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.


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.


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…


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.



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:


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.



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:



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.


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.


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).


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.

How Universities are Causing Global Warming and What to Do About It

I would like to show you the little valley I live in. I think the future depends on what we see here.view


Vernon Creek Valley, Okanagan Landing.

Okanagan Lake is to the right of this image. Downtown Vernon is to the left. My house is just off the right of the image, in the settlement of dark trees halfway up the image’s border.

Now, I don’t know what you see, but I’ll give you some context by turning you around gently. Look again. Different light, different colour in the grass, same hill.

P1520181Plus, there’s less cheatgrass (red) when you get this high. And what if we look more closely?


At the top of this rare bit of remaining grassland, there’s this:


So, that’s the context. So, let’s look at the valley again. I want to show you the ideal university of the future. It’s in the 33 acre abandoned orchard below the sagebrush hill, in the middle of the image, between the two 1970s-era subdivisions with their dark evergreen trees, and below the yellow splash of choke cherries in the ravine and the blob of dark poplars along Earl Grey’s old irrigation canal. Yeah, the tea guy. That’s right.


I envisage it as a large outdoor classroom and laboratory, teaching farming, innovation, plant breeding, plant propagation, new plant species, new water regimes, new food processing opportunities, land-reading, agriculture (the intellectual version) and its appropriate spiritual components, along with appropriate engineering, mathematical, geological and artistic opportunities and interventions, as it supplies food for people and extends the deepest traditions of human culture forward in step with the earth. This is a form of Enlightenment, which was the process by which pre-industrial society in Europe was reformed along industrial and intellectual models. Some stuff was left out, for no good reason. The earth of today is a mirror of that process of leaving out. Here’s a cottonwood tree that was left out. In its place are some uses for cottonwood trees and some methods of observing cottonwood trees, but not ones which start from the actual energy of cottonwood trees.


Cottonwood Tree on the Grey Canal

Hence, my farm university, or my university based on touching the earth.


Earth Language. Repair Needed

Here it is from the golf course (to the right of the subdivision like a green island of trees).


Unfortunately it is selling for $1,900,000, a price set by the standard of the golf course developers who have bought the hillside we’re standing on. It’s not a farming price. It’s a luxury price, set by the value of oil in the tar sands in Alberta. It’s a social price, which the retired farmer deserves, given the social context in which she must live. The culture that scars the boreal forest for oil, however, and sets such prices, is the same that uses the lake in my valley as a playground. Here’s an image of the lost wetland in my valley bottom, in the approach to winter. Forget this as an image of fall…


Carving Pumpkins (Recreational agriculture.)

… this is the real image of fall in the valley:


The golf course is not doing well, by the way. There might be a lost boreal forest behind it and a lot of aerial carbon and a lot of wealth created by this transformation, but, socially and ethically, the money created by it doesn’t flow very well. It’s like bitumen in a pipeline at times. They can’t even fix their road. Look.

P1510641This 3-metre deep gully was 10 centimetres deep 3 years ago. This is runoff from the golf course road.


Our little gully is behind the dump truck up above. It is being filled with crushed “mantle”, or the ancient bedrock below its overburden of seabeds and volcanic flows and glacial till. They ignored the ditch (a metre deep at that point). They had some decorating to do instead…


Crushed Mantle as a Decor Element

This is a replacement for landscaping with living things. This is called being “water smart”. It is called being ethically responsible.

Three years ago, one of the bankers holding the whole hillside in receivership could have fixed the gullet on a lunch break, by taking a bag lunch, driving up the hill with a shovel in the trunk, moving gravel for 1 minute, or even less, eating the lunch, and driving back to work, but, no. That didn’t happen. Now it’ll cost a few thousand dollars, with back hoes and dump trucks and what-have-you.


