Grass and Poetry in Cascadia

The grass is a cultural being. So are cat tails and so is poetry.


Talk about a rhyme scheme, eh!

First, the grass. Not only does it have its own culture, but it is part of the body of human culture in these valleys, canyons and plateaus between the mountains, on the west of North America.


Yellowstone, North Gate.

You are not looking at dead grass here. You are looking at water catchers, upside down umbrellas, which the grass has made to draw water from the air. You are looking at upside down wells.


To keep them from matting on the ground and reducing the land’s productivity, fire burns them away, so they can be renewed. Traditionally, people have set those fires. It was the first stage in the primary, human civilizing impulse: cooking. First you make the land productive with fire (you make it into an art form), then you harvest it.


Bella Vista

Here’s a different way of being grass, one not native to this place, and one not harvested. It is, accordingly, not an art form, but is wild:


This is cheatgrass. It bursts like flame out of the soil in October, grows all winter under the snow (yes, under the snow) and has replaced hundreds of indigenous species in the tapestry that is the body of this place. Look how it collects water. It urges it to flow off into the soil, where old thatch holds it from evaporating, and then it uses it all up, denying its use to all other plants. It loves monocultures. That is not the bunchgrass way. The image below shows what happens when fire is suppressed in this landscape…


Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park

Do you see that bunchgrass there, at the end of 8,000 years of history, encroached by soap berries and escaped farmyard grass? It will soon drown. Below is an image of what happens when trees are not controlled by fire. The ponderosa pine below has showered the land with fire, or needles, if you will. They burn the alkaline soil down to acid. Look at the bunchgrass drown.


Rattlesnake Mountain

This is happening on our watch, in our time, in our parks, in what contemporary culture calls nature and “wilderness,” while attention is directed towards smokestack emissions and pools of plastic in the middle of the sea. We don’t have to go that far. Nature itself is the culprit.


Turtle Mountain

Let’s be clear about this nature. All of the parks of the west were created out of former indigenous cultural space. That’s to say: around 150 years ago, there was no nature here; only social space. Then it became “wild,” when dispossessed of its people and left fallow. It became a different art form: one that created emptiness where there had been fullness, and a mechanical earth where there had been a living one.


Royal Gala Industrial Apple Plantation, Bella Vista

This process started in Washington in 1892, when all federal lands purchased for tiny sums during rushed treaty-making processes and not by then already dedicated to Nez Perce or Spokane or Skoielpi use (among many others), were rededicated as national forests. Land that had formerly been maintained by fire, now was expensively protected from fire, to preserve its “pristine” nature.This “pristine” nature is, in other words, a culturally-created thing.


The culturally-charged process of plant succession.

Rattlesnake Mountain

This process moved to British Columbia in 1922. The fire still burns. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to combat every year, to no avail. That’s the fire we can see. This, below, is also that fire, though:


It is burning within Syilx space. The grass that has almost been replaced here by “nature” is still a cultural being, but it’s now  viewed with terms appropriate to “nature,” which are not the terms appropriate for viewing culture: beauty, for instance, wildness, for another, health, for yet another, inanimate, for another, plowable, for another, and developable, for another. And that brings me back to poetry. Here is some Cascadian poetry (Please click on the link to view. It will open in a new window.)

Very Serious and Full of Vegetables

That is a cultural product produced in this place, one which heartfully honours a tradition, but it is, as you will have noted if you clicked on it, a poem about people and human attitudes towards all kinds of things, but includes no attitudes of grass or fire or rain to anything. It’s not about that, likely on the anti-romantic presumption (accurate enough) that no-one can speak for these things. In their place, I think the poem is about taking wild human energy (a created art form) and distilling it down to points of social utility, and through a process of manipulating that social machinery enabling people who live within it to ultimately come to a physical experience of grass through the only route the tradition allows: through the mind; not the body. The body plays the role of memory. This has been the American poetic project for over a century now. Here’s an early draft of it, from the American poet Hilda Doolittle, written a century ago:

Hermes, Hermes,

the great sea foamed,

gnashed its teeth about me,

but you have waited,

where sea-grass tangles with

shore grass.

Hilda Doolittle, from Hermes of the Ways

It’s beautiful, and lands solidly on grass and brings it to life in the mind, but it is a thing of the mind trying to escape itself by means of the earth. It can’t shake that. It is, in other words, bookish. Often Hilda tried the trick she uses in the following poem:

O white pear,

your flower-tufts

thick on the branch

bring summer and ripe fruits

in their purple hearts.

