Know Your Neighbour

Andy MacKinnon is committed to making you love the outdoors

From education to understanding to conservation, Mackinnon's push for appreciation of the land starts at the grassroots

by Kiley Verbowski
March 11, 2021
Know Your Neighbour

Andy MacKinnon is committed to making you love the outdoors

From education to understanding to conservation, Mackinnon's push for appreciation of the land starts at the grassroots

by Kiley Verbowski
Mar 11, 2021
Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily
Know Your Neighbour

Andy MacKinnon is committed to making you love the outdoors

From education to understanding to conservation, Mackinnon's push for appreciation of the land starts at the grassroots

by Kiley Verbowski
March 11, 2021
Andy MacKinnon is committed to making you love the outdoors
Kiley Verbowski / Capital Daily

One of Andy MacKinnon’s favourite signs of spring in the northern Pacific coastal region is the mating croak of male chorus frogs. They’re singing for attention during our midday walk in Metchosin, the area he’s called home for 33 years, but he tells me they’ll be deafening near sundown in just a few more weeks.

Bursting with enthusiasm, MacKinnon has a fact and a story to share about every plant, tree, and fungus we see, which isn’t surprising considering he has co-compiled BC’s most popular field guides for plants and has been called “the rockstar of botanists.”

MacKinnon was born in Vancouver and studied at UBC where he received his master’s degree, studying micro-fungi that live in streams. “Can you think of a better way to render yourself unemployable?” he asked, his white moustache curling up into a smile against his ruddy complexion that betrays a long life outdoors.

But his passion for the natural world persisted into a 30-year career as a research ecologist with the BC government and a registered professional botanist. He also taught as an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and still leads various field schools and guest lectures at post-secondary institutions. MacKinnon is politically active as well: he currently sits on the Metchosin council and has two failed campaigns with the BC Greens under his belt.

“Here I am, 64 years old. And every day is exciting,” he said.

Even though many of the community events he relishes are on hold, he describes his retirement as much busier than any full-time job he has had (not to mention seriously less lucrative). But it gives him time to pursue the tenets of one of his favourite quotes by Senegalese forester, Baba Dioum, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” 

Step one: education

MacKinnon is a scientist, politician, activist, and family man, but his primary personality may be that of a teacher.

“He has this knack for making everything fun,” said Nancy Turner, an esteemed ethnobotanist and longtime colleague and friend to MacKinnon. “It’s not just science, but it’s something that you really enjoy doing.”

Video: Courtesy Hakai.org

MacKinnon is an expert on the plants and fungi in BC, but his eyes light up like a brand new scientific discovery has been made even when an amauteur like me points out one of the flashiest fungi in the forest: a fluorescent orange gob called witch’s butter (tremella mesenterica).

He explains that there are a few fundamentally different types of witch’s butter, mostly separated by whether they grow on hardwoods or conifers. “But I don't know whether they would work differently for witches one from the next,” he jokes before launching into an old English tale that may explain its common name.

As an educator and storyteller on colonized land, MacKinnon also has a sense of which stories are his to tell and which are not.

One of the field courses that MacKinnon co-teaches for UVic is Rainforest Biocultural Ecology with botanist and Nuu-chah-nulth language and culture educator, Gisele Martin. Chelsea Nuez took their class in 2019 and recalls how MacKinnon always deferred to Martin’s ancestral knowledge. “He would know that even if he had knowledge about [a plant], like why it’s culturally important, he knew that she was the person who should tell us. She is the authority on that information.”

As any expert comes to learn, the more you know about a subject, the more you realize how much you don’t know. “I’m absolutely convinced that most of the important discoveries remain,” he said, referencing a novel mycorrhizal fungi that has recently been found on Garry oaks in BC, whose DNA suggests that it is new to science. Previously, not much research had been done on Garry oaks because they are not easily milled.

Understanding fungi informs the basis of forest ecology, which is evolving from what had been thought to be a competitive system, to a model of co-operation. “People are just starting to gain some small glimmer of insight into how that might all work,” MacKinnon said. “Talk about an exciting time.”

