Wild Grain

Today, these notes on a dry country inland from the Northeastern Shore of the Pacific Ocean have me in a working class city on a rainy island in the Atlantic off the coast of Europe, happily among the people who bought into the agricultural dream of my valley over a century ago. It’s the kind of place in which Empire comes home to stay. England is no longer written large across the face of the earth here, in the rubber plantations of Burma, for instance, in the tea plantations of Darjeeling, the coffee plantations of Nairobi, or even in the apricot plantations of my own Skaha Lake. Instead, it’s written in green hedged yards surrounding brick government housing and a statue of Cromwell, the revolutionary and subjugator of the Irish, standing tall outside a feudal estate belonging to his enemies, while women from former colonies sit at his feet and talk while their children play around them. It’s a place that revels in the elastic strengths of irony and wit.

Oliver Cromwell, Wythenshawe Park

An unusual photograph of the Okanagan, but one nonetheless! On a sunny day, the people of the Empire sit at his feet with their kids. Source.

Because of its long connection to England and the kind of Empire that Cromwell championed, the history of the Okanagan (currently under the administration of Canada) is bound up with this place. Because of its long connection to the English agricultural dream, and Cromwell’s puritan and republican ones, the history of the southern half of the valley, the Okanogan (currently under the administration of the United States of America), is bound up with this place. Here in the Okanagan, these traditions, the one that subdivided the land (New England) and the one that bought into it (English) meet and look, surprisingly, like this:

Cromwell in the Okanagan

Cheatgrass going to seed in late May. Bella Vista Road Ditch.

Ah, cheatgrass! Scourge of the West! Destroyer of the habitat of the sage grouse and the bitterroot! Evictor of the mariposa lily and the butterfly! Mother of Fire! You have much to answer for, but today let us sing your praises. You have brought all of history to this present moment, as a seed that we can plant. Today, we can learn from you and help you grow. Are not those of us who live in the ruins of Empire just weeds as you are? Are we not  proud, happy, and thriving weeds, as you, our sister, are? And, since you are here to stay, might you not be cultivated?

An Early Form of the Okanagan in Front of Manchester Cathedral

This photograph clear shows the “Pedestrian’s Friend” in the middle of a busy traffic street, in front of Manchester Cathedral before his evacuation to Wythenshawe Park to make way for a one way street.

Is cheatgrass really a one way street? It has destroyed the relationship between land and fire in the entire North American West, but now that climate change is altering that relationship even further, maybe it will prove to be a gift of a different kind. Here’s what I’m thinking: when European culture got its start back in the fields of Mesopotamia, wild grasses were domesticated and raised to support cities. For European culture, the primary grass among these is wheat, but if beer’s your thing, then it’s barley. In the Okanagan Okanogan, though, the dominant grass with the potential to create a new civilization is cheat grass. Its yields of seed are high — not so high as that of wheat, but, hey, unlike wheat it needs no weedkillers, no irrigation, no cultivation, and has no competitors or weeds of its own. I wonder what malted cheat grass beer would taste like? Or cheatgrass muffins?

Note: Just your friendly blogger off on a research trip to Europe to get some perspective on the social-agricultural dimensions of this project. For the next few weeks, expect posts moving between eco-agriculture in North America and its earlier versions in Europe. These researches will eventually form the historical foundation of the curriculum of the new educational movement, the Okanagan Institute, which this blog will transform itself into over the summer.

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