Photography and Human Survival

Pretty sumac leaves, huh.P2090736

Look again below. Culturally, in Canada, people have the right to cut sumacs down like this and stack them up beside the street so they look like this the whole winter through, to be hauled away in the spring time and chipped up into a kind of sawdust called “mulch,” which is mixed with sewage waste, fermented, and sold back to gardeners and landscapers. This is called “green thinking” and “dealing with weeds” and, look, it is green, isn’t it!

P2090729 I think the cause of such behaviour is just the inherent gap between clear thought and the kind of populist thinking that passes these days for science. Here are some other sumacs, male like the ones above, up higher on the hill, and like them gone feral.P2090711

The first step of populist scientific thinking is a kind of triage: value assessment. It could, perhaps, be put like this: “What can I do with those things?” Most of the effort in considering sumacs these days goes into research into spraying chicken breasts with sumac juice in slaughterhouses and butcher shops, and measuring how much longer the things stay fresh (i.e. don’t smell baaaaad) on a supermarket shelf. Important, for sure, but, please, don’t tell your chicken friends about it, ‘kay?


The first step of true scientific thinking, however, is observation. Notice how some of the leaves below are one colour in the early Autumn and some are another. The second step should be asking if there is a pattern. Perhaps you could compare the colour differences to the patterns of shade that the leaves produce, and then compare that to the patterns of shade over the years that these bushes have been growing? A painter would, so we know it can be done. You are now, I trust, ready to move to the third step of scientific thinking: asking an answerable question. It might be this: is there a relationship between the two? (Well, yeah, there is, sure. Anyone who has observed trees over time knows that. The female stag horn sumac around the corner knows that.) See?P2090310 Look at her, with her multiple years of branches and fruiting structures. Last year, the dead twigs here at her crown were sprouting leaves, but time marches on, wood ages, and, look, that’s a spider web way up there, isn’t it. Why, yes it is. All of these relations gets expressed in the leaves (well, maybe not the spider; she’s not there very long), and look at them!  They’re very fine.P2090308

But the scientific game is a little different than just experience and observation: it wants to be able to demonstrate, in a yes-no question, one step of that process, and then another single step, and then another single step, and so on, so that, eventually, all the steps can be put together, and a process, or flow, can be known: not observed, because observations would then have to be proven, but known, textually or figuratively or in tables and graphs and data, and a simple statement that says precisely under what conditions, at what time, chemicals are laid down, or stripped out of, leaves to produce these effects, under which other specific conditions. A tall order. Now, a tree person might just say,

yeah, look, dude, I know that already, eh,

but that’s not the point. Those are different forms of knowing. The point, though, is that “science” is just a word. It stands in for “a process of rigorous, ordered thinking”, but it is a little different than that. Here’s it’s pedigree:

science (n.) mid-14c., “what is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information;” also “assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty,” from Old French science “knowledge, learning, application; corpus of human knowledge” (12c.), from Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens(genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide,” from PIE root *skei- “to cut, to split” (cognates: Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave,” Gothic skaidan, Old Englishsceadan “to divide, separate;” see shed (v.)).

In other words, it is a process that began with shedding information deemed excess, like cutting apart a corpse to see how it was put together. At heart, science today is just what it’s popular image takes it to be: “a process of determining the use of things and practical applications of materials in the world,” with the caveat that “practical applications” means “technological or material applications” or, in a more modern sense, also “psychological applications.” The selection process, the cutting away, has cut away everything but “usefulness,” however that is defined. That’s cultural. That’s not the other side of what is taken to be science, which is: “life, the universe and everything, as it really is, not how people see it to be.” In this popular conception, this is science:


No, it’s a moose in the sagebrush. To science, the art of shedding personal information, how a sumac makes Harold feel in the fall can be psychologically measured, and then put to use to help Harold feel better or worse or make him buy a camera, maybe, eh: planting more sumacs, perhaps, or having a sumac festival or something like going down to London Drugs and plunking down some cash. Cheating is allowed. In fact, it is encouraged, because, let’s face it, there’s no way that all of the trillions of connections between those leaves, space, light, gravity, water, air, insects and times are going to be worked out into a complete system, especially when Harold is involved, sheesh! You have to let some things go. For example, in the images of sumac (and a sagebrush moose) above, the bias is, well, contained in the apparatus that made the image. Here it is:


