Comfrey, sage, and fennel, and thyme

I have been ruthless in removing non-native plants from my garden, if those I planted myself in past years. There are some exceptions, though. Some of these non-natives either flower when little else is there to feed pollinators (forget-me-not, Forsythia), while others are so obviously valued by bees and butterflies that they obviously perform an important role in maintaining and feeding insects. Comfrey (Symphytum asperum) is one of these, an attractive (though prickly) plant whose hanging bell-shaped flowers are favoured by bumble bees (who use “buzzing” to get at its pollen). A bunch of comfrey flowers are in the picture at top left, below. Another non-native I foster is fennel, which I don’t cook with but plant because it seems to be the favourite food plant for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars (they also like Queen Ann’s Lace, but they ignore that if there’s fennel around). Thyme and other minty herbs (oregano, basil, mint) have small flowers that small bees and flies like.

But my favourite, and the biggest draw for bees in my garden, is sage. It flowers in late May and over continues to do so for weeks. Bees of all sizes come for the nectar, and looking down at my big sage plants yesterday I could see the busy traffic of dozens of bees. These include honey bees (Apis mellifera), like the one seen taking off after feeding at a sage flower, top right; Osmia sp., second down from top left; Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens), second down from top right, using its front leg to hold up a leaf; Bicoloured Agapostemon (Agapostemon viriscens), third down on the left, seen here approaching a sage flower on the wing; the Polyester Bee (Colletes inaequalis), third down from the right; and several others too small for me to recognize. There are also ants feeding on sage nectar and several species of fly. The surfeit of insects also attracts parasitic wasps, one of which I captured in a fuzzy image (bottom right).

Apart from sage, this week’s major draw for bees was my honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos), which I planted in 2009 as a seedling and which is now taller than the house. It’s the first year that it’s produced a lot of flowers, and the bees are all over it. As they drop off, the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is about to flower; I never imagined that these interesting-looking inflorescences (a bit like Romanesco brocoli) could be appealing to insects, just because they’re green and not showy–but I was wrong. Bees love them.

Fantastic Paragraphs (i)

When it comes to paragraphs in academic writing, I can think of no better approach than Joseph Williams’s as explained in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. I often teach a distilled version of Williams’s model for coherent and cohesive paragraphs, but his explanation is far more nuanced and capacious than what I cover in workshops.

But for this series of posts what I’m interested in is primarily the ways that creative writers use and abuse the form of the paragraph for effects of various kinds: humour, surprise, reflections of a character’s deranged mind, etc. These strange and interesting paragraphs get much of their power from how they deviate from our expectations of what a paragraph should do.

My first “case study” is a paragraph early in one of the most incredible novels I’ve read recent, Gerard Murnane’s Border Districts (2017). Impossible to explain, this novel is one of my top-ranked books of recent years, generally similar–but only very generally–to other amazing novels including Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. I think you can get a fairly good sense of the novel from the paragraph I quote, in which the elderly narrator reflects, over the course is many paragraphs, on his Catholic upbringing. Here it is:

The Holy Ghost, called nowadays the Holy Spirit, was sometimes referred to as the forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity. Not only did I never forget him; he was by far my favourite of the three divine persons. When I was in my tenth year and attending a school conducted by a different order of brothers from those mentioned earlier, my class teacher was a young layman who was in love with the Virgin Mary. He claimed no more than to have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, as he mostly called her, but I, who was continually falling in love with personages known to me only from illustrations in newspapers or magazines or from fictional texts–I never doubted that my teacher was truly in love. More than thirty years later, while I was reading some or another passage in the fiction of Marcel Proust about the odd ways of some of another character in love, I remembered that my teacher of long ago would use any pretext for bringing the name of his beloved into classroom discussions. I sensed that my classmates were embarrassed by our teacher’s special devotion, as he called it, but I felt a certain sympathy for him. I was not in love with Mary, but I felt as though I ought to have been so. Of course the name Mary hereabout denotes a mental image. My trouble was that I had never seen on any picture or statue of Mary such a face as I was apt to fall in love with. More than ten years later, I saw too late just such a face as would have won me over earlier. I have not forgotten that this paragraph began as an account of my liking for the Holy Ghost.

Gerard Murnane, Border Districts (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2017): 25-6.

The small things…

Spring is always a time of anticipation. I find myself checking on the growth of my plants many times a day, always astonished to find visible changes in the height of a common milkweed shoot (Asclepias syriaca) or the surprisingly scarlet first growth of dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). My wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are doing very well, and both redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are about to burst into flower. I’m particularly psyched about the many giant hyssops (Agastache nepetoides and A. foeniculum) that have taken hold. No plant got more bee visits last year than them.

Yesterday I saw a few Dunning’s miner bees (Andrena dunningi) making holes in the bare ground at the base of my burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa). I had never noticed these bees, let alone seen their nests, which look like ant holes. The bees are a bit smaller than a honey bee. In the photo to the left (below), you can see two bees: the fully visible one and also the head of another one poking out from a tunnel. The image on the top right is a new lupine (Lupinus perennis), with its gorgeous star-shaped first leaf. I have yet to succeed in growing a lupine beyond this early stage. Let’s hope for better luck this year. Under the lupine is a cluster of redbud flowers, and at the very bottom is a closeup of one of redbud’s main pollinators, the orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria), though so far it seems to prefer visiting forget-me-not flowers (Myosotis scorpioides), one of the few non-native plants I am not actively trying to eradicate from the garden because it flowers abundantly in the early spring, when small bees and flies have few other options.

There’s been something new this year. Along with the usual movement of migratory birds–the most exciting of which is always hermit thrushes–I’ve been hearing a white-throated sparrow singing in the neighbourhood for a few days now. This is an instantly recognizable song for anyone who’s spent time in the Norther (see a version here, though this is rather different from the one I’m hearing); in fact I’ve always associated this song with canoe trips. I’ve never heard it in Toronto before. Who knows that it means, but I couldn’t help find it uplifting.

Essay contest for PhDs or Postdocs

Here is a fantastic publication opportunity for doctoral students and postdocs for whom English is not the first language. In addition to the book prize and the publication of the essay, this opportunity enables an emerging scholar to expand their impact beyond their primary field and to gain some significant editorial experience with a journal. In today’s dismal job market, these experiences could give an extra boost to a strong research and teaching record.

See the prize website for details. Basics are reproduced, slightly abridged, below:


Language Teaching announces the award of an essay prize which honours one of the founding editors of this journal. PRIZE The winner will receive a £500 credit to be used to purchase books available in the current Cambridge University Press catalogue. The winning essay – revised where appropriate in line with referees’ comments – will be prioritised for publication in the first available issue of the journal. The winner will be nominated for a one-year period as a member of the Language Teaching Editorial Board and designated in all outlets of the journal as the “Christopher Brumfit Award Winner”. 

Write an essay which presents an argument of relevance to second/foreign language learning or acquisition. This essay essay should not be a research report, with its standard format of literature review, methodology, results, and conclusion. What is required is something different.  Like all academic work, it should be rational and scholarly. The chosen topic should ideally be handled with aplomb, seeking to engage and entertain readers as well as inform them, and stimulate ideas. The essay might also reflect on, challenge, or question any number of ideas and assumptions. It may therefore be speculative, provocative, personal, or controversial.  Above all, it should be interesting.

See the prize website for details.

Communicating scholarship from left field

The results of the 2020 “Dance Your PhD” competition are in (for info, see here; for some of the videos, see here). The overall winners this year have won extra approval from 100% of preteen boys in my house. Not bad for atmospheric physicists who do simulations.

There’s so much to love about this competition, starting with the fact that it exists at all. But of course this kind of eccentric approach to communicating research is not just whimsical. Like the 3MT competition (3 minute thesis), Dance Your PhD can be hugely productive for researchers not despite but because of its constraints and creativity. I once asked a group of PhDs in chemistry to draw their research in a single cartoon panel, and the results were surprisingly information–not just to me but also, apparently, to them. Part of this may be due to the freedom to relax and just try something new, but I think more is gained from the constraints that these activities impose. By disallowing researchers from using the same old explanations, you can help them find new and often better ways to reach their various audiences (whether general or specialized).

The more I try these activities, the more I believe they actually work. I’ve often had grad students write their dissertation in six words (a version of the classic 6-word novel, not actually invented by Hemingway, by the way). It’s a quick but surprisingly challenging experiment that often yields clarifying results. One version for my own current project is this: “Science uses (and creates!) narrative forms.” I’ve also seen some fantastic results from having students write up their project as the blurb for a limited series that people would actually want to watch. Another trick I tried–perhaps my most interesting yet–was to get students to invent the perfect epigraph by whomever they want for their own dissertation; it was incredible to see how well these invented epigraphs got at and even uncovered the key concerns of the project. (I’m going ask my students for permission to reproduce some of these experiments here; stay tuned!).

I don’t imagine I’ll be asking my students to dance their dissertation, but I will certainly encourage them to watch the winning entries. Now, I’m going back into that rabbit hole myself.

Northern wildlife

After years of canoe-tripping in northern Ontario and Quebec, I have come to find the flora and fauna of boreal regions impressive in ways that nature documentaries tend to reserve for tropical rainforests and coral reefs. There are obviously major differences, not just in biodiversity but also in vividness. But the colour palettes of the north are pleasing in their own ways, and these ways are not only subtle. The photos below, from a road trip in 2019 starting near Sudbury then heading into the mountains north of the St Laurence and west of the Saguenay and then east to the Gaspe peninsula, give a glimpse of this beauty and variety.

From top left: a Gray Tree Frog (Dryophytes versicolor) on a willow leaf; a katydid by the roadside; a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in a Joe Pye-weed (Eupatorium maculatum) inflorescence; a fly on an aster flower; the landscape about 45 minutes north-east of Quebec City; fire-weed on the roadside; Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia); a gentian (likely a Closed Bottle Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii); Joe Pye-weed by a slow-moving river; a porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum); unidentified caterpillar on Mountain Maple; the maritime forest; a meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus). All photos (C) D. A. Newman.

Academic Writing Pattern # 2: “with-linked phrases”

Like the “and is” pattern covered in AWP #1, this common pattern is not incorrect. Nor is it even necessarily awkward or otherwise undesirable. But it is used by some writers, especially in sciences, uncritically and too often. As a case in point, the examples I quote below were all taken from articles I already happened to have in my hard-drive; of all the papers I opened searching for the “with-link” pattern, only two (2) didn’t use it at least once.

From my observations I’d say this pattern, like “and is,” tends to appear early in papers, when authors are trying to get a load of background covered before getting to the real matter of interest. But it can appear anywhere. Here is an example from an article on

Variants recently identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil are transmitting much more easily than the original strain, with the first estimated to be at least 56 per cent more transmissible.

Adam Miller, “How the spread of coronavirus variants could completely change the pandemic in Canada.” (16 Jan. 2021).

In this pattern, the preposition “with” serves as the connection between the main sentence and a new piece of information contained in a phrase.

Here are a few more examples, these from scholarly articles:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, with significant emphasis placed on EC design and on discovery of improved CO2 reduction (4, 5) and H2O oxidation (6) catalysts based on nonprecious earth-abundant elements.

Kunene et al. “Solar-powered synthesis of hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide and water.” PNAS 116.20 (2019): 9694.

Coot eggs in a nest hatch asynchronously, with an average of 9 to 10 eggs hatching over a period between 2 and 11 d, depending on the nest (median 6 d).

Lyon and Shizuka. “Extreme offspring ornamentation in American coots is favored by selection within families, not benefits
to conspecific brood parasites.” PNAS 117.4 (2020): 2057.

The PPA is thought to represent the basic geometry and content of a scene, with these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information (Epstein, 2008)….

Douglas et al. “Perception of Impossible Scenes Reveals Differential Hippocampal and Parahippocampal Place Area Contributions to Spatial Coherency.” Hippocampus 27 (2017): 61.

As you’ll probably agree, these sentences are fine. Fine: that is, not bad, not ungrammatical. But could they be better? My first observation is that these constructions sound very unlike the way people actually speak, even when they speak to fellow specialists about their research. So: is the “with” actually helpful; it is actually necessary? More to the point, what alternative arrangements does it conceal?

In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete “with,” leaving the sentence otherwise unchanged. This isn’t always possible, but when it is it’s worth a try. I suspect that the “with” can be removed this way when the phrase it introduces contains a verb ending in -ing. The second and third examples above are exemplary:

Coot eggs in a nest hatch asynchronously, an average of 9 to 10 eggs hatching over a period between 2 and 11 d, depending on the nest (median 6 d).

The PPA is thought to represent the basic geometry and content of a scene, these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information (Epstein, 2008)….

In other cases, you can replace the “with” with a verb (ending with -ing or not, as the case requires. For example, here is a revision of the first part of the first quotation:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, which has placed significant emphasis on EC design…

Why is this better? Well, whether it is better is a matter of taste, I guess. I prefer it because the new verb (“using”) adds action to and therefore clarifies the relationship between various parts of this short sentence. “With” represents the same relationship but less evidently, less actively.

Look at a sentence I wrote earlier: “In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete ‘with,’ leaving the sentence otherwise unchanged.” I could have used the “with-link” arrangement instead: “In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete ‘with,’ with the sentence otherwise unchanged.” I hope you’ll agree that the original just sounds more natural (and not just because the revision ends up repeating “with” twice in a row). Instead of “with,” my original sentence uses a verb ending with -ing: leaving. Action!

