Buddha’s Secret Army

When a house is built on a grassland hill to lure retirement and holiday property investments (golf membership thrown in, and a “vineyard to age gracefully in” and what a view) and then the economy goes sour and the investment is a dead loss and the house is used for only a few weekends a year, who keeps the money and the dream safe when there’s no one home?

Concrete Buddha with Tumble Mustard, Untrimmed Box, and his Private Army

Good to know.

No wonder the Buddha laughs so much.

Birds Made of Light

Humans are living creatures, which I think is pretty grand. I hope we can keep it that way. There are some side effects of living, though. For one, it makes us likely to notice other living things before we notice anything else. We easily notice the life in this, for instance …

Oregon Grape Budding Out in Early Spring

Green is only a late summer colour for these individuals.

The shapes and patterns of those lush red leaves are part of the chemical processes of our particular planet. So is the rock in this image of the lower slopes of Turtle Mountain:

Turtle Scale Rocks

These patterns are, quite literally, as old as the hills. The same processes are working out through them as are working out through the oregon grape leaves at the top of this page.

What’s more, water still flows along the old patterns laid down in the formation of stone. Here’s what the edges of that stone look like after a rain:

Water Follows Rock
It is channelled by ancient geological forces. In other words, those ancient forces are still completing the process of their formation. This is what an active planet looks like.

And look what follows water…
Lichens Follow Water

The life that follows water following rock is working out the story of stone.

It doesn’t just occur on such small scales. These processes also work on a large scale at the Okanagan Indian Reserve at the head of Okanagan Lake:

Okanagan Indian Band Range

Life following the rock.

We are this rock. When we fight that, we fight our own nature and get this:

Lost in the Rock

 Evidence of confused human activity. What we do to the earth we do to ourselves. What we betray in our own natures, we have to read in the earth itself. 

Luckily, what we do preserve of the earth’s processes we also preserve within ourselves. Five years ago, an ecologist stood with me in the grass at the edge of the Junction Sheep Range at the very northern limit of the grasslands stretching west of the Rocky Mountains and told me that I’d know I understood the grasslands when I started seeing trees as weeds. The words were clear and true. Still, what happens when you start seeing the grass as rock?

A Healthy Blue-Bunched Wheat Grass Community On a Steep, East-Facing Slope

 These individuals are following water and snow, which are following gravity down to the centre of the earth. The grasses, like all plants, are creatures of the air, and yet even they follow the stone, like waves of light and rain breaking over our buttes and headlands and draining down our coulees. 

To that ecologist’s signpost, I think I can add one of my own now: you’ll know you’ve started to understand the grasses themselves when you start seeing them as flocks of strange, magnificent birds circling the sun.

Tomorrow: Buddha’s Laughter. Next week: a spring journey through the grasslands of Washington.

Okanagan Land Claim Twist

Here in the desert, we have been blessed with 135 kilometres of fossilized glacial water. In the summers, when the stuff warms up, people play and splash about, especially people who have driven through the mountains to get here. After a bit of that, retirement on the molten glacial shores seems like a pretty great thing …

For Many People, This is the Real Okanagan

A sailboat safely at anchor at dusk…Worth a drive through the mountains and around the frozen glaciers from the oil fields, anytime.

This, too…

Improvised Dock

Those pre-formed concrete blocks have more uses than a beaver hat.

Oh, yeah, there’s that:

Anti-Beaver Defensive Fencing

Just try to gnaw through that, eh.

It’s not just humans who have colonized the edges of this molten glacier. The image above is one part of the Okanagan Aesthetic Moment that you might have to ignore if you’re going to have the full effect of your private dock. After all, this was once rich ground for Northwest Company and Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders, and what did they want? Beaver hats. Can you imagine those dour Scots jumping off of this?

Private Dock

There’s a public boat launch in the foreground. It’s kind of dwarfed by the neighbours, though. (That is, of course, the point.)

All along the lake, the road is lined with houses, on both sides, on the principle that “they’re not making more view property so get some.” In other words, land ownership is actually view ownership and ownership of social position. It is not land stewardship. It’s the ancient water that matters. There is occasionally a narrow boat access for non-lakeshore-residents. There is never a mountain access, although the ancient water is the breath of the grass and they exist together.

The Untouchable Hills

If water is a common resource, isn’t the land as well?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because, well, duh. No, because land is power. If everyone had access to the grass, then no one could control that access for profit. Oh, and we wouldn’t have any Indian Reserves, either.

Public Path and Private Space

The public path lying to the left of carefully-manicured private yards looks like an accident, allowed to exist only in the gaps left by the pressures of private display.

Shouldn’t the balance, for a social species like homo sapiens, be more like 50-50?Shouldn’t our shared spaces be at least half as decent as our private ones? Hey, it’s worth asking. Meanwhile, across the lake at the Okanagan Indian Reserve:

Frozen Lake with Bus and Field, Okanagan Indian Reserve

Okanagan Lake looking like the moon in the background.

The boundary between lake and land is relaxed here. It speaks of a sense that it will not go away. I think the lesson is that it’s not just the Syilx who need a land claim. We all do. Then we can take off our darned beaver hats at last and live on the land and the lake together.

Okanagan Indian Band Pow Wow Grounds

I’d like that.

A New Season

It’s not spring, not exactly. It’s something else. Things are warming up. Here we are at the frozen North Arm of Okanagan Lake …

Leads Opening in the Ice

Those are holiday properties in the foreground, leased from the Okanagan Indian Band. Note the film of fog above the lake, and how the lone cloud is floating on its surface like a ship.

The land is warming up, too.

Okanagan Indian Band Field Thawing Out

Not the low cloud of steam rising from the soil and lying in its hollows. 

Here is a closer view of that:

Fog Rising from the Land

It looks like smoke in the spring sun.

There’s more than one way to be on fire. Here’s a steer reliving winter, one breath at a time …

Water Evaporating from a Feed Lot

Okanagan Indian Band

And again, less up close and personal…

Steers Letting the Photographer Know What they Think

Thanks for the tip, guys.

So it is at break up. Up in the Arctic, it’s like the ship at the top of this post, and you just stay home until things firm up. I think we should do that here, too. Here’s how the land loses its winter water when people don’t stay off it.

Bad Road

Okanagan Indian Band

The land is turning from one water state to another. This is the season for moving lightly across it, for staying on trails, and going on foot, but of course we’re humans, we love the light and it makes us want to get out and get moving. Shh, not so fast. Move as the water moves. Lift up into the air. Feel out your new shape. Walk slowly at first. You’re just a child in this new season.

New Oxygen in a Meltwater Pool, Turtle Mountain

Note the tiny bubbles on the pool floor. This is the season for looking into the water and for celebrating life. Get used to the light again. Get used to the water. Learn to put it on again like a shirt. Stretch your muscles. Ah.

That is work enough.

There are Chinook Wawa words for this season, from the old trade language that all the peoples spoke together. One is illahee mitlite kopa chuck, which means that the land is with the water. I wouldn’t recommend drinking that stuff. Another is chuck mitlite kopa illahee, which means that the water is with the land. I wouldn’t recommend driving on that stuff. It’s a nice separation. It indicates that there is a state, winter, as it is usually called, in which the water and the land join into a new form, and another state, right now, in which they are separating, and another, spring, say, or summer, in which they have separate roles and natures. That’s a whole lot better than this spring, summer, fall, winter stuff. It helps one to see.  And it keeps one away from this:

Bad Road

The Vineyard at the Rise, Okanagan Landing

Bad roads are universal.

Reverse Nunataks

A nunatak is an unglaciated island of stone and a few survivor species in the midst of a glacial landscape. Recent studies in Sweden have shown that some Swedish spruce trees survived the last glacial period on nunataks — tough trees, indeed. Important British Columbian nunataks were in the Coast Mountains, high in the Cathedral Range in the Similkameen, and on the islands of Haida Gwaii, which still supports many unique plant species. What if the process worked in reverse?

Reverse Nunatak

While the landscape is being overwhelmed by grazing cattle and cheatgrass, islands of stone operate like nunataks, preserving both ancient post-glacial landscapes and largely weed-free grassland species.

Might it be possible to recreate our grasslands from these refuges?

Passing Water Downhill in a Reverse Nunatak

An island in the weeds. Blue Bunched Wheat Grass and Microbiotic Crust intact.

These reverse nunataks are beautiful and complex, at any rate:

Life on the Rock

You don’t need a lot of soil if the rock concentrates your water for you. You just need enough to hang onto.

It’s not just about rock. Here’s a stump from an old savanna tree in a grassland on the west side of Okanagan Lake that has fallen victim to a century of fire suppression and has gone over to scrubby pines and firs:

Holding Onto Life…

… in the desert of the trees.

Rocks do the same thing:

Nunatak the Size of a Loaf of Bread…

…and ready to recreate the microbiotic crust. These things are scattered around all through the so-called (monoculture) forest.

Intriguingly, the trees have kept the weeds at bay, though. Perhaps the reclamation of grasslands from weeds lies in the relationship between these nunataks and the rather light-starved but still-not-dead grasslands under the trees. As the Western Pine Bark Beetles wipe the trees out, the time to open this door is now.


This is not a forest clearing:

Weeds in the Grass, Ewing

Pines and firs are invasive species here.

This is not a forest:

Young Trees

There’s not a tree here older than about sixty years, and no signs of any earlier generations. This is, in other words, a replacement of wild farming with man-made wilderness.

This, too, is not a forest:

Not Dead Yet

The forest is not doing a great job of replacing the grass here. Perhaps this land is too marginal for trees and could better serve other purposes.

This is the remains of the tree in the middle ground of the above photograph, but it is not the remains of a forest tree:

Lone Grassland Fir

Crowded out by its unruly kids. Trees like this had the capability to host entire ant colonies in their branches…they never had to move out across the land itself and provided tremendous insect control. In Williams Lake, the forest ecologist Ordell Steen has shown that the productivity of forests is maintained if old giants like this are left and the new ingrown trees are removed in their place. More is not always more.

This is not a forest floor

Old Grassland Stones

Hanging on amidst a litter of needles, twigs and wood refuse dropped from weedy ingrowth trees, but ready to reclaim the land, if giving a chance. It is amazing that the grassland has survived this long. It is obviously tougher than it looks.

This is not such a bad thing:

Western Pine Bark Beetle Victim

A ponderosa pine felled, bucked, and left to become soil.

This is what that land looked like in 1920:

Grassland with a Stock Trail, Beaver Lake Road

By all means, let’s work with the land and its processes to create, store, and move energy. If we’re going to do it, though, let’s do it with full awareness of what we are doing, what changes we wish to effect, and what modifications we need to make along the way. So far, grass like this, for instance, has created more wealth by supporting generations of cattle, than have the replacement forests over much of its former range. So far, most of those ingrowth forests have produced nothing at all. It’s hard to imagine that they will ever catch up.

Finally our valley is old enough that we an look back over more than a century of development and assess what has worked and what hasn’t. Let’s.

Apple Hunting with Bears

Last fall, I was driving past Ewing, on the west side of Okanagan Lake, when I slammed on the brakes. This is what caught my eye:

First Growth Apple Orchard Gone to Roses and Elders…

and mud. Don’t forget the mud.

I wandered around. I tasted a few seedling apples growing here and there. The rain ran down my neck. I found 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. Well, OK, a bit like an old tea bag, and a bit like snow and a bit like champagne and a bit astringent and a bit like clouds and a bit like…. mmmm. Let the acids ferment out in a secondary in-bottle fermentation and we could put ourselves solidly on the cidery map. I don’t mean the industrial cider in 2-liter sploosh bottles map. I mean the cider-as-good-as-they-make-it-in-Winterthur-or-the-Cotswolds-map. No more bluffing it with dessert apples looking for a refuge during the global apple wars. No more value-added economy. No more of this:

The Leading Face of Apple Cider Source

Cinnamon Stick Extra

There might be a place for stuff like that, but it’s not what I meant.  I meant 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. So, of course, I went back mid-March to get some grafting wood. This is what I remember:

Cider Tree Smelling So Sweet

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

This is what I found:

Bear Attack!

Black bears like apple cider, too. Good to know! Obviously 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.

Now I’m looking for some rootstock, so I can save this baby before there’s more of this:

Old Apple Orchard and Genetic Bank For Sale

I saw an old orchard and a promise for the future. Someone else saw a little easier to market. View Property, it says. That is, I think, human for “Bear Attack” or “Bare Attack”. 

You be the judge. Is that view better than a renewed cider industry? Is it better than this?…

Wild Elder, Ewing

Doing a successful imitation of an orchard in the sun. Perhaps there’s a whole new fruit industry trying to get noticed. These guys are all over that old orchard site.

I think it’s a little premature to abandon one of the valley’s last surviving 120-year-old horticultural banks (if not the very last one), in the name of stretching the limits of the real estate imagination. Of course, the irony is that the land was alienated by real estate hooplah in the first place, but, still, it left something behind that has become native to this place, and has valley-wide potential for building new relationships.

Those Apples Again

Any name ideas? Ewing? Fintry? Black Bear’s Delight? Harold’s Mostler? Send them on. There’s a comment form at the bottom of the page that you can use. Please do. I went to the Orchard Hill Cidery in Osoyoos. I asked them what apples they used in their “Red Roof” cider. “That,” I was told, “is a trade secret.” Good grief. Apples are a trade secret? It’s the bears we should keep an eye on. They need pruning lessons.

Oh, and just for fun, this sign was in the ditch nearby:

West Side Advertising

Maybe the bear posted it. 

Seriously. Got a name for that apple? Got some spare rootstocks? Got a branch of your apple tree you want to donate to the cause of spreading this thing around so someone doesn’t patent it? Want some grafting wood? Over to you.

Wild Humans, Tame Horses, Brother Deer

In some ways of thinking, it’s not just humans who are persons. In ways that have worked well during the greater part of the life of our species on this planet, this is a person, too:

Getting a Bite to Eat Before the Sun Goes Down

In Syilx tradition, deer are the brothers and sisters of humans.

These are people, too:

Horse People at the Okanagan Indian Reserve

Relative newcomers to Syilx life on the move across the grass.

Now that the Syilx are no longer seasonally nomadic on the grasslands, their horses are. They are not the only creatures out on the grass, though…

Lone Trees on the Grass

This Douglas fir (background) and ponderosa pine (foreground) live on the grass the way their ancestors have done for thousands of years. These are pretty much the only lone trees left in overgrown grasslands for hundreds of miles, I doubt it’s an accident.

This is no accident either:

Schoolbus Parked at the Shore, Snc’c’amala?tn Early Childhood Development Centre

That lakeshore property can be used for children, and common community values,  speaks of a relaxed attitude towards the relationship between lake, land, and sky, and the belief that none of them are going anywhere.

This kind of respect is obviously still possible in the 21st century. It also looks like this:

Pow Wow Centre, Okanagan Indian Reserve

Anyone watching a pow wow here has the land behind them and is watching the lake and the dancers together.

In settler cultures, such attitudes are relegated to the arts. In Vernon, this leads to the notion that to challenge the commodification of art objects, one need only make them temporary. Tell that to the horses…

The Moment Has Passed but the Image Remains

And the grass, the horses, and the clouds are still there. They, too, are aesthetic moments. Just not human ones. And they would really like to stay.

People, we are not alone.

There’s Gold in The Hills

By accident, we have turned our hills into giant gold sluices.

Road Gutter, Okanagan Landing

Note how it very efficiently sorts gravel out from water.

The water is lost to the ecosystem, but the gravel is not so willing to go…

Much of the Water Just Evaporates, Actually

It’s a low tech method of moving rock. With a little patience, it’ll all be concentrated together. OK, a lot of patience, maybe.

These methods of sluicing might not be efficient enough to yield high levels of ore. But take a look at this baby:

Russian Thistle in the Frost

It looks like it is covered with silver. It’s really chock full of minerals. Russian thistles are great at collecting chromium. Grow them on the right soil, burn them, and you have chromium ore.

Where are you likely to find chromium? Ah, perhaps here:

Westbank Industrial Park

The purple icon marks Kelowna Electroplating, a small company specializing in chrome-plated heavy truck bumpers. A likely spot for a little russian thistle plantation, in the new geological science of phytoprospecting.

In fact, the whole industrial area looks like a potential metal farm. The technique is called phytomining and phytoremediation, and it is effective at removing toxic chemicals and metals from soils and concentrating them in plant tissues, from which they can easily be removed. If there’s no chromium in this industrial park, there’s likely to be some here the Westbank Water Treatment Plant. Wastewater plants collect anything that gets washed down the drain, whether on purpose or by accident. I’m pretty sure the people at Kelowna Electroplating are doing a good job at containing their byproducts, but, still, chromium washed down the drain from electroplating companies is one of few contaminants in the compost created each year by the ground-breaking Edmonton Waste Management Centre. No doubt it shows up elsewhere. But why stop with russian thistles?

Bull Thistles, Okanagan Indian Band Lands…

…wishing they were Russian Thistles, too. Who knows what they are bringing up from the soil. They’re sure doing it with style.

Some plants that mine the soil are: poplars (arsenic); russian thistle (chromium); Indian mustard (copper, nickel); canola (selenium, but it is released to the atmosphere; gold); sunflower (uranium, cesium, and strontium); grapes (gold); alpine pennycress (zinc, nickel). There are many more. Did you catch that? Some grape varieties harvest gold, and concentrate it, in nuggets up to 2 grains in size, within their leaves. This, for instance, might be a mine in the future:

Future Gold Mine? Okanagan Landing

It gives a new name to Dolmathes, doesn’t it?

Other plants harvest petroleum and chemical compounds. Hemp is great. Redroot Pigweed catches most anything at all:

Bullion on the Hoof?

Okanagan Indian Band Feed Lot

There’s no shortage of seeds to get started with, at any rate:

Water Purification at the Source

Perhaps we can just forget the whole idea of using water to concentrate road pollutants and use plants instead, right at the source. Why spend the money to collect the water, then further money to clean it up again?

We already mow our ditches. We’d just have to start baling them at the same time. Transportation would be easy. And aesthetically?

Bull Thistle Looking Good

It already looks like it’s carved out of metal!

Pussy Willows and Land for All

Welcome to the road ditch: a prime spring habitat. First, to an Okanagan Indian Band ditch…

Pussy Willow Preparing to Bloom

Imagine the sound of cars roaring past behind your back, and you have the full scene.

There’s enough room in those ditches for an entire agricultural industry supplying florists with Easter’s sproing.

Pussy Willow with Abandoned Pasture

Traditional agriculture is often a historical artifact in the Okanagan, but when this photographer stopped for these photos, people waved with joy … or maybe just laughter. 

Pussy Willows are short-lived. If they’re going to look their best, they need care. When left to their own devices, they soon look like they do in this wet slope watered by a road embankment ten minutes south of band lands:

Pussy Willows and Rose Hips, Ewing

At the right point in the spring, two years come together in one. The dump truck guy who roared past with a full load waved. When’s the last time you saw that in a high density apple orchard surrounded by a ten foot deer fence?

The ditch: an area owned by entire communities, even multiple communities at once. What a great place for innovation in community development, water use, and agriculture. Ditches are at the edges of things … but in a way that also puts them at the centre. And they’re everywhere. All together, that’s a lot of space for a public to grow.