The Lungs of the Earth

Bunchgrass defines the grasslands of the intermontane west. It is not, however, the main story here. It is only the canopy forest. P1590438The real grassland is here. It is far older. It lies dormant in the summer’s heat and grows and blooms in the complex snow-melt landscape between the heat sinks of the grass almost all the winter long and into the spring.P1590415This is the lung of the earth. It is a skin that allows water and air to pass into the colonies of microbes that live beneath the soil and which dissolve it into minerals for plants.
P1590407 Where it has been killed off, the earth has an entirely new skin. It changes the seasons and uses water in simpler ways. This is cheat grass, shown below with some russian thistle. Good companions. The cheat grass takes the water in the spring and translates it into thatch in the summer, which lets a little rain through for the thistles, which bloom just before frost, when the cheatgrass has seeded itself in the droughted ruins of its spring rush and is growing again, as it is in the picture of a December thaw below.P1590330

It’s less a lung than an artificial breathing apparatus that, not surprisingly, matches the compost-based, blue-water-based soil renewal understandings that colonial culture teaches its children. Compare that to a natural grassland slope, responding to water, sun and air in minutely fine-tuned patterns, however compromised by neglect.

P1520181 After 140 years, the image below shows the limit of cultural understanding of this grass, which has been achieved by colonial culture.

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No, that buck is not grazing there. He is passing through. We all are. Even if property title grants the illusion of the right to kill the earth. The image above is a social image. It is a reflection of society. This could be, too:

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At the moment it is only a remnant of one. Billions are spent dreaming of engineering Mars for life. I think learning how the earth works would be a good start. It puzzles me why there aren’t a thousand historians, scientists and sociologists walking out in this grass. Do they have a death wish? I don’t know. Here are two views of the vineyard these landscapes are woven through. First…

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… and next, only a few metres away …P1590477

 

I offer the observation that they are the same.

 

 

 

 

Defying Gravity and Collecting Water for Free Through Time Travel

As long as not too great a mass of water is involved, surface tension is stronger than gravity (and stronger than adhesion). Take a look:

dropThis water ran down the twig (it did not adhere strongly) under the force of gravity, but instead of leaving the end of the twig, it formed an obloid (a drop), which will drop at the point at which gravity overcomes surface tension, but not before. If you gave it a shake, you would change the energy balance in favour of gravity. Now look again:

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The same process is at work in this riparian zone in the grassland, and in the grass around it, although at differing stages in the cycle. The questions that intrigue me today are, can this process be used in reverse? (Yes, of course. Plants do it all the time, by moving water upwards through their stems.) What energy can be added to this grassland to increase flow? What energy can be added to decrease it? Where? Here?

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If we could do that, we would not need reservoirs in the mountains or $70,000,000  price tags for improvements to water infrastructure.

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We can do this. Note how time is a factor here: the bulrush that drew water up into the sun in the spring, summer and autumn …

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Is now catching it. The fine ribbing on the cat tail leaves (the convex outward edges of the channels that drew water up all summer) provides a surface stronger than gravity, and stronger than the low pressure winter air or the weak, winter sun. The process has been reversed and gravity has been defied… not all at once, but in increments, built upon the foundation of the season before.

P1580475The water we’re observing here did not fall as rain or snow. It is frost, that condensed out of the air due to the texture of the plant surface and its different temperature gradient from the air. These are all factors that can be used to defy gravity…clear, if we look at it over time and from outside of human models. What are we waiting for? Sci-fi? Magic? Mumbo jumbo? Heck, even if we didn’t want to mess with gravity, we could harvest water. Look at how this squiggly willow does it.

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Inspiring stuff!

 

The Ethics of Talking About Wine in British Columbia

The Alumni Association of the University of British Columbia in the Canadian rain forest city of Vancouver is hosting a debate and wine tasting of wines from my valley, although the valley and those grapes are both found five or six driving hours away over the mountains and in the dry Interior grasslands of the Columbia Plateau. You can read about it by clicking here. I’m floored. Imagine. The citizens of a distant city, in an entirely different biological region, are proposing to determine, over sips of wine, whether a vineyard should make its decisions based upon wine-making fashions or on terroir, which is the sum of geological, climactic and horticultural factors which determine the flavour of a wine, and they’re attempting to do so by a simple populist vote. There’s no mention in the write-up of other important factors, such as environmental factors, loss of indigenous habitat, climactic change, Indigenous peoples’ land claims issues, the threat to the last remaining pristine temperate grassland on earth, possibilities for meaningful and sustainable agricultural renewal on Indigenous Syilx and Secwepemc models, and so forth.

P1530740Noble Ridge Vineyard, Okanagan Falls

In addition, there’s no mention of the slaughter of starlings that goes into this wine production, the subsidized use of precious water to grow luxury products at very low yields for export to Chinese billionaires, instead of using the land and the water to create food for the people of the Okanagan, while tens of thousands of people in the region go to food banks to try to get something to eat that lies within their budget. None of that. Just an academic debate about terroir or fashion. Terroir includes all the issues I mentioned above. I hope the debate includes meaningful discussions about environmental factors, loss of indigenous habitat, climactic change, Indigenous peoples’ land claims issues, the threat to the last remaining pristine temperate grassland on earth, possibilities for meaningful and sustainable agricultural renewal on Indigenous Syilx and Secwepemc models, the ethics of water use and land speculation, the connections between land and water use and poverty, and the ethics of a distant people determining the fate of people in an entirely different region.

P1540471Vineyard at the Rise, Bella Vista Hills, Okanagan Landing

If it doesn’t, then I believe it essential that the people of the Okanagan gather and hold a conference to determine the fate of the parklands, waterways, industrial planning, developmental density and transit infrastructure of the City of Vancouver, and enjoy it over some imported coastal halibut and smoked salmon. Anything less is slavery. In other words, the people of the Okanagan will determine the future of everything you can view in the image below.

Vancouver_ibVancouver, a Neo-Colonial Capital? Source.

Yes, it’s preposterous. But it would be preposterous if an organization in the City of Vancouver would have the gall to attempt to determine the fate of our own country without even having the decency of bringing the discussion to us and opening it up to the real and pressing issues at hand rather than only the limited ones that fit into its own cultural and investment paradigms. How shameful that would be. Let’s hope that the discussion is broad and innovative, and is moved to a more suitable location. There’s still time.

For the Love of Birds

My mother, who died a week ago on Sunday, did not like starlings. This was not because she did not like birds. She loved those. As a girl in the 1930s, she fed goats by bottle, scattered grain for birds, and marvelled at every living thing. In the 1960s, when my father got the idea of shooting sparrows for dinner, she put an end to that real quick. Stray cats found a home with her. Dogs, though, she had not much use for. They weren’t independent enough for her. No, with the starlings it was about the land itself, and social privilege. “Some confounded Englishman with no more sense than brains got homesick and brought the silly creatures over from England because he was homesick.” That’s how she put it. And it was an Englishman, actually, in Central Park, in New York, who did the deed. My mother, Dorothy, who grew up in a community of immigrants excluded from society by the Great Depression and left to fend for themselves in the woods, did not have much room for people who traded privilege for work. To her, work was life, not something that could be socially purchased. It was a way to defend yourself against the pressures of social privilege. It had an ethical dimension that exceeded individual rights. “Some Englishman, who was only in the country for two weeks and wasn’t a Canadian at all,” she used to say, as her way of bringing me up into the world, “could get any job he wanted, over a hard working immigrant with Canadian citizenship, who had a family to feed.” Well, that’s the way it was, and that was my mother’s objection: the land, and its people come first, before anything else at all. In other words, for my mother, the people and the land are one. The thing about starlings was not that they didn’t live well on the land, but that they took crops from the field and fruit from the orchard, that could have gone into her apron. They were a  tax, in other words, little different than that of the Canadian government itself, which favoured, as she saw it in her childhood and no doubt learned at the feet of her communist father, Englishmen over Canadians. Now, citizenship does not work out that way anymore, although maybe society still favours people of privilege over people living off the land and as the land or over new immigrants. At any rate, though, the starlings are singing today, in the poplars down the street.P1570578

When this land was converted from a Cowboy and Indian culture into a fruit-growing culture 116 years ago, it embraced two complementary energies: the energy (at least as society defined it) of men, who built waterworks, cleared sagebrush, planted trees, built packing plants, and so on; and the energy of women, who revelled in beauty, kept homes, raised children, and when the men died in the Great War, took over, still wearing their aprons. These were the roles that society gave to the two main human genders, and the relationship between them, the society that grew up into the one we know today, came from the interpersonal relations between these men and these women. My mother is not doing that work anymore, I’m sad to say, but I am, still, with her in my veins, and I’d like to make an observation today about the state of affairs after 116 years of love-making, if that’s what it should be called. It’s this: those starlings are killed by the thousands now, to keep them from eating grapes destined for ice wine for chinese billionaires. Maybe you can hear my mother’s voice in that bluntness? I can. This work is done secretly, but it’s done, and the wine industry’s success, and all its lake view bistros, have this mass electrified slaughter to thank for the romantic dinners for two, with a glass of sweet, fruity white wine, that drive this industry and draw tourists to it from cities far away. This compromise is our dirty secret. And what of the true wild birds? Well, there are still a few stalks of mullein here and there, in the weed land below the vineyards, for them to feed on in the cold.

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And there are thistles for those who prefer them, although the thistles are mostly immigrants too and pretty nasty to cattle, and since cattle are socially the affair of men in these parts, the thistles are usually poisoned with some pretty nasty stuff. Here are some poisoned, nasty thistles on land no one uses for anything except for the nasty poisoning of pretty thistles, and one blurry bird feeding, so to speak.

P1570557This is where the beauty of this land has come to, incredibly enough, out of the love-making between men and women. And what of those orchards, that were planted to support everyone together, and their children? Ah, here, you have a choice: either an industrial workspace for temporary workers imported from the Caribbean, paid wages less than I was paid to do this work thirty years ago, and with as much room for beauty as any other factory floor…

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… or here, in a peach orchard kept by a woman of my mother’s generation for as long as she could.

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These are tough choices, and they are both ruins: one a widow’s vision, without a husband to do the work anymore, and one a man’s vision, in a fruit factory that has no female touch. Fruit growing is considered an industry in these parts, but it never was that. It was a dream, a hope, a love, a making, a life. The “industry” side of the whole thing was there to support those values. Against the pressures of Canadian society, however, which demanded profit to be drawn from this love, those orchards and home and human relationships are no longer in balance. The houses below, my neighbourhood, were one of those orchards once, and children, no doubt, once learned the world by climbing the cherry tree on the right in the image below. For those kids, a house was a place to go into, from their life, and when they left that house they were home again. The children of today, however, seem to be learning to play in a house with a curly plastic slide: a fun thing, but with a serious end. They will be children of houses and play. For these children, the earth will be a place to go out to, from their life, and when they leave their houses they won’t be  like my mother, who was at home in the earth and was very, very clear about the work that that took.

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These are profound changes. As for men and women, a century ago they promenaded together in “Nature” on Sundays. Now they walk their dogs on the old industrial water canal of that age, the Grey Canal, of Earl Grey Tea fame. The canal is filled with gravel and lined with weeds, and offers convenient plastic bags and disposal barrels for every dog-walker’s duty.

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There’s something profound about this, about how my mother’s world has vanished as profoundly as she has, and at the same time. The land has been taken almost completely from what were defined as female values a century ago. I’m not sure that this has worked out particularly well. Against this loss, here I am, though, the result of this love making, still walking the land, for as long as I can. It’s that love I have tried to pass on here every day for more than three years now. The day I heard that my mother was in hospital, I was in Prague. I went out and watched this woman feed the city’s swans with a small mountain of leftover bread from her restaurant. Here she is with the last few pieces, although “bread” might be an understatement. That looks like Czech pastry at her feet, with honey-nut-poppyseed filling!

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We live the earth by loving it. Loving it together is best.

 

The Resistance in Prague

In communist Prague, resistance meant to plant an apricot tree, like the yellow one in the foreground below. The resistance was a denial of borders, prisons and proletarian culture.
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Here’s how to resist capitalist Prague:

twocansThe resistance is a denial of property ownership within public space. What these two visions of resistance share is a denial of Prague, written within the city. Kafka, who was from Prague, tried to tell us all of this trap long ago. Here’s another form of resistance in Prague:

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Resistance? Why yes, one is not supposed to feed the swans. Just across the river, there is a tiny nature reserve, of no value to bird life, with a sign forbidding the feeding of these creatures. And the resistance? Look again above those swans…

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 Bread for the Swans

The city is an artwork. It has appearances. The people who live within it exert their humanity by resisting those boundaries, and it is those boundaries, in turn, and the resistance to them, that lead to the image of the city, such as this image of the nature preserve:

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An iconic image, for sure, and a perfect illustration of the principles of classical art, but the swans are actually begging for bread. And so, in a city proud of its regained independence from soviet control, the revolution continues, just under the surface. It is the revolution that is created by the city, and within its walls. As for art…

 

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It’s a lure, as obsolete as these baroque statues…

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Superseded by the practicalities of building waterworks and good stone paths for tourists, nonetheless they remain, even as they originally were: icons pointing to a past that never existed and yet which generates one often-overlooked thing that takes two identical forms: resistance and bondage. As Kafka knew, you cannot escape Prague. Literature was his way of standing solidly in this paradox. Now that literature is the past and cities are even more ubiquitous, what is resistance? This?

wallIs resistance the tagging? Is it the ivy, left to eat at the wall? Is it the eye that sees, stops, and is present in this moment of paradox? Is it here?

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Does art, in other words, still have its old power, but within the city rather than in its galleries? If so, what aesthetic training is necessary to help this resistance flourish?

 

Food Culture in Crisis in Kelowna

Yesterday and the day before I spoke about a farming crisis in Vernon. I’d like to extend that into its context, as part of a food crisis in the Okanagan. First, to be fair, I’ll set the picture, as you’re probably not from this place. Although it might seem I’m talking about local issues, they’re pretty universal. Sometimes working up from the ground is the way to go. So, I live in a city called Vernon. Just down the road is a farmer who sells tomatoes to people who would like to save some money picking their own, as a patched-together substitute for the legitimate tomato-growing industry we used to have, but which we don’t have anymore for ideological reasons. You can read my post about him from a year ago, here, to see my thoughts about this a year ago: We Do Not Have A Food Problem. For those of you who didn’t click through, here’s a photo from that post, to hold the thought.

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Aging Farmer Tearing Up the Unsold Tomatoes at the End of the Year

Nest step: plowing them under.

So, I guess you get the picture. Forty minutes down the road is a city that I know as the administrative centre for Canadian fruit growing culture but which most people know as a series of condos on the lake, for the purposes of speculation, time-sharing and skiing holidays that condos serve. Notice I didn’t say “housing”, because too often condos aren’t really for housing. They often offer only the potential of housing sometime in the future, once speculation has run its course. This is a common problem in cities across Canada, and it’s no different here. Two weeks for a skiing holiday in the winter, and you can write the rest of it off against income, while waiting for prices to rise so you can sell it to the next investor. The city is Kelowna. You can see some some of its condo towers on an insert in the Kelowna newspaper last week.
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Notice the excellent 1980s style graphic design. This from the city that claims to be the cultural heart of the Okanagan Valley, and claims, as the title of the pamphlet shows, excellence. Sadly, the burnt hills to the far left, the smog hovering over the ridge, the bridge cutting the lake in two, the low photographic values and the amateurish graphics take away from the lustre of that excellence. But, hey, Canada found Kelowna tucked in its far west back in the 1980s, with its clean air, its farms, and its clean water, and has remade it in its own image. I didn’t know what excellence I would find inside the brochure, but what I found, the very first page, the first thing I saw when I opened the brochure, was this:

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There’s a lot of amazing effort and dedication going into this project, but I have to ask: where is the excellence, really, in a town that is a playground for the top 1% of Canada, when all of this social effort has to go to sustain the people displaced by that playground and that wealth, people without adequate food, housing or work picking (or, say, canning) tomatoes, like we used to do here proudly, not to mention producing apples and applesauce and apple juice for the world? What is wealth when it doesn’t belong to the people or the community? Well, a little of it is here, with the dedicated, hard-working and gifted director of the food bank, with no name brand tomato sauce, chicken broth, boxed macaroni and cheese and Heinz Alphaghetti from factories far away. This is not food. It’s money. Someone else’s money. Someone else’s work. Someone else’s assembly-line culture. food1

 

I in no way mean to take away from the essential work the food bank does in Kelowna. What I want to bring to mind is that the structure of Canadian society, which the Kelowna newspaper appears to call excellent, has created food banks. A society that can build condominiums by the hundreds and little (if any) housing for working people, condominiums which are often not lived in, is a society that can replace a food culture with an industrial supply-chain culture, in which food, if available at all, must be purchased with capital, not labour, or with an appeal to charity and good works. In a food culture, the boxes above would hold tomatoes, onions, chickens, beans, flour and eggs, not just the industrialized promise of them, however it is softened by dedicated creative energy. Here’s a sobering thought: when the fruit and vegetable industries thrived in this valley they were not based on a capitalist model. Neither were they based on a free enterprise model. Sixty years ago, the Okanagan, and Kelowna, were excellent. We didn’t have a food movement. We didn’t have the smoke screens of ideology.  We had work.

Land Crisis in Vernon

Yesterday I showed you an image of an apple crisis. Here it is again, from a different angle.

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People are so hungry to connect with a farmer over a supermarket that they will pay an industrial farmer as much for his cull apples as they would pay for his good ones at a produce store, and half what they’d pay in a supermarket itself. The only thing is, he’s an industrial farmer, and not, perhaps, the thing they wish to support. For instance, that fence? It prevents deer from migrating up and down the hills, as they need to do, and forces them to wander through neighbourhoods, where they get labelled “problem deer” and get shot. As for the land itself, look:

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Yes, mud. A tractor made that, hauling those apples out. This is what has been created out of this grassland soil after a hundred years: hard-packed, water repelling mud. 10,000 years of soil creation has been negated in 100 years. I don’t think that’s what people wish to pay for either. I think that an adjustment will come: either farmers will get the idea, or people will. That it all has to happen within an industrial metaphor makes it harder. Those are, however, only human issues. For the land, the issue is clear: stop this or the land will die.

Apple Crisis in Vernon

Apples for sale by the bag.P1550110 Looks nice, huh! Look more closely. Here are some Ambrosias.

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See all that marking? These apples are worth zero. In a modern world of cosmetic fruit, these can’t be sold, so they’re being sold off the back of a 5-ton truck for $8 per10 pound bag — as if this were a family farm and not an agribusiness.

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That’s more than the farmer would get if they were cosmetically perfect. This situation won’t last. I saw this before in the 1970s. Troubled times are back.