We paddle across the big, blue water of Murtle Lake in British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park, just the two of us: me and my friend Libby. Two days ago, we abandoned our respective homes—mine, four hours south within the silt-lined Thompson River valley, Libby’s nearly nine hours distant in the lowlands of Washington State.
Driving north, kayaks piled atop Libby’s car, gear stuffed in the rear, I’d known how my absence would burden my husband with more than his share of childcare, dog-walking and housecleaning. Yet the moment my body felt the first rhythm of paddling—dip, push forward with opposite arm, dip, push forward—I could only be glad. This is my first wilderness trip since my husband and I decided, kayaking on BC’s coast, to have a child. My daughter will turn eleven next month. For twelve years, the burden of pregnancy, the full-throttle of early childhood care and then the demands of a new faculty position have tied me to the front-country.
Off my bow, Libby paddles steadily. In front of me, mountains run from lake to sky, their reflections pooling in calm water. With no obvious human imprint, the view feels like a salve I’d nearly forgotten to need. I never meant to be gone for so long. Before child, during the decade I worked as an itinerant biologist, my life revolved around wild places like this one, shifting landscapes with the seasons, swapping fish-counting in the Bering Sea for plant-sampling in the Rockies for desert-walking in Baja California.
But twelve years, it turns out, was long enough for me to forget that backcountry success depends as much on what you leave behind as what you bring. I know: the evidence is leaking in my forward hatch, oozing up against freeze-dried rice and prepackaged curries. Unable to imagine a week without fresh vegetables, I’d plotted Tupperware dimensions against the volume of my kayak’s hatches, counting out peas and carrots and avocados and red peppers. But vegetables belong in the garden, not here. Two days in and my vegetables have already collapsed into a mess of crushed skin and bruises.
With no obvious human imprint, the view feels like a salve I’d nearly forgotten to need.
Here, where the landscape opens, paddle stroke by paddle stroke, where fingers of glassy lava slide into shadows of blue, where cedars live for centuries without the touch of human hand, even the word, vegetable, sounds out of place. The shape, color, and taste of all vegetables reflect their allegiance to a single species—us. A “botany of desire,” as Michael Pollan puts it. There’s no doubt that by hitching their stars to ours, the plants whose roots, stems, or fruits fill our kitchens have expanded far beyond their native range. But at what cost?
Today, geographers argue that the path to the Anthropocene was paved, at least in part, with vegetables. That is, as Europeans first transported, and then cultivated plants like potatoes, wheat and corn across the world, they laid the caloric foundation that subsequently allowed our species to grow into a planetary-level influence. Globally, our impact now rivals that of the Pleistocene’s glaciers, but we depend upon a botany divorced from place, one that uses plants as inanimate commodities that can be bought and consumed with little knowledge of the soil in which they were grown.
In the Anthropocene, even our botanical imagination has been globalized. Hundreds of thousands of millennials follow “plantfluencers” via Instagram and Pinterest, but few who appear in my botany labs can identify the native species found in the sage-brush steppe that surrounds our university. Even fewer know of the rich, wet interior rainforest that sits in the headwaters of our watershed.
There’s no doubt that by hitching their stars to ours, the plants whose roots, stems, or fruits fill our kitchens have expanded far beyond their native range. But at what cost?
Frankly, I haven’t known what to think. As a botanist, I’m delighted by any trend that counteracts the growing prevalence of “plant blindness” that has worried my discipline for decades. But as an ecologist committed to the botanical diversity of BC, I’m concerned when we care more about plants selected by industrial supply chains than by the climate outside. How can we protect what we don’t know? Today, many ecologists, including me, believe that any effort to conserve natural ecosystems or species must begin with rebuilding our experience with them. The question, of course, is how?
Rebuilding experience with a native flora demands more than just listing its species. The word experience comes from the Latin experientia, meaning “a trial, proof, or experiment.” Last year, in writing the application for my first-ever sabbatical, I argued that I couldn’t collect experience with a sampling quadrat, but I could with an illustrated field journal. I first learned to draw in field journals as a way of remembering plant names. Yet, I soon learned that like any skilled practice that entangles its creator with the world, field-journaling tested both what I knew and how I thought about plants. As my volumes piled up, the juxtaposition caught within their pages—observed with felt, visual with written, sometimes even poetry with science—became as important as the quantitative data I collected. Given that field journals were a key tool with which Europeans bio-prospected the plant world, it would be fitting, I argued, to co-opt their form in re-storying our relationship with plants.
It worked. Or at least my proposal succeeded. That’s the reason that on a Tuesday in mid-September, I can be here with Libby, one of my first drawing teachers, rather than in a lecture hall. The reason art supplies fill an entire dry bag in my kayak. The reason I’ve come to this lake.
Murtle Lake. For years I’ve heard its praises: the largest motor-free lake in all of North America; a lake bounded not by roads but by an intact, inland rainforest, dripping with moss, resplendent with big trees. A lake accessed only via a two-and-a-half-kilometer portage; a lake whose waters run free for 200 kilometers before arriving in the small city, Kamloops, where I live. In looking for an experiential lodestar, no ecosystem seemed more fitting to journal than the wild, wet botany of Murtle Lake.
