Making Space for Fossils

An interpretive hike guide from the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation at the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds in 2016.

I’m in the middle of a master’s degree program at the University of Alberta, pursuing an MA in history focused on paleontology and power in Yoho National Park. My supervisor, Liza Piper, has taken me under their wing on a larger SSHRC project investigating environmental history in the Rockies.

This episode of my history podcast Let’s Find Out presents a chunk of my research project so far. In this episode, we travel to the Burgess Shale: a set of incredible fossil beds in Yoho National Park, preserving 500-million-year-old soft-bodied sea creatures. Today, it is part of a huge World Heritage Site: it has expanded to encompass all of Yoho National Park here in BC, Jasper and Banff, Kootenay, and three BC provincial parks. But back in 1980, the Burgess Shale sites at the Mount Stephen Trilobite Beds and the Walcott Quarry became the first little nucleus of that World Heritage site.

We find out how these fossil sites ended up on that list, what kind of information and evidence and argument were used to lobby for a spot, how it changed this space, and what it all means.

My work has been supported by a graduate research fellowship from Dr. Piper, a Dianne Samson Graduate Travel Award, a Walter H Johns Graduate Fellowship, a Canada Graduate Scholarship – Master’s from SSHRC, and a Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation Graduate Fellowship.

I almost forgot we won

The other day a friend asked me (delicately), “What’s it like having a government that hates you?”

I laughed, partly because he assumed I agreed with the premise of his question, and partly because I do.

It’s crushing. It’s been hard since Alberta’s provincial election this year, I won’t lie. Your friends and family and neighbours and fellow shoppers elect a new government, and one of its first priorities is outing queer kids to homophobic parents. Next on the list is setting up a snitch line for reporting un-Albertan activities. And of course, cutting the only actual mechanism everyday Albertans have ever had to see a fraction of the true cost of burning carbon.

What does a queer journalist who loves the planet do?

You think about moving. You think about where you could even move in 2019 that’s more sane than this place. You think about all the people you know who want to give up. And you think of the people you depend on you, and your light.

You watch the new Dark Crystal series, and try to remember why people fight in the darkest night. You remember how much people need stories that show them how to hope.

It’s reminded me why we’ve been making a season of Let’s Find Out all about the ways humans and nature have shaped each other in our city. Trying to show that our relationships with the land are complicated, that we don’t have to be antagonists. We are creatures who have built massive hydro dams to dilute our pollution downstream, who have turned grizzly bear country into canola and wheat and buried the memories. But we are also experimenters bringing apricots to our city streets all the way from Harbin, and we are creatures who feel kinship with a new country because we find the same high bush cranberries we had back home.

Last weekend my friends and I went tree planting in Fulton Ravine. I got there a bit late and I wasn’t super speedy with my shovel, so I think I only planted four of our little white spruce saplings. But it felt good, and right. It felt like refusing to let the void win.

Today I got on my bike to head home, and I remembered that my husband had texted to encourage me to breathe in some of this nice fall air while it’s here. So I took the long way home. I went a few blocks out of my way and started down the 83 Ave bike lane. And when I stopped at a red light, I looked back and saw a friendly neighbour behind me, Conrad Nobert.

We talked about our travels, and about Greta Thunberg. And then Conrad said hey, we’re biking down the bike lane you wrote about. You helped make this happen.

And I’d almost forgotten. Back in 2012, when Isaak Kornelsen was biking down Whyte Ave, and was killed by a truck driver. It hit so many of us around here hard. I never even met him. But he was young and mattered and it was so unnecessary. The cruelest part of it all was overhearing a bus driver talking about it right afterward with a passenger. He said, “Why didn’t he just ride down 83rd Ave? I feel bad for the driver.”

I was furious when I heard that. I went home and wrote a blog post about all the reasons Whyte Ave was the best of some terrible choices. Every other street north and south for six or seven blocks was full of one-ways, or dead-ends, or even more dangerous traffic. The part I almost forgot was that we won.

Conrad and others pushed hard to make our roads safer. After that, we started to get real protected bike lanes in this city. Conrad said it felt great being able to take his teenage kids down this one, and see little kids using it all the time too.

What does it feel like to live in Alberta these days? It feels dark a lot, it’s true. But sometimes it also feels like maybe, just maybe, we’re lighting it up again too.

Is Edmonton a prairie city?

One of my favourite parts of making Let’s Find Out is taking on questions that have never even occurred to me. The latest episode is a great example of that.

Dustin Bajer (a friend of mine from back in the Shareable Neighbourhood days who I love chatting with about nature) was the curious Edmontonian for this episode. He asked how Edmonton came to be known as a prairie city.

Dustin holds up a leaf, with many trees behind him
Dustin at the Coates Conservation Area, not far outside Edmonton city limits. We headed there to get a picture of what an undisturbed or old growth area here might look like.

A guide entitled "Western Canada" produced by Canadian Pacific Railways
We went to the Bruce Peel Special Collections at the University of Alberta to examine old pamphlets and magazines produced by railways and the Canadian government, enticing settlers out West.

When I first read his question, it made my brain spin. In school we were taught that this region is part of the Aspen parkland biome – a mix of grasslands and deciduous forests. But you do see Edmonton businesses and artists taking on the “prairie” label all the time. So how far back does that reputation go?

Figuring out the answer was incredibly complicated. We found seemingly contradictory answers from old newspaper editorials, advertising materials aimed at prospective settlers, a local land conservation organization, and traditional Indigenous knowledge keepers. To parse it all, we ended up paying close attention to how far out we were zooming with our historical lens. What matters most? The last 50 years? 200? 10 000?

I’m proud of the nuance and struggle in this episode. It feels authentic to the process of answering any good historical question. There tend to be a lot of caveats and assumptions we need to examine.

Also any episode where I get to go hiking and learn some new words is a treat.