monastery where they were used as a means to keep awake during late night prayers. From that moment on, coffee began a rather epic journey, which would eventually lead to its complete tour of the world when it crossed the Red Sea to Arabia – present day Yemen – where it became incredibly popular among the Muslim religion.

The rest of the story enlists much espionage and trickery as the Arabians rendered their coffee beans infertile to prevent others from stealing their precious commodity. It wasn’t until the 1600’s when Baba Budan, an Indian trader, smuggled fertile Arabian coffee seeds back to India by taping the coveted beans to his stomach. The Dutch soon acquired a desire for coffee and began gifting these plants to aristocrats in Europe, including Louis XIV. A young French naval officer, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, asked for a clipping from Louis XIV and was denied. This lead to a covert midnight theft where a small sprout was stolen. However, on the voyage back to France, water was severely rationed and de Clieu sacrificed half of his own water supply to keep the plant alive. It flourished in France and soon caught the attention of the Portuguese. Francisco de Mello Palheta, a colonel in the military, was sent to France to acquire the sought after and protected coffee plant. Upon arriving in France, Palheta forges a controversial relationship with the governor’s wife, who presents him with a bouquet laced with coffee sprouts. It was that sly act in 1727 that set Brazil at the number one coffee cultivator and exporter today, producing approximately 22.5 million 32-pound bags of coffee per year.

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            I finish the mug, lick my lips and accept another sample she offers me from her selection of Arabica beans. The next hour passes like this until the downpour stops and I select a pound of “weasel coffee”, dubbed for the fact that the coffee fruit have been ingested by a Vietnamese weasel and the partially digested beans are collected in its excrement. Gross, yes, but a good novelty gift for those back home. She searches her pockets for change, and finding none, disturbs the peaceful little shrine to extract a few aged bills, which she presses into my hands, a huge smile on her face. I lock eyes with the peaceful Buddha one last time, wondering if a few coffee beans will find their way into his glowing shrine. That afternoon in Hà Nội, I shared a brief moment with a great tourist – a mug of steaming coffee. I don’t know if the beans I consumed had traveled the world like its brave predecessors, but I learned to appreciate its flavour as that of rich adventure and intrigue as I stepped out into the rain-washed streets to continue my journey.



Sources Cited

Beyond the Buzz [Internet]. [Updated 1999]. National Geographic.; [cited 2012 March 22]. Available from:   

Coffea [Internet]. [Updated Feb. 1, 2012]. Wikipedia.; [cited 2012 March 21]. Available from:

Lecolier A, Besse P, Charrier A, Tchakaloff T, Noirot M. 2009. Unraveling the origin of coffea arabica ‘bourbon pointu’ from la reunion: A historical and scientific perspective. Euphytica 168(1):1-10.

Ponte S. 2002. The ‘latte revolution’? regulation, markets and consumption in the global coffee chain. World Dev 30(7):1099-122.

Smith SD. 1998. Accounting for taste: British coffee consumption in historical perspective (vol 27, pg 183, 1996). Journal of Interdisciplinary History 28(3):5-10.





Pollan, M. 2002. Marijuana.113-179 in The Botany of Desire. Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Admittedly, I’m a little late on this. I’ll make two excuses: food poisoning and unexpected company at 5:30. I feel like I don’t need to say too much else on that!

I enjoyed Pollan’s perspective and all the different directions he attacked this subject from. At times it was somewhat hard to follow as there was a lot of information being presented. Maybe if I had a joint in hand I could be thinking a little more clearly? I guess it depends on the particular hybrid bud I have? Just a jest of course, as I’ve never tried marijuana, nor do I think I will in the future.

I loved his words on page 114 “the bright line between good and poison might hold, but not the one between poison and desire.” So interesting, and a very thought provoking way to put it. What is NOT very thought provoking is how I had the song Toxic by Brittany Spears stuck in my head for a lot of this chapter….

“With a taste of your lips
I’m on a ride
You’re toxic I’m slipping under
With a taste of a poison paradise
I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic”

I’m embarrassed to even be posting this in my blog, but doesn’t this totally describe drugs? A poison paradise…makes sense! Way to go Brittany.

What I enjoyed most was Pollan’s personal story…”if only to harvest a good story” (pg. 121) was a great line as I feel like this is what Pollan does all the time…harvests a really great story. I love his description of marijuana: “No one would ever claim marijuana is a great beauty, though a gardener can’t help by admire the sheer green exuberance if this plant, a towering heap of leafy palms held up to the sun in an ecstatic frenzy of photosynthesis.” (pg. 122). The last line especially is great, and really gives the plant a personality…eager and kinda hopped up, which makes sense! His personal story is about actually growing a friend’s pot seeds until they are gargantuan and he nearly has a run in with the local chief of police. I love how he would run out, a bag of nerves, every time an airplane would fly over his property, fearing they’d spot his plants. I love listening to Stuart McLean on CBC radio on Sunday afternoons. I could almost imagine Stuart telling this story at the Vinyl Cafe, and everyone busting a gut.

