About Harold Rhenisch


Grass and Poetry in Cascadia

The grass is a cultural being. So are cat tails and so is poetry.


Talk about a rhyme scheme, eh!

First, the grass. Not only does it have its own culture, but it is part of the body of human culture in these valleys, canyons and plateaus between the mountains, on the west of North America.


Yellowstone, North Gate.

You are not looking at dead grass here. You are looking at water catchers, upside down umbrellas, which the grass has made to draw water from the air. You are looking at upside down wells.


To keep them from matting on the ground and reducing the land’s productivity, fire burns them away, so they can be renewed. Traditionally, people have set those fires. It was the first stage in the primary, human civilizing impulse: cooking. First you make the land productive with fire (you make it into an art form), then you harvest it.


Bella Vista

Here’s a different way of being grass, one not native to this place, and one not harvested. It is, accordingly, not an art form, but is wild:


This is cheatgrass. It bursts like flame out of the soil in October, grows all winter under the snow (yes, under the snow) and has replaced hundreds of indigenous species in the tapestry that is the body of this place. Look how it collects water. It urges it to flow off into the soil, where old thatch holds it from evaporating, and then it uses it all up, denying its use to all other plants. It loves monocultures. That is not the bunchgrass way. The image below shows what happens when fire is suppressed in this landscape…


Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park

Do you see that bunchgrass there, at the end of 8,000 years of history, encroached by soap berries and escaped farmyard grass? It will soon drown. Below is an image of what happens when trees are not controlled by fire. The ponderosa pine below has showered the land with fire, or needles, if you will. They burn the alkaline soil down to acid. Look at the bunchgrass drown.


Rattlesnake Mountain

This is happening on our watch, in our time, in our parks, in what contemporary culture calls nature and “wilderness,” while attention is directed towards smokestack emissions and pools of plastic in the middle of the sea. We don’t have to go that far. Nature itself is the culprit.


Turtle Mountain

Let’s be clear about this nature. All of the parks of the west were created out of former indigenous cultural space. That’s to say: around 150 years ago, there was no nature here; only social space. Then it became “wild,” when dispossessed of its people and left fallow. It became a different art form: one that created emptiness where there had been fullness, and a mechanical earth where there had been a living one.


Royal Gala Industrial Apple Plantation, Bella Vista

This process started in Washington in 1892, when all federal lands purchased for tiny sums during rushed treaty-making processes and not by then already dedicated to Nez Perce or Spokane or Skoielpi use (among many others), were rededicated as national forests. Land that had formerly been maintained by fire, now was expensively protected from fire, to preserve its “pristine” nature.This “pristine” nature is, in other words, a culturally-created thing.


The culturally-charged process of plant succession.

Rattlesnake Mountain

This process moved to British Columbia in 1922. The fire still burns. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to combat every year, to no avail. That’s the fire we can see. This, below, is also that fire, though:


It is burning within Syilx space. The grass that has almost been replaced here by “nature” is still a cultural being, but it’s now  viewed with terms appropriate to “nature,” which are not the terms appropriate for viewing culture: beauty, for instance, wildness, for another, health, for yet another, inanimate, for another, plowable, for another, and developable, for another. And that brings me back to poetry. Here is some Cascadian poetry (Please click on the link to view. It will open in a new window.)

Very Serious and Full of Vegetables

That is a cultural product produced in this place, one which heartfully honours a tradition, but it is, as you will have noted if you clicked on it, a poem about people and human attitudes towards all kinds of things, but includes no attitudes of grass or fire or rain to anything. It’s not about that, likely on the anti-romantic presumption (accurate enough) that no-one can speak for these things. In their place, I think the poem is about taking wild human energy (a created art form) and distilling it down to points of social utility, and through a process of manipulating that social machinery enabling people who live within it to ultimately come to a physical experience of grass through the only route the tradition allows: through the mind; not the body. The body plays the role of memory. This has been the American poetic project for over a century now. Here’s an early draft of it, from the American poet Hilda Doolittle, written a century ago:

Hermes, Hermes,

the great sea foamed,

gnashed its teeth about me,

but you have waited,

where sea-grass tangles with

shore grass.

Hilda Doolittle, from Hermes of the Ways

It’s beautiful, and lands solidly on grass and brings it to life in the mind, but it is a thing of the mind trying to escape itself by means of the earth. It can’t shake that. It is, in other words, bookish. Often Hilda tried the trick she uses in the following poem:

O white pear,

your flower-tufts

thick on the branch

bring summer and ripe fruits

in their purple hearts.

