Field Notes from Yoho

Darwin, Canada, Logs, Blogs and Origins

First post – About this blog

This blog will follow my month long journey working at the face of the ancient Burgess Shale fossil beds that lie high up in the Canadian Rockies in the Yoho National Park. Mid July to mid August.

It will document events and efforts to produce artwork in response to the trip.

My long interest in the earliest fossil records has led to an invitation from the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation to participate in events there this summer. The fossil beds celebrate their centenary year of discovery. I will be based at the Foundation at Field in Yoho. The Arts Council, Parks Canada and the Earth Sciences at Cambridge are also supporting this project



Have been initiated into this trip appropriately with a flight dominated by the uncompromising physical geography of the north. Greenland and Iceland. Technicolour brilliance of the sharp broken icesheets playing bumper cars. Couldn’t have hoped for such a dazzling bird’s eye view. Calm, beautiful, hostile.

On the swathes of barren rock snow catches the stress lines from ancient glaciation. All so clearly understandable from above.




Every time the wind blows or the skies battle we lose our electricity here in Field in the summer. We have just had no power for about 30 hours. What happens in winter with temperates as low as -40?


Calgary and Canadian Coffee

Strong coffee, urban life. Preparing for home. I look out on this city and wonder what

great legacy or mark this curious place will have etched in 505 million years time.

Endless data amassing as I watch, but will any of it be intact or of interest to

our descendents? All this busyness below me. Perhaps we all still swim in shallow seas.



Few days left and what have I made of this extraordinary engagement and exchange?

Very intense; hard work, relentless. A fast track plunge into some of the earliest fossil records

with willing and generous earth scientists all about me sharing a common interest in the Burgess Shale here

in the centenary year. It has all become far more real, focused, understandable at Field, in the field.

Elaine Antoniuk, Jon Dudley, Roberta Bondar and complex fossil.


11 – 12th August Last days

Leaving. Moody day, low cloud. More like the Trossachs. I walk into the woods – dare I?

If you go down to the woods today …………….. Yes, feels quiet and bear hungry.

The mood is oppressive. My aim – the small cemetery beyond Field that I hear of.

A sad, ill kempt affair. Tottering white, wooden crosses rotting into the hillside.

A snapshot of global migration to this uncompromising new world from the end of the 19th C.

Central and southern Europeans, Jewish.

When they left their lands they probably had no idea of Field or where the hell they would settle.

They built the railway and no doubt died for it too.


Art in the Rockies Talk

The centenary has had many exceptional events taking place,

not least of which have been the evening talks given by earth scientists.

What a treat therefore after nearly four weeks to be offered an art history lecture about art in the Rockies.

Excellent. How rarely does an art historian really understand the mechanisms and contexts of creating artwork.

Lisa Christensen does though. Memorable.


More on the Burgess Shale Fossils

Approx. 125 – 140 marine creatures of the tens of thousands of specimens collected from the Burgess Shale

have been identified. Some are still shadowy, some much clearer, some reconsidered

when new finds in Yoho or from other rare sites globally produce fresh evidence.

No doubt the list and our understanding of these early marine creatures will grow and grow.

I still can’t quite accept the term ‘Cambrian Explosion’. I’ll bet that these surprisingly

complex creatures were about long before the neat geological boundaries clinched them.

Probably brazenly clog dancing much earlier – but not in the west end. Like swine flu.

Here swimmingly, but not identified ’til near the check out.


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Tabloid Gloop

Talking of ‘gloopy’ there’s constant surprise and confusion here that I am not an illustrator of fossils or make jolly fossil pics.

What else could an artist possibly do? What is your website about? Surely not evolution?

Where’s your new work? I need to see your art now!

Tiresome, wearying I must say. Look at the history of art and processes of making art,thinks me.

Bubble above my head = I observe just like the scientist and just like the scientist I then gradually interpret it.

I too need time and space to work this out and the results may surprise you. If you do not understand;

if you are surprised or shocked does that make it ‘bad’ art? Perhaps you have something to learn.

Treat your ignorance with disdain not the work.

I thought that these debates had moved on hugely in the last century.

I’d be so much more relaxed if those ‘outside’ art trod with the same trepidation about the subject as those outside any other discipline.