What a waste. Now, a politically-correct and academically-correct (which means scientifically-correct) stance towards this bit of human self-absorption is to approach it neutrally, which is to say to observe it but nothing more. Here, let’s try that:



There’s an issue at play here. Humans, who do this observing, are social creatures. If they’re going to look at the earth, they’re going to see social stuff. This is social, for instance:


Weedy Grassland Along the Grey Canal Trail

Observation works for social relationships, but it doesn’t mean that they develop into healthy ones. The gulch above is an unhealthy social relationship. Now, let me show you another unhealthy social relationship.


The Green, Green Grass of Autumn

This cheat grass is growing on a deer trail. It takes all the water from the spring earth, reducing the earth’s ability to store water for an entire season, transfer it to the wetlands below, and support hundreds of species along the way. It reduces the ability of the land to support human populations, or any others. Socially, its presence is heavily tied with a crazy colonial social idea that things sprout in the spring and mature in the fall. Cheatgrass is smarter than that. In its social relationship with humans, humans are not. They don’t adjust grazing patterns or land use patterns to cheat cheatgrass out of its cheat. Ideology stands in the way of that, as does a cultural insistence on raising children in different environments. Concrete ones, for instance.

Forty auto minutes south of this point there is a university that trains thousands of students in the set of disinterested observational skills I mentioned above, extends those concrete worlds, and embodies some unhealthy social relationships. The result is this.


The Enlightenment Botanical Garden Becomes Decorative …

… and then invisible. Not only is the earth, at this university that prides itself on ‘green’ values, a decorative element, but it’s mis-treated as well. What a change in 200 years!

I think it would be fair to say that this university represents a culture that has turned from the earth. I think it’s a powerful culture. I think it has many strengths. I also think it has a tragic flaw. I also think we can turn this thing around. To do that, let’s look at the set of intellectual approaches it has laid over the earth. First, the valley again …


… and now the annotated version, showing a little of what I see here…


I suggest opening the image in a new window (or just clicking on it) to see the details. When you do, I hope you will notice that barely one single thing here, short of the deer, coyote and bear trails squeezed up onto a hillside where none of them belong, represents an ability to work with the earth. Even the grazing lease and the no trespassing areas are heavily compromised and nearly non-productive. There are a few remaining farms, although heavily industrialized and producing petroleum-dependent and nearly-unaffordable food, and the habitat in the ravine and in the subdivisions is important, but beyond that? There’s a tiny riparian area winding through the stream in the residential areas on the far side of the airport, and a bit of weedy grassland on the hills across from us. I hope you will see as well that all this stuff represents an application of university culture, or, rather, the culture the university serves, and which we need it to do a better job of challenging or re-imagining. That’s where that $1,900,000 farm comes in. It has the potential to change everything and to build, on a rigorous foundation of practical, scientific and artistic work, a new paradigm, and, in a century, a new valley. Here’s the current state of affairs…


Still Fixable

From foreground to background: deer fence, weedy grassland, vineyard designed to raise house prices, two abandoned orchards, a productive ravine full of coyotes and hawthorns, and just the hint of the beginnings of the city housing in the wetland below.

We can do better. We must do better. It’s a matter of ethics, and survival. The university’s stance, of ethical disinterestedness, has lead to powerful technical science (in this sense, psychology and the arts are powerful technical tools as well) and an ethical situation that is far from disinterested. Here, let me show you. The depth of magenta in the image below indicates the depth of ethical compromise present in the land. Notice that the closer one gets to water, the more compromised, ethically, land use becomes. Notice as well the green areas.


The green oval is Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park… the only piece of permitted human habitat in this scenario. Even there, however, the grasslands are being heavily taken over by trees and park staff spend their time making urban social amenities (paths, picnic areas, shooting cougars, and so on).


Kalamalka Provincial Park: In a Grassland, Trees are Weeds

It’s a strange kind of “nature” or “wilderness” that allows the replacement of the only habitat for butterflies, succulent plants, edible bulbs, and hundreds of other species, to be replaced by over-crowded, fire prone groves of low-value trees and only a handful of other species. This is actually called desertification. The only ‘nature’ it displays is ‘human nature’ and the ethical stance it displays is ‘disinteredness.’

