Archive for the ‘introduction’ Category
niche \ ‘nich\ n (F, fr. MF, fr. nicher to nest, fr. (assumed) VL nidicare, from L nidus nest)
1 a : a recess in a wall, especially for a statue;
b : something that resembles a niche;
2 a : a place, employment, or activity for which a person is best fitted;
b : a habitat supplying the factors necessary for the existence of an organism or species;
c : the ecological role of an organism in a community especially in regard to food consumption.
– Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1979
My niche includes breakfast.
I look forward to my breakfast, sometimes planning it in detail the night before.
The best breakfast, for me, includes all the food groups: protein, grain, milk, fruit, vegetable and fat.
I usually settle for cereal, or toast on days when the cereal box is empty. But the best breakfast involves a piece of whole wheat toast, some yogurt and almonds, stir-fried green peppers, onions and mushrooms…
and an orange…
breakfast sun shower
clouds pulled apart
sections of sky
from a flat grey knife
light peels back from shadow
curl of orange rind forecasts
tart vapour of rain
© Jane Tims 2010
If niche has colour, it also has sound. Some of those sounds are soothing, the sound of a babbling brook, or the wind in the Red Pine. Some sounds are alarming, the cry of a child, or the squeal of brakes. At my office, there are multiple sounds in the background – people talking, computers whirring, copiers copying, printers printing. When there is a power outage, I am amazed at the silence of the building, and wonder how I can possibly work with all the noise.
When I can’t sleep, I turn to a trick my Mom taught me – I count the sounds in the sleeping house. Last week, a welcome sound was added to the usual repertoire, the three part hoot of a Great Horned Owl. Hoo-Hoo-Hoo Hoo-o Hoo-o. It was a gentle but penetrating sound and it ruled the night. The owl hooted three times at about five minute intervals and then I fell asleep.
Not long ago I went for a walk in the grey woods and heard a sound I have heard so often before, the grating squeal of two trees rubbing together. These trees, a Balsam Fir and a Grey Birch, have tried to grow into the same space and now they reproach one another in an endless competition.
fear of heights
as dizzying to look up
in the forest
into the abyss
the trees taper so
where branches touch
and reach for one another
and sudden, wrenching sounds
a branch swings back or breaks
loosened by a squirrel
or burdened where crows complain
or where a warbler scolds
teacher teacher teacher
© Jane Tims 1996
I have a picture of the late Tasha Tudor, the children’s author and illustrator, standing in her hermit’s weeds, clutching an armload of branches for the woodstove. Her lined face and straightforward relationship with nature exactly describe my wished-for niche.
I imagine myself as living with the land, growing all my own vegetables, foraging for food I cannot grow, living off the ‘grid’ with solar panels and wood fires, pumping my water from a dug well, patching my roof with pitch from the spruce trees… you are getting the picture. I do few of these things. My garden is pitiful, no sensible fish would attach to my line, and I have to keep a few litres of water in containers in case my electricity-dependant water pump succumbs to a power outage.
The niche I actually occupy is satisfactory when measured by many standards. It falls short of my ideal, but I am not willing to sacrifice. Even in the simple matter of the woodstove, I have only achieved partial success. We have pleasant fires in the autumn when the days are getting cold. But in winter, I rely on electricity to keep me warm.
If my ideal niche is not possible, I do find joy in the bits I have achieved. I think of my successful row of beans, my healthy crop of mint, my knitting of socks in winter, and my walks in the grey woods, as a ‘close approximation’ of my ideal. I admit that I would like to leave my cosy electricity-dependant niche, and acknowledgement frees me to stay.
I accept the truth … the ideal niche is a difficult goal. It takes determination and stamina to achieve.
a close approximation
Dolbear’s Law states: the number of chirps a cricket makes in fifteen seconds, plus forty, is a close approximation of the temperature on a summer night
warm September evening
I sit on the stoop consider
the timid wind chime the silent screen door
the unmetered patter of rain
soothing after a month of dry
the rain picks a song
over stones on the river
where does my mantra take me?
away, to the songs of a summer night
at the back door on the concrete step
where crickets sing from cracks in the sidewalk
strung together patio lanterns
notes from a Spanish guitar
the insect refrain
behind me light from the kitchen
potatoes at boil the voice of my sister
the tap of her shoe
beside me the metal rail rings at my touch
cool on a night so hot and so dry
the pavement cracks
out in the yard the insect chorus
Published as: ‘threshold’, Spring 1997, Pottersfield Portfolio 17 (3)
© Jane Tims
What are the color characteristics of niche? Are humans the only species to prefer certain colors for their spaces?
Other species also have color preferences. The best example I know is the preference of insects for color in their interactions with plants. Some insect pollinators, for example, prefer certain colors over others. Bumble bees have been shown to prefer the color purple. Also, flowers appearing monochromatic to us may be perceived quite differently by insects since they also see in the ultraviolet range of the spectrum. Some flowers, such as the yellow Evening-Primrose (Oenothera biennis L.), have ‘runway markers’ on their petals, to help insect pollinators to find their way to the nectar-producing parts of the plant.
