Byzantine Creativity

Byzantium! The eastern roman capital, that survived until the Turks made it Istanbul.


Early Christians in the Thousand Year Empire

In Twentieth Century Poetry, it holds a beloved place.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
from Byzantium, W.B. Yeats
That has in it the Sufic mysteries I spoke of yesterday. Today, let’s go north. Back in 2008, in the former coal mining city of Recklinghausen, in what is now Germany, I walked into the oldest house in town.

I was on my way to discover the Northern Orient on the via regia, the King’s Way, the Old Salt Road to Minsk. This “Northern Orient” was a concept I had invented on a previous trip to Dresden via Eisenach. I’d read about Islamic scholars, walking through town, in conversation with German monks, on their way to the Rhine, the great roman cathedral of Worms, and the University of Heidelberg, and back, and I saw this bath at the Wartburg Castle, ostensibly for knights who had returned from the Crusades.

P1170328_2The Wartburg is where Germany began in a song by the minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide:


I wanted to see more. Who wouldn’t!


“Go see the Russians,” an uncle told me. “Germany was once an eastern country. Our family has closer ties to Russia than to the West.” I did not understand that, coming from Kanada and all.


Home Sweet Home!

Or maybe I did. This is what I found, across from the Recklinghausen church, with pigeons pecking at the cobbles outside and old women shuffling past with mesh shopping bags, in a cold spring wind…



The Ikon Museum of Recklinghausen

I eventually worked out that the Northern Orient I had been searching for was modern, a re-creation of a dream that never was…

P1170329 … built within a dream that was heavily reconstructed itself. Look at the generations of reconstruction in the Wartburg facade below!P1170323


Still, the roots of those romanesque arches aren’t Western. Yes, they come from Rome, and Rome? It wasn’t a western state. It was a pan-Mediterranean culture, and so was  Germany until modern times.


Emperor Barbarossa’s Camelot in Gelnhausen, Hessen

This greatest of all German Emperors earned his glory by being an enforcer for the Pope against secessionist  German princes and died during an invasion of the Holy Land. His civilization was Roman, and Mediterranean, and included at its heart, the Orient: Byzantium.

Who wouldn’t want to follow that trail East!



Well, I didn’t find the northern orient I was looking for. It’s a dream of keeping something alive that is long gone. It is a beautiful and powerful social force. What I found in its place was something even more essential. I found Byzantium itself, right there in Recklinghausen. I found the Ikons.


Each ikon is painted 50 times — it’s a devotional practice — with wax or enamel. Because of bitter war in early Christian Byzantium over whether it was a sin or not to paint an image of God, who was, after all, nameless and unknowable and so could not be constrained into an image, the figures in icons are stock images, meant not to represent saints or holy men or Christ or Mary but to be symbolic representatives of belief, only. This got the images past the censors, and after Russia took up the craft …


… and much time passed, it became clear that the central image in the art of the Ikon was the image of resurrection, of life springing from the dead land, or Easter, as this ancient, pre-Christian motif, springing up in Christianity and renewed by it, is known in Christian tradition:


This force of contemplation lies behind each and every ikon.  Ikons don’t show Heaven and Earth divided, with spirits working as intermediaries, as Western images do …


The Crucifixion of St. Peter, Nathalie Motter Masselink

… but are Heaven revealed here and now without intermediary.


This is Not an Image of Heaven

In fact, it is not an image. It is a devotion that, matching the original saintly devotion (here of Mary and Jesus) is their presence.

The traditional, non representative forms of the figures fill the space the Western tradition fills with character and plot. There is no plot, or story, in the Byzantine, or Orthodox, tradition. There are moments of clarity and entrance. These resemble very closely the moments of appearing, disappearing and cascading wisdom and artfulness I spoke about yesterday in regards to my book of sufic verse, Two Minds,


There is, however, a difference, and that has to do with that notion of resurrection. It is at the centre of this art. I learned it by walking out the door of the Recklinghausen Ikon Museum, into that cold spring wind. For five minutes, I walked through a spiritual earth. Everything was bursting with this force: the old woman, the pigeons, the cobbles, the church wall, the weeds bursting between the stones, the weeds reaching up beneath the chain link fence across from the Kindergarten, the bell ringing on the church, clouds in the air, myself walking: it was all this force of becoming, but a becoming that had no direction, that was, that was there, present as it had always been present, and I had entered it. I was not to know that at that moment my life had changed. Everything that followed was an unfolding of this energy. I met many characters along the via regia: St. Elisabeth of Hungary, who served the poor in Eisenach…


… St. George and his dragon …


… Artemis…


 In the Byzantine Imagination, Words are Images.

(A glimpse into a poem I wrote after coming back from the via regia.)

…the Muse Clio and her entourage…



… a dryad …


Erfurt Cathedral

… Barbarossa …



… a toppled old fool …


Paul von Hindenburg, Where the Russians Buried Him in 1945 Kyffhäuser

No one wants him back. Not even the Neo-Nazis who come in tour busses to this place.

… and many many others, including, of course, Khedr …


Some of these characters were living momentarily within statues. Many others, for which I have no photographs, were people, including Artemis, St. George’s Dragon and the Devil in his red sports car in the tangled alleys of Bautzen. I asked a poet I know from the East, if this was just my recognition, through family memory, of Eastern visual metaphors, or if it was the East itself. “It is,” she said, “the way it is for all people on earth except for those who live in the West. This is the human experience.” I asked, “Why is it different in the West?” She answered, “Because it’s too busy. There are too many distractions.” In other words, the structures of the self and the thought in the West block the riches of living at one with the world. There are sure lots of these distractions.


Buchenwald Memorial on “The Road of Blood” Above Weimar

Far too many distractions.



How’s a sleeping emperor supposed to think?

Distractions that turn stories of mercy into stories of individual human suffering.


Calderon’s “St. Elizabeth of Hungary”

After the arrival of humanism, the roses of her miracle are gone. What is left is disrespectful, physical, and cruel.

