Bringing the Sky Down to Earth

The image below is a habitat for Canadians. I am one of those. We build structures out of trees we allow to grow as weeds on indigenous land, and line them with products manufactured out of petroleum, which we then inhabit. Notice the thule reeds in the foreground.

grasshousesI Don’t Live in One of These Houses

They are hugely expensive structures built largely for citizens of the petro state of Alberta, to spend their summers in the grassland, before flying off to Mexico or Arizona for the winter. These houses are mostly empty now. They sit on land but have no land that people can or wish to use to grow food or even to walk through. 

The image below is an indigenous human habitat. The reeds are the home for birds and insects, are an important food source, and two hundred years ago were the raw material for summer houses. Even the birds didn’t (and don’t) use them as winter houses. They migrate. So did the Syilx people: they left their earth, the grasslands, and moved to the water in the valley bottoms, just as the deer and birds did, where they spent the winter in pit houses entered through a tree trunk with jutting branches rising through a central smoke hole — a technology likely picked up from watching weaver ants. It was very shamanic. Plateau peoples, such as the Syilx, had many shamanic wisdom stories which told of travel between earth and sky, based upon climbing trees just like the lone trunks that rose from the grasslands and the ones at the centre of each pit house. The world above, by the way, looked just like the world below. That kind of balance between spiritual and physical worlds is the mark of a traditional culture at home in a place.

p1060396From the reeds, the people learned how to weave both baskets and houses. This balance between natural and inhabited worlds is the mark of a sustainable society.I don’t think it would be a sign of disrespect to say that the deep integration between people, landscape and spiritual concerns over thousands of years means that a woven colony of thule grasses like this one…

cattail

… was both a deeply beautiful and deeply spiritual presence — even a being. Whatever way the Syilx define it, I think that’s a fair assessment. There is another kind of beauty in Syilx Territory, though. It is, perhaps, a very Canadian thing. You might have to live in a house made out of an ingrown forest and financed by petro dollars, or at least weed forest extraction dollars, in order to contemplate it as beauty. Yesterday, it looked like this:

P1130169 Lake Ice Breaking Up, Okanagan Lake

There is the old shamanic light of the sky world, brought down to the water. There is the romantic reading of the intersection of time and mortality with the physical world that powered the first visions of Canadian colonial culture. It was called wilderness in its heyday. It’s not wilderness now. Now it’s art. Look at the sky world glowing in the banded chunk of ice below.

P1130140

That’s the whole sky in there, that is.

I can’t  pick it up and carry it anywhere, of course. I can’t mine it, log it, or bundle it up in any way and ship it anywhere else. I can show it to you. I can marvel at it and try to pass on my joy at seeing it and the affirmation it gives me, as a man both deeply at home at this place, not in a Syilx way but in a way running parallel with it, and also as a man embedded in Canadian colonial society, as are all Canadians today, even the contemporary Syilx. Deep attention leads to integration. A sustainable future starts here:

p1120299Or it can. This isn’t wilderness anymore. It is melting ice. It is a spiritual substance.That is a profound change. When this was a pure colonial society in the wilderness, this ice would have been an image of the presence of God. Now, thanks to the deep attention of scientific tradition to the world, it is ice. Well, and sky, too.

P1130188

Like the thule reeds, which founded technologies and sustainable ways of inhabiting the earth, it is a path towards integration with a place. It is a way a people based in technology can climb a  pit house pole into a sky world, one that looks exactly like the world below but which has been transformed into a spiritual representation instead of a physical one. In the traditional Plateau model, the lessons gained from the difference between spiritual and physical grasslands imbued the physical grasslands with an intensified spiritual quality, which was part of the process of sustaining them.

p1120295I see great hope for art to lead us to the earth at last, right when she needs us to rally behind her to save her. In this old colonized and weed-grown Syilx homeland, spring might not start with flowers bursting from the hillsides; it might start right here, in winter. It might start with that ancient Greek concept of balance, which bears the name of “beauty”. I mean, when the sky comes down to earth, it is a time for rejoicing and a time for taking that energy and making life out of it.

p1130171That’s what I’ve been trying to do here: to be a lens through which light and water can flow, like the thule reeds and like the chunk of ice above. it is a kind of spiritual house. Somehow, and I can only trust in this, physical houses made out of this place and sustaining this place will follow.

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