Although our final class for outdoor school was not outdoors, we were still able to tie together all our experiences from the past semester into one last event: the viewing of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man.
Herzog uses the lens of a camera to take an insightful look at the life and work of Timothy Treadwell, an advocate for Grizzly Bears. Treadwell spent thirteen summers in a remote part of Alaska filming bears and other wildlife. In the off-season, Treadwell spent his time showing his footage to audiences in order to increase awareness of the bears and their needs. Tragically, however, Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked and killed by a bear in 2003.
Since his death, Treadwell’s story has sparked controversy in the world of nature conservation. Although Treadwell loved the bears he filmed, some have suggested that he acted disrespectfully by treating animals like human beings. Others have called Treadwell downright crazy for living in the midst of wild animals without any form of protection. Grizzly Man isn’t just a biography. It’s also a commentary on the role of humans in the world of nature.
This is the same concept that was discussed by Alexander Wilson in his book The Culture of Nature. Wilson identifies the anthropomorphic perspectives that the media often attaches to the wilderness and comments on the ways that nature is often constructed by our society. Werner Herzog’s film was similar in that it contained commentary on the role of humans in nature. Treadwell loved nature so much that he wanted to become like the bears that he filmed. Others that Herzog interviewed firmly believed that there are aspects of nature that humans should not interfere with.
Herzog carefully considers how Treadwell saw nature. Additionally, his film also looks at how others regard Treadwell. This documentary is a complicated piece of art containing so many layers of perspective, and as the film progresses it slowly becomes apparent that it’s not just a story about a man who loved bears. This film is about what nature means to us. It’s about how we see nature, how we treat nature, and how we respond to nature.
In many ways, all of our coursework has had something to say on this subject in one way or another. On our very first day when we visited the Organic Farm, we heard Martha’s perspective on what the role of humans in nature should be. As the semester continued on, we learned many more perspectives of nature. Holly Schmidt taught us to respect nature by noticing and appreciating the overlooked parts of nature. When we collected insects with Rachel, we learned to show respect by expanding our knowledge on nature. All of our other adventures over the semester could be connected in a similar way. Ultimately, one of our class’s overarching lessons has looked at how we, as learners and as humans, should properly appreciate and study nature.
In the reading from Planting Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote about the importance of giving back to nature instead of taking without further consideration. Jan Sherman repeated this lesson when she described to us the values of her traditions. The importance of giving back was emphasized when we were instructed to give a little bit of the water and the food back to the earth before taking any for ourselves. In many ways, Treadwell’s story is also a story about giving back to nature. The controversy over his treatment of nature begins when we consider what that act of giving looks like. To Treadwell, it was a direct relationship with the animals that was intimate enough for him to give them names and look closely at their lives.
I think that there is probably a delicate balance. The greatest lesson I learned from our adventures is that humans are not spectators outside of the natural world. Watching Grizzly Man and learning the story of Timothy Treadwell only affirmed this fact. Nature and the wild is something that is around us and that we are a part of. But there can also be value in keeping our humanistic values away from the wild animals. Perhaps we should not always touch them or give them names.
Even if we don’t agree with the way Treadwell treats wild animals, however, it is still possible to appreciate his zeal and utter love for them. That is one perspective that we could all learn to appreciate more thoroughly.
“While we watch the animals in their joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness, a thought becomes more and more clear. That it is not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature. And that, for me, beyond his mission, gives meaning to [Timothy’s] life and to his death.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway from Timothy Treadwell’s story is that nature is able to reflect what we see in ourselves. What Treadwell saw was different from what Herzog saw. What we see is probably different from both of their perceptions. That doesn’t make any of us wrong. But we are always able to learn more. As we all continue in our studies, we will continue to learn more ways to respect and appreciate nature.
On Tuesday, November 27, our outdoor school class travelled to the arboretum’s nature centre for a class that was destined to be exciting – bird banding. We met with Chris Earley, a master bird bander who told us a bit about the ups and downs of bird banding and how it is normally conducted. Chris and Rachel rigged up a couple of ground traps and the waiting game began. We went back inside the nature centre and discussed bird banding for a few minutes. When we came back out, we had already caught a few chickadees!
