Changing Themes

I started this blog a little over year ago, but haven’t been keeping up with it. The main reason is that I’ve been spending more of my free time painting and there just hasn’t been as much time leftover to research and write about the topics I intended to write about here.

As a result I have decided to keep a different blog to track my progress and evolution as an artist, and if you’re interested you can follow that here.

Of course I am still involved in soil work and may still update this blog sporadically if I get the inspiration but for the most part I will be over on the new one 🙂


How do you paint an invisible animal?


The soil under your feet is crawling with invisible life forms. Well, not exactly invisible, but you can’t see them without the help of a microscope. Most people I’ve met don’t know what a protozoa is, or if they do they often have vague associations with things like water contamination and diseases. Protozoa, like bacteria, are not all bad, and there are many species of them that have different functions. I work in a lab where we take soil samples from farms and look for protozoa and other microscopic life in them. Soil protozoa are an important part of the food web that recycles nutrients into forms plants need to grow.

We often host or participate in events that involve teaching the general public about soil life. Every now and then we catch someone’s interest and they hang around asking many questions, which for us is very rewarding. Most people though, find this topic to be quite…

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I passed the Norwegian driving test!!

This has been hanging over my head for months, and it’s caused a great deal of pessimism and anxiety in the past few weeks while I’ve been preparing. Now thankfully it’s over, and I couldn’t be more relieved.

I normally make good use of Oslo’s public transit system, so I don’t have any real need for a driver’s license at this point, but Norway lets you exchange a valid Canadian license for a Norwegian one just by taking a road test, as long as you do it within one year of becoming a resident in Norway. I procrastinated and came very close to missing that deadline. I finally got my butt in gear after a sinister warning from a fellow Canadian I met on a bus. He had been here for six years, and all he could say was “Get your driver’s license.” He missed the deadline and never ended up getting it.

After one year, you can still exchange the Canadian license but then must also take some special courses such as first aid and winter driving. After two years, the Canadian license is no longer valid and you’d have to start out as a brand new driver, which is what had happened to the guy on the bus. Norway’s public transit system is quite good and well developed from what I’ve seen, especially compared to home where the infrastructure is entirely planned around everyone having their own vehicle (yet the government still insists that driving is a privilege, not a right). It would be doable to go without a license here, but it is definitely something I want to at least have the option for in the future, and it will be helpful for my job as well. It will also be great to finally have legitimate Norwegian ID instead of carrying around my passport, residence permit, and tax card just in case.

Getting a driver’s license in Norway is not cheap. I ended up spending well over 8000 NOK ($1200 CAD) altogether, and this got me 2 driving lessons plus a 45 minute warm up just before the test, rental of a school car for the test, and various fees at the traffic station. I can’t imagine what I would have spent if I had to take actual courses too.

The whole experience though, was surprisingly pleasant. The people working in Statens vegvesen (the traffic office) are a whole lot nicer than most of the Service Ontario workers I’ve met for similar purposes, and my examiner was very friendly and relaxed as most Norwegians tend to be. We actually had a pretty enjoyable drive, with nice conversations even though I was shitting bricks nervous. The worst part was just waiting for the guy to come out at the beginning, after that it was very smooth and was over quickly.

I think this test was easier than the one in Ontario (although that might just be because this time I already know how to drive and just had to adapt to a slightly different set of rules). In Ontario, I remember having to parallel park, do a three point turn, and some other technical stuff. This exam was mostly just driving, and didn’t require any fancy parking or technical maneuvers. We just drove around in a few different areas, and backed in to two different parking spots and that was pretty much it.

We covered a couple of things that weren’t covered in my lessons (like where to place the safety triangle on the road if you have to pull over) and driving on twisted and narrow country roads, but common sense and previous driving experience were enough to get me through it without any negative feedback.

The examiner was concerned primarily about safety, which boils down to speed, staying aware of people and vehicles, placement of the vehicle (eg in roundabouts) and communication with other drivers. Those were much more important than how straight my parking was. I was fortunate to have had a great driving instructor who gave me a lot of pointers for things like this and prepared me for a much more challenging test than what it was in reality.

Overall I’m just really happy that this is finally over with! What a relief 🙂

Spring fieldwork has begun!

No amount of cold, miserable wet weather can ruin working in this environment 🙂

Last week we had our first day of the season out in the field (literally). Six of us worked together to measure out the test plot, take some initial soil samples, and do a few other assessments and measurements to get a good overall impression of the field. It was a pretty miserable day in terms of weather, with under 10 degrees Celsius and that fine wet mist that is almost rain but not quite. In weather like this, the cold creeps its way right through to chill your bones. I volunteered to run around hauling jugs of water just to get my blood moving a bit. Despite the weather, I had a great time. I always love fieldwork and have done enough of it to know that the conditions are usually far from luxurious, and it was great working with a big team since I do most of my work on my own or with just one other person.

I can’t say much about the project, since I don’t actually know all the specific details yet, but I do know that there will be a LOT (I think over fifty) of sub plots within the test field. It’s awesome to see such a big project happening, but I will be a bit cross eyed after analyzing that many samples with the microscope.

We did a number of tests to evaluate the soil on site: looking for soil life at a macro scale, checking the soil structure including compaction and drainage, and making qualitative analyses of the soil by looking at it, smelling, and feeling it. When we cut chunks out for qualitative analysis, we first lay them on a large paper to get a general overview of how it looks. We look at the colour, check for organisms like earthworms or arthropods, check for layers of old organic matter that hasn’t decomposed well, and we look at the structure. How well does the soil hold together if you pick up a clump and gently squeeze it? Can you roll it and make a sausage with it? How does the soil feel when you roll it between your fingers? How does it smell? We make notes on many different features of the soil, then dig out another chunk and drop it from standing height to see how well it holds together. Good soil should have a nice aggregated structure that doesn’t make rock hard clumps but clumps shouldn’t disintegrate like sand either. In this case, since we had all day and a big team, we also dug up a bigger pit to view and measure the soil layers in situ. Obviously this is a very subjective way to evaluate the soil, but it is valuable nonetheless and we include this information in our overall assessment of the soil.

*I realize I haven’t actually written a post about what we do at my job, but basically we are a nonprofit organization that does various research projects looking at what methods we can use to evaluate soil quality and improve soil health using biology, rather than the conventional chemistry approach. At this time we are not a service that goes out and evaluates peoples’ soil for a fee.  

Here we’ve cut out a chunk of soil and laid it on a large paper, to do some qualitative analyses

We used a compaction meter to see if there was a compaction zone (possibly caused by plowing). The meter is just a long rod with two handles at the top, which is pushed down into the soil. As the rod is pushed down, a needle moves up on a dial as the pressure increases. When it becomes hard to push, the needle will move up to the red zone. Once it hits that point, we stop and pull it out, then measure how far down the rod went. Some places in this field were compacted about 23cm down, but the depth was quite variable, and occasionally the soil was so soft it went down the full length of the rod and never left the green zone, so we did not find an established hard pan layer in the topsoil.

This is a top down view of the compaction meter.

Another method we use to assess soil is the infiltration test. This gives us some idea of the general soil structure and health of the soil ecosystem by telling us how well the soil drains. Soil drainage is a measure of how well the soil absorbs and retains water. If soil does not drain well, water will flow off the land very quickly, carrying loose topsoil and soil nutrients away with it, depositing them in local waterways. This is one of the big contributors to soil erosion, sedimentation in water bodies, and nutrient pollution caused by agriculture. Well drained soil will reduce the need for irrigation as it retains more water, while also letting it soak deep down to slowly recharge underground aquifers instead of pooling on the surface and flowing off the field.

For the infiltration test, we use cut pieces of a large metal pipe hammered into the ground to isolate a part of the soil. (Ideally this is done with a slightly more elaborate system using two cylinders doubled up on each sampling point to avoid water leaking out the side, but this is the method we have found to work the best for us so we consistently do it this way and compare the results against each other). We then put a sponge in the bottom of each cylinder to avoid any compaction caused by the water impacting the soil, and pour water into each cylinder. We remove the sponges, measure the water level at a starting point, then wait three minutes and measure again, then just find the difference between the two points. This way we can find out the rate that water drains into the soil.

In heavily compacted areas with little organic matter, such as conventional grain fields where large machinery has been, we have seen soil that did not absorb any water at all in the three minutes we measured. At the other extreme, we have measured forest plots where the water ran through so fast we had to measure it in just one minute, since the cylinders weren’t big enough to hold three minutes worth of water at that rate.

