THE BIOGRAPHY PROJECT

Inna believes that a person’s seemingly ordinary life is in fact, a novel, a movie,
a drama in a thousand parts. Inna and photographer Robert Popkin,
have been meeting and profiling people in Canada and the US, to show
just how compelling every person's story truly is.


 

DAVE ARNOLD: The God of road trip.

"Come and share an adventure with me
  Throw off your chains and follow free
  We’ll never be bored, we’ll laugh and play
  Just look through my eyes I know you’ll stay.” – D.A.

 

  “I’ll take you to the camp and show you a few things along the way,” says Dave and turns on the ignition. We pull out of his driveway and head down a drizzly road.  There are two 12-gauge hunting guns in the trunk and a heap of heavy spiral bound notebooks in the back seat. Inside the notebooks is Dave’s poetry in neatly scattered scribbles. There are hardly any corrections; each poem is complete.  “It just comes to me,” he says. “I have it all finished in my head, so I just write it down. When I don’t think, I’m divinely inspired.” He chuckles.  “When did you last write?”  “Don’t know. I don’t write so much anymore. It stopped being fun.”  It’s all about fun for him. The same happened with gymnastics. He was fourteen. V-sit looked like fun – bringing your feet between your hands without touching the floor – so he tried it. A coach saw him do that and said, ‘Of course you can do gymnastics!’ and put him in a group.  “It was fun because with gymnastics I could try anything I liked. You can’t imagine what I used to do. Breaking into the gym, 85 degrees inside and practicing on the hardwood floor, with no chalk. I found a lot of joy in that. But doing the technical thing over and over again drives me right out of my mind.”  Everyone wanted to teach Dave but no one could put up with him. He’s too wild, they said. So he bounced from one coach to another. Then he got into the Canadian national team and competed all over the world. From there, he turned to coaching himself and trained gymnasts for the Olympics in Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta. He coached the Canadian national team for almost twenty years and turned many Canadian gymnasts into stars. He judged at Pan Am games and World Championships. And all that time, he had fun.  “In the end, you don’t remember the medals. You remember the fun you had. The day you learned the back flip. The day you learned the iron cross. And that’s what I do—I give those moments. I make you enjoy it.”


“I’ll take you to the camp and show you a few things along the way,” says Dave and turns on the ignition. We pull out of his driveway and head down a drizzly road.
There are two 12-gauge hunting guns in the trunk and a heap of heavy spiral bound notebooks in the back seat. Inside the notebooks is Dave’s poetry in neatly scattered scribbles. There are hardly any corrections; each poem is complete.
“It just comes to me,” he says. “I have it all finished in my head, so I just write it down. When I don’t think, I’m divinely inspired.” He chuckles.
“When did you last write?”
“Don’t know. I don’t write so much anymore. It stopped being fun.”
It’s all about fun for him. The same happened with gymnastics. He was fourteen. V-sit looked like fun – bringing your feet between your hands without touching the floor – so he tried it. A coach saw him do that and said, ‘Of course you can do gymnastics!’ and put him in a group.
“It was fun because with gymnastics I could try anything I liked. You can’t imagine what I used to do. Breaking into the gym, 85 degrees inside and practicing on the hardwood floor, with no chalk. I found a lot of joy in that. But doing the technical thing over and over again drives me right out of my mind.”
Everyone wanted to teach Dave but no one could put up with him. He’s too wild, they said. So he bounced from one coach to another. Then he got into the Canadian national team and competed all over the world. From there, he turned to coaching himself and trained gymnasts for the Olympics in Seoul, Barcelona, and Atlanta. He coached the Canadian national team for almost twenty years and turned many Canadian gymnasts into stars. He judged at Pan Am games and World Championships. And all that time, he had fun.
“In the end, you don’t remember the medals. You remember the fun you had. The day you learned the back flip. The day you learned the iron cross. And that’s what I do—I give those moments. I make you enjoy it.”

“When I don't think, I’m divinely inspired.”

   “Is it ever not fun being a coach?”  “When I see laziness,” he says, as half of a Boston Cream donut disappears inside his face. “I don’t want to have an argument with you about why you’re not doing this shit. And I’ll get mad at you for not believing in yourself. Because if I believe in you, that means you have to trust me. Because I never tell someone they can do something if I know they can’t.”  “Have you ever been wrong?”  “Rarely.”  The road is a tunnel of soaked grey woods. Dave flips the wipers on and back off.  “See these trees?” he says. “They’ve been clear-cut three times since people got here. It’s really hard to exist in this place. But people have been here since 1867, can you imagine? Imagine what they had to do to survive. Those guys, when they were coming here they thought they’d be gentry, with all this land they were getting. They thought ‘if trees grow here anything could grow here.’ Boy, what a letdown!” He laughs.   Huntsville, where he grew up, was a nice place to be  from , says Dave. There wasn’t much for him to do between school and church, except get into trouble. He did read a lot. Not the schoolbooks—those weren’t fun. But science fiction was.  “Here’s why I love science fiction. It’s because you can deal with all that racism, sexism and inequality, on another planet. You talk about it here? They make you an outsider, like that,” he snaps his fingers.  “You were a kid from a small town with a big life in gymnastics. Did you ever feel like an outsider?”  “Oh yeah. In gymnastics, I don’t fit. I fit because of my skills, but I’m not of the kind of people who go into gymnastics. I was always just me—a small town guy who was just crazy about the sport. I loved it more than life. But the rest of me, I fit  here . This place,  this,”  he points outside the window,  “ is me. This is a harsh, harsh country. It’s a nice view, that’s about it. But this is where I feel good.”  We turn onto a dirt road and drive toward a gate.  Muskoka Woods Sports Resort  reads the sign.  “Hi yes, this is Dave Arnold, I work here in the summer,” says Dave to the security dial pad.  For twenty-eight summers now, Dave has been Muskoka Woods’ gymnastics coach. Here’s the gym, he says opening the door into a massive hangar filled with mountains of crash mats and trampolines—a gymnast’s dream. Here’s the climbing wall and the skating ramp. The church, the dock, the water slide. He loves it here. The kids are having fun, what else could he ask for. Twelve minutes later, we’re back on the road, driving away from the cabins to the top of the hill. Suddenly, he stops and gets out of the car.  “I should really sight in that gun.”  Dave opens the trunk and takes the gun out, along with a pair of headband earmuffs. He props up a cardboard piece twenty yards away then takes aim. Back a distance, the shot lacerates the air and ricochets off the woods. Dave takes off the muffs and walks toward the cardboard.  “Oh yeah,” he says, satisfied. “Now, let me show you where I hunt.”  Back in the car, the notebooks come open again. Dave reads from one. He takes his time with the words, holding each one gently before letting it go.  “Am I blinded by a shootings star?  Or not admitting who we are   Different now, wholly changed  Lost the luster, rearranged.  The stirrings of new growth  Blossom in my mind  And wonder: will the new road be so fine  Were the old roads really mine?  And were they real in their time.  Some day, after I’m gone, they’re going to open my closet and find these,” he laughs and starts the car. “Then I’ll be famous without having to put up with it. Being famous in life is a wrong thing for guys like me.”  “Why?”  “Because I do stupid crazy things. Correction: I do things everyone wants to do but they don’t. But being famous or important is not for me. Because important people have to do things they don’t want to do.”


