The Living Dead

Halloween is an ancient ritual, played out on October 31, the old New Year’s Eve. In the English version of these ceremonies, which the Canadian Okanagan inherited, children dress up as lost souls, and are given treats to set them at rest. The new versions are equally complex:

puking pumpkinZombie Pumpkin

In its eagerness for the big day, he was ready two weeks in advance.

Trick or Treating is about negotiating the territory between the living and the dead, but now there is a new stage in between: the undead. In recent years, the cult of zombies and vampires has skyrocketed in popularity on both sides of the 49th parallel, except among first peoples. The more that artistically-created images replace local ones, the stronger the struggle becomes.

green lawn, brown grass, blue waterA Zombie Landscape Above Okanagan Lake

Which is the zombie? The green grass? The brown bunchgrass slope in behind? It depends upon whether you see the world beginning in this land, or the world reclaiming a part of the wilderness.

The fact of the matter: the green grass is a monoculture and can be found anywhere in the world. The brown grass appears only here. Nonetheless, I think they’re both zombie landscapes. Like this:

root stock apples gone wild in PeachlandZombie Apples

Malling rootstock apple tree after decades of neglect. The property, at the intersection of Highway 97 and the Coquihalla Connector north of Peachland, is slated for development. These apples represent the relationship between Okanagan culture, Halloween, and the spirits of the land, as well as the current stage of respect held for them.

It seems that the people of the Okanagan Okanogan people create their own ghosts, but are too busy replacing them with vomitting pumpkins to put them to rest.

Go outside tonight. Light a candle in the dark. Look at how fragile it is in the wind. Say a prayer, in any language of prayer you can. Then go in and wait for the sun to rise on a new year.

Tomorrow: Political shenanigans.

Before the Crush

It is always exciting to taste a new vine as it pours out of the press into an enamel cup. Behind the sweetness, a hint of the wine tantalizes the mouth, like a sun that has gone behind a cloud. Today was harvest day for the pinot noirs of The Rise, in Bella Vista. The event was well-attended.

Happy humans picking grapes at The RiseWhen Humans Pick Grapes it is Less Work than a Mass Celebration

Celebrants demonstrate the correct method for getting underneath the protective netting.

A second group of harvesters stands by:

starlings at the riseThe Starlings of Okanagan Landing Rest After the Feast

As usual, they arrange themselves like the notes of sheet music on the wire. For starlings, life and all its days is a sing along. 

Both groups of pickers are immigrants. Both have replaced the mountain bluebirds that were here before. So have the grapes themselves, in all their blue and red blush of yeast and light:

Late harvest grapesPinot Noir on the Loading Ground

Already sampled for weeks by coyotes, wasps, and the local porcupine.

The whole enterprise might be a celebration by immigrants, in a vineyard planted to anchor a housing development, but it is a celebration, and we could use more of that. What’s more, of all the vineyards of the Okanagan, this is one of the very, very few above the level of the former Lake Penticton. In other words, its soil profile is without the clays or alkaline salts of lowland and benchland farms. Its feet lap at the former lake’s shore.

And the grapes? High sugar, spicy acidity, a soft pH balance. They should make an easy-drinking pinot noir, without the leafiness one would expect from such an extreme northern climate. Once the sugar fades away in the fermentation, the soil flavours should come through, as gentle as the needle-and-thread grass that once grew in these meadows.

Sometimes wine can be memory in a glass.

Feral Agriculture

Consider what happens when our plants escape our fences:

feral grapes growing among the weedsFeral Grapes Growing Without Water

Who says grapes need to be grown in monocultured vineyards, on expensive wires, with bird guns driving the neighbourhood dogs around the bend for months each fall? Not these grapes. After twenty years foraging on their own, they are sweet as pie, thank you very much. When a 40 Below winter returns to the Okanagan, which it will, the valley’s vintners might come a calling, with flowers in their hands. There is room for millions of these, situated carefully to make use of naturally-occuring meltwater, before passing it on.

It’s a funny thing. Our land is divided into private parcels, which results in large tracts of agricultural land being removed from production while waiting for urban developers to come and divide it into smaller private parcels, although it is still capable of creating food for us. At the end of this odd process, private territorial claims increase in number and decrease in size, while public space remains static. Actually, it’s worse than that: when private space that used to produce food for public use no longer does so, an important public space vanishes. We have to go to California, Mexico, or Chile, where our food comes from, to visit it, where we discover it is also fenced off into private parcels. It’s like one of those nightmares that never ends. As an alternative, here’s another jailbird on the lam:

female asparagus in full fruit

Asparagus in Full Fruit

Here she is, growing on a dry, bunchgrass and cheatgrass hillside, ready to go forth and multiply. Maybe this is one of her suitors:

Male asparagus wearing his fall colours.Male Asparagus in the Rabbitbrush

You can often find ring-necked pheasants flying the half kilometre between this pair. The intriguing thing: asparagus is a darned hard thing to grow in a commercial farm, and requires fertilizers to make a golf green blush and chemicals to make Ciba-Geigy proud, but this pair? Not a thing.

There could be, literally, millions of these Adams and Eves growing in the valley, people could forage every spring, rather than going out golfing, and in the fall?

Well, we’d be in our glory.

Telling Time

John Keats called this time a  year the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” He did so in one of the most beautiful poems in the language. Here in our volcanic rocks in the mountains, though, time often follows more wayward paths. Sometimes it moves forward one day at a time, from birth in the spring to beauty in the summer, maturity in the Autumn, and solemnity and loss in winter. Sometimes, though, it follows different paths. There are, for example, filberts. For them, this is not the end of the year, but its beginning:

A filbert bush blooms while the sumacs behind it lose their leaves.Filbert Bush Putting Out its First Blossoms Ever 

This bush will carry these male flowers through the winter’s snows. For it, snowfall, ice, and blue cold is actually spring weather. 

Behind it, sumacs turn red and amplify the rays of the fall sun, as if it were streaming from within their leaves themselves.

Sumac Leaves in the FallWho’s to Say that the Green Leaf is the Mature One?

Thoreau didn’t. He pointed out that the fruits of trees were modified leaves, and if we wanted to understand fruitfulness we would be best to look at the bright leaves of fall themselves and see in them the same ripeness, rather than a falling away. Thoreau was writing this essay in 1862. He died of tuberculosis before he could finish it.

Finishing it is up to us.

The Okanagan Institute is launching Next Okanagan Magazine tomorrow in Penticton. That’s 7 pm., Thursday 27 October 2011, Shatford Centre, 760 Main Street, Penticton. Go here to reserve a spot, or show up with a smile and maybe an apple or a bright red leaf in your pocket. My essay “Caraway and Pippins” is in the magazine, the second in my series taking up where Thoreau left off. It tells the tale of the Newtown Pippin (scroll down through her sisters, here), a hard, late season apple from New York, and of the men who grew it. Apples that ripen at  Christmas, long after they are picked, are another way of measuring time.

Here in the Okanagan, our literary roots are English and American all at the same time. To write from that, we begin with that and strike out on our own. Like these deer stepping out into the glory that is the bones of summer grass:

Three deer in the evening grass.

In the Grasslands, Seasons Tell a Story of Water and Light

It is different for each species. For each, it is a different time on earth. 

That’s the point.

The University and the Garden

Today, Wednesday, October 26, I’ll be using my collection of East German photographs to anchor a talk about the garden at the heart of all modern universities, and the key role that German studies can play in renewing them. German history is more relevant to our region than is apparent on the surface. The talk is in ARTS 204, from 12:30 – 2 PM, ON THE Okanagan Campus of the University of British Columbia (whew, a mouthful, I know).

Here’s Professor Claude Desmarais taking a moment out from explaining the purpose of using a garden as an anchor for German studies.

Professor Claude Desmarais Offers a bio-dynamic carrot to a Roberts Lake Horse

Some Students, You Know, Just Get It

The opportunities for connecting to the bio-dynamic German-Canadian farmers of the Okanagan is tantalizing. It is a population otherwise so adept at pressing the lips together and fitting in, that its contribution to the culture of the valley goes largely unnoticed. Speaking of going unnoticed…

Fall colours on glasswort growing in alkaline salts on the edge of Roberts Lake.Glasswort Putting on its Fall Colours on the Alkaline Shores of Roberts Lake

Roberts Lake might be just off of the university campus’s fertilized and irrigated lawns, but it might as well be on the moon. Although it is one of the last surviving salt lakes of the Okanagan, and a migratory resting spot for 120 species of birds, city plans for this basin include a 4 lane highway (with 2 more lanes for bicycles) and an expanded garbage dump.

Migratory Birds on Roberts Lake

Resting on the Way South

Few universities are close to such a treasure. If the modern university was created in Jena, Germany by integrating the botanical garden into its structures in the form of a department of Botany, wouldn’t it be exciting for the city to ease the garden back into the only university in the region and use it to create new paths and reconnect old ones?

We have enough asphalt.

A Chain of Islands

Our rocks here aren’t like other rocks. For one thing, like the rocks of most of British Columbia west of the Albertan mountains, it is light, volcanic rock that erupted to form islands in the Pacific Ocean and drifted eastward to collide with North America. The Okanagan chunk, which runs North into the Yukon and south into Washington, is called Quesnelia, after the northern B.C. city of the same name. The collision was pretty violent. Sometimes it looks like this:

Volcanic Glass in ash.Volcanic Glass Eroding from Volcanic Deposits

Northern Limit of the Okanagan. North of here, the collision broke the islands of Quesnelia into splintered fragments scattered along the edges of the Omineca Belt to the East.

Just feet away, trapped in the cooling lava it rose through as gas, it looks like this:

Teardrops of green volcanic glass in basalt.Mineralized Teardrops of Glass Embedded in Basalt

Imagine how much of this stuff was kicking around before the glaciers ground it away.

Meanwhile, the Klinker Deposit, a deposit of precious opal on the outskirts of Vernon, and in the same ancient basin as the above deposits, continues to show promise, as do other new opal finds on the west side of Okanagan Lake.

What’s not to love about this soil?

The Price of Wine

Are you enjoying laying down all that cash for a bottle of Okanagan Valley wine, maybe a dry as a rattler’s belly merlot from Nk’mip winery in Osoyoos? This is North America’s first aboriginal winery, with grapes grown on old orchard land just over the edge of the reserve. It’s darned good stuff, and pulls the old fruit flavours from the tree roots thirty feet down in the fine sand.

Osoyoos from Anarchist MountainOsoyoos Lake Looking Towards Canada’s Pocket Desert

NK’MIP winery is just before the sagebrush grasslands on the east side of the lake.

10 miles south, on the other side of the lake, merlot is going for $7.49. Yes, there it is at last the Okanogan’s first winery, located on Highway 97 in downtown Oroville. The Canadians have about 100 in the valley. It seems to be contagious. They’re the first, but they have friends. It’s possible to buy an ice wine for about half the Canadian rate here, eight miles south of Oroville, and a third of that here. How about a red ice wine? And, last, Copper Mountain vineyards is also in town. Like all things Oroville, they advertise themselves as living in the far north, while just north over the line, at the vacation town of Osoyoos, it’s the deep south. Four wineries is enough for a little tour across the good humour of geography, right?

Might be worth saying hi to the guys at the border on the way to and fro.

Chikamin Pish

It’s steelhead season. These famed ocean-going trout, the greatest sport fish of the Pacific Northwest, come back every year to spawn. Unlike their cousins, the salmon, they then turn around and go back to sea. On Vancouver Island, where steelhead are extensive, yet with low population numbers, avid steelhead fishermen often find their old lures in fish they caught and released the season before. The thing is, in British Columbia, the steelhead rivers run along the coast, and up into the Fraser River system, and, well, north. Take a look at this map. It claims the south, but, um, not south, guys. Good try.


Just a few miles away, in Washington, however, the fish are doing well. Here’s an article from the Omak Chronicle, which gives the skinny on steelhead openings in the Okanagan and Similkameen rivers, right up to the border. So, like, it seems that the Americans in the valley are picking up on our wine successes. About time that we started treating steelhead with the respect they give them, I’d say. After all, it’s the same valley, and the same water.

Fishing doesn’t have to be a lottery.

There’s No Good Reason This Chikamin Pish Couldn’t be in a Stream Near You


As Roderick Haig-Brown said, if you want to know the health of a society and its members, look to the health of its resource policies. And its pish.

A River Lives On

Wonderful news from Wenatchee, Washington: The proposed Loomis Dam is off. I repeat: the proposed dam on the Similkameen, that would have cost $1 billion to build and flooded the river right up to the feet of the vineyards and the organic orchards in Cawston, is off. The Similkameen River will continue to run free. The full list of proposals is here.

Looking across the border in the Lower SimilkameenBorder Country in the Lower Similkameen

A river runs through it.

And looking to the southwest, across the river itself…

Organic Farms and Reserve Land Saved from FloodingThis is Not a Lake

The Similkameen River runs free at Chopaka, between organic farms and reserve land. I used to swim after painted turtles here. I hope some kid still does.

Now, isn’t it time that we got our act together, and actually got on with making the area a park, to make sure this does not happen again? Like, we’re not going to get a chance to continue to develop new technologies if we flood our heritage with old ones.

Strike Out!

Ah, sometimes you bite into an apple and get a mouthful of delicious irony. Here, for instance, is a BC Tree Fruits radio spot ad about marketing local apples, presumably from the Canadian Okanagan.

Orchard Worker in Early East Kelowna OrchardDitch Irrigating an Early Kelowna Orchard with a Hoe

A century ago it was tough on dirt. Now in the age of water conservation, it’s very romantic and forms part of the new BC Tree Fruits Marketing Strategy. Huh?

Here is an update on the story of the forklift driver who went on a hunger strike because his employer, BC Tree Fruits, which boasts of selling Okanagan grown apples, was selling Washington galas in Canadian gala season.

Ads and corporate spin that state that this company sells Canadian apples and then this. It doesn’t jive, you know, unless one accepts the obvious: BC Tree Fruits is taking over the Okanogan, from Oroville to Brewster. Either that, or their advertising people aren’t talking to their management people, or somebody, somewhere, doesn’t care.

Na, it couldn’t be the latter. I’ll go with the juicy takeover bid.