But, again, our ethical valley.


The green line in the foreground is the only allowable natural animal habitat outside the land use grid. Note how it dead ends, without access to the water it leads to (the water goes underground from there, but life doesn’t follow it.) Every scientific approach and attitude is an ethical decision. Every view of the land is ethical at heart. The current university teaches young people how to benefit from and fine tune the predatory land use shown above. It is a form of schooling, in, I may add, an attitude that has an end date. Predatory? Yes. Humans are predating on the earth. And, may I say, also on themselves and their ability to form social bonds with the earth. Here, this is another social image:


On a  healthy planet, it will be recognized as having equal social value to humans as inter human relationships. Instead, it is called “nature” or “art”. That’s a start, but after a couple hundred years of separating that from scientific procedure, it has led to an overly-disinterested science, so technically powerful that its power has blinded it to all of which it is ignorant, including that “nature” or that “art”, and because it is all-powerful, those unseen elements become obliterated.


Road Overspill

This is the best that environmental science can do to save a riparian area in a dry grassland hill.

I think a correction can and should be made. Opposition to the blind spots of disinterested science is why I have been arguing for a different kind of science, not to replace science but to rebalance its abilities to allow for outcomes that include the earth and the wealth of resiliency, and why I propose a different kind of university. It’s time to remake the earth. Remaking it, and ourselves, in the image of an android phone is a dead end. That path leads only to the replacement of humans and this …


… with robots, or at least with robotic intellectual tools, which, ethically, is almost the same thing. That work is nearly complete. Global warming? Well, when one removes the ability of the earth to utilize solar energy and translate it into cooling ecosystems, what do you think is going to happen? Oil is not the cause. It is the symptom. This is global warming:


Eroding Vineyard Hillside

Ten years ago it looked like this:


Ten years ago it stopped water and the sun in their tracks and turned them into life. We can still repair that loss.


The Best Apple Pie in the World: a Very Slow Recipe

Here’s how to bake the best apple pie ever.

1. Go for a drive on the far side of the lake towards Fintry. Be curious. Stop.

First Growth Apple Orchard Gone to Roses and Elders…

and mud. Don’t forget the mud. This is Ewing in early October 2012.

2. Wander around. Taste a few seedling apples growing here and there. Let the rain run down your neck. Find this:

Apples Just Out of Reach

I jumped up and down. I worked my fingers along the branches, and eventually I got a taste. It tasted like … a bottle of apple cider in my hand. You know, the kind of stuff made by people who chisel a hole out of the mountain and keep it there in the dark and check on it once in awhile when the snow blows.

3. Dream. Remember this:

Cider Tree Smelling So Sweet

Darling of the Sun, Taste of the Earth, Beloved of the Sky, Elixir of… well, you get the idea.

4. Go back mid-March to get some grafting wood. Find this:

Bear Attack!

Black bears like apple cider, too. Good to know! Our brothers and sisters have taste and class, because this one left the other trees alone. So did I. Bah. But I think the bear who did this might do well to learn to climb a ladder.

5. Dream some more.


6. Graft it at home.


Spring, 2013. The Fintry Apple Grafted onto a Transparent.

Note: the transparents from those blossoms were great.

7. Grow a tree. Tend it carefully. Bend the branches down and tip the ends to encourage early fruiting. Dream.

8. It grows, winter comes, you wait. You dream of apple cider.

9. Spring comes, with blossoms. You get a couple dozen apples. Amazing! Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.

10. Finally, it’s late September, 2014, you pick an apple, and … it tastes exquisite, but it’s way too soft for cider. It’s an old, soft variety, not a juice-laden marvel.

11. Make apple sauce. Aha! It’s just as good as Transparent apple sauce, which is high praise indeed.

12. Make an apple pie for friends. (Shortening, flour, salt, water, apples, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, flour, you know the drill. Easy does it.) It’s tart, it’s rich, it’s sweet, it’s really grand. Everyone is pleased. If we want a processing industry, and the best apple pie in the world, this is our baby.

