The Willa Noble Collection

Trevor Goward, co-curator of lichens at the UBC Herbarium for over 30 years, talks about Willa Noble’s legacy in documenting lichens in BC and describes his favourite lichen.

Lichens I would like to call the first responders. Not in the sense they go at rescue, but in a sense that they respond first or among the first of all organisms to a changing environment and that that certainly includes climate change. As the climate within a forest or a mountain top or in an open grassland changes, so many of the lichens that live in these places die. Very soon, very quickly, highly sensitive. In times of global climate change we need to keep our finger on the pulse to understand what has happened in the past, how it's changing now and to try to pick what's to come and lichens are very much a part of that of that effort.

My name is Trevor Goward and I'm co-curator of lichens at UBC. I've been in this honorary position for the last 30-some years and hope to continue for at least as long.

Who is Willa Noble and what's the story of her collection? When I first began studying lichens in the late 1970s I met a young woman named Willa Noble who at that time was doing a PhD at UBC under the supervision of a prof and dear friend of mine Wilf Schofield who did much to keep the Herbarium going in its early days. Willa was trying to do something that was well-nigh impossible in those times she was trying especially here in western Canada. Very few people have come to study the lichens, yet what she was trying to do was to give a full account of the lichens of the small region of British Columbia very lichenologically rich region. Basically the gulf islands in southeast Vancouver Island. She succeeded in doing this in ways that people even today still are in awe of. She discovered many new species to science in her efforts and she cataloged, I think it was well more than 400 species of lichens, keys for them, their total range distributions and basically in a sense put British Columbia on the lichenological map. It was a tremendous effort. I believe it took her about 10 years to to complete, far longer than your normal PhD. And then having completed it, and for reasons I can certainly understand, she decided that she had enough of the tremendous strain of academic pursuit and decided to take her talents elsewhere. It was a great sadness to lose her within the field, her expertise and talent, but nonetheless she left the legacy which anybody who wishes to could come and now weave through at the UBC Herbarium.

So my role at the museum, well I see this as a symbiotic relationship. I work on the lichens of British Columbia and I describe new species as they, as I become aware of them. I've done more than three dozen species, so far new to science and probably that many more to go before I'm finished. By doing this I give UBC some sort of visibility of the international map of the discipline of lichenology, but at the same time I contribute as much as I can to the running of the Herbarium at UBC, mostly by fielding questions that the technicians and staff may have, but also by preparing specimens and gathering material and contributing to the to the holdings of the UBC Herbarium.

So, do I have a favourite lichen? Well, I have a favourite lichen. Over the years I've studied and got to know at least a thousand, shall we say lichens quite quite well, but I think my very favourite lichen of all time, and I'm sure the raven knows of this, is the lichen I'm holding my hand. This is what's called technically Bryoria fremontii otherwise known as the edible horse hair lichen. These hair lichens they basically define the northern boreal forest. They're what make these forests the shag forest.

This particular hair lichen however, the edible horse hair lichen gets its name from its use by first indigenous peoples, the interior Salish including our local groups the Canim peoples and the Simpcw people used to collect the these lichens in season and make of them a kind of a vegetarian pemmican. It's also one of the one of the two or three most important lichens by the way for the mountain caribou which the Indigenous people of course used to hunt here when caribou were abundant. Caribou are disappearing and part of the reason they are and will disappear is because this lichen in the high country requires the forest to accumulate to abundance, but the old forests are mostly gone now and so the caribou will of course disappear as well. Knowing these kinds of connections is essential. This sort of thing was known to the Indigenous people of this province. It's hardly even suspected yet by most people outside academia.


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