I don’t know what’s more ridiculous…Pollan’s close call story, or the fact that his garden could be found guilty of violating drug laws (pg. 125). I don’t really care to say too much about the drug war. It’s such a tough and personal topic with a lot of opinions flying about. A fray I don’t care to participate in. I had never really heard the perspective of American’s being “less free” because of drug laws…”[during the drug wars] America jailed more if their citizens than any other country in history, and why one of every three of those were in prison because of their involvement with drugs, nearly 50,000 of them solely for crimes involving marijuana.” (pg. 126). A very interesting perspective, as I don’t think that drug use constitutes freedom, but I understand the point he is making and I do understand the the use of drugs in North America has become perverted from their original purposes in some sense. And marijuana has bowed eagerly to the human demand for smaller plants, more buds, and bigger yields. On page 137, he describes a grow-op in Amsterdam: “overbred, overfed, overstimuated, sped up, and pygmied all at once. ‘Happy to oblige!’ the marijuana plants seemed to say”. This sounds a lot like North American culture as well! Except maybe the pygmy part!

Finally, I really loved Pollan’s description of his own consciousness. There are so many amazing quotes from these few pages you just have to read it (pgs. 160-162). It’s amazing how much “forgetting” comes into play on a daily basis. If I could remember and perceive everything, I would never get anything done as I would be severely distracted and driven nearly mad by every sound, colour and taste. As George Eliot said “if we could hear the squirrel’s heartbeat, the sound of the grass growing, we should die of the roar.” (pg. 161). This capacity to forget is something hard wired within us, and I feel like seeking it out in the form of drug use is a little unhealthy. Again, it’s how you use it and to what degree, however, I think I’ll just steer clear. Pollan’s chapter highlighted pretty strongly the differences between pot then and pot now, a pretty startling comparison. Humans are demanding a stronger and stronger high, and with the way we are already disconnected from ourselves and those around us, this sounds a little dangerous.

This isn’t me trying to get on a soapbox either and I don’t want to appear judging. I’m a little tired from all the unwanted trips to the bathroom this afternoon, so I’m going to close off!


Nabhan G.P., 1990, Gathering the Desert, University of Arizona Press 209 pp. 3-19

One thing I feel like I missed growing up was the awareness of the native plant species around me and their uses. We as North Americans are generally fairly removed from nature. Even now I’m sitting in the wilds of Starbucks pondering these things while inching away from the sunlight coming in through the window (it’s just too hot and it makes the laptop screen impossible to see). You’d think after the epic blizzard yesterday I would be reveling in the hot sun! What I’m saying is definitely a generalization. I know there are a lot of people out there in North America who know the native species and even use them in their daily lives. I’m just not really one of them. I also don’t think this is wrong necessarily, more just surprising. Growing up, I didn’t need to walk through the woods with my mother, learning how to gather or hunt. How to tell north from south by looking at the sun or moss. Being aware of what plants are poisonous and what plants may cure your cough for example. Was this missing element of my childhood a blessing or a curse?

By the way, I’m impressed but somewhat perplexed, and I’m sure somewhat something else, by the woman in this reading who is snow-birding in Mexico. She meets a native woman and asks her about a natural cure for her winter-time cough. The woman describes the greasewood plant briefly and tells her it will work. Meanwhile, this snow-birding tourist drives out, finds what she believes to be the plant based on her description and proceeds to make a tea from its branches (pg. 17). Now that’s trust! Or maybe she’s just really ballsy/desperate? I guess the plant makes itself fairly obvious as it’s called hediondilla, or little stinker.

While I found this reading fairly interesting, it did come across as pretty factual and dull. However, I appreciated the introduction where it talked about the Earth Maker. “As darkness washed up against itself, a spirit grew inside it: Earth Maker. Earth maker took from his breast the soil stuck to it, and he began to flatten this soil like a tortilla in the palm of his hand. He shaped this mound of earth, and from it, the first thing grew: the greasewood.” (pg. 11) I would have liked for there to be a bit more continuity from the passage. The author talks about the Earth Maker, but then he is never mentioned again, or referred to. I feel like this could have brought a more cultural colour to the reading. I appreciate how similar it is to the Biblical creation story, except in the Biblical account, God uses earth to form man, not a plant (He forms plants and other organisms by speaking them into being). Kind of interesting. God forms man out of the ground personally, whereas in the native account, the Earth Maker pays more personal attention to the plant. However, I don’t know the rest of the native account, but I just found that interesting.

