Gardening With Fire (and Spiders, too)

I went for a long hike through the fire that fried the hills a couple weeks ago, to see how things are getting along, and was struck at how foreign fire has become to contemporary gardening methods and how strange the world of renewal is that follows it.

The Dead Zone

It’s a long time since the Okanagan looked like this. It once did, however, every decade or so. This is a traditional method of gardening in this place.

Although they didn’t burn as hot as this fire, which was fed by a century of imported weeds that went up like gasoline, Syilx traditional gardens in this land were all maintained by fire. They were, in other words, succession gardens: a kind of permacultural garden maintained in a juvenile, productive state by fire.

Two Weeks After the Flames

The grass is coming back. Well, not everywhere. Only in select locations, where the fire didn’t burn too hot, or where it jumped a roadway and left the grasses along its margin only slightly charred, or, as here, where imported species around a cow wallow didn’t go up as hot as bunchgrass did on the main slopes. 

This imitation of natural succession is effected in gardens these days with seeds and water, tilling and compost. Out in the hills, it’s a little different. For one thing, the scavengers are out in force. There are the ants, and black widow spiders casting up their scrubby webs, to see what they can catch.

Black Widow Web in the Fire Scene

Hey, when you’re a black widow you just need a web strong enough to confuse your prey. It’s all in the hunt. I’m all for it, if it keeps them out of my basement.

… and all the magpies for miles around, cleaning up the hillside where the local colony of rattlesnakes got a bit scorched. Here they are, just hanging out.

Magpies in a Dead Saskatoon

While the sound of a heavy metal music and a complaining loon wafts up from a ski boat on the lake below.

So, that’s intriguing. A garden that’s not tilled but which is turned into a kind of death, populated by scavengers, cleaning up the last of the animal and insect life from the previous regime and preparing to be there for the next. Maybe the composting here doesn’t happen in a compost box but in a broad inter-species context, in which succession is an alteration between the realms of life and death.

Black Widows Hanging Around My House

Up into the Hills, I say, where you can do some real good and don’t scare me out of my wits when I go down to the freezer for some frozen peaches, sheesh.

The ants that move into this zone after the fire will be there to help replant it afterwards. The black widows that prowl out from underground (or my basement, hint, hint) to catch whatever insects they can will still be here long after the land regrows, and will survive the next fire. Same with the magpies. All of them don’t so much fertilize the ground, to prepare for the next crop as lay down pathways for the insect life that even now is drifting through from the edges of the fire zone, block it from abusing a very tender landscape in the first stages of recovery, and use the energy within that insect life (and dead snakes) to make sure that they, themselves, survive. Could it be that the mix of species on this land is not just determined by fire but also by the actions of the first colonizers after the fire has passed? Or is that just what goes on when the fire burns too hot? I dunno. The photo below shows a zone on the edge of the burn, where the fire passed through quickly…

Bunchgrass Coming Back

Two weeks after the burn, this bunchgrass is thriving.

It seems that if the fire isn’t too hot, the landscapes of life and death intermingle in complex ways and regeneration is almost instant. What would our gardens look like if we farmed them this way? For a century, we’ve taken fire out of the equation. The magpies appear to be awfully glad that it’s back.

Magpie Surveying His Dead Kingdom …

…and, no doubt, finding it good.

I’m left with a haunting question… which is more destructive? This replacement of landscape with a weed culture …

Vineyard  Roadway North of the Fire Zone …

Virtually every plant you see here is a weed. Is this form of succession a true desert?

…or this?

Wild Cherries Cooked on the Branch

Is this the true desert?

Hurts the head, for sure. Both conditions are the result of human intervention into a humanly-created process. Both are the land. At the moment, however, one of them is undergoing a fascinating process of predation. Maybe that’s the place to keep our eyes … not so much on plants, all nice and green and pretty, but on animal life and the role it plays in succession here and regrowth. What a fascinating way to garden: not by controlling weeds but by controlling animal life on the land and maintaining it rather than fencing it out.

Beehives at Brushy Bottom (Similkameen)

No bears welcome. Well, at least no bears that can read AND are too gullible to notice a bluff when they see it.

What if, gasp, bears were welcome in our gardens? What if we farmed with so much excess that they played a role in managing it for us?  I have no idea what that would look like, but I find it intriguing.

Next post, I’ll expand this idea into a form of gardening that incorporates weeds. I’ve been collecting seeds and pictures of that just for you. See you then.

Green Zebra!

Green zebra tomatoes are my friends. They taste like a cucumber-tomato salad, no cucumbers necessary. Slice them up on a plate and they look like cucumbers. Beautiful.

Green Zebra Tomatoes Getting Ready for a Salad in the Kitchen

Here’s one in the wild…

Green Zebras Ripen as Quickly as Sweet Million Cherry Tomatoes

Both have a lovely zing.

Here’s a cluster of them all together…

Recipe: 1 part old landscape mulch, 1 part sand from underneath the landscape mulch, discard the old landscape fabric, 1 part lumber to build a terrace, 1 part manure, 1 part clay, mix well, shovel, shovel, shovel, shovel, shovel, 1 little tiny green zebra plant, add sun, water occasionally until done, then hold off on the water.

Let’s try to get these things in the stores, I say, and in our restaurants. Mmmm.

Bad Cows

Yesterday, native species and fire. Today, imported species and fire. And shame. First, California Quail.  Brought here so that men can go out hunting. Men hunt moose now, up north, so the quail are largely safe, and, who knew! They blend in with a fire landscape, perfectly. Somehow, I think this isn’t the first time this species has recolonized fire landscapes. This is not the shame part.

Now, it’s easy to criticize hunters for turning a very necessary search for food into a sport, for the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it, so to speak, but it’s just not that simple. I wish it were, but look at this. Yeah, Bossie herself, horns and all.

Cow on the Search for Alfalfa

This is agriculture that makes fire look like the tenderest of caresses.

Next, that cow’s calf…

Calf High-tailing it to the Photographer, to See if He Has Something Edible to Offer

Did the cow invite her over to eat the lone piece of greenery on 30 hectares of land? She did not. That’s not the cow way.

What on earth are cattle doing on such fragile land? It’s like putting a rototiller on automatic and letting it go wherever and whenever the whim takes it.

 

 

 

Fire and Ants

Remember that fire? Grass burnt to the end of its story a couple weeks back? Only living thing left a few grasshoppers deep into the first stage of the grieving process and soon to move on? Well, the story has changed. The colonists have arrived. The clean-up crew is here.

Queen Ant Moving In Over the Ash

Is it an accident that ants are released to start new colonies during fire season?

I once watched four carpenter ants step out of the flames that were gushing through their tunnels in a slice of a lodgepole pine I had thrown onto the coals of a fire, walk across the log, through the curtain of fire erupting out of the bark around the edges of the wood, and across the red-hot coals towards dry ground. The living world doesn’t have to be the green one we all love. It can be a black one, feeding off of the ruins of the green one, at first, and moving on from there. And, you know, it’s not just the ants. The bees are moving in as well.

Bee Hives in the Ash Zone

Most species of bees in the grassland lay their eggs underground and tend them individually. Their work is done for the year. The picture above shows the beginning of their winter.

It’s not just bees and ants who have gone underground. These rock people are out of the light for the winter now, too…

Yellow-Bellied Marmot, Peshastin Pinnacles

When I found him in July, this fellow was living ten feet up a sheer granite cliff. He’s deep within it now, and won’t show again until May.

Most of our fellow citizens in these grasslands are gone from the above-ground world now, in fire season. Only we humans and deer and hawks and porcupines and bears are thinking that up here in the heat and the wind is where things are going on, as we graze in one way or another on the underground people. We’re not so different from them, though. For awhile, they come out into the light …

 

Apostemon Bee in a Mariposa Lily

Both the bees and the lilies are underground now. If fire were to pass through here, they wouldn’t know. They used the light and heat of our world for awhile, then went back to theirs.

Fire, and ants. They both begin the process of creating pathways across the earth. Fire turns the green world into a black one, which ants then carry underground and turn into new, organized life. In the spring, they come forth with the new shoots of the flowers and the grasses, and begin moving seeds and aphids around. I don’t think it’s any surprise that the Syilx, who have lived on this land for thousands of years, built their winter houses underground, in the shape of ant hills. Neither do I think it’s any accident that fire was one of their tools for increasing the fruitfulness of the land. It’s not just a story of fire releasing nutrients, either. It allows a specific set of webs to be re-created.

