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Wild About Wildflowers

I had the realization this summer that for someone who spends a lot of time outside, I don’t know a lot about plants. Mammals, yes. Birds, somewhat. Fish and reptiles, a little. But all things green and leafy? Not so much. I can recognize a berry bush when I see one (can you tell where my priorities lie?), but beyond that, I’ve always been sort of… meh about vegetation. If I’m being completely honest, I’ve tended to find plants fairly boring, and have eschewed studying them in favour of the more exciting two- and four-legged organisms that rely on them.

This started to change a little bit when a good chunk of my job became helping one of my supervisor’s grad students with his “veg sampling”, AKA identifying and counting and measuring a bunch of plants in forest plots. While I’m still fairly clueless, terms like DBH and decay class are now part of my vocabulary. I can distinguish between different species of maple, ash, oak, and pine (at least, most of the time), and I know the difference between categories like herbs, bryophytes, and lichens. And as I am with most things, once I’ve learned a little, I want to know a lot more.

In an effort to increase my knowledge of the things that grow where I live and work, I bought a guide to wildflowers off the Internet (the ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario, to be specific). Why wildflowers? Well, they’re pretty, and probably easier to identify for a beginner than shrubs or mosses, but they also have their more tangible uses for someone interested in herbal remedies and dyeing fibres, like I am. Unfortunately this book doesn’t list the edibility or medicinal uses of the flowers as the authors believe that no plant should be taken from the wild, but the guide’s layout and scientific approach appeal to me, and the information it contains can always be supplemented with the Internet.

So far I’ve taken the guide to Algonquin Park and near to London, ON for work, to a cottage on Silver Lake that my parents were renting, to my boyfriend’s family’s cottage, to and just around our neighbourhood here in Peterborough. I’ve finally learned the names of many flowers I’ve known by sight since I was young (cow vetch, Philadelphia fleabane, chicory, horned trefoil, bladder campion, to name just a few), discovered some that I’ve heard of but didn’t know grew in the area (eg. St. John’s wort, bearberry, evening-primrose), and stumbled across a few that aren’t so common (eg. wood-poppy, which is endangered in Ontario). Plants are actually so cool! For example, the Indian-pipe plant, Monotropa uniflora, entirely lacks chlorophyll, and relies on the fungus with which it maintains a mycorrhizal relationship to supply its nutrients. If you’re not a biologist, you may not find that so interesting, but anyway…

Taking the field guide with me on a walk in search of flowers forces me to slow down and observe. It’s like a special kind of scavenger hunt with all kinds of surprises along the way, such as cool insects or ripe raspberries, that I wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t kneeling in the dirt with my face at the level of a blossom or leaf. I love the challenge of a particularly tricky identification, the satisfaction of figuring it out, and the awareness that the plants growing around us have so much to offer, physically to our bodies and aesthetically to our minds, if we’d only learn how to recognize and use them (respectfully and sustainably, of course!).

IMG_4045[1]Wood lily near Petroglyphs Provincial Park.

IMG_4137[1]Knapweed in Dutton, near Port Stanley.

IMG_4154[1]Sweet pea at Lac-Notre-Dame, near Wakefield, QC.

IMG_4158[1]Rough-fruited cinquefoil, at Lac-Notre-Dame, near Wakefield, QC.

The flowers in the featured photo are common yarrow, ox-eye daisy, tall buttercup, bladder campion, heal-all, and grass-leaved goldenrod.

Note: It should go without saying, but I thought I should add a disclaimer that I primarily identify plants in situ without disturbing them and take pictures if I don’t have the book on me or need to Google. If I do pick a plant, I make sure that it isn’t rare or at-risk, I only take the part that I’m going to use (i.e. for tea or dye) so that the plant can regenerate itself, I never pick on private property without permission, and I take care not to decimate an area entirely of the plant.

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To Catch a House Finch

For his PhD research in the Burness Lab at Trent on the physiological underpinnings of migration in birds, my boyfriend Simon (or as I sometimes call him, Finch Man) is spending the summer attempting to catch, band, and sample house finches in Peterborough. On the long weekend I had the opportunity to tag along and play field assistant (under the code name Bird Girl), and also to document some of the process.

