At the bottom of Skaha Lake, where the Okanagan River once collected itself in a series of oxbows and reefs before dropping over the falls (a series of steep rapids), the point at which it first caught the current was here, at this stone dog. (In the trade jargon of the North West, by the way, “Skaha” means “Dog.”) Look at him below, crouched and guarding the red fish as they come up the throat of the river from the desert lake to the south, and the desert river below that.The whole journey of the fish passes through hundreds of monoliths and water lines like this one, each with a name and a story. In Washington and Oregon, many have been drowned by massive hydroelectric dams. Some remain, like this raven at Celilo Falls.
But most are gone. Fortunately for all of us on the Columbia Plateau, the falls at Skaha Lake may have been drowned by an irrigation dam (a very low one), the fishing camp below them may have been turned into an expensive campground for tourists (no picnicking or rock-viewing allowed), but the dog remains, still. There is an abandoned rail line running along the shore behind the dog, an abandoned fence running up from that, and an abandoned highway above them both. Above them, and just to the north of the new highway, there is this figure …
The colonial world has passed, and its people have largely left the land. The dog and the other ancestors are still here, as are their stories and the trails and waterways that are their lifeblood. Anyone can see them. Their story is not hidden. A thousand years from now, they can still be told.
Okanagan River, South of Skaha Lake
This is where the salmon spawn. Note the ancestral face on the Gallagher Lake Bluff in the background.
This is a form of classicism, that belief that there is a cultural foundation that a culture can return to over and over again, to renew itself in its primary forms. When I was a child, a half century ago, that classical age was said to be the early 20th century, when the orchards were carved out in this land. This age was, in turn, based upon a reverence for the culture of ancient Greece (tellingly called “Classical Greece,” and which is still taught to our children in school.) Now, on Canadian national radio, classicism is largely a matter of following the careers of the pop stars of the last twenty years. It works just as well as a classical foundation, except that it produces a different world, one based upon individual gifts, celebrated, but not this…
Ancestor Bird With Skull Eye, Peshastin Pinnacles
… or this…
Eagle, Palouse Falls
Whether one chooses the German poet Goethe as a classical figure (as the Germans do), or the career of David Bowie (as CBC Radio’s “Q” does) or the poems of Homer, the Icelandic Sagas, or the stone monoliths of the North American North West, one is doing the same act of reading oneself by reading that which lies outside of oneself. The only thing, though, is that the relationship to story, land, and people is different in each. For that reason, these things matter.
These things also matter because many of the stories of the Plateau cultures of the Northwest got their start at the speed of a man walking from one place to the next and observing the shift in position of the landforms around him.
Tricky Moving Mountain, Palouse Falls
The movement gives the mountain character and agency. It doesn’t matter if the movement comes from you or from the mountain.
This movement, with different characters coming into play with others, appearing in different combinations, disappearing completely, or only being visible at certain times of day, in certain qualities of light, is as much a foundation for narratives of the world as are the fictional forms mastered by Tolstoy in czarist Russia or the scientific ones taught at great expense in contemporary universities, but with very different relationships between people and the land around them.
Coyote Howling at the Moon (among all the other people), Palouse Falls
(Nicely coloured by peregrine falcons.)
Narratives can also be very easily dismissed. Here is an ancestor at Ellison Park, on Okanagan Lake south of my home in Vernon.
He fits into a story, no doubt into many stories, but can also be easily discarded as fancy by what is called a “scientific mind” and its notions of “reality,” which are, really, just notions of a form of classicism. The land is the land. The stories we make out of it not only make us, but make our relationship to the land, and if we’re going to save the land, that matters.
Skaha Lake, Looking North
(Our dog is on the far shore of the lake, about 500 metres to the left of the left boundary of the image. The rock formations in the foreground and in the centre right of the image are the same stone as both the dog and the falls, and if you walk around just the right corner, well, there’s your dog again.
We discard these wise narratives at our great peril. Discarding scientific narratives would also be perilous. Joining them appears to be a good idea. It’s too bad we didn’t do that long ago. Destroying these stories is akin to burning books. It leads to cultural poverty, and that leads to diminished capacity in the land itself.