I’d like to show you some photos today, from a country that does not exist.
This is the German colony that formed in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia after the First World War. All the British men were dead. The German colonies in Africa were dissolved. In the 1920s, German socialists and communists replaced the lost British in the Okanagan. I come from this “colony.” That image above, of cactus in a mixed grassland, forest and tundra community, is a good image of this lost community. So is this rose hip. No Canadian would ever take these pictures. No indigenous person. No American.
No Cascadian, either. Only Germans in this country, even ones like me, born here, and who have lived here for nearly sixty years now. It’s not that I was raised to be German, either — quite the opposite.
Still, German identity, even German-Okanagan identity, and Anglo Saxon identity, down to the root level of how the self is organized in the world, differ, perhaps irreconcilably. Germans bring things in and hold them, within a whole that expands to fill them. Anglo Saxons create linear stories, that progress in time. My question today: does this mean I am a citizen of this place? When my experience is foreign to most people who live here? The French Canadians of the fur trade must have once felt like this.
What, though, is identity, if it is tied to the land but the ways in which it is tied are not shared, and invisible, because they appear identical?
Can I say I am of this place? Can I say I have an identity of any kind at all? I mean, not just in the question of whether I have one if my identity is largely this place yet my images of this place are from a culture that doesn’t exist, but also in the question of whether I have any identity at all? I have after all been told that taking pictures of nature, without people in it, is chilling and disturbing, because people like to see themselves in pictures; their absence speaks of mental illness. Yes, to the Anglo Saxon mind. As an example of the difficulty, in my culture the image below is a photograph of a person.
So is the one below. Not the maple seedling, but the whole image, and stuff that spills out of its boundaries. It is a gestalt.
That is very German. Can I say that these are even images of this place? Do these images count for more or less than those of someone who is an immigrant here, who has been here for a year, or two, or three, but comes from an Anglo Saxon community? I mean, I’m not an immigrant, yet there are these questions. Is there something especially problematic to Anglo Saxon identity about German identity?
I just know that my identity and the land are one in some way and that I live between worlds in some other way. An even more troubling question is: do Anglo Saxons, who have their own colonial ghosts, have any right to say I am not of this place yet that they are of it just because socially they belong to a large demographic, or that these very German images are not of this place? Isn’t that what populist democracy suggests? How can that be right? An even more troubling question: why do some people do just that, through an insistence that only dominant social experience, rooted in Anglo-Saxon identity structures, delineates a space?
I don’t know. I also don’t know why there aren’t conversations about these things, including other questions that other people have. Indigenous identity structures are (perhaps) different again. The current solution to that particular gulf is to say that no-one can share in the deep identity with place of an indigenous person. But weren’t our ancestors not all once indigenous? Is not our language based upon that experience? Is English not an indigenous language? Do we not all know this stuff, or at least have the words for it? Does not an indigenous German-Canadian, who has deep identity with place, not deserve respect for it as well?
Of course. Here’s what I think: I think any culture that demands conformity of identity …
… is a culture in which identity is a series of conformities and demands. That is military thinking and slave-holder thinking. It fits military states and slave-holding planters — even if that slave-holding is just the withholding of social identity from the things of this world. Is thing-ness not akin to racialization? When indigenous people hold just these beliefs? To someone in my culture, someone profoundly from this place, it is. To indigenous people it is no doubt something equally powerful and unavoidable. I can’t speak to that, though.
If anything is to make sense of my silent German-Canadian identity, it is through exploring what it sees within the land, and how its own identity structures reveal different aspects of the earth’s energy here than those of other identity structures. The land either accepts everyone on his or her own terms, and brings them to herself, or there is a chosen people. If there is a chosen people, then the rest of us are slaves.
We aren’t. Or shouldn’t be. Resistance is important.
This is just one of the reasons why attention to the land as an arbiter of social experience is vital. It makes us grow together by growing separately. To date, the ego has been used as the universal arbiter of identity in the modern world, both German and Anglo-Saxon, among others, yet it does so in a larger context, which the ego-identity does not erase.
I mean, one might say it does, but that’s just the ego talking. Human identities that do not include the earth are, in my culture, only social identities. They are surfaces. They might even be beautiful. They make a lot of social noise. They might be fun. They might be a lot of things. They are not this.
Although they could be. For this reason a poetry and art of Cascadia is vital. For this reason it has to start now, with poets, artists and people of all kinds coming to meet the earth and taking on its identity.
It is something we have to make together, as the land does.
Until then, each one of us will live in a private world which common discourse names universal, at great loss of knowledge. That is only a political convenience. Political conveniences are important, but they should never be identities. It is politically convenient to eradicate the story in the image below, and its creatures, to put up lawns, golf courses, Arizona-style houses, provencal style shrubberies, and streets.
It is, however, my identity: the insect, the light, the rabbitbrush in bloom, and turquoise Kalamalka Lake behind them. Eliminating this, eliminates me. That is not the same as “freedom” or “landowner’s rights.” The indigenous ways of knowledge of this place did not choose. Humans were the creatures who could ensure that all thrived. In that action, they became human. Social activity was the duty to protect that.
I couldn’t agree more. But, remember: these are German-Okanagan ideas, and German-Okanagan images. They are not the same as Anglo Saxon ones, or German ones, or Indigenous ones, as they have all been shaped by their own histories. Dismissing them with foreign identities, even globally-accepted ego identities, their narratives and their electronic identity storage and transmission devices, is not respect. It is dominance. In a time in which the earth needs us it is selfish — literally, because it is about the self, independent of its ecosystem, which, like the self, is not physical. Simply, if anyone is to claim they are of this place, they have to be this (not the image, which is German-Okanagan, but the plants the image attempts to represent):
Otherwise, they belong to some other story, and the question must be asked: what is that story? What are they doing here? I don’t know.