It was my first date with the man I married two years later. Gavin took me to a pet shop where we bought a fish. Not just any fish, a Weather Loach, the same species introduced into the waters around Chilliwack and capable of surviving our coastal winters. All of which was explained to me in detail at the pet shop along with a short lecture on invasive species. Gavin wanted to photograph this loach for his Fresh Water Fishes of BC book.
A Weather Loach has few characteristics that would distinguish it from a wiener – occasionally swimming around and frequent farting are the only two that come to mind (yes you can hear the bubbles). Lucky for Gavin, I found first-date fish-shopping charming and, as it turned out, a foreshadowing of what living with a curator would be like. After its photo shoot, the Weather Loach came home to live in one of our aquaria, where it lived well into old age for its species.
I now live with an assortment of animals: turtles that will likely outlive us, frogs that sing in the night, finches that sing at sunrise, and fish in multiple aquaria to name a few; and, for a short time, a glossy black and yellow, sweet natured Florida Kingsnake named Priscilla. Instead of bouquets of flowers, I’ve received a delicate green and orange Red-eyed Tree Frog and a dainty blue Mandarin Goby as romantic gestures. I’ve accompanied Gavin to events where I sorted fish on the beach after sunset, road trips to pick up various specimens including a large, frozen sea turtle, and been taken to dinners with European Starling on the menu (yes, the plentiful glossy black bird introduced to North America on a Shakespearean whim). Our freezer hosts a rotating collection of dead animals ranging from Mink to Dark-eyed Junco to crayfish alongside our dinners.
More than once I’ve screeched the car to a stop after the words “I think I spotted a ___!” Fill the blank with everything from rattlesnake to squirrel. His keen eyes spot all road-kill that might fill a hole in the museum’s collection. Normally I don’t mind, but the scent of a Salmon Shark pickled in 1947 can linger, literally. As does the scent of a rotten swan…
On a dreary winter Saturday afternoon, we drove slowly up and down Kangaroo Road in Metchosin. Earlier in the week, Gavin received a report of a dead swan at the side of the road and we were searching for it. Eventually, we spotted a pile of white feathers in the ditch. I pulled the car over onto the shoulder and Gavin hopped out to collect his prize. A detail had been omitted from the original swan report – the bird was not freshly dead. Decomposition was well underway and we weren’t prepared for that.
Gavin scrounged two plastic shopping bags out of the back of the car and lay them open on the ground, one inside the other. By grabbing a handful of flight feathers (the larger feathers on a bird’s wing that provide lift and calligraphy pens for medieval monks), he picked up the swan holding it at arm’s length. The flight feathers began popping out of the decaying skin as soon as they took the bird’s weight, forcing him to move quickly to avoid more intimate contact with decaying flesh. The bird landed in the bag with a sickening slop. Once double bagged, the swan was deposited in the back of the car.
A short drive down the road and the bag burped, forcing a quick change in plan – the swan was not going to be stored in our freezer until Monday. A husband’s privileges only extend so far- the bird was going directly to the museum! For anyone who is curious, double bagging a rotten swan does not contain the smell. With all the windows wide open, we took the shortest route to the museum. The swan went directly into the museum’s freezer.
A few days later, the smell of rotting swan dissipated leaving allowing the ordinary car scent to return. This was not the bird’s swan song, it now lives on as a scientific specimen joining others in the collection dating back to 1924; the museum’s first swan was collected near Comox in 1924 by Ronald Stewart. These specimens allow us to see how swans have changed through time, a valuable component in understanding our province’s shifting ecology and environment.
I still accompany Gavin when he goes collecting for the museum’s collection. Just the other day, I spotted a pile of grey fur on the road and out of my own volition stopped. Gavin, who hadn’t been paying attention, hopped out and picked up the still-warm Grey Squirrel. My transformation into a naturalist collector is complete. This invasive squirrel is currently in the freezer.
Jeannette Bedard is an oceanographer passionate about the workings of the natural world, and married to Gavin for almost three years now. They live on a little urban lot with an energetic toddler, a menagerie of animals, and a vegetable garden instead of a lawn. Jeannette regularly writes about nature and her garden, and sometimes about Gavin’s antics on her blog tangent ramblings.