Hilda Doolittle, from Pear Tree

In this one, she uses the same memory trick but also speaks to the tree, yet her identification is incomplete; it is an artifice only; she is not the tree, nor is she its flowers. Her poem is a construction of words and energy contained with words — a thing of memory, in other words, a funereal ode. Her identity is untouched by it, and is not transformed by it. It is infused with it, for sure, and, no doubt strengthened, but, still, untouched. And the poem is very beautiful, too. It is not of this place, of course, nor did Hilda mean it to be. I use her words only as an example of how poetry and land can remain separate, even in intimate moments, and how American identity engineering often places the land within fences, called words — farms, cities or streets, if you will — and observes them from there. That is a very anglo saxon thing, of course, but for me, as a man of the grass, this is a step away from the earth not one towards it, because for me the grass is not just a part of a social group, but also of a self. To say “O white pear” just won’t do. It would be like saying, “Oh me.” And then there’s Paul Nelson’s riff on Whalen, with his

“having the curious ability to make one think

that a mind has been slowed down.”

Very Serious and Full of Vegetables

That’s beautiful, too, but it is predicated on the conceit that mind has been sped up in the first place, with a secondary conceit that any subsequent slowing down is only illusory. I dispute that. I think it needs to be strongly challenged. According to settler ideology, the grass is wild, and is the canvas for paintings of human will. In other words, it is this:


A weed-filled bunchgrass slope, a choke cherry tree, and a ponderosa pine, set in front of a monoculture hay field. Coldstream, British Columbia

No-one would want the social identity of that hay, because it is enslaved to individual and social human will. What’s more, to enslave it is to enslave (or fence) human selves, including those of the wielder of will. It’s not about a mind slowing down or not slowing down. It’s about whether that image above shows wilderness or cultural space. It’s about who you belong to: the grass, or other men. Unifying those opposites is not as easy as creating a national forest and building new parks within it for poets to walk through and find beauty.


Fire Pine, Yellowstone

They can. That work has been done. Now it is time for the land to speak. Now it is time for people who are the land to speak — not as a conversation within American or Canadian or Western poetry, and not as an address to or for that fire pine. It means, among many other things, making this tree the centre of the world — not as a symbol of anything. This tree, right here, right now. That kind of thing. Rilke found it a century ago. We are that far behind here. To find that tree probably means finding new words. That is good, honest work. It absolutely means finding new forms. That is powerful work for people engaged in finding poetry in the world and working with it. It means being present, not in memory but in the unfolding that is memory’s form in the present.

P2050845Yellowstone North Gate

That is why I have stepped aside from traditions of Cascadian poetry, although few people in this land know it so intimately or have been the channel for poetry within it for so long. I just can’t do metaphor anymore, that’s the thing. I can’t do nature, and if I’m to be bound by a line of will, I want it to come from that pine, not traditions of politics and the poetry of identity politics from a foreign country and foreign traditions. That is or the citizens of those fields. For me, in this grass, joy will do just fine. This is partly what I meant in my new book The Art of Haying: it’s possible to live well as the earth; the ego is just the book talking as it keeps us in line. It’s possible to walk out into the grass. Here’s an article on The Art of Haying in BC Book Look. P2010552

Big Bar Wet Land

Blessed be.

The Beauty of Spring in November

In November, in Cascadia, it is springtime, whether you are in the wetlands on an island  in the ocean …


Oyster Bay, Vancouver Island

… or far inland, in the grasslands, where we are expecting snow.


Abandoned Orchard at Turtle Mountain, Looking Down Priest Valley towards Okanagan Lake

No soil is needed to grow a garden here.
P2130759Soil would reduce fertility. Stone helps, though.P2130760 Where water flows and life flows with it, life pools.P2130761 It might freeze at night, but these domed shapes are warm.P2130769 Rocks, too.P2130779 Cozy!