Step two: appreciation

MacKinnon has spent the majority of the past three decades working with plants, but he’s recently steered toward fungi again and has a Royal BC Museum Handbook forthcoming called Mushrooms of British Columbia.

“You'll have at least several dozen species growing on you and in you right at this very moment. You're like a fungus farm,” he tells me.

The interconnectedness of fungi in forests is a great metaphor for how MacKinnon views the importance of human community, which is also the part of his philosophy that has suffered the most under COVID-19.

A decade ago, MacKinnon and three colleagues founded the Metchosin Biodiversity Project, which, among many things, hosts a yearly BioBlitz and MycoBlitz. One day a year, swaths of scientists will descend on Metchosin along with an enthusiastic team of residents to identify as many species as possible within 24 hours. 

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“I think we probably have now the best or the second best species list of any community in Canada,” he said.

Not only do these events create valuable scientific data to track changes in the environment, they get people excited about living in one of the most lush and distinctive ecosystems on earth. Afterwards, residents and experts alike share their findings over pots of homemade soup, donated pizza, and wine. MacKinnon might even break out his guitar and sing “The Biodiversity Song” with kids and the young-at-heart.

“There’s really no substitute,” he says of the individual cataloguing that happened this year instead of a big in-person gathering. “It can help with the list part but it sure doesn’t help people get enthusiastic about or appreciating what a special place this is and why we have to help take care of it.”

When push comes to shove, having a community that’s prepared to stand up for the land is the land’s first and best defence.

Step three: conservation

MacKinnon was born into a family that knows how to argue. Both of his grandfathers, his dad, and three of his uncles were judges. His brother and sister are lawyers, and he married one too, although his wife Mairi has since retired.

MacKinnon certainly has a sense of the fight in him, but it has largely translated into activism and local politics. “I’d been complaining in op-eds and public speaking engagements about some of the things that needed to be changed and eventually you think, some people have to step up.”

And so he did. In 2014, MacKinnon was elected as a Metchosin councillor where he also sits on a variety of environmental committees for the district. 

He also began writing forest management policy for the BC Greens and was invited to run in the 2017 election, which he lost to Mitzi Dean of the NDP. When the 2020 election rolled around, the party approached MacKinnon again, and he obliged once more to the same result, “fortunately.” He says that failure allowed him to continue being an activist in other ways, plus he could retain his position as councillor.

“He’s into politics not to get fame and fortune at all, but he’s truly devoted to environmental protection and making a difference for people,” said Turner. “There’s that whole side of him as a conservationist that often goes along with biologists, but not necessarily.”

The arbutus trees (arbutus menziesii) in Metchosin are just one example of how the effects of climate change are becoming visible to the naked eye. Their broad evergreen leaves have large black spots and some branches are completely defoliated. MacKinnon explains that leaf blights on arbutus trees have occurred for thousands of years, but about five years ago the fungal pathogen struck two years in a row, turning their leaves totally black and eventually killing many trees in the area. It turned out to be the same fungus that had always attacked the area, but suddenly the trees were much more susceptible to its effects.

MacKinnon has observed more death and damage among trees that grow in shallow soil, which leads him to hypothesize that the intensifying summer droughts are leaving them vulnerable.

So what else does this expert biologist think we’re in for?

“The main prediction you can make about the effects of climate change on ecosystems and plants is that it's going to be unpredictable,” he said. “All sorts of things are gonna happen that you couldn't have guessed in 100 years.”

In his more than six decades on this planet, MacKinnon has opened the eyes and hearts of many people to the divinity and precarity of the natural world. From backpackers who find a sticky-noted copy of one of his field guides in a thrift store, to the neighbours he passes at a six-feet distance on the trail, they’ve all been touched by MacKinnon’s joyous spirit.

If any of those people can recognize a distinct species of fern on their next hike, or feel inclined to poke a weirdly shaped mushroom just to know what it feels like, then MacKinnon has achieved something wondrous.

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