Welcome to the new Okanagan.
When the fog and the frost roll in and the snow crunches underfoot and the air nips at the fingers and the toes freeze in the boots, it’s time to go pruning fruit trees. In some cultures, it’s the symphony season. In others, it’s the season for trips to Mexico, to lie on the beach and turn brown (or red) in the sun. In my culture, which, unfortunately, as died out, it’s time to go out and prune fruit trees. My nectarine tree and all my memories are calling.
My apricot tree and the starlight I learned to prune trees by is calling.
My Fintry apple tree is standing in the open sky, rising out of the snow, with all my hopes for her as a native apple pie apple for this corner of the earth.
I know little about the seasons of Facebook or the intricacies of the poetry circuit in slam festivals in global cities, in which the young put their bodies on display, in electrified dances with their beautiful bodies, because I learned to dance with peach trees, and know them as my people. I learned to climb to the sky on a peach tree. I learned how to come back down to the earth: strange knowledge in the Anthropocene Age and the Age of Cities and Performance Art:
Nature is a creation of the Romantic Age. With the old, earth-based and community-based, consciousness set aside for revolutionary individualism, the place for the precise knowledge of how to move through and sculpt bodies in time, in concert with the earth and fruitfulness, has become an emotional reaction. That is such a profound romantic way of being in the world, that it is scarcely noticeable, yet it is what it is. The photographs that punctuate this note, with their emphasis on bodily perception and spiritual sublimation in perception, are a technology of that age, but I know an older technology. Its images are made in life, and in the channels of life.
Ah, Fintry, There You Are Again
There is knowledge in the romantic approach, and other knowledge in living inside the world it transformed. In my country, Canada, sadly enough, the pruning of trees is done just before harvest now, not as an art but as a technological intervention, to remove branches and to colour the fruit by exposing it suddenly to the fall sun. The fruit gains colour but no flavour, and the men who do this work (for it is men who do this work, men from the Caribbean) need no training and do not follow their trees through the years. There is no history in this. The result looks like this:
This is not pruning. It’s hacking, and the apples taste of it. In the country in which I live, an ancient art of gaining sustenance from the land, in which winter is a time of the greatest joy and creation, has become an unskilled industrial task dependent upon the technological insertion of chemical fertilizers to replace human skill, and, I’d just like it to be on record, of joy. Here are the pink blossoms of spring and the peaches of next summer. I have been caring for this tree for four years. This twig is an extension of myself. I am these peaches.
I don’t ask, or expect, you to understand. It’s an uncommon idea. Still, with that important social task, once shared by thousands, now being an almost private ritual of memory, I am left with memory and nature, not as loss, in the romantic sense, but as replacements for an entire language and wisdom tradition that was once known as art, and once in awhile a vineyard in the fog, planted much like a photograph.
It is for this reason that I have been wandering away from the orchards (and vineyards) in this blog, as much as they tug at my heart, and deep into the land that was here before they came.
My country was never about romantic images of the past. It was about definite knowledge and personal work on and with the land to create material of social use, with deep roots in the past and deep fruitfulness in the future. As a pruner, my job has always been to pay very close attention to growth, and to sculpt time. With the orchards now turned into industrial plantations, it is in old Indigenous land that I find a remnant of my culture. Yes, people in the romantic tradition of radical selfhood will call the image of a combined porcupine, mule deer and coyote footprint on a well used trail below a picture of nature …
… but to me it is joy. This is how life is spread across the land. This is how the sun is captured and winter is extinguished. You can’t get that by flying to Mexico. This is what the future looks like, rooted in the past. This is what I know when I’m pruning fruit trees: potentiality, which can be developed into new technologies for the earth. Strange, I know, but I want this knowledge to go on record, in a country which has, for the most part, walked away from it, while still claiming ownership of the land under the concept of nature. Don’t get me wrong. Nature is beautiful. It’s just that the sagebrush twig melting its way out of the snow in the image below is not nature. The image is.
This is a concept so foreign, I expect, to people in my country, that I can do little except leave it here as a record that in 2015, one man had a kind of knowledge that came down from 20,000 years of human care (and likely more), and would like to pass both it and the earth down to others who followed, before they both are lost. I used to think that I could pass on this knowledge through poetry, which I learned from pruning peach trees, but poetry has become an industrial art, embedded in book culture and a complex culture of courtly social clues, not in the culture of the earth. Perhaps, though, I can show you a few footsteps I have taken through my days. Perhaps you will share them and pass them on, like these crabapples, that the waxwings will come to in a few weeks as they pass north …
Perhaps you will come and walk with me for awhile in the snow.
E = mc2 is Einstein’s attempt to express the spirit of the universe in numbers. The principle he is getting at looks sort of like this:
I say “sort of” because snow is vaporized water that crystallizes when it loses energy below a certain threshold, which for convenience is called zero degrees celsius (or thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit). If water comes out of a gaseous form above this threshold, it looks like this:
That kind of transformation of form is not what Einstein meant. He meant that energy, such as the energy required to hold this water in the air …
… is a form of matter (as is the water), just as matter (such as water) is a form of energy. He also meant that time is physical. It is a distance at the same time that it is the speed of light. He was talking about a theoretical and mathematical world, not about the world of matter and time found on earth. Here, the sun mixes with the planet and extends itself in time, like this:
Ring Necked Pheasant in a Moment of Panic
The pheasant above is moving fast enough to change its position in space, but not fast enough to experience space bending around it, because on earth things are physical and interact by chemical means. That is in no way a duller conception than Einstein’s, and in no way deviates from it. The female asparagus plant below, for instance, represents a continuous, unbroken chain of life stretching back to early plant evolution in what is now South Africa.
That is, of course, not the experience of the single individual above, but even in her life, as evidenced by the berries spread along her branches, all of which rapidly opened in one year, she grew into a space, that existed in potential and was then realized, shifting her centre from one growing tip pushing out of the spring soil to further extension in space through the medium of other individuals and seed dispersal. We might as well call that space time. The difference between her experience and Einstein’s conception is profound. It is the difference between a drop of water ….
… and the sun that makes it visible to humans.
That difference is an example of what it is like to be from the earth and to live on it, as humans do. Here, on this planet, there are both individuals, and communities of individuals, and they are the same thing, just as matter and energy are the same thing to Einstein.
Notice the Yellow Smudge of Asparagus in the Lower Right!
Individual Plants? An Ecosystem? The concepts trick us into thinking that they are different. They aren’t. They are rainfall and snow. They are light and shadow. Perhaps you can see that in the patterns of grass and shrubs in the Okanagan hill below.
And what are those? They are effects of light and shadow, of the presence and absence of the sun, and how it is carried in water, and frozen in snow, to be released again later. These effects are as complex as Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, and as beautiful.
Female Staghorn Sumac in October
The thing about energy on Earth, or anywhere, is that energy doesn’t disappear — which means it doesn’t grow cold. It changes the way in which it occupies space. It grows — not by growing in and of itself, but by building relationships. We might call those branches, like in the sumac above, or we might call them fruit, such as in the hip below…
… but in both cases they are a means of extending relationships in both time and space. You can observe this effect in the opening of every one of the millions of blue chicory blossoms along the roads of the Okanagan in the summer time, and the way in which the wind lifts their petals but never lets them fall.
Falling is always there. We call that endurance gravity, which is just a word to describe endurance. Even the apostemon bee gathering the white pollen of these blooms is working within the bonds of that gravity, even when she sees her larvae through the winter, underground. What differs in her from gravity, is that she represents a long, unbroken line of life, back to the first cell on earth, that does not just fall but rides her falling in what is called flight. Life is an opening. It is unbroken. It is, however, breakable, and can be enslaved. Here is a plantation of cloned apple tree slaves.
Here is an image of how wasteful this entrapment is of light, and how it turns light into geometric form ….…. when before enslavement, it was an image of wonder. Here it is, by the name of God, in the Convent Pasture Orchard of Prague.
Only one can humans walk freely through. The other is a machine, built for machines. Remember, though, that this is the planet of growth. Humans are from this planet. They grow into it. They grow through it. A child in a slave orchard, or a child in the pasture garden above, are different spiritual creatures. They will see the earth differently. They will care for it differently. They won’t both care to keep slaves. The consequences are profound.
In poetic tradition, the number three is sacred to the Goddess of poetry, as is the colour red. This is not the age of the Earth in which people are comfortable talking about goddesses, or poetry, so let me rephrase that, with an image:
Three Red Earths in a Field of Energy
As this is also not the age of the Earth in which images are easily read, let me rephrase my original opening again:
The number three … The birth-reproduction-death cycle
is sacred … unites the three defining components
to the Goddess of poetry … of the earth
as is the colour red… through the force of life.
Three Drops of Blood
The birth-reproduction-death cycle unites the three defining components of the earth through the force of life. One more thing: in contemporary culture, statements like this are to be understood, or dismissed. The sense of “understanding” at play is that of comprehension of a logical meaning or sequence within the statement. That is a new form of the Old English word “understand”, and one far newer than the comprehension of the birth-reproduction-death cycle which the word might claim to grasp. In terms contemporary with the lives of people who lived intimately with the earth, the word “understand” means “to stand among”, “to stand on”, in the sense of “being close to.” In other words, to say that one understands the statement “The birth-reproduction-death cycle unites the three defining components of the earth through the force of life.” is to say that one stands in the middle of this …
… that one stands upon it, that one accepts its truth as one’s own, and that one is intimate with and willing to be ruled by it. Rather than being an expression of individual strength, it is an expression of humility: the strength is in the earth.