With respect, says I. I don’t read Mandarin. How can I comment on a Mandarin text then?

We have eyes, but cannot necessarily see…………………….. but we all – however poorly informed – think we have a right to an opinion about art!

Here endeth today’s sermon.


The picture is Kicking Horse River in K.H. Pass at Field


Foraging for Field Notes

My ‘Field Notes’ develop as a collection of small daily painted notes that might be exhibited in my solo show in October.

We shall see.

I understand much better now about the difficulties and conflicts of making fine art from scientific information.

The art must stand independently from the science;

it engages in it and may support and explain it, but not necessarily.

Art that makes the science its own; and does not (please) mimic the scientific and technological methods and imaging used.

A tough call.

It takes huge amounts of time and commitment to understand at all the science and issues.

Far longer than I dare to think. Only when digested can I hope for anything that might become ‘my own’ and not commentary.



Wild, windy, chill. I begin to imagine what the winters might be like here. Seven Canada geese fly over noisily. The first that I have seen here.



Monday August 10th A Longer Look at the Stromatolites

I keep thinking about the unassuming, extraordinary stromatolite beds that I have just seen. Spread so widely below Cirque peak. The fine, thread-like bacterial layers develop gradually into mushroom shaped mats as they draws upwards towards the light. The depth of each layer indicates age and activity – a bit like the layers through a tree trunk. These Banff beauties are of immense age; here Cambrian. I ponder this swathe of ancient life – I suppose it’s like a great coral reef. They are so aristocratic – ancient gentry, landed no longer marine, yet compellingly modest too.

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Why did I ever say that I’d write a blog? Trans Pacific Highway, Canadian Pacific Railroad, Kicking Horse River all in this valley – vehicles, trains, river. All reinforced by narrow valley. Very 21st century, but not. The internet as elusive as the fossils.


The Stromatolites.

Here they are, these ancient fossil algae that grow so slowly to form the tussocky matts that I look at. All that time spent looking and working from the Precambrian stromatolite at Cambridge to make the “Whispers” drawings is recalled vividly. This is an unexpected treat.

Now here.Disappointing and gloppy at first glance. Mounds of fractured, sandy coloured rock. Sections through are the way to see the fine threaded forms best, but these seem leaden, not what I had hoped for. But as I look and move up the 100 metre beds I see better. The scientists are yelping in infectious glee. I listen, then wander off into the barren rock field covered in a dazzle of broken slates and begin to discover these quiet jewels.


Saturday August 8th – Helen Lake

Well I had to go to Helen Lake in Banff National Park. A special hike arranged by the Californian geologists/palaeontologists group to spy some stromatolites was the draw for me.

We travelled part of the Icefields Parkway route towards Jaspar to get to the start. Outstanding – all of it- with mountains very different in form. ‘Breathtaking’ undersells here. On a day like this the spirits have to soar off scale.

A young black bear. How carefully these stocky beasts move in search of the buffalo berries to fatten them up for winter.

A beautiful hike up to above the tree line and the neat, glacial Helen Lake. Scree backdrop of Cirque Peak. The marmuts rough and tumbling beside it – seeming to wrestle on their hind legs and rolling about down the hillside in the sun. The ‘gog’. The hardest rock in the Rockies. A quartizite. Will see all the other rocks out.



Thursday August 6th Banff

Dipped in and out of the Burgess Shale Centenary conference at Banff. Listened to various presentations including Nick B’s, Simons and Derek Briggs longer public ones.

The shorter, more technical presentations were bite sized and varied in graspability for the likes of me, intense so did give me focus. Despite being now somewhat more familiar with the material I will always be a fly on the wall. The level and minutiae of debate, the doubt and conjecture fill me with wonder and descent.



Columbian Ground Squirrels

Fine, furry tame little creatures. A different league to our grey haired variety. Their gentle looking heads pop out inquisitively for a chat / squawk with me as I pass their favourite haunt. Then bolt upright, stock still in the sun. Fine food for bears apparently who have an art of capturing these enchanting tunnel dwellers.


Monday August 3rd. Lake Louise. Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail.

Invited to hike from the photo hot spot of Lake Louise up to a fine view of the glaciers at the trail head. A most civilised one and even good tea and home made cake in a wonderful wooden lodge en route. What more could an English woman want?

Sweaty of course – we are are in the Rockies, but steep only in the last section of the pass itself where the cursed slates try to scupper ascent. A climb of about 1,500′ to about 7,100′, so not as high as the Walcott quarry. Cannon shot of an uncomfortable glacier turning in its bed. A mini fall as snow crashes off the cliff face decorating the crags below.

I am given great clarity over rock types and fossil potential from a colleague US palaeontologist Matt James here with his group from Sonoma, California. At the end there’s a view across Victoria glacier and “The DeathTrap” to Abbot Pass Hut way up at about 10,000′.

Exhilarating to eyeball the magnificent peaks so close. Rock beasts that sneer at us miniscule earthlings.

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The Trilobites

The quarry is littered with trilobites wherever I look. Other creatures too. An anomalocaris limb with spines. A chaotic mortuary. Killing fields these are. Whatever happened here? So beetle like these trilobites pressed indelibly into rock upon rock that I forget they were marine. A warm sea then. Azure water, light, shallow.

Here now on this mountain high up a warm sun and a huge vista. I don’t want to lie on the broken slates as I’ll break or squash further these prints of vanished lives. So I just look and itch.


The Mt. Stephen Trilobite Beds

Mt. Stephen looms up over us at Field; threatening at times depending on the light. The trilobite beds are here. They hug a triangular area easily seen on its north face. A difficult climb – ever upward to approx. 7,500 ‘ or well over 3,000’ climb in three kilometres. More of a cursed scramble over loose slates than a hike; the descent worse.

Mt. Stephen. Trilobite beds near saddle on right


Global Posting

Global fossils? Global everything?


A Little List of Fossils

There’s the big brute anomalocaris and cohorts the spiny wiwaxia, opabinia, abundant marrella and more. These are the noisy celebrities.

Vauxia, burgessia, diaphora, dinomischus, nisusia, paterina, micromitra, diaphora haplophrentis, odontogriphus, the beautiful bristle worms canadia and burgessochaeta, eldonia …. the list can run and run. Some abundant, others enigmatic, some no doubt lost to us all together.


The Burgess Shale

How to start? Should I list these pantomine looking creatures – approx. 125 identities that scurried, swam, burrowed, drifted in ancient warm seas way south in the very early days of the fossil record? They are said to look bizarre. Do they though? No stranger than the comedy of abundant contemporary life designs. And that’s the point. The sudden diversity so long ago that can be argued about in detail until Christmas. The grand entrance. Red carpet. Welcome the ‘Cambrian explosion’.

N.B. So keen was Walcott on these fossils that the site witnessed ‘explosion’ again under him. He relied on dynamite rather than dynamics.


Tuesday 28 July 2009. To the Walcott Quarry

The big hike. Long and memorable. A huge bull moose watching near the road as we go. Massive. A dense chandelier topping him. A vast trophy. How will he look rock sandwiched in 505 million years time? Any soft part preservation?

The heavy rain near the beginning makes the going easier, cooler. Up and on; sweat, smells and warming up. High, panoramic, intense, dramatic. Wild flowers, waterfalls, mammals, glaciers, peaks, cliff faces and all the rocks. The rocks strewn everywhere that are apparently so difficult to identify on the spot. Why not, says I? You’re the geologist. But no, a simplistic question apparently.



These mountains must be full of unforeseeable fossil information. I am reminded of this constantly. I also learn that new finds are happening regularly in this region. There is more conjecture about the Burgess Shale fossils than I had realised. So I wonder how differently we will ‘read’ it all in 50 years time?


The Railroad

Can’t talk about Field without something of the extraordinary railroad that vies with the mountains to dominate the town.

By English standards Field is a village not a town. It lies squeezed in the Kicking Horse River valley, huddled under the eye of Mount Stephen and Mount Denis. The river, Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific railroad all jostle for supremacy. Mountains apart, it is surely the railroad that rules.

A stupendous piece of engineering that loops the loop through ‘spiral tunnels’ engineered through these mountains enable the trains to pirouette 360′ twice. A feat of creative design ingenuity that beggers belief, allowing the trains to descend the otherwise impossible gradient – dropping 4,000′ from the Great Divide to K. Horse valley. Like the Burgess Shale discovery these tunnels celebrate their centenary. Raise your glasses to lives saved because before them out of control train crashes were common.