“Is it ever not fun being a coach?”
“When I see laziness,” he says, as half of a Boston Cream donut disappears inside his face. “I don’t want to have an argument with you about why you’re not doing this shit. And I’ll get mad at you for not believing in yourself. Because if I believe in you, that means you have to trust me. Because I never tell someone they can do something if I know they can’t.”
“Have you ever been wrong?”
“Rarely.”
The road is a tunnel of soaked grey woods. Dave flips the wipers on and back off.
“See these trees?” he says. “They’ve been clear-cut three times since people got here. It’s really hard to exist in this place. But people have been here since 1867, can you imagine? Imagine what they had to do to survive. Those guys, when they were coming here they thought they’d be gentry, with all this land they were getting. They thought ‘if trees grow here anything could grow here.’ Boy, what a letdown!” He laughs.
Huntsville, where he grew up, was a nice place to be from, says Dave. There wasn’t much for him to do between school and church, except get into trouble. He did read a lot. Not the schoolbooks—those weren’t fun. But science fiction was.

“Here’s why I love science fiction. It’s because you can deal with all that racism, sexism and inequality, on another planet. You talk about it here? They make you an outsider, like that,” he snaps his fingers.
“You were a kid from a small town with a big life in gymnastics. Did you ever feel like an outsider?”
“Oh yeah. In gymnastics, I don’t fit. I fit because of my skills, but I’m not of the kind of people who go into gymnastics. I was always just me—a small town guy who was just crazy about the sport. I loved it more than life. But the rest of me, I fit here. This place, this,” he points outside the window, is me. This is a harsh, harsh country. It’s a nice view, that’s about it. But this is where I feel good.”
We turn onto a dirt road and drive toward a gate. Muskoka Woods Sports Resort reads the sign.
“Hi yes, this is Dave Arnold, I work here in the summer,” says Dave to the security dial pad.
For twenty-eight summers now, Dave has been Muskoka Woods’ gymnastics coach. Here’s the gym, he says opening the door into a massive hangar filled with mountains of crash mats and trampolines—a gymnast’s dream. Here’s the climbing wall and the skating ramp. The church, the dock, the water slide. He loves it here. The kids are having fun, what else could he ask for. Twelve minutes later, we’re back on the road, driving away from the cabins to the top of the hill. Suddenly, he stops and gets out of the car.
“I should really sight in that gun.”
Dave opens the trunk and takes the gun out, along with a pair of headband earmuffs. He props up a cardboard piece twenty yards away then takes aim. Back a distance, the shot lacerates the air and ricochets off the woods. Dave takes off the muffs and walks toward the cardboard.
“Oh yeah,” he says, satisfied. “Now, let me show you where I hunt.”
Back in the car, the notebooks come open again. Dave reads from one. He takes his time with the words, holding each one gently before letting it go.
“Am I blinded by a shootings star?
Or not admitting who we are
Different now, wholly changed
Lost the luster, rearranged.
The stirrings of new growth
Blossom in my mind
And wonder: will the new road be so fine
Were the old roads really mine?
And were they real in their time.
Some day, after I’m gone, they’re going to open my closet and find these,” he laughs and starts the car. “Then I’ll be famous without having to put up with it. Being famous in life is a wrong thing for guys like me.”
“Why?”
“Because I do stupid crazy things. Correction: I do things everyone wants to do but they don’t. But being famous or important is not for me. Because important people have to do things they don’t want to do.”

“Some day, after I'm gone…I’ll be famous without having to put up with it.”

   We drive back into the woods, down a serpentine road, until we get to a lake. Small house sits a few feet away from the water, a boat rocks at the end of the dock.  “My father-in-law got this boat, so we can all use it, that’s the deal. We’re getting in, right?” says Dave, and minutes later we’re motoring to the middle of the lake. Then, just like that, the grey clouds open up and the evening sun sprays Technicolor all over the trees and the water and Dave’s face. He’s smiling. His voice rises over the wind and the motor.  “I’m not afraid to do whatever I want. I got two red cards in one night as a coach during Pan Am games for calling another coach a cheater. No one ever gets two red cards. You get a yellow card as a warning and the red card means you’re out. But I got two. I had a dream after that—I dreamt they wanted to kick me out of the Olympics, but I wouldn’t leave. So they chased me around. I climbed the rings to get away from them. It was a wonderful dream; I woke up laughing.”  We dock on the other side of the lake and follow Dave into the woods.  “So, this is where I hunt, isn’t it beautiful?” he says. “Can you believe I shot seven deer here in one year? Let’s make our way back, it’s getting dark.”  We motor back and barely make it out of the woods when it starts to snow. Black road darts at us and large flurries are multiplying and pummeling the windshield. The speedometer needle pecks at 120.  “Believe it or not, I’m in total control of most situations,” says Dave. “It just doesn’t seem like it.”  “Seems like you have this need to always go somewhere, the urge to depart from your current point.”  “Yes, it’s true. And that’s what I love about my life now. I get a coaching contract and I’m in the car the next day. I drive you can’t imagine how much. I drive the whole country once or twice a year. If I fly in, I get a car and I drive for a whole week. I’ve hitchhiked across Canada who knows how many times. I am the God of Road Trip.”  “Is that why you like your work, too?”  “Hard to say. I’ve never truly worked. I just did things I loved to do.”  “How do people keep up with you? Your friends, your family.”  “You know, I don’t have many friends. I don’t need friends. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy being with people, showing them a good time. Anyone who knows me will agree: you want to have a good time you call Dave. But when I’m done I’m done. My sons are my friends. My wife and I have been together since high school—that’s a long time. I don’t have time for friends. I got my family.”  “Are they proud of what you’ve accomplished?”  “Oh, I don’t know,” he snickers. “I don’t like to take credit for things. Anyone who takes credit is a jackass. You can’t take credit. It’s given to you.”  “So what keeps you going?”  “Not knowing what’s next. I’m constantly chasing the next moment. For me, it’s crack. I have the Marco Polo complex. I look for an adventure. Then I throw it in the pile of my adventures and I look for a new one. Another experience to throw in the pile.”  “And if not for gymnastics, where would you be now?”  “I’d just be out there. Maybe I’d be a comedian, or an actor. Or I’d live in an A-frame and be a writer. Everyone has one great story in his life, but I have hundreds, hundreds of magic moments. I have no plans for most days and I just let things happen to me. Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it wonderful? I’m just so lucky, aren’t I?”  We’re back in Dave’s driveway.  “You know,” he says before disappearing inside his house, “I’m the kind of guy you normally wouldn’t trust. But you can. I have a natural instinct that helps me avoid fatal mistakes. I don’t make fatal mistakes. I go near the edge, but that’s it. But if you’re with me, you’ll always – always – have a good time. Guaranteed.”


We drive back into the woods, down a serpentine road, until we get to a lake. Small house sits a few feet away from the water, a boat rocks at the end of the dock.
“My father-in-law got this boat, so we can all use it, that’s the deal. We’re getting in, right?” says Dave, and minutes later we’re motoring to the middle of the lake. Then, just like that, the grey clouds open up and the evening sun sprays Technicolor all over the trees and the water and Dave’s face. He’s smiling. His voice rises over the wind and the motor.
“I’m not afraid to do whatever I want. I got two red cards in one night as a coach during Pan Am games for calling another coach a cheater. No one ever gets two red cards. You get a yellow card as a warning and the red card means you’re out. But I got two. I had a dream after that—I dreamt they wanted to kick me out of the Olympics, but I wouldn’t leave. So they chased me around. I climbed the rings to get away from them. It was a wonderful dream; I woke up laughing.”
We dock on the other side of the lake and follow Dave into the woods.
“So, this is where I hunt, isn’t it beautiful?” he says. “Can you believe I shot seven deer here in one year? Let’s make our way back, it’s getting dark.”
We motor back and barely make it out of the woods when it starts to snow. Black road darts at us and large flurries are multiplying and pummeling the windshield. The speedometer needle pecks at 120.
“Believe it or not, I’m in total control of most situations,” says Dave. “It just doesn’t seem like it.”
“Seems like you have this need to always go somewhere, the urge to depart from your current point.”
“Yes, it’s true. And that’s what I love about my life now. I get a coaching contract and I’m in the car the next day. I drive you can’t imagine how much. I drive the whole country once or twice a year. If I fly in, I get a car and I drive for a whole week. I’ve hitchhiked across Canada who knows how many times. I am the God of Road Trip.”
“Is that why you like your work, too?”
“Hard to say. I’ve never truly worked. I just did things I loved to do.”
“How do people keep up with you? Your friends, your family.”
“You know, I don’t have many friends. I don’t need friends. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy being with people, showing them a good time. Anyone who knows me will agree: you want to have a good time you call Dave. But when I’m done I’m done. My sons are my friends. My wife and I have been together since high school—that’s a long time. I don’t have time for friends. I got my family.”
“Are they proud of what you’ve accomplished?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he snickers. “I don’t like to take credit for things. Anyone who takes credit is a jackass. You can’t take credit. It’s given to you.”
“So what keeps you going?”
“Not knowing what’s next. I’m constantly chasing the next moment. For me, it’s crack. I have the Marco Polo complex. I look for an adventure. Then I throw it in the pile of my adventures and I look for a new one. Another experience to throw in the pile.”
“And if not for gymnastics, where would you be now?”
“I’d just be out there. Maybe I’d be a comedian, or an actor. Or I’d live in an A-frame and be a writer. Everyone has one great story in his life, but I have hundreds, hundreds of magic moments. I have no plans for most days and I just let things happen to me. Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it wonderful? I’m just so lucky, aren’t I?”
We’re back in Dave’s driveway.
“You know,” he says before disappearing inside his house, “I’m the kind of guy you normally wouldn’t trust. But you can. I have a natural instinct that helps me avoid fatal mistakes. I don’t make fatal mistakes. I go near the edge, but that’s it. But if you’re with me, you’ll always – always – have a good time. Guaranteed.”

“I’ve never truly worked. I just did things I loved to do.”


 

BURTON LIM: Batman in residence

   “While I can’t deny the personal pride involved,
     the discovery of previously unknown species
     has much wider implications than bringing recognition
     to an otherwise obscure academic researcher.” – B.L.

