A Year of Walking & Learning Part 3

My walkabout in the last year has led through the fields of industry, innovation, and education. What I have found comes from observing the earth. Its raw materials are gravity, rock, the sun, air, and water. That’s a lot, actually, and it does great stuff with it. This, for example:

Sylix Salmon Fishery, N’kmip

The young fish go to sea, swim to Siberia, mill around where this land was when it was young, and come back, right where the last of the previous winter’s snows are streaming over the gravel left in the wake of ancient glaciers.

If you want awe, that’ll do. It’s also a technological lesson, about water, energy, and where to look for technology. Here, for example, is an image from Germany, which shows how humans, working together with the earth’s forces, can create stable, fruitful systems, just like that salmon system above …

Riesling Vineyard on the Mosel River, Germany

Here’s half of the story: the rain that falls on the trees is drawn by gravity down through the scree in which the vines are rooted, and passes from there into the river, which carries it to the sea, which brings again the rain. Here’s the other half: the leaves that fall from the trees, decay and feed a rich universe of microbes, which are washed down among the vine roots, where they provide the vines with nutrients and the oxygen that the roots need, before they are filtered out by the wetlands on the riverbank to deliver pure water once again to the river.

Technology doesn’t have to be big, but in a dry landscape like this, it does have to be about water. I’m working on dozens of ideas along this field. Here’s one. It’s story that starts with highly-manufactured water:

Inniskillin Riesling Ice Wine

An Okanagan industrial success.

Each 375 ml. bottle of ice wine represents hundreds of litres of water, collected in high country lakes or from deep groundwater wells, and pumped over the sand of former grasslands and shrub steppes. The day will come when this kind of industrial profligacy is no longer socially acceptable, because people will want to drink that water themselves. We might as well head off this showdown between social classes now, before it becomes critical. I suggest we do it by looking at the grass…

Blue-bunched Wheatgrass, Turtle Mountain

In forest landscapes, trees are dominant. Here they are weeds. In their place is blue-bunched wheatgrass. 

There’s a reason for that. The old stems of this grass are stiff, woody tubes that collect rain and dew, if there is any, and even fog, should the winter bring that, from a large area around the heart of the plant. They then deliver this water by gravity to the plant’s heart. This inverted umbrella also prevents competing plants from establishing themselves in the space between bunch grasses. As a result, a bunch grass slope looks like this…

Grassland Slope, Methow Valley

All that’s missing here to make this a stable system is a layer of blue-green algae between the grass clumps. Since this is a site in reclamation, I hope it will come.

That’s a technology perhaps as useful as the gravity that feeds nutrients to otherwise barren scree slopes in Germany to produce the world’s greatest white wines. Rather than spending millions of dollars to disrupt ecosystems to deliver high volumes of pressurized liquid water to agricultural plantations throughout the valley, why not create tiny systems of metal or plastic spines that can feed plants in place with water that comes from the sky? They won’t capture much, but not much is needed. There are alternatives. One could devise a kind of fog screen to harvest the winter clouds that roll over the hilltops here. Tiny trickles of water multiplied millions of times could bring much needed water into traditional piping systems. Why not? Solar cells work on the principle of just that: tiny amounts, millions of times. Water is at least as important as electricity here, if not more so. But if all that doesn’t appeal, then why not just do what the plants do themselves and create miniature islands of mutual support? There are many ways of doing this: seasonal succession …

Even in the World of Weeds, Succession is a Useful Technology

This is a new, unstudied ecosystem, but it follows some basic rules. Cheatgrass uses up winter water and covers the ground in a choking carpet in the spring, but by midsummer morning glory (the white flowers here), russian thistle, and vetch have all had their turn at lying on top of it and allow its thick mat to act as a mulch. There are ways to cheat cheatgrass. 

… using someone else’s rain-capturing abilities …

A Host of Plants Thriving on the Water Caught by a Saskatoon Bush, Turtle Mountain

Biscuit root, moss, and cheatgrass are all using the water the bare, deer-browsed trunks of the saskatoon concentrate from infrequent rains. It’s not the amount of water that matters here. It’s where it is. Rocks planted on the landscape provide the same island-creating function.

or just using blank space capable of catching a lot of water and shedding it quickly…

Wireweed on the Gray Canal Trail

Notice how the long arms of the wire weed can quickly catch water in those two minutes after a summer thunderstorm before the water either flows away off of bare ground or evaporates again into the air.

Surely, we can build devices as clever and simple as these, especially if we choose plants with moderate to low water requirements, which brings me to …

Radish Seed Pods!

Why fight drought and heat to produce a wet climate crop like radishes or broccoli past the early spring, when you can grow a crop of radish or broccoli seeds in near drought conditions and use plentiful winter water to sprout them for fresh crops that need no refrigeration or transportation?

But why stop there?

Red Root Pigweed

A traditional Indigenous grain crop, now just a common farming weed. Crops like this, with very low water requirements, are perfect candidates for innovative grassland farm technologies.

One thing’s for sure: as long as technology continues to view the land’s processes as the enemy, to be cured by the application of industrial technology to transform it into something called the Garden of Eden, the knowledge of the Syilx people, and other Indigenous peoples, will be denied to our industrial vocabulary. I think we need all the help we can get. Studying First Nations culture is one of the essential steps towards developing new technologies, but don’t forget. This land was created by the Syilx over thousands of years of cultural intervention. When you walk the land, you walk through that story. You just have to learn how to read. That’s why education and the art of writing are so important to developing new food sources, strategies, and technologies, and that’s why we’re here, walking the land with the coyotes …

Coyote Trail, Okanagan Landing

Down among the subdivisions every night to bother the house cats and porch dogs and tulip-munching deer, up into the high hills around the water reservoir every night, with lots of time down in the hayfields for some howling practice in between.

… and the deer people …

Doe and Her Spring Fawn in the Knapweed

And wondering about that ridiculous fence that separates them.

I wonder about that fence, too. This one seems to work better …

Rosebush With Built In Fence

Bushes like this provide islands of safety for young plants, like asparagus.

Tomorrow: seasons, and air. Then, ethics.

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