What is place? The question is absurd.
The Okanagan Okanogan …
…is the here between these two arrows, more or less.
Does ‘place’ belong to settlers? If so, to which settlers? To ones born here, like myself, who don’t ask that question? To ones who’ve moved in, who do? To Indigenous peoples? Ridiculous. Is this a place?
Nez Perce Cemetery, Colville Indian Reservation
Let me be direct. This isn’t a place. It’s a people. It’s a story. It’s a living thing, but it’s not a place. When it’s called a place, there are troubles right away. For example, is this a place?
Marlin, Don’s Restaurant, Soap Lake, Washington
This is the busiest restaurant for a couple hundred miles in any direction. The eighty and ninety-year-old set comes here for the clam chowder and sweet memories of when they were kids and their parents, the settlers of this, the Wild West, took them here, to this combination of Sinatra Swank, Western Decor, and the thought that… Did Hemingway come here? Is that his fish?
Does that make it a place? If you want it to. But then what? Does that mean that this is a place, too?
Nez Perce Graveyard, Nespelem
Done the Nez Perce way.
No. Place, you see, is a thing made with fences, such as the border that divides this land in two and which causes the Okanagan to be one place and one inch away the Okanogan to be another, and just try Googling up a map that shows the whole valley. Good Luck. And it won’t have this on it, either …
Snaggers at Work, Okanagan Falls
These men were camping at the Provincial Park just down the road from this ancient salmon fishing site. It used to be a Syilx camp, but then it was made an official provincial park, as part of a program of regulating camping, which sounds a lot like a program for regulating Indian camping. It used to include a picnic site, but who’s going to pay for that, so now it’s open to anyone with a tent and $21 a night to spare. Yeah, that’s a fish in the wader’s hand.
I was leaning over a fence across the river, when a Syilx elder, out there for the afternoon with his grandkids, asked me, “Do they have license for that?” And I answered, “No one can get a license for that.” “That’s what I thought,” he said. The reason for our conversation, that the Syilx are working hard to reintroduce salmon to this valley. For the moment, they have a small food fishery here. These are their fish. That’s not a story of place. It’s a story of fish and of people. Only someone who thinks it’s a story of place and who doesn’t understand or respect the social nature of fish, and how fish are people, wades across the river to snag them here. This kind of country doesn’t show up on a map. Here are those fish …
Fish, Ducks, Water
This is an image of people, in a story.
Other weirdnesses abound. Here is an abandoned vineyard at the mouth of the Yakima River, where the so-called Johnny Appleseed of the Okanagan, Father Charles Pandosy, had his mission, back before the Yakima War, back before the Church sent him north to British Territory after, yeah, the British and American governments drew lines in the sand…
Chamna Nature Preserve, Richland, Washington
Don’t bother asking about Pandosy in town. No one’s heard of him, or his mission, here. This is the Hanford Engineer Works. History started here in 1943.
Such stories are the real maps, yet when people say “place”, they mean the land, or a building, which is nonsense. The land belongs to the government. Land title just means that one is being given social rights to draw social lines in the sand. The earth? Ah, you can’t own the earth. If the earth belongs to anyone, it belongs to people like this…
Beetle on Rabbitbrush
Chamna Nature Preserve
So, what about a building, eh? A building belongs to someone! Yes, in a social conversation. It’s separated from the land, though, and from the earth. If it has a relationship to the earth, that relationship is social. Like this:
Fence around B Reactor, Hanford Engineer Works, Washington
Russian thistle caught on the boundary between the human and the inhuman.
Human and inhuman … neither of those can be used to define place, either. For example, in the image above, which is the human and which is the inhuman? Is B Reactor and its legacy of death (The Trinity Test, Nagasaki, The Cold War…) human? Is the old Yakima and Wanapum landscape in behind this fence and now poisoned with thrown-away radioactive gick human? Are they all human? Is the fence human? And what on earth is ‘inhuman’?
The Radiation Train, Hanford
This train transported irradiated uranium from the B Reactor to the T Building, where it was dissolved in acid and chemically separated into a big pile of trouble and a small amount of plutonium. Does that make the train human or inhuman?
That question, too, is absurd. There is no place, and no human or inhuman. There are, however, social relationships. There are lines drawn in the sand and there are laws that say who can cross them and who can’t, and for what purpose, but all that has nothing to do with the land, or the earth. If you want to be on the earth, or in the earth, or want to be the earth, here is a good use for fences and the concept of place…
Fence On Its Side, Turtle Mountain, Vernon, British Columbia
Just walk across.
And right beside the fence, what did I see?
The shed skin of a sacred animal on the slope of an ancient story…and yeah, to get here, I walked ten feet across that fence above, right past the sign that said, hey, you, don’t go across this fence, this land is private. But what do you do when you want to get a picture of the fence?
Do you have to trespass to find where you are? Or is there public land? Again, absurd. All land is public. All place is private. You won’t get from one to the other, without getting all tangled up. This, for instance, is a bit tangled up…
…carving out a place for themselves in abandoned Vietnam-era Mainstreet USA, while the burning grasslands of Ellensburg and Wenatchee to the north and west obscure the sun.
They’re all stories. When you are that story and when you don’t even have to ask who are the people and who aren’t the people, then you’ll know where you are and your identity won’t be in any place, because this will be who you are…
The People in the Soap Lake Shallows
Joseph used to come to these sacred waters to ease his aching bones.
Note the power lines from Grand Coulee Dam in the distance. You are that, too.
Moon, Sewage Water Sprinkler, Clouds, Sky, Late Afternoon Sunlight, Cattle, Land Claim, and Houses in Vernon, British Columbia
This isn’t a place. It is a story. It is all here at once.
I know I promised green tomato juice today, but a friend’s comment that my identity as this place was only an emotional attachment has been troubling me. How could such an intelligent, deeply caring and beautiful person misread identity so much? I don’t have an answer, but I think it’s like the time I sat with the son of a Lutheran missionary and pastor in a truck in the rain outside the Canada Customs’ shed in Prince Rupert, B.C., and said, “If you want to find God, he’s right here,” and when my friend asked, “Where?” I, who only have cousins who are pastors, said, “There. In that shed.” “That’s just a shed,” he said. “That’s God,” I said. What I mean is, that this is, too…
This is what drawing lines in the sand will get you to. Lines on the earth. Lines between peoples. Lines between the human and the inhuman. Lines between names for God.
Lines are very human. It is also very human to cross them and to show that they were just dust blowing in the wind. It is also very human to love and to honour and to show respect.
Gifts for Yellow Wolf
Just a half hour before, I was given the buffalo. When I got here, I knew whose it was and why.
Just a little trick I picked up on the Camino. It goes like this: “You are walking through a story. The story is already there. The story is complete. The story does not go in a straight line. You will be alone, but you will have guides. You will meet new ones every day. Trust them. You will never come home. You will be on The Way.”
Growing from a pit spat out by an East German border guard in the last years of the Wall. They were sooo sweet.
There is no No Man’s Land there anymore. Oh, please, friends, let’s get rid of any that are still in our heads.