Here’s the cheating: instead of measuring all of the different light and chemical values, displayed by the colour differences in leaves, to work out a pattern of a tree’s life and how it interacts with the person holding the camera, that discussion is temporarily set to the side, the camera takes an “image” of the tree, which can then be passed around as if it were the tree or as if it were all the trillions of connections contained with the colour patterns of the tree and even with the observing human, looking through the lens, like this…


Ape Up to No Good

The photographic process exists because it has a “use”. Sumac trees have traditional human uses, too, such as (depending on species): tanning leather, making sumac tea, flavouring and preserving food, making medicinal teas and smoke (yes, medicinal smoke…that’s why it’s called a “smoke bush”), decorating gardens, making wax, creating ultraviolet light (fun for kids and 1970s black velvet painting aficionados) and so on, but a sumac tree? In and of itself? We don’t know, because our science doesn’t look at that. That has been sorted out and “shed” before we even began. Instead, that data set is what is called an “existential” question, a question of “being” or “is-ness” or, if you like, “identity” or “self” and is left to philosophy, religion and, especially, to art, which are, in and of themselves, also processes of rigorous, ordered thinking. Well, except in the romantic conception of science, which sees all of this hard thinking as “the world” when it’s in science and “personal values” when it shows up anywhere else, with the caveat that “personal values” have only personal uses. Poets aren’t even as romantic as all that, but that’s the world we live in in 2015. Now, hey, maybe, you might think that all of these kinds of thinking might easily fit together, into a system in which an artist (let’s say) could look at this sumac…


… note the colour patterns and, because of observation and experience (the first steps in science), and skill at “reading” colour and pattern, (the second steps), make an image of the tree’s “being”, or the totality of its presence. There’s even a word for this, as you probably know, a German word, because, well, Germans worked all this out first: “Gestalt”. An artist will claim the completeness of the pattern (its gestalt) as proof of its authenticity … and then pop culture science steps in, and instead of working out a system of questions and experiments, integrating, perhaps, some of the artist’s patterning processes, asks a few questions to sort out the worth of this investigation: does it have a “use”, can I get funding to study it, and how is that not just an emotional response, and since the mythology of science says that “emotional responses” must be shed, to get at the true, underlying forms of things, that’s that. The thing is, this “use” thing is a cultural bias. If “science” really does have to shed information, to make itself possible, and to build up a body of knowledge, that’s not necessarily the shedding that has to be done. In fact, it biases what follows in terms of technological processes, and that’s all fine and good, but an earth that can support humans well is dying, which is to say, that a conception of the earth that doesn’t include non-technical values is dying, and making it difficult for humans to survive.


We can do better. Let’s.

Photo on 15-10-06 at 9.36 AM

Car Culture in the Okanagan

There’s no water in this well. It’s art.

P2000280In the interest of environmental goodness, to create art like this the land must first be covered with a continuous sheet of woven black plastic mesh, so that nothing grows from the soil beneath. It’s true that a rocky landscape like this catches dust, which turns to mud, and collects seeds, which turn to weeds …

P2000278… which grow on top of the continuous petroleum sheath, but, hey, that’s what weedkillers are for, right? The planet, however, wants to do this …P1970786… and this …P1990068 … and ultimately this (below). Don’t look at the moss swallowing this grassland rock as growing on top of the soil. It is the soil. It will soon cover the stone. crust

Life is the expression of Earth’s identity. The ultimate goal of “rockscaping” is not to turn back the environmental clock 4 billion years, to the time before life spilled around the planet, or to rebury petroleum in layers, as it was before it was pumped up in the first place, or to artfully wrap the planet in oil, but this:



Houses like these are million dollar artworks. This one has an exceptional amount of rock. Most rockscaping, though, looks more like this:


(look at that rose — after one season it’s already making a break for it)

… and this …


…and this …


It’s the ultimate expression of car culture: landscaping looking like the gravel shoulder of a highway, where, you know, you can park and get out and admire the view, and where houses are situated, anyway. Nice. Practical. Living in the “now”. Solid Canadian values, all of them.