Infiltration tests were done in different locations to see how well the soil drains.

The owner of the farm was kind enough to plow a few rows, right beside the test plot. Not sure if there was a reason for this, but I’m glad I had rain pants and waterproof hiking boots.

I don’t mind working out in the rain when there are beautiful views like this in every direction.

My mini home lab where I do my microscopic analysis of the soil samples

This initial round of microscope analysis only required six soil samples to get a general picture of the field starting out, and from what I could see there is some life in the soil to begin with which is always nice. Sometimes farm samples are incredibly dull to look at; usually they are basically nothing but bacteria and mineral particles.

In these samples there wasn’t much, but I did spot a few protozoa and a rotifer, which always makes my day. Other members of the team took soil samples home for different kinds of analysis, including some chemistry to check pH, nitrogen levels, and things like that. It will be very interesting to see if the compost and other treatments will have an effect on this soil. It will be many months before we find out. Despite having worked here since 2013, is the first time I’ve been here from the very start of the season, so I feel a lot more involved in the projects and I’m looking forward to seeing how they progress.

The Ice Cream Truck of Lies


The first time I heard the jingling of the ice cream truck outside our apartment, T and I hurried outside to catch it. I was disappointed to find that this was not the ice cream truck I was expecting. They sold boxes. Boxes of ice cream cones and popsicles. No singles and no samples, and no guy standing inside the truck handing out cones. We did buy a few boxes though, including some chocolate covered fruity popsicles which I thought were a bit weird at first but the combination grew on me over time. After that, when we heard the music down below I would mutter jokingly “Oh, there goes the ice cream truck of lies.”

We did spend a small fortune on ice cream though.

In the beginning these differences are the little things that make the whole expat experience thrilling and fascinating. You go around in this childlike wonder comparing every little thing to how it is at home, amazed at how this whole other world has been here all along, and you had no idea. After a while though, it’s those little things that are almost the same at home, but just a bit different here, that stop being awesome and start reminding you that you are not from here, you did not grow up here, and you are in fact, an outsider. (And this is me coming from Canada, which is probably one of the most similar countries to Norway outside of Scandinavia.. I can’t imagine the culture shock most other immigrants are facing!)

It’s the mundane things like choosing shampoo or thinking of getting a haircut or new clothes.. buying groceries for a recipe (they don’t use liquid vanilla extract or baking soda here!), and don’t even get me started on driving, or the tiny elf brooms. All those small day to day things that were simple and automatic at home become this knot in your gut that swells up once in a while, reminding you of who and what you left behind, nagging you, asking if you really made the right decision and if you’re really capable of this.

The bigger problem with being an expat is that eventually you do learn your way around this new foreign life. You figure out how to work with what’s here and replace the old favourites with new ones. You make friends. You become fond of this new place, and then you find yourself almost literally stuck on a fence between two countries. You imagine going home, but then you would miss your life here. You imagine staying here forever, and then you feel the pain of what you left behind. I now have started planting roots here, and can’t imagine leaving… but I also can’t imagine being this far away from my family and familiar life forever.

It’s not easy, and I don’t expect it to get easier, but when I honestly ask myself what I want, I know I have made the right choice. I had a wonderful upbringing in Canada and I could talk all day about what I love about both countries, but at the end of the day I have to be practical and honest, and I know that this is the right place for me.

Now I just need to conquer my language fears 😉

Foreign Language Anxiety

“Just learn Norwegian.”

“Well you should really learn the language if you’re going to live in their country.”

“Have you learned Norwegian yet?”

“You’re such an English speaker.

There are two major things that I find stressful about living here. The first is the universal expectation that one day I will magically start speaking fluent Norwegian, and the other is that people are often uncomfortable speaking English to me. I don’t like the idea that I stress people out, and I tend to be overly empathetic. I sense their pain and magnify it to the level that I feel in language situations, then I feel terrible for being the source of such agony.

I’m not normally a very shy person. I tend to crave a lot less social interaction than most people, but when I am actually in social situations I think I’m fairly normal and well adjusted. Now however, I’ve started to develop feelings of social anxiety that I had no idea I was capable of. The absolute worst, the terror of my terrors, are greetings and formalities. These little rituals that were so casual and automatic at home are now a major nuisance.

