Bugs, fungus and white pines: How to stuff Ontario’s woods into U of T

My general plan for school these past four years has always been to go to class, get good marks, and and at the eventual end of my bachelor's degree, take up those opportunities open to me thanks to my degree. University has been the vehicle for realizing an agreeable future, and so I've somewhat blindly accepted the rota handed to me by the school. This year, however, my mentality has changed. I've realized that rather than viewing school as a mere institution that will lead me to a more personal and meaningful career, I can bring the world, my world, into the university, making my education what I want it to be and turning the university into an extension of my personal interests. Here's an example of what I mean. I've noticed over the last couple if years that the white pines at my cottage have been dying, falling over in disproportionately small storms, skewered to bits by woodpeckers, and prone to unprecedented bug invasions. During my last trip up north I decided to look into the matter more seriously. I'd already googled insect infestations in the Great Lakes and had skimmed through the literature on pine beetles, but didn't really know where to start in figuring out what was happening. I therefore photographed the damaged trees and removed some bark, punctuated with holes left over from the boring bodies of mystery bugs, from a number of dying pines, bringing it all back to Toronto and contacting an entomologist in the Faculty of Forestry who readily agreed to meet me.
Those are big bugs!
Those are big bugs!
Within a matter of days, the mystery had been solved: the insect infestations are likely a secondary affliction, not caused by what I feared was the recent arrival of an invasive pest, but instead made possible because the trees have already been weakened by a more fundamental change in their habitat, so great that they can no longer defend themselves against an apparent army of indigenous arthropods and fungi. The real culprit behind the trees' deaths is most likely the dropping water levels of the Great Lakes (and thus the falling water table), which many trees, particularly those chipping their way through the Canadian Shield, depend on. This is what I liked — that I was able to bring something important and relevant to me into the school, a process through which I was able to make more sense of the world that exists far outside of the university. There are other ways that my non-academic interests have become entwined with U of T, so that I've been able to mould my school experience into what I want it to be. Between April and October, for example, I like to dress myself in hip-waders and go around photographing insects.
Leafhopper, Gyponana.
Leafhopper, Gyponana
Tricolored Bumble Bee, Bombus ternarius.
Tricolored Bumble Bee, Bombus ternarius
My interest in insects led me this summer to join the Toronto Entomologists' Association, mainly because of the field trips offered by the organization throughout the summer, through which I hoped to learn more about catching and identifying bugs, and conducting counts. As it turns out, the association meets on a monthly basis in Victoria College to discuss the results of these forays, as well as recent publications, and organizational issues. The TEA also holds an annual Student Symposium in late March in the Ramsay Wright Zoological Building, where students at all university levels are invited to present their own research. It further offers a research grant for field work involving entomology. Likewise, I was able to feed a similar interest in mushrooms by choosing courses that specifically cover mycology. Abundant mysteries concerning the asexual lives of fungi and the identity of the tar spot growing on maple trees are now being unravelled.
Coral Fungus. Clavulina coralloides.
Coral Fungus. Clavulina coralloides
Mystery Rainforest Mushroom.
Mystery Rainforest Mushroom
The Sickener. Russula emetica.
The Sickener. Russula emetica
I guess what I'm trying to get across is that I've realized that while school is a really important stepping stone to some semblance of a future professional life, it can also reflect personal interests in ways that supersede academics. Rather than endure a four-year experience governed by the syllabi unremittingly handed to us twice a year, we can take advantage of the infrastructure provided by the university to make our recreational interests (be they mushrooms, music, or athletics) more intelligible, accessible and, in the end, fulfilling. -Mary

2 comments on “Bugs, fungus and white pines: How to stuff Ontario’s woods into U of T

  1. Wow, Mary, you take gorgeous shots!

    I loved this post, and I enjoyed your story of bringing your trees to university!

    I think that even though the university is huge, and students find it alienating and lonely, from my experience, the profs find it alienating and lonely just the same and love interacting with students. It’s so cool that you got an entomologist at the university to help you with your tree problem!

  2. Thanks, Cynthia! I think you’re right about professors enjoying the interactions with students, sometimes I wonder how many students actually use office hours at all.

    I was excited about the entomologist taking the time to look at the bark and photos too. It was interesting, she was a lot like a tree doctor, diagnosing by proxy.

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