The benefit of such a strategy becomes clearer when you’re dealing with a longer, more complex sentences, as in the second quotation above:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, significant emphasis being placed on EC design and on discovery of improved CO2 reduction (4, 5) and H2O oxidation (6) catalysts based on nonprecious earth-abundant elements.

I would actually recommend dividing this sentence into two sentences–not because it’s that long, but because as I read it it really does address two ideas (1 = this is an area of intense activity; 2 = within this area of activity, special emphasis is placed on X). But if it’s one sentence I think this revision is clearer, more active and (not unrelatedly) more like spoken English.

Signs of the times…

Yesterday (January 20, 2021) was a pretty cold day (-4C), an anomaly. Not so long ago it would have been an anomaly because it was so warm for late January; now it’s anomalously cold.

Having lived in the same place for 12 years now, it’s easy to notice certain trends. In the past few years, I have been alarmed to see crocuses starting to sprout in mid-February. Last week I saw the little shoots a whole month earlier than any previous year. My irises are also throwing up a few brave leaves. On Sunday it was warm enough to transplant my Purple Flowering Raspberry (Rosa odoratus) from the backyard to the front. The soil was pliable and not even close to frozen. In fact it was crawling with earthworms. Yesterday my kids saw a robin, not a usual sighting in Toronto in the heart of winter.

Crocuses sprouting in the third week of January: not the Toronto I grew up in!

As a once avid and now more mellow birdwatcher, one of the most tangible evidence of Toronto’s changing environment has been the appearance of mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos). Back when I birdwatched a lot in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I never saw one until I went to California. I saw my first Ontario mockingbird at the Oakville GO Train station in 2003. Since then, mockingbirds have become a daily sighting in my neighbourhood, often coming to feed on the berries of Virginia Creeper growing on my porch.

A Northern Mockingbird, just done feeding on fruit from a Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), January 2021.

Today (January 21, 2021), they’re calling for a high of 3C.

Academic Writing Pattern # 1

This is the first of my posts in my Notes on Academic Writing series. It will focus on small but (to my eye) troublesome patterns in academic writing, as well as on neat tricks for improving academic prose. The issues addressed in this series are not the usual ones. Nor are they all that important–nothing like the issues of concision, clarity cohesion and coherence that are treated so well elsewhere (for instance in my colleague Rachael Cayley’s fantastic blog Explorations of Style). No, this series is about small issues. But even small issues can have a big effect on the clarity, rhythm, professionalism and beauty of academic writing.

This first post is about one of those troublesome patterns, what I call the “and is” construction. It’s particularly common in scientific writing. Here are two examples, with the pattern highlighted:

In light of scientific developments in the field of medical research, the document aims to address a range of issues which involves ethical controversies and is criticised by pro-life ethicists.

Patrick Foong. “Human Embryonic Stem Cell (HESC) Research in Malaysia: Multi-Faith Perspectives.” Asian Bioethics Review 3.3 (2011): 191

The Gini coefficient has gained popularity in the social sciences as an accepted way to measure income inequality (Allison 1978) and is used in many studies of income inequality.

Laura Duncan. “Money and Membership: Effects of Neighbourhood Poverty, Income Inequality and Individual Income on Voluntary Association Membership in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 35.4 (2010): 580.

These sentences, though correct, both sound a bit “off” to me. What accounts for this feeling? Without doing a more in-depth analysis, I suspect two causes. One is the fact, demonstrated above, that the sentence’s subject is linked to two verbs, the first of which is active and the second passive. Thus, in the first example, “the document” is the subject associated with two verbs: “aims” (active voice) and “is criticised” (passive voice). In the second example, the subject “Gini coefficient” is associated with two verbs: “has gained” (active voice) and “is used” (passive voice).

The second factor, which is more subjective and difficult to assess, is the fact that while both parts of each sentence are “about” the same topic (the document, the Gini coefficient), each part of those two sentences are about fairly distinct aspects of that topic. In the first sentence, the first half of the sentence is about what the document does (what it “aims to address”), while the sentence half of the sentence is about how people have reacted to it. In short, though both parts of the sentence are about the document, they are still about two very different aspects of that document–a difference that is somewhat obscured by the way both halves of the sentences are connected (with a simple “and,” as if both sides were equivalent or symmetrical). Another way to put it is that the two parts appear to be different kinds of statement about the same topic.

Here is one more example, which also reflects the issues I mentioned above.

Intriguingly, these organisms have only a single noncentromeric histone H3 that resembles H3.3 and is
deposited during both replicative and nonreplicative phases of the cell cycle.

Harmit S. Malik and Steven Henikoff. “Major Evolutionary Transitions in Centromere Complexity.” Cell 138 (2009): 1071.

Again, we have a subject (“single noncentromeric histone H3”) working with two verbs in active (“resembles”) and passive (“is deposited”) voice. Like the other examples, this two-verb pattern also mixes description (“resembles”) with action (“is deposited”).

To get a better sense of why “and is” sentences often seem awkward, it may be helpful to look at an exception, where the “and is” structure works rather well. For example:

This software is institutionally available to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees and is thus
cost effective.

Victoria M. Hunt et al. “A Decision Support Tool for Adaptive Management of Native Prairie Ecosystems.” Interfaces 46.4 (2016): 339.

Here, the two halves of the sentence seem to be “about” the same or at least closely related aspects of the software in question. In fact, the second fact about the software (i.e. that is it cost effective) is directly related to the first fact about it (i.e. that it is institutionally available to employees). Compare that pattern to the sentences above. Note, too, that both verbs here are in the same voice (in this case active voice).

But I’m not really convinced that I’ve put my finger on why most “and is” sentences seem awkward and why some don’t. Consider this hypothetical case:

Malaria is a leading cause of mortality and is one of the most challenging infectious diseases to control.

This sentence does not fit the patterns I identified in the first three quoted sentences, yet it still sounds awkward in the same way. The voice is consistent here (there is no switch from active to passive voice, or vice versa); furthermore, I think it’s fair to say that both parts of the sentence are about more or less the same aspect of the same topic (both are descriptive and both deal with the seriousness of malaria). Yet I find that the “and is” structure is problematic in the same way as the three quoted examples above. I can’t quite figure this out.

I will keep thinking about this issue. But I suspect that the pattern I identified above is generally responsible for the oddity of “and is” sentences. In the meantime, don’t fret: it’s not a major problem! Still, I think it’s good to identify patterns that make our writing less effective, as well as patterns we end up relying on.

To conclude, I’ll go back to my hypothetical example to offer some easy fixes. In many cases, the easiest solution to the “and is” issue is to divide the sentence into two. But there are other options that might be preferable, such as

Malaria, a leading cause of mortality, is one of the most challenging infectious diseases to control.

A leading cause of mortality, malaria is one of the most challenging infectious diseases to control.

Malaria is a leading cause of mortality and among the most challenging infectious diseases to control.

These are just three of many more possible revisions….

Tending our garden

I am lucky enough to have a front yard and a back yard at my home. In an ideal world I would use these spaces to grow a long-grass prairie, a Carolinian forest, an oak savanna and a wetland, but with 4mX6m (back) and 4mX5m (front) to work with, this is a bit of long shot.

When I moved here 11 years ago the backyard was mostly covered by a corrugated metal garage, the remainder being concrete flagstones. The front was lawn. One of the most heartening experiences of my life was right after tearing down the garage and removing the concrete in the backyard, leaving a muddy mess: within minutes, there were robins picking for worms in the newly exposed soil–the first birds I’d seen in the yard. Within days, the mud was turning green with new plant growth.

Over the years I have been trying to build on that moment by planting as many pollinator-friendly native (and some non-native) plants to create habitat and food for insects (apart from one ruby-throated hummingbird years ago, it has been insects exclusively). The pictures below show just a few of the visitors from the summers of 2018, 2019 and 2020.

From top left: an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica) visiting one of my two Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis); what I think is a Red-Belted Bumble Bee (Bombus rufocinctus) visiting chives; two monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); a Bicoloured Agapostemon (Agapostemon viriscens) visiting one of an unidentified thistle; a Black Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes) on my fennel plant; what I think is probably a Spotted Apatelodes caterpillar (Apatelodes torrefacta) on fireweed (Epilobium augustifolium); three young raccoons (Procyon lotor, one of the best Latin names ever), partly concealed by staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); two recently emerged monarch butterflies; the incredible caterpillar of the Abbott sphinx (Sphecodina abbottii), believed to be a grape mimic; a red-and-blue leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea) on staghorn sumac; and a Black Swallowtail recently emerged from its chrysalis; a Banded Longhorn Beetle (Typocerus velutinus) on Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), one of the most pollinator-friendly plants I have; Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta); the gorgeous little beetle Chilocorus stigma on Common Milkweed; a monarch butterfly on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); an unidentified bee (Megachile inermis, perhaps?) on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). (All photos (c) D. A. Newman)