But two days in, all I’ve got is an odd aphorism that pops into my head as loons call off my bow and dragonflies zip across clear water: “It’s important to go where vegetables sorrow.” This impulse to cart vegetables into Murtle Lake—is it any different from the human desires that carried European crop species to North America? The bruised vegetables in my kayak are a rebuke. Can the rendering of stories and drawings compete with the slick botany of an Instagram feed? What the hell am I doing?
I have no choice. In less than a month, I’m scheduled to give a reading at my university; in three months, my art show at a local gallery will open.
The next day failure dogs me, dawn to dusk. Libby and I had planned to spend the day drawing along the trail into McDougall Falls, the first of six waterfalls found below the lake. But when Darryl, the park keeper, visits us in the morning and tells us that a pack of wolves had been spotted close to File Creek, we instantly reorganize our day, spending all morning securing a tent pad in the campsite closest to where the wolves were seen. And then the trail into McDougall Falls is both farther and slipperier than we’d imagined. The result: a nearly blank page in my field journal. Other than an abbreviated plant list, the only worthwhile botany of the day is the collection of king boletes Libby gathered along the trail as we were rushing back to our kayaks. Not even the abrupt howl of wolves, one exuberant declaration just at sundown, breaks through my growing disquiet.
On some expeditions, imminent failure engenders heroic acts. For me, it elicits the absurd gesture of opening my field journal when it’s nearly too dark to see.
As stars spill from the sky, I use a pencil in my outstretched hand to measure the distance between the dark mass of Central Mountain and the stars nearby. Shifting from horizon to paper, I translate my measurements into guide marks. Draw the mountain’s profile. Recheck the measurements. Something’s off.
Measure again. Mark. Draw. Error.
Frustration builds with each wrong line, until abruptly the understanding I have of my world slips, falters, and then, for an exquisite moment, fails.
In front of me, a mountain moves.
I’ve made no errors. The lines I’ve drawn are not mistakes but evidence of the mountain’s progression. First toward and then past stars. I continue moving my pencil—less for the marks on the page than for the sheer novelty of watching a horizon in motion.
Of course, the mountain doesn’t really move; the earth rotates. But no abstract diagram of the Earth’s rotation has ever carried the shock of these past few moments. Science may live with a Copernican understanding of our solar system spinning in space, yet most of us, I think, live with the experience, the day-to-day expectation, of a stationary world. But here in the deep dark of Murtle Lake, there’s no escaping the evidence.
Mountains move. Not just against the stars. Up-thrusting with the collision of continents, subsiding with erosion, carried past latitude or longitude on the backs of shifting plates, their form, at any one moment, a temporary hesitation of elements on the move—cycling from rock to water to cloud to mesophyll to muscle, and then back again. The mountain and, by association, the whole world is alive.
Now. For me. For us.
Later, before we crawl into our sleeping bags, Libby and I decide we’ve been traveling too fast. Tomorrow we’ll stay in place.
Early—very early—the next morning, birds sing me awake and I open the tent fly to peer across the bay. And there they are: five wolves, black as ravens, wrestling in the slanted sun. They don’t stay long, disappearing before Libby can wipe the condensation from her binoculars. But it’s enough.
Wolves playing. Libby and I drawing. The living edge of Murtle Lake fills my field journal. Sunlight breaks jagged over distant conifers; glossy black seeds spill from violet capsules; paintbrush burns red against golden grass; wings of sandhill crane beat against the air immediately above me. When Libby finds a small wildflower whose name I don’t know, I fall into its complicated morphology, drawing it in detail.
I am so immersed that it is nearly noon before I register the events taking place offshore. Slap . . .slap . . .slap. With my binoculars, I scan the lake.
Osprey. One after another they plunge, talons outstretched, thwacking the water’s surface with their full weight. Milliseconds later, they’re shuddering upward into flight, rainbow trout flailing in their grip. In the hour I watch, no osprey is denied.
Later, when Libby and I paddle towards the wolves’ sand spit, an osprey flies past me, talons wrapped around trout. I turn in my seat to follow it back to its nest. Pulled close through binoculars, a hooked beak tugs at flesh. An implacable, yet graceful, choreography. Twist, tear, twist. First silver skin, then blood-red muscle and finally slick viscera disappear.
Beneath me, my kayak scrapes against sand. I’m still well offshore, but when I step out, the calf-deep water explains the ospreys’ success. Kokanee—landlocked salmon—spawn in File Creek this time of year. Their congregating masses, and the eggs the females lay, attract predators, including rainbow trout. But the same creek that provides the kokanee with spawning habitat has filled this end of the lake with sediment, thinning the liquid boundary between trout and osprey.