House finches are common songbirds in southern Ontario. They are found in urban/developed areas and, as their name suggests, frequently nest in and around houses and are often sighted at backyard bird feeders. Some eastern populations have been shown to be partially migratory, i.e. some individuals will go south for the winter, although it is not yet well-understood what determines which individuals will migrate. Simon’s goal is to investigate how factors including stress hormones, diseases such as conjunctivitis, age, and sex affect the migration status of individual finches.

 

Female (left) and male (right) house finch. Credit to Dave Hawkins Photography.

 

Simon’s plan is to trap the finches at feeders that he sets up in public parks and on Parks Canada land (with permission from the city and from Parks Canada), and at feeders of residents who have contacted him about finches in their yards and wish to help with the study. He will then band the birds, take measurements and samples of blood and toenail clippings, and release them. Currently he’s still checking out parks and testing some equipment while simultaneously beginning to attempt actually trapping.

So last Saturday evening Finch Man and Bird Girl scoped out a few of Peterborough’s roughly 100 parks (don’t blame me for not remembering all the names- there’s a lot of parks!), listening for finch song with binoculars and speaker in hand. We noted one or two breeding pairs of finches at most of the parks, although Simon has told me that from his observations so far, they seem to be less abundant than they are commonly said to be. At one of the parks where we spotted a male, we set up a feeder in the hopes that the finches would find the feeder by the next morning.

 

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Finch Man playing house finch calls to try to attract them.

 

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The bird feeder we set up, complete with squirrel baffle and an informative sign for the curious public.

 

Sunday morning we got up around 5:30 (which is actually kind of late for the dawn chorus- one of the reasons I don’t usually do bird work!) and observed the feeder we set up. No finch activity yet, but maybe they just needed more time to notice it. At another park where Simon had put up a feeder and observed a pair of finches going to it, he showed me how to set up and use a mist net- usually birds are unable to see the net, attempt to fly through it to reach the feeder, and then fall into the net’s pockets. Frustratingly, the birds coming to the feeder were pretty good at avoiding the net, perhaps because of the angle of the sun. We waited a while and then gave up for the time being. For the rest of the morning, and in the evening, we walked through more parks seeking out finches and observing feeders. I’ve seen a fair number of birds species in Peterborough now- and lots of parks and backyards- and I think I hear house finches everywhere!

Monday morning was when it got a little more exciting. This time at the same feeder we had attempted to trap at the day before, we set up two mist nets in a V shape, hoping that if the birds avoided one net they would get caught in the other. And it worked- well, not for house finches, but for one goldfinch and three grackles. While not exactly relevant for the study, it was still a good opportunity to practise extracting and handling birds. Simon showed me how to hold a grackle in bander’s grip, which I almost managed to do correctly (that grackle was wiggly and attempting to bite). Unfortunately, the pair of house finches were still able to see and avoid the net. They were even perching on it while waiting to use the feeder, the cheeky buggers.

Simon is going to continue trying to use mist nets, but is also building some cage traps to test out too, which will hopefully prove to be more successful. Stay tuned for further adventures of Finch Man to find out if he can actually catch a house finch. Until next time, this is Bird Girl signing off!

 

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A goldfinch caught in the mist net.

 

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Simon extracting the goldfinch from the net.

 

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Simon extracting a grackle from the net.

 

 

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Me holding a grackle.

 

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On (and Off) My Needles

Despite not having a lot of time to knit over the past couple of months, I still managed to finish a few projects.

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The thrummed mittens (which turned out more like fuzzy oven mitts) for my friend Madeline. Pattern available here on Ravelry.

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The scarf I had been weaving on my rigid heddle loom for my friend Marina.

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“Leaving Cowl” (pattern available here on Ravelry) in Mirasol Nuna, a really nice bamboo/silk/merino blend. For sale in my Etsy shop here.

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The Positive Thoughts #1 shawl, finally! The bottom edge kept curling even after blocking, so I added a few rows of single crochet as a border. Pattern available here on Ravelry.

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Just a simple seed stitch infinity scarf, no pattern. For sale in my Etsy shop here.

