Kem Luther, a Canadian-American writer, has at one time or another claimed to be a historian, genealogist, philosopher, linguist and scientist. In this book he dons his oldest hat, that of the field naturalist.
Published in 2016 by the Oregon State University Press, Boundary Layer is a tour through the ground-hugging organisms of the Pacific Northwest and an introduction to the fascinating people who study them.
The mosses, fungi, lichen, and plants that live along the ground are more than just low-paid extras in their ecosystems. What plankton are to the oceans, the stegnon organisms are to the land -- the precondition and foundation of biotic life.
Blurb from the back cover:
"In atmospheric science, a boundary layer is the band of air nearest the ground. In the Pacific Northwest, the boundary layer teems with lichens, mosses, ferns, fungi, and diminutive plants. It’s an alternate, overlooked universe whose denizens author Kem Luther calls the stegnon, the terrestrial equivalent of oceanic plankton.
"In Boundary Layer, Luther takes a voyage of discovery through the stegnon, exploring the life forms that thrive there and introducing readers to the scientists who study them. With a keen ear for conversation and an eye for salient detail, the author brings a host of characters to life, people as unique and intriguing as the species inhabiting the stegnon.
"An exhilarating mix of natural history, botanical exploration, and philosophical speculation, Boundary Layer guides readers, in the end, into the author’s own landscape of metaphor. It will be welcomed by naturalists, botanists, outdoor adventurers, and anyone who savors good storytelling. Luther translates into luminous prose what boundary regions have to say, not only about the in-between places of nature, but also about the conceptual borderlands that lie between species and ecosystems, culture and nature, science and the humanities."
Stegnon \'steg-n?n\ n. pl. stegna. Biological chinking; a general term for all sessile microorganisms and meso-organisms (bacteria, fungi, algae, lichens, mosses, hepatics, etc.) that grow on or within the non-aquatic surfaces of the world, including rock, soil, and vegetation. – Trevor Goward
A European-derived culture thrust itself into the Pacific Northwest in the first half of the nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of settlers crowded onto the Oregon Trail, and by the middle of the 1850s, lands that North American aboriginals had managed for millennia suddenly had new managers.
The shift was delayed a bit on the Canadian side—Europeans were largely confined to Fort Langley on the mainland and Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island until the 1850s—but when it came, the change was as decisive as the one in the United States. If we had to pick a date for the management turnover in British Columbia, we might choose 1862, the year when smallpox killed half of the province’s First Nations people.
The switch to new land managers in the Pacific Northwest is not an event, however, than can be pegged to a given year, either in the United States or in Canada. It happened over many decades. And it’s still not over. As you read this, two dozen British Columbia lawyers are billing all of their hours to negotiating treaties to replace those that were signed during the turnover.
The proximity of these changes must come as a shock to the Old World historians who parcel out their narratives in centuries. As recently as a hundred years ago, hikers could head out on foot from Victoria or Seattle and find themselves, within a few hours, in nooks of nature that no European foot had touched, no European eye had seen. These near-in-time events, connected to us not only by what we read in books but also by stories handed down from parents and grandparents, condition how we think. The land retains an imprint of its aboriginal management and, beyond that, its self-management.
The Pacific Northwest, it seems to me, is a kind of living laboratory. We run experiments here, sometimes without even knowing it, that probe how cultures coexist with nature. Our experiments are perhaps no different than those that are carried out in other regions of North America, but they seem more pressing here. The answers feel like they live nearer to the questions. The experiments that we run in this living laboratory often employ the vocabulary and concepts of biology. Like most people who have a formal education, I reach for this vocabulary when I try to understand what we are learning. I’ll make use of it on these pages, when I visit this living laboratory. I will also, however, test the limits of this language, and to do this I will have to stand in wider circles than the ones drawn by biologists.
My trips in this book, my hikes to the unexplored, will take us to strange places. We will not journey outward, into the lands on the horizon, but downward, into the stegnon, the land cover of mosses, lichens, fungi, and small plants. The significance of the Pacific Northwest’s stegnon is, like the plankton in the ocean to the west of us, undervalued. It is also misunderstood. The words and concepts cultivated by the scientific community can, when applied to the stegnon, conceal as much as they reveal.
