Helping us celebrate our natural heritage

Paul Sparkes
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Keen observer of native plants and wildlife turned hobby into a career

“When I was young, Red Rose was not the tea of choice in Newfoundland. That honoured place was occupied by King Cole. That was the common tea then. But I remember begging my parents to buy Red Rose Tea. Those packages had cards inside!”

You wouldn’t really expect a retired biologist to have his childhood collector card albums still around the house. But Glen Ryan does. And when you learn a little about his lifelong interest, you will understand how he would still value those cards, covering as they did, song birds, dinosaurs, wild flowers, animals, butterflies and more — with concise data and skilled artwork. They were worth collecting — especially for anyone dedicated to exploring the natural world.

I had scrapbooks, too — cars, steamships, planes and animals (especially where one was preying on another) — but, as objects of the moment, they stayed still while I moved onto other things. Glen Ryan still values the small albums fixed with cards because, I suppose, they represent the juvenile part of a life dedicated to the natural environment.

It is a cliché to say “a labour of love,” but his interest has certainly been that, for it was an integral part of his career and his dedication to the pursuit continues into retirement.

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Born in Birchy Bay, Bonavista Bay, a small community with a population somewhere around 120, Glen attended a two-room school where, he says, “there were probably 50 books that students could browse through … and probably, mostly Hardy Boys at that.”

As early as he can remember, Glen hunted down and absorbed all the information he could find on plants and wildlife.

“In our school, I remember the one book which I dearly loved was “The Birds of Newfoundland” by Harold Peters and Thomas Burleigh (illustrated by the renowned Roger Tory Peterson). The book had been published under the direction of our fledgling provincial government in 1950.

“I also remember that my father’s first cousin, Don Ryan, an English teacher and a gifted artist, brought me books and encouraged me … and at home, we subscribed to the Family Herald and The Star Weekly. These had nature columns which, although written for the mainland, had a lot of relevance here too … and there were the Mark Trail cartoon strips … I cut those out.”

He kept pencil-scribbled natural history notes in his childhood and youth (complete with drawings) and filled exercise books and sketch pads. Most of these he can still show you today.

Ryan was fortunate to have had parents who recognized the talent in their son and encouraged it, even if they believed he should, in time, study to be a teacher. He acceded to his parents’ wishes without letting go of his own preference. If he should do education, it would have to be in addition to biology!

“Father was a good artist. His drawings were around the house. And mother loved nature. She loved walks in the woods.”

His father was a carpenter, the go-to person in Birchy Cove for custom-made essentials like windows and doors. Clearly, Ryan’s ability to depict shrubs in exacting detail —  and to paint our wildflowers (butterflies, birds) so that the observer can immediately appreciate them, let’s say, scientifically and esthetically — was in some measure an inherited thing.

In his 20s, Glen Ryan was hired under a Winter Works Program to illustrate publications to be produced as Provincial Parks’ interpretation literature. But when it came time to seriously consider a career, he realized only too well that there were not a lot of career choices here for a young graduate in biology — “It had to be government,” he says.

And so, government it was, for 36 years. Although he had also qualified in education, there seemed to be no argument in his mind as to the direction his career would take.

To the lasting benefit of this province’s resource, or archive, of literature on plants and wildlife, Ryan’s passion continued and his output blended with that of others. He talks about “a great flourishing of natural history publications” here in the 1960s and ’70s, and the “friendly competition among those talents compiling the material.”

He refers to himself as “one of many.” The results were (and still are) the kind of illustrated items which enhance the experience of those with keener awareness of the wild and natural world. As we are reminded in “Bright World Around Us,” Margaret and Miller Stewart’s noted 1965 book, “we share this world with an enormously rich variety of other living creatures.”

The publications which were once so much a part of our chain of provincial parks, introduced us to the wild things we may see there and invited us to celebrate that resource. Ryan makes a point that this material was distributed free. There was no problem in obtaining folders, leaflets and books and booklets — easily portable items. That is not the case any more. I remember taking them, but also taking them for granted.

Here is an extract from the small (4” x 6”) booklet “Some Newfoundland birds,” first published in 1975:

“More than 8,600 bird species are found throughout the world and about 580 species are in Canada. About 360 species have been recorded in insular Newfoundland. About half of these nest here, the others are migrants, or visitors to our province.”

I asked Ryan whether there were differences in our plants and wildlife as compared with plants and wildlife on the mainland.

“Often they are different in subtle ways,” he said. “Much of what we have cannot be called a sub-species, but there are differences which have developed in isolation for so long — some at least since the last ice age 10,000 years ago.”

He added that he has always been intrigued by a statement in “The Birds of Newfoundland,” to the effect that one of the authors, when in Florida, could always identify a Newfoundland robin.

Before I completed my interview with Glen Ryan, I stepped out into his backyard (he lives in St. John’s). It is a somewhat wider yard than most in the city, but neither does it have park proportions.

It was a busy place. An afternoon autumn sun placed everything — grass, trees, shed, patio, walkway and flowers — in strong relief. A tree in the corner bore red McIntosh apples and a magnificent mound of asters in a planter was a stage for a demonstration of bees and their imitators. Busy creatures, even as cooler air prevailed, they were gleaning the last vestiges of nectar even as they were planning to shelter in an abandoned mouse nest — perhaps in the sills of the shed.

This simple diversion proved to me the truth of Ryan’s reference to our natural world and what it is to be a student of it — “it is ever-changing and ever-present … every day there is something new … an observer of nature is never bored!’

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email:  psparkes@thetelegram.com.

NOTE: A. Glen Ryan managed the visitor services division of the Department of Tourism, and before that, the Natural Areas program of Provincial Parks. This latter position included responsibility for planning and establishing wilderness and ecological reserves (for example, Cape St. Mary’s and Mistaken Point). Now retired, Glen Ryan’s interests include sketching, painting and photography. He also volunteers as a guide on walks for the Wildflower Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Organizations: Department of Tourism, Wildflower Society of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Birchy Bay, Bonavista Bay Birchy Cove Canada Florida

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Recent comments

  • ed Hayden
    October 25, 2013 - 16:16

    Glen is one of our great resources and very generous with his knowledge. I've been bringing his tree and shrub book on my hikes for years and am still learning from it. Is that a marshberry or a large cranberry? Glen's Trees and Shrubs has the answer. Thanks Glen for a great guide to our woody plants, exquisite illustrations and wonderful guided hikes. Ed Hayden

  • Linda Ryan
    October 25, 2013 - 11:08

    Really enjoyed this article.

  • Linda Ryan
    October 25, 2013 - 11:06

    Really enjoyed this article.

  • Wes Bartlett
    October 25, 2013 - 10:50

    Very interesting column. Enjoy your retirement Glenn. Glenn grew up in Birchy Cove and not Birchy Bay.

  • Gerry Baker
    October 24, 2013 - 19:38

    Excellent piece, I have known Glen all my life and he is a naturalist at heart for sure, and his dedication to detail and the work he has done for this Provence will live on for sure ,He has many talents and interests and a great sense of history forged from his upbringing and culture of out port Newfoundland.. Good job my friend.

  • pamela ryan-norris
    October 24, 2013 - 19:14

    Glen Ryan was born in Birchy Cove Newfoundland, I know because he grew up in the house next door to my day.