Bonus non-knitting project:

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Embroidered fox with flowers. For sale in my Etsy shop here.

 

I now have two new projects on the go:

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“Bovary” socks, pattern available here on Ravelry. My roommate (oh, former roommate now I suppose :(…) made these this past semester and they turned out beautifully. I’m using the same mystery wool from the thrift store that I made the Positive Thoughts shawl with.

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“Reyna”shawl, pattern available here on Ravelry, with Handmaiden Sea Silk. I’ve made a shawl previously with this yarn and am in love with this colourway.

I’m also hoping to do some more embroidery this month and to work on a granny square blanket that has been in progress for a couple of years. I have a lot of free time right now so we shall see!

The End of an Era

In the last two months, I…

  • fostered and then gave back another cat from the SPCA
  • got accepted to Trent University for a Master’s in the Environmental and Life Sciences program
  • got hired as a student wildlife biologist for the summer with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources
  • pulled my first university all-nighter (some might say this is a milestone?)
  • finished my honours thesis
  • wrote my other exams and thus finished my undergraduate degree
  • moved out of my apartment with my roommates
  • left McGill, and Montreal

 

Those last several weeks were too stressful to really think about the fact that it was all coming to an end, or to properly say goodbye to all the places and people that made me who I’ve become over the past four years. I only teared up when I said goodbye to friends as we parted ways for the last time on campus, to Sarah as she stood outside the van her parents had rented, and again later that day as my dad and I drove down our street with the car piled high with my belongings. What I’ve been telling myself is that I won’t be far from Montreal if I want to visit, and I can likely also go to Toronto to see Sarah and Madeline later in the summer.

Even now that I’ve been home for a little over a week, there still hasn’t been enough time for nostalgia to set in and allow me to write about my memories from McGill. I think that will come soon, but for now I’ve been preoccupied with something that I should have done when I was still in high school: getting my driver’s license. It’s kind of embarrassing, but better late than never, right? I finished the theory classes yesterday, which means I no longer have to sit in a basement with six sixteen-year-olds watching videos from the ’90s about why seatbelts are important. In all honesty it wasn’t that bad, but now I can just focus on the in-car lessons, which have been going well so far. No collisions yet!

In a couple more weeks I’ll be heading to Peterborough to start my summer job. I’m really excited to get back to doing fieldwork, to move in with Simon and have our own place, and to start grad school in the fall. Sometimes I get jealous of my friends who still have another semester at McGill and are travelling this summer, or who have also graduated but don’t have solid plans yet and are just living wild and free for a while, but most of the time I’m glad to have things figured out for the next two years at least.

I think my post-graduation future is looking bright.

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“I’m Not Good Enough to Be Here”: Impostor Syndrome and Me

“I struggle with seeing myself as an impostor a lot of the time – like, who let this girl do science? But you know, I think a lot of us are just faking it until we make it, and that’s okay.”

The first time I heard about impostor syndrome was when a Facebook friend shared this BuzzFeed article entitled “13 Charts That Will Make Total Sense to People with Impostor Syndrome”. After skimming through the figures, my first thought was “But my Facebook friend is so talented and successful and cool! How can she feel like she’s not actually good at anything?”. My second thought: “I totally have this too.”

For those who don’t know, impostor syndrome refers to the inability of high-achieving individuals to internalize their accomplishments along with the persistent feeling of being a fraud. The term was first used by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, clinical psychologists, in their 1978 paper that documented the prevalence of the syndrome among high-achieving women. Since Clance and Imes’ initial work, it has been widely studied and is now believed to to occur equally in men, while young scientists of any gender are particularly prone. Neither a mental disorder nor a distinct personality trait, impostor syndrome is instead a reaction to certain events or stimuli- a response that some people, for whatever reason, exhibit more than others.

Impostor syndrome manifests itself in my mind as a little voice that says, “I don’t know enough about this topic”, “Everyone else is smarter than me”, “I tricked them into thinking I’m qualified”, “Soon they’ll find out the truth”, and “I’m not good enough to be here.” It’s am undermining whisper telling tales of inadequacy and cover-ups. I’m a senior undergraduate student grappling with big ecological ideas for my honours thesis, and this doubting voice is only likely to get worse as I head to grad school in the fall.

