I stand in a tiny, pathetic remnant of Canada’s hottest, driest ecosystem, surrounded by two excellent wineries. The loose, sandy soil of the Haynes Lease Ecological Reserve moves easily underfoot. There are patches of Antelopbrush here and there, and cactus is everywhere. I am seeing the usual invasive suspects: Bulbous Bluegrass, Alfalfa, Baby’s Breath. A thoroughly nasty Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris) in the dirt parking lot, which I destroyed with my boot. Fortunately the scattered Dalmatian Toadflax is under attack by our biocontrol beetles.
Still, this one-hundred hectare Reserve provides a “moment,” so to speak, despite the traffic noise coming from Black Sage Road down below. (Black Sage is a common misnomer for Antelopebrush; it is not in the Sage family.) Talk about hot and dry. Here I am, at less than 300 meters above sea level, 0.04 minutes north of the 49th Parallel, on a southwest facing slope (the driest of the eight compass aspects), on sandy soil. No wonder there is a patch of cactus every meter or so.
Nestled amongst these ecological extremes and ironies is the historical irony of the Haynes family, the original purchasers of this land that once belonged to the Osoyoos Indian Band. This was another example of a common practice of the Dominion Government of the time; putting traditional Indigenous lands up for sale or long-term lease to white settlers.
As I walk further on to the Ecological Reserve, I notice a tall, narrow forb with branching leaves that had me stumped. I collect a specimen and upon returning home, I scan through various floras and narrowed it down to either a Mugwort, a Salvia, a Wormwood or a Sage. But this would not be the conventional grey, shrubby, long-lived Sage: it was obviously an annual or biennial. So I knew I was in a world of hurt. There are literally dozens of species belonging to these four families, some introduced, some native, and some native “ruderals” that mimic the invasive characteristics of introduced species.
Searching further, I discovered iNaturalist, an online wallow for plant junkies, birdnerds, spider freaks and several other categories of mildly obsessive naturalists. Instantly I felt right at home. As I surfed about, I found an entire online folder dedicated to the Haynes Lease itself. Stunning: 582 species have been found in that hundred hectares. The Marbled Purple Jumping Spider, the Nashville Warbler, the Columbia Plateau Pocket Mouse, the Cat-Faced Orb Weaver, the Columbia Moonglow Lichen, the Western Skink, plus 577 others, each with an accompanying photograph. True, Haynes Lease does include several distinct habitats, starting at the riparian oxbows of Osoyoos Lake, and then proceeding uphill to 600 meters asl, near the top of Throne Mountain. But still, the number of identified species is a remarkable indicator of the biodiversity of the Haynes Lease, as well as a tribute to local naturalists.
After an extended period of iNaturalist organism-surfing, I returned to my original quest, and found my mystery plant: Northern Wormwood (Artemisia campestris) a wide-ranging—and somewhat weedy—native biennial. One of the five hundred and eighty-two. I did look for one of my favorites from my California childhood: the Pygmy Short-Horned Lizard, but no luck. The last reliable sighting of this delightful little reptile in the Osoyoos area was in 1957.
I finally closed Inaturalist but it did prompt a speculation: now that we have counted all the individual species, what if we reversed that reductionist focus? What if we could identify, map out and count all the myriad relationships between these five hundred and eighty-two species? To go beyond a mere population census, and begin thinking of the Haynes Lease as a hundred-hectare organism?
Now there is a job for us mildly obsessive naturalists, and our computer-nerd kinfolk.