In the H is for Hawk video we listened to Helen talk about how she used to take her hawk out to an open field and let it fly around. I looked at the chickadees, which kept biting Chris while he held them and flew away out of our hands as soon as we opened them, and I was completely stunned. That woman trained a hawk by herself and used it as sort of an outlet for the struggles she was going through. These fierce little chickadees made me realize what an incredible feat it is to train a wild bird which is absolutely massive and has the power to harm you. It also makes me realize how much work the volunteers at Wild Ontario must also put into training their falcons.
Chris showed us how to band the birds, and taught us some tips that he uses to identify certain aspects of each bird. When you band a bird, it must be over a year old. This is because there are few birds born in the arboretum who stay there for their entire life. This means that if every single young bird caught was banded, there would be many that would never be seen again which would waste a lot of bands. There are also four bands put on a bird which are read in a certain order to identify the bird, such as blue over orange, silver over yellow. The arboretum has nine different colours which means that there are over three thousand combinations available for a bird’s bands. The arboretum has banded about five hundred birds at a rate of about one hundred per year, so they are not likely to run out of combinations anytime soon.
For each bird, he would record the type, the numbers and colours on the band (if it wasn’t banded and was over a year old, he would band it and record the colours) where and when it was caught, the weight and the age. All the information collected is entered into a database where bird banders all across north America can view and track these birds. This reminds me of the first reading we did, where nature as a selling point was discussed. At the arboretum, nature is used to educate others in hopes to preserve and help the environment. For example, Rachel’s nature walks are of no charge, and the only point of them is to enjoy nature and educate people, instead of selling or profiting off of it.
In total we were able to capture and record around ten birds, nearly all of which were chickadees with the exception of one mourning dove. Before we left Chris showed us his magnificent bird impressions which were so realistic and absolutely amazing to hear! This was one of my favourite classes and sadly it was one of our last. I will never forget the unforgettable experiences I have had during Outdoor School this semester.
On Tuesday, November 27th we ventured into the arboretum for our final outdoor experience as a class. This week we had the honor of joining Chris and Rachel in bird banding at the Nature Centre. Excited to see what the day would bring, I have to say I was very impressed with how much we learned.
When we arrived Chris sat us down in a room and he explained to us what Bird Banding is and why people do it. It’s a safe way of catching birds, marking them for research and tracking purposes and then releasing them again. There are tonnes of information that can be gathered from bird banding such as, growth patterns, migration, where they breed vs. where they go for the winter etc. At the arboretum, Chris mainly bands chickadees but he says on some nicer days he has caught all sorts of other birds.
How to Catch The Birds
At the arboretum, Chris showed us three ways they catch their birds. When it is not cold and dark and windy outside, mist nets are used. They are known for looking sort of like badminton nets but rather than being really tight they are loose and bag like, in order to actually gently catch the birds. The reason why they cannot be used at this time of year is that in a mist net, birds that are caught typically end up on their back and cannot move and they may have difficulty withstanding the cold like that.
In our class, we used potter and ground traps. The potter traps are the little cages on the top of the bird feeder and the ground traps are the much larger cages on the ground. Chris poured birdseed all over the ground and the feeder to attract the birds to come and get caught in our traps. Potter traps are designed so that when a bird flies in it lands on the wire bait floor that triggers the closing of the door behind them, once one gets in nothing else can. Ground traps, on the other hand, are just too smart for the birds. They have an entrance that is always open but it is designed a way that once a bird flies in it cannot figure out how to get back out.
Once the birds were trapped in the cages it was time to take them out and bring them in for banding. Chris would put his hand into the cages and safely remove the chickadees and then put them into a bag. He explained that it is important to know whether a bird needs to be alone in a bag or not because some birds can be extremely aggressive when in a closed space together, whereas other types can have up to 6 in a bag at once and not care. For the chickadees, each bird needed its own bag, and they were also never reused, just in case one of the birds was carrying some sort of disease.