One painter who made the transition from East to West is Marc Chagall, who fled the Russian Revolution for Paris, adapted the non-linear narrative structures of ikons to French Art, et voilà!

chagall-rain-1911 An Old Testament Idyll

Marc- Adam and Eve


Christ Announcing Apocalypse

Those are my titles, but you get the drift. Objects appear in these paintings after the manner of the sacred figures in an ikon…


… arranged not by a conception of “nature” or “natural space” or “physical perspective”, but by an arrangement of “spiritual perspective.” This iconic world is relational, and the spatial relationships between objects in it, or people, or figures from folk tale, have life to the degree to which they approach a story that is already present and is everywhere, such as, I would like to point out, this moment (not this spot) in Yellowstone…

P2060135 copy … and this one ….cupped … and this one in Blackfoot Country to the North.P2070538

There are hundreds of millions of these moments in every space, or hundreds of millions of these spaces in every moment.


Paradis, Jena

An old etching lives on.

Their story of total presence is a human story. What humans walk through when walking through presence like this is themselves, but that self is far more than human.


Christian Showing Me the Way through a Cherry Orchard in the Zurich Overland

It is bursting to life in every moment, from a well of energy, that consists mostly of rest and expectation. One has to be open to the energy that is given…


Cistern Spring, Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone

… and one must give thanks. In the Recklinghausen Ikon Museum, these mysteries are revealed in light. It was a way of celebrating the return of the town’s sons and fathers from imprisonment in Russia in 1956, a commemoration of the town’s daily rise from the darkness of the coal mines, and of its reconstruction from the ruins of 1945. In the Ikons’ natural environment, they live in darkness. Candle light catches their gold, they flicker with the life of light, and draw you to it.


In the Byzantine way, and the way that became the Northern Orient, the sufferings and punishment of St. Elizabeth (for giving her food to poor and denying her own body, which was slated for the king’s bed, while she was in widow’s grief after her husband was killed in Barbarossa’s senseless and bungled Crusade) takes on this form:


St. Elizabeth’s Chamber in the Wartburg

Sure, it’s a 19th century embellishment, but that’s the wrong way to look at it. It is a space of honour, in which energy can gather, be concentrated, and from which it can be carried away, and from which the energy never dissipates. It is not a mystery but it is mystery, like this:


Mare, Reykjanes, Ísland

That is a unified conception of word, image, thought, body, space, time, life, earth and transcendence. These are valuable forces. They are the forces of growth, renewal and becoming. They are not to be scoffed at. The via regia leads to the Byzantine expression of this energy, at the crossroads of East and West. Here are two images of this ancient European road, with differing views of what it created.


Via Regia near Marienstern Convent, Saxony

That is not land you’re looking at there. It is a way.


Via Regia, Downtown Naumburg, Saxon-Anhalt

That is not a city you are looking at there. It is a road.

It was a long journey for me to realize that as artful as the reconstructions of the Wartburg were in the 19th century, the gesture of coming home from the Crusades, of being home and opening all the world from there, was of more value than the physical story the Crusades told and tried to enact, and did more for people and the earth. One enters the space by paying attention. Until then, one walks on. At some point, every pilgrim must stop walking.


Sacred Celtic Forest Above the Rhine

The old language of the trees is still spoken here. Each footstep is taken through it. It goes on speaking once one has passed, just like a sufic poem or an Orthodox ikon, or a continual offer to stay with the life of the world.

A true pilgrim stays.


Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926, Rauron Village Church, Valais

Thank you.


Sufic Creativity

As part of my ongoing discussion about how different traditions of creativity lead to different human-earth relationships and, ultimately, different earths, I’d like to introduce you to some ideas I learned while writing my new book of poems, Two Minds.


That’s Khedr, the Sufic power of unified nature and ethics. Let me demonstrate:


P2190287See that?  Two moments of a continuous world are separately illuminated by the attention of the power of wisdom and by being brought together in one space embody it. This wisdom is not generated by human individuality or personality but by the act of a human stepping into space which is complete and unbounded, creating a division, and allowing wisdom, which is ever-present to reveal itself in a spark of wit, a quick realization, a moment of beauty, an artful spark, or any of its other manifestations. It is there for just a moment, then is gone. The manifestation, however, can be coaxed out again by a second pair of images or thoughts, such as this:

mareofthesun P2200041

Once again, wisdom is present, hovers in the air like light over the desert or a wind swirling dust, and then is gone. Through a series of these dances with the omnipresence of thought, an artful structure is constructed: not of words , but of the moments at which wisdom has inhabited the words and taken on form and shape in a dance with them. It is as if light has entered the beginning of one of these series of meditations or conversations, has trickled down over its ledges, and pools at its base.

Well, in Iceland (above) it can freeze from time to time!


Khezr, the Hidden Prophet, Trickster Cook of Alexander.

Khezr is one of the afrad, the Unique Ones who recieve illumination directly from God without human mediation; they can initiate seekers who belong to no Order or have no human guide; they rescue lost wanderers and desperate lovers in the hour of need. Here he is:



Take a look at the dragon wings he has instead of oak leaves for hair. With claws, and everything.


In Sufic tradition, there is no separation between St. George and his dragon: they are one. This one-ness between wildness and civility, that is Khezr. Nature doesn’t have to be killed in this conception. It is a conception of balance. That’s the way of the ghazal. It’s also the way of a man walking.



Salaam Aleikum!