This is ant country.

 

Black Krim Tomato

Welcome to the Black Krim tomato. Think of it as self-marinating. Put that bottle of balsamic vinegar away. That stuff was invented to make Best Boy tomatoes taste like Black Krims. Black Krims need no fancy food additives. They just need … heck, they don’t need anything. We are the ones who need Black Krims.

Black Krims in Their Natural Habitat

These are what could be best called a brown tomato. Take a look at the red Sweet Million cherry tomatoes splashing out a bit of colour for contrast in the image below, and you’ll see what I mean.

Green, Brown, Red and Purple

The not so secret life of the Black Krim.

What is a Best Boy? Aha! It’s a tomato designed to be pure red, to yield heavily, to have thick cell walls, making it ideal for shipping, and to have a long shelf life in a store. Get that? A tomato not bred for human food or delight but for industrial models of agriculture. Ah, but the Black Krim! I stumbled on them last year, and dreamed of them last winter, and  bought a dozen varieties to find them again, and, ta da!

Two Days’ Harvest of Black Krims

But the best is hiding inside. Take a look…

Oh, yeah.

 

 

 

 

 

Six Month Tomato Salad

Six months ago, I dreamed of a salad. I planted pink, yellow, red, RED, orange, black, brown, roma, cherry, and green tomatoes, and, oh my. Here is the salad almost in its final form, the result of weeks of digging and pickaxing and hauling soil, building a terrace, and then the planting, watering, and waiting, waiting, waiting, and waiting some more. Now I’ve let the tomatoes dry out in the August sun, as their ancestors learned in the Andes, and my salad is almost here…

Tomatoes: Weeds with an Indigenous Ancestry

The green ones are like cucumber-tomato salad all in one. I can’t believe that restaurants around here aren’t serving these.

Recipes next week.

 

Secret Weapon in the War Against the Weeds

Meet your darkest enemy. This plant is the end of any grassland it gets a hold in. Pretty soon, huge areas of grass are useless for anything, even to walk through.

The Asian Steppes Invade

Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, and the stink, whew! No wonder Attila the one kept moving West. Austria looked great compared to this.

Well, then humans kept moving West, and brought their old friend, Knapweed the Devil, along with them, and it took over, and yuck.

Environmental Control as a Form of Bankruptcy

When a development company goes bankrupt, what do they do with their vineyards? They just leave them piled up and unplanted in the gravel. Soon the knapweed moves in, because it loves bankruptcy, oh it so does, and here in North America it has no predators, so… lot’s of fun!

But there’s a hero in this tale. To the rescue, comes…

A Knight in Dullish Armour. Ta Da!

Ummm, can you see him there? He’s not very big. Here’s a closer look …

Knapweed Root Weevil

Introduced into the Okanagan, all the way from Central Asia, he’s wading into the field of slaughter.

And here he is, silhouetted against the sky, like a billboard advertising the end of chemical and mechanical control (doesn’t work), and a return to working with the earth …

There must be a million zillion acres of this stuff, ripe for a bit of weevily attention. I wish him well!

Writing on Rock

Writing about the culture that has come out of aboriginal-settler relationships in what is sometimes called the Late West, is a bit  like peeling a layer off an onion, and there’s another layer, so you peel that off, and there’s another one yet, and here we are and your eyes are starting to tear up and sting and you start thinking, whoa, shoulda worn safety goggles.

 

The Okanagan Okanogan Blog Official Onion Crop

Drying in the August sun.

So, let’s start peeling. Got those goggles? Here we are in Oroville, Washington, and the kids are painting on the rocks.

 

Every Year 

It’s not just Oroville. The graduation classes throughout Eastern Washington write their names up on the rocks, year after year, after year.

It seems to be irresistible, culturally. Here’s the longer view of that…

 

Prince’s Department Store Parking Lot, Oroville

Complete with white rock art and artificial buffalo that you can ride around in, so you never need to leave home. Without Canadian shopping dollars, Oroville would have a hard time. Prince’s is here to facilitate the exchange of cash.

Here’s an even longer view, this time leaving White culture to the culture it replaced and seems to be stuck imitating, in a kind of diminished way…

Chilcotin Canyon Pictographs

Most of the Plateau versions of these pictographs have been long buried under the flood waters of the Columbia River dams. That’s what happens when you turn one of the world’s great cultural rivers into a lake.

