Balsam roots and badgers get along famously together. Here’s a nicely tilled seedbed, ready to go.
On a hill. What a stupid place to build a house.
The Okanagan hosts the world’s only urban heron rookery. Things are full of action there at the moment.
The Rookery, Vernon
The rookery, however, is on private land, surrounded by tire dealerships, a walled housing village, and various mechanical shops. Currently, the “owner” of the land is protecting the herons’ right to this, their space, despite the protests of neighbours about the danger these trees present. If life is to survive the industrialization process in the Okanagan, land ownership rules will change to give priority to these birds, in the way that agricultural land uses are currently protected. When all thrive on this land, all thrive. Blessed be.
Would you call this a weed?
How about this?
I found four colour variants today: Gold, Yellow, Pink, and Red.
What is a weed? The everyday understanding is that it is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it. In the case of russian thistle, which came over with seed grains from the Ukraine and soon spread across the West almost a century and a half ago, helped along by the over-grazing of natural grasslands by sheep and cattle, run by large landowners attempting to create themselves as a gentry, this means that a weed is a plant that interferes with economic progress.
A Plant That Will Not Be Controlled is Called a Weed
In turn, that means it is a plant that interferes with the privilege such men have for mining living environments for their living members, until nothing will grow but plants such as russian thistle, which attempt to heal broken soil. Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, is, in other words, those of us who are from anything other than a small privileged class, trying to live among the few remaining indigenous peoples who were cleared off of the earth by colonial or colonizing land-use practices. These practices are called farming. They are really the mining of the earth of life and the negating of it by turning it into economic capital that cannot be returned to the earth. Instead, it is given to non-living systems, which are called jobs and economies. These are things that do not live on the earth.
In a Land Sense Divorced from the Earth, this Deer Browse is Called Weeds
(The deer are called a nuisance and the sagebrush is called a protected ecosystem.)
I know I promised to explain how language goes astray today, but I found that these images so clearly set out an issue about the colonial and economic legacy behind contemporary word usage that I would share them with you instead. Monday will bring us back around to the words. Until then, here are a few more from the essay…
I don’t think it’s up to government to find answers. I don’t think it can. Its concepts of private and public ownership, its subdivisions, highways, forest practice codes, educational curricula, criminal codes and health contracts are all more or less set and will continue to turn out more or less the same result as they have in the past. This is their strength, actually. They endure. Luckily, you and I do more than that. We are alive. All of us, men, women, children, black bears, otters, sea lions, salmon, blue-tailed skinks and even tomato hornworms live in earth and water and air — not as resources but as living things on a living earth. That’s the other side of the British Columbian political system. It is called the commons.
What I’d like to emphasize about the commons is this: it is older than the law, cities and corporations erected on its strengths. It is not sustained by ownership, as the law built upon it is, but by the lack of ownership. It is that old; it extends beyond the power of any state. Without it, there would be no British Columbia, people wouldn’t fly-fish on the Campbell, the Fraser would be dammed above Lilloett, and there wouldn’t be any salmon anymore. And there I am, talking again about the legacy of Roderick Haig-Brown. I’m proud to do so, because he lived a full life in the commons, as a writer, a fisherman, and a magistrate — all of them with no more authority than that which he held as the birthright of every man, woman and child. He never accepted less.
We have. In Canada today, nearly forty years after Haig-Brown’s death, the proud, ancient English tradition of the commons is best known as the House of Commons, a place that isn’t really a house and is common mostly in the sense of people gathering in order to be rude (common) to each other and to the institution.
I’d like you to think of this: being rude to the institution means being rude to you and me, because we are the commons.
The other day, I left you with an image of a Northern Flicker, to stand in for the words that subordinate its rights to human language and all of its difficulties at touching the world. Here she is again …
I would like to leave you with a thought for the weekend: if language reduces the earth to human social categories and conversations, is not the way towards healing the earth the path of granting social equality to the earth? It would, of course, mean having a language that could speak intimately with it. Fortunately, we do. It is very old, but fortunately it is very much alive — only subordinated to the will that has led us away from our common, living heritage. That is called theft. Next week, we’ll be talking about that. Happy Thanksgiving.
… it kinda spoils a good bite in the back, that’s what it does …
Here’s the Ogopogo, seen from the air just after Thanksgiving …
Thanks for giving, Anassa!
For the full story of this corner of the lake, why not check out the first third of my talk a week back to the Okanagan Institute? Just click here: okokintro2, and it will come to you. (Note, I had to shrink file size, so if the images are looking wonky, do shrink your viewing screen size until they come up clear.) An intriquing view, I hope, of how a book can unfold from its footsteps as if it were always there and suddenly we saw it come clear around us, among the trees and the grasses. This project is becoming a real family affair. A photo from my daughter above, and a narrative style (in the .pdf) that flows through both pictures and text. Thanks to my wife, Diane, for pointing out that such an approach makes a far better narrative than the (wordy) essays that my love of words has carried me to in the past. I’ll have an audio version soon, as well as the rest of the talk. One step at a time!
