Here’s the old story:
Indigenous peoples lived for thousands of years in the West, surviving by hunting and gathering, often in abject poverty, until settlers came from the United States, Canada, and Europe; through the application of sophisticated technologies these new peoples were able to harness the natural resources of the land to build strong communities on foundations of industry and fruitfulness. One of the most dramatic inventions of this new culture was an elaborate system of water works, through which water was pumped from underground streams and lakes or delivered from the high country through vast flume, canal, and piping networks to towns, cities, and farms, where it has brought fruitfulness to the desert.
Last night in Kelowna, I sketched out my journeys over the last year and proposed that we need a new story.
My Green Sweat Bee Sharing the Stage with the warm up acts, Eric Clapton and U2
Five minutes to show time.
The story I presented was:
Settlers came to a land dry to the eye but rich in food, maintained by a casual but nonetheless long-lived form of gardening by fire and succession, which ensured a bounty of food in a natural system that saw water passed naturally down the hills through long chains of organic life. With certain nineteenth century ideas about the relative worth of European and non-European societies, coupled with low populations of indigenous peoples, due to disease, warfare and resettlement, early settlers, although heirs to a tradition in which Europeans developed wine and agricultural industries and cultures out of wild plants growing on their valleys, plains and hills, were blinded to the real lesson of their ancestors and, instead of developing industries out of the native plants of the areas and the ways in which water moved through these exotic, rain shadow landscapes, simply planted European plants and solved the problem of their unsuitability in the perfect Victoria way, technologically. The results were astonishing and allowed areas such as the Wenatchee Valley in Washington and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia to become fruit baskets of the world.
This work has been going on for over a century and a half now, however, and has drawn such a large draft on the natural, organic capital of the region that the natural landscapes are largely bankrupt, while at the same time the wealth that was produced by these new societies flowed into the the larger societies of which these valleys were a part, as well as into the world at large. The story of bounty in the desert continues, and is a driving force behind the vibrant wine and food culture of the contemporary Okanagan, and drives a strong real estate and tourism economy in the region, but it comes at a great price: sustainability.
Last night, I suggested that the race-driven fears of early settlers, which were intimately bound up with the rather inaccurate founding myth of bringing bounty to the desert, are understandable, given the societies and conditions of the time, but that these concerns, or pressures, or systems of belief, no longer press upon us and that, correspondingly, it is time to return to the plateau peoples, grant them the respect that has been their due for a long time now, and integrate their food systems, the natural food plants of the hillsides, and natural water flow systems into contemporary social infrastructures.
As a vision to this end, I suggested that the story that could unite all peoples here, indigenous and settler, is the story of our salmon, who cross the Pacific to Siberia and back and breach nine main stem dams on the Columbia River, to come home to us.
If we can maintain the salmon, we will know that we can maintain ourselves, because to maintain the salmon is to maintain the earth.
As a first step, I proposed that we take a large part of the strain off of natural water systems by growing wild crops on our dry but in no way barren hillsides, build new industries around our very intriguing native food plants, and free up water in our high country lakes, which can be used to maintain water levels in our stream beds, so that our salmon can be released into Skaha and perhaps Okanagan Lake again instead of dying in the nearly toxic, overly-warm, shallow, and oxygen poor water of Osoyoos Lake. This is a project that shows respect to Sylix, Plateau, and settler cultures on all levels, has the potential to create new industries capable of supporting and nurturing our young people, and building sustainable, resilient wealth that need not be compromised or destroyed by climate change or social or political catastrophe.
A second step would be to work on forest policy, to bring forests to natural levels, and to maintain productive snow pack and spring melt levels that can drive the system to its fullest potential.
A third step would be to return fire, or at the very least elaborate replacements of fire technology, as a tool for crop succession and renewal.
A fourth step would be to develop other methods of landscape enhancement, to support rich natural processes.
A fifth step would be to develop elaborate technologies to support energy and water collection and distribution in ways which contribute to the project of created wealth and innovation here.
The second through fifth steps could happen simultaneously, or in any order, but, I suggest, will not occur without a system of education built on creating knowledge.
It is time to build a future on the best foundations of the past and the present, rather than on the myth of progress. Instead, it’s time to make progress at getting things right at last.
It is time to write, time to plant seeds, and it is time to teach. It is time to pass the past on to the future. I am very grateful to Robert MacDonald at the Okanagan Institute for giving me the opportunity to force myself to clarify my work over the last year and to put it into one vision, in front of such a supportive and enthusiastic group.
As my next step in this project, I will be working hard at an organized and detailed inventory of new agricultural crops and community based farming methods. Then I want to tell this story and to teach other people to tell this story far and wide, in this new (and ancient) form of literature and philosophy that leads to a practical aesthetic model.
We are making a new world here, for our children and our green sweat bees. It matters. It might not lead in a straight line, but it’s flowing. As they say at the Bohemian Cafe …