In the soft sand of the spit, Libby and I find tracks of eagle, raven, sandpiper—and wolf. It’s easy, sketching the outline of a paw, to imagine the muscle and sinew that pressed earthward, the gait that swallowed distance. One set of tracks points like a compass arrow, a glyph of wolf intent, that’s impossible not to follow. Off the beach, an old stream channel narrows into thickets of willow and alder.
Maybe it’s the powdered bone in the wolf scat we find, maybe it’s the alder walling us in, but suddenly I wonder about the wisdom of walking toward wolves. A moment later, there’s a small whoof—not the howl of the night before but definitely a warning. Doubt vanishes in a cold clench of fear, and without words Libby and I turn back.
In the kayaks once again, with a clear sightline between us and the wolves’ napping spot, I open my field journal and drift, floating in the polar attraction of the world. Mergansers, grounded by molt, foot-paddle their way across a bay brimming with life, through water lit from below by a sinking sun.
Paddling in, I’d seen this end of the lake as little more than scenery, something that sat between me and a tent site I wanted. Only twenty-four hours later, it tangles in complication. The water under my kayak is a killing ground for rainbow trout, a larder for osprey. The creeks running from mountain to lake are birthing chambers for kokanee—an all-you-can-eat buffet for wolves. The wet forest we walked through yesterday is sewn together with the mycelia of boletes and fertilized by the rotting carcasses of kokanee dragged from stream by wolf or bear. Where vegetables sorrow is, of course, also where predators prey. Not just a place, but a way of being that understands that all flesh—botanical, fungal, or animal—will be, and should be, the stuff of someone else’s feces.
Picking up my paddle, I turn back toward the campsite.
Yesterday, I doubted this project when I focused on the incongruity of having brought carrots, a species so entwined with humans that I’ve never wondered about its native range, into an ecosystem where so many species survive in spite of, rather than because of, human intent. But the wild abundance of Murtle Lake’s top predators is, like my carrots, a reflection of both biology’s potential and human fiddling. Murtle Lake’s wolf and loon and osprey feed upon the red bodies of kokanee and trout. Yet for most of this ecosystem’s history, no fish swam here. The waterfalls downstream are too tall for kokanee and trout to jump, the lake too isolated for osprey or eagles to have accidentally released their wriggling bodies into its waters. Humans preyed this lake into being when, nearly a century ago, government biologists dropped first trout and then kokanee from the belly of low-flying aircraft.
Does it matter if the trout being hunted by the osprey overhead belong as much to the Anthropocene as the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air? Not to the osprey. When sand-shallowed water offers up silver-sided fish, they don’t hesitate. They drop. Plunging through air and water to seize their prey.
In coming to Murtle Lake, I was grasping for a place apart, a botany unsullied by human influence; but any search for separation, seductive though it might be, will fail. Not only is this ecosystem part of the same traditional territory—Secwepemcúl’ecw—that envelopes my home in Kamloops, but the plants of this landscape have been in reciprocal relationship with the Secwépemc First Nation for millennia. If this territory is now largely inhabited by descendants of settlers like me who know fewer stories about its plants, we are no less co-dependent. In the Anthropocene, we humans are the dominant evolutionary and geologic force on a planet where plants form nearly 80 percent of the terrestrial biomass. Almost by definition, our futures depend upon one another. Last century, fishery biologists did not hesitate to fiddle with the top end of Murtle Lake’s food chain; today, we need to learn to care for the green bottom of the world—both here and across the planet.
I wasn’t wrong to come to Murtle Lake. I wasn’t wrong to bring my field journal or even my carrots. Places where vegetables sorrow, I now understand, are where the quick-silver flashes of uncertainty, of cognitive dissonance, fuel ecosystems of altered thought. The lesson of Murtle Lake lies not just in one taxon or even in its isolation, but in its extraordinary, beautiful contradictions: how human tampering can make food webs more, not less, diverse; how failed lines on a page animate rock into motion; how all plants, in eating the sun, root the earth. I think back to my drawing in the dark, to my worry about the vegetables in my kayak. Exploring uncertainty—moments I first perceive as failure—will be, I realize, the surest path past the obstinate divisions of the Anthropocene: us versus them, Instagram feed versus wilderness experience, carrot versus cedar.
What I don’t yet understand, and won’t for some time, is that this trip to Murtle Lake is not a beginning, but a middle. In many ways, the work ahead will require rethinking my own relationship with plants, the sequence of events that led to me sitting here in my kayak, in the middle of this gorgeous blue lake, field journal in hand.
Yet, as my kayak noses in besides Libby’s, I can find little of the doubt that rose yesterday with the sorrowing of my vegetables. It’s not that I underestimate the risks; I’m betting at least part of my academic career on my ability to navigate the wildland of art galleries and public readings. But the risk feels part of the project. Etymologically, peril shares the same root as experience and experiment. What I wonder, stepping out of my kayak and mentally reviewing which of my sorrowing vegetables might be salvageable for tonight’s dinner, is if there was a precise moment in my history—say, like that of rainbow trout splatting into blue water—that brought me here, or if my route to this work was as tangled as the mutations shaping the curved beak of the osprey flying overhead.