Here is a basic guide to life in the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing (note: not wild, just free flowing) stretch of the American stretch of the Columbia River.
First, the security camera operators…
Second, Canadian tourists asking a local for directions …
Third, a non-unionized member of the cleanup crew…
Fourth, a grass removal specialist, off to make the rounds of the reactor grounds. First, the long shot, to show his native environment …
… and then a closeup to show his work equipment …
Fifth, one of the few remaining members of the water cleanup patrol arrested by two nameless invaders from a tribe of wild animals downriver…
Sixth, other members of the invading tribe working hard to haul a 4.5 foot long young sturgeon from the perhaps isotope rich sludge at the bottom of the river so they can let him go and try again (entombed reactors in the background) …
Seventh, another boat from the rather extensive invasion fleet…
I consider the capture and killing of increasingly rare and ancient animals for sport to be rogue behaviour, not befitting membership in the earth community. Compare this to a representation of an elk / human interaction by the original people of the river, who lived on the sites above…
Bit of a grass fire here the other day. Young guy with a lighter. Wondered what it might do. Found out. Too many generations since there was fire here. Hard to remember to tell kills everything. Poof. Fire threatened to go rogue and take out some houses. Evacuations. Water bombers and spotter planes circling above my house in the afternoon. Helicopters scooping up water from among the ski boats on the lake below. Cheatgrass went up like spilled fuel barrels. Video here. In the end, due to the amazing performance of a host of firefighters and some men who really know how to fly, only sixty acres of grassland parched. Fried to a crisp, though. Rattlesnakes and firefighters were battling for their fire hoses and their helmets. Today, men are up there chopping at roots (with a wary eye kept out for rattlers), because the fire has gone underground here and there. I went up to see what a cheatgrass fire could do to a landscape. Well, this, for one…
Beautiful, really, in a devastated kind of way. In the past, views like this were commonplace. (The trees in the background are largely weeds.)
In the indigenous world, this land was farmed by fire. Fire, in other words, was as much the land as were water, air, soil, and people. Trees? Now, though, the fires are too hot. Because of the cheatgrass. Well, partly. Partly because the cheatgrass is like jet fuel. Partly because it takes all the water out of the system wayyyyyyyy too early in the year. Also because the soil is bare as dust between the weeds. It used to be covered with blue-green algae. So, now it’ll be interesting to see what struggles back from this armaggedon.
Note the fricasseed deer dung in the foreground. Do those contain within themselves the seeds of a new landscape? Is that the secret? Cuz they’re everywhere.
Here, by the way, is a doe and her fawn. They were grazing this morning twenty yards from the scene above. Perhaps they have the answer? Or just more dung, maybe. Well, certainly that. I had to stamp my feet to get them to look up. They are, I do believe, getting used to me.
Harold Bothering the Deer Again
In the indigenous Syilx world, the deer were people, too. So were those rocks. And that mullein sticking up like a candle there. All of them. Different forms of spirit. Still are. I’m all for that.
But the fire form of this spirit. Whoa. That’s one powerful spirit, for sure. Here’s what it does to bunchgrass.
Notice how the fire moved through the grass largely without moving it at all.
The land is pretty much charbroiled here, but I doubt that’s the whole story. There are bulbs underground. Their year is over. Their are voles down there. And gophers. Here is a vole city, for instance.
Land, Teeming with Voles
It’s been three days since the fires. Some of the tan-coloured vole hills here are new. All the rest were rather untouched by the fire.
You can bet that there are lots of flower seeds cached down there. Might some sprout, after the coyotes come and dig things up looking for something to eat, cuz, frankly, above ground there isn’t so much as a bone? I hope so. Cuz what’s above ground doesn’t looks, first, like hunger …
Two Survivors of the Holocaust
Hiding out together on an island of rock.
Rocks are certainly useful here, but what is there to eat? The seeds aren’t worth much, and these people don’t eat seeds, anyway. Here’s a shocking photo that shows the story of seeds and fire in this new landscape of weeds. Loud and clear.
Seeds from Hell
Well, the Asian Steppes, at any rate. Sorry, Russia. Not your fault.
Everything is burnt up pretty well here, but all the fire seems to have done to the knapweed (a most vile and evil invasive form of diesel fuel with leaves full of bitterness and aggression) is to wait and wait and wait, and then, once the fire has done its nasty deed, release its seeds on top of the ash, ta da, just like that. Those are the piles that look like deer do-do. Ouch. And it’s hot. I tried to find a way to show how this landscape is still a landscape of water, just in a totally transformed way. Here’s my attempt at making a dramatic visualization of that…
Spring Water! Pure Glacial Water! Nothing too good for my rocks. Note the boiled prickly pear cacti. By the way, I think they’ll make it. It looks like only the upper, what, arms? sausages? are scorched, and lower down there’s still life, at least in the bigger clusters. Did you get the metaphor? How the blue of the lake is still tied to this black soil, somehow? Did that work for you?