Landscape, Colonialism and the Unused Two-Car Garage

A landscape is a stretch of land that has been improved by rational planning, sculpting of the land, and the addition of shrubberies, lanes, paths, buildings and other aesthetic features designed for contemplation. It is the way by which the training of a prince in the art of poetry is transferred to the administration of his princedom. In the post-aristocratic world, it is a romantic view-scape, in which individual identity-selves look out independently over an expanse of nature (everything that is not the individual identity), which is contemplated as a sense of space and freedom. This sense of landscape is largely 19th century. With its roots in art practice, it is largely visual. One looks out, after all. In this respect, the houses below are extensions of individual human selves and are constructed like those selves and serve as comfortable seats for them. They are kind of like full body shoes.P1980945

At the origin of the history of the self (17th century England and 18th century Germany) the concept was cut free from the old aristocratic and religious world, which saw human identity as a function of the surrounding space. This sense of separation between humans and the earth remains an integral part of landscape today. In fact, it creates the idea of Nature. According to the game, the landscape below is called, surprisingly enough, Nature.P1980947This divide between humans and nature, and this severing of individual identity from the physical world, is one of the ways in which colonialism is aggressively furthered. It is also largely a construct of power and display. The uniformity of the houses below is countered by the degree to which their views are impeded by others, as well as the degree to which they impede the view of others — not other houses but other selves, looking for access to the natural world, denied them by the power displays of others.P1980949


As with all art forms, this live-in landscape model, this corporatization of landscape with 3,000 and 4,000 square foot pseudo-humans comes with an intricate set of rules. Simply living in nature would be outside of the art genre, and earns the term of “homeless”. “Homeless” people, those who do not participate in this hierarchal art-making, are not considered true citizens of the view state, as, of course, they are not. Many social problems follow from this forced removal of many citizens from actual citizenship. The task of setting this imbalance to rights is not to dispense with houses, of course, as in this climate shelter is mighty important, but a lessening of the negative environmental and social costs of this kind of art would be most welcome. Notice the row of loungers in the back yard below. Maybe it will even improve architecture. After all, why does the house below have a garage?




The Power of Two

This is a land that divides.

P1840124 Or is that upon this land people divide? Here we are on the Colville Indian Reservation, looking south across the Columbia River, as it begins to flow again after being stopped dead by the Grand Coulee Dam, off to our left. The red seeds of the invasive chick grass, that has rendered the short-lived farmland colonial culture made out of productive grassland into not even a place for birds and rats, speak well for the social divide here.


Ruined “Ranch”

I’m thinking of something in the land itself. Here’s the most famous divide in the North West, the Wallula Gap. When the last ice age melted and filled the valleys of Idaho, Montana and British Columbia with water, it all released at once and took 60 hours to pour through this break in the Columbia Basalt and cut the Columbia Gorge to the sea.



Looking South from the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Walla Walla

Water cut this rock in two. This rock in the Grand Coulee, as well, where the water flowed before the ice dam on the Columbia broke.


The water cuts the rock in two, then in two again, then in two again, not because water is a divisive energy, but because the rock is crystallized, and divides on divisions between crystalline structures deep within the rock. Here, on a hotter day, at the edge of the Columbia Basalt in Lewiston Idaho is a glimpse of what that looks like.


Water, frost, and even plants find the spaces between the crystals and pry them apart. The result is Coyote Rocks, like these on the Colville Reservation.


And, as more water gets a grip on the rock, this:

P1840124And that’s where we began. Note how the initial basalt flow was cut into a residual butte, which was cut into two, then into two again and two again. That these remnant stones have animal characteristics is because they are being read by an animal mind, which sorts those kinds of things out of the world. That’s a serious business, but for the moment, just look at how these animal shapes are paired. That’s what this land teaches. It is narrative formed of unified terms that divide, and divide again, in groups of two. Here is an image taken from the same spot, facing north, away from the little narrative of the Coyote rocks above.


You can see some Coyote rocks up on the left. The major landform here, though, is a divided valley, with a central mound, around a welling shape (laid by water.) It is an image of birth. The land gives forth landscapes like this continually as well. Usually, the largest, most dramatic ones form the backdrop of a village site, or a fishery site (as this is). This one, of course, has had a child:


That’s right, the Coyote Rocks! Those are the children of the earth, and the old ones to us, although not as old as the body of the earth itself. There are mysteries here that our bodies understand better than our minds do, but any art that comes from this land will follow these principles, or it will wither.

P1840172Division can be a positive or a negative force. One’s original intent carries through to the end.