There is this scene that plays out almost every time I go to work. I’m asked, “Hvordan går det?”, how’s it going? To which I reply…

nothing. I can’t do it. What’s wrong with me?

I freeze up, my throat closes, my face goes flush and I start to sweat.

Someone asks me how it’s going and I actually break into a sweat. I can’t even remember what words to use, despite their appearance at the beginning of every kind of Norwegian lesson out there. I’ve seen this conversation a thousand times in text, in real life, in lesson videos. If I do manage to squeak something out, it comes out trembling, barely audible, and just pathetic.

All I have to say is “Det går bra!” That’s it!

It’s the simplest, most common thing you could learn in a language and I can’t even manage that. Even in writing this I am resisting a very powerful urge to go double check that this is the correct response… this level of insecurity is unimaginable if you’ve never experienced it.

No amount of alcohol can cure this kind of anxiety. Source:

The issue is an overpowering need to be flawless. I have no idea where it comes from, but I actually feel like if I make a silly mistake or sound like a toddler I will be viewed as an idiot and not respected.

We can talk all day about how much Norwegians love and appreciate when English speakers do attempt to speak their language, and how much fun it is when foreigners mispronounce things, but it doesn’t change anything. This kind of anxiety is physical pain, it’s no different than trying to wish away a headache or a broken limb. The worst part, for me, is that people take my hesitation as unwillingness.

I know the cure is practice. I know. I know that the cure to this is to face the fear repeatedly until it goes away. “You have to get over it, you have to just do it!”

Easier said than done.

(If anyone out there has some more useful and practical advice or some kind of actual strategy, I’d more than love to hear about it.)

Why is this so hard?

I grew up in Canada, which is supposed to be a bilingual country, but the attempts to teach us French in school were weak at best, and I learned nothing. I grew up 100% monolingual, and this has put me at a huge disadvantage here. I am so envious of people who grew up bilingual, and this is one factor that has increased the anxiety for me being here, because I know that I’m being compared to:

  1. everyone here who is already bilingual (at least) and takes it for granted
  2. people who come here from other European countries and learn Norwegian as a third (or fourth etc) language.

So I feel like I’m being held up against that standard. These people can naturally flip back and forth between languages and have been doing so for most of their lives… it’s not impressive to me that they are “more willing” to attempt speaking Norwegian. For me, the basic act of speaking in another tongue feels even more foreign than the second language itself. When the words actually do come out, it’s like someone else is speaking with my mouth. It is very unsettling.

I didn’t grow up doing this, I have only one set of noises that I’m used to making to people. My brain needs to be exercised in this way for the first time. Those poor attempts at French classes in school honestly don’t count.

I was once told “You’re such an english speaker”, and this hit me really hard. It was my first summer here, and I still can’t shake that feeling that people are judging me as this dumb American (I am Canadian but over here it’s all the same, maybe I’ll talk about that another time) who can’t be bothered with other languages, because everyone else speaks English anyway. Everyone else has to be uncomfortable speaking my language, and I get to feel comfortable and superior with my smooth English skills.

I want to emphasize that people are NOT making me feel this way. By far the vast majority of people are incredibly nice and welcoming, but when you get this anxiety you focus on the one comment that one person made two years ago, and can’t let it go. This idea that they are all judging me like this is entirely built up in my own head, and I am well aware of that.

I desperately want to converse in Norwegian, and it gives me deep anxiety to think that people might assume that I don’t want to. I like Norwegian, I think it’s a lovely sounding language, and it’s really not hard to learn. I am also a big fan of diversity (I lean more towards biodiversity, but language diversity is important too) and I think people should damn well be able to speak their own language in their own country. Beside that, I can see how uncomfortable many people are with English, and I can see the obvious relief on their faces when I say they can speak Norwegian to me.

The other issue, which is admittedly rather stupid, is that I actually feel a bit pretentious when I try hard to say the words perfectly… I literally can’t win.

This combination of feeling judged, insecure, and incredibly self conscious has made this big paradoxical pileup of anxiety which is becoming the major roadblock to actual progress in overcoming all this fear.


There is hope for me yet..

