The magpies and the boy

The boy had spent the previous late-evening – when he was supposed to be sleep-dreaming – clandestine-reading Field & Stream. Cloaked in quilt. Instructions for the next-day’s project: two balsa wood rectangles, one inch by two inches by one-half inch; pen-knife-notched one-quarter inch deep by three-quarters inch wide in the middle of each; wrap a fat rubber band around one; place notches together; tighten band just so; blow; an injured rabbit screams. Now in this evening August-still, the boy sits in the front yard on a green-web-woven lawn chair and summons the rabbit. And summons magpies. One lands in the old cottonwood. Rabbit squeal. Magpie skrawk. Two magpies. Three. Four. Arriving like tuxedoed meteors. Until the branches are dappled with dancing noisy expectant iridescence.


You know that moment just before you sleep? A moment you never remember when it ends in sleep, but that you feel deeply when it doesn’t. A moment on the edge, tipping. Which way? The day just passed compresses all into that one instance that seems like all instances since the world began. Since earth dust was mixed with Mars and Jupiter dust, motes breezing in the centrifugal vacuum. Since the blazing heat of coalescence. Since the first sparks of movement in that little warm pool over there. Since swimming things swam, walking things walked, flying things flew. Since this blip of consciousness; as you slip into the unconscious and for that one moment you are simultaneously all moments.

Rezoning of Prince George parks – my letter

This evening the Prince George City Council will be discussing the rezoning of park-designated land for development. The planning philosophy of selling park land to presumably pay for maintenance of other park land seems to be something of a growing and unfortunate trend in our city.

In response, I wrote the following letter to Council.


To whom it may concern,

I am writing to express my concern with the proposed rezoning – and presumably the eventual sale and development – of the park-zoned space near to Ron Brent Elementary School. Beyond that, I am writing to express a general concern about the overall direction that the city seems to be taking toward the rezoning of park land not just at Ron Brent, but also elsewhere.

To put it concisely, our city has more than enough non-park space that is either undeveloped or languishing in seemingly permanent semi-development. Much of it is at least as near to services as is the proposed-to-be-rezoned area, and would thus be appropriate for such development without having to remove space from park inventory.

In my decade-plus living here I have repeatedly seen vast tracts of land cleared for supposed upcoming development. After clearing work, development often happens at a snail’s pace – witness much of the land adjacent to Tyner. Some land is actually cleared and then sits so long that it regrows a small forest and needs to be cleared again. Even then, I have seen cleared-twice land just sit there again for stretches of time – a prime example being whatever is going on next to the Save-On shopping complex in College Heights. Other examples of prepared-and-then-snail’s-pace development can be seen all over town. And this doesn’t even take into account the plethora of empty lots and abandoned or barely-used buildings (and even partially-built buildings, like that next to the library) ranging from the downtown core out to the various communities.

If there is something in this city that we do not lack, it is unused or poorly used land. It would be much more prudent to focus on completing development on sites like those rather than permanently removing valuable park space from residents while leaving bare development scars and shuttered buildings and projects all over our cityscape.

I understand that there is an underlying philosophy at work whereby rezoned park land is sold to developers and the money is then to be used to improve existing park land or to create new park land. How about instead ensuring that developers make proper and timely use of land upon which they propose to work and then using some of the tax revenue obtained from fully-developed land to fund park improvement? How about giving precedence and encouragement to developers who have creative ideas for the use of abandoned or slow-to-develop land and shuttered buildings, thereby also increasing tax revenues?

I am not knowledgeable of the ins and outs of the carrots and sticks used to entice and enforce development decisions, but from trends easily observable around our city it seems that there is a lot of carrot to clear and very little stick to complete.

People buy in neighborhoods in part because of the parks that are zoned there. People use and care about those particular parks in their places. Those parks improve quality of life in myriad ways. Once park land is removed from park inventory, it is never going to return to that state again. When land is designated as a park, the city has an obligation to preserve those lands, not to simply use them as a bank from which land can be withdrawn for future revenue.