Even when it looks to be a dead thing. As I said, we don’t live in an age of poetry, nor in one of images or of understanding in the original sense of the word. That’s not the earth. That’s just culture. The original force, however, is still present, meaning “here in our time.”
So is the knowledge that informs it.
This knowledge has been given to us by our ancestors, who knew the earth intimately. We cannot claim to understand them, or their earth, if we do not stand under their knowledge, which is to say, if we do not stand within it.
The magical tradition, from which poetry rose, honours these fruits as well, as does the Christian tradition, which draws parallels between them and Christ’s blood. Although this is not a time of the earth in which Christian or magical traditions dominate world affairs, their knowledge is still with us.
That this knowledge was originally expressed in language as poetry is precisely the point, because it means that the tool for accessing it is within poetry. As such, through to the end of the Christian age, poetry remained the most vital tool for training future state administrators. It was commonly agreed that a balanced social, spiritual and human world could not be created on earth without the use of the tools of poetry, with their deep roots in the intersection of spirit and the earth.
A Model for Governance
If you know how to read it.
This correspondence between the earth, human social affairs and poetry can serve as a simple yardstick: if anyone dismisses the roots of poetry within the physical earth, they are dismissing as well both the tools for understanding that earth, humility, the concept of understanding itself, and that earth. Unfortunately, the image below is rarely recognized as poetry today.
Poetry today is one of the learned arts, taught as a communication form to transfer emotional material between the discrete individuals of a post-goddess world. It was not always so. What culture today finds through words was originally a direct expression of what was observed in the world and turned into a sequence of signs and symbols, which contemporary poetry calls metaphor and symbol.
As you open into your time here on this earth, you may find, as I have today, people calling absurd the notion that poetry is a function of the universe. To such people, this is not poetry: Nor is this… Nor this … Yesterday I was even challenged by a linguist, who claimed that linguistics was a mature science, while poetry was a method of communication. If that were entirely so, either the following image would be a piece of communication…. … which it is not, as it has neither narrative, symbol, significance nor meaning, or poetry would be a human invention, which is to say it would be an application of rhetorical rules delineated by the logic of grammar and thus subservient to intellect. It would be much like learning to construct a speech or to strip down the engine of an automobile. To a man whose identity is one with a certain stretch of the planet, it is an impoverished view of the earth, but, hey, it might be good enough for a lot of good work, except that attempting to govern the earth and to shape it by such mechanistic processes creates not this…. … or this … … but this…
… which is unsustainable, mismanages earth, water and health and provides industrialized food and industrialized landscapes in place of humanity and beauty. So, an observation: a mechanistic world view that does not “stand under” or “understand” the earth in the poetic sense produces a society that does not stand within the earth and, in its reflection, an earth that one cannot stand within…
Heck, they even build fences around it.
These new, created spaces exclude all humans (and other large mammals) except the creators of these spaces. We call such land engineers farmers. They are neither farmers nor poets. They are industrialists, transforming the earth into a factory and interhuman (and human-earth) relationships into relationships of power based on the authority of privately-reserved wealth. Goddesses don’t like that kind of thing. Nor do Christs. Nor do poets. Nor do living environments. Look how the weight of molten snow soaks the seeds of blue-bunched wheatgrass, and how the weight of winter water and snow bends down its stalks to the snow …
..where frost releases the seed onto the snow …
When the snow melts, the seed will be carried to a place attractive to water, where it will sprout, perhaps, into a new individual. Poetry acts like that, because it is as organic and responsive to the environment as that, and consists of organic observations like this one. Yes, poems are constructed of words these days (although also out of sounds, images, performance and video), but that doesn’t mean that it began with words. It began with the ability to be within the earth and no matter what new territory it rises from, it retains that ability. In fact, it nourishes it. It is, in fact, this:
Anyone who tells you otherwise is either not a poet, or does not live on the earth. You should know this. It’s vital.
Bunchgrass defines the grasslands of the intermontane west. It is not, however, the main story here. It is only the canopy forest. The 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.This 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.
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.
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.
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:
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…
I offer the observation that they are the same.
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.
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.
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.
This 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…
… or here, in a peach orchard kept by a woman of my mother’s generation for as long as she could.
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.
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.
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!
We live the earth by loving it. Loving it together is best.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.