How to Band the Birds
The arboretum has been banding birds for years now and each time something is caught it gets recorded on the data sheets. Our trip was no different, with the classes help, Chris banded each bird that we caught. Some birds were already banded so all we needed to do was update their information. Other birds had no bands and needed to be banded for the first time. At the Arboretum, there is a color banding system for the chickadees that was approved as a research project, therefore each bird is known by its band colours. We recorded their weight, age, wing length, sex and the time we caught them at.
It was cool to watch Chris interact with the chickadees which he claimed were his favorite bird. After doing so much work with then he seemed to have built a connection with them. While we were banding he would even speak to them in a pet-like way. This reminded me of the video we watched in class about Helen Macdonald and the connection she had with her hawk. Of course what we saw and experienced was nowhere near as extreme as Helen’s story, but being in the presence of these birds, closer than ever before, I could feel my connection with birds growing. All of a sudden these little birds that I used to think nothing of, had much more value and, was very fascinating. Chris even showed us how he is able to “talk to birds”. His bird calls are so good and so clear he won a talent show competition and genuinely claims to confuse birds with his calls.
We also learned the proper way to hold a bird without hurting it. There are two ways, the first is called banders hold “peace sign” (pictured below) and the second is photographers, which is an upright position Rachel showed where you hold the bird’s feet.
Releasing the Birds
Once we were finished, the birds were ready to be released again free of harm. We got to take turns releasing the birds. We placed the Chickadee on our other palm and slowing released it to let it fly away.
Slow Motion Chickadee Release:
Thank you Chris and Rachel for such as awesome time!!! And thank you Diane for an awesome course we will miss you!!! 🙂
By: Kasia Kowanda
On Tuesday, November 20th Outdoor School yet again gave everyone a memorable and educational experience to look back on. This week’s activity had us go to the Rutherford Conservatory and Gardens for a presentation and talk with Wild Ontario, an education program focusing on birds of prey based right here at the University of Guelph.
Officially launched as Wild Ontario in 2010, the program does many things. They run live animal shows to educate the public, offer volunteering opportunities to students and care for birds that are unable to properly do so by themselves in the wild.
For our class we were met in the conservatory by Wild Ontario’s Education Coordinator, Kyle Horner, and three volunteers. Along with them were four very different species of birds of prey which we very lucky to meet.
First introduced to us was an adorable American Kestrel named Artemis. Rather tiny and cute, her appearance is deceiving as it is actually possible for this species to prey on animals as large as themselves. Artemis came to live at Wild Ontario for being what the volunteers called “too cute for her own good”. This means that she was likely stolen from her nest to be kept as a pet, and as a result she does not fear humans or possess any of the skills needed to survive on her own.
The next raptor we met was Whistler, an elderly Broad-wing Hawk. At 20 years of age she is already at what is the common lifespan for her species, however she is still in good health. Whistler’s situation is similar to Artemis in that she is a human imprint, meaning raised by humans and thus unfit for living in nature. When discovered she was even found to be fond of humans and would jump right up on the falconer’s glove.
The third bird brought in was a Barred Owl by the name of Mowat. This species is actually one of two in Ontario with dark eyes making him absolutely stunning to look at. As well, we learned that owls are actually incredibly dumb contrary to the popular belief that they’re wise creatures. Their eyes are so large that they take up most of the space in the skull, not leaving much room for the brain. Mowat now calls Wild Ontario home due to being hit by a vehicle. No longer able to fly without difficulty, it would have been unsafe to release him.
The final raptor introduced was Ellesmere, a Gyrfalcon. They’re typically known to live in the Artic but will sometimes fly south in search of food. This is what Ellesmere did before her accident. Similar to Mowat’s story, Ellesmere was hunting near the roadside for small mammals that are attracted there by litter when she was struck by a vehicle. Now barely able to fly, the volunteers at Wild Ontario take care of her.
Everyone at Wild Ontario does important and necessary work educating the public about things such as biology, ecology and nature in general. Even the birds have a special role showing what can happen if nature is not respected. They teach us that wildlife is precious and that humans should do a better job at not interfering with the ecosystem by doing even the little things like not littering.