One thing that might help actually, is that I’m getting to the point where I am comfortable to tell people they can speak Norwegian to me, if it’s ok with them that I use English back. I simply don’t have the vocabulary to carry a practical conversation (eg at the driver’s licence office) in Norwegian, but I can understand quite fluently in situations like this, as long as it’s one on one, not too fast, and I get an occasional chance to pause and make sure I’m following correctly. If other people talk to each other I usually get lost pretty quickly if they don’t include me directly.

Being able to understand at this level is a big step up. It means that I don’t need to be completely surrounded by English anymore. I can let people speak Norwegian to me most of the time, which means I will start rapidly picking up and confirming words more and more… and the more sure I am that I know a word, the more likely I’ll be able to use it. It still takes intense focus for me to follow the conversation, so I can’t do it all day long, but it’s a start.

This is a painfully slow process, and I can guarantee that there are many more tears of frustration to come, but I have to remind myself of the huge amount of progress I’ve made since I first came here and was afraid to even say “Takk” in the store (I froze up and said nothing, just smiled, which was way worse than just saying thanks in English). People must have thought I was mute or something. But it doesn’t matter. I can do that now, and even if that’s all I can manage, for now that is good enough. The rest will come, however long it might take.

Field vs. Garden Soil.. a closer look

I analyzed the field and garden soil from the previous post, and it’s clear under the microscope that the structure is quite different between them. This is probably why there was a big difference in clarity when the samples had settled.

A single soil sample can vary quite a bit under the microscope, so I included two photos from each one to give a general idea of how they looked. I just held my iPhone up to the eyepiece on the microscope to take the pictures, so they are not the greatest quality. All photos are taken at 400x magnification.


Field Soil

Garden Soil

Garden Soil

Field Soil

Field Soil

Garden Soil

Garden Soil

What causes this difference?

The answer is probably humus. Humus is essentially the end of the line for living organisms. When something dies (a plant or animal), it is decomposed by a progression of smaller and smaller organisms. This process breaks large organic molecules down into smaller ones. Then, the material goes through mineralization and humification, both done by microorganisms. The microbes will transform organic matter into inorganic components (mineralization) and humic substances (humification). After humification, the material is considered stable (to varying extents), which means it has reduced or lost its potential to be broken down or mineralized further.

Humus benefits the soil in a number of ways. I might write a more in depth post on humus in the future, if there is any interest in that. For now, I’m just interested in the binding ability, since this is what most likely created the difference in clarity between the above samples. Humus causes particles in the soil to become organized into clumps, which improve the soil’s porosity and ability to hold water. You can see that the field soil, which has less organic matter, is just a dense carpet of small particles, while the garden soil is significantly less cluttered.

Microscopic organisms that live in the soil actually live in water. They survive in the thin film of water that surrounds soil particles, so despite living in soil, they actually swim to get around. Imagine a creature like the ciliate pictured below swimming in the soil on the right, compared to the soil on the left. Even if the amount of food available for it in each soil was the same, it would probably survive better in the “cleaner” soil, simply because it would be easier to get around and hunt. It would be like the difference between running on sand versus a paved surface.

This is a ciliate, a large predatory protozoa which was found in the garden soil.

The large round thing in the middle is called a ciliate; a large predatory protozoa which was found in the garden soil.

So even with this single factor considered, it would make sense that only a dense population of bacteria and a few tiny flagellates were found in the field soil. There is probably a lack of predation from creatures higher on the food chain (such as protozoa which prey on bacteria), which means there may be less biodiversity in this soil ecosystem. The garden soil had many different kinds of bacteria, but fewer of them overall. I found almost no protozoa in the field soil, but many different kinds in the garden soil, including both flagellates and ciliates. I have been looking at agricultural soil samples under the microscope for two years now, and this kind of result is consistent with almost every field we have sampled from.

Going back to the original post, which showed these two jars next to each other…


… I think we now have a better idea of why one was so clear and the other was so cloudy. The field soil is full of tiny particles and vast populations of bacteria, whereas the garden soil had more structured soil with greater biodiversity.

So what does this mean for plant growth?

Here was the result of a sprouting test using the two different soils. Without looking at the labels, can you guess which one was which?

Sprouting test, using cress seeds.

Sprouting test, using cress seeds.

You probably figured out that the left is the garden soil. Even a hardy, fast sprouting plant like cress struggled to survive at all, but flourished in the garden soil. Why might this be?

An even better question: why is a farm producing soil like this, and why is this considered normal?