The Future of Okanagan Okanogan

We have been on a journey together for three-and-a-half years. In that time, I finished up this blog as a book (twice!), but then I was reading up on a lynching in Conconully, Washington in 1891. Things just didn’t seem to add up, and as I snooped around and dug into things they didn’t add up some more, and finally I rewrote the book almost entirely. It found its shape on Easter, when I printed up its pixels, laid it out on the floor in a long line, dated each paragraph, moved the things that were out of place, and found its natural chapters, as a history of an agricultural valley in the west of Canada, rooted in the American Civil War. It concludes with a way forward from unresolved conflict through a very specific resolution of the outstanding Indigenous land claims of British Columbia — especially the pivotal ones, in the Syilx Illahie, this gambling and travelling space, the S-Ookanhkchinx, this place in which I am home. Here’s a picture of the excitement.ms1



A Book is Born!

I have been calling it “Okanagan Okanogan: One Country Without Borders”, but on Easter I scribbled down this: “Commonage: The War for the Okanagan.” Hmmm, Hmmm, Hmmm. The first is better, I think. Titles are always the hardest darned thing! Note: don’t you try to read my hand-writing now. You’ll hurt your eyes. Why do you think I need those reading glasses!

I will follow up my book with a companion book of images, a book that retells this history as a Coyote tale, and, before both of those, a practical handbook on new crops, new energy regimes, new agricultural strategies, and new water technologies and ethics that support, strengthen and sustain the land that this blog has helped me find more deeply for all of its 960 posts. But first, the blog has another child! I have received a grant to spend 16 months to write about this:

P1730506The Beautiful Steam Punk Urban Core of Post-Industrial Vernon

On Wednesday I hold my first interview with one of the street people who has offered to help me. He is excited and has many plans for me. I’m excited, too. And to think, it all started with a thought: would it help to write a book (another grant) if I used a camera to record what I see, to act as a form of empirical proof in a series of environmental arguments. Might as well try, I thought. Give it a couple months. Look at the gifts that moment of curiosity and that willingness to be led by it has given me! Not the least is  sense of writing and poetry that has expanded beyond literature into the world. Amazing. I am so grateful.

Canada Geese Making Art

Geese eating rotten apples.geese2b2Geese making art.



The Dance of the Geese.


Mass choreography, with geese.


Never underestimate the perspective changing ability of a Canada goose. Here are some geese dancing to Bach.


Here are some doing the Stravinsky Honk.


No need to clap. Geese make their own applause.



The Best Art Gallery

The water above, the sun caught in the art of the vines, the desert of the earth…P1550008… this is ancient stuff. We can dress it up with triple-blind, peer-reviewed studies of water, air and sun, but it’s still a combination of ancient Babylonian, Hebraic, Celtic and Roman insights, presented through a technological lens. It is an unbroken story, stretching into the depths of time. Where, however, are the new insights? To be fair, it’s not likely that there will be new ones, but it is likely that the old ones can be brought back to life, in a way that lives past the industrial metaphor we have inherited and puts in its place a new form of artfulness, a paying of attention to all of time and the way our ancestors speak through us. The alternative is to continue to view the world from the metaphors of a century ago, even though they’ve lost their connection to the tradition. The common way of bridging the ages is to take images apart into their components, to reduce them to basic structural items. That’s easy. Putting them together, both out of fragments and out of lost traditions, is how art can grow a living science and a living earth. It is time to make the earth our gallery again.



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.


Where is the Government?

The government is the people’s voice. Sometimes it appears that the government is hiding. Sometimes, one is surprised just where it’s got to. Here is the art that Vernon’s Gallery Vertigo put up at Okanagan College in Vernon this month.


Ryan Robson, Untitled

An issue with a wordless voice.

Here is the art that the government paid for outside.

P1380881 Gerd Maas, Destiny (Detail)

Gender equity, of course (It is, after all, a four-sided obelisk made out of melted mountain.)


Erected to Celebrate a Ceremonial Partnership with Korea

Here is the art we pay for outside the main doors of the college.

P1380868 Always a Friendly Face

Here is the art that reveals the Canadian Government’s secret hiding place today.

P1010835Well, yesterday. Today, they could be anywhere! Look around, if you can. You might find them in the darndest places. Here, for instance.

P1130503The provincial government pays up to $2.50 a tree (20 acres …2000 trees to the acre … whew!) to subsidize the planting of Royal Gala apples such as these, to counteract the effect of national government trade treaties with the United States. To which, we might add: