Toronto 1968—In the black and white photo, my sister holds my hand, facing the camera with an enigmatic smile. Together, our bodies intersect the outlines of a tennis court. Neither my sister nor I wear shoes, just socks. Hers reach to mid-calf; mine pool about my ankles. On my sister’s body, a flowered sweater hangs mis-buttoned above smooth shorts. Her round face—four years old and still without scars—is surrounded by thick hair. Only two, I occupy my usual position beside her. A pleated dress clenches my chest and my wispy hair is already pushed back into its signature cowlick. Collected with the click of a shutter, chemistry, not memory, has preserved this moment from the past.
Collecting—the parsing of the desired, known or not, from the undesired—lies at the heart of my scientific discipline, botany. The first botanist I worked for gathered his specimens into a tall Adirondack pack basket woven from strips of black ash. All through a humid Vermont summer, I followed his basket beneath a deciduous canopy, imprinting on the warp and weave, on the traditions of a science.
Today there’s no denying I’m a collector, but I’ve long wondered about my allegiances. Why plants and not beetles? Or butterflies? Part of the answer, I suspect, lies rooted in the identity of those I gather most. Plants whose biology turns where they live into an oversized collecting basket. One that collects without human hand, that preserves without intent, that gathers specimens for millennia without fatigue. I know, I visit such a place each fall.
Called Placid Lake, this basket is found on a broad volcanic plateau just inside the boundary of British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park. From the air, it appears as an irregular dark ellipse surrounded by a ring of shrubby vegetation and on the topographic map, it is annotated with the symbol mapmakers use to indicate the presence of wetlands. Technical reports label Placid Lake as a poor fen and ecologists classify fens, as well as bogs, as peatlands.
Peatland—roll your tongue over the name, taste its strangeness. Land, you recognize. Land, you can step onto. But peat trembles underfoot, less well-defined. It’s what the dictionary calls “vegetable matter partly decomposed.” Mostly plants, but some animals too, caught in a wrack of delayed decomposition. Strange in the mouth, even stranger in the field.
Walking on the shady trail, nothing prepares you for the abrupt openness of this place—especially not on a late September day when white clouds reflect in dark water and the leaves of bog birch gleam with gold. The keystone species of Placid Lake is neither tree nor flower—the typical masters of biomass and diversity in British Columbia—but is, instead, a moss called Sphagnum. It is the life and death of this moss that has built a landscape where the ground undulates in hummock and hollow; where round leaves of sundews announce their carnivorous appetites with brilliant, but sticky, red glands; where the roots of black crowberry and bog laurel are stitched into place with the threads of symbiotic fungi; where the astringent odor of sun-warmed Labrador tea fills the air and red-brown dragonflies buzz lazily. Shaped by the wrack of Sphagnum, this landscape subverts even my most basic notions about death and decay.
Each September, just as the bog cranberries ripen, I bring my second-year botany students to Placid Lake. As we step from forest soil to peat, the unique botany of this place never fails to seduce us. But this peatland is more than just its plants. It’s a physical accounting of change; a record book that first opened more than 10,000 years ago. When Pleistocene glaciers were abandoning this valley, a chunk of orphaned ice—approximately the same size as this peatland—was smothered by the sand and gravel sluicing off the melting glaciers. Long after the glaciers had retreated, the orphaned ice block melted, collapsing into a pool of water surrounded by gravel.
Make a depression and it will collect. Chance and gravity make it so. But preservation requires more. Placid Lake began to subvert the chemistry of decomposition when its shoreline was colonized by Sphagnum. Just as beavers can still streams into ponds, Sphagnum can invert lakes into elevated peatlands. Water wicks upward along its stems, and into this rising water Sphagnum releases hydrogen ions, acidifying the lake beyond the tolerance of many decomposers like bacteria and fungi.
In peatlands, decay does not follow death, at least not completely. Instead, the alchemy of Sphagnum slows decomposition, allowing more peat to accumulate, water to rise and pH levels to lower. Over millennia, peat builds outward from the shore, cinching closed pools of open water. Buried within the peat are relics—big and small—fossilized by the embrace of anoxic, acidic water. In 1950, peat harvesters pulled a 2,000-year-old corpse from a Danish peatland, the man’s skin remarkably intact beneath the noose around his neck. No human corpse has ever been found within Placid Lake, but its collection includes microscopic plant pollen, small bits of sedge and alder, carcasses of insects, maybe even the flesh of a mammal or two. Bodies linger in the northern lands where Sphagnum grows.
I tell these stories each autumn as my students and I walk into the lake. What I do not tell them is how I linger over the idea of this peatland as a collecting basket. David James Duncan used the term “river teeth” to describe the “the knots of experience that once tapped into our heartwood, and now defy the passing of time.” Perhaps it’s the bias of my discipline, but I keep sensing these “knots of experience” as a layered wrack, caught by chance in the peatland of my own history. There’s a funny thing about peatlands. Near the edge, the peat extends all the way to the bottom, but close to the center, the peat thins into a floating mat. Out there, it doesn’t take much to ripple the surface. But if you bounce too hard, you can punch right through. I know—I’ve done it, my left leg sinking up to the thigh before I caught myself.