Day and night without timetable the locomotive thugs haul literally mile long freight loads – often well over 100 boxcars. You hear this beast, – a trailing, wily serpent long before it arrives – screeching, high pitched and rebellious with another bruiser at the far back end keeping the shackled units in line. It slides round the mountain into view. Here at last, incandescent with effort, screaming its arrival and chopping the town in half for often 15 minutes a time as the shambolic boxcars trundle by. Magnificent.


Thursday 21 July 2009

What I take for a heat haze blurring the sharp contours of the mountains isn’t. Rather it is the smoke from the forest fires some 3 – 4 hours away further wes at Kelowna B.C. Swathes of forest burning. Homes evacuated. Tremedous areas affected. It might be nature’s way of a clean up; a pretty dramatic one.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Hot, dry, oppressive as if in the Mediterranean, yet each day starts so very chilly. As I walk into Field towards the great punch of Mount Stephen the heat belts out. 5.50pm and I sweat. How come Julie Andrews never looked a wreck when frolicking in the high Tyrol?


Tuesday 21 July 2009 – the ‘Yoho Blow’

Warned everyday of any complacency in this dramatic, physical world.

Take today. The ‘Yoho Blow’. A wind that suddenly gathers itself up and then blasts its way down the valley. Full frontal combat between the fast flowing Kicking Horse River beside us and this wild wind or ‘blow’. Clashing Titans that we watch smash at each other ever upward. A raging, sucking dementor mid river. Gobbles whatever it can including the electricity. Bonkers.


First day here

Field at last, in the belly of the Rockies – all muscle flexed, dynamic.

I had expected a first day acclimatising to altitude and clock. Not so. Whisked up in unbeatable style by helicopter in the esteemed company of Roberta Bondar of astronaut fame to the fossil beds that perch almost nervously under the eye of craggy Mount Wapta. An unforgettable initiation to my ancestors.

The helicoptor cannot land very close to the Burgess Shale, so still a hike up. Our team also includes Elaine Antoniuk – a pivotal figure of the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation, her grand daughter Leah, Prof. Bonnie Patterson and two from the Calgary Herald Press. The Bondar photographic equipment also has to be dragged up for a session at the fossil beds.



So we hike and sweat. Exquisite flora and fauna that Omar, Leah and Alex our enthusiastic Parks Canada guides discuss with us. Woolly seed heads of anemones decorate the mountainside and tiny gentians. I am delighted over how many plants I can guess at. Appalled by my poor knowledge of the animals. The Emerald Lake winks below – blue-green and lazy. What I take as light cloud across it is apparently wafts of pollen.

At last at the quarry. Greetings Walcott. Snow caught here on the ledge. A glacier hugs one of the higher mountains that circle us. A dazzling bright. I skirt round the snow with mosquitoes in droves competing for a bite of north european blood. Thank God the trilobites are fossils; so many. I’d be crawling in them too otherwise.

I cannot take this all in. Such a mesmerizing abundance of life 505 million years ago.

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Questions before departure

The Burgess Shale Foundation lies relatively near the fossil beds. Near? It is a long climb to them – a good days trekking apparently. Am I fit enough? What about the bears?

I have been packing for unpredictable weather, but I hadn’t thought about snow. Yes, in the mountains around Field this July.

What will I see?

Will my work contain any of the strength and staying power that exists in the Burgess Shale fossils themselves?

What’s their story? Daunting.

The intention is that work made from this trip will be shown in my exhibition in Halesworth, Suffolk this October 2009.

Perhaps I’ll see one of these? Leanchoilia superlata


Burgess Shale

A bit of fact here to introduce the Burgess Shale. This is a globally significant fossil formation about 505 million years old. It contains outstanding fossil remains – even guts are evident in these exquisite soft tissue fossils from marine creatures hitherto unseen. These incomparable preservations were discovered accidentally in 1909 and have helped to solve major Darwinian problems about evolution. They continue to be of profound significance to science, so are understandably a protected UNESCO World Heritage site.

Check out the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation website if you want more on this. Worth a visit for the images.