If interested in Wild Ontario and want to learn more visit their website at http://www.wildontario.ca
On Tuesday, November 20th our outdoor school professor Diane brought us on another unforgettable experience. I came to class prepared to endure another chilly class in the elements. Myself and likely the rest of the class were pleased to hear that our class would take place in a warm and cozy greenhouse after just a quick walk from the classroom. Wild Ontario was generous enough to bring some of their raptors for us to get an up close and personal look at them. We learned that raptors, formally known as birds of prey are called such because even though they hunt for their food they are unique animals because they use their feet to catch their prey. We saw a variety of different birds all native to Canada including the smallest Falcon in the world the American kestral right beside the largest falcon called the Gyrfalcon. It was really cool to see the comparisons if the two birds up close. We also saw a red-tailed hawk who we were told was quite old for its species yet, still seemed very spry and healthy. A Bard owl became a fan favorite for many students including myself. The Wild Ontario volunteers passed around feet and wings from some raptors, this was really cool to be able to touch and see some of the physical difference between the birds. The wing of an owl, for example, was much more fluffy than others and this allowed the owl to be silent during flight. Wild Ontario is made up of volunteers who are mostly University of Guelph students. The volunteers care for raptors that are brought to them injured or who have tried to been domesticated in the past an otherwise would not be able to care for themselves in the wild. They also raise awareness about the birds because as beautiful as the birds are they are not meant to be pets and should be enjoyed from a distance. We also learned that unfortunately a lot of raptors are injured on the side of roads because of food that is thrown out by passengers in cars. Overall, this experience made me aware that these majestic animals are living in our own backyard and we need to be aware of their presence. Hopefully, now I will be able to recognize them in the wild as they are truly an amazing animal to see in person. There have been so many enjoyable classes during this course however, I must admit this was my favorite and I cannot wait to see what our last couple of classes have to offer.
Every Tuesday at 14.30 I am excited to see what our outdoor school professor Diane has in store for us, we’ve been to the Arboretum countless times, the bee apiary, we’ve gone mushroom foraging and every one of those activities is a new learning experience. However, nothing quite compared to what was waiting for us at the circle mound at the art gallery of Guelph, we would be meeting an aboriginal elder.
We all entered the circle in a clockwise direction, connecting us to the earth that turns in that fashion as well, the circle formation is so that everyone is equal, no one is higher up than another and everyone can see and hear the same things. The ceremony began with all the students passing around an eagle feather, holding it in their left hand and introducing themselves. An eagle feather was chosen because the eagle is thought to be a reminder of a person’s connection to the creator, being that the bird can soar the highest in the sky it serves as a messenger for prayers to and from the Creator. Jan explained that each gender had their own job in the ceremony, men are fire keepers, they are the ones to light the fire, so just like that one of the men in our class lit the fire and walked around the circle with an eagle feather in his hand, stopping in front of each student so that they could “wash” themselves with the smoke, freeing them from all their worries, even if it was for just a while. Moving on we were told that women were the caretakers and protectors of water, that being because life starts from the water of a woman, a female student walked around the circle with a bowl of water in her hand everyone had to take a bit of water first and give it back to the earth, then dip their hand in the bowl again and put it on their heart, all while Jan sang a song about the importance of water. Finally, Jan herself passed around strawberries, instructing us to cut off a small piece and give it back to the earth and then enjoy the rest. She explained how strawberries, also known as “heart berries” due to their shape and color are incredibly symbolic, they have their seeds on the outside, symbolizing openness and honesty, also they have a very complex root system symbolizing the complex relationship between humans and the rest of the world. Following that we were instructed to feed our bodies, everyone was asked to bring some food to contribute to the ceremony and then I was asked to put a little bit of each food on a platter to give it back to the earth with a prayer of thanks.
To end the ceremony we all took a drum and Jan sang “Boy we’re glad you’re here, I want to get to know you, I want to be your friend and friend for us means family.” While we banged along on our drums.