To light our way through this mysterious region, I employ the metaphor of a boundary layer. The first chapter of this book probes the metaphor itself. In the middle chapters, I chase this metaphor through local ecosystems. Pursuit of the metaphor brings us, in the end, to three boundary layers of a different type: the conceptual ones that lie between species and ecosystems, nature and culture, and science and the humanities.
Writers write what they know. Until I began to write non-academic books, however, I did not know what I knew.
In particular, I did not really know how much my connection to the natural world was a part of my take on life. My writing has always ranged over a variety of topics. For some reason, though, I have found myself returning, time and time again, to an interior spring of fascination with the natural environment.
I’m not sure where this interest came from. I can point to several early experiences with outdoor life (boy scouting, gardening, working on a western ranch), but these could be effects rather than causes. I have wondered at times whether I might be in the grip of a deep programming, perhaps even a genetic one.
Howard Gardner’s book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, when it came out in the early 1980s, was an intellectual revelation. My generation learned from Gardner that we brought to our experiences profoundly programmed ways of interacting and understanding. Gardner, battling the tendency to identify thinking with the narrow set of skills assessed by IQ tests, called them intelligences, but they are much broader skill sets than his term suggests. They are, if you like, modalities of the mind, the toolkits we bring to the task of interpreting the world. They embrace intuition and feeling as well as overt thinking. In his first publication, Gardner outlined seven of these modalities, adding five new modes to the verbal and logical skills tested in schools. These became his musical–rhythmic, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, visual-spatial, and intrapersonal intelligences. In the 1990s, Gardner admitted that he had overlooked an important modality. “If I were to rewrite Frames of Mind today,” he said, “I would probably add an eighth intelligence—the intelligence of the naturalist. It seems to me that the individual who is able readily to recognize flora and fauna, to make other consequential distinctions in the natural world, and to use this ability productively (in hunting, in farming, in biological science) is exercising an important intelligence and one that is not adequately encompassed in the current list.”
When I heard about Gardner’s correction, I wondered whether his new modality might be part of my own makeup. It might explain, for example, my own drive to place myself in the frame of the natural world when I write. It is an explanation, of course, that does not explain—it just kicks the explanation into a place where I don’t feel the need to explain it. It’s a part of who I am, for reasons that I can’t fully grasp with the other modalities that I bring to my understanding of life.
Boundary Layer, which OSU Press is publishing in May, is my most recent venture into this naturalist pre-self. Though it is all about the lands and ecosystems of BC and the Pacific Northwest, the approach I use in the book took shape some fifteen years ago, while I was still living in Central Canada. Queen’s Quarterly, a literary journal based in Kingston, Ontario, published an article with the title “Boundary Layer.” In this essay I narrated my explorations of local biotic life just above and below the soil line. The article’s name was a play on words. A boundary layer is a technical term for a transition zone. To muck about in the terrestrial boundary layer, I had to physically lay myself down in this narrow region, to get face to face with the soil and what grows there.
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest nine years ago, I found myself drawn once again to the overlooked biological zones along the ground. The boundary layers in British Columbia, however, were quite different from the ones I had known in Central Canada. The mosses, fungi, lichens, and small plants of the West Coast boundary layers were more bold, more lush. They had a commanding presence in their ecological networks. Intrigued by this new environment, I wrote several articles about the denizens of this lower region for Pacific Northwest magazines. I also started giving talks to natural history organizations and taking groups on guided walks. In 2008, when I finished the social history volume that had occupied me for several years, I decided it was time to get book-serious about my interest in the denizens of the boundary layer. By 2012, I had the first draft of the book largely complete.
The narrations in Boundary Layer owe a great debt to the army of biologists who spend their lives investigating the humble inhabitants of the regions just above the soil line. Without their research, all would be speculation. But the solemnities of their science did not always satisfy my questions. Vocabularies honed on macroflora and macrofauna had a tendency, I discovered, to carve away several of the most interesting issues posed by borderland organisms. Some of these less-than-orthodox questions, I found, were already being asked by a few of those who were immersed in detailed research on boundary layer organisms, so brought the lives and words of these inquisitive people into the text as a way to explore such questions. Ten Pacific Northwest naturalists agreed to let me expose in print the experiences that brought them to their unique perspectives on a neglected segment of the region’s biotic life.
The end of the process of writing a book, the place where the writer stands back and the role of the reader begins, is a time of uncertainty. Who will be the readers who follow them into the journeys they have taken? In writing Boundary Layer, I have reached into an inbred perspective, one that refuses to reduce itself to other ways of understanding the world. While readers do not have to possess Gardner’s naturalist modality to follow the book’s journey, those who do have it may perhaps find a message in the book that others miss.
On July 13, 2016, I did a 15-minute interview with Geoff Riley on Jefferson Public Radio's morning show, the Jefferson Exchange. Webcast can be heard here.
I did an email Q&A with Gilion Dumas of the Rose City Reader book site. In the exchange, I talk about some of my motivations for writing Boundary Layer and I detail some of the major influences on my writing. You can read the exchange here.
Interesting how many PNW writers have been discussing the New Wilderness Debate in their books. I covered it in Boundary Layer in the "Trouble With Wilderness" chapter and have been dealing with it in more depth in some of the talks I have been giving on the book. The writers touching on this debate include Emma Marris, J.B. MacKinnon, and now, Robert Moor. Moor deals with the wilderness issue at the end of his new book, On Trails.
On Trails is a great read. In the book, Moor deals with trails as precursors to and results of both physical and mental travel. Highly recommended.
A new study by the Netherlands Institute for Ecology shows how creating (or restoring) and ecosystem is more than just putting all the components together. It takes time for them to develop the relationships that bind the ecosystem components together.
Boundary Layer highlights the lives and work of a number of Pacific Northwest naturalists. In the time between writing and reading that is an inevitable part of the book publishing industry, these people have moved on with their lives. Interested in what has happened to these book characters in recent years? I asked the people featured in the book if they could supply an update to what has happened to them since they provided the initial interviews. Here is what they had to say.
Andrea Pickart, when I interviewed her in 2011, had been focusing on issues relating to shoreline restoration. Over the last few years, her work at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge has shifted a bit. She now does more work on climate change and sea level rise. In a recently completed study, Cascadia Geosciences identified the coastline near Lanphere Dunes as having one of the highest rates of sea level rise in California, due largely to local interseismic subsidence. In the Crescent City area up the coast from Lanphere Dunes, in contrast, sea levels are barely rising because of local uplifting. The Refuge has started up research to track sediment transport and accumulation from the nearshore up, over, and behind the foredune. They are also testing some adaptation measures that use vegetation type to increase resiliency. To complicate issues, the significant 2016 El Nino brought some very high tide/storm swells and dramatic erosion. The Refuge will be tracking the recovery of the beach and dunes over the next few years.
Hans Roemer, though formally retired at the time I interviewed him, was working almost full-time on a series of contracts to do plant inventories and assessments. He writes in March of 2016: "It is the first time this year that I have no promise or assurance for contract work, at least at the modest scale it may have been in recent years. I am 78 and not particularly looking for paid work either. Much of what has occupied me otherwise was increasingly done as volunteer anyway." Hans, who has an unparalleled knowledge of the vascular flora -- "mountains and alpine flora," he says, is still his "first and oldest love"--has found his interest turning toward the stegnon that is the subject of Boundary Layer. He finds, he writes, that he "can now afford to pay more attention now to other groups, including lichens, bryophytes and fungi. The more you learn, the more fascinating it gets. I’ve even dabbled in insects, in particular bees and butterflies. Some of these fields of natural history would not be there to this extent without my wonderful friends who are experts in one or the other of them."
Carl Sieber still works for Pacific Rim National Park, still walks with visitors and talks with them about the local beach and forest ecosystems. The Wickanninish sand dunes, he says, have altered since since I interviewed him for the book. Carl writes: "Change is the norm for healthy dune ecosystems and a most unexpected change happened after your last visit. Ecosystem restoration efforts had to be co-ordinated with other equally complex efforts. In February, 2012, an unexploded mortar shell was found and the task fell to the Department of National Defence to clean up the site." The shell was exploded at the site two years later. "The search for more explosives on the dunes--an area about the size of twenty soccer pitches--was complicated by ongoing efforts to restore the delicate local environment. Now the military clean-up is done and great swaths of the invasive grasses have also removed. The dunes are open to the public and more open to the wind than they have been in a long time. As i write this, it is a very windy day of March 2016. I know for certain that right now waves of sand are slowly moving and dramatically changing that piece of the park that is not forest, not beach, but a strange and wonderful child of both."