Having a name to put to these feelings is somehow freeing, as is knowing that I’m not alone. Maybe it’s lingering shock from realizing when I came to McGill that I am one special snowflake in a blizzard of special snowflakes, maybe it’s related to my perfectionism, but knowing objectively under this sea of emotions that I am good at what I do is made easier. Throughout my degree I have realized some things about being in science: there will always be someone who is smarter than me, there will always be more to learn, and these are in fact good things. When I really think about it, I don’t want to be the most intelligent person in the room, because then who would push me to be better? The day when science, a field built around the pursuit of knowledge, has nothing more to discover would be a sad day indeed.

In the end, maybe it’s not about getting rid of my impostor syndrome. Maybe it’s about recognizing these feelings for what they are and succeeding anyway- faking it until I make it. As Chris Woolston says in this Nature article about impostor syndrome in science, “In a profession where sporadic failure — in grants, in jobs, in publications — is the norm, the real failure is unnecessarily giving up on a promising career.”

 

Photo credit: Matteo Zamaria for the McGill Biology Student Union‘s “Humans of Biology” project.

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I Don’t Know About You, But I’m Feeling 22

A year ago yesterday, I spent my 21st birthday on a bus winding along red Ugandan roads from the rainforest of Kibale to the shores of Lake Nabugabo. This is what I wrote in my journal that night:

“Midnight here, still yesterday at home- the fickle ways of time. A night and a night, bookends of each of this planet’s rotations. Another circle around the sun, a score plus one. Polaroid moments: misty sunrise stretching of limbs; undulating landscape viewed from garish patterned seats; cliche singing and words on paper and refrains of well-wishes, appreciated nonetheless; a fire and a lake and sore fingers fumbling on strings; small progress but great satisfaction. The second bookend reached in a soft wave carried into nothingness. Contentment.”

So much has happened in this past year of my life. In Africa I continued making new friends, practising a new language, seeing so much wildlife, trying new food, looking at amazing scenery, testing myself and challenging myself and growing. I swam with dolphins in the Indian Ocean and floated under the moon in a sea of swirling phosphorescence. I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I extended my travel plans and fought with loved ones about it. I got mugged, traveled by train for two days across Tanzania to Zambia, saw Victoria Falls, and made my way from Moshi to Nairobi by myself when my travel partner Liam’s passport got stolen, with my knee and elbow still bashed up from falling in a ditch. I flew to Paris and wandered around the city on my own for two days, then Liam joined me and we got lost in the Louvre, ate too many croissants, and walked the cobblestone streets for hours. We took a train to Brussels and drank good beer, took another train to Amsterdam and ate cheese and I stood in line for two and a half hours to see the Anne Frank house. We flew to Copenhagen and saw the Little Mermaid statue, explored Christiania, ate smorrbrod, and biked around the city for a whole day. Then that adventure was over and it was back to Ottawa.

Home felt the same, and yet so different. I felt like I had so many stories to tell but didn’t know where to start. For most of May and June I rested, settled back into North American life, and was happy to not be moving for a little while. I visited Montreal a few times, and started to get a little restless again. Soon enough I was bored of doing nothing and was happy to start my job as a fieldwork assistant for the Concordia marten project for July and August. Just me, my three coworkers Jorge, Ben, and Simon, and the woods. I learned how to bait traps, cut trails with a machete, use a bear banger, and manipulate anesthetized American martens. I got used to waking up at 5 am, hiking up and down hills to check traps, releasing angry squirrels, not showering, wearing a construction vest and a million things on my belt, smelling like sardines and skunk all day, and not having running water or electricity. We went on hikes in our free time and I got into the habit of doing yoga and going for a run before jumping into the freezing cold lake.

When fieldwork was cut short I spent two weeks working at Concordia doing statistics and library cataloging and living with Marina, and in the blink of an eye the summer was over. I also closed a personal chapter of my life with a lot of sadness but a certainty that I was doing the right thing and not just for me. The fall semester flew by in a blur of classes, working on my honours thesis, knitting, starting my Etsy shop, fostering Bagheera, thinking about what my next step is after undergrad, and spending time with friends-and, as things turned out, with Simon, when we could see each other. I had three weeks over Christmas to relax with my family and to spend time with Simon at his cottage. I also went to Peterborough with him to help him move in to his new place, since he started his PhD at Trent last month.

