To say that a land and its people are one, as the first people of my land, the Syilx, say, is to say that the following image is an image of the people. It defies Western logic, but that’s what it says, ravens and everything. After the glaciers melted 10,000 years ago, the region’s nomadic hunters gradually developed the technologies to survive year long in this land, at the same rate at which salmon recolonized it after their glacial refuges in Mexico and its signature grassland biomes took shape, with human intervention. The land and the people became one at the same rate and often in response to each other. They accorded the same dignity to the other inhabitants of the land, because the land was identity and larger than them all. It did not belong to them as much as they belonged to it.
It’s logical. Before the land took its present shape, it was a different land. Before the Syilx became the keepers of that land (for such is the meaning of “Syilx”), they were a different people. In terms of the land, and a consciousness based on the land, they have, in fact, been here forever. In Western terms, that’s like the discussion about the Big Bang. It’s not possible to posit a universe before the Big Bang, because the universe is the expression of the Big Bang. So is it with the Okanagan, and the Syilx.
The Big Bang is Watching You
That the people and the land are one also means that human consciousness and the land are one. In Western terms, this is an emotional statement. In Syilx terms, it isn’t. (Remember: Syilx is not precisely a race; it’s a way of thinking.) The eagle’s face the sun carves out of the cliff below and the bald eagle above it are one. It is nonsense in terms of science. It means something in terms of a land-based consciousness.
Nonetheless, Western thought recently was the same. The following image, for example, shows the Bockstein, the Goat’s Rock across the German Rhine from the holy city of Bingen, complete with a bit of Christian iconography speared into its heart and an elderberry bush to keep witches away (a remnant of an ancient believe in elves and animal spirits was interpreted in oh-so-Catholic Rüdesheim, to which the vineyards in the image belong, as a haunt of the Devil). A bit more than a century ago it was dynamited, to keep it from dropping rocks onto the rail line far below. As you can see from the carefully-tended spear and the surviving elder, the old beliefs haven’t exactly died out.
They didn’t die out in Christian tradition either. Here’s a kind of accommodation in Rüdesheim itself. Christ as a sun, at the intersection of heaven and earth, and, look, he’s really a wine cork, and the cross is really a grape plant, here where wine-making began as an act of Christian devotion and commerce. Christ as a sun god? That’s not really Christ, is it, and those vines? Pure celtic.
Here’s one Okanagan equivalent.
Cougar Above the Old Syilx Village on Kalamalka Lake
This kind of view of the land didn’t start here in the land currently occupied by my city, Vernon, however. This was never the heart of Syilx territory, only one of its major extensions. The heart was here…
Lake Lenore, Grand Coulee, Washington
The cave complex that looks out on this view here has been used by the Syilx for 8,000 years. It’s from here that they moved north, and here they learned to read spirits in the land, such as the human-faced mountain sheep above. It’s here that they hunted rhinos before they became the Syilx. Lake Lenore is about six driving hours south of Vernon, British Columbia.
When people came north, following the retreating ice, they found their stories from Lake Lenore written out on the land, with new variations, and they read them, and they settled where they were strongest. Yes, they were looking into their own minds, minds created by story which was created by land which was created by story, which was all, ultimately, created by ice and rock.
It’s such a powerful and popular idea to call today’s age of the world the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, in which it is human activity which dominates the world, often badly. That’s a culturally-loaded assessment, however, because in the Syilx world, human activity had the same power with the world, but chose to use it for different ends, ends like this:
It’s not a pretty flower. It’s food.
We’re not talking ancient history here. The takeover only began in earnest 150 years ago, when men were hammering the spike into the heart of the Bockstein. The cougar and the ancestral figures I showed you above, are from this complex cliff complex of two separate geologies in collision.
They rise above this lake.
The story was once continuous. It led from the watching cougar, to cougars and turtles across the lake, in what is now Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park, and Cougar Canyon to the south, but invasion came with a price. Men constructing Highway 97 to move traffic north from Mexico have blasted away the story, and the connections between the bluff and the lake and its own stories.
A Forest on the Way to the Plywood Plant
Or, rather, Highway 97 has highly edited the story. Here’s the old highway and the new one, together, looking north. That’s the city of Coldstream, a colonial outpost of north-eastern Scotland, on the middle right.
Any story of being-the-land has to contend now with dynamite, hydroelectric power transmission, the petro state, and industrialization of the mind. The culvert in the image below, for instance, is now part of the sacred story. There’s no way around it. You can’t make the road go away now. What would you replace it with? The story is lost. It took a lot of effort, as the bore holes for dynamite charges show below. Note the pink granite. That’s a more accurate colour for the rock (I tweaked for a long time to get it) than the yellow-white above, which is a function of camera processing and early morning sun.
It’s not just the road. It comes with other stuff.
And it brings stuff.
Lots of different stuff.
The men and women who drive these trucks are just doing a job. They live within a complex net of relationships, which they have devoted their lives to further. It’s what’s called “Free Labour”. It means that a free man can freely give his body to economic and political structures, support and strengthen them, to be supported and strengthened by them in return. It was the ticket on which Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States (It’s important to this land, because our culture comes out of that election. It’s complicated.) in 1862, and was one of the pressure points that led to the American Civil War. It is as complex a series of relationships as the land-identity of the Syilx, but it comes at a certain cost. For one, it’s wasteful of land and disrespectful of it, because it treats it as a commodity and not life itself. Here’s the stretch of waste rock between the old and new highways, with the Syilx collective unconscious isolated in behind.
It also make a lot of noise (all that traffic), yet leads to a profound silence. Because of the dominance of this wasteful highway construction on the land, it’s awfully hard to read even those parts of the Syilx story that remain, not to mention impossible to hear anything of the parts blasted away except for their profound ghost presence. Perhaps you can sense it in the following images of a much-simplified landscape, gone from hundreds of thriving species, to a few struggling weeds.
One of the consequences of this kind of split between self and earth is disrespect based on blunt ignorance The image below, is what tourism pictures as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Here’s an adventure tourism guide featuring our blasted sacred bluff covered by text and an image of sacred Turtle Point, separated from it as much by the advertisement for adventure tourism as by the dynamite itself.
Sometimes, it helps to move the photoshop sliders so far to the right that the lake looks like an acid trip, as it does in the official Vernon tourism photograph below. This image was taken below the blasted bluff. I took most of my photographs from the same place. Note that the image below doesn’t mention the Syilx connection. Neither does the one above, although its background does show the Syilx village site now filled with colonial infill housing.
Another consequence is insanity. Here’s what the place looks like, outside of the need to manipulate the subconsciousness of potential tourists, to entice them, perhaps unknowingly, to spend their money in this rather butchered place.
See that? The excess sagebrush from overgrazing? The road fill in the foreground? The old highway, and… what’s that? Ah, look…
Somebody has dropped off their household garbage here, and lots of it, to avoid paying the, oh, I dunno, $10 fee to move it 3 minutes away to the local landfill, which just happens to be straight up the hill, above the new highway. That’s where these ravens are going.
That’s where these ones came from.
Some background: this land has been the subject of a land claim by the Syilx since around 1895. Since that time, the Canadian government has told the British Columbia provincial government, here far in the West, to take care of land claims and actually acquire legal title to its land. It has been 120 years of stalling, and it appears that the greatest degree of settlement of this outstanding issue of the legal underpinning of a state has been this:
As for ethical underpinnings, there aren’t any. That is part of the story now. Above my house, where the turtle story spills down to Okanagan Lake in the west, it looks like this:
We don’t sit on this land lightly. The hurt that has been done to the land is the hurt that has been done to the Syilx, and the hurt that has been done to the Syilx has been done to the land, and through the land to all of us. That barrier is there to keep us out … from what? Well, from this.
Coyote Rock Yesterday Afternoon
(Coyote rocks are petrified Coyote dung, which the trickster and cultural ancestor of the Syilx dropped behind him on his trails in order to have someone to talk to and to get advice from. This one houses marmots, which come out in late April, perch on the tip, and disappear again mid-August, to sleep the winter away.)
Is it a $750,000 building lot with the best view in Vernon? Yes. Is it a deep expression of human and ecological identity that can, in and of itself, lead us to a sustainable and ethical future? Yes. Can we really have both at once? Here’s an elf, part of the Coyote Rock complex, which my European subconscious sees mirrored in the land.
Yes, we can have them both at once, right now. But the erosion continues, and the struggle for power, and in it diversity, resilience, history and sustainability lose their independence. In the image below, the road leading up to this subdivision for wealthy retirees from the petro state to the east, the missing cliff contains not only lost sagebrush buttercup habitat, but an 8,000-year-old rattlesnake den.
8,000 years! Destroyed to bring an image of Provence to people from Northern Alberta. Sure, we can create a future out of our imaginations, but destroying our deeper imaginations and capacities to do so, on land that is not even ours, well, that’s not a story that is going particularly well. It can’t be sustained. Note again, the overgrazed bunchgrass in the image above, and its replacement by green cheatgrass, which is of no value to anyone and destroys most values in the land. The only value left in the land, as this road and the culture that created it, imagine, is the visual, romantic value of ‘the view’.
You just have to ignore the clearcut forests in the background, the ingrown grasslands at lake level, the forest fire burn, the blasting for the road cut at the middle left, and the reformed hillside, to provide housing lots, to capture lake views, below it, but that’s easy. When people (new settlers, all of them) ask me, “What are you photographing here?”, I tell them about the Syilx food crops and ancient gardens, in just this spot, and the remaining remnants of them, and they look at me as if I’m from another planet. Maybe I am. I’m from here. If I tell them I’m photographing insects (such as the green sweat bee on the native food plant, the mariposa lily below), they laugh.
No, I didn’t boost the colours with Photoshop.
That image of the bee is the same image as the one below.
Just in reverse. This story cannot be told separately. Only poverty and a loss of independence comes from that. All cultures that remain on either side of the reality of the contemporary story will erode. We have to work this out. Together. Now.