Danielle Bellefleur is no longer with Parks Canada. When she found out, soon after I interviewed her, that the dune project would be put on hold and the funding cut by over 80% due to conflicting government priorities, she took an ssignment as the Monitoring Ecologist at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. She was only in the new assignment for a week before that position was cut, though she was able to spend the rest of the summer in the position before it was finally terminated. She decided to leave Parks Canada at that point. Danielle writes: "It was a hard, difficult decision, but I recognized that the current government (Stephen Harper was in power) and CEO of Parks Canada did not have the same “ecology first" vision of our National Parks system (and thus, were not really following the National Parks Act). I chose to take care of my 3-year old child, help my husband with his company, and start a permaculture-designed Certified Organic Orchard called Fruit Forest in Cobble Hill. I miss the incredible team Parks Canada has, but I really enjoy grafting fruit trees and watching our orchard take shape. In two years we have grafted and planted over 300 fruit trees, raised over 400 chickens, received Certified Organic status, and built a passive solar house. Instead of modelling dune communities, I model orchard communities. I am still fascinated by the natural world, but spend much of my time trying to understand how our farm ecosystem works, and trying to improve it."
Darren and Claudia Copley continue their work with BC environmental issues. Claudia is still Senior Collections Manager in Entomology at the Royal BC Museum. She has handed over the editorship of the Victoria Natural History Society magazine. Darren has become an expert in spider identification and he and Claudia have been working hard to document the diversity of British Columbia spiders. Finding spiders, says Claudia involves "a lot of stegnon manipulation: rock flipping, log rolling, stump inspecting." They use Berlese extractors to sift spiders from soils, leaf litter, and mosses. The effort "takes us into our own backyard and to places only accessible by helicopter (literally). It has been wonderful to so thoroughly explore the province we have both lived in all our lives. But, whenever I look at a map, I realize how little of it we have actually met."
Andy MacKinnon. My 2012 interviews with Andy for Boundary Layer caught him in the middle of a number of life changes. For the next three years following the interviews, he continued with his efforts to map and classify ecosystems and to do research in forest ecology, working intensely on his Haida Gwaii project. To wrap up this 30-year long project, Andy published a field guide to the Haida Gwaii ecosystems (2014). In the meantime, Simon Fraser University gave him an honorary doctorate and he published, along with his writing buddy Jim Pojar, the field guide Alpine Plants of the Northwest. In 2014 Andy became a member of the vascular plants section of COSEWIC and was elected Councillor of the District of Metchosin. He retired from his long career in the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources in 2015. By the time he left the Ministry, the Research Branch, which had provided leadership for the ecologists that were assigned to the eight regions of the Ministry, had been disbanded. Currently the Ministry has seven ecologists left—two in Smithers, one in Prince George, one in Nelson, one in Kamloops, and two in Nanaimo. Andy’s position disappeared when he retired.
Trevor Goward writes: “My academic pursuits got knocked out of orbit a few years ago when Canadian Forest Products announced its plans to log my home valley near Wells Gray Park. Quite reluctantly, I found myself forced back into public life as a grassroots defender of wilderness values, endangered species, and citizens’ rights. Strictly speaking, none of this should have been necessary: first because my community long ago entered into local land use agreement with the B.C. government which forbids industrial scale logging here; and second because Don Kayne, Canfor’s CEO has publicly stated that his company will not “support actions that impact parks, riparian areas or areas that provide critical habitat for species at risk” – though this is precisely what Canfor is poised to do to Wells Gray’s fast-dwindling Mountain Caribou herds. The upshot is that I’m once again living the life of the environmentalist despite my best intentions. With the help of some very talented friends, I’ve lately mounted a save-the-caribou campaign (http://www.wellsgrayworldheritage.ca/), organized several different public focus events (http://www.speaktothewild.org/), created two popular treasure hunts (http://www.waysofenlichenment.net/wells/hunt/), and written a guidebook for kids (Treasure Wells Gray). Just now I’m editing a major book intended to help the next generation come to terms with the mess we’ve left behind.” Trevor lists his goals for the next year as finishing a couple of his book projects, helping young people learn to be naturalists, thinking more about lichens, and settling in again (he hopes) to the life of the hermit.
