Why Did the Snake Cross the Road?

Answer: to get cool in the remains of yesterday’s rain!

Bull Snake on a Hot Afternoon, Chilling

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Yeah, but this is a tractor road linking two sections of a vineyard, and tractors, um, well, look…

Tractor Mowing…

… or munching dirt. Hard to decide which. This tractor is 15 minutes away from coming back down the road with the snake.

Last year, I found a bull snake schmucked right here, with pieces of its intestines sticking out where they should not have been, and tractor tracks all over it. This snake, though, knew nothing about that. I looked it in the eye …

Bull Snake Waiting for Me to Go Away

(And doing its very best rattlesnake imitation, too.)

… and it looked back. I blinked first. Unfortunately, rattlesnake imitations do nothing to stop tractors in their tracks. So, just like with the turtle a few days ago, I encouraged it to move on. It did, doing a little “I’m a rattlesnake!” dance along the way, just so I’d keep my distance. I respected that.

Bull Snake on the Run

“Good for you!” I said.

45 seconds later it was in the grass, lifted up six inches off the ground, braced itself against the grass stalks, hissed in a really rather lame rattlesnake imitation, and, freed of the ground, sped off at speed.

I think it’s ridiculous that our brothers and sisters are in peril because we build roads in stupid places. I mean, come on. How hard is it to share a planet, anyway?

And look who I saw on the way home.

What a Great Day Not to Be Alone

This male American Goldfinch, his mate, and their single (male) hatchling spent the afternoon feasting on weed seeds. Most of the time, however, the male kept watch … just like this.

Here’s a different snake image — this one from a vineyard above Lake Geneva, in southwestern Switzerland. This vineyard is not occupied by tractors. Work is done by hand here: 1200 hours per hectare per year. Access is by rusted iron gate.

Vineyard Access, Upper Delazney

Here’s a closer look at the sign posted at the top of those stairs…

Who Needs a Guard Dog…

…when you have protected asps? Heck, who needs a fence. Can the romanian farm workers read this? Is it for them? I dunno.

Here are the vines, protected by those snakes…

  Chasselas Vines

One thing about not having tractors is that the soil is not compacted, at all. Note as well how closely the vines are spaced. As a consequence, each vine can be reduced to only a couple clusters of grapes, without destroying yield. Good for asps, too, I suspect. 4% of bites are fatal.

And here’s the house that is attached to the vines that are guarded by the asp who lives at the top of the rusted iron gate …

Swiss Vineyard House

I bet my bull snake would like it here.

Couldn’t we just drive  our tractors at a   s   l   o   w   e   r   speed while we converted our vineyards to snake habitat? You know those little symbols that show up on tuna tins, to say no dolphins were harmed in the hunt for these magnificent fish (or something like that)?

 Dolphin Safe Label

(It’s about respect.) Source

We could earn the right to slap Bull Snake Safe labels on our wine bottles, just like that. After all, a little dip in the pool shouldn’t be a death sentence.

Dining on Elderberries

How about becoming a bee? Would that be nice? And you can! Rather than wait for berries and be a, gasp, wasp, with zing and a sting in September and people hanging bags of water over their doorways to try and keep you away, you can dine on elderberry flowers in June and even beat the starlings to it. Here’s the bush that’s scenting up my yard and making me buzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Red Elderberry in Full Sproing

One bush = 12 dozen flowers. Can you imagine an orchard of these things? A vineyard?Traffic would stall, mind you. All that sweet scent would make the drivers swoon. 

Elderberry juice, champagne, syrup, and fried elderberry flowers dipped in batter. It’s tantalizing, eh! Here’s recipe for Elderberry syrup, complete with lots of lovely pictures and a copper pot to die for. And here’s one for dipping the little beauties and frying elderberry blooms up to a crisp.

Champagne in its Raw Form

We could call the bubbly we brewed from this Rip Van Winkle. Put a red cap on it. Pop!

You gotta ask: why do orchards in the Okanagan all look soooooo industrial? Why, because they’re mostly trying to sell a fruit that grows over half the planet. That’s right, apples. There’s a glut. But elderberries? I mean, they grow here without any attention at all. We could just, sort of, work with that, right?

Does the Future Look Like This?

240 Blooms per plant in the fifth year, 363 plants per acre, makes for 87120 blooms per acre. A ten acre elderflower orchard could produce 871200 flowers.

You’d just have to wear a bee suit to pick the things, that’s all. Bzzzzzzz.

A Perfume Industry in the Western Mountains?

Sometimes one can get too close to a work of art and see the brush strokes rather than the big picture. Here’s a shot of the Okanagan Perfume Industry that shows just what I mean …

Okanagan Lavender

Provence North, or what?

The thing is, this perfume field is actually not designed for scent. It is meant to be viewed at speed, from a car, a moving car, preferably an SUV with big tires and glossy paint, on its way uphill to view houses merging California, Spanish, Arizona, and French accents, each with a non-functional tower over the door and wisteria and a barbecue in the yard, which is a deck, and past that a vineyard, and past that a golf course with a view over the lake and the sky. Each of those items exists as a little psychological tweet, or tweak, and if experienced at speed they all unfold into a physical and emotional experience not unlike a poem. Here is the poem’s closing sentence, which a driver or passenger in a steel poetry touring car might see for a fraction of a second while re-entering the world…

Lavender Median

And the lone hawthorn tree that survived five winters of hungry mice now. (Sorry about the off-centre shot, but you get the idea, right?)

But if the subdivision is financially poorly-conceived and the economy goes kaplooey and the people in surrounding neighbourhoods start walking through this artwork, they see it wayyyyy too close. They see individual plants, growing in dirt, watered with trickle irrigation hoses, and impeccably landscaped by a professional landscaping company. So, here’s what I’m thinking: a mile and a half of median, six feet wide, gives 1.1 acres of farmland. We could grow beautiful purple cabbages with this water, or we could just harvest this lavender. The stuff sells for $36 a pound. Given that the water and the land and maintenance are already paid for, the only expense would be harvesting and packaging. Here’s what the folks at Purple Haze Lavender in the coastal grassland in Sequim, Washington, have figured out to do with lavender in the kitchen. Why not? But if this kind of practical social sculpture is not your thing, how about this?

Beautification Project on the Northern Entrance to Vernon Source

Wild trees and plants being ripped up to be replaced with lawn and landscape trees. I hope they don’t plant hawthorns.

And what does the local politician who released the funds for this artwork (which is actually under separate government jurisdiction) have to say for himself? Why, “These are some of the largest taxpayers in Area B and they were being under-served.” Got that? Historically, Western democracies are based on the principle of one person/one vote. Currently, at least in the mind of one western politician, the principle appears to be “one dollar, one vote.” The cost? $25,000. Compare that to the cost of generating income from the lavender median a few kilometres around the corner and up the hill: $0. I hope they plant purple cabbages. Or lavender. Meanwhile, in downtown Vernon, beautification is even more contentious, and expensive. In this case, $100,000, for sewers, bricks, and lights. At least the folks up on the hill understood the power of making a poem out of landscaping efforts, and the power of plants within that art form. Sewers, bricks, and lights? Isn’t it time to put our cities to work? What about planting the correct varieties of lavender and making perfume, instead of dried flowers? City shopping districts, after all, are for walking. Why, people could stop and smell the flowers.

Ripping Out the Landscape Cloth for My Sisters

The ladies are on the ridge line. Not behind the ridge line. On the ridge line. See?

And the gentlemen are down in the sagebrush, far below. Like this…

 I tell you, these guys only look up from munching when a human calls to them, “Hey! You! Camera! Up here! It’s me! Whoo-hoo!” But that only works once. The second time they were onto me. The second time, they did not look up.

Serious Eating Going On

There were actually three of these guys, just hanging out. Not looking up. 

Who says we are alone in the universe? The deer come from this planet. Humans come from this planet. That we are not brothers and sisters would be a great surprise. It’s time to get back to first principles. Maybe it even looks like this…

 Tomato Garden in the Making (Half way there.)

Five years ago, a man converted the flower gardens that grew here into a desert by covering them with landscape cloth and ground up tree bark. This is called “going green”. The sow beetles loved it, at any rate. And the wild lettuce. No landscape cloth can stop wild lettuce.

These are going to be the highest energy input tomatoes in the valley this year, I tell ya.

Nothing Like a Little Bella Vista Clay to Bring Out the Old Railway Pick

Gandy Dancing, anyone? Hi, ho!

Here’s the filbert I planted last year, in the hope I would figure out what to do with this wasteland…

 Putting the Earth Back Together Piece by Piece

The filbert is settling in well. The tomatoes are under the deck, outgrowing their pots, popping with blossoms, setting fruit, gangling all over the place, and watching the proceedings with great interest.

But then, they come from this planet, too. If they weren’t my sisters, it would be a great surprise.

Why Did the Turtle Cross the Road?

I met a beautiful person yesterday evening, in the north part of town. Here is half of her habitat in an unreasonably wet year …

BX Creek just south of Swan Lake

and turned from a wetland into a waterway.

… and here is the other half of her habitat, just a few steps away, created, no doubt, after a full environmental assessment and with some version of her needs in mind …

Highway 97 North, Vernon

(Preferred nesting grounds of Western Painted Turtles. Behind this asphalt desert, this house on wheels, and these hotels is a sea of industrial equipment lots built up on gravel poured into the former wetlands and sandbars south of Swan Lake. 

And here she is, the Western Painted Turtle who tried to cross the road …

Western Painted Turtle

Waiting for me to go away.

And here she is after some encouragement, going back down the slope into the grass, the willows, and way too much wet…

A Sad but Prudent Retreat

Maybe she’ll try again in the dark when the humans are wrapped up in their sheets, and maybe she’ll build her nest in an auto wrecking yard, and maybe at least one of the little ones that will come might make it back across the road without mishap.

This is what happens when creeks are considered to be surface water courses acting like pipelines and not integral parts of the sandy areas on their flanks. Why call the mountain in behind Turtle Mountain if her turtles aren’t given the respect they deserve as living creatures? When humans don’t respect life and its processes, the things they build don’t, either, even if erected to support human life. Period.

Grafting: Slow Brewing a Bottle of True Apple Cider

Sometimes, the long view is best. Thinking it would be great to knock back a cold bottle of apple cider five years from now, I’ve laid the foundation for it. If you’ve wandered into these notes and enthusiasms earlier, you might remember the story of the bear, the cider, and the wild apples. If not, you can read the story here. I was so taken with the apples that I used one of the only two spots in my garden in which I could conceivably plant an apple tree, to honour this beautiful apple I found growing wild. I grafted it in the spring — the first time I’ve held a grafting knife in my hands for twenty years, and it was like it had never left. Here is the tree at blossom time, just after the carpentry was finished.

Young Transparent Apple Tree

Bearing hopes for the future.

Well, a couple of months have gone by, and I’m proud to say that that bottle of cider is doing well.

Grafts Doing Well

And do you see half of a transparent apple pie lurking there under the leaves, daughters of those spring blossoms? I wanted to let the mother tree have her say, too, and, besides, who could turn down transparent apple pie? Those lower branches will come off later in the year.

And don’t worry. I love transparents, too. There’s a second one over on the other side of the apricot tree. She is carrying the other half of the pie.

I’m thirsty already.

The Importance of Colour

Oh, the ironies. A girl spends thousands of generations evolving the capacity to change colour to match the shades of individual grassland flowers, and then? Well, they die, and weeds take their place. Ah, but what weeds!

Invasive Species Never Looked so Good!

You could see this thing from Aldebaran. Even a spit bug did, eh. Check out her little frothy world on the plant’s lower right.

Yup, but it seems that if one hasn’t evolved the capacity to turn from yellow and green shades to purple, one, um, well, see for yourself…

Hide!

No matter how fast one is at getting to the other side of the plant, this crab spider is quicker. In the end,  I fascinated her with my body bulk, held the camera behind her, and shot blind. Not the best shot, but, hey, under the circumstances. I mean, she’s quick.

There is, however, a way, and her companion on the next stalk seems to have found it, and breakfast…

Stay Close to the Leaves

They’re green.

I hope that this is a case of positive evolution in action for these beautiful spiders who spin no webs and make a world out of flower heads. In fact, maybe we need more weeds. I know, it’s counterintuitive, but, still.

Prickly Pear Cactus

And today we stop breathing. Once upon a time, there was a prickly pear cactus. It lived high up on a warm rock outcropping in a cold place, and was as happy as can be. In the spring, well, some springs, when conditions were just right, it bloomed. Here it is, blooming …

Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus Okanagan Landing

The flowers lasted for a few days, and then fell off, but while they lasted they were like finding the sun had settled like little birds at your feet. You just had to be careful not to step too close, because then you’d have prickly pear cactus climbing up your leg, and those things leave little sting holes that last for days.

Peering into the Flower

A good time to blush.

Some of the prickly pear’s flowers were yellow, some pink. And usually that would be that, but while people go about their business in the valley bottom and the grasslands are ignored, cheat grass has been moving into this dry environment and rooting in the small amounts of dust that collect underneath the cactus. In this situation, cheat grass acts as a sponge, trapping water right there where the rock should carry it away, and…

Slime Mold and a Cactus Duking it Out

Folks, this is not good.

Needle-and-Thread Grass

Today, just a little love song for needle-and-thread grass, a grass so thin that it nearly vanishes when the light burns through it. Not for needle-and-thread grass a story of the wind. Not for her the lifting up and drifting this way and that and this way again like dandelion seeds catching photons of light on their wings and lifting up to the far hills. Not for her, this story of moving on:

Up Up and Away

To use an old word from Chinook Trade Jargon, Poh! This is not the Needle-and-Thread Grass way.

For needle-and-thread grass, the knitting of a soul into place, the never-moving-from-this-spot ever breath (poh!) of wind (poh!), and the way needle-and-thread grass lets it pour through herself, who has seeds so light the wind never catches them at all: she, daughter of the earth and mother of the earth again in her time.

Who is the Fairest of Them All?

Needle and thread grass is easy enough to see with a human eye, but for a camera, well, the human has to lie down on the ground and look up to the sky, and there she is, catching the morning.

There is a prairie of mixed porcupine grass and needle-and-thread grass in the high grasslands above Riske Creek in the Chilcotin, the only one like that in the world. The seeds of needle-and-thread grass have tails that curl when they dry. They catch on the long, swaying stems of the grass and hang there, so lightly, just touching the soil, until day by night by day, curling one way with the heat and another again with the cold, slowly, over weeks, they drill down into the soil until they are planted, while all this wind-blown stuff is just collecting against rocks and then being blown on to the next rock. This perfect dryland grass enchanted me fifty years ago, when our fathers’ orchards were beginning to replace it in the Similkameen Valley, yet it still hung on in scraps of wild land between them. It’s rare in the Okanagan (and the Similkameen) now, but in a few place it’s still holding out against the cheatgrass, and maybe, just maybe, when the great drought comes as it surely ill and there is no fall water for the cheat grass, there will still be needle-and-thread grass on dusty slopes where the water drains away quickly and the sun burns like rain, and with her we can start again, in the dawn of the world.

A Community of Needle-and-Thread Grass at the End of Time …

and at its beginning.

That is the story I want to sing today. Enough of these stories of weeds.

Weeds and Water and Wilderness

For a few weeks, I’ve booted around vineyards from the Rhone to Mosel, trying to get a glimpse of the art of farming, as it was practiced when it was still a spiritual enterprise. My goal is to build a future in the mountains inland from the Northeast Pacific Coast in which farming can remain an art. Some of my posts on my vineyard wanderings are documented here and here. Now it’s time for one of the most precious parts of any journey: coming home and seeing the place for the first time. And look what met me when I went out in the early morning, up in the hills.

A Stinkbug in the Cheatgrass

At least that’s what we called them when I was a boy and grass like this hadn’t found its way this far north yet, so it’ll do.

At first, I thought, hey, the cheatgrass might’ve taken over, but the bugs are still here. I was glad at the beauty of it all. Then I looked around and saw no butterflies and realized that maybe the stinkbugs won’t be here for long, either.

Up Close and Personal

This individual is not getting anything to munch on among the razor sharp seeds and their knife-edged husks of the cheatgrass. It’s on the hunt for something better.

The answer might be to go up the slope. A long way up the slope. If this stinkbug were to wander three hundred metres for a fifty metre rise in elevation (surely a long journey for someone a centimetre long), it would find this:

A Sea of Cheatgrass in the Early Morning Shadows

Aka: Stink Bug Desert. 

If by any chance this were a kind of Olympic stinkbug that had lost its way enroute to the big games on the Thames, it might get another seven hundred metres, and another fifty metres uphill, and find something more to its liking…

Brown-Eyed Susans in a Bunchgrass Community

Lots of room for stinkbugs and butterflies here. Notice how the sun made it over the edge of the gulley at last! Hurrah!

This rich grassland community of low shrubs, dominant grasses, algae, a wide variety of flowering plants and the insects and animals that live among them have evolved to thrive in the drought that can turn these slopes as dry as an oven on Self Clean. Just like the stinkbug above, which has wandered out of an irrigated subdivision into the weeds that dress the lower hills, such healthy communities are growing increasingly rare. This one, for instance, was thriving on a low rise 600 metres square. Most of the rest of the hills are covered in a combination of sagebrush and cheatgrass. As far as less chewy, more succulent plants go, chances are a stinkbug would most likely find this:

Bull Thistles!

No one is even asking to share space with this guys. Some of those spines are five centimetres long. You could put out an eye.

And where there are not bull thistles, there’s this:

Bull Weeds…

dressing the Bella Vista Hills in a vision of fruitfulness, or at least one of the pages of a botanical collector’s notebook. Not one of these plants is native here.

Ah, you might be asking by now what’s all this bull stuff. Oh, just an old word still used in these parts that describes so well any living thing that’s, like, über. You know, überbig, überfast-growing, über. From the German for honking-huge and is-this-thing-growing-on-enriched-uranium-or-what? These guys qualify. These don’t:

Stolen Water

That’s how cheat grass got its name: it achieves dominance by sneaking all the water in dry climates away before any other plants can snarf it for themselves. It does this by sprouting in the fall and beginning to grow even before the snow melts from the ground. By the time native plants start growing in the spring sun, all the water has turned into cheatgrass.

Maybe this year the joke’s on the joker. It’s been a wet spring in the Okanagan. The normally brown hills are lush — long after even invasive cheatgrass should have turned brown. In this unusual year, a few other species are able to grab some water from the cheat grass universe. Here’s what it looks like if you turn away from the weeds and stinkbug above and look out over the community of Okanagan Landing towards the Commonage and the Okanagan Mountains, blue in the distance.

A Land of Weeds

Everything you see in this image is a weed, with the exception of the sagebrush and bunchgrass in the immediate foreground, up at the 600 metre level, just up from the brown-eyed susans shown earlier in this post. Everything. Grass, houses, yellow mustard, and trees. Yes, trees. In a grassland, trees are weeds. Ironically, the trees are now protected. The grass, that was originally here, is not.

And that’s where we live in the Okanagan now: in a world of weeds. The easy story of how a grassland was replaced with hardly anyone noticing is that weeds came with agricultural supplies, or escaped from gardens, and spread easily with cattle feed, tangled in the hair of horses and dogs, got snagged in children’s socks and fell out of the muck that gathers in the wheel wells of trucks. Certainly, that’s the way it is, but after tromping up and down and around in European vineyards laid out as intricate machines to capture water and light, something struck me. Then I noticed something …

The Rise, Bella Vista Hills

Bankrupted subdivision, complete with private golf course (above), private vineyards (complete with environmental farm plan certification), and miles of roads blasted out of the rock.

I’d never seen it before, but this landscape, too, is arranged like a machine. Unlike the European model, however, which works to completely transform a landscape and to efficiently harvest light and water, this machine was set up to create wilderness, and to allow human habitats and agricultural installations to have free access to areas inhabited by other species. All one needs to do is to provide downward flowing channels for water (gullies), deer (sagebrush channels, moving vertically between suburbs and the higher sagebrush hills), and birds, and one is free to fill in the remaining areas with whatever one wants, in this case houses and grape plants. The idea, here in North America, is that an authentic landscape is not rooted in God, as is the idea in Europe, but in wilderness, which might be defined as a place that was here before humans and lives independently of them. Would that it were so simple.

Horizontal Habitats Rearranged to Flow Vertically

The point missing from the habitat plan is that the life of selected bands within a grassland are more linked to those areas to their sides than to those below them. By providing increased areas of exposure to imported agriculture and housing, well-intended plans for preserving habitat have actually favoured its replacement — in this case not with houses or farms, but with weeds.

Ultimately, this is a story of water. Water that used to flow down off the hills and through the hills is now captured in the high country and funnelled through subdivisions and farms. The life that used to live off of that water as it slowly moved through the land, now has to hide where it can, right where the water is: among houses, in vineyards and hayfields, in orchards and tomato fields and any other place of disturbance in which those plants that seek to exploit and heal wounded land tend to gather. The word for these kind of plants is: weeds.

Weeds Rising from a Sea of Cheatgrass…

…and catching a little early morning sun.

Weeds are the true wilderness now. They are the creation of a water use policy based on an error. Ironically, now that so-called wild lands are protected, even wild lands with few or no remaining species, it is weeds that receive the greatest protection. Poor stinkbug.  It is ironic as well, however, that in this new vertically-organized landscape, the original inhabitants of the land will only survive if they can move laterally and inhabit the vineyards. In other words, the more wild plants that can be encouraged to survive in the vineyards, and the fewer the pesticides applied in that environment, the greater the chance there is of any true wildness to survive.

And that, my friends, is post 200 in this exploration. Tomorrow: Needle-and-thread grass in the sky.