 

    I don’t suppose there’s any other way to avoid running into an alligator , he noted, and plunged into the deep mount of bat shit. The excrement, dense and granular like wet sand, packed into his hands as he burrowed through the bottom of the cave. The leeches that boarded his sneakers on the way here—a drawn out, blistering climb through the tropical mountainside, pierced by a torrential downpour—had settled inside his wet socks and nibbled on his ankles. It was going to be a long twenty meters.   Burton giggles remembering this story as we stroll through a bright, air-conditioned exhibition hall of the museum.   “Did you hate your job that day, Burton?”  More giggles.   “I was just hoping to find some good specimens.”  “Any luck?’  “Nope. Turned out, I’d already encountered and collected most of them a few days earlier in another part of the country.”  We pause in front of a stuffed rhino.   “I didn’t need any of the specimens from that cave, save for one or two,” says Burton matter-of-factly. “When I finally made it out, I had to untangle and release all the bats from the net I’d set up at the exit before going in.”  “How many were caught?”  “Oh, I don’t know, a few hundred. It took me a while. Let’s just say, the leeches got dessert that night.”  Three concrete layers beneath the Earth’s surface, deep in the annals of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, you’ll find a man named Burton Lim. Burton is the ROM’s Assistant Curator of Mammalogy. He’s been here for almost 30 years, though he hardly ever hangs inside for more than a few months at a time. Burton spends the rest of his working hours getting scorched, drenched, or gnawed on while inching across the Earth’s most godforsaken terrains. The subjects of Burton’s expeditions are small mammals, mainly bats, that live in humble obscurity compared to other, more photogenic animals. His job: observe and document their lives and collect specimens for research on bat evolution. His mission: advance our understanding of the planet’s ecosystem. In some places, Burton’s surveys are the first known surveys of mammals in the area.  “There are millions of new species waiting to be discovered,” says Burton and points to rows of drawers that line the ROM’s mammal exhibition hall. In every drawer, there’s a neat collection of small, dried-up creatures—birds, mice, bats.   “Imagine how much they could teach us about life on Earth,” he says.


I don’t suppose there’s any other way to avoid running into an alligator, he noted, and plunged into the deep mount of bat shit. The excrement, dense and granular like wet sand, packed into his hands as he burrowed through the bottom of the cave. The leeches that boarded his sneakers on the way here—a drawn out, blistering climb through the tropical mountainside, pierced by a torrential downpour—had settled inside his wet socks and nibbled on his ankles. It was going to be a long twenty meters.
Burton giggles remembering this story as we stroll through a bright, air-conditioned exhibition hall of the museum.
“Did you hate your job that day, Burton?”
More giggles.
“I was just hoping to find some good specimens.”
“Any luck?’
“Nope. Turned out, I’d already encountered and collected most of them a few days earlier in another part of the country.”
We pause in front of a stuffed rhino.
“I didn’t need any of the specimens from that cave, save for one or two,” says Burton matter-of-factly. “When I finally made it out, I had to untangle and release all the bats from the net I’d set up at the exit before going in.”
“How many were caught?”
“Oh, I don’t know, a few hundred. It took me a while. Let’s just say, the leeches got dessert that night.”
Three concrete layers beneath the Earth’s surface, deep in the annals of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, you’ll find a man named Burton Lim. Burton is the ROM’s Assistant Curator of Mammalogy. He’s been here for almost 30 years, though he hardly ever hangs inside for more than a few months at a time. Burton spends the rest of his working hours getting scorched, drenched, or gnawed on while inching across the Earth’s most godforsaken terrains. The subjects of Burton’s expeditions are small mammals, mainly bats, that live in humble obscurity compared to other, more photogenic animals. His job: observe and document their lives and collect specimens for research on bat evolution. His mission: advance our understanding of the planet’s ecosystem. In some places, Burton’s surveys are the first known surveys of mammals in the area.
“There are millions of new species waiting to be discovered,” says Burton and points to rows of drawers that line the ROM’s mammal exhibition hall. In every drawer, there’s a neat collection of small, dried-up creatures—birds, mice, bats.
“Imagine how much they could teach us about life on Earth,” he says.

“I’ve been on more adventures than I can remember.”

   Burton’s office is a 360-degree encyclopedia—one gets an education just from being here. A pair of world maps is stretched out on one side. A  Wild About Bats  poster is pinned up on another, next to two matching ones of  The   Cats and Monkeys of the North Rupununi  and  The Iwokrama Forest . There’s a large dramatic portrait of a bat with a snout the size of a banjo. The rest of the walls are hidden behind towers of shelves stuffed with dusty, king-sized binders. A dead mouse rests next to a coffee mug on top of a filing cabinet. It’s a shrew, says Burton reassuringly. Burton himself wheels to and fro in his office chair with a firm command of the chaos he’s carefully devised over the past three decades.   “Do you have any credentials?” he inquires firmly during our introduction. “A prospectus with your work? A list of publications and credits?” There appears to be a thought bubble above Burton’s head, the word “amateur” flashing inside.  Yet, far from exercising his skepticism, Burton agrees to meet again and we soon settle with a Guinness at a pub across the street from the ROM. The first question can’t be helped:  “After so many years of researching and observing the bat, do you ever feel like you know this animal so well that you … embody it?”  “You mean do I feel possessed? Like I’m one with the bat or something?”   There go the giggles, again.   “Then why bats, Burton?”  “Believe it or not, I ended up here by chance. Randolph Peterson, my former zoology professor at University of Toronto, happened to be the ROM’s mammal curator. He invited me to be a researcher of small mammals, mostly bats, which were his specialty. Shortly after, I went out on my first research trip to Mexico. Since then, I’ve been on more adventures than I can remember.”  “How many new species have you personally identified?”  “Seven species of bats. One of opossum, in Guyana, but that one’s not official yet. It takes a long time to get official credit for discovering a new species. The science world is very competitive. You don’t get to name a species if you were the second to discover it.”  “What do you find most interesting about bats?”  “Definitely the number of species. There are almost 1,200 of them. And this is an underestimate of about 25 percent, with more species to be discovered. It’s amazing to me that after centuries of research, we still don't know something as seemingly basic as how many bat species there are.”  We nod together. Whether anyone else in the world agrees that knowing the number of existing bat species qualifies as basic, remains to be seen.