Oluna and Adolf Ceska continue their research on local mushrooms. Oluna’s Observatory Hill project on Vancouver Island, now in its twelfth year, has documented almost 1,360 different species of Observatory Hill mushrooms from a relatively small area of about 75 hectares (180 acres). The Ceskas make about 35 to 45 collecting visits to the Hill every year. In terms of its length and intensity, this project is unique among the present-day North American mycological surveys. Oluna and Adolf’s research trips also take them to mainland BC, other parts of Canada, and the Pacific Northwest regions of the United States. So far, more than 10,000 specimens from their collecting activities have been donated to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia. These donations currently represent more than a quarter of the museum’s 26,000 specimens. The documentation accompanying the specimens, as well as related drawings and photographs, are also posted on the Mushroom Observer site. Based on these collections, the UBC herbarium received a grant to support two graduate students to do DNA sequencing of taxonomically difficult genera Cortinarius, Inocybe and Russula. The DNA data from this work have helped unravel problems in these genera and have led to the description of several new species in the genus Cortinarius. Oluna is a coauthor of several of the papers based on these sequenced specimens and also a co-author of several newly described species. In recent years, the Ceska's contribution to mycology has been recognized in several ways. World experts in the genus Cortinarius named one of the new species collected by Oluna and Adolf Cortinarius ceskae. In 2013, Oluna and Adolf were invited by the Canadian Botanical Association to present the prestigious Luella Weresub Memorial Lecture. Several months before her untimely death from ovarian cancer, Jean Johnson and her husband Steve, aided by additional contributions from the South Vancouver Island Mycological Society and several other anonymous donors, established an annual UBC award named “Oluna and Adolf Ceska Award in Mycology.” This award encourages undergraduate/graduate students to study the mushrooms of British Columbia.
Terry McIntosh continues with many of the same activities that occupied him when I interviewed him. His consulting and teaching work has expanded. He writes: "My 'informal' teaching, that is workshops in various locations and at my home, became more formalized in 2012 when I started teaching a two week field botany course at UBCO in Kelowna. This year marks the fifth year for the course, and the first year that I will be teaching in July vs. late April/early May. It is focused on vascular plants of the Okanagan area, although I do show students a few of the common mosses that make up the biological crust." Terry's consulting work, he says, "deals with making vascular plant lists for clients as well as searching for rare or at risk species. I still do moss identification projects and rare moss inventories, but I am getting back to my early vascular plant roots, so to speak! But the bryophytes are not being ignored as I am also grinding away at learning the liverworts (a long way to go)." He is currently raising funds to launch a project to produce a much-needed book on the mosses of British Columbia.
Reviews of Boundary Layer, as they happen.
"[Boundary Layer] takes the reader on field walks with fascinating field scientists from restored sand dune ecosystems, to salmon
streams, to the lichen draped forests of British Columbia. Every encounter offers an insightful glimpse into the thoughts and lives
of the naturalist/guide, their charismatic landscape, and ultimately how that person’s work fits into a large map of important ideas
about humans and nature. Luther seems to effortlessly telescope, in and out, among vastly different scales—from the moving grains of
sand in a dune to the broad scope of the history of science."
"Boundary Layer is at its most engaging when Luther is introducing the reader to other naturalists. He has a great ear for conversation
and for providing the salient detail that makes a character vivid. He is clearly a fine storyteller. There is plenty of great natural
history and biology, woven into the larger almost philosophical framework. The chapter on lichen biology is really outstanding in its
depth and how it guides the reader through a paradigm shift in progress. This chapter feels like a perfect crescendo of the ideas that
he puts forth in the preceding chapters."
"As a plant ecologist myself, I was particularly struck by the deep and thoughtful interpretation of the evolution of the concepts of the organizing principles of ecological communities. The author provides a provocative analysis of why we think what we think…from Aristotle to the present debate over the meaning of wilderness—and why it matters to the contemporary conservation movement."