Vancouver 1969—A weekend morning. A single mother, not in her bed but asleep on the couch, university textbooks by her side. My sister and I, aged five and three, wander the upstairs of our creaky, two-story house. The memories are fragmentary. Some images may be real or lifted from stories long mistold. A narrow hallway leads from our bedroom to the bathroom. I feel the cold slickness of worn linoleum under my feet. True or imagined, the white porcelain bathtub with its clawed feet standing atop a patterned floor remains fossilized in memory.
A pile of toilet paper teeters on my sister’s lap. An illicit pack of matches. Years later, the sight of my little brother holding matches in his chubby hands would send my mother into an incandescent rage. But in 1969, my mother lay asleep downstairs as the flames tore through first the soft toilet paper and then my sister’s nightgown. My bare feet slapping down the long hallway—my mother’s bed empty. I hear my younger voice saying that I didn’t know water could squash fire. That I only knew to blow out matches, to blow on the fire licking up my sister’s body.
The intervening years have mineralized these bits of memory. Others are decomposed, indecipherable. I have to imagine my sister’s screams. Did her raw voice pull my mother upstairs? I have to imagine an ambulance, my sister carried downstairs on a stretcher. Did I stay with neighbors—in the long silence after my sister was gone? That fire, that licking flame 40 years ago, was born into my family just as surely as my little brother was. As a family member, it had no name, but my sister carried it, embedded in the scars that crawled from her groin up to her chin, just as an older sibling carries her younger brother. Forty years ago, in the single strike of a match, my sister and I forever altered the trajectory of our family history. Laurie, chubby-cheeked and thick-haired, was relegated to the land of the permanently disfigured. I was not.
Many years later, this is what I know: the line between controlled and rogue fire is paper-thin. As a botanist, I know that all plants feed upon the fire of our sun, gentling its energy to spin sugars from water and carbon dioxide. Yet strike a match in a dry forest, let loose these stored sugars in a wilding fire of uncontrolled energy, and trees will be charred into black skeletons, flesh transfigured into ash. That same wilding release, controlled in our stomachs or the cells of a decomposer, generates the chemical reserves needed for life. Capture. Release. Capture. Release.
This is a cycle that in many places leaves little trace. But in Placid Lake, the biology of Sphagnum short-circuits the release of energy, decomposition slows, and artifacts collect. If memory is a layered wrack, so too is a peatland. Within this wrack, one single artifact, isolated from others, says little. But a collection of artifacts structured in time writes history. We could find this history if we were patient enough to core down into Placid Lake. Layer by layer, foot by foot, we could extract tubular samples of peat, each one archiving a package of time, each one containing relics of the characters that once lived and died in this place. After months spent bent over microscopes, our backs would ache, but we could chart our tally of fossils into a series of waves depicting the abundance of individual plant species rising and falling throughout the lake’s history.
Such a chart would echo with the tales told by peatlands across the Northern Hemisphere. The oldest, lowermost relics are nearly always from the community of plants that can invade the raw landscapes left behind by glacial retreat; plants found today on the margins of ice, high up in the mountains or far to the north. In British Columbia, the pollen of pine dominates the next layer and would have been collected as these trees spread north from their glacial refugia. Other species would lag behind. In most B.C. pollen cores, red cedar—that iconic tree of our wet forests—arrived only 5,000 years ago.
Author Robert Macfarlane writes, “Landscapes give us ways of figuring ourselves out to ourselves.” An ecosystem that defies ignition; built from organisms that can tame star fire into sugar and thwart the controlled burn of decay. Is it any wonder that this collecting trip into Placid Lake forms the heartbeat, the metronome, of my yearly calendar?
Vancouver 1982, 2004—Loud music blares and at my sister Laurie’s wedding reception, I swing her first daughter in my arms. At 16, I want little to do with the ritual that my sister is embracing but I don’t mind dancing with my niece. The Kitsilano Neighborhood House is packed with people—a collection of characters from my family’s immediate and more distant history. My sister’s parenthood and marriage will predate my own by more than 20 years. Years later, when we are both mothers, my sister will drive through the Vancouver rain to sit in an austere hall as I defend my doctoral dissertation. My husband will leave the room to stroller our restless daughter over the university walkways. I will not remember the arcane questions asked and answered, but I will long remember my sister’s presence. She will be seated just behind the panel of senior professors who are interrogating me. Her body will still carry traces of that long-ago fire, but I will no longer see them—the raised and ropy edges of her scars made invisible by familiarity. Memory will preserve only her attendance, standing beside me, figuratively if not literally, occupying her usual position in my life.
If some landscapes help decipher history, some also imagine new possibilities.
Stand on the peat, I tell my students. Revel in the strangeness that surrounds you. In Placid Lake, dead moss bears the weight of living trees. Plants sip nitrogen from insect bodies, not soil. Know the two sides of life. Capture, release. Scarred or not, all of us are caught in this cycle. But know also that cycles subverted can in turn transform.
In this place, new rises from old. Imagine, just for one moment, I ask my students, life as subversive Sphagnum. Feel the water molecules wicking between your cells, the ions pumped across cellular membranes. Sense the history massing underneath you, even as the composite of your body builds into hummock and hollow. Know the horror of a partially digested fly still hooked in a sundew’s sticky embrace. Comprehend the push and pull of evolutionary strands that weave this place whole.
Read other illustrated essays (including paintings and journal galleries) by Lyn Baldwin also appearing in Terrain.org: “Laura’s Collection: Finding Community through Field Work” and “Say the Names.”
Header image of field notebook from walking the shady trail at Lake Placid by Lyn Baldwin.