P1500847Welcome, Fintry!

These darlings are about 2 inches in diameter, and oh-so-fine.

So far, four people and one bear have enjoyed the Fintry apple. Oh my, that just won’t do.


Light and Shadow in the Grass

I promised I would show you some images of a tension I’ve noticed in Western culture. It’s a living tension, that comes in variable forms. First…


 Shadows of Grass on Stone

… and second …


Lit Grass Within Shadow

… and a third variation of the same effect …

P1500604Light Glowing Within Shadow and Outside of It

… and a fourth …


Leaf Shading a Leaf

We could go on all day playing with such interwoven images of light and dark. That they are easily viewed as light and shadow is cultural, however. They could as easily be named as two separate forms of light, the light, for example, on the brighter cottonwood leaves below, and the dark on the others …


… but, really, they are all lit. There is a kind of light cast by the mind (call it naming, if you like), which consolidates understandings of energy by mapping out their recurrence. You can use it, for example, to map the same patterns as seen above in the image below…


Light and Shade in a Chinese Elm

You could go on to map the variations in this pattern in many different plants, and then make classifications of the effect. If you follow this path long enough, you can see the same pattern, extended across a season, and even across maps of evolutionary time, here…


 Fall Garden

That is largely the science of nomenclature, but it’s also the basic way in which culture operates in the West: it consolidates discoveries by mapping out all possible instances of their recurrence in the world. Heck, you can even find it here…


Red Dogwood’s Time Map

But, of course, if we’re going that far, we’re into the territory of naming as a power of extending patterns. That’s a second kind of naming. Here’s a big leap within it from light to hormonal patterns laid down by light.



Chinese Elm Sapling

On the one hand, there is a leap of understanding here, that the chemical map of the plant is the same as its interaction with light. On the other hand, the intellectual tools for mapping that effect were laid down long ago in different contexts. To view it here is to classify their existence in a new instance. There is no gap between these two forms of naming. They lie on a continuum. A further extension of the energy of naming as extension …

P1500206 … is found in the grasses that evolved to harvest this energy of extension. Each blade is a shadow of carbon in the light, and yet each blade dying in the fall holds a little more light than strikes it in any moment…P1500172

… in a complex pattern determined by the interaction of each blade and stalk with each other one around it, in a pattern continually transformed by the wind. The form of naming I mean here is the one that can see this pattern and add it to the realm of knowledge, so that it can be extended by the other, classifying energy. The two work together, like shade and light. When they don’t work together, effects like the wind-blown patterns of rain-weighted grass below (without the weight of rain, the wind would not have laid it down in its own shape, or at all) are seen as random.


They aren’t. They are a measure of grass health, sun, nutrients, rain and wind. In the grassland, such effects make the difference between productivity and drought. In other words, they make the difference between the continued survival of species in this landscape, including but by no means limited to humans. The tension between these two forms of naming powers Western culture, and it is through it that all who live within that culture view the physical world. In fact, this tension is the physical world, for people in this particular culture. This, for example, is an image of the tension between these two forces.


That these are late-season wild cherries is a part of the classification energy. That the fruits are laid down as concentrations of darkness is a part of the power of extension. Anyone who might suggest that these two energies are separate is likely to think that the world they see is not an image of their culture. It is dangerous to think like that too often.

Oh, Grass, My Beautiful One!

Grasses are the children of a warming earth, and this is their season. I’ve been talking of science lately, but a science based in poetry and in ancient earth knowledge, so I thought today, walking out in the grass, hey, why not show you the magic of the grass? Have a look!

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Asparagus in Glory: Science and Language Part III

The other day I was discussing how the language of science influences the world that scientific exploration and method allows us to see. Behind that is the observation that if the language of science were fundamentally changed, the world that humans could perceive would be changed. I will be speaking more about the nature of such changes later in the week. For the moment, let’s work towards those observations step by step. First step, the lowly asparagus.


