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.

2 replies »

    • Oh, yes, indeed. They are de rigeur for every greenhouse, with their multimillions in glass, steel, natural gas, and organic marketing initiatives. People also buy them for their gardens, but there they have a habit of flying away back to, well, it seems, their mountain peaks.


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