To end the incredible day Jan told us a story about herself. She explained how normally when women go foraging and find poisonous snakes they sing to them to let them know that they are coming and that they mean no harm. One day when Jan was taking a walk in the arboretum she came across a snake and decided to sing to it. The snake turned around and lifted its body to look at her, not long after 6 more snakes appeared, some from holes, others from bushes and they all just watched her as she sang. Once the song was over they disappeared, and everyone went on with their own business.
I learned a lot from this class, my knowledge of aboriginals was limited to what I knew from Pocahontas. Jan made everything so easy to follow and interesting, my point of view of humans and their role on this earth completely shifted after I heard of the respect they give earth and its other creatures. After talking to my classmates, I came to realize we all had an amazing experience and it was the best class so far.
I have always liked photographing mushrooms, but have never taken the time to understand or truly appreciate anything about them until Tuesday October 16th, when our class took a trip into the part of the arboretum reserved only for university studies. Our class has, for the most pat, become close and I liked the community feeling when we all attempted to meet up and walk through the arboretum to the meeting spot together. This elective has given us a chance to try many new experiences and interact with people we otherwise would not have met.
Upon arrival, we were introduced to Chris Earley, and along with a few other returning guests, we listened as Diane explained that days activity, a mushroom foray. No one in our class had really done a mushroom foray of this kind before and so it was new to all of us. For our mushroom foray, we split off in small groups to hunt the forest floor for mushrooms, fungus, and any other related creatures. There were plenty of species that varied significantly in size, shape, habitat, colour, even smell! We learned to go slowly and be very observant as we scoured the ground and trees for mushrooms.
Afterwards, we all gathered back together to discuss and learn about our findings. Most of us knew that mushrooms were not plants but knew little about how mycelium networks worked. Diane taught us that mushrooms are comparable to flowers on a plant, and that they are connected underground where they absorb nutrients, like a web. We were able to observe different distinctive features, such as fibrous rings on the stem, and learned new terms for the anatomy of mushrooms.
Coming from Mississauga and having never actively looked for mushrooms, I was very surprised by the size of some of the samples other groups found. I knew bigger mushrooms existed than the ones common to grocery stores but because they seem to be exotic and rare, I did not expect species like the giant puffball to be right on campus just a 10 minute walk away. The diversity of species found by our class in a relatively short time astounded me.
One question that intrigued me during class was when one of the students asked if mushrooms could be invasive. After further research, it turns out there are invasive species in Canada. The death cap mushroom has become a problem in British Columbia, linked here (https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hra/invasive-species/Publications/Factsheet%20Death%20Cap%20Mushroom%20Aug%202017.pdf). The mushroom foray allowed us all to get a taste (without actually eating any because some are poisonous) of what a mushroom foray is like and why it is a worthwhile activity. I am so glad that Diane got to share one of her passions with the class and we all got to gain exposure to something we might otherwise have overlooked.
Don Russell: Circle Mound
Public Reception & Sculpture Unveiling:
Thursday, September 15 at 7 pm | Free
Don Russell (Qalipu Mi’kmaq/Acadian French)
Circle Mound, 2016
Earth, plant materials, and reclaimed locally-quarried limestone
Commissioned with funds raised by the AGG Volunteer Association with support from
the Canada Council for the Arts Acquisition Assistance Program, 2016
Art Gallery of Guelph Collection
The Art Gallery of Guelph (AGG) has commissioned an outdoor sculpture, Circle Mound, by Aboriginal artist Don Russell. Circle Mound is the 39th permanent installation in the Donald Forster Sculpture Park.
Circle Mound is a gathering site or meeting place that encourages visitors to enter and interact with its various elements: earth, stone, plant matter, and open air. The sculpture reflects a First Nations’ worldview focused on the importance of the circle in concepts of time and spirituality. It is also a step toward meaningful reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the community of Guelph, an acknowledgement of the history and presence of Indigenous peoples on this land: above all else, Circle Mound represents unity, cooperation, and gathering. The mounds that extend from the circle, which reference the two rivers that flow through Guelph, are intended to encourage discovery and play; while the circle itself offers serenity and contemplation. The sculpture also uses reclaimed limestone from Guelph’s historic Petrie Building (1882): an act of repurposing and returning the stones to the lands from which they came.
