A Lesson from Iceland

When the vikings came to Iceland in the 10th Century, the place was rich with birch, willow and mountain ash forests. Eventually they burnt them all — to stay warm, to cook lamb shanks, and just to extend their grazing fields. You can’t blame them: all the good land was sewn up by a few select families; others were forced farther and farther out. (Sounds like Canadian land ownership policies, doesn’t it!) When there were no trees at all, things were tough, Iceland was an abused Danish colony, most Icelanders were starving in the cold and dark, and only about 20% of women were even allowed, legally, to marry.


Bedrock above the Lagarfljót

Fljótsdalur, Iceland

Then they started planting trees, and became a country, step by step, tree by tree.


Trees Breaking Apart Rock

(Doing the work of giants.)

In the Okanagan, on the far side of the North American Plate, we have the opposite problem: in these grasslands there used to be few trees; the land was rich and productive. Due to colonial practices, trees were allowed to spread over the grass, or were even planted on it, and today there are up to 1000 times as many trees as were present 90 years ago, when the Icelanders had started planting theirs. These are the industrial forests of British Columbia. They are not natural. They are a created, artificial thing, which means that they can be read like any other art. So, let’s do that. What is the state of the industrial art form called “forest” today? Well, now the grasslands are unproductive, the trees are sick with beetles, the forest industry, that had a vision of replacing indigenous knowledge with wealth-creating imported European knowledge profits mostly Americans, the land is considered an industrial asset, the young are fleeing for the cities that are the natural outcome of colonial land use policies, and poverty is increasing rapidly. It is time to start planting grass and becoming a rich, independent, self-supporting people again — or maybe for the first time.



Unproductive Land in the Okanagan

Not only have the trees on the hills replaced a wealth of food with monocultural, profitless industrial deserts subject to disease, but the thrice-bankrupted subdivision in the foreground, designed to net oil money from the tar sands, is just eroding away, where a decade ago the land was still productive (although unharvested). In other words, industrial metaphors have triumphed, yet have not brought wealth. 

There comes a tipping point at which colonial practices no longer produce wealth but exceed the carrying capacity of the land and replace it, resulting not only in economic poverty but social and intellectual poverty as well. We can still turn this around. The Icelanders learned, almost too late, the price of living out of balance. Let’s learn from them and adjust the story we tell with the land. Let’s plant some grass again. By doing so, we will be honouring our common wealth, and we will grow to fit that image.

balsam2Productive Grasslands, Bella Vista

“Industry” can have many faces. These are not natural-growing pretty flowers as the romantic age of Canada’s founding would have it. They are the remnants of a humanly-created, self-supporting agricultural policy that utilized natural processes in a relationship of respect for life. 


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