Eco-Agriculture in a Spring Light

A friend in Wales wrote yesterday that he was glad to see from these screens that spring was on its way to the Okanagan. So am I. Almost twenty years ago, when I published my memoir Out of the Interior,  I showed it to him proudly, with the comment, “I have written a book about our country,” and he said, “Oh, you mean the way it used to be.” Ah, he was so right, and we were both blown away by the wind, chasing the world across the sky, but it’s funny, you know, after twenty years, it sounds like we’re both still eager for that arrow-leafed balsam root spring.  And why not, when it looks like this:

Arrow-Leafed Balsam Root in its Full Glory

120 Metres Above Okanagan Lake

That’s the view from here today. Here’s what I wrote about this country twenty years ago in Out of the Interior, with my head all full of Karen Blixen’s Kenya (which remains the truest literature of this land that was kind of lost in the mountains for awhile … a long while):

The Centre of the World

IN 1953 MY father, a skinny young German with bad teeth, came to Max Kohler’s cattle and fruit ranch at Chopaka for winter work. Going there was like going to Patagonia or up the Amazon. Chopaka is a jagged ridge rising right out of the riverbed half a minute over the Washington border. Against the sky she is a woman, naked, full-breasted, lying on her back, her head thrown back. The Salish of the Lower Okanagan, Indian Territory, called themselves the O Kin O Kane—those who live where they can see the top—of Chopaka. The Fujiyama of the West. The Holy Mountain. Ararat. The Centre of the World. Jerusalem. Delphi.

With Chopaka rising high across the river, and the river cutting the farm loose from it with a great, blue-silver ox-bow of light, and the mosquitoes flooding the shadows between in streams and swarms like squalls of crisp, dry rain, it is a beautiful and sacred site. Huge thunderstorms pour up out of the deserts of the Columbia and collect against the cupped thigh of that mountain with the hail streaming from the black clouds like solid light.

The orchard is planted on a fan of alluvial shale, on the higher ground to drain the frost; the cattle are kept in the subirrigated fields below; the bees range up through the alpine meadows and summer range—each brief flower like a small root fire bursting forth from the soil, giving us some hint of the earth burning below us. The bees feed on the sweet oozings of the flowers, and fertilize them. Out of heavy wax frames and the scent of pine and shavings, we collect their honey—white-suited, with screens over our faces, and each movement slow and measured—but they drink it from the flowers with their whole being, out of the dancing, burning soil.

No kidding.

Strong Medicine

 Arrow-leafed Balsam Root provided spring vegetables, summer starches, and autumn seeds and medicinals for thousands of years. Long-sustained in these parts by fires set by the Syilx, who farmed this land with fire, it has managed to hang on for ninety years after the Government of British Columbia extinguished the fires. It’s still here for us.

 This is one of the plants that will form the renewal of ecological agriculture, freed of speculative land ownership and colonial land cultivation practices. The road to that end is not really that long, but it is woven of several threads, including, obviously, agriculture, ecology, writing, and, yes, history. If we can tell the right story, we can create it with the land and live in it. Farming practices, like we have today, are the direct results of cultural stories that are taught in contemporary schools. Practices like this:

Royal Gala Apple Slender Spindle Plantation in First Leaf

Chemical fertilizers and pesticides will come as soon as the blossoms start to show. By the time they bloom, the drift will stink for miles.

This high-tech, high-capital system that no one without a couple million dollars in the bank can contemplate is a result of lessons learned in schools and market places today. It is an image of contemporary culture, a snapshot, so to speak: a monoculture, built on the foundation of human primacy in cultural affairs, and on a political and economic system based upon human social relationships. It has its roots in a time that measured all things by use. So does this:

Landscaping, 2012 Style

The system that saw Duke Franz leave the military traditions of his family and transform the dirt poor Duchy of Anhalt-Dessau into a garden landscape, with the highest degree of economic and cultural prosperity in 18th Century Europe has come to its end now. Its language has left the rich tapestry of science and agriculture, for the simple, artistic gestures and lines of dance, abstract painting, and freeway design.

Without rich languages of materials, processes, colour, words, or spirit, rich solutions cannot be found. Two hundred years after Duke Franz, and after the ravages of Napoleon, revolution, National Socialism, the bombing of the Second World War, Russian occupation, and the poverty of the communist and reunification years, something remains of Franz’s achievement:

The Garden Kingdom of Anhalt-Dessau 

The kingdom remains because the people have chosen to maintain it, and so its artistry lives on, not just in the land, but in the people and their society as well.

It is also possible to maintain this quite different thing…

My Grandfather Bruno Leipe above the Similkameen, c. 1962

You might be able to make out the balsam roots in the meadow in front of him, if you squint or something. Bruno left the brutal, impoverished inner cities of Silesia in 1929, for physical freedom. What he saw was an old European art form: landscape.

It wasn’t landscape, though. There was an older story here, rooted in Similkameen life. Sixteen years after Bruno first started fighting with the land, I left the orchards of the valley one day and walked off into the fields off to the right of Bruno in the above picture. When I came down, the orchards of my childhood were no longer home. It’s rare, I think, to actually have a photograph of a moment of total and almost instant transformation, but here it is, such as it is:

The Golden Fields of Kobau Mountain…

…as seen by really crappy technology faded by time. But maybe you get the idea.

There are many other pieces to the puzzle, that lead towards a combined scientific, educational, and writerly vision, and I’m going to look at them for the next few weeks, leading towards a full curriculum. But, to start, here’s one more for today: Henry David Thoreau, the American philosopher, essayist, and transcendental thinker.

Henry David Thoreau

1856

Before he died of tuberculosis in the spring of 1862, Thoreau was in the process of writing a dozen essays about the wild fruits of New England. Each was to contain history, both social and natural, and pretty much everything else in the world. He finished one, Wild Apples. In it, he contends that as soon as all apples are grown in rows, in dedicated orchards, from grafted stock, democracy will disappear from the world. That time, of course, is long past. The text of his essay is here. It is a masterpiece of the lost tradition of horticulture, a tradition that, like the balsam root, has not yet disappeared. As part of my work to move literature into a reunion with agriculture and horticulture, in cooperation with a wild earth and using its processes, I have written two essays of my own to complete Thoreau’s series, in my own way. One is a history of pear growing, called A Recipe for Perry, and one is a series of stories about the Newtown Apple, called Caraway and Pippins. They are both essays about peace, in place of war. I’m working on a complete series, that will fill a book. But to return to the main idea here today:

Even the Wild Plums are Blooming

That’s a saskatoon stealing pixels from the right.

It’s spring. In its honour, a first note towards an academy of eco-agricultural writing:

1. The earth is the story. We are not separate from this story. We are walking in it. We are eating its words. We are drinking its water. We are breathing its air.

2. Eco-agriculture is worked out in relationship with the land’s processes, not with purified essences derived from them and used for independent ends.

3. Language is part of the process. How we employ it matters. Which leads us to the poet, Goethe, which leads us to tomorrow.

But for today, just a little hello from Leopold III, Fürst Franz, of Anhalt-Dessau, when he began to remake his country by means deemed frivolous by most other princes and state administrators of his age, including Goethe:

Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau…

…who turned his ancestors’ military legacy (they invented the Prussian military, pretty much on their own) into a model for our time.

We’ll be fine. This is our classroom: