First Peoples

A Year of Walking and Learning

It has been a year now since I started walking into the hills with my camera as a way to write two books: one about energy and the land, and the other about the salmon returning to the Okanagan River (despite nine huge Columbia River dams standing in their way). I had this idea that the way into a literary book that was also a book of science was to gather evidence, and I really needed evidence that spanned the U.S.-Canadian border that splits my valley into two. And so I started this journey, in the hope that by travelling north and south North and South would vanish and a story of the land would be there in its place. It has been an amazing journey. North and South haven’t vanished, but I did gain more story about the land than I ever imagined. I’d like to sum up the journey today, and to expand on that summary through next week, because I think a year of walking away from literature into a new world deserves a bit of a map. I feel the books are very close now. I am deep into both of them, but, first, look what I found last night:

A Triangle: Moon, Corn, City at the Closing of the Year

Oh, and don’t forget the richness of the dark.

When I was a young man, I was trying, through literature, to raise the oral and farming cultures of this place to a level of sophistication that could be the twin of any other Enlightenment tradition in the world. Writing and academic traditions went in other directions, into the continued importation of external traditions of enlightenment, while I was off in the north, writing about pristine grasslands and volcanoes. After twenty years I realized that there was no place for me but this one, and I came home, both to the land and to the sober realization that if there is to be an Enlightenment here, I was going to have to take a blind step into the dark and hope there was land there and that I would find guides, who would show me my way. They found me, too, and often made me stop in my tracks…

Okanagan Indian Band Horses in the Spring

I stopped in my tracks a lot, in Canada, in Washington and Oregon, and in Europe, as I tried to track down this story. Here are some of the stories that this method of working brought to me along the way:

1. Water.

Red Wing Blackbird

Deafened by the extremely loud exhaust fans of the “green” architecture of the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

I already knew that the Coast Mountains and the Cascades to the west act like a wing, sucking the Pacific winds dry of water, and leaving super-dry air to fall over these grasslands to the East. What I learned is that this pattern is repeated in the land, that the clouds that pass overhead also pass through the soil, where water is a cloud, in an underground atmosphere, blowing from plant to plant, powered by gravity, sun and shadow. I saw that everything that contemporary culture does with water is on the surface. Every road breaks this pattern. In the year to come, I will be exploring new water usage patterns, both ones that use the unbroken clouds and others that farm the broken ones. This will be a primary thread in my book.

2. Technology

Chief Joseph Dam, Columbia River

Only Grand Coulee Dam, a few miles upriver, produces more power on this river.

I started this project on the insight that the conservative cultures of the interiors of Washington and British Columbia have their roots in the power system on the Columbia River, in the nuclear works at Hanford, and in the irrigation projects that brought agriculture to the shrub steppe. Over the last year, I had this insight confirmed, but I learned as well that this system of power has roots deep in the first American and Canadian settlement of this land and in the relationships of the new settlers with the indigenous plateau peoples. I am excited that this new insight has provided strong threads to link energy, as it is technologically understood, with plant-based and sun-based energies, as the land and the people of the land use them. Over the next year, I will follow both of these threads, with solid ideas as to how both technology and land (and plant) use can harness energy and water without the need for more intrusive technologies. Which leads me to…

3. Feral Farming

Chokecherries in the August Sun

“Choke” does not mean these berries are poisonous or unpalatable. It’s just an old English word for “wild”.

When I started this project, I was quite familiar with indigenous gardens of wild plants, farmed by fire and careful replanting with digging sticks. I had learned of this ancient work while researching for the big book on the last pristine temperate grassland, Spirit in the Grass. What I learned over the past year, after many walks in the grasslands, much research into vineyards, and a long trip through the vineyards of Germany and Switzerland, was that almost all of contemporary food crops were developed through wild farming methods in Europe. People saw stuff growing in the valleys and the hills, and made the wine industry, the cheese industry, the fruit industry, the grain industry, and so on, out of what were basically weeds. In Canada and the United States, however, we have ignored the wild plants that grow here without the need for irrigation or care, and all of their  unique flavours, to develop a technologically expensive and often invasive form of European agriculture. Now that water supply has reached crisis levels, we can’t afford this anymore. Which leads me to …

4. Whiteness

Magpies in a Choke Cherry Grove

In many ways large and small I have learned this past year just how “White” history is here, and that includes the fruit growing history that is my own heritage. It goes from the official transformation of the first priest in this country from the Father of a community of retired métis Hudson Bay Company trappers and a man committed to adapting Catholicism to native traditions, to a kind of Johnny Appleseed who brought a horticultural garden of eden to the wilderness, to the image above, which shows land that was cynically set aside to be held in trust by both native Syilx people and white ranchers until such a time as an agreed-upon solution to its ownership could be found. In 1895, though, the ranchers erased that contract, and the land has been in land claim ever since. Right now, it’s watered with the outflow water of the Vernon Water Treatment Plant and grows seedling trees for the B.C. forest industry. That industry, living off of weedy-ingrowth into formerly grassy and productive native feral agricultural space, has been bankrupted by the Western Pine Bark Beetle land other pests encouraged by over-mature, weak, single-species forests and global warming, while the ability of the grass itself to produce wealth, and of plants, such as the magpies’ beloved chokecherries, goes unremarked, while the farming industry turns its sights on genetically modified apples that will compete, so the philosophy goes, on a world market oversaturated with apples, by not turning brown. And so we’re right back to the Grand Coulee Dam and the technology of Hanford. It all comes down to …

5. Ethics.

Bullsnake Cooling Off on a Hot Day

In the middle of a road.

The land, human relationship to the land and human identity are the same thing. Division leads to division. When you see a snake on the road, and a tractor on the hill, stop, and help it move on. You will be helping yourself. Either you will end up, in the divided world, where we largely are right now, with hillsides and plains full of weeds, such as here …

Tumbleweed Climax Steppe, Hanford Nuclear Reservation

Hardly a native plant to be found, despite what the tour guides might say. Oh, and, yeah, they don’t mention the weeds.

… or you might stop in your tracks and find a way into a future that is also a way to honour those who have walked before you and have been stopped in their tracks on their own …

Red Root Pigweed, Turtle Mountain

A terrible weed for european farming methods, and a tasty, staple indigenous food crop requiring no water and healing broken land.

The choice is ours. And, yes, we are being watched:

The Goddess at Night

Prowling Through the Knapweed

Well, that’s a start. I’ll continue tomorrow, in an attempt to summarize the connections of this project with the subjects of culture, language, education, art and science. Talk to you then. Don’t forget to check out the good news here.




4 replies »

  1. Well, this certainly has not been a year of walking for me, but it definitely was a year of learning about your country-THANK YOU! And please, up there in ICELAND ,do walk and write ! Can’t wait to read!


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