"Kem Luther's "Boundary Layer" is nothing less than a gorgeous journey through the forest ecosystem layer of ferns, mosses, lichens and fungi. But it is even more than that. Luther explores the work of scientists working in the Pacific Northwest, whose work and lives are helping to enrich and navigate our understanding of the natural world. And his journey back through time, using the work of Von Humboldt and Leopold, amongst others, gives a vertiginous and spellbinding sense of history to our relation to West Coast ecosystems. From Trevor Goward's work on Lichens, in Northern BC, to Adolf and Oluna Ceska's work discovering new species of mushroom in the Saanich Peninsula, Vancouver Island, Luther weaves together an opus of beauty. His is a book a long time coming: readable, exciting, attentive and endlessly knowledgable. It will be as useful to scientists in the field as it will be to those who wish only to learn more about this rich and diverse region."
Boundary Layer can be ordered directly from Oregon State University Press. Canadians can order it through OSU Press's arrangement with the University of British Columbia Press. The book is also available at the usual online bookstores: Amazon.ca and Chapters/Indigo in Canada, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble in the US.
In the local Victoria area, check the shelves at Munro's Bookstore, 1108 Government Street, has copies on order. It should be in the environment section at the far right rear of the store when it comes in. The University of Victoria bookstore has copies in stock.
Kem Luther, a naturalist and writer, moved from a home on Ontario’s Grand River to the southern tip of Vancouver Island in 2004. He grew up in the Nebraska Sandhills; studied at Loyola (Chicago), Cornell, the University of Chicago, York University and the University of Toronto; and taught at Eastern Mennonite University, Sheridan College, York University, and the University of Toronto. More information on Kem and his books at his website, kemluther.com.
He can be reached by email at kem.luther AT gmail.com.
Kem currently has five prepared slide talks, each about 50 minutes in length, that are drawn from sections of the book. Please contact him if your group is interested in one of these talks. They are:
(1) Boss Mosses of the Pacific Northwest. Contrary to what many botanists believe, it is easy to recognize the most common mosses without a microscope and, in most cases, without even a hand lens. Learn tricks for recognizing mosses, discover the unusual habits of these ancient members of the plant kingdom, and explore what they contribute to Pacific Northwest ecosystems.
(2) Second Spring: Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest. One benefit of living in the Pacific Northwest is that we enjoy two springs in one year. In March and April we are treated to a magnificent show of local wildflowers. In October, our soils thrust up an equally colourful bloom of matchless, munchable mushrooms. This talk explores the science and scenery of the wild mycorrhizal mushrooms that live in symbiosis with local plants.
(3) Lichens, Chimeras, and Superorganisms: Life On the Borderlands between Species and Ecosystems. In certain organisms, two lines of biological thinking—the species tradition and the ecosystem tradition—come together and form a unique borderland. The senior members of the boundary layer between species and ecosystems are the lichens. In recent decades we have begun to recognize that many other types of organisms—including humans— live as chimera and conglomerates. These novel superorganisms challenge our standard ideas of species and evolution.
(4) The Trouble with Wilderness: Romantic Wildness in a Post-Colonial World. Current ideas about wilderness lands and wilderness preservation are heavily influenced by nineteenth century romantic notions of nature. Recent discussions of wilderness issues have identified these older ideas of wilderness as a problem to be overcome. The resulting “new wilderness debate” has been vigorous and confrontational. What ideas of wilderness will guide land conservation in the twenty-first century?
(5) The Two Century, Two Tradition Quest for Living Ecosystems. Alexander von Humboldt pioneered an ecosystem understanding of the natural world. Over the last two centuries, the ecosystem approach of von Humboldt, a product of idealism and the Romantic movement, has carried on a running argument with an understanding of species that is grounded in Enlightenment positivism. The differences between idealism and positivism are reflected in modern North American and European approaches to environmental science.
Kem annually attends the Whistler Fungus Among Us festival to lead mushroom walks. At the 2012 festival, Whistler's Pique Magazine put together a short web video of one of his walks. One of the Boundary Layer talks, the one on mycorrhizal mushrooms that he did for Vancouver's Beaty Museum, is on YouTube.