Porcupine the Gardener

Some people just can’t help gardening. Take the local porcupines, for instance. They love to chaw down on the pile of cull apples a farmer dumps at the top part of his property, up against the old canal. They have a little road there, actually. Here is one on its way back from lunch three years ago. You can see that the edge of the canal makes a great hideaway.

verybestfriend

 

These guys are not always so discrete. Here’s a member of the family cutting from one gully to the next mid-winter.

ptry1

Gullies are great for porcupines. There’s shelter, and you can make a road there going up and down from the high country to the sagebrush and, ahem, that pile of apples. Rocks are great, too. Here’s one hiding from me, high up… again, between gullies. Note, though, that there is a saskatoon bush. Porcupines like bushes. And cull piles of apples.

p1250535

 

Why do I keep mentioning the apples? Ah. Take a look at the main porcupine freeway. My camera had a hard time with the variations in light, but the choke cherries love it, and it makes a good highway.

 

P1540276

 

And by highway, I mean this:

P1540336

That was the uphill grind. Here’s the downhill swoop:P1540325There is even a traffic monitoring system. No lie. It looks like this:

P1540344

 

I tell you, a magpie sat in this tree the other day and squawked and crackled for five minutes as I came up the deer trail on the other side of the gully, to let this guy know that this lumbering nut with a camera was creating traffic congestion and it would be wise to skedaddle.

porcupine4

 

The gully, though, ah, it has so many good things to eat. No, not this …

P1540289

Choke cherries are nowhere as good as apples. No, the bark, man, that’s the ticket.

p1210457 Very tasty.

chewies

 

It is an excellent form of pruning and branch renewal in trees that are short-lived because of insect damage. But, you know, all that work whips up an appetite and when you’re tired of roughage, a bit of desert is just the thing, and then, well, it’s back uphill, and maybe you, ahem, leave a little gift behind, a little memento, a little pile of apple seeds and mush, and ten years later, why, what then?

P1540277

Oh, let’s go see.P1540285

 

Come on, it’s not far now. Ah, here we are:

P1540303

Nice huh. This apple seedling is obviously a Spartan x Red Delicious cross. It has a pretty shape.P1540304 And an old-fashioned approach to colour.P1540307 It wouldn’t sell, you know, but it sure is a survivor. The deer have cleaned it up up to six feet, and did that stop it? No, it did not.P1540299 When the apples fall, they’ll fall on the trail, and the porcupines can snack on their way down to the cull apple pile and back, which is nice.P1540300

 

Well, except for one.

P1540316

 

This one the porcupine won’t get.

P1540321Excellent! Look at that gleaming white! It tastes exactly like a spartan. It’ll be a good keeper, too, as it’s two weeks later than a spartan and very firm. And so, with hands smelling of sagebrush and the apple tasting like the spartan orchard of my childhood, up the road I went. Nice view.

P1540347

 

Here’s an apricot tree further up, that gets too much frost in the spring to set. Not one of the porcupine’s better plantings.

P1540337

Still, it sure is pretty, with its blossoms and its yellow leaves. I like porcupine orchards. They are great places to go, in between worlds.

P1520854Porcupines are shamans, that’s what they are.

 

 

 

The Art That Insects Make

In the summer, light strikes the leaves of the dogwoods unevenly, as they flit about in their environment of light and shadow filtering through other leaves that move and shift with sun and wind and the turning of the earth through its days. Look at the result!P1540244Amazing!

P1540242There’s more to this story than just sun and light, and I’ll get to that in a sec, but for the moment look at how small patches of some of these leaves are delayed from maturing and shutting down photosynthesis in preparation for fall.
P1540241Frozen in time, that’s the thing.

P1540239Now, here’s the other player in these beautiful game. See the aphids on the underside of the leaves below, below the fruiting cluster?P1540233They are very responsive to light and growth and settle in the choicest spots, and then, as they divert the sap flow through their own digestive systems, they change everything. In effect, they become part of the plant, and the plant’s living processes are blocked and re-routed by the intervention of the insects and the whole year’s worth of redirected minerals.P1540227Aphids, light, shadow and the mysteries of an earth continually in motion.P1540224The scientist in me thinks this process could be put to use. The farmer in me knows it can. The poet in me is in love with the earth. The artist in me is just plained thrilled to see his body alive in the earth like this, down to the tiniest thing.

 

Betraying the Earth

Good intentions are not enough. Contemporary systems of governmental organization and the structures that support them ensure that principles of conservation can become something else entirely. The Government of Canada is currently in the process, for example, of side-stepping its own environmental-protection legislation by the simple device of declaring lakes of use to mining companies to be mine effluent ponds, and not lakes. Under that definition, no environmental standards are at play. You can read the full article here. This kind of thing shows up in our valley, too. The image below shows a new stretch of highway, designed to make traffic flow more rapidly through the valley. It has been in operation for a year. Notice that a large amount of input on habitat restoration and protection has resulted in laying (no doubt at great expense) dead fir trees on the crushed rock of the infill slope, as habitat for insects, birds, seeds, and, hey, maybe porcupines and bears. But, look at it in comparison to the slope above. It’s not habitat for anything except for dead trees. A serious attempt at maintaining environmental integrity would not have separated one side of the hill from another, or would, at the very least, have planted oregon grape, sumac, saskatoon, choke cherry, douglas fir, mock orange, rocky mountain maple, poison ivy, wild clematis, blue-bunched wheatgrass, prickly pear cactus, and whatever else is growing on that slope, but, no. A few dead trees and the rest is supposed to follow. In the end, the trees are an expensive art installation, but that’s about it.