So far this semester, I’ve been really busy working on my thesis (crunch time!) as well as my other classes. I’ve written one midterm, applied to a bunch of jobs for this summer, and submitted an application to Trent’s Environmental and Life Sciences program for a Master’s starting in September. Whether or not I get accepted will determine where my life is going after I graduate from McGill. I only have a couple months left of this semester, of this year, of my undergraduate degree- which is equal parts scary and exciting, and which means that there are a lot of important decisions ahead.

While I’m not sure if any birthday will ever quite compare to the one I had last year, yesterday was still a lovely day. I spent it going to class but also eating the last of the Earl Grey cake for breakfast that Simon had made for me while he was here on his reading week last week, getting free David’s Tea, eating sushi in my bed while calling my best friend from home and my family, and drinking sparkling wine for my champagne birthday (22 on the 22nd!) that I share with my friend Marina as you can see in the picture. This is definitely not what I thought it would be like to be 22 when I was younger (I seem to recall envisioning a big-girl job and a fancy apartment and possibly a husband), and I’m at a very different place than I was even a year ago (I’m in a relationship with a different person, applying to grad school at a university I had never considered…) but you know what? These things made me happy, and I’m happy with where I’m at right now.

DIY Mint Tea

I love pretty much anything mint-flavoured, from gum to toothpaste to chocolate, but above all I love a nice refreshing mint tea. For many years now, a large section of my family’s overgrown backyard has been dominated by mint plants. I don’t know for sure what kind of mint it is- some preliminary Googling has led me to believe that it is Mentha canadensis, a.k.a. American wild mint, but as I don’t have a picture of the plants in flower handy, it can’t be confirmed (likely until the spring, unless one of my family members has a photo lingering on their phone somewhere). Nevertheless, it tastes delicious when steeped in hot water, and many a summer night has seen my mother sending one of us out into the yard to pick fresh leaves for tea.

IMG_1254The afore-mentioned mint domination in the overgrown backyard.

A couple of years ago I took it into my head to research drying the plants so we could enjoy homegrown mint tea all year round (why didn’t I think of it sooner?), and now it is an annual tradition, performed every couple of weeks throughout the summer. Here is the process as I do it.

  1. Pick mint, close to the base of the plant, choosing the stalks with the largest leaves. Scissors are helpful.
  2. Rinse with water and let dry completely. I do this outside, using the garden hose, and let the mint dry in the sun.
  3. Bundle several stalks together at the base and tie with rubber bands, which tighten as the stems lose moisture and contract.
  4. Hang to dry with string, preferably somewhere warm, dry, and out of direct light.
  5. In about one or two weeks, the mint should be dry! Pick off leaves (they should easily crumble) and store in airtight containers in a dry, dark place.

IMG_1081Mint plants drying in my backyard.

The Internet informs me that dried mint should last for a year, and also that it is important to ensure that the leaves are fully dried before storing as they will go moldy quickly if not. One way to check is to look for any moisture or condensation on the inside of containers after the mint has been stored for a few days. If there is any, the leaves need to be dried more. If not, you’re good to go.

IMG_3627All dry and stored in canning jars.

To make tea, add boiling water to your desired amount of dried mint leaves. I usually use a couple of tablespoons, but it really varies with personal preference, as does steeping time. I tend to just leave the mint in if I’m using a tea ball or teabag, because I love a really intense minty taste.

10424514_259866547544224_1497851825_nHomemade mint tea with a fresh mint leaf garnish.

Clearly this is super convenient for someone who has mint of any kind already flourishing in their garden, but it can also be done with store-bought fresh mint. You can also try planting your own- apparently most varieties are difficult to grow from seed, but potted mint plants generally do well indoors (or outdoors during the summer), as long they have plenty of sunlight. So it’s pretty easy to get your hands on a reliable source of homegrown, homemade, caffeine-free minty goodness that will last you right through the winter.