Biologists With Maps - BiotaNB

"Fred and Don With Maps" in the Gagetown Courthouse, BiotaNB2016 (oil on birch panel 10 x 10 in.) collection of NBM

This is my ninth consecutive year as "Artist in Residence" at BiotaNB, the two-week long biotic inventory of New Brunswick's "Protected Natural Areas", held by the New Brunswick Museum.
My husband Fred is one of the 30 or so biologists, invited from all across Canada and beyond - and since my mandate at last year's BiotaNB was to paint portraits, one of these was to be of Fred.

I had taken a photograph at BiotaNB2016 in Gagetown, that has been crying out ever since to be painted - of Fred poring over maps of the Grand Meadows Protected Natural Area with Don McAlpine, the Head of Natural Sciences at the NBM.

Biologists are usually solitary in study of the organisms they love - it requires a lot of "quiet curatorial time" as Fred says - so the drawing together of so many of these solitary specialists in the collaboration that is the brainchild and ongoing project of Don McAlpine, is the highlight of the year for many of us.

Don and his staff and volunteers pack up and transport what seems like a major part of the NBM to set up a temporary lab near the PNA to be surveyed each year - all the Museum's microscopes, weigh scales, plant presses, skinning, dissecting, and preserving equipment, a chest freezer, shelving, tarps, lamps, and heaters for mushroom drying cabinets, and field equipment too of course - waders, nets, canoes, and several rented 4WD pickup trucks.

This year's BiotaNB lab in the Lions Club Community Centre, McAdam

... And field guides and identification manuals, and maps - lots of maps - map books, topo maps, and specially printed maps showing the forest types and waterways, of the PNA, and all of the roads including  seldom-used tracks. Lots of attention is spent on maps as we coordinate each day's movements. Sometimes I go out with a combined team of herpetologists and entomologists to trek into a bog, and sometimes in a boat with the "fish people", taking me and another artist out to drop us off on an island for the day with Aaron and a couple of his young volunteers with ant trapping equipment. Or Virginia the slime mold expert and I go out with the fungi people to a remote area of Hemlock and mature hardwoods, to collect mushrooms and take photographs - and find a spot to sit and paint of course. Or I go out with the mammalogists, and they leave me beside a mossy forest brook to paint while they set their traps for mice and shrews. Everyone keeps an eye out for earthworms, because we have an earthworm expert, and nobody knows what's out there until we bring them back for John Reynolds to identify.

We all come back to enjoy our supper, catered by the locals - and afterward we spend the evening sorting through, identifying, and curating specimens. I love to listen while I finish the day's painting, to the botanists at the next table, haggling over the identity of a plant as it's pulled out of a plastic bags, labeled, and arranged in folded newspapers between blotters to be pressed. And from across the lab, to hear Howie's crowing guffaw as the mammalogists tease each other over scalpels, forceps, cotton, and pins as they "put up" the day's catch of small mammals. Later they'll play cards at the kitchen table of our rented house, and there's more laughter far into the night.  After that, it's a miracle how early they can get up to go out and run the traps.

We used to call this a "Bio-blitz" but BiotaNB goes on for two weeks, with invited participants, and Bio-blitzes are characteristically 24-hour affairs, in which specialists guide anyone who wants to participate, in identifying as many taxa as can be found. More photography than collecting goes on, at Bio-blitzes, with little or no trapping, and many insects are identified only to family - but BiotaNB is unique among "blitzes", being museum-based, with a view to in-depth study of an area for two consecutive years - first in early summer, and then in late summer. Organisms collected are identified to species (and species "new to New Brunswick" are often discovered) and catalogued into the NBM collections.

Not to be taken lightly, the work to identify and study insects and other invertebrates, lichens, fungi, and some plants, begun at this intensive all-taxon inventory goes on all year, and sometimes longer. After a year or two or more after a discovery, scientific papers are published. And speaking of publications, a book of poems called "Flying the Truck" was published last year by New Brunswick poet Wayne Clifford, who followed Paul Brunelle out to capture dragonflies, and Fred out to catch Leopard Frogs, and who philosophized his two years of BiotaNB adventures into an expression of the perfection and perplexity of the universe.

It is an exhilarating privilege to be part of such a diverse scientific endeavour, listening to the "shop talk" of people who have devoted their lives to in-depth study of organisms one seldom hears about - for whom it's not just a career, but a vocation, a "calling". Artists have been involved since 2009, lending their perceptions and expressions to the celebration of each of New Brunswick's PNA's - portraying their richness, diversity, uniqueness, and also the study of all of this, and how it's accomplished. Aboriginal painters, print makers, and fabric artists have joined us, grounding us in native culture and local knowledge as we explored their home place, and Matthieu Leger keeps coming back each year like I do - and he's been producing magnificent panoramas! This year we have a new Poet in Residence - Harry Thurston. Together we contribute our diversity of expression to the discoveries of BiotaNB.


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