Female Asparagus in Her Glory

Remember her from the springtime?


So, that’s a pretty basic shift, eh! Each of the bud scales on the young asparagus stalk above will open into a fern stalk, which will open into ferns, flowers, and ultimately berries, seeds, and spiders.


Which is the real asparagus? The white shoot, below the ground, that the Germans eat to honour life sprung from the dead land (a truly ancient practice)? The green shoot that Canadians eat to honour spring life? The fern? The spider? They are all the asparagus, of course. The entire cycle is the asparagus. Human time-biases, however, encourage human observers to label the plant by its best-known form, as food, such as these wild stalks I picked and brought home in the spring…


Those are, however, no more than asparagus than is this…

P1490422 … or this …

spider1It’s an important point, actually. As humans, bound to time, we tend to see events unfolding along a line, from spring to fall, so to speak. It’s harder to see them opening up into themselves, passing through a set of stages (openings, really) , each of which holds the others in completeness, or at least in complete potential open to chance. It’s also hard for us to see individuals (such as this asparagus) achieving full life by becoming part of a community, as this plant does with its spider and the fly it has caught and the deer that grazes it in the spring (or the poet who cuts off one of its stalks for a spring dinner,) but it’s not that hard. In fact, once you’ve experienced the plant in that way there’s no going back — which suggests that it’s not hard at all. In scientific nomenclature, asparagus is classified, as are all plants, according to its origins, its descent from a primeval form. It could, however, be classified according to its ends, the point at which it reaches in completeness — its ability, for instance, to host spiders and attract the flies on which they feed. That particular classification system might not be terribly humanly useful, mind you. One, however, that classified it by the compounds in its berries might, and might give it such unexpected friends as apples, cranberries, bearberries, and so forth. In such a classification system, the harvesting of young asparagus stalks would not be seen as cutting a crop in its prime, but cutting it in a juvenile stage. The pressure to leave more of the plant for full, mature development would be strong under such a system, and environmental protection would be furthered … by nothing more than a chance of language. This is just one small example of what is possible, and what is currently being ignored. Without it, it’s no wonder the environment is separated from what it needs to survive.

Tomorrow: Varied forms of nomenclature and their benefits. After that, we’ll get into social effects of all of this, because humans, the social animals that humans love to speak of, are part of this story.

Ethnobotanical Knowledge: The Language of Science Part 2

Remember? Yesterday I pointed out that each of the plants below, although far apart in botanical class-action, share the power of redness, which arises at different points on each plant, stem, leaf and fruit, at different intensities, at different times, and in different ways. Here they are again.redsstuff

To refresh, the various points at which the colour red are manifested take on significance and can be developed into technologies. Two observations.

1. This was once common knowledge. Indigenous plant usage, especially medicinal plants, did not come about by trial and error. People could once read the natural world in its own language. In other words, they could read this with the ease with which people today read their smart phones.



Staghorn Sumac (Female)

Have you ever wondered why universities don’t teach this stuff?

Most new pharmaceuticals come from harvesting substances found in indigenous plant materials, patenting them, and then marketing them. Think of it. The scientific tradition, with all its wealth and power can often do little more than refine discoveries already made, and then profit from them. I bet your local pharmacist would have difficulty reading the image above. Or this one:


Staghorn Sumac Opening into the Light

2. The progression of plants into and through the colour red is much like the variations of plants themselves as they respond to different environmental zones. I used the example yesterday of two red osier dogwoods with degrees of redness differing because of their particular growing situations. Here’s the redder one:


The redness of this plant is the result of shutting down photosynthesis — not because of a decrease of fall light, but because of a decrease of fall light in relation to leaves that have grown in great drought and heat. If the red appeared because of fall conditions in and of themselves, then the neighbouring red dogwoods wouldn’t look like this:


These colour differences encode very specific differences in the efficacy of the medicinal compounds in these plants. Magic was once based on such readings, to various degrees of accuracy. Science largely set it aside. Pity. Perhaps these plants could all be classified according to their degrees of redness, rather than according to their genetic lineages. After all, there is nothing particularly special about genetic lineages. Their use as a classification system is purely random, yet has profound results. In terms of genetics, however, those red pigments come from common sources, and thus form very alternate genetic lineages of their own. What those are remains unexplored. That is an effect of language. If one says that the shape of a leaf and the manner of fruiting are the signifiers of a familial relationship, then it is so, and other relationships are seen as adaptations arising in parallel, but subordinately to the main genetic line. That might, actually, not be the case. Take, for instance, the lowly pinot (little pine) grape.



Pinot Noir, Meyer Vineyard, Okanagan Falls

This is the wild grape of Southern France, which has thousands of variations, all farmed, and even appears with differently coloured skin (pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot gris, pinot auxerois), with all of their different flavour characteristics. This is not a matter of breeding. The genetic material of this ancient plant changes to fit environmental conditions. In fact, change is a major characteristic of the plant. The point here is that within the plant there exists a huge potentiality for variation, which manifests itself in different conditions. It is a lesson to remember when looking at any plant. Here are three variations of mariposa lily growing on Turtle Point in Kalamalka Lake…

P1390626 P1390630 P1390621

That’s not all. In most places where this exquisite grassland lily (and vital food crop) grows, it isn’t this colour at all. It’s usually white, but, well, not exclusively so, and not without variation…


If you travel through the northwest, you will find the same thing with Indian Paintbrush, as it varies geographically from pinks in the John Day, up through whites and scarlets in the Columbia and the Methow, to crimsons in the Okanagan, deep crimsons, almost purple in the Cariboo, and Oranges up against the shield volcanoes in the West Chilcotin. If you travel across the land with a system of scientific nomenclature in hand, you will be able to record those differences, but you might just miss the story, that there are qualities in the land, and in the plants response to it, rising from an original potential essence, that are causing the changes, and that they show up in more than just lilies. If you travel with the system of scientific nomenclature, you might find it a little to easy to claim that the differences are the result of random variation. It’s the same thing, but it misses the answer to the question of why. People used to be able to answer those questions! They wrote them up in complication systems of spiritual belief, that looked like this sometimes:


Part of a Reconstructed Map of Giordano Bruno’s Memory Theatre

All areas of knowledge are codified under the influence of various gods and astrological signs.

Sound Whacky? Sound like those rolled-up astrologies you can buy for a buck at the drug store and that look like candy cigarettes? Maybe, but the gallery of the Abbey of Saint Gallen in Switzerland, one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and a top listed UNESCO world heritage site, is arranged precisely like this. And those were the monks who created handwriting and attempted to recreate the world as a book and thus restore God’s creation to its original form (Eden.) Putting all the religious stuff aside, they were trying to find a kind of ecological or environmental balance or unity. Aren’t we all.


Sankt Gallen Stiftsbibliothek Source

There’s a bust of a goddess (Agriculture, Physics and so on) above each stack. The volumes in the stacks are not “books” but bound manuscripts.

Shakespeare was in on it, too. His stage was a room in which memory was organized in much these ways.


And so was an alchemist’s workshop.

olaus worm bigger2 And so are early scientific collections. I’d show you the amazing ones in Gotha, but I lost my photos. This will do…


Science is a continuation of this process of editing, collating and organizing. The how of the organizing is a language, and that language means that some things get spoken and others do not. This, for example, gets left out:


Japanese Red Maple in the August Sun

I read the colour and the sun here, with the ability to reach deeply recessed parts of the human body and psyche that are probably codified on someone’s zodiacal chart somewhere and rejected as fanciful nonsense.

Of course, much of it is. A series of principles for sorting alternate spiritual systems out would be most helpful.

Tomorrow: Other organizations.