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Book of the month: Wild Vision

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

The Black Bear Ursa americanus of Haida Gwaii

The Black Bear Ursa americanus of Haida Gwaii is larger than its mainland cousins. It has an adaptation of having a larger lower jaw, most likely due to a diet of foraging molluscs on the shoreline. Burnaby Narrows, Queen Charlotte Islands. © John Beatty

This month, we bring you an excerpt from John Beatty’s Wild Vision, a memento from John’s travels to some of the world’s most remote and spectacular settings. Here he takes a reflective gaze through the clear waters of Burnaby Narrows, on the east coast of Moresby Island (British Columbia), through the undersea world and beyond – into an ancient past. As he observes and wanders through Haida territory, little does he know another pair of eyes is watching him …

The paddle blade dips and slides, sparkling water tumbles then drips as I glide through the champagne clear waters of Burnaby Narrows. This fifty-metre wide channel of sea connecting the waters of Juan Pérez Sound and Skincuttle Inlet on the east coast of Moresby Island has a remarkable nine-metre range between high and low tide that feeds one of the most remarkably rich shorelines in the world. 

The kayak floated silently above an incredible sea garden. Below me in the naturally magnified shallows, were crowds of the strangest marine organisms imaginable. This was Noah’s Ark of the low tide; rainbow-coloured sea starfish, silver and black striped goose barnacles, jade green mussels, clams, giant moon snails, dark purple urchins, saffron yellow crabs, sponges of all shapes, chitons, and sea cucumbers, all vibrant in the sunlit shallows. I gazed down, and wondered. I couldn’t live down there in the water; those creatures couldn’t live here in the air. The plane of the water’s surface was not a mirror this time, but a portal. I mused on the adaptations and complexity of all living things. I dipped my hands down, but not to invade. 

The kayak grounded onto the mud, I climbed out and paced toward a group of exposed tidal rocks that appeared to have some interesting molluscs attached to them. As I walked, razor shells in the mud squirted little fountains of seawater as they burrowed deeper down. The molluscs were drab and plain brown yet quite large – almost twenty centimetres long and humped. I prized one off carefully in order to look at it. To my astonishment, beneath the shell was an exquisite glistening complexity of succulent golden-coloured flesh, arranged in functional labias and tentacles leading to the obvious mouthparts. The flesh moved slowly and rhythmically, clearly aware of its displacement. I carefully returned it to its exact position on the rock. This was the remarkable chiton, a mythical sea form revered by the Haida, and familiarly called ‘The Mother.’ I remembered the creation legend I’d heard from a Haida ‘Watchman’ the evening before.

The role of the raven in Haida culture represents it as both a sage and a trickster, but in this particular incarnation, he is the creator of all life.

'One day Raven was pacing about on the beach, bored with the exasperations of small birds in the forest. He was tired since he had amused himself by creating the sun, the moon and the stars and needed some new friendships. Across the beach he heard faint voices. On encounter, he looked down and saw that a clamshell had slightly opened, and inside was a cluster of tiny human forms of boys. They clearly couldn’t get out of the nearly closed shell. In an instant, Raven remembered the Mother chiton, fetched one from nearby and presented it to the clam, whose strong muscles relaxed for a moment. The tubed ‘foot’ of the clam extended toward the chiton, thence men and women were created on earth.'

The tide was still falling so I left the kayak and wandered to the forest edge. The sandy backshore halted against the forest abruptly, where huge boulders formed a natural barrier. I scrambled up through the dense cushions of emerald mosses that covered them like a soft blanket, just far enough to feel I was inside the forest canopy where I sat quietly, listening. 

Sounds from the shore behind me melted away to silence. The heavy odours of salt and kelp gave way to more fragrant aromas of cedar, spruce and mosses. High overhead in the upper canopy the sea breeze still combed the treetops, yet below it was quite still. Shafts of sunlight streamed down through moss festooned branches, dappling the forest floor and playing across the massive trunks of Sitka spruce, cedar and hemlock. This was ancient forest. Mosses and lichens had colonised almost every available surface. Everything on the forest floor would be ingested by insects, fungi and bacteria, and incorporated into deep loamy soils. Dead trees hosted unnamed hordes of moulds, algae, cellulose-digesting fungi, nitrogen-fixing bacteria and birds – they are anything but dead. These living ‘nurse logs’ will become rows of diminutive spruce and hemlock seedlings, in a continuous process of regenerating life.

The result of this prolonged intermingling of life forms is a consummate ecosystem about which we know very little. This much we do know: these primeval forests are the largest accumulations of biomass on the planet, even more so than tropical rainforests. I fail to understand how the logging industry can justify its elimination.

The heavy trails of lichens hung off the trees, and the entire moss covering of the woodland floor absorbed all sound. Here, within the peace of nature, I sat perfectly still for twenty minutes. Not even a leaf moved. My hands were flat beside me touching the star mosses, my legs stretched out, resting down the curve of mossy rock. I began to hear my heart beating inside my ears. In the far away distance, the resonant croak of ravens in conversation echoed in the green vault of the forest. A woodpecker gave herself away with the faint scrabble of claws gripping onto bark. My attention averted to a dense clump of calypso orchids hiding in the soft litter. To remain perfectly still within the profound silence of this place was to be absorbed into the heart of nature itself.

It was time to return. I slid down the rock and out of the forest onto the backshore. Amongst the vetch and beach lovage, a tiny ocean strawberry threaded its tendrils in the sand. I walked down the mud to the kayak, climbed in and pushed strongly out of the shallows, gliding into deep water. I startled at a coughing sound behind me as the kayak drifted in a turn. Lumbering down the beach was a huge black bear swinging its head from side to side. It followed my footsteps to where the kayak had beached, and raised its nose to the air sniffing in my direction. To this day I have to assume it had lain extremely close to me in the forest, but preferred to remain entirely hidden.

The Chiton Cryptochiton stelleri

The Chiton Cryptochiton stelleri is a large mollusc found at the bottom of the inter-tidal zone of rocky beaches of the North Pacific. Where undisturbed, it feeds on kelp and sea lettuce and may live up to 40-years-old. © John Beatty

Goose barnacles Pollicipes polymerus

Goose barnacles Pollicipes polymerus are found on exposed coasts where water movements on their tentacles enable them to feed. Along with other common shellfish, they are suseptible to acidification in ocean pH, which reduces their calcium shell structure. Hotsprinf Island, Haida Gwaii. © John Beatty

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