The Art of the Palette

Art can be made out of land in many ways. One is to build a highway. These art projects often are a form of politics. Take the highways of Eastern Washington, for example. Those are built to lead from town to town, factory to farm and back, and to a few nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams for good measure. These are the highways of the very romantic dreamers who live in those parts. They are peole very enamoured with building machines.

Living with The Machine

A fly-fisher, complete with regulation ball cap, trying to get away from it all under the bridge at Okanogan, Washington. Whew.

In keeping with that type of artwork, the men of Eastern Washington are busy turning both towns and the land into machines as well. They’re getting pretty good at it. To date, they have been so successful at this massive art project that you can drive for miles and miles and miles without finding a place to stop to admire the view, because, well, it’s the wrong aesthetic.

As They Say in Southern Washington

At least this sign is posted at a rest area, which has parking, although you have to pay $10 a day to use it. I think you can guess that no one does. Imagine the frustration! If people would just, like, you know, get with the program, eh.

New uses for the land are the ones that count here politically — or at least the ones that were new until this century. Now, only the older highways, built by a previous political generation, have ample room for a traveller to stop without getting, like, sideswiped. And what do you see when you stop? Aha!

Buck and Geese on Lake Roosevelt

Near Daisy, Washington on Route 25. This image was made just after he got out of the water, as those geese were bearing down on him big time. Obviously, he knew about geese. That fly fisherman in Okanogan needs to make a day trip, I think.

Other than the art of dams, highways, and wheat fields cropped right up to the asphalt of the highways and the front steps of farm houses, perhaps the greatest art that has been made out these landscapes has been Frank Herbert’s Dune. Out of these coulees and arroyos and salt pans, Herbert made a classic of literature.

Long Distance Trucker Scooting Through Frank Herbert’s Dune

On his way to the sequel. It’s like a different planet.

Thing is, Herbert wrote Dune fifty years ago. In the time since, it has become clear that the ways in which he represented the landscape in fiction, are perhaps the most appropriate for representing it in that other set of metaphors that is commonly called reality. For instance…

Sci-Fi Landscape

If the moon were given just a wee bit of water, and it stored it underground, and it escaped to the atmosphere in the form of alien life forms that were very efficient at reducing their rates of transpiration to keep it underground where it belonged, it would look like this. Dry Falls State Park, Washington. Only Speculative Fiction offers the tools to adequately describe this landscape.

Another form of art that can be made out of the land is created out of a palette of 1970s-era back-to-the-land dreams. Here is a moment created out of moose antlers, non-functional fenceposts, birch twig chairs, and a fire pit, as part of a wild-crafting farm.

Agricultural Product of a Different Kind, Coyote Sleeping, B.C.

In the art of wild-crafting, agriculture produces more than just products that you can eat. Some you can just, well, sit in. Don Elzer’s Wildcraft Forest is located East of Lumby on the Cherryville Road. Here’s his catalogue.

In the context of this kind of art, agriculture starts looking a lot like the Grand Coulee Dam itself: a product designed to meet the utilitarian needs of a utilitarian civilization with the massive political problem of millions of starving citizens. The answer? As one old communist from the 1930s, the era of the Grand Coulee Dam construction, told me in 1978, “Art is a luxury.” Well, look…

Monument to the Workers of Grand Coulee Dam, Grand Coulee, Washington

Woody Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs that would get people behind the project. The champion of the common man sold out the river for $10 a song. There’s some great footage here. The above monument is, strangely enough, in a Native American town. It’s a strange form of art that calls other art a luxury, but costs billions to build itself.

If you don’t think that’s Sci-fi, try this:

Display of Water from the Entire USA at Grand Coulee Dam…

… with beauty pageant ladies pouring it over the concrete. It’s like launching a ship, eh, but one that doesn’t move.

Here, you can read the text (Well, OK, if you squint.)

And They’re Not Afraid of Heights, Either!

Me, I don’t like the look of that crack!

There are many other art forms that are made out of the land, but they all include the ability to apply certain principles of writing, and the first of those is that you have to actually see what’s in front of you. One way to do this is to get out your eyeshadow, your lip gloss, and even your interior decorator’s wall palettes and have at it. Those things have delicious names. You could build worlds out of those names. The thing is, back in the teens of the last century, when watercolour painting was predominantly used as a recording device for accurate colour of medical ailments and horticultural samples, it was also making inroads as an art form deemed suitable for women, and even its first inroads into the art scenes in which it could hold its place with oil paintings. In that context, the work of a watercolour painter was to see colour in the landscape, colour that had never been see before, to recreate it accurately on the palette, and then to apply it so that it would be available to everyone. It is exactly the same work that the chemists of Germany did with the colour ideas of the poet Goethe, but worked out in a different metaphor. In both ways, the sum of human knowledge and the depth and specificity with which people could respond to landscape would be increased. There is, however, no reason they need to remain independent any longer, and they aren’t, really. Here’s a classroom, in which a group of writers is being guided away from the primary colour palettes of their childhoods into the sophisticated, trained eyes of landscape writers…

Writing the Land…

… Outdoor classroom at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC

What I tried to show people was that if they choose a colour palette, they’d be able to describe landscape within its social and historic contexts, to provide rich narratives able to connect in any practical direction they needed, rather than rather limited, personal narratives that got bogged down in the 19th century emotional and moral responses that are often still the stock-in-trade of North American culture. Those are not bad things, of course, but they’re a heck of a lot better if they can lead to positive action and change, with the ability to dynamically respond to unfolding circumstances. Colour work helps with that.

Feral Grape Buds in the Spring Sun

Those buds are many colours, but brown is the least of them. 

It all depends upon where you want to go. Want to stress the fruit that will come out of the vine and how the grapes are an expression of the nature of the whole plant? Then choose berry-flavoured paint or eye shadow samples, or create your own palette and work from that. Such a palette might look like this:

Grape Bud Palette

Grandmother’s Silesian plum cake, grape stained fingers after pressing down the cap on fermenting grape must, President plum in the back of a Sikh farmer’s pickup on a old Portuguese farm, cinnamon stick, rotting apricot… (one can go on)…

You’ll get one set of connections out of that, and will soon find yourself deep within the life of the plant, and your life with it. But it’s not the only possible palette:

Grape Bud Palette 2

Wasp nest, wasp wing, ant chitin, hard pan, stainless steel truck bumper, forest fire ash… (one can go on)…

Many other palettes are possible. That’s what I’d like to add to our curriculum today: our ability to farm the land is inseparable from our ability to describe what we see, because our descriptions provide the pathways for further thinking and elaboration of any kind. They are the first step in social, technical, and aesthetic processes, and provide doorways through which new processes can be admitted, old ones put into context, and cross-boundary fertilizations can be made. In short, a curriculum not founded on these principles will rely on the principles laid down along these lines in the watercolours of the past and in the attitudes of the past in which they were brought to light. We’re not going to effect change that way.

A Palette of Colours, Dry Falls State Park

None with a name. It’s about time. Go ahead, give it a go!

Reading a Mountain Farm

Eco-Agriculture is a form of social art that unites the earth and human artfulness. Since, as the poet Goethe showed us yesterday, what you put into an exploration is what you get out, if the goal is land and earth and community, then land and earth and community with our fellow creatures on this earth are the starting points. In this spirit, let’s look at two distinct mountain farms…

Organic Peach Orchard in Peachland

This is where fruit farming got its start in the valley, in 1898. It prospered for the longest while, then it went bus. Now it’s looking for renewal.

Even at this height above the lake, we’re only just below the shoreline of the post glacial inland sea of Glacial Lake Penticton. These peaches are really growing on beach sand — from a beach with close to zero organic matter because it lasted less than 100 years. In fact, 10,000 years may have passed, but organically it’s like the glaciers left a week ago. Water hangs around for about an hour in this place, then it all drains away down to the floor of the world. Under such conditions, the peach trees require continuous water. That makes for tricky agriculture.

What Our Surface-Irrigated Peach Orchard Really Looks Like…

..from a water standpoint. These mosses and grasses are living off of water as it flows down over rock. They manage it by catching it within themselves.Peaches are gully plants. This ain’t their thing.Turtle Mountain.

The point is simple: this isn’t land. It’s a cloud held underwater. A sheet of water applied over the entire soil surface is a way of farming the soil surface and accepting that most water will be lost to evaporation or to drainage. It doesn’t tap into the water that’s really there. What, though, if we were to do something like this…

Ant Lion Traps Lytton

Just waiting for an unwary ant to tumble down the inverted cone to the bottom of the pit, where the ant lion waits, hungry, hungry, hungry.

In a desert climate, life is underground, where the water is. As the ant lion knows, if you concentrate an area, you can focus it to a central, manageable point. Funnels do that. Plants do that.

Biscuit Root Just Loving the Spring Sun, Turtle Mountain

Biscuit roots mines the water that concentrates off of sheer cliff faces and quickly falls downhill through loose scree and rubble. Half of the sisters of this traditional medicinal plant have been gnawed off by deer. It is also good for late stage AIDS infections, tuberculosis, and diarrhoea. Why are we growing peaches, again? Because of the real estate development dreams of a visiting gold miner? 

The seasons are about water here, and the natural systems have a way of recycling it, over and over again, before finally relinquishing it to the atmosphere. What if it were moved slowly down the slopes, through organic material? There’s none in the soil, so maybe it would look like this…

Passing the Seasons On…

…species by species as they flow downhill. Okanagan Landing.

Our peaches would be happy down in the gully. A set of structures within the sandy beach soil of our orchard, to inhibit water flow ought to do the trick. Thing is, they’d be expensive, unless alfalfa were used to mine the water thirty feet down and bring it back to the surface for re-use. It would then form part of an organic chain, where it belongs.

Vole Hole, Bella Vista

Wherever there are Balsam Roots, there are voles living off them underground. What happens on the surface is like the iceberg thing: 5% of the story. Now, that’s community. First Nations women used to use their digging sticks to open vole holes, because the voles did a great job of gathering seeds. If you found them with your stick, half your work was done.

The secret here is to get past monocultures and to remember that farming these slopes is a vertical affair that creates seasonal conditions by mining the way water moves in its vertical, subsoil weather. The way plants move that water around through the soil column is the way in which a solution is going to be found for agricultural and cultural renewal. Now, on other other farm, things look a bit different:

 Wild Strawberry Field Lumby

 Wild Crafting: Harvesting the Wild Woods. The rest of the year, it is a roadway. How cool is that?

This is an intriguing form of agriculture, in which the medicinal properties of plants are front and centre. There’s this, for instance:

Medicinal Wheel

Once herbs get established here, the dream is to market each of the forest’s medicine wheels, with its specific site and energies, and specific mixtures of plants growing in response to them, as a separate medicinal tonic.

Of course, in a wild-crafting situation, everyone else who lives in the forest wants to eat your crop as well. Here’s one solution:

A Tipi!

Cover it with netting and then see what the deer do about it. I dunno. As long as there’s enough biscuit root elsewhere, maybe they’ll turn up their noses, but, well, mint? We’ll see.

At any rate, wild crafting has the potential to bring in more money than the billions brought in by the forest industry in the past, that replaced the native grasslands and savannas. And going back our peach orchard aka sand dune in Peachland with the wild crafting idea in our pocket, there’s this:

Ponderosa Pine Cones, Turtle Mountain

And gravity does all the gathering work, too. Those pines in the Deep Creek gully might be trying to tell us something. These cones sell for big money in craft shops. They’re worth way more than peaches.

So, as for curriculum, here’s a classroom I have used to great effect:

 Colour and Social Writing Workshop, Kamloops

A renewed agricultural relationship to the land is tied to a renewed cultural one. In this workshop, we learned the colours for things. Participants said it changed the way they looked at the world.

And that’s how it is in the Okanogan Okanagan this week.

The Mother of All Plants

Miss your Mom? Here she is, the dear:

This is the German Poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Ancestral Plant

He was taken with the idea that all plants of the world could be traced to one plant that took on different form in response to different climactic locations.

This is what science calls poetry. But, not so fast. Goethe was working out of an ancient horticultural tradition that drew on its own models and metaphors, not on those of science. Our current form of plant classification, developed in Sweden by Carolus Linnaeus. It was very new in Goethe’s time, and he took exception to it. What he saw was a kind of quantum theory of plant life: the sole plant of the world exists as all possible forms but only takes on specific forms in response to specific situations. What he missed was the idea of time. Here’s what his ideal plant might look like when time is thrown into the mix:

Arrow-Leafed Balsam Root Mining the Sun on the Slopes of a Ravine…

…while saskatoons, birches, wild cherries and wild plums mine the water trickling underground through the gravel beneath the ravine’s bed.

Linnaeus would have seen a profound collection of different species here, and would have attempted to classify them. Here’s one of his drawings:

File:Hortus Cliffortianus folia simpl.png

Plants à la Linnaeus

Like Butterflies Pinned to a Wall

In the place of that, an eco-agricultural perspective will see the land itself and its plants as one process. The earth is Goethe’s plant, unfolding into time. Its species are not separate ones randomly inhabiting land as if it were an inert object that could be held in a test tube. They’re not looking to satisfy their own physical needs (a conception that is the natural result of Linnaeus’s model of dissection and collection). They are not responding to ecological niches. They are the expression of points of energy flow. They are part of the earth. Look at the flow in action:

Light and Shadow

The earth is a clock, that tics and docs between states of energy. Batteries work like this. Photosynthesis and solar cells work like this. The only difference is that what is being mined here is time — and water — instead of a trickle of electrons across a membrane. The balsam root plants on the near side of this slope catches the afternoon sun. 

Those on the far wall of this ravine catch it in the morning. When this effect takes place valley wide, it creates incredible winds, that never stop, sliding from one valley wall to the other and then back. When it takes place in the smaller scale of a ravine, it pumps water and air. It also ensures a longer crop of seeds. The point is, time here is relative to the amount of heat the soil receives. It is, in other words, a function of water, and how much is lost to the sun. The speed at which plants mature is part of this process. The plants on the near slope will use their water sooner than those on the farther one, which also store more water during the winter. Just by crossing the ravine, a deer or a gopher can change seasons — and I don’t mean between Spring and Winter. That’s useless. I mean, between the wet one and the dry one, the pattern that eventually forms the energy machine of the year. To put it another way: light and water are time. In this spirit, ecological agriculture takes a lesson from the balsam root, and mines not the soil but light and water and time. It can also take a lesson from this newcomer…


These plants are an expression of water drawn thirty feet up from deep underground.

Effectively, alfalfa is at home in a subterranean world we will never sea, and farms it, and is what that world looks like when it rises into the light. And what does technological agriculture do with that? It drills wells to draw that water up, to continue its monocultures on the surface, because it is an agriculture of surfaces only. It is getting too expensive. Fortunately, there is another way.

Tomorrow: back to our curriculum. 

The Lesson of the Ladybirds

Yesterday, I was talking about how my mother’s parents, and my father a generation after them, came to Coyote’s country, expecting to find physical freedom, and found something else again. In their honour, here’s a photograph of the Similkameen, taken back in the early 1960s, that shows it through the lens of a German imagination.

Bruno and Martha Leipe on Kobau Mountain, Photograph Hugo Redivo

The bunchgrass is all grazed off. We didn’t notice that back then.

For Bruno and Martha’s generation, and Hugo’s, the earth was part of a conversation between civilization and culture. Germans were big on culture. The French were big on civilization. It came to blows. When that was settled in 1918, badly, the Germans looked north, to the Baltic. Soon, romantic Scandinavian novels were all the rage, with their stories of the bare-hands settlement of wilderness and its transformation into multi-generational social wealth. As unbelievable as it sounds, in their mid-forties, Bruno and Martha cashed in their almost twenty years in Canada and moved to the far, isolated north to live the story of one of those Scandinavian novels. They even bought a farm abandoned by a group of Norwegians, because it was just too tough. It was too tough. Bruno and Martha nearly died from the brutality of it. The photograph of beginnings above, comes fifteen years after that fateful decision, and is the consequence of a variety of people, including a German-Italian photographer, finding their way to the land after war, not knowing anything about what they were looking at, but being absolutely clear about what it felt like to be there. One of the most important of the romantic novelists that they all clamoured for in the 1920s and 1930s was the Icelander, Gunnar Gunnarson.

Gunnar Gunnarsson

He’s got bad press these days because the house he built when he returned to Iceland in 1939 was designed by a leading German architect.

The Germans loved Gunnarsson. In return, he tried to use the influence of his novels to guide German foreign policy. This didn’t work out quite so well. Finally, he returned to Iceland on the eve of war. On his last book tour in Germany, in 1940, during the Second World War, he told the Germans that if they valued a connection with the land, they needed to leave the Icelanders alone or they would break the last example of that connection. Then he left, for a country in which there is no wilderness, or, to put it another way, in which there is only wilderness, and one of its inhabitants is human. And that’s what was there for Bruno and Martha to see in the Similkameen, if they’d had the eyes to see past a library of romantic Swedish and Norwegian novelists and one Icelander trying to turn novels into political acts. It took a later generation to step into a different story.

Chopaka Mountain, from Hurley Peak, June 1975

photography  Rob Chatfield (who edits this journal for Outward Bound.)

That’s the mountain that defined us in that valley, the centre of the world, but it took Rob and our friend Tim to climb it, or, actually, its taller twin, Hurley Peak. The two are joined at the hip. Here’s what they found up top:


Yup, this is where the little critters spend their winters. They don’t fly south. They fly up. They hide in cracks. The ladybugs that you buy down at the garden shop to keep your greenhouse tomatoes free of aphids are scooped up on peaks like this by the bucketfuls. So, not so green after all, actually.

Rob kept wanting me to go up the peak. I wanted to grow peach trees. Well, that was a bust. Look at what they look like now:

The End of a Dream

It’s like Bruno found out in the North: all approaches to the earth are social. The attempt to make profit from simplifying complex ecosystems so that one can maintain an industrial life style eventually looks like what it is. Sadly.

And that’s the lesson for the day. Things are what they are. The earth is really what it is: grass and stones and water. Our impressions are really our impressions. A peak crowned with ladybugs is really the centre of the world. In practical terms, this brings us to Goethe, the German poet. He hated the romantics. He wanted poetry to be a form of science, and politics. You’ll be hearing more about him here, but first, an image:

Goethe’s Diagram for the Creation of Colour

Goethe tried to develop a science that did not break with ancient knowledge. This diagram is the result of twenty years work. With it, he argues that colour is really a creation of the human mind, not a characteristic of light.

Goethe argues further. He suggests that as soon as you measure light with a  prism, you are only measuring it at one point of its transformation and have predetermined that it will remain forever in the nature of a prism. Whatever theory you are trying to prove will be proven true. The real trick, he argued, was to view light as a human, because at the end of that process you got humans.

Goethe and a Certain Canadian Poet Meet in Ilmenau

Note the shoes. Oh, those guys.

So, let’s add to the principles of our new Academy of Ecological Agriculture.

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.

4. How we employ our bodies at the tasks before us matters. If we work with our bodies, we get our bodies. If we work with newspaper recycling programs, we get more newspapers. If we work with the earth, we get earth. If we work with monocultures, we get a monoculture.

Tomorrow, I’ll add to the list with some social observations about schooling. But until then, one last image of the earth under siege, which is not just a threat, but also a profound opportunity.

Cheatgrass Choking Balsam Root… Almost

There’s got to be a way of outsmarting that stuff.

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


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:

Earth Writing

There is a mountain that turns the Similkameen River to the East as it crosses the Canada-US Border, and pushes it on to meet the Okanagan River at Ellisforde. It is called Chopaka. It is a sacred peak in the way that Mount Ararat in Turkey, where Noah’s Ark found dry land, or Delphi in Greece, where the Muses honoured by the priestesses of Apollo created poetry out of the thin mountain air. Here it is.

Chopaka, From Rich Bar

Gold was discovered here in 1858.

If I could, just for a moment, draw your attention to the erosion slopes in a bend of the river in that photograph right above you there. A modern technical society would describe those as silts from a post-glacial lake bottom, that were torn away suddenly when an ice dam broke and all the water cut down through them in an afternoon and an evening. To the societies that came before the Gold Rush and knew the land as a part of itself, these slopes were characters that guarded turning points in the story of the river, and guarded the people who lived above it, at Chopaka, Similkameen, Keremeos, Ashnola Mouth, 20 Mile Creek, Sterling Creek, Wolf Creek, and the Tulameen, where the flint and ochre for western North America — right into the plains — were mined. People moving upriver into Similkameen territory would have passed sites like this with care, if at all.

The Watchers

The Miners of 1858, would have been watched by these cliffs the whole time they were digging around in the ground.

 Think of this not as a series of photographs, but as a reading of the land, the way you are reading these words and the images scattered through them like stones in the current of the river.Here they are, even closer.

 Reading a Little More Closely

Look how the trees are growing in the syntax of this story. The land is providing paragraphs and sentences. The trees and bushes are the words that fill them. Even people, passing by, follow the outlines of the story, and if this story is ultimately told in words, well, that’s because that’s what people do. They’re like that.

The Coyote rocks that made the centre of this story, and the centre of the river, are now drowned under the Enloe Dam, but the rest of the story is still here. And here…

The Bones of the Story

The story is the earth.

Once you have experienced a story in the land, not as a child but as here’s no going back to stories in books after that. Contemporary North American and European societies spend considerable effort teaching literacy to as many members of their populations as possible — and by this they mean book literacy. Against that, there is only experience itself, and its own stories. To book culture, they are lost, and have become a beautiful physical world  and the object that is called “Nature”, that you can experience emotionally. To people outside of book culture, though, all that emotional stuff is still a story, and even if men do this to it …

Old Mine Shaft at Palmer Lake

This is one of the literally hundreds of abandoned mine shafts broken into the mineral rich hills of the Lower Similkameen.

… it too becomes a part of the story …

Grove of Wild Cherries..

…or the land reclaiming mine tailings all on its own.

And it takes, what? 150 Years? That’s nothing.

Look! A New Character in the Story…

… has grown out of the disturbances left by the men of 1858.

I don’t know about you, but I was taught by the land, and then was schooled to tell stories in words and books, and now, now I’m listening again. After 150 posts with Okanagan Okanogan, it’s clear to me that there is a way of writing that is also a way of agriculture and a way of technology in a broader sense, and they are all a way of the land in a country without borders. This way of story telling can be taught. I hope to lay down a few ideas in that direction later this week.

Fire, Art, and Global Warming

Despite vital talk of global warming and increased carbon levels from burning, one thing remains certain and even more primary: the earth is a world of fire. The oxygen that plants separate from carbon dioxide makes sure of that. As creatures of this earth, humans participate in fire processes as well. It’s not really a choice. The forest fires of summer, brought on by electrical storms in the overheated atmosphere, are easy to celebrate for their power, but what of the earth’s other fires, ones perhaps more subtle, the fires of spring? They’re everywhere. Look.

Farmer Stripping Another Orchard from the Land

Turtle Bay, Glacial Lake Penticton

Fire is hard work, sometimes, and sometimes it is so a part of the land that it goes overlooked, such as here, farther west along the Glacial Lake Penticton shallows…

Arrow-leafed Balsam Root Bringing the Fire of the Sun Down to Earth

An indigenous eco-agricultural crop being plowed under to make room for a high-tech European one: apples.

It is exciting that in all this burning it remains possible to implement a social solution that would bring all these fires together, so that one man doesn’t need to feel compelled to feed his fires at the expense of those of another’s. There’s enough fire to go around. Perhaps the healing could take place right here…

Fire with Gas Tanks, Spray Shed, and Aluminum Ladder Leading into the Sky

Turtle Bay, Glacial Lake Penticton

That was once an orchard that saw a Japanese family out of the post World War II internment camps. Now it’s a shrine. Maybe it’s time to return the shrine back to its task of healing social wounds instead of reopening old ones just down the road. Perhaps that is also a vital form of respect.

Arrow-Leafed Balsam Root in Jail

For 4,000 years the ancestors of these two plants supported the people here. That’s a lot longer than 80 years of apple growing.

Ah, but contemporary culture is so great at recognizing human social fires. Since the society of the future is about the earth, however, let’s celebrate, just for a moment, the fact that these social fires are intimately connected with the planet on which humans live — and interact with it physically. Such as here…

The Earth Burning Up into Weeds in the Sun

Oh, just a little jump-the-road encroachment from a 1970s-era orchard subdivision onto the balsam root gardens above, nothing more.

Isn’t that cool? Social acts are physical ones, expressing the fire nature of the earth. If you doubt it, perhaps all this snooping around in the ghost waters of a long-vanished lake is dulling the edge of the fire. To rekindle it, let’s go east, to the edge of the Monashees, on the old Syilx summer village site and gambling grounds under the mountain the people called Coyote Sleeping…

A Wild Crafter’s Garden

Clay pot in a slow burn, bringing the fire close to home.

There is a secret that painters have known for a long, long time: colour is a language that can be used to make deep sense of the world, creating instant understandings that would otherwise take huge investments of words that would, no doubt, in the nature of conversations, stray along the way. In this time of learning to speak as the earth, we need the use of as many languages as we can get. Here’s a fire I made the other night in my dining room…

Tomatoes on Fire

Red tomato slice, hollowed out, surrounded by its chopped core mixed with thyme and deveined pink grapefruit, and filled with halved yellow cherry tomatoes marinated lightly in balsamic vinegar. Parsley for colour. Olive oil for sweet balance. 

Yet another language! And it doesn’t even contravene fire regulations!

We are fire creatures. Eliminating fire on earth in the name of global warming is a diminishment of possibility. Eliminating the needless, greedy fires that have created global warming in the first place is a different matter. As for evidence, I offer two more small pieces of evidence. First, an image of fire, destruction, and renewal…

One More Red Delicious Orchard Bites the Dust

And the whole world cheers. This orchard outside of Wenatchee, Washington is slated for replanting. What, you actually like Red Delicious? The cardboard, Vietnam-era apple?

Here, on the other hand, is what happens when fire is suppressed and the earth takes matters into its own hands, so to speak…

Dead Grasslands, West Side of Okanagan Lake…

and a fire that’s going to grow so hot when it inevitably comes to take these weeds away that instead of rushing through the grass and renewing the balsam root, lilies, and wild parsley that can sustain a people it will turn everything to ash and bake the soil back to the stone age, which is pretty much a perfect expression of what this denial of the social nature of fire a century ago did to the earth in these parts in the first place.

Fire is not the problem. The lack of understanding of the social nature of fire is. Right now, the text of that understanding is written in highways. As the fire creatures that they are, humans use them as sites for burning fossil fuels. If that were the only language on earth, if the earth wasn’t rich with languages that allow us to modulate their social environments just by looking out the window and seeing how the grass is doing as it blows in the wind, we would be living in fire poverty. Our own fires would go out as we returned the earth to a physical state that it had long before the conditions were right for our own complex, slow-burning, human fires.

That would be suicidal.

A New Garden

I’ve been digging. Wayyyyy back when U.S. President Johnson sent his boys into Cambodia, my school teacher told me that I’d better study hard or I’d wind up spending my life with a shovel, digging ditches. I have since learned that there are worse things. Here’s where I’ve been spending my days. This garden plot you will see below was a garden back in the 1970s and 1980s, but then it was modernized. What on earth is that? Modernized? Aha, it is a very clever thing. There I was late in the morning dealing with all that modernity and … well, walk (or shall I say, dig?) with me for awhile, and you may see what I saw too. Here’s the garden plot…

The Reclaimed Garden

Complete with peat moss, manure, rusty wheelbarrow and shovel. 80% of the earth you see here was covered with landscape cloth a year ago. On top of that was, in various places, either ground up bark chips or pea gravel. Tons of pea gravel. The bare soil was covered in a kind of plasticized mulch that comes from throwing anything plant-based into a plastic ‘com poster’ and creating a kind of organic plastic, impervious to both water and decay. I dealt with that, too.

Yesterday I removed the last of the gravel from the darker, foreground section of the photograph above, tore up the shade cloth, and then dug out all the roots from a nearby pine tree that was exploiting the situation. What I created was soil, which looks like this now:

The Dirt on Dirt

Last summer I managed to shovel a strip bare enough to plant some tiny green-shooted raspberry canes. They’ve been cheering me on ever since. I’ll be digging that peat moss in one more time.

So, that’s my dream: a place in which plants can anchor, draw water up from the soil, mix it with sunlight, and make life, which I can share. In the course of re-creating this dream out of another man’s dream of creating a zero-weed, low maintenance garden of rocks and bark, I uncovered an amazing piece of technology. Here it is…

Plastic, Every Pine Tree’s Best Friend

There were three layers of plastic and shade cloth on top of this soil. Between them each was a layer of bark chips which was turned into a solid mat of dry felt by a web of pine roots. What had started out as a weed elimination trick had become a kind of water extraction wafer.

Here’s the edge of one of those high-tech wafers…

Go Pine Tree, Go

Try sticking your shovel through that, eh.

Yeah, I know, it’s not the normal WordPress thing to look at pictures of dirt, but think: computers are built around silicon sandwiches, solar cells are built around silicon sandwiches, and this device was built around a silicon (soil) and carbon (chopped up logging waste) sandwich, that gathered water, trapped it, and allowed it to be extracted. The result, though, sadly, was the death of the rowan tree that was trying to grow there. It needed deep water, and this method eliminated it all.

Sacred Rowan Firewood

Hardly a compensation, but, still, you know, something.

So, here we have a system that is capable of mining water, every bit of it, and processing it  organically, not as plants would normally do it, but in a manner that uses a plant (in this case a pine tree) as a machine. It is a way of harvesting all the available water in an area and delivering it to one single individual, without pipes, tubes, pumps, valves, wires, or any intervention whatsoever. I prefer living plant communities, rather than this kind of engineering-plant partnership, but I do, still, see the potential for managing and harvesting water with the efficiency of machinery, without any machinery at all. Shame about the rowan, though. Still, there are compensations, such as my apricot day celebrating this day of sun…

Apricot Tree Enjoying This Day

I had to wait my turn. The bees were here first.

Tomorrow, I’m off to do some grafting, to marry a Sierra pear twig with its new home on a Comice tree. I feel like a bee. With a knife, some masking tape, a brush, and a jar of green goop. Just like the monks of old who got us started on all this. Thanks, guys. I owe ya.

Fun Fun

So, let’s go to that premium human, salmon and wine habitat, Lake Chelan, for a moment, and see how the people are doing. This, after all, is the lake in which hydrofoil boat racing got itself, well, off the water, so to speak. And, you know, that’s the thing. So much power, and where do you go? Why, up into the hills. They’re like waves, right? Right! Beware, though, this is the West, and irony will follow you like soap-on-a-rope.

View from the Tourist Strip

Chelan, Washington

You know, I love it. Sure, that darned motorcycle trail straight up the grassland slope is going to erode the whole mountain into a deep hoodoo of muck and yuck that won’t heal before the United States has gone the way of all other empires, ugh, but the chutzpah, eh! And the sheer joy of it all. That’s a grand thing, worth celebrating. The car wash is just the perfect touch for that. But isn’t that the thing about fun? It’s relative, which means it can change. In this case, it’s about getting physical, about finding a way to match technology with the earth, using bodies to manage the interface rather than minds. That’s, like, so American, you know, but it’s great, too. We can work with that. One of the principle roles of society is to channel young male energy into socially useful purposes. Many thousands of societies over time have figured that out. No doubt, so can we. First, though, a little laughter helps. Oh, and if you’re in Chelan and get a hankering after some Thai food, remember, their ‘medium’ on the spice scale is, like, not on the scale anywhere else. Just a tip, eh. There’s going to come the day when we have to shovel the freeway out of Okanagan Lake, one wheelbarrow load at a time, which a previous generation dumped in there with earth movers and dump trucks and, you know, chutzpah. We might as well bulk up before we start. This is what Gary Snyder called “The Real Work (Do click on the link, you get to preview the book) — what we have to do to live on this earth as if we actually lived here. Years back, the East German playwright Stefan Schütz wrote about this in his radio play Peyote, which I translated because in it he pointed out that, to paraphrase, in Pueblo cultures so many people consider that humour is a warm-up act for the spiritual work, which is led by priests, but the humour is actually the real spiritual work, because it cracks the world open to create living space. There’s a short excerpt here. And then off to Chelan with you, where the dialogue between mud and spit-and-polish is alive and well. As Coyote would say (and I’m in a Coyote mood today), Hoooooooooo!

Sacred Waters, Part Two

Many photographs  in this series have documented how water flows through dry landscapes, especially as it flows through plants instead of through the soil. There are other times, when it flows through mineral layers. Some of these flows stop at sacred lakes such as Ktlil’x. Some begin flowing again through social landscapes. This pattern is clear in Smokiam, Washington. Like Ktlil’x, it has been sacred, medicinal water for thousands of years.


North End. Great view of the RV Park at the mouth of the Sun Valley. When a canal was cut to bring water into the lake as part of the Columbia Basin Project, the soapy foam that used to rim the lake and which brought it the name of Soap Lake declined. It still piles up along the shore when the wind blows. Fortunately, it does that a lot.

The waters of Smokiam have the most diverse mineral content of any lake on Earth. It shows along the shore.

Smokiam Shoreline

Because the waters of Smokiam rise and fall only slightly with the seasons, they don’t show the great solar tides of Ktlil’x. In their place, they display points where life and mineral crystals meet.

That’s the north end of the lake. Down south, in the town of Soap Lake, things look a bit different.

Greek Archway

With shrubberies and concrete bricks.

Verrrrry nice. If you stay at the RV Park next door (Yes, one at each end of the lake!), you can get married here, and, what’s more, once you’re done with that, you and your guests can pose at the sun dial. Sun dial? Why, indeed, it gets to be 115 in the shade in Soap Lake. You might as well celebrate it.

The World’s Only “Human Figure Sun Dial”…

…and circular wedding guest seating. Your guests get to be the hours on the clock. Excellent touch.

And what is he pointing towards with his magnificent wing? Aha!

The City of Soap Lake Water Tower!

Well, that’s on first glance, but just below that, there’s this more sobering look at history and desire:

A Sign from a Better Day

The cool thing about this welcome sign, is that it’s on the outskirts of town, not before you cruise into town but just before you leave to wind north along the lake to…

The Sun Basin

Mid-Basin View to the Southwest

Now, to my way of thinking, ‘fun’ is a curious word to apply to a shrub steppe with some alkaline lakes, some ancient humanly-inhabited caves, rhinoceros fossils, and one of the most sacred travel routes between the Cascades and the Rockies. Fun, it seems, is a relic from the 1960s, when the Hanford reactors just a little to the south and west were chugging out the plutonium for the U.S. Cold War nuclear arsenal, and the area’s nuclear workers were pretty chipper about this area, east of the rain forests, being the New Wild West, the one that would take the spirit of the Oregon Trail into the Space Age. That’s what counted for fun in those days, plus the local (Tri-Cities, Washington) invention of the Personal Water Craft. Here’s what came of all of that understanding that history was a mighty fun thing …

Soap Lake Fun Park

Drive In, Bandstand, Motel, Restaurant, and Skate Board Park Complex in One

Ghosts of America past, or what. This is one face Smokiam and 10,000 years of healing history in waters so mineral rich that you can’t sink in them, but float, like a cloud. May 12, 2012 is the day on which the fate of the lake will be decided: to keep it as Soap Lake, or to return it to its original name, Smokiam. Tempers are hot. It seems the imagination that can see both Native Americans and settlers sharing the same land is still not universally shared. I think it’s about time, an opinion I share with a universally admired local leader…

Kamiakin  Source

Way back in 1855, before the Yakima War, Kamiakin, the great chief of the Yakima, made the remark that his people had been happy to share the land with the newcomers but were saddened to the point of bitterness by the unwillingness of the newcomers to actually share.

It seems like we’re getting there, but slowwwwwly. Oh, and the reactors at Hanford are shut down now, too. The engineers got a 10 billion dollar contract to clean up the mess and, um, as this hearing heard, have built a machine that doesn’t really work. They should go and soak their feet in Smokiam and commune with Kamiakin. We’re getting more to talk about together all the time.