Indigenous Creativity in the Pacific Northwest

Some cultures are so ancient that they watched the glaciers come and go 10,000 years ago. So it is with the Syilx culture of today’s Colville Confederated Tribes. Once the ice melted and the post-glacial floods abated and the people climbed down from the high country or pushed through from the south and east, the first person sniffing his way was the ancestor Sen’klip, who the Yakimas to the south called Spillyay and the Nez Perce to the east called Itseyéyeh and most people just call Coyote now, and when he needed someone to talk to, to mull his thoughts over with, he shat, or farted, depending on the severity of the conversation, and talked to the smell on the wind. Well, his conversations are still here, on the road between Nespelem and Coulee Dam, above the river. Look, you can even see the hole made by the conversation, in the middle of the pile.coyoteSen’klip left hundreds of piles like this in this stretch of the Columbia (in the gorge cutting across the middle of the image). Not to be missed for the world! They will outlive the Grand Coulee dam, just upriver. Stories like this form one of the threads of Indigenous creativity on the Columbia Plateau. In other cultures, creativity might come from certain intersections of forces within a person, what is currently called emotion or identity or self or self-actualization. That is not the case here. Here the same intersections happen in the land. It is a permanent and timeless intersection of forces. People move through it, in its own patterns.

Not Gravity Gradients But Bodily Shapes in Bodies That Are Not Human

One of the important components of this kind of creativity is that it relates to two lands at the same time: a timeless one, in which all beings are equal and speaking to each other, and one created by them, in which coyotes are wild dogs, deer are four-legged grazing animals, and “the real people” (to distinguish them from the coyotes and deer and so on, who are also people) are humans. These worlds were once one, but are now divided between a world of spirit and the earth, where spirit makes itself manifest as plants, animals, wind, rain, rivers, mountains and so on, which effect human behaviour. Creativity rises from this relationship. A song in Spokane culture, for example, is created by spirits, in their world, and passed to humans, in theirs; when humans sing the song, they gain access to the spiritual world, and spirits gain access to theirs. Nonetheless, the song does not come from human invention; it is received. This is an intricately woven conception of an intricately woven world, in which the grassland hills provide a bounty of food across a wide range of seasons if they are cared for by a principle called Yil. To speak about Yil, let me introduce you to one of the problem deer of Bella Vista.popup By problem deer, we mean that she comes down at night and nibbles shrubberies planted in the front yards of people who keep houses for the summer and, strangely, go away to some place warm for the winter, when the land looks like this:

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They are missing so much! In the summer, people call for the deer above and her sisters to be shot. You might see what the deer think about that below…

eye The eye tells all. Here, let me show you:


You see that? Not very trusting is she. And what was she doing anyway? Well, mid-afternoon snack!


The only edible thing on the hill is this saskatoon bush. That makes for a lot of wandering, back and forth, from one bush to the next, and, here’s the thing. The grassland didn’t evolve for this, and it’s destroying it. Hence the descent to the shrubberies.

hillDeer trails. It’s like a lion pacing in a cage at a zoo. This is not the weaving of Yil, but it is the weaving Yil makes when its threads are broken. More on that in a sec. First, let’s look up on the hill, where the aspen saplings in the wetlands that one might graze if one were a doe with a bright eye are dead, because someone misunderstood just a few things, there’s nothing to eat here anymore. The wetland is no longer part of the weave of the land.

drywetThis is a Wetland No More

One error here was long-term cattle grazing and the over-concentration of deer caused by improperly designed human housing estates. Another is that this is a pond. Hardly. It is the heart of a body that includes deer, ravens, flickers, foxes, coyotes, dogwoods, hawthorns, firs, aspens, alders, mice, ducks and so much more.


Haws: Part of the Body that is Otherwise Called a Pond

(In this case, a kilometre away. Psshaw, that’s nothing.)

Another error made here is that deer eat grass. Yeah, some deer, and some grass only. They prefer succulent plants, especially flowers, big buds and seed heads.. Another error is that aspens are trees. After all, aspens have trunks and leaves and branches, right?

aspensThese Are Not Trees

This is one organism, that grows underground and sends up vertical trunks. It is preyed upon by more fungi and bacteria and viruses than anything else going and dies like the dickens, hence it is important that it continually throw up a huge number of new, sapling trunks. The oldest organism of this kind is 70,000 years old, the oldest living thing on earth. The organism above is dying. Most of the aspen creatures in my grassland are dying, because of cattle, irrigation and housing development. That is the seventh dimension: beyond the grass getting up and moving in the form of a deer or a human, which is the sixth dimension, all living creatures are one creature; what one does affects all the others as if it were done to themselves. This dimension has a name. It is Yilx. More on that in a sec.

nestDeer Nest Among the Coyote Rocks

(Click it for a better view.)

First, some weaving, or Yil. It goes like this: if cattle graze the wetland, the aspens die and deer must eat saskatoons. If deer overgraze the saskatoons, there are few berries for birds, coyotes, bears and humans. With little to graze, because saskatoons grow slowly when deer chew on them, the deer pace back and forth across the hill, eroding the microbial crust of the earth and breaking up the grass and balsam root communities, with a detrimental effect on mouse and marmot populations, coyotes, foxes, badgers and hawks. And why does it matter, if you have cattle, you might ask? It matters because the resilience is gone from the land and what was able to feed all the people, including deer and humans, now feeds only cattle, who are incredibly inefficient at converting grass to protein (and, besides, there isn’t much edible grass up there on the hill for them.) The land ends up producing less, which means it lives less, and since you are in the seventh dimension, and thus part of this life form, you live less, too. After enough time at this game, the land doesn’t even support cattle anymore. Just sagebrush, which is only good for burning up. The image below shows a grassland converted into a field, across the valley, and a wetland clogged with houses and roads in the valley bottom, where the deer should be hanging out and which should be feeding thirty kilometres of 135-kilometre-long Okanagan Lake, but is not any more.

P1060826Since we are the same organism, if the deer are blocked from access to the valley bottom and the life that should be produced there out of the flows of rain, gravity and sunlight out of the world of spirit, so are we, the humans. We are the prisoners just as much as the deer, and creativity is lost to us as much as it is to the land.


There is a name for this entire organism, by the way. It’s called Syilx, which is the name for the indigenous people of this place. It doesn’t really mean “the people” or anything like that. It is a way, a relationship, a form of inclusion and respect. The people gained this understanding from living on the grassland and watching it. I know this, because this is how I gained my own. Here’s what the Okanagan Indian Band has to say about Syilx:

The word “Syilx” takes its meaning from several different images. The root word “Yil” refers to the action of taking any kind of many-stranded fiber, like hemp, and rolling it and twisting it together to make one unit, or one rope. It is a process of making many into one. “Yil” is a root word which forms the basis of many of our words for leadership positions, as well. Syilx contains a command for every individual to continuously bind and unify with the rest. This command goes beyond only humans and encompasses all stands of life that make up our land. The word Syilx contains the image of rolling or unifying into one, as well as the individual command which is indicated by the “x” at the end of the word which indicates that it is a command directed at the individual level. The command is for every individual to be part of that stranded unified group, and to continue that twisting and unification on a continuous basis. It is an important concept which underlies our consideration of the meanings of aboriginal title and rights.

You can read more by clicking here. Or by going up the hill.

P1040828This is you.

A fascinating place in this braided world is the village. I was paddling around on the old molten glacier of Vaseaux Lake (below), when I realized that the traditional Syilx village on this site was not just the flat along the Vaseaux Lake shore at the right of the image …P1960297… but also the lake itself. A village is for people. Seen spiritually, water is people. So is this:


In this case, the house at the centre of this image has been built around the pictograph on the north-facing slope of the boulder between it and Vaseaux Lake — a remnant from when this area was a German colony in the sun, between and immediately after the world wars. In this case, it is a piece of land set aside for village memory and renewal, although removed now from its role. This, too, is part of the village …


Humans and people are the same, but not always the same. Sometimes people are Nodding Onion, such as here at Tepahlewam, on the Camas Prairie south of Lapwai, in Nimíipuu Country.


This site has been a summer village since before Nodding Onion was admitted into the village, with full privileges as an honoured person and elder. At that time, this was a Mastodon hunting ground.


One person is still remembering the good bones!

I’m not jesting here. I think it’s vital. If a relationship to the earth is going to be built that will allow it to thrive in the Syilx way, it must be admitted into human social circles, not as humans, but on its own terms. The cliff below, above the ancient village of the lower Kooskooske, at the mouth of Lapwai Creek which drains the Camas Prairie to the north, is not human, but it is part of the village. It is a person.


The grizzly bear that left these tracks does not have to be physically manifest to be a person, either, or to be a part of the village. It exists in the spirit world. Without that knowledge, there is no renewal of the earth. The earth is us. The task of humans is to rebuild the village, and welcome their relations back home. Even Paper Wasp, nesting here in a gas bubble in an old basalt flow above the Salmon River.


The village is Yil, and makes the command of Yilx to its people, the Syilx. When they hang out with paper wasp, when they allow Wasp into their village, that spirit world is within the village. It is able, within those bounds, to create. Outside of the village, it just buzzes around. At the moment, though, society is here:


That’s not how to treat a sister. That’s how to colonize an alien planet. It’s time to put such fantasies behind us.p1470539

It’s time to come home. There’s one more dimension to this spiritual-physical relationship that is embodied first in the land, then in the people, and then in the village. This is the tradition of song and gambling (it is a form of spiritual gambling, with profound stakes) called S’lahal, or The Bone Game, or The Stick Game. First, you start with a person:

Photo on 12-11-05 at 4.19 PM

Your writer says hi.

When you get a whole bunch of persons together you get people — a village, shall we say. Like this:


Plateau Men Fishing, Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, c.1950 Source

So, that’s a group of persons, and when they get together their interactions are called social. S’lahal, the bone game, is social:


Lummi Men Hard at a Game of S’lahal, c. 1930

But, wait. The story of S’lahal is told in this amazing book…


You can read about it. It has its own very beautiful website here: It’s outwardly about a shaman and a priest who learn to blend their faiths in the Plateau, through song, but it’s also about social groups. In short, every person in the Plateau is a member of a social group which includes not only his or her guardian spirit but the entire world of spirits that manifest themselves as the animals and plants of the earth.


Bald Eagle Above Okanagan Lake

Look at all those spirit creatures on the far valley wall, too, eh.

Humans are one of these forms of materially present spirits.

One Young Woman from Every State of the USA Pours a Jug of Water Over the Grand Coulee Dam

And this is how the world ended. I didn’t say spirit was all sweetness and light.

Here’s, I guess, the other side of this s’lahal game called Damming the Great River of the West:


Colville Women Gathered for the Ceremony of Tears, to Commemorate the End of the World, 1940

Every game needs two teams.

Thing is, there were other teams.

Nk’mp Sockeye, Okanagan Falls

Luckily for them, the Okanogan River joins the Columbia below Grand Coulee Dam.  The Skoelpi salmon of Kettle Falls were not so lucky and were lost to the dam.

The game of S’lahal is played with these spirits, with songs that are often created by them. In short, every S’lahal player had a social group that included family, tribe, nation, and all the animals and plants and rivers and mountains of the world. Even pine pitch and stumps. And this bunch:

Buck and Canada Geese on the Impounded Columbia West of Kettle Falls

Communication was a unifying force that brought these orientations together. Song was one way. This was another:

Mara Lake

These words are another. And these:

Raven at Lolo Lake

The old mammoth hunting ground and bulb gathering ground on the Camas Prairie between the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon Rivers.

Even the language I am writing in here and which you are reading, English, has its roots in that mode of being, and didn’t start catastrophically deviating from it until a couple decades ago. This is the language of goose girls and cowherds, fishers, crofters, charcoal burners, salmon poachers, beechnut gatherers and kids herding pigs with a stick and sheep with a crook. I’m proud of that.


Mallards Leaving Town

Not just that, I’m glad. It means that the separation of people from the world is not a Western cultural thing. It is a consequence of environments, continually at war with the social knowledge living energetically within language, trying to be born with every sentence, like this, perhaps:

It spells that the cutting of men and women from their home is not a bond knotted around all people of the West. It is a town warring with the bonds within its words and the spells between them, birthing anew with every knot in every telling.