Knowing about color-preference in insects can help us to spend more time in the out-of-doors. Science has shown us that mosquitoes prefer black or other dark colors over lighter colors. Greens, yellows and white are the colors to wear to reduce your attractiveness to mosquitoes.
An early paper on color preference of insects is A.S. Packard, 1903, ‘Color Preference in Insects’, Journal of the New York Entomological Society 11: 132-137. This paper is over one hundred years old but has charming anecdotes of the color preferences of houseflies, butterflies, moths and other insects. It is available on-line at:
In the article, Packard reports mosquitoes are attracted to navy-blue, dark red and reddish brown.
My favorite color is definitely green, followed closely by orange. I also find I associate these colors strongly with the seasons: autumn with orange, summer with green. Although I would not select red as a favorite color, I notice my house, not at all color-coordinated, has definite red accents in almost every room.
What is the preferred color of your niche?
wings of monarch or viceroy
citrus oil, flames spurted in dark
weightlessness of Chinese lanterns, evolution of green
jack-o-lantern grin on the compost heap
taste and root-thread trace of carrot
pumpkins on the vine
furniture polish stain
on an empty page
© Jane Tims 2011
Every summer, we take a day to drive along the Bay of Fundy and explore some of the beaches and rocky shores. Last summer, we found a small cove where the fog was just lifting.
Through the mist we could see the ghostly form of a fishing weir and the distant rugged shore.
The beach was pebbles and sand, perfect for beach-combing. We wandered at random, watching for sea glass, shells and wave-smoothed rocks.
The intertidal area, between low and high tide, is an extraordinary space, not quite ocean, not quite land. The plants and animals who live in this area have very particular ‘niche-needs’. They need the rise and fall of the tide twice daily. Some plants have adaptations to help them cope with changing conditions. For example, the brown algae Ascophyllum nodosum has bladders to help it float at high tide and reach the sunlight.
When we explored the cove, it was low tide. Where the sea water was trapped among the rocks, there were tidal pools, small natural aquariums of sea life. One rock with a large hollow in its surface had its own population of bladder wrack (Fucus vesiculosis), green algae (Enteromorpha), barnacles, and a lone crab.
The barnacles are fun to watch. They are crustaceans, and live with their shells securely attatched to the substrate. An opening in the top of the shell is covered by a pair of ‘sliding doors’ called the operculum. Under water, the operculum opens and the barnacle reaches out with modified legs, designed to capture its food. The legs, known as cirri, look like feathery fingers, reaching out and pulling back, reaching out and pulling back.
The ‘niche’ of a particular plant or animal can be thought of as its ‘occupation’ in the space where it lives. For example, with respect to food gathering, the crab feeds on the larger prey in the pool, the barnacles filter out the smallest creatures, and the algae take in their nutrients from the water itself. Although they live in the same space, the crab, barnacles and algae each occupy a different ‘niche’.
Deep Cove detail
weirs and dories indistinct
pillars of fog
glide up the long beach
drifts of mica
breaking bands of wave
water kicked into rainbows
sunlight above the fog
plover tracks sprinkled on sand
cobbles, coloured glass
float ropes, plastic pink
plaited by the sea
© Jane Tims
In biology, ‘niche’ refers to the space occupied by a plant or an animal. ‘Niche’ is the sum total of the habitat needs of a plant or animal – physical, nutritional, and biological. For example, the wild strawberries in our field grow where the moisture, sunlight and soil are just right. ‘Niche’ also includes the role the wild strawberries play in the ecosystem, the way its fruit and leaves provide food for insects, field mice and birds.
In human terms, ‘niche’ can be a metaphor for personal space, home, or community. My best space to live is in the country, where I can garden, be near to woods and water, and escape from urban noise. When I am in my right ‘niche’, I contribute best to my family and to the community where I live.
In my experience, ‘niche’ is not stagnant but changes, hour to hour, day to day, season to season. One way of looking at the timeline of life is to think of it as a sequence of niche-spaces lived-in, sought after, avoided, encountered, or discovered.
The place where I am also influences how I feel. Stress occurs when ‘niche’ does not quite fit. Comfort is discovering a space answering all my ‘niche-needs’. Sadness is in trying to return to a space once occupied but no longer available. Conflict can occur when I have trouble sharing my space with others.
Contentment is finding and inhabiting a space that is, if not perfect, at least mine.
This blog space will be devoted to poetry and prose about ‘niche’. I’ll include poems and stories about human space: home and away, past and present. I’ll write to explore some of the place-based themes I love: laughing and talking with friends, growing and gathering food, wandering in forest and field, and travelling to other places. Because I am a biologist, I’ll also write about wild plants and animals, and the spaces where they live and interact with one another.
Visit often, because I love to write and I’ll have regular updates. For now, tell me about your best place, your ‘niche’, the place where you belong.