Hilda Doolittle, from Pear Tree

In this one, she uses the same memory trick but also speaks to the tree, yet her identification is incomplete; it is an artifice only; she is not the tree, nor is she its flowers. Her poem is a construction of words and energy contained with words — a thing of memory, in other words, a funereal ode. Her identity is untouched by it, and is not transformed by it. It is infused with it, for sure, and, no doubt strengthened, but, still, untouched. And the poem is very beautiful, too. It is not of this place, of course, nor did Hilda mean it to be. I use her words only as an example of how poetry and land can remain separate, even in intimate moments, and how American identity engineering often places the land within fences, called words — farms, cities or streets, if you will — and observes them from there. That is a very anglo saxon thing, of course, but for me, as a man of the grass, this is a step away from the earth not one towards it, because for me the grass is not just a part of a social group, but also of a self. To say “O white pear” just won’t do. It would be like saying, “Oh me.” And then there’s Paul Nelson’s riff on Whalen, with his

“having the curious ability to make one think

that a mind has been slowed down.”

Very Serious and Full of Vegetables

That’s beautiful, too, but it is predicated on the conceit that mind has been sped up in the first place, with a secondary conceit that any subsequent slowing down is only illusory. I dispute that. I think it needs to be strongly challenged. According to settler ideology, the grass is wild, and is the canvas for paintings of human will. In other words, it is this:


A weed-filled bunchgrass slope, a choke cherry tree, and a ponderosa pine, set in front of a monoculture hay field. Coldstream, British Columbia

No-one would want the social identity of that hay, because it is enslaved to individual and social human will. What’s more, to enslave it is to enslave (or fence) human selves, including those of the wielder of will. It’s not about a mind slowing down or not slowing down. It’s about whether that image above shows wilderness or cultural space. It’s about who you belong to: the grass, or other men. Unifying those opposites is not as easy as creating a national forest and building new parks within it for poets to walk through and find beauty.


Fire Pine, Yellowstone

They can. That work has been done. Now it is time for the land to speak. Now it is time for people who are the land to speak — not as a conversation within American or Canadian or Western poetry, and not as an address to or for that fire pine. It means, among many other things, making this tree the centre of the world — not as a symbol of anything. This tree, right here, right now. That kind of thing. Rilke found it a century ago. We are that far behind here. To find that tree probably means finding new words. That is good, honest work. It absolutely means finding new forms. That is powerful work for people engaged in finding poetry in the world and working with it. It means being present, not in memory but in the unfolding that is memory’s form in the present.

P2050845Yellowstone North Gate

That is why I have stepped aside from traditions of Cascadian poetry, although few people in this land know it so intimately or have been the channel for poetry within it for so long. I just can’t do metaphor anymore, that’s the thing. I can’t do nature, and if I’m to be bound by a line of will, I want it to come from that pine, not traditions of politics and the poetry of identity politics from a foreign country and foreign traditions. That is or the citizens of those fields. For me, in this grass, joy will do just fine. This is partly what I meant in my new book The Art of Haying: it’s possible to live well as the earth; the ego is just the book talking as it keeps us in line. It’s possible to walk out into the grass. Here’s an article on The Art of Haying in BC Book Look. P2010552

Big Bar Wet Land

Blessed be.

The Beauty of Spring in November

In November, in Cascadia, it is springtime, whether you are in the wetlands on an island  in the ocean …


Oyster Bay, Vancouver Island

… or far inland, in the grasslands, where we are expecting snow.


Abandoned Orchard at Turtle Mountain, Looking Down Priest Valley towards Okanagan Lake

No soil is needed to grow a garden here.
P2130759Soil would reduce fertility. Stone helps, though.P2130760 Where water flows and life flows with it, life pools.P2130761 It might freeze at night, but these domed shapes are warm.P2130769 Rocks, too.P2130779 Cozy!

P2130786 The pools within the pools are great places for seeds to catch and flow and sprout. It’s much like the folds of hydrocarbons in protein strings.P2130807 To flow, water doesn’t have to be liquid. That’s because it’s energy. It can be held in a matrix, which can become it.P2130810We call this matrix life. We call it green water. Green water can even drip and splash.P2130815 Life reaches out its tongues to stop gravity and opens its wings to the sun.
P2130821 It’s down to as much as 5 Below these nights, but only in the air.P2130822 Not here.P2130845 On volcanic earth.P2130878 Here, spring ice breaks the basalt apart, and life becomes the frost in fall.P2130889 Is it rain? Is it frost? Is it sun? Is it air? Is it stone?P2130906 It is all of them together. It is earth. This is earth… not soil.P2130936 This.P2130947 Life.

P2130948 Now. 55.000.000 years in the making, along the seam of two ancient island chains.P2130963 Once the stone crashed in a volcanic tide. Now that energy is a surging wave. Still.P2130986 It is still a splash of surf.P2130988

On Turtle Mountain, it is happening now. And not just here. On Rattlesnake Mountain, too.

moss Life is not built on the bodies of the dead. Not here. To come here in summer to see green lawns is to be poor beyond belief.P2120777

Here life is made within the bodies of the living. All are welcome.


None are turned away.


Is it the sun? Is it the earth?


It is both at once, where we are.

Native Wetland Apples in Horizontal Light

The Pacific Crab loves rain, swamps and wet feet.

She is the forest rain that has drawn wood and air to herself after flowing through them and picking up their energy on the way through the forest to the earth. Look at her catch the sun’s rain below.


Malus Fusca, November

Talking with Rilke Talking with the Earth Talking with the Sky

Here’s an image of a fairly typical hillside on the west side of

Earth is fire: not just her core, but all of her. The steam, the wetland sedges and reeds, the cloud, the exposed clay, the volcanic rock beneath the pines, and the pine themselves are here all fire. That the pines can burn later, in a more open fire, doesn’t take away the fire they are now. That Earth has dense gravity at her core, doesn’t mean that at her surface it’s not fire. Look what happens when this fire is expressed as height and pressure. One moment, water is cupped between two mountains …. cupped … and  another moment, a mountain draws it from the air.grove

And look at it: it’s not fire, or gravity, or altitude or pressure. It is a grove of pines, and cloud on a morning mountain in Yellowstone after night snow and freezing rain which still gloves all the grass. That is Earth’s way. Her creatures speak like this as well. Only humans have the choice to speak differently. It is a profoundly bad idea. What there is this:


Explain her away by deep psychology if you want, give her alienness and separateness, call her “Cistern Spring”, do whatever you will do, it makes no difference at all, because there is only one thing, this thing: her, now, here. Rilke said this in 1923 in the Valais, scarcely differently. After a lifetime of chasing symbols and angels and sensitivity and women and love, he found the high clear air of the Rhone, and became a poet at last: this tree, he said, right here, right now.

When Trees are Weeds

This is an old growth forest full of weeds.P2100441

The sage brush is the weed …


… not the bunch grass. Sagebrush is an indigenous plant, but it comes in a bit thickly when the grass has been overgrazed. Traditionally these weeds were kept down by a) not overgrazing and b) fire. The weeds below were kept down by fire, too.


Look at them now, messing with the grass’s head.


This is called a forest, but it’s not. It’s a grassland, with weeds. Now, there’s an interesting cycle in the grass, in which short-lived pines burn off, the grass comes back, the pines come back, the grass comes back, the pines come back, the grass comes back and before you know it 10,000 years have passed in the sun. This isn’t like that. These trees are sick.


See that? Their only life is in their top two or three metres. That’s where the forest is… scarcely higher than sagebrush. Everything else down below is just shade.


This is the great shade desert created by trees. All it is is fuel. All it is is fire. And billions of dollars are spent every summer in preventing that fire, with very few results, while all we have to do is cut the trees down and take them away, like we would to any weeds. We can throw a few into ponds, for the fish to shelter under, of course.


And leave some for the eagle. She needs them, the deader the better.


Eagles can’t use crowded trees, either, and people belong on the grass. You can see yourself in the grass, right?

We should go sometime together.  Summer, winter, pshaw, it’s all good.

Better than this, for sure.


Nothing on earth can live there. For forests, the following will do. A few trees in the drainage of a cliff. Great spot for bears and flickers and deer.P2110471

And we like to live with bears, right?

Wetland Renewal and You

Have you loved your wetland today?P2100332 This one is three years old. P2100339 Just three!

P2100344Forget the doom and gloom for a moment.
P2100346 The earth has a capacity for renewal. This wetland is 100 metres above the valley floor, in the sagebrush. It is 2 kilometres long and 1-2 metres wide.P2100356 In three years. Reeds, sedges, rushes, willows, cottonwoods, they’re all here, where you wouldn’t expect water at all. And still beautiful.P2100358The secret? Put the damned weed-whacker down. Have a cool drink. Wait.

You won’t have to wait long. Now is the time for harvesting. What are you waiting for? Off to the reeds with you! What, you have too much joy in your life? Pshaw, off with you.P2100323

You don’t have to feel guilty about rejoicing.


You think the earth isn’t a place for joy?

Grass Bison Without Legs

The energy of the land comes forth in certain forms. Here in buffalo country in Montana, it’s up to its old tricks.P2070575

Grass Bison!

I know Montana is outside my homeland, but it’s good to go to far planets and see how people live there, just off the edge of volcanic earth. For instance, before the Anthropocene Age, the land’s energy came out in this form:


Firehole River, Yellowstone

A couple generations ago, this was tried…


East of the Rockies in Blackfoot Country, Looking West

… , but the land would have none of it. In the end, you see, this …


The Remains of the Great Bison Slaughter, Smashed In Head Buffalo Jump

… only created emptiness, and bison…P2070575 that can no longer move on their own.