P1530091Highway 97

Lake Country, British Columbia

There is a point at which an ideological system takes more effort to maintain than the benefit gained from it. Sadly, we crossed that barrier long ago.

 

What Trees are For

Trees exist to bring light into darkness, to immerse it in liquid and draw it down into the darkness of the earth.

P1530099Following the light through all the faces of a tree is not possible.

P1530101

 

But finding the main flow is. Has rock ever looked so mysterious?

P1530096

 

Has the sun? After a year of pouring into the leaves, even it gets into the act.

P1530094

That’s not to say, though, that darkness serves only the earth’s purposes. Birds, those daughters of the wind, need it as well, and that, too, is part of what trees are for.

P1530103

Bridging earth and sky, trees are vertical rivers. Sometimes, birds make eddies.

P1540060Ripeness is not just fruitfulness, not when it comes to trees.

P1530959

 

Sometimes it is.

P1540112

 

But that doesn’t obscure the point that ripefulness is more.

tree

Sometimes it just means being there and being there. After all, the roots that reach into the soil are just the roots that reach in the air. The tree balances in between, these creatures of the air that don’t think to leave, and don’t need to.

P1500897

They teach us that we don’t need to, either. We might be trees that have pulled up our roots, but we’re still trees. Why fight it? Revel in it!

P1510009 Reach down to touch the soil.

P1500741Reach up to touch the light.

P1500785 And rejoice that you can do it again, and again, and again, and build a life out of this balance.P1540160

 

Beautifully.

P1500734

 

 

 

Romantic Images of Autumn

It is possible to read land by colour. The Douglas firs on the ridge line below are ready to pass through the coming winter. So are the yellow choke cherries in the gully in the foreground.P1520857

 

These grapes, growing just a hundred metres below and to the right of this image are not.

P1520406

They are responding to different climatic needs (from the Rhine and the Rhone rivers in Europe) and the petrochemical fertilizers that are their environment. When they lose their leaves to the winter, the winter they lose their leaves to will be as much the petroleum industry as the weather. There’s an interesting principle at work here. Notice how the grapes above are set up to catch the sun that their genetics and their fertilizer aren’t tuned for. A little mechanical intervention is meant to make up for the difference. In any other context this would be called art, or at least artifice or artfulness. Look at them from a different angle…

P1520356

See, they are designed to filter the cold down the hill, and away, and to catch the afternoon and evening sun, which comes in from the West (to the left of this image). Look how the bunchgrass and sagebrush, native to this place, do this.

P1520390

 

They do it by responding to the water when it is in abundance and to the sun when it is in abundance, through specific adaptations of their growth, including stem structures and growth cycles for the bunchgrass and water-trapping leaf hairs for the sage. Winter is not an issue for these plants, because it is part of them. Not so for this apple orchard halfway down this hill:

P1520438

The trees are trained like grapes, with vertical walls to catch the sun, and lots of nitrogen fertilizer to push sap through the wood of dwarf trees. The fruit would be bland and colourless, except that two weeks before harvest, all the new growth is cut off, to expose the fruit to the sun. You could do all this by growing big old apple trees that droop their fruit down on hanging limbs and drop their leaves in accord with water, light and temperature, but it wouldn’t fit with the desire to derive profit from the land, rather than to become it. The result looks provisional. That’s because it is. You can see that, perhaps, in the next image of the same apple orchard.

P1520565This is not really a living environment. The grass is barely surviving. The trellis system can’t cope. The trees aren’t thriving. In fact, they’re overgrown. The orchard was meant to turn land into an image of capitalism, and to be replaced after ten years. It has outlived that, but, such is the nature of capitalization when it hits the land, no farmer can afford to tear the trees out to start again. This is because the system is not designed to last. The image below shows a system that is designed to last. Here’s a gully, that harvests morning and evening sun, one flank at a time, to produce one long row of fruit watered by the forces of gravity at work in the slopes and the way they interact with light and heat.

P1520854

 

It will last forever. Instead of thrusting up above the land, it moves within it. Instead of creating a profit over ten years, or the myth of one, it creates a steady state over 1000s of years. The profit is the excess of production, which is naturally designed to carry the plants into new territory, but can be harvested by humans and other animals. In other words, you can have your profit in ten years (or not), in systems that are fragile and require an entire system of supports, or you can have it over thousands of years. You can take profit from the land or you can become the land. Anything else is a romantic image of Autumn as death, because that’s exactly what it is: the point at which the earth asserts itself over artificial folly. The inability of farmers to beat the ten year capital cycle is an example of that folly, and the earth’s retribution. Our folly as observers is to see the ruin after the cropping of this land as the bittersweet fruitfulness of Autumn. It’s not. It’s our culpability we’re looking at. A crop in balance with this place looks like this at this time of year:

P1520067

 

Choke Cherry in That Gully

That cherry is not our profit. That profit fell onto the soil, when we neglected to pick it. This berry is for a bird that’s going to need it mid-winter. A waxwing, most likely.