Well, I had fun, at any rate. I was questioned about this by two separate firemen. One came down from high up on the hill. He took down my name. It seems that lots of people come to fire scenes and strew garbage everywhere, so that it looks like the firemen did it. Gets them down, it does. Well, yeah.
Aka A Fireman’s Bad Day. You just don’t expect artists going around in your active field of operations, you don’t. But, give the guys credit. They didn’t even blink. Once we all agreed that I’d stay away from the angry rattlers up the hill, we were all good. They went off to chop at roots. I went off to … well, chop at the dust in my own head.
Now, doesn’t that scene look like it might be taken by the Curiosity Rover. Well, if you squint? No? Some planet circling among the stars, at any rate? So much imagination. No wonder the deer, those lovely space creatures, just graze and ignore me. Meanwhile, the firemen are hard at work, protecting my house while we all figure out what to do with this new kind of grassland, and while, you can put good money down on it, the weeds figure out what they can manage to pull off in this transformed landscape …
Fire Crew Extinguishing Hot Spots
“Some of them,” said the deputy fire chief, “are a little afraid of the snakes.” Well, yeah. A rattlesnake in your helmet. You don’t want that every day. Note the fire retardant in the background, and its excellent match with the firefighters’ suits. Well, those that don’t match my water bottles. The world is art.
You’ve got to hand it to the rattlers, though. Clever. The alternative is something they haven’t seen in, oh, I dunno, fifty generations … neither have we. We’ll have to figure this out together.
In some way, this interface between fire and life is a natural part of the life of this place.
I’ll let you know how the story unfolds.
Here’s what water looks like up in the hills:
Saskatoons were once a major human food source in this area. Notice how the fruit ripens over a period of weeks. If a flock of birds or a giggle of humans and bears comes by to clean the bush off, there’s still fruit for a second and a third flock or giggle.
In the grasslands, water flows through life. Early ranchers understood this well, and established their ranches in valley bottoms, where grass was fed by seasonal creeks and underground flows. The result was something like this:
Typically, the hot hills were grazed in the spring and the valley bottom through the rest of the year. Little has changed here, except that the failure caused by horrific winters in the late 19th century led to the development of irrigation systems and the putting aside of hay.
The changeover from natural water to irrigated water came at a cost. In 1901, when the reservoir upstream at Conconully was in the final planning stages, this basin was the site of a murder, over water. In 1903, it was proposed as a reservoir, to complete the Conconully system of reservoirs. The environmental cost of the changeover from natural water to engineered water, however, continues. Here’s a shot of our saskatoon bush, in its new environment, the one in which water is so misunderstood that engineered artifacts are cast away into it, as if it were a useless part of the universe and a great receptacle for trash…
Road Erosion and Garbage Dump in an Old Green Water Channel
Look at that ranch again. It’s the same story…
Sacred Rocks on the Old Sinlahekin Trail..
…divorced from their story by engineered water.
This is a U.S. National Wildlife Preserve now, meant to preserve habitat for sharp-tailed grouse. The preservation of ancient ways of human land use appears to me to be equally important. Perhaps it’s time to return to their original state the fields that proved inappropriate to continued irrigation, so that a better history can be built from that part of the land. I believe that’s what wealth means.
Tomorrow: the North Okanagan connection with this story.
Turtles like water, and they like the land, too. They’re at home in both. That’s a mighty power. They helped created the world from a ball of muddy muck as well. Well done!
Western Painted Turtle …
…looking for a place to lay her eggs in the old sweet bunchgrass lands of the Sinlahekin Valley, flooded for a century now to bring you red delicious apples, 12 months of the year. Thank Roosevelt, if you get a chance. This is Grand Coulee Dam, version 1.0. That’s a deer hoof print in front of her, by the way, not her attempt to dig her way down into her shyness.
The world is what you sculpt it into. Here’s a clutch of turtle eggs on the shore of the Conconully Reservoir …
No, not by me. By the local eagle, maybe. Or the local rogue deer. Or the messy, messy Canada geese. Honk.
That’s how this trickster does it. She shapes and shapes and digs and digs and pats and pats and turns herself around in a circle and, presto, whole worlds are there, perfectly formed where there was just muck before …
So, why is this place called turtle island? Well, because of this, maybe…
Turtle Eggs of Wind-Eroded Stone
Or maybe because the turtles are everywhere, going into the earth in the winter, coming out of it again in the spring, going into the lakes in the daytime, sunning on logs in the morning, and when you come close, plop, it’s gone. Here’s one sticking its head out of the water in Conconully …
And here’s one high up on the Peshastin Pinnacles …
And here’s one below Umatillo Rock, at Dry Falls …
Like I said, they’re everywhere.
Any spirit so capable of being its world is, obviously the world.
One could explore the ramifications of this correspondence for a lifetime, and never get to the end of it. Good.