Burton’s office is a 360-degree encyclopedia—one gets an education just from being here. A pair of world maps is stretched out on one side. A Wild About Bats poster is pinned up on another, next to two matching ones of The Cats and Monkeys of the North Rupununi and The Iwokrama Forest. There’s a large dramatic portrait of a bat with a snout the size of a banjo. The rest of the walls are hidden behind towers of shelves stuffed with dusty, king-sized binders. A dead mouse rests next to a coffee mug on top of a filing cabinet. It’s a shrew, says Burton reassuringly. Burton himself wheels to and fro in his office chair with a firm command of the chaos he’s carefully devised over the past three decades.
“Do you have any credentials?” he inquires firmly during our introduction. “A prospectus with your work? A list of publications and credits?” There appears to be a thought bubble above Burton’s head, the word “amateur” flashing inside.
Yet, far from exercising his skepticism, Burton agrees to meet again and we soon settle with a Guinness at a pub across the street from the ROM. The first question can’t be helped:
“After so many years of researching and observing the bat, do you ever feel like you know this animal so well that you … embody it?”
“You mean do I feel possessed? Like I’m one with the bat or something?”
There go the giggles, again.
“Then why bats, Burton?”
“Believe it or not, I ended up here by chance. Randolph Peterson, my former zoology professor at University of Toronto, happened to be the ROM’s mammal curator. He invited me to be a researcher of small mammals, mostly bats, which were his specialty. Shortly after, I went out on my first research trip to Mexico. Since then, I’ve been on more adventures than I can remember.”
“How many new species have you personally identified?”
“Seven species of bats. One of opossum, in Guyana, but that one’s not official yet. It takes a long time to get official credit for discovering a new species. The science world is very competitive. You don’t get to name a species if you were the second to discover it.”
“What do you find most interesting about bats?”
“Definitely the number of species. There are almost 1,200 of them. And this is an underestimate of about 25 percent, with more species to be discovered. It’s amazing to me that after centuries of research, we still don't know something as seemingly basic as how many bat species there are.”
We nod together. Whether anyone else in the world agrees that knowing the number of existing bat species qualifies as basic, remains to be seen.

“Sometimes, I find myself in pretty unthinkable scenarios.
Those experiences don’t end up in research reports.”

   “Has bat research led you to any unexpected discoveries about humans?”  “A good part of my fieldwork relies on help and guidance from the locals. Sometimes, I find myself in pretty unthinkable scenarios. Those experiences don’t end up in research reports,” he smiles and looks away, lost in a memory.  “In those scenarios, do you get treated like a celebrity? An intruder? Both?”  “I’m generally welcome in most places. Sometimes, I get tested on my own adaptability. Once, I got coerced into joining a drinking contest in Northern Vietnam. It all started innocently enough, until someone produced a suspiciously large vessel, a clay urn of sorts, which was filled with what was possibly the strongest, most putrid moonshine known to man. There were two long bamboo straws at the top of the jug. I was told to take one of the straws. A young woman sat in front of the other. I gathered this was a drinking race so I clung to my straw and got going. By the time I realized I was the only one drinking, it was too late— I couldn’t get up.”  “Seems like nothing in life can quite prepare you for a jumbo jug of Vietnamese moonshine. Or alligators and leeches and mounts of bat shit for that matter.”  Giggles.  “I try to be prepared for anything. That reminds me, I’d better start getting in shape for my trip to Borneo. This one’s going to be an adventure. Five weeks on a mountain, setting up camp at different elevations. But I expect it to be spectacular.”  “Is it hard coming back to Canada from something so intense and exotic?”  “I’ve been changing my environments for thirty years. I’m used to it.”  “Adaptable, like a bat.”  “You may say that.”   Outside Burton’s office is an impenetrable maze of hallways and stairwells. Metal cabinets filled with trip logs and 60-year-old dried bats. Heads of rhinoceros, buffalos, antelopes, and moose, pensively staring from behind air ducts. A fridge locker filled with hundreds of skins—from zebras to wolves to polar bears. Just next door, a miniature warehouse, with a sign on the door, “Alcoholics Only”, that houses reptiles, rodents, fish, bats, and other creatures, marinated in jars of all shapes and sizes. Many jars are labeled with Burton’s name. We dropped one of them during the photo shoot, spilling a family of pickled bats out on the rug. That’s ok, said Burton and calmly glided out of the room to refill the jar with alcohol.  Thousands of feet stomp above Burton’s head every day. Thousands more trek through the bat cave he helped design for the ROM. The cave is spooky and dark, filled with real bat specimens and shrills of young children. It’s a replica of the one Burton visited in Jamaica. Burton says the replica is pretty accurate, especially the floor crawling with cockroaches.   “If you knew what you were getting into when you started this job, Burton, would you still have taken it?”  “As long as I got to travel.”  Off he flies, an obscure researcher on a quest to find new species and lead us to more discoveries about planet Earth.


“Has bat research led you to any unexpected discoveries about humans?”
“A good part of my fieldwork relies on help and guidance from the locals. Sometimes, I find myself in pretty unthinkable scenarios. Those experiences don’t end up in research reports,” he smiles and looks away, lost in a memory.
“In those scenarios, do you get treated like a celebrity? An intruder? Both?”
“I’m generally welcome in most places. Sometimes, I get tested on my own adaptability. Once, I got coerced into joining a drinking contest in Northern Vietnam. It all started innocently enough, until someone produced a suspiciously large vessel, a clay urn of sorts, which was filled with what was possibly the strongest, most putrid moonshine known to man. There were two long bamboo straws at the top of the jug. I was told to take one of the straws. A young woman sat in front of the other. I gathered this was a drinking race so I clung to my straw and got going. By the time I realized I was the only one drinking, it was too late— I couldn’t get up.”
“Seems like nothing in life can quite prepare you for a jumbo jug of Vietnamese moonshine. Or alligators and leeches and mounts of bat shit for that matter.”
Giggles.
“I try to be prepared for anything. That reminds me, I’d better start getting in shape for my trip to Borneo. This one’s going to be an adventure. Five weeks on a mountain, setting up camp at different elevations. But I expect it to be spectacular.”
“Is it hard coming back to Canada from something so intense and exotic?”
“I’ve been changing my environments for thirty years. I’m used to it.”
“Adaptable, like a bat.”
“You may say that.”
Outside Burton’s office is an impenetrable maze of hallways and stairwells. Metal cabinets filled with trip logs and 60-year-old dried bats. Heads of rhinoceros, buffalos, antelopes, and moose, pensively staring from behind air ducts. A fridge locker filled with hundreds of skins—from zebras to wolves to polar bears. Just next door, a miniature warehouse, with a sign on the door, “Alcoholics Only”, that houses reptiles, rodents, fish, bats, and other creatures, marinated in jars of all shapes and sizes. Many jars are labeled with Burton’s name. We dropped one of them during the photo shoot, spilling a family of pickled bats out on the rug. That’s ok, said Burton and calmly glided out of the room to refill the jar with alcohol.
Thousands of feet stomp above Burton’s head every day. Thousands more trek through the bat cave he helped design for the ROM. The cave is spooky and dark, filled with real bat specimens and shrills of young children. It’s a replica of the one Burton visited in Jamaica. Burton says the replica is pretty accurate, especially the floor crawling with cockroaches.
“If you knew what you were getting into when you started this job, Burton, would you still have taken it?”
“As long as I got to travel.”
Off he flies, an obscure researcher on a quest to find new species and lead us to more discoveries about planet Earth.