I tend to disagree with the author at the end:  “[creosote] has one quality that humankind still lacks, one which we are still struggling to obtain: persistence.” (pg. 19). True, we humans aren’t the most dependable or long-suffering species out there, but I woudn’t say we lack persistence. What other species has harnessed the power and resources we have through sheer imagination and force of will? Agreed that sometimes this power is evil and the amount resources we acquire can be selfish. Maybe the author was simply referring to longevity (the oldest historical person we know of is Methusela, who lived to be 969 I think), so in that case I must agree, but I doubt that was the author’s intent. He seemed a little too focused on nature and not very respectful of science (like pharmaceuticals), which I think has integrated well with nature a lot of the time.

“Even if you don’t gather the desert, let it gather a feeling in you. Even if you don’t swallow it as medicine, meditate upon it: the desert can cure” (pg. 8). I think this statement is valid, even if I didn’t enjoy some of the other statements made by the author. Even if you didn’t have the privilege of growing up learning the native species, at least know how to appreciate nature, whether it’s “the music heard when standing beneath a spring-flowering mesquite canopy…or the smell of a creosote bush releasing fifty volatile oils to the ozone charged air during a summer storm.” (pg. 8)

Pollan, M. 2002. The apple. pg. 1-58 in The Botany of Desire. Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

The most I knew about “Johnny Appleseed” up until this week consisted of a prayer we sometimes sang as a family at meal times that went like this:

“For the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord, for giving me the things I need, the sun and the rain and the appleseed. The Lord is good to me, Johnny Appleseed, amen!”

As I read Michael Pollan’s chapter in Botany of Desire on the apple, I decided to do some research on this prayer from my childhood. Surprise, surprise, the author of my childhood memories happens to be Disney:

As I watched this more extended youtube clip of the song from the Disney movie, I saw the John Chapman that Pollan’s guide William Jones probably saw. Wholesome, philanthropic, environmentally conscious and generally an all around stand up guy. Who wouldn’t idealize such a man as Jones’ version John Chapman? Isn’t that precisely what Disney did with their adaption? And what my family did around the dinner table?

This isn’t to say that I think John Chapman was an evil guy by any means. There’s just more to him than meets the eye. I had never really considered apples as being the bringers of alcohol to the frontier, or the forbidden fruit of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (pg. 9). But speaking of the forbidden fruit, wasn’t the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden said to be an apple tree? I wonder if that idea that arose in the Middle Ages had a bearing on the feeling towards apples in Chapman’s time. I love Pollan’s description of John gliding lazily down the Ohio River, in tandem with a mound of polished appleseeds: “The scene, for me, has the resonance of myth – a myth about how plants and people learned to use each other, each doing for the other things they could not do for themselves, in the bargain changing each other and improving their common lot.” (pg. 4) This is referring to how John lashed the two canoes together instead of dragging the seeds behind him. Pollan likens it to a marriage between people and plants: “A relation of parity and reciprocal exchange between its two passengers.” (pg. 5)

What really startled me was the innate wildness of the apple seed and the similarities it bore to its propagator (Chapman). Genetically, I’m a little confused by this seed. Each seed seems to be a bit of a loose cannon, sprouting up looking nearly nothing like their parent. This is an extreme version of heterozygosity, making the apple incredibly diverse. Pollan describes the apple as having an “ineluctable wildness”, and having “whatever qualities it takes to prosper in [its] adopted home.” (pg. 11). To me, this seems like an apt description of Chapman, who traveled around in a canvas sack with the teapot on his head and was known to make his home in hollowed out stumps. That sounds pretty adaptable and wild to me. Not to mention the apple “nearly always falls far from the tree” (pg. 11), a fact that I feel Chapman’s parents would empathize with.

Another part I found interesting about this reading was how Chapman provided what people needed by law, which was to “set out at least fifty apple or pear trees” (pg. 16), which encouraged homesteaders to “put down roots” (a phrase that has forever taken on a new meaning to me!).

I once again appreciate Pollan’s journalistic methods as he went out and retraced Chapman’s footsteps (or canoe paths) and also brought home a wild apple whose seeds he plants in his own garden, to “bear witness, to an unreconstructed and necessary wildness” and that “there can be no civilization with out wildness, such a tree would remind us, no sweetness absent its astringent opposite.” (pg. 58). So while I may remember the Johnny Appleseed of my childhood, a saint, who loved God and wholesome apples, a part of me will now always remember the wild side of John Chapman.