Pregnant Whale, Wedding Rocks, Makah Illahie

Think of it. You create a whale by slowly wearing away the rock with the action of your own hand until the whale is there, and then you let the sea wear it away over centuries, taking that attention away and dissolving it into the water, to insure that whales will come, rich and pregnant with calves, for hundreds of years. When the art is gone? It’s never gone. It’s in the sea. It’s in the whales.

I have introduced the concept of Yil, however, to get at the idea of environment, as well as environmental sustainability and renewal. There’s an old word from this place which expresses this concept well: illahie. Here’s what it looks like here when the snow is gone:


Well, that’s a teeny tiny bit of it. If you look it up in a Chinook Wawa dictionary…

45667_1…the trade language of Cascadia …


… on the North Pacific Coast of North America, you’ll find it defined as: “country, land.” Ya, well, it’s also this…


Mammoth Hot Springs in the September Rain, Yellowstone

… and it’s not a claim to legal land title. It’s a person’s illahie. It’s the land that one is. It has an interesting story, too. All words in Chinook Wawa, or Chinook Talk have an origin. Some come from Tsinuk, the language of the old traders at the mouth of the Columbia River. Some are from other indigenous languages, in this illahie rich with them. After all, the Tsinuk (Chinook) were trading in Wawa long before Europeans lugged themselves out this way. Some are from French, like leman, for “hand” or lapote, for “door.” Some are from English, like sugar for “sugar.” Some come from playful echoes of sound. Wawa (language or talk) is one of those. It’s the sound a baby makes (wa wa), and the sound a person makes when no one understands him (blah blah, for instance), and that’s kind of the way traders were, and kind of the way of pidgin language that lacks a certain amount of subtlety, shall we say. Illahie, though, oh, that’s an interesting one. Here’s my guess: it’s French, from the métis traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who came overland from Canada, or perhaps the French-speaking Iroquois traders who came before them, before history, and are only recorded in Skoeilpi legend, but are no less real for that. You could have Scots ancestry, too. That worked.

05 Angus MacDonald

The Great Coming Together

And here we are, back in song and in the power of creativity itself. If I’m right, the word is originally “la hai”, a hedge of sticks (it’s how you planted one), even a fence (they were often woven from willows) [note: the spelling change is because the recorders were English and spelled “hai” the English way, as “hie”]…


A Stick Fence from the Day. Source

…and the prefix “il”, which makes it “il-lahie”. Does that come from the French pronoun “il” for “he”? Or does it come, perhaps, from the nsyilxcen word, “yil”, the braid I’ve been discussing here all this time? If it’s French, it would mean “his fence”, but the French would be poor, pidgin even, so perhaps Iroquois, and perhaps Sahaptin or Salishan, spoken by someone just learning the language and poking fun. That works. If it’s “yil” it would mean, “the hedge of sticks that is braided together.” That would work, too, because the hedge of sticks in Cascadia is the game of s’lahal. It goes back nearly 14,000 years in this illahie.  We know, because it’s called “the stick game”, the “sticks” are made of bones, and the oldest set of s’lahal bones we have are nearly 14,000 years old.


S’lahal played in Vancouver, in 2011  Source

It’s played today with lengths of wood, because no one has much of a source of mammoth bones anymore. It’s a game played with drumming and songs, as you can see above. One old s’lahal song sings that in the early gambling to see who was going to be the hunted in the future, after the people were separated into people and animals, it wasn’t looking so good for humans. This hairless and sickly lot were down to one s’lahal bone and it looked like the soup pot for them, but then one of the spirits of one of the animals took pity on these weak mewling, naked, clawless and toothless things and gave them a song. That made the difference. Life came to humans from the song’s ability to change the mood of the game in their favour. Ever since, s’lahal has been played with songs, drumming, polyphony, antiphony, swagger, bluff and laughter. If you’re thinking, hey, that sounds like coyotes teaching their kits to howl outside their dens under the warm August moon, you’ve got it about right.

Too Young to Play S’lahal (May)

Sometimes, s’lahal can be bad for your health, though. That’s because it’s played with mammoth bones, or with arrow shafts tipped with them, signifying men. Each arrow is a song. Each song is a wager. And…when French métis traders (typically the dark-skinned sons of Quebec French men and native women) arrived it became a splendid cross-cultural joke: in French “la hal,” or “la haie,” is a pun between “a hedge of sticks” and “a suntan” — in other words, “lahal” is the stick game of the people with dark skins, or “the forest people,” because the French word “La Tenne” has always meant the celts, the forest people who painted their skins dark with walnut or fir sap (Tanne, or Tannenbaum in German), just as the English word “tan” has always meant exactly the same thing. To get a tanning, in other words, is to get whipped, which colours the skin bright red; to get a tan, in other words, means to have children with the people of the forest, and to bring their darker skin colour into your family line — a fine métis bit of wit. And maybe you’re going to get whipped, or beaten, in that game of s’lahal, eh?


E.J. Kipp, 26, (left) and his brother Andre Picard Jr., 33, of the Nez Perce Nation in Lapwai, Idaho, demonstrate how a game of Sticks and Bones might go. Source

Hey, if you can’t laugh at yourself, what’ve you got? Laughter aside, there’s deep, ancient wisdom here: humans and spirits and animals are all woven together in s’lahal, and they are woven together in the land that s’lahal made: the illahie. The earth, and all its interwoven creatures, the illahie, is the game. It’s s’lahal. It’s the play. It’s the weave we are.


A Bunch of Bison After Losing the Stick Game

By the way, in Wawa, “sticks” are what English speakers call trees and French speakers call des arbres and Germans see as Bäume.  The bison know them differently.  Look at them there in Yellowstone with their game pieces! And that’s the illahie, the land that is all woven together, with the spiritual foundation, woven together from the beginning of the world, and keeping that beginning alive, and woven with all the rich diversity of the land bound together in a game of mutual communication and respect. Here are some ravens playing s’lahal with me above Kalamalka Lake:P1690042After 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 bit more than a century ago this outcropping of devil 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:

yellow-1Arrow-leafed Balsam Root

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. This illahie — this story or song in chorus — has been the subject of a land claim by the Syilx since 1895. 120 years of stalling followed. The only value left in the land is the visual, romantic value of ‘the view’.


It’s Not a View. It’s Spiritual Food. It’s a Song.

This is what songs look like in physical form. In Western tradition, they might look like a group of human people. In Indigenous tradition on the plateau, all people join in. The “real people” are tasked with keeping the song going.

The song responds by giving them new songs.


Apostemon Bee on a Mariposa Lily (an important food plant.)

What a song!

Let me make a suggestion: aboriginal perspectives are understandable because they are familiar. All humans have aboriginal cultural roots. If it were otherwise, speaking with the Syilx would be like attempting to speak to whales or sea stars. It isn’t. It is as simple as …


Dismantled Fence

Colville Indian Reservation

… taking down the barbed wire and walking out into grass that belongs to the grass. Indigenous creativity comes from that simple act, and from the staying there.


Next: Sufic and Byzantine Creativity!

Creativity in Iceland

Iceland was long isolated from the rest of Europe and maintained ancient, pre-industrial modes of creativity, economics and land use long after they had been rendered obsolete elsewhere. Many parts of Icelandic culture did not leave an indigenous sense of land until the Second World War, when occupation by American and British military forces completely transformed the economy.


Abandoned Turf House, North Iceland

The wind, I promise, is unforgiving here. The house is built directly in it, on the crest of a hill above the Greenland Sea, so that the wind will take the winter snow away. The rest of the year is scarcely warmer. I would have left, too. And I love the wind!

For one thing, in Iceland you’re always under the observant eyes of ravens, who range out to the left and right of the god Oðin, acting as the harbingers and scouts of all identity: thought and memory. Here’s one keeping an eye on me.


You Are Never Alone in Iceland, Hengifossá

One of the technologies that Iceland brought forward into the present is Nordic Mythology. It was preserved here, although lost everywhere else, and provides an alternate world view to all others. For one thing, it has humans dwelling on Middle Earth, between worlds of Fire and Ice. Middle earth is where they battle for dominance. The fire …


… and ice are never far, and come from beyond the world.


Snæfells, with Reindeer and Geese

This is a complex and deep heritage, which contains such creative technologies as haying …



Haying is the Art of Creating a Book out of the Sun

You can read it all winter long, or your sheep can. My book The Art of Haying explores these mysteries.

… the string …


Icelandic Horse Obeying The String That is a Human Will

… non-human personhood …


Icelandic Horse Scratching Its Head at the Mystery of It All

… the self living in the forms of the land…


Elf City, South Iceland

…in union with ancient story …


Raven Mountain, North East Iceland

… and creativity rising not from person but from space, in an ancient conception called the Tun.


Cow, Calf and Tun

 All these technologies and many more meet in the culture of Iceland. The culture is their expression. Humans pass through this culture’s forms, in the same way they ride (or walk) across the land.



Golfing With Elves and the Dead, Too

In Iceland, nothing gets thrown away.

It’s the tun I’d like to talk about in terms of creativity today. A tun is something that you can observe (and take part in) everywhere in Iceland (and in the North). Here’s a tun in Denmark (the former colonizing power, grrr):

010Half-Timbered Danish Farmhouse

Den Fynske Landsby, Fyn, Danmark. The working courtyard in front follows the ancient Norse (and thereafter Icelandic) architectural model of a tun, an open air working room between buildings. 

A tun is a building without walls or roof, where the money-making activity of the farm took place, and where the manure (the dung, a variant of the word “tun”) was stored, which could be spread on the fields to create future wealth. It is the source of economy.


Horse-drawn Wealth Spreader Waiting for Re-use

Hedge fund version 1.0.

The tun usually connected to the track to the next farm, or out to the world of trade. Here’s a variant on a tun, from East Iceland…

landhusLandhus Farm Barn, Fljótsðalur

In this case, the tun is the road itself. It’s the architectural space (within the landscape rather than the farmyard) that carries forth the energy of the tun.


Icelandic Highway 1 in March, Mývatnssveit

Park your car here on the way back home from work. 

The word “tun” is the German for “to do”. The English word is “doing.” 


A nice triad!

It is a place of energy that creates the economy and trade and activity of a country (or a farm), or lets it efficiently take place. It is the place where the future is created. Without it, the activity of humans would not be as organized as it is, nor could it be efficiently packed up and exported from the farm (or the country.) Iceland, of course, is a sophisticated modern country, so we can expect this source of energy to take many forms today. Here are a few:

Parking Strip.

streetArt Project in Downtown Reykjavik

The pattern of tun-in-the-pasture is reversed to pasture-in-the-tun. (The tun is Reykjavik.) This pasture, though, is in the shape of a disused turf house. Clever stuff!

Movie theatre.

theatreThe Reykjavik Movie Theatre is Also a Place of Exchange.

Note that this is a re-purposed building. In other words, not only is the movie theatre a contemporary tun, but the building acts as one as well.


church2Vik Church, South Iceland

 A very useful tun for work with souls. In this case, the houses of the village take the place of the buildings of a farmyard.


treehouseSummerhouse in Kirkjubærjarklaustur

The trees are part of a nation building program of the Icelandic government. They represent not only shelter and beauty, but future money in the bank. In this sense, they operate as a dung heap in a tun. The land itself has been separated from itself into a special tun space here. Here’s something different…


truckA Movable Tun

This tun represents a combined cognitive, social and bodily space. It moves around and around through Reykjavik, invading people’s dreams and re-shaping them into effervescent images of mineral water. Not into the dance scene? No problem…


Icelandic Farmstead. 

Note the elf house in the foreground. It’s good to live close to your neighbours.

From the perspective of a capital economy, this capital has depreciated to the point of needing to be replaced with a new depreciation sequence paid for with interest. In a tun-based economy, the expense of taking wealth from the land in order to build structures upon it is a debt that will be erased only when the creative (tun-ish) potential given from the land and embodied in the building and the tractor are mined dry and these materials (dung-wise) rot back into the earth. They are, in other words, a fertilizer. You don’t paint fertilizer. You also don’t throw it away. Want something more adventuresome? Iceland has that too.


Svinafellsjokul, Skaftafell National Park

A glacier is part of the common wealth of a country, that which belongs to all of the people and brings water and energy to all. It’s not just the people, either. It also brings energy to the land itself. Here, you can see what that looks like, on the other side of the glaciers.



Aka glacier turning into light. Very good for the soul.

A glacier can attract tourists (and mine them for wealth), provide healthy recreation for the people (an idea of nature, imported from coal-smoke-choked industrial England), and even provide habitat for fish …


The Laugarfljót, with a view to Snæfells

These are both tun spaces. The mountain generates snow, which generates water. The lake collects the water, to provide habitat for fish. By concentrating energy in this way, mountain and lake make it available for human harvest. (Not that this is their plan.)

Unfortunately, capital-intensive economic systems can mess with that and simplify the idea of a tun almost to unrecognizability, like this:

P1390140 This is propaganda in the service of art.

Or art in the service of propaganda. Or a statue in the middle of a hydroelectric dam outflow channel that has diverted the water from Snæfells into the wrong fjord. Something like that. Here, here’s another look: P1390165 See that? The ship steams upriver, loaded with generic manufactured goods, towards the economy created by turning Snæfells’ life-giving properties into cash, that can pay for electric toasters and Swedish toilet paper. It never, of course, arrives. Here’s its goal…P1390138

The Heart of the Mountain

The statue was erected on the notion of eternal wealth, just before the economic collapse made the whole notion questionable. Here’s a construction site (abandoned) in Reykjavik, based upon the economic version of this dam …


OK, So Maybe Not Such a Great Idea After All

If you get too abstract with your tun, you run the risk of running out of manure. Good to know.

Ah, perhaps you’re tired of farms by now? Well, here you go, way up in the north…


A Sea-Going Tun Space

Powered by human energy (doing). Any fish brought into the boat (the tun) are instantly converted into wealth. Well, as long as your arms are strong and the weather holds.

This particular moveable tun has been sitting on the shore for a long time, but the principle still holds. When you start powering that boat with diesel, then a good chunk of the fish you bring in are not wealth, but payment for an operating debt, and, if you bought the boat on credit, a capital debt as well. If you’re not careful, the whole thing becomes a debt. Instead of organizing the wealth of your labour on the sea (very wet common space) for delivery to social space, the tun organizes social relationships for delivery to you. You have, in other words, lost your tun (doing.) Here’s a solution:



The Akureyri Botanical Garden

This garden is planted in Iceland’s northern capital to see what plants will grow in a cold, northern climate. The concentration is on decorative plants. That is part of Icelandic nationalism, a way of dunging the country so that it brings forth wealth (in the sense of a tun economy, organized around human relationships to common space (land and water, mostly), beauty and fecundity are both forms of wealth.) So is this:



Hotel Edda, Akureyri

In the summer, the richly-endowed residential high schools of Iceland are converted into hotels, serving travellers. This doing (tun) allows for them to be sheltered and fed without capital-intensive infrastructure on the land, that would not turn a profit (dung) and would be a drain on the community (a kind of field.) In other words, without the Hotel Edda concept, travel in Iceland would be greatly reduced. That is pure tun! In the winter, the schools are tuns of a different kind, gathering Icelandic youth together for their common education. It would be best, however, not to think of these multi-use spaces as either schools or hotels, but as a space which allows for and serves both relationships to the land. See? Pure tun! Similarly…


N1 Gas Station in Blondüos

In sparcely-populated Iceland, a gas station is like a city in itself (Icelandic Staður, German Stadt [city] or Staat [country], English State, and in land terms a Stead, as in a farmstead. Here it’s a gas stead.) Everyone stops (where else?). Everyone eats (hamburgers, chicken, pizza and hot dogs, the national dishes of Iceland, and for the lucky soul a liquorice ice cream bar [available only in Iceland] if you root around long enough in the freezer.) The places so interrupt the roads in a tun-ish kind of way that even the police stop here. Rather than waiting at the side of the road trying to nab people of interest, they just hang out at the N1 and interrogate people while they’re filling up with gas.

Here’s a somewhat more esoteric tun from Kirkjubærjarklaustur:


A Window on the Tun …

… is part of the function of the tun, even when it’s a bit wonky from a stone cast up by a weed eater or, perhaps (judging from the repaired state of the wall) earthquake.

Similarly, a piece of propaganda-art (or is it art-propaganda?) in downtown Reykjavik provides an anchor point for tourists wandering down to the waterfront (very tun-ish, that)…


Leif the Lucky’s Aluminum Ship, with Modern Adventurers

If I was crossing the North Atlantic in a longboat, I’d want it to be a made out of aluminum, too.

… while reminding the Reykjavikers that the money that built their glittering waterfront…



Reykjavik: Iceland’s Tun

It interacts with other national tuns to create the worldwide tun network.

… came from the aluminum smelter (and glacial-melt electricity) across the mountain in Whale Fjord.



Aluminum Smelter with World War II Airstrip (aka bird sanctuary), Hvalfjörður

Leif’s ship points straight this way. This is a capital tun. That it needs space (Iceland) is rather incidental. It might have been British Columbia. Oh, wait, they’ve dammed rivers and diverted them through tunnels and extirpated salmon for an aluminum smelter in British Columbia, too! Like tuns, capital is everywhere. Sometimes it flows right through a tun and obliterates it.