Indigenous kids used to clamber up onto the rocks as part of the ceremony of turning into adults and paint their visions with salmon oil and ochre. Teenagers! There’s something universal here. Here’s what the Chilcotin kids are painting now …

 

Contemporary Chilcotin Pictograph, Sheep Creek

So much changes. So much stays the same. There is a caption, too, off to the side of this image of the footings of the Sheep Creek Bridge. It reads: “Roses are red, violets are blue, I like girls legs, and what’s between them, too.” Nothing like saying it with a spray can.

It’s a different adolescent ritual, and all tangled up with sex and rock and roll, but it’s a powerful ritual nonetheless. But, wait, aren’t the white kids up to the same thing? Why, yes they are…

 

Flume, Oroville

Leave your name, somewhere, especially somewhere it’s not wanted. That seems to be the rule. Not such a visual culture, these Oroville kids have, but, hey.

Oh, but you see, these onions have many different layers. Here we are, a long long way away, in Iceland, and …

“Please Do Not Stack Rocks” Gulfoss, Iceland

The authorities could have saved themselves the sign.

Yes, in Iceland tourists can’t help themselves and stack up rocks in human shapes any chance they get. Here’s a closer view…

 

Bunch of Human Self Portraits Looking Over the Falls…

…long after the biological humans who stacked them up are gone.

There’s something very, very primal here. I’d say that it says that humans make images of themselves, for various purposes, some of which are conscious, others which are not. Now, I admit to a bias. I like conscious purpose. I think you can build better societies like that. I’m not a complete fool, though. I know that contemporary North American society prefers unconscious purpose. It’s just that, well, sure, you can replace an indigenous culture and then your ancestors start repeating its forms in ways that fit in your own culture, and you wind up with RVs, instead of people actually living on the land, and you get global warming instead of a sustainable culture. We don’t all need to be hunter gatherers. That’s not going to happen. But sustainability, that needs to happen. And fast. Here’s an interesting take on rock art, reworked towards long-term sustainability. The metaphor is ancient, and appears at first foreign to contemporary culture, but it isn’t. This is at Ozette, Washington. The Makah people lived on this coast since the ice left and hunted whales. On soft boulders along the shore just south of their village sites, they left talismans, hundreds of them. This is one…

Pregnant Whale, Wedding Rocks

Think of it. You create a whale by slowly wearing away the rock with the action of your own hand until the whale is there, and then you let the sea wear it away over centuries, taking that attention away and dissolving it into the water, to insure that whales will come, rich and pregnant with calves, for hundreds of years. When the art is gone? It’s never gone. It’s in the sea. It’s in the whales.

That’s what culture needs to get at today. Not just painting grad class years on the rock, or names on the culverts, or erotic invitations under isolated bridge decks, but images less of humans and more of the earth, cuz the future ain’t about us. We’ve shown that pretty clearly. Of course, it can be about us, us humans, but if it is, it’ll likely be on a planet in which there is pretty well no other life, just people, people, people, genetically engineered corn and canola, a lot of weeds, and the animals grown in big industrial feed lots for us to eat … a twisted version of the settlement of the West, one that denies that there aren’t no cowboys and there aren’t no Indians no more, just all of us, who’ve inherited both traditions at the same time and have come to point of having to unify them. If we don’t, we’re an invasive species.

Tomorrow: an invasive species.

 

The Other Side of the Coin, or Where Did All the Indians Go?

One thing about life in the Still Wild West is that there are always multiple stories. For example, yesterday I told a story about my vision of the land, which unites both aboriginal and settler experiences. There are many other stories. For example, I grew up in one story about Native Americans and Indigenous Canadians that talks about the land and beauty, about how a people who were the land died out and their spirits blow in the wind, blow sadly and hauntingly through the land that remains after their passing, and sometimes looks like this…

Saskatoons in Bloom, Turtle Mountain

The irony about this white-washed story is that when I first went to school in Cawston in 1964, half of the kids in the class (half!) were Similkameen kids from the reserve. I believe one of them made it through high school. This drop out rate is to their credit, I must say, because that school was nuts, but that’s another story.

This romantic story, which helped power colonization in this region, is still alive, and looks kind of like this …

Canadian Winnebago Culture at Prince’s Shopping Centre, Oroville, Washington

Notice the white version of Syilx pictographs on the rock above town. As in most towns int he Okanogan, each year’s graduating class clambers up there and paints the year of their graduation on the rock.

Most of the time, however, this strange form of cultural appropriation has (thankfully) been replaced by far more careful work. There’s this, for instance, from Armstrong

“When fur traders first came through the area in the early 1800s, they found the Splatsin and Okanagan people long established as successful hunter gatherers. Today the Splatsin and Okanagan people are an integral part of the local community.”

Of course, that good work is in an article that represents 10,000 years of history in 2 sentences, and 150 years of settler history for a whole screen, so it’s not quite as careful as one could wish, but it’s respectful nonetheless. The one from Osoyoos is a bit better...

“Archeological evidence shows that Aboriginal people have lived in the area for thousands of years, making a good living by carefully using the resources of land and water and trading with their neighbours. Today, about 450 members of the Osoyoos Indian Band (OIB) live on the 12,950ha/32,000ac Osoyoos Indian Reserve, contributing to the social life and economy of the region. The OIB is considered to be a leader in aboriginal economic development in Canada.”

Nicely done. Sly, too. You can visit their winery, complete with his Southwest adobe construction, which grows its grapes on orchard land off of the reserve and is proud of the apricot flavours in its wines, from the old, decaying roots of European trees. You can also visit its desert centre (Canada’s only desert is on the Reserve) which isn’t in the desert at all but in the scrub steppe, but what the heck, it’s a happening place, that’s for sure, and a model of economic success, although a bit heavy on tourism, but isn’t that the aboriginal story these days. Here’s a picture from the town of Osoyoos itself, which might explain…

Osoyoos Shopping Mall, Government Office, and Portuguese Heritage Centre

To honour the Portuguese who fled a revolution to come to Osoyoos in the 1960s, and took over the up-to-then German and now Sikh orcharding industry for a generation, Osoyoos advertises itself as the Spanish Capital of Canada, hence the little architectural touches from Capistrano. Portuguese? Spanish? Capistrano? It’s bizarre, I know, but take a look at the horizon. That’s a Syilx ancestor back there. Looks like a mountain, but that’s only half of the story.

My point is that a lot of things in contemporary culture that appear a bit cheesy and in direct apposition to Indigenous culture are, in fact, deeply anchored in its traditions, in the way that casinos and rodeos sprang out of First Nations potlatch and gambling culture, which were forms of political and economic administration that were not only efficient but fun, too. To heck with White Anglo Saxon Protestant dread seriousness. Like, how much fun is that?

Bismark Monument, Hamburg, Germany

Not a whole lot of fun, really.

The Nk’mip winery, for instance. Spanish-Portugues-California-Adobe-Osoyoos. Loads of fun, and good business, too. And this, a bit further north …

Iron Indian with an Iron Salmon, Okanagan Falls Beach

 Politics can be, you know, pleasant, and artistic, too.

II love and respect this work and the claims it makes. It is one of a series of sculptures spanning the length of Syilx territory, in both Washington and British Columbia. I think that in a broader Wild West culture that rose from the collision of Métis, Indigenous, and Settler cultures, more of the Indigenous cultures stuck than meets the eye (although in transformed forms). I find that worth honouring, and, yes, a bit of fun, because it is almost always playfully expressed. Bittersweet, or sometimes just bitter, but playful, nonetheless. Excellent trickster work, in other words. Here we are a bit further north again, with another in the long series of stunning sculptures …

Snya¿stan Shopping Centre, West Kelowna

The most powerful centre for the Okanagan’s white diaspora is in West Kelowna, much of it housed in developments mirroring Central and Eastern Canadian dreams on land belonging to the Westbank First Nation. Cool.

Here’s how the Westbank First Nation describes all this:

Way’ – Welcome to the traditional lands of the Syilx people – the Okanagan people who have lived here since time immemorial. It is with great pride that the Westbank First Nation community shares with you the heart of the Okanagan. We are fortunate to have an excellent climate year round and plenty to do no matter when you visit or what your passion is. Please enjoy the shopping, the golf, and take a few moments to take in the spectacular views. Source.

West Kelowna, a merger of Indigenous and White culture. I think we can take them at their word. The golf, that’s White, I’d say, but the shopping?

The Self-Proclaimed Heart of the Okanagan

I’ll say this much: the heart isn’t here geographically, because this is close to the northern edge of Syilx territory, but the business, yeah, that’s as Indigenous as can be.

“Land” is a European word, not a Syilx one. It was the Europeans who wanted to go farming. The Plateau people? They just wanted to trade stuff. In other words,  this is likely as much an expression of Syilx as of White culture …

Outbuilding on the Reserve at Fort Okanogan, Washington

Here’s the main building, to attract tourists and residents alike…

Chief Joseph Smoke Shop, Fort Okanogan

This emporium (surely the right word) sits on the Okanogan River Estuary. Note the spacious parking lot.

One conclusion to draw from all this might be that when First Nations people discuss Land Claims processes (in British Columbia, virtually no treaties were ever signed), they’re not talking about land but about their hearts and about having space to tell their own stories, which are economic and not like this…

Barbarossa Memorial, Kyffhaueser, Germany

Celebrating the new empire of 1871. 

Tomorrow: surviving remnants of early White-Indigenous relations.

Visions of Earth and Sky

Been thinking. Putting two and two together. Thinking, “Some things are so obvious that you can’t see them for a long, long time, and then you see them and you think, whoosh, how could I have missed that?” Well, it happens. Grew up in the grass, you know, and in the wind (ah, the Similkameen wind that never stopped and hasn’t stopped yet), and the one thing I always said was that I would always live where I could see the stars. So, I was sitting in the Sinlahekin, where it was too hot to sleep, and I was watching the stars fall through the branches of the ponderosas, and it was right. That was two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the Sinlahekin Valley, at the western edge of the grass, where bunchgrass spills down off the hills, and I’ve been thinking about the Chilcotin, at the northern edge of the grass, where it looks like this:

The Mid-Fraser River Grasslands

The river is far below, in the trench it cut in the old post-glacial lake bottoms on that day it cut itself a path through the mountains to the sea. It happened awfully quickly. The Gang Ranch is in the background. Beyond the hayfields, a million acres of grass are pretty much in the same shape they were in 4,000 years ago. And that’s just the bottom corner of this grassland. It goes on, to the North and East.

That’s an old story about that grass, but there’s an older one. I want to tell it to you, because it’s important, but I can’t, because we’re in this electronic world and not out in the grass, where the soft wind never stops and your body stands there between the earth and the sky and sometimes you don’t know up from down, because they’re just all the same thing. This story comes from thinking when thinking means to use the land as your starting point, when you start here, when here is your world. It comes from belonging here, but it doesn’t come from thinking your way into it, or talking your way into it, and you can’t get there by looking, either, and what else do we have here in this blog? Talking and thinking and looking. Still, it’s so important it’s worth trying, to see what I can manage to find words for. This, for example:

Harold Among the Dunes Above Farwell Canyon …

… in his certified wasp-attracting black shorts. Take it from me, the shorts are fine in the grass but when you get to the firs nestling by the active dunes (to the left of this image), you’ll wish you had worn Any Colour But Black!!!!!!!!. Wasps do so sorely love black. No charge for the tip. Photo by Judy Macpherson.

That’s not the story. The story’s about the grass. Well, no, not really. It’s about a map of the stars. It’s about the universe. And the grass. So, a poetic story. A mythic story. Forget names, let’s just go closer, and maybe, maybe, maybe that’ll make some sense. So, to the grass. The grass in this last complete grassland on temperate earth can look this…

Middle Grasslands Bunchgrass, Farwell Canyon

Since these grasslands are arranged on the planes of old glacial lake bottoms, where vertical distance determines drought and heat in a direct reverse image of the Coast Mountains to the west and the rain forests that collected all the water that is not here, there are, really, three separate kinds of grasslands, working three separate kinds of drought conditions, moving up and down, from and towards the Fraser River far below, with its willows and cottonwoods and gravel. Photo by Judy Macpherson. Thanks, Judy.

No, that’s not the story, either, although it’s a good story. Lots of science there. Lots of awe at this planet floating among the stars. Lots of geology and tectonic plates and uplifting continental shores (OK, I didn’t tell you that part, but it’s there), and, you know, good stuff, but there’s a different story, and it’s important, too, so let’s go closer yet, and this time, let’s leave the science behind and be our bodies walking, if that’s possible here, in this electronic everywhere-nowhere land. I think it’s possible, maybe, with a little good humour, perhaps, but what else do we got? Dunno. Ahem, cough cough, so, here’s some grass in the Methow Valley, just over the hill south of the Sinlahekin…

A Healthy Mature Stand of Blue Bunched Wheatgrass

All that’s missing here is the blue-green algae that should be covering the soil between each plant. Grass like this doesn’t exactly bring the idea ‘field’ to mind, does it. More like: pit houses, summer houses made out of reeds, more like people standing there, beautiful people with green arms raised to the sky, beautiful people dancing. Ah, there goes the poet in me again.

But, still, there’s the grass. You can see how it grows. Clumps, right? You can walk between them. They brush your thighs. And between them sprout balsam root, lilies, yarrow and a kazillion other flowers. Butterflies flit and flutter. Sparrows nest in their shade. The wind blows, and at night there are the stars, and there’s nothing between them and the grass, except, maybe, you. The wind brushes through your hair. So, let’s pretend we’re walking here for awhile, nothing but the earth below, nothing but the sky above, and that wind, drawing us out through our skins, and the pounding of our hearts like a drum, and, well, then there’s life.

Bitterroot in Bloom, Summerland

The roots of this early spring flower were once an early season staple for the Syilx and all the other peoples of the Plateau. They are now extremely rare, because they require succesional burning to survive. For them, the world must be continually made new.

And with that, I think it’s best to tell you the edge of the story, cuz I want to show you some more pictures and I think maybe they’ll make more sense with a story in your bones a bit. I won’t tell the story, but I’ll point you towards it, just a little bit. In this story, the father of the people, of all the people of the Plateau, was Coyote. No, not this guy …

Coyote Showing Off His Shiny New  Airport

Okanagan Landing

This guy is a kind of wild dog that cruises through the suburbs at night looking for cats and small dogs and lazy deer. No, the Coyote we’re talking about is a way of thinking, and a way of being here that goes one way to make wild dogs and one way to make people, and they’re all the same thing and they have nothing to do with scientific nomenclature, or Darwin, or nothing like that, and … well, it doesn’t matter, cuz the real story is that someone, sometimes Coyote, sometimes one of his relatives, sometimes just a guy or a girl, is walking out in the grass and he, or she, climbs a tree, because there are a few trees out there, not lots, but a few, and climbs and climbs and there, ahhhhh, weird, there he or she is back in the grass, how did that happen, dunno, but you gotta walk, right, so you walk and walk, and walk and walk, and walk and walk, and get nowhere. But there’s the wind, except here it’s strange. It’s coming from the tufts of bunchgrass. It’s coming from the lilies. It’s coming from this …

Arrow-Leafed Balsam Root

Bella Vista

…well, from balsam roots just like these, but not these ones, cuz these ones are here, on earth, and this story is in the sky. I’m not from Lytton, in the Fraser Canyon, where this story comes from, so I can’t tell it, and I don’t need to, because it’s an old shamanic story. It goes back, I dunno, 20,000 years, 30,000 years. More. It’s everyone’s story. We are migratory animals from the grasslands, who walked across the earth, and here we are, and here some of that grass still survives. This our story. This grass. And the stories that come from it. This is what the mind looks like if you read it as the earth, if you put down your books for a bit and read it there. So the hero in this story bends down, and pulls out a clump of bunchgrass, or maybe a lily …

Mariposa Lilies

Bella Vista

… and there’s a hole in the earth, and down through it there’s another earth, with the same grassland, and on that one there are people, and villages, and your home, where you belong, but how do you get home again? These stories are about how to do that, which was important knowledge for shamanic cultures, in which journeys to the land of the ancestors, journeys into the depths of space and time and consciousness, were vital, and common, and attended to. They’re all about how to get back home. That story’s not mine to tell, but this one is, because it’s largely lost yet is just as important, and it’s the story that caught my breath because of that night in the Sinlahekin, when the stars fell from the … well, not from the sky, exactly, but from the bunchgrass to the bunchgrass, and the only difference was, one was the night (black, studded with the holes where bunchgrass and lilies had been pulled out of the soil) and one was the day (dirt, grass, flowers, stuff like that), or would be, when the sun rose.

A Fallen Star

Rooting well and prospering at Dry Falls

Call the grasslands what you want, the sky, the subconscious, the realm of ancestral memory or language, throw whatever words you want at it, the past, the dreamtime, eternity, it doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that the stars fall from the sky into the bunchgrass of the Sinlahekin, or the Chilcotin, or the Similkameen, or the Okanagan, and they’re just stars falling from the stars to the stars. Then the sun rises …

Sweet Methow Moon Winthrop 

The sky is already covered by the air, but the daytime stars are rising, lit by the sun.

Soon, those daytime stars will start to shine…

First Light Among the Stars

This isn’t grass. It’s a map of the universe. If you can read this, you can find your way to the first day of the earth and to the last, and back. If you’re lucky, you might be able to bring back wisdom. God knows, we need some of that.

Please, don’t misunderstand. This not a poet’s fantasy. I think science has a lot to say about this stuff, and is a powerful spirit path, but I think our bodies have a lot to say, too, and we know a lot that we haven’t given words to, and if we’re going to live on this land, really live on it, we need all the knowledge we can get. What we do with it, ah, now that’s a story we’re working towards (something, I hope, that says it all and is not built on replacing one set of knowledge with a wilderness and then building out of that something entirely new, because it’s hard to work stuff like that out of your head)…

Round Stone at Umatillo Rock

A little awe helps. A little beauty helps.

Hopefully, no matter what story is told now and in the next few crucial years of this planet’s story, in it the whole earth is the taut hide of a drum, or, if you like, a hide spread out over the body (of the earth, of your mind, of the universe, of God, of the Goddess, of Gaia, of your self … it’s all good), and there’s a drumstick there, there’s a story you can read, the way other people read books …

Deer Kill …

… among the stars.

The spirit is dancing. Sometimes the telling of this story is done with a finger dipped in mixed ochre and salmon oil and traced on rock …

Moose

Chilcotin River Canyon

…and sometimes it’s written in the rocks themselves…

Turtles in the Grasslands at Umatillo Rock

Rock formations like this have a deep history in this place. They rise out of ancestral space, out of the daytime map of the stars written on that drumskin that is the earth.

This is the work. What that work is is something you have to find yourself, because it’s not written down and the people who knew it once are gone. You can only find it by walking out into the grass, in a way of walking into your own mind, which is to say, into your body, and then you’ll find it there, and it will give you food …

Biscuit Root

One of the star people. One of the ancestors. One of the spirit beings.

Ancestors. Yes. They live there. In the mind. In our genes. In the earth. Call it what you want. Yes, we are eaters of the dead, but, you see, here’s the thing, call it what you like: they’re not dead, and we’re not eating them. We are dancing among the stars. And now, something beautiful and sad at the same time. Here’s the graveyard in the Sinlahekin, above the grasslands that were flooded over a century ago to make the Conconully Reservoir, to water the orchards of Okanogan. This is a different story yet …

New Ancestors, Planted in the Sky

Talk about finding heaven on earth. Or almost. Or metaphorically. Or a bit too late. A large number of these are the graves of soldiers of five wars.

Maybe it’s a message. Maybe the message is that the boys of the new country here go off to hunt people, and once they’re done with that they go fishing. It’s a proud, heroic story, but it’s just so terribly sad. Maybe the message in this story is that we can just stay home, in the sweet Sinlahekin, that the stories we are told over and over that divide us, the story of the Plateau peoples who have a knowledge of the land that settlers can’t even guess at, and the story of settlers who are chasing the land through metaphors of country and God, are all the same story, that the land was settled out of the collision of two dreams, by people who thought they were different dreams entirely, and the telling of their story as the one dream that it has always been is another story we must tell, but this one we must tell so that we can stop telling it.

The New  World That is Born Today

History, mythology, poetry, spirit, dreaming, vision, shamanism, geology … these are all one story in this new world that starts today, when the sun rises and we look out and see our selves written across the universe, and step out there, as men and women of the stars.

With a little patience for the pathways of a poet’s mind, it might work, right? Not as a romantic thing, but as a practical path. We could work it up with all the science and history in the world, and still be talking, but we’d be talking together, not all at once but together. That’s what I’m thinking.