P2130786 The pools within the pools are great places for seeds to catch and flow and sprout. It’s much like the folds of hydrocarbons in protein strings.P2130807 To flow, water doesn’t have to be liquid. That’s because it’s energy. It can be held in a matrix, which can become it.P2130810We call this matrix life. We call it green water. Green water can even drip and splash.P2130815 Life reaches out its tongues to stop gravity and opens its wings to the sun.
P2130821 It’s down to as much as 5 Below these nights, but only in the air.P2130822 Not here.P2130845 On volcanic earth.P2130878 Here, spring ice breaks the basalt apart, and life becomes the frost in fall.P2130889 Is it rain? Is it frost? Is it sun? Is it air? Is it stone?P2130906 It is all of them together. It is earth. This is earth… not soil.P2130936 This.P2130947 Life.

P2130948 Now. 55.000.000 years in the making, along the seam of two ancient island chains.P2130963 Once the stone crashed in a volcanic tide. Now that energy is a surging wave. Still.P2130986 It is still a splash of surf.P2130988

On Turtle Mountain, it is happening now. And not just here. On Rattlesnake Mountain, too.

moss Life is not built on the bodies of the dead. Not here. To come here in summer to see green lawns is to be poor beyond belief.P2120777

Here life is made within the bodies of the living. All are welcome.


None are turned away.


Is it the sun? Is it the earth?


It is both at once, where we are.

Worshiping the Dead

In an earth that looks like this…


… humans build large cellular structures, which they then inhabitat, to turn them into wombs, that they can leave every day to teach their children the arts of cell-making and war and to go to a “grocery store” …


… to purchase foods grown in other cellular structures …


… which are representations of human will, sculpted to allow machine access. In this case, it’s an apple orchard. This world of body-imagining is represented most clearly today as communication. A better word for that within this world of inhabited matrices is transportation.


These are all images of humanism. What a strange culture it is that sets human ethical concerns apart from the earth in such a way that when there is a balance it is often one that is neither ethical nor of the earth.


Cultures that worship the dead live like this — cultures that use their bodies to animate the dead and keep them alive. Often, this process is called a financial return on capital investment. It doesn’t matter what it is called. In this world, nature is displayed, as something to be observed in cellular structures called parks. The people who tend nature there are called gardeners.


What they are are practical ethical philosophers, the front line fighters working to keep the boundaries between human ethical and social concerns and the living world separate. It takes a lot of work. It’s work that would be better spent bringing people and plants together outside of representations of human bodies and will. It would mean greening cities and recognizing mountain ecosystems as exquisite urban spaces.


Until then, the game of fighting to contain the earth within the image of a human body will remain — a fight that will never be won.

Native Wetland Apples in Horizontal Light

The Pacific Crab loves rain, swamps and wet feet.

She is the forest rain that has drawn wood and air to herself after flowing through them and picking up their energy on the way through the forest to the earth. Look at her catch the sun’s rain below.


Malus Fusca, November

Only a German, Eh?

I’d like to show you some photos today, from a country that does not exist.
P2120966 This is the German colony that formed in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia after the First World War.P2120913 All the British men were dead. The German colonies in Africa were dissolved. In the 1920s, German socialists and communists replaced the lost British in the Okanagan.P2120891 I come from this “colony.” That image above, of cactus in a mixed grassland, forest and tundra community, is a good image of this lost community. So is this rose hip.P2120845 No Canadian would ever take these pictures. No indigenous person. No American.

No Cascadian, either. Only Germans in this country, even ones like me, born here, and who have lived here for nearly sixty years now. It’s not that I was raised to be German, either — quite the opposite.P2120814

Still, German identity, even German-Okanagan identity, and Anglo Saxon identity, down to the root level of how the self is organized in the world, differ, perhaps irreconcilably. Germans bring things in and hold them, within a whole that expands to fill them. Anglo Saxons create linear stories, that progress in time.P2120791 My question today: does this mean I am a citizen of this place?P2120716 When my experience is foreign to most people who live here?P2120690 The French Canadians of the fur trade must have once felt like this.
P2120688 What, though, is identity, if it is tied to the land but the ways in which it is tied are not shared, and invisible, because they appear identical?P2120839

Can I say I am of this place? Can I say I have an identity of any kind at all? I mean, not just in the question of whether I have one if my identity is largely this place yet my images of this place are from a culture that doesn’t exist, but also in the question of whether I have any identity at all? I have after all been told that taking pictures of nature, without people in it, is chilling and disturbing, because people like to see themselves in pictures; their absence speaks of mental illness. Yes, to the Anglo Saxon mind. As an example of the difficulty, in my culture the image below is a photograph of a person.

P2120654 So is the one below. Not the maple seedling, but the whole image, and stuff that spills out of its boundaries. It is a gestalt.P2120701

That is very German. Can I say that these are even images of this place? Do these images count for more or less than those of someone who is an immigrant here, who has been here for a year, or two, or three, but comes from an Anglo Saxon community? I mean, I’m not an immigrant, yet there are these questions. Is there something especially problematic to Anglo Saxon identity about German identity?


I just know that my identity and the land are one in some way and that I live between worlds in some other way. An even more troubling question is: do Anglo Saxons, who have their own colonial ghosts, have any right to say I am not of this place yet that they are of it just because socially they belong to a large demographic, or that these very German images are not of this place? Isn’t that what populist democracy suggests? How can that be right? An even more troubling question: why do some people do just that, through an insistence that only dominant social experience, rooted in Anglo-Saxon identity structures, delineates a space?


I don’t know. I also don’t know why there aren’t conversations about these things, including other questions that other people have. Indigenous identity structures are (perhaps) different again. The current solution to that particular gulf is to say that no-one can share in the deep identity with place of an indigenous person. But weren’t our ancestors not all once indigenous? Is not our language based upon that experience? Is English not an indigenous language? Do we not all know this stuff, or at least have the words for it? Does not an indigenous German-Canadian, who has  deep identity with place, not deserve respect for it as well?

P2110652Of course. Here’s what I think: I think any culture that demands conformity of identity …


… is a culture in which identity is a series of conformities and demands. That is military thinking and slave-holder thinking. It fits military states and slave-holding planters — even if that slave-holding is just the withholding of social identity from the things of this world. Is thing-ness not akin to racialization? When indigenous people hold just these beliefs? To someone in my culture, someone profoundly from this place, it is. To indigenous people it is no doubt something equally powerful and unavoidable. I can’t speak to that, though.


If anything is to make sense of my silent German-Canadian identity, it is through exploring what it sees within the land, and how its own identity structures reveal different aspects of the earth’s energy here than those of other identity structures. The land either accepts everyone on his or her own terms, and brings them to herself, or there is a chosen people. If there is a chosen people, then the rest of us are slaves.


We aren’t. Or shouldn’t be. Resistance is important.

grass This is just one of the reasons why attention to the land as an arbiter of social experience is vital. It makes us grow together by growing separately. To date, the ego has been used as the universal arbiter of identity in the modern world, both German and Anglo-Saxon, among others, yet it does so in a larger context, which the ego-identity does not erase.
P2120742I mean, one might say it does, but that’s just the ego talking. Human identities that do not include the earth are, in my culture, only social identities. They are surfaces. They might even be beautiful. They make a lot of social noise. They might be fun. They might be a lot of things. They are not this.


Although they could be. For this reason a poetry and art of Cascadia is vital. For this reason it has to start now, with poets, artists and people of all kinds coming to meet the earth and taking on its identity.

P2110571 It is something we have to make together, as the land does.P2100892

Until then, each one of us will live in a private world which common discourse names universal, at great loss of knowledge. That is only a political convenience. Political conveniences are important, but they should never be identities. It is politically convenient to eradicate the story in the image below, and its creatures, to put up lawns, golf courses, Arizona-style houses, provencal style shrubberies, and streets.


It is, however, my identity: the insect, the light, the rabbitbrush in bloom, and turquoise Kalamalka Lake behind them. Eliminating this, eliminates me. That is not the same as “freedom” or “landowner’s rights.” The indigenous ways of knowledge of this place did not choose. Humans were the creatures who could ensure that all thrived. In that action, they became human. Social activity was the duty to protect that.


I couldn’t agree more. But, remember: these are German-Okanagan ideas, and German-Okanagan images. They are not the same as Anglo Saxon ones, or German ones, or Indigenous ones, as they have all been shaped by their own histories. Dismissing them with foreign identities, even globally-accepted ego identities, their narratives and their electronic identity storage and transmission devices, is not respect. It is dominance. In a time in which the earth needs us it is selfish — literally, because it is about the self, independent of its ecosystem, which, like the self, is not physical. Simply, if anyone is to claim they are of this place, they have to be this (not the image, which is German-Okanagan, but the plants the image attempts to represent):


Otherwise, they belong to some other story, and the question must be asked: what is that story? What are they doing here? I don’t know.