Here’s Reykjavik’s most interesting tun, right on the waterfront …



The Reykjavik opera house and performance centre. It also houses a CD shop, a cafe, exhibition space, practice space for dancers, fashion shows and classical, folk and rock concerts. In other words, it provides a space for the concentration of cultural activity of all kinds in sufficient quantity and quality that it can be delivered to the people, the country, and the world. It’s also a beautiful piece of architecture that captures the sun light and casts it in coloured rectangles on the concrete plaza at its base, like sketchings made out of chalk. Tun all the way.

Not all tuns are so complex. Here’s one of the most basic (and powerful) of them all…



Right Between Church and House

Note the road that comes directly to it. The tithes that came to a church accrued to the landowner who had built the tun space for the people and were, as such, a major form of wealth for Icelandic farms. The byproduct was the dead, who were planted in the tun — a kind of social dung, fertilizing the future (Heaven) or the present (built as it is on human memory, the more the memory the richer the present.)

In this conception of wealth, capital (and money) aren’t exactly the goal, but a product of the tun space. The carefully-bounded space below, on the other hand, added to the tun space…


field Stallions at Skriðuklaustur

Without the line that bounds this field, there would be no inputs to a tun space. It would only be a potential space. Never underestimate a line, in Iceland or anywhere else.

Here, this image may illustrate that more dramatically. Here we are at Myvatn (you may recognize this image)…


Volcanic Slag, fenced and dunged = Field = Horse 

Simple math.

If we lift the camera just a teensy bit, we get some perspective…


Volcanic Slag + Capital + Cleverness = Geothermal Power

Our horse is behind the rock.

You see how that works? The land has potential. It has a form of potential energy. The application of a particular technological approach towards defining it as space allows for different forms of energy to come out of it. A line gives us a field, gives us a horse. It will be brought into a tun, where this elementary relationship is retained. Capital gives us a  geothermal power station. It will be brought into a city, where it’s own elementary relationships are retained. In the first case, the earth is full of life and living relationships. In the second, humans are separated from the earth, which is a field of energy, that can be harvested. The interrelationship between these two ways of being is complex, but at all times the elementary principle remains: creativity comes from the space that is outlined by technology; the outcomes are predetermined. In other words, we who are humans are not separate from technology and cannot just direct it to our will. All we can hope for is to create spaces, which create energy flows that lead to where we wish to go, but we should be very clear as to where they might lead. Here’s a kind of tun that got its start in Iceland over a thousand years ago:



The Thing Place in Þingvællir

The world’s first parliament convened on this spot at the confluence of the walking trails of Iceland in the year 930. All the people came and collectively decided their social arrangements, then followed the trails back to their home farms. This is the tun of tuns.

On the principle that space creates function and energy is latent in the land, some tuns are geographical spaces. Like this…



Arnarfjörður, from Hrafnseyrie

This was the view that Jon Sigurdson, father of Icelandic independence, took in as a child.

Here’s a slightly altered version:



Stikkishólmur Harbour

Here’s an example of a common Icelandic tun: a ruin of a lost farm.  The people of Reykjavik come from places like this that were no longer tenable in a capital-fueled society. They do, however, remain.



Ruined Farmhouse near Arnarstapi

The mistake should not be made, despite the astute and chilling observations of Iceland’s Nobel Laureate, Halldór Laxness, that such buildings were a betrayal of the debt of humans to their land, as they were too capital intensive and not constructed within the flow of seasons and fate. Instead, it’s better to think of them as graveyards and memory artefacts, that continue to bind people to the land, although only in potential, and offer the chance of return. The energy that was squandered (as Laxness saw it) on these buildings, remains in them, as it also remains in the land, and can be mined again. Only in the sense of capital is it lost.

Well, there are many other forms of doings in Iceland. Cataloguing them won’t add to that appreciably. But perhaps this image might sum it up:


bridgeLike the string that defines a field and allows for concentrated activity, a bridge is another technology both similar to a tun and connected to its energy. It allows for improved delivery of material to the tun, without the contamination of important water sources with the mud generated by foot traffic. In this case, perhaps not so well, but, hey, I used this bridge on my way to the Dwarf Church in Seyðisfjörður, and it did its thing. Oh, and as for bridges, here’s one…

Golf Course.

golfSlowly, a people who have lost their connection to tun space are refinding it, in the golf course surrounding a church which was set up next to an elf city in the lava fields south of Reykjavik. Humans are like horses in a field. They really can’t wander that far.

Well, that’s the tun (our contemporary ton, or town), in many of its forms. It is in these spaces that Icelandic creativity takes place, because the tun (not the individual self, not God but focussed activity rising from location, here in Middle Earth, between cataclysmic forces) is where creativity takes place. In Iceland, it is Middle Earth, Miðgarðr, that is creative space. A similar set of illustrations can be worked out for the other technologies (string, etc) with which I introduced this post, but for now, I think you get the point: in Iceland there is a form of creativity and a corresponding land sense with little if any connection to American, French or German land senses. The culture, however, is more creative than those others. That’s worth sitting down in for awhile and getting to know. So, until next time when I will speak about Indigenous creativity on the Columbia Plateau, thank you for spending some quality time with me among the elves.

Godafoss and Lake Myvtan 342

Harold Among the Elves on Miðgarðr


Water and Air Pollution in the Okanagan Valley

This is the bottom of Okanagan Lake, in 15 centimetres of water, in Vernon, on a public beach.
yuckI know the green stuff is algae, that shouldn’t be there, but what is the purply white stuff? Would you drink that? Would you let your kid swim in it? Would you even let your dog swim in it? The image below is from Okanagan Centre, twenty kilometres down the lake. It shows what those stones should look like: old volcanic cores gouged out in the over deepening processes of a melting continental glacier.P2200050

Unfortunately, I had to search for those stones. The image below shows what it really looks like, for kilometre after kilometre, at Okanagan Centre (below