“I try to be prepared for anything.”


J: The man who makes Canadians.

This is a profile of a Canadian public servant. His name has been withheld to protect his identity.

“I'm a stereotypical Sagittarius, which fits my Blakeian
worldview: the struggle between reason and energy,
repression and desire, order and creativity, authority,
and rebellion.”  –J

 

   Sometime, between the moment one decides to immigrate to Canada and the moment it actually happens, one must deal with an immigration officer. Though visa processes are different in all countries, one thing is the same everywhere: for a moment in time, an applicant’s entire future will be in the hands of one individual. That individual will judge whether the applicant is the right fit for Canada. And that individual could very possibly be this man.  “I’ve come full circle to be in this position,” he says. “My grandparents came here from Europe. My Croatian grandfather joined the British Army in WWI, so that he could get Canadian citizenship after the war. I’m here now because someone like me let my grandparents in this country.”  We call him on Skype in his apartment in Mexico City. In just a few weeks, he’ll finish his three-year post there and move to Washington, D.C. He takes a moment to program the PVR for the Toronto Leafs’ game and opens a beer.  “Now I’m ready,” he exhales. “Just got back from the picket line. Canadian Diplomats are striking. Equal pay for equal work.”  “Picketing against your boss? Brave.”  “True, it is my duty as a public servant to respect the terms of my employment. But my even more important duty (and right) is that of a citizen in a democracy to speak his mind. Some issues are too important to remain silent on. There's a reason freedom of speech is a fundamental freedom protected by the Charter: you can't have democracy without it.”  “What issues do you stand up for?”  “Several: issues of war and peace, for example. I marched against the Iraq war—I wanted to protest that invasion, which I considered illegal, and I wanted to make sure my country did not participate in it. I was a public servant at the time, but that couldn’t prevent me from protesting. I believe that those of us who took to the streets in protest helped keep Canada out of that war, and I'm proud of that. I also have very strong views on global warming. This is how I see it: global warming is the greatest threat facing humanity; it's as serious as nuclear war. This isn't hyperbole; it’s science. If we don't get our act together on this, it will be humanity's greatest failure. I simply can’t be silent on this, especially in light of our current government's antipathy towards anyone expressing such views.”


Sometime, between the moment one decides to immigrate to Canada and the moment it actually happens, one must deal with an immigration officer. Though visa processes are different in all countries, one thing is the same everywhere: for a moment in time, an applicant’s entire future will be in the hands of one individual. That individual will judge whether the applicant is the right fit for Canada. And that individual could very possibly be this man.
“I’ve come full circle to be in this position,” he says. “My grandparents came here from Europe. My Croatian grandfather joined the British Army in WWI, so that he could get Canadian citizenship after the war. I’m here now because someone like me let my grandparents in this country.”
We call him on Skype in his apartment in Mexico City. In just a few weeks, he’ll finish his three-year post there and move to Washington, D.C. He takes a moment to program the PVR for the Toronto Leafs’ game and opens a beer.
“Now I’m ready,” he exhales. “Just got back from the picket line. Canadian Diplomats are striking. Equal pay for equal work.”
“Picketing against your boss? Brave.”
“True, it is my duty as a public servant to respect the terms of my employment. But my even more important duty (and right) is that of a citizen in a democracy to speak his mind. Some issues are too important to remain silent on. There's a reason freedom of speech is a fundamental freedom protected by the Charter: you can't have democracy without it.”
“What issues do you stand up for?”
“Several: issues of war and peace, for example. I marched against the Iraq war—I wanted to protest that invasion, which I considered illegal, and I wanted to make sure my country did not participate in it. I was a public servant at the time, but that couldn’t prevent me from protesting. I believe that those of us who took to the streets in protest helped keep Canada out of that war, and I'm proud of that. I also have very strong views on global warming. This is how I see it: global warming is the greatest threat facing humanity; it's as serious as nuclear war. This isn't hyperbole; it’s science. If we don't get our act together on this, it will be humanity's greatest failure. I simply can’t be silent on this, especially in light of our current government's antipathy towards anyone expressing such views.”

“I am here because someone like me let my grandparents in this country.”