If Prince George’s population was exploding at the seams and we were hemmed in by geography or political boundaries, then perhaps a case could be made for judicious use of park land. However we are not affected by any of these issues, and so it is time for the city to work with developers toward a more prudent use of our land base that does not involve the removal of existing parks from the communities that have come to rely on them.

Dezene Huber

Insect curation at the RBCM – my letter

As noted by Dr. Felix Sperling at the ESC blog, there is some discussion about the position of curator of insects at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria. Below is the letter that I have sent to Professor Jack Lohman (CEO) expressing my concern and the importance of ongoing curation and maintenance of the collection for scientific research and public outreach.


Dear Professor Lohman,

I am writing this brief letter to express my support for continuing to fund a full time curator of insects at the Royal British Columbia Museum. It has come to my attention through a variety of sources that there is some discussion of redirecting the RBCM salary budget for the insect curator position (previously held by Dr. Rob Cannings) to other areas. I believe that this would be an error, both in the short term and in the long run.

My students and I often rely on museum collections in our research. Currently I have students and postdoctoral associates working on aquatic and high elevation insect biodiversity and ecosystem function research in the context of proposed infrastructure projects here in BC. Other work in my lab has been focused on the recent dramatic mountain pine beetle infestation; and now that the infestation has run its course in many areas, the ability to record shifts in biodiversity in regenerating forests in the wake of the beetle is becoming more and more vital.

In order to conduct this type of work – vital to the economic and environmental well-being of our province – we require access to well-curated, well-maintained, and broadly representative insect collections. While collections including some representatives of BC insect fauna exist elsewhere, nothing can replace the RBCM collections that were made in this province over the past many years. The data in the RBCM collection are immense and priceless, and to leave them without a dedicated curator would eventually reduce or remove their value entirely.

One might look to California as an example of the value of comprehensive and well-curated regional insect collections. Exemplary collections, such as the Essig Museum of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley, or the collection at the California Academy of Sciences, are prime examples of well-curated collections that have made a huge difference in past and present entomological research in that state. Like California, BC is a biodiversity hotspot. Much of that biodiversity comes in the form of insects and their arthropod kin. If we do not have the tools available to understand past and present biodiversity, we will not be able to react to quite predictable (e.g. development, climate change) or currently unforeseen changes that will affect our health, our food supply, and our environment.

Beyond economic and environmental security aspects, however, is the fact that the public are deeply intrigued by insects. Almost every child who I’ve ever met loves to catch and watch insects. Adults are variably enthralled or wary, but they always want to learn more. Insects are the animals that we encounter most often in our urban environments. They affect our outside activities (ants at a picnic, mosquitoes at the campfire), our health and comfort (West Nile virus, bed bugs), and our food (pollination, helpful and detrimental insects in your vegetable garden). Many are beautiful or exhibit charismatic behaviors. Others are just plain strange and are great fodder for fantastic natural history stories that encourage people to learn more about the world around them.

A dedicated curator of insects is vital for maintenance, documentation, and expansion of the collection and its broad utility. Such a person would be able to develop fantastic displays that attract patrons to your museum. They could develop tools to make the collection more accessible to scientists and the lay public. They would also be a continued invaluable source of information and advice to entomologists and ecologists working on vital basic and applied science in British Columbia. In short, the continuation of this position is vital for science, for outreach, and for our human well-being.

In your vision for the RBCM you state that you intend to “… advance knowledge about BC through our collections, presentations, expertise and partnerships.” Continuing to fund the salary of a curator of insects at the RBCM will go a long way towards meeting this objective. Please strongly consider maintaining this vital position at the RBCM for current and future generations of scientists and citizens.


Sincerely yours,

Dezene Huber
Associate Professor
Canada Research Chair in Forest Entomology & Chemical Ecology
Ecosystem Science and Management Program
University of Northern British Columbia