United by… Mushrooms?
The fascinating world where science, culture and art collide
– Photos and article by Aidan Brushett
Perhaps no class adventure has better embodied the interconnectedness and diversity of all things than this week’s simple theme: mushrooms.
This week’s teachings featured a mushroom foray led by our very own Diane Borsato, with special reappearances by Arboretum interpretive biologist Chris Earley and naturalist intern Rachel Irwin. Equipped with wicker baskets, pocket knives, and identification keys, the class had the unique opportunity to enter the Arboretum’s nature reserve, designed for research and conservation purposes and inaccessible to the public.
There were several instructions. First, do not eat any of the mushrooms, many of which are lethal. Second, collect small and fascinating samples of any fungi that we might discover. Third, keep an eye – and nose – out for the Skirted Stinkhorn, a pungent, phallic species of mushroom. Chris and Rachel are currently authoring a book on the fungi in Guelph; forays such as this one can help gather valuable photos they need of species like the Stinkhorn.
We investigated a variety of habitats: swampy forest, rotted logs and tree trunks, and shady undergrowth. Hidden up high and down low, some of these fungi were brightly coloured, others dull; some were massive, others tiny; some had distinct smells, others did not. The experience demanded attention to all of our senses (except for taste), proving to be a valuable exercise in mindfulness. Those elements of nature which are often overshadowed – the dirty, the ‘gross’, the rotting, the undesirable – were brought to our focus and appreciation through a slower pace of life, seldom found in the day-to-day.
After exiting the nature reserve, our curious collection was sorted and identified. With guidance from Chris, Rachel, and Diane, the mushrooms were divided into two piles: gilled – having soft ‘ribs’ under the mushroom cap – and non-gilled. Identifying mushrooms proved to be a much greater challenge than foraging, as it required acute focus on minuscule variations in spore colour, striation, and texture. Notable fungi included the Deadly Galerina, a poisonous orange-brown mushroom, self-explanatory ‘Red Raspberry Slime’, the deliciously edible Giant Puffball, but alas – none of the elusive Skirted Stinkhorn. Within minutes, it was clear that countless diverse species lay in our pile.
Yet, equally fascinating is the diversity of scientific, cultural and artistic perspectives that mushrooms represent. As described by Prof. Borsato in her article Mushroom Forays,
“Mushrooms literally embody the connections among organisms and across species, and between life and death. And they are described by so many of our human tools for knowing: biology, environmental science… the arts, superstition, and myth.”
The class learned from Diane that mushrooms’ gills – or polypores in non-gilled fungi – are used to spread spores, which enable them to occupy many forest roles. Some are parasites, which feed off healthy trees and kill them. Other fungi may digest rotting logs, returning beneficial nutrients to the soil. Some exist in the form of a vast, blooming underground network called mycelium, at times stretching for kilometers. A common theme to the CBC Ideas: Natives and Invasives podcast, labeling diverse species like mushrooms as ‘good or bad’ fails to truly encompass their being. Our class was lucky to catch a glimpse of the numerous complex ecological roles fungi play in nature.
Mushrooms are also deeply rooted in folklore. A single network mycelium can cause huge groups of mushrooms to fruit overnight, in formations known as fairy rings. Historically, many European cultures saw these sites as mysterious, enchanting places where faeries came to frolic in the night. The hallucinogenic and psychoactive chemicals in some mushrooms have been used by shamans, healers, and in religious ritual for centuries. All this history, collected into our baskets in no more than an hour!
Even artists are drawn to the idea of mycelium, the true heart of the organism. The very nature of mushrooms reflects urban society, and interconnectedness between individuals, communities and life as a whole. The symbols that mushrooms represent create inspiration for countless art forms.
When the foray reluctantly ended, one thing was very clear: mushrooming has the potential to form true bonds between science, culture, and art take form.