   He grew up in Canadian suburbia. Life was unaffected and predictable from one town to the next; it was easy to stay in the same place. Most people did. He couldn’t. “Do you ever wonder how those people live over there?” this kid would ask his dad as they drove through the suburbs to visit family. Dad would shrug. But the kid was certain that life wasn’t the same everywhere.   Then his mind blew open. And it went something like this. High school started. In high school, there was a group of kids who weren’t like everyone else. They looked different. They talked about politics. They listened to a different kind of music. The big bang in his head happened when he heard the Clash’s  Sandinista!  With his new friends, the 14-year-old started taking trips to Toronto, where they descended into the mosh pits of punk rock bars, head banging side by side with tattooed and sweaty tough guys. He was hooked. Not just on the music, but also on the punk rock scene and everything it represented.  “I learned so much from punk rock,” he says. “About politics, about social justice and equality. But more importantly, I learned this: that to be different is, in fact, better than being like everyone else. Conformity is just a tool used by authority to keep everyone submissive and unquestioning. But the ones who are ‘different’ are usually the ones with something interesting to say. Punk rock opened my eyes to realities they didn’t teach us at school, and helped me understand people whose situations were different from my own.”   The ability to understand other people’s situations turned into a life skill. The suburban teenage punk became a public servant. Today, he’s a Senior Immigration Officer with Canadian Foreign Service.   “My job is making Canadians,” he says.   In the past ten years, he’s “made” thousands of Canadians: from Mexicans, Russians, Moldovans, Sri Lankans, Romanians, Bulgarians, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Colombians, Venezuelans, Haitians, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, and Costa Ricans. He’s been trained and posted in places most Canadians have only heard of in the news.   “But if I’d gone straight from the suburbs to this job,” he says, “I never would’ve been good at it.”   He left the suburbs for McGill University in Montreal. Following Montreal—Vancouver. The fresh economics grad settled on Wreck Beach and spent the summer selling beer, often dressed only in his birthday suit.  “It’s one of the greatest things Canada has. America doesn’t have anything like that. The separateness and freedom that exists on Wreck, relatively unmolested by the authorities, it’s like Canada’s own Disneyland. And if you had the wherewithal to bring the beer and ice down those steps to the beach, you were good. There was never enough beer on the beach.”


He grew up in Canadian suburbia. Life was unaffected and predictable from one town to the next; it was easy to stay in the same place. Most people did. He couldn’t. “Do you ever wonder how those people live over there?” this kid would ask his dad as they drove through the suburbs to visit family. Dad would shrug. But the kid was certain that life wasn’t the same everywhere.
Then his mind blew open. And it went something like this. High school started. In high school, there was a group of kids who weren’t like everyone else. They looked different. They talked about politics. They listened to a different kind of music. The big bang in his head happened when he heard the Clash’s Sandinista! With his new friends, the 14-year-old started taking trips to Toronto, where they descended into the mosh pits of punk rock bars, head banging side by side with tattooed and sweaty tough guys. He was hooked. Not just on the music, but also on the punk rock scene and everything it represented.
“I learned so much from punk rock,” he says. “About politics, about social justice and equality. But more importantly, I learned this: that to be different is, in fact, better than being like everyone else. Conformity is just a tool used by authority to keep everyone submissive and unquestioning. But the ones who are ‘different’ are usually the ones with something interesting to say. Punk rock opened my eyes to realities they didn’t teach us at school, and helped me understand people whose situations were different from my own.”
The ability to understand other people’s situations turned into a life skill. The suburban teenage punk became a public servant. Today, he’s a Senior Immigration Officer with Canadian Foreign Service.
“My job is making Canadians,” he says.
In the past ten years, he’s “made” thousands of Canadians: from Mexicans, Russians, Moldovans, Sri Lankans, Romanians, Bulgarians, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Colombians, Venezuelans, Haitians, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, and Costa Ricans. He’s been trained and posted in places most Canadians have only heard of in the news.
“But if I’d gone straight from the suburbs to this job,” he says, “I never would’ve been good at it.”
He left the suburbs for McGill University in Montreal. Following Montreal—Vancouver. The fresh economics grad settled on Wreck Beach and spent the summer selling beer, often dressed only in his birthday suit.
“It’s one of the greatest things Canada has. America doesn’t have anything like that. The separateness and freedom that exists on Wreck, relatively unmolested by the authorities, it’s like Canada’s own Disneyland. And if you had the wherewithal to bring the beer and ice down those steps to the beach, you were good. There was never enough beer on the beach.”

“I learned so much from punk rock. About politics, about social justice and equality. But more importantly, I learned this: that to be different is, in fact, better than being like everyone else.”

   When the summer ended, he took an English-teaching job in Japan, only to return to Vancouver with a letter of acceptance to UBC Law. Following that, a title at a top Canadian firm in Toronto; and, finally, a shot at a position in Foreign Service.  “What was so attractive about this job?”  “The same reason I left the suburbs as a kid. I wanted to travel, to see and understand other cultures. So I needed a job that would put that into practice.” He laughs.  “How has being a diplomat affected your view of the world?”  “I’ve developed a lot of tolerance for different things and started to appreciate that things work differently in other places. When I’m posted in another country, I do my best to embrace its culture. It’s easy for a first-world diplomat in developing countries to live, in varying degrees and for lack of a better word, in a sort of bubble. You can shelter in the security of your apartment and rarely seek experience outside the safe and familiar. I just try to get the most out of the experience: learn what I can, have fun, and treat others with respect. There are a lot of socio-economic differences, injustices, and prejudices in the world upon which, unfortunately, you as an individual are not going to have a significant impact, but, a wise man once told me, ‘What matters most is how you treat me and how I treat you.’ I think everything else can follow from that.”  “Has all this experience changed the way you see Canada?”  “There is so much space between cars in Canada!” He lets out a laugh. “That aside, Canada is one of the very few countries in the world that has a system that allows people who are smart enough to get an education and be successful. You have to realize how fortunate you are. I learned this through traveling, not through living as a diplomat.”  “So, in the office is it I, the Traveler, or I, the Diplomat?”  “It’s hard to distinguish between a human being and an immigration officer. When you take this job, what you do is written in the legislation—so you have to follow the framework. You have to have a certain level of belief in the law you’re enforcing. But you also need to have intuition and good judgment and above all, a genuine desire to help someone get in the country, not prevent him from getting in. I like letting people into Canada. Immigrants get to make a new life. Canada gets enriched economically and culturally, with new blood. It’s a win-win.”  “So many lives go through your hands.”  “And it’s my job – and duty – to open the door for those who I believe can make our country better.”   “You must have witnessed incredible personal stories.”  “Yes, I have. Interviews often result in surprises. I’ve had some really pleasant (and some not so pleasant) ones. Not too long ago, I was reviewing a simple visitor application. On the face of it, it didn't look like the applicant could afford a trip to Canada—a warning sign that the intention might not be to visit, but rather to work illegally. Upon further review, however, I realized that despite working many years for the same company, in the laundry, for a very modest wage, this applicant was a big-time success. He’d been a widower for many years, so it seems he had raised three children alone, and on that modest wage. The eldest was a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in that country; the youngest was an engineering student at another top university; and the middle child he was seeking to visit in Canada? She was completing her PhD at McGill. One heck of a success story, and an application I very much enjoyed approving. On the other side of the ledger, I’ve also faced dishonest people in interviews and had to unravel webs of lies to come to a correct conclusion on a case. That can be fun sometimes, other times it can be really frustrating. I once had a gangster type ask me very unsettling questions about whether I had any family back in Canada.”   “Have you ever felt unsafe?”  “I’m not easily intimidated and I have good intuition. In that particular scenario, I made it pretty clear that thinly veiled threats weren’t going to work in getting a visa.”   “What do you think makes a true Canadian?”  “I’ve got to think about that question a bit. ‘True Canadian’ sounds a bit exclusive, which isn't very Canadian.”  “Are there qualities that are uniquely Canadian?”  “I don't know, Canada is pretty much the world these days. Of course, there's hockey and Tim Horton’s and the sweeping arctic vistas, but I don't know anyone who lives too far north of the U.S. border and I don't think Tim’s makes good coffee. So, to me, the ideal Canadian is one who is accepting and respectful of the rights and freedoms of others, up to the point where those rights and freedoms seriously interfere either with the rights and freedoms of other Canadians, or with the functioning of our society. We're not judge-y, and we mind our own business, but not to the point of condoning injustice. Live, let live, have fun, and try to stay warm.  “What song do you think best represents Canada?”  “For me personally,  Early Mornin’ Rain  by Gordon Lightfoot because I’m almost always ‘a long way from home’. More universally,  Sugar Mountain  by Neil Young.”  “In an alternate reality, would you ever deny someone an entry visa based on their musical taste?”  “I’d let them in the country, but nowhere near the stereo.”


When the summer ended, he took an English-teaching job in Japan, only to return to Vancouver with a letter of acceptance to UBC Law. Following that, a title at a top Canadian firm in Toronto; and, finally, a shot at a position in Foreign Service.
“What was so attractive about this job?”
“The same reason I left the suburbs as a kid. I wanted to travel, to see and understand other cultures. So I needed a job that would put that into practice.” He laughs.
“How has being a diplomat affected your view of the world?”
“I’ve developed a lot of tolerance for different things and started to appreciate that things work differently in other places. When I’m posted in another country, I do my best to embrace its culture. It’s easy for a first-world diplomat in developing countries to live, in varying degrees and for lack of a better word, in a sort of bubble. You can shelter in the security of your apartment and rarely seek experience outside the safe and familiar. I just try to get the most out of the experience: learn what I can, have fun, and treat others with respect. There are a lot of socio-economic differences, injustices, and prejudices in the world upon which, unfortunately, you as an individual are not going to have a significant impact, but, a wise man once told me, ‘What matters most is how you treat me and how I treat you.’ I think everything else can follow from that.”
“Has all this experience changed the way you see Canada?”
“There is so much space between cars in Canada!” He lets out a laugh. “That aside, Canada is one of the very few countries in the world that has a system that allows people who are smart enough to get an education and be successful. You have to realize how fortunate you are. I learned this through traveling, not through living as a diplomat.”
“So, in the office is it I, the Traveler, or I, the Diplomat?”
“It’s hard to distinguish between a human being and an immigration officer. When you take this job, what you do is written in the legislation—so you have to follow the framework. You have to have a certain level of belief in the law you’re enforcing. But you also need to have intuition and good judgment and above all, a genuine desire to help someone get in the country, not prevent him from getting in. I like letting people into Canada. Immigrants get to make a new life. Canada gets enriched economically and culturally, with new blood. It’s a win-win.”
“So many lives go through your hands.”
“And it’s my job – and duty – to open the door for those who I believe can make our country better.”
“You must have witnessed incredible personal stories.”
“Yes, I have. Interviews often result in surprises. I’ve had some really pleasant (and some not so pleasant) ones. Not too long ago, I was reviewing a simple visitor application. On the face of it, it didn't look like the applicant could afford a trip to Canada—a warning sign that the intention might not be to visit, but rather to work illegally. Upon further review, however, I realized that despite working many years for the same company, in the laundry, for a very modest wage, this applicant was a big-time success. He’d been a widower for many years, so it seems he had raised three children alone, and on that modest wage. The eldest was a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in that country; the youngest was an engineering student at another top university; and the middle child he was seeking to visit in Canada? She was completing her PhD at McGill. One heck of a success story, and an application I very much enjoyed approving. On the other side of the ledger, I’ve also faced dishonest people in interviews and had to unravel webs of lies to come to a correct conclusion on a case. That can be fun sometimes, other times it can be really frustrating. I once had a gangster type ask me very unsettling questions about whether I had any family back in Canada.”
“Have you ever felt unsafe?”
“I’m not easily intimidated and I have good intuition. In that particular scenario, I made it pretty clear that thinly veiled threats weren’t going to work in getting a visa.”
“What do you think makes a true Canadian?”
“I’ve got to think about that question a bit. ‘True Canadian’ sounds a bit exclusive, which isn't very Canadian.”
“Are there qualities that are uniquely Canadian?”
“I don't know, Canada is pretty much the world these days. Of course, there's hockey and Tim Horton’s and the sweeping arctic vistas, but I don't know anyone who lives too far north of the U.S. border and I don't think Tim’s makes good coffee. So, to me, the ideal Canadian is one who is accepting and respectful of the rights and freedoms of others, up to the point where those rights and freedoms seriously interfere either with the rights and freedoms of other Canadians, or with the functioning of our society. We're not judge-y, and we mind our own business, but not to the point of condoning injustice. Live, let live, have fun, and try to stay warm.
“What song do you think best represents Canada?”
“For me personally, Early Mornin’ Rain by Gordon Lightfoot because I’m almost always ‘a long way from home’. More universally, Sugar Mountain by Neil Young.”
“In an alternate reality, would you ever deny someone an entry visa based on their musical taste?”
“I’d let them in the country, but nowhere near the stereo.”