So, remember, if you’re buying a product of the fall, and it comes from green leaves, you’re not buying sustainability. You can read it that simply, and that well.

 

Of Fog and Human Bondage in the Okanagan Valley

Fog up high.

P1520615

Fog down low. Yes, grass. It’s as much a pressure condensation as airborne water.

P1520712

Fog up high and down low together.

P1520380Fog in the gully (Bushes squeezed out of the grass by gravity.)

 

P1520857Fog in vineyard. P1520355

 

Note that the vineyard is not fog. It imitates it. In other words, it stands in for people, in the way that Nike and Imperial Shell Oil do. People all in a row. Tied up to wire.

 

What is Asparagus Really?

Or is that asparagus math?P1520804Pretty cool, either way!

P1520809

Music, math … these are just words.

P1520802

Art?

P1520824 No. Just a word.

P1520816But, without words, what?

P1520806That wordless point is where we’re headed. If we were headed towards words, we wouldn’t walk out in the grass…

P1520816 or find ourselves there.P1520807

 

 

 

 

 

The Most Beautiful Apple of Them All

Joy! Here she is… the Benvoulin apple. Lost, and then re-found. I left this apple in 1992, when I moved north, hoping that other people would care for her, but things being the way they are in this world, she was almost lost. I got some grafts, from a hunch, from an unidentifiable old tree, with twenty years of wobbly memory to guide me. (Three months later, the tree was cut down… call it fate.)

P1520895 And after two years of hoping that I had guessed right, I tasted her again, for the first time in 20 years.

P1520898

She is still the queen. She tastes like a fine glass of riesling, and look at how white her flesh is! I promise, I won’t lose her again. Here’s the story of her discovery, from my book Tom Thomson’s Shack (2000).

WILD APPLES

I worked for Hugh one year. Late one October day after picking apples I found an apple tree in a ditch beside Benvoulin road in Kelowna. The tree was fifteen years old, rising out of a tangle of overgrown wild roses. In the brambles was a carpet of yellow windfalls. Wasps were feeding on them, clustering, golden, around puncture holes in the skins. The apples were marvelously distorted, the flesh of each one cut by five deep lines, paralleling the five sections of the ovary. Never had I tasted an apple like that! With cars swishing past me, I clambered excitedly through a break in the brambles, over a rusted barbed wire fence, and into the field behind. There were two more old trees. One was broken down, overgrown with wild plums and the long, trailing vines of wild clematis. Its apples were shrivelled red husks. The other tree stood alone, surrounded by a thorny ring of her seedling daughters. As I walked towards her, a horse looked up at the far end of the field, then started walking, then running, towards me. We reached the tree together. There were still a few apples in this tree. I picked up an old ten-foot-long prop that was lying in the grass Ñ once used to support branches heavy with fruit Ñ and knocked an apple off. Before I could get to it, the horse had bent down and was eating it. Horses are big! I kept my distance! I knocked another apple off, and another, and another. In the end, of all the apples on the tree the horse ate half and I kept the other half in my pocket. It seemed a fair trade. The horse pushed roughly against my pockets as I left the field. As I climbed over the fence, and then up onto the shoulder of the road, he whinnied softly. I walked back down the road to my car. The cars that swished by me sounded like huge animals, roaring.

That night, as the room licked golden and orange in the firelight, we sat on chairs in front of Hugh’s fire. Hugh lit his pipe with a long sliver of wood he pulled from the flames, lifting it slowly to his mouth and drawing it in. His father slit each apple open from blossom end to stem end with a planter’s knife. As we bit into the apples, six different flavours burst on the tongue, slowly, one after the other, in a slow wash bursting farther and farther back in the mouth and cresting up over the palette like spray from a wave, until the whole mouth was as tender as a blossom.

“This is a great apple!” said Hugh, after biting into one of the apples the wasps had been eating in the ditch. “Maybe it’s related to Maiden’s Blush. There used to be apples in that whole area down there in the Benvoulin. And pears. It was the best pear land on earth. Once! Pear land makes good shopping mall land, too. They brought a lot of old apples here and tried them. Everyone almost went bust at first.”

The next morning snow lay two inches deep over the ground. I drove down to Benvoulin Road, cut some grafting wood off the tree and buried it behind my cabin. The next spring the Highways Department cleared the ditch. The tree was gone. I got there just in time! I’ve kept that wet walk beside the dark road in the rain, the cars pouring past me like salmon fighting up a spawning river, driven, and the feel of the apples in my pocket: the golden apples of the Hesperides, the apple that Paris gave to Helen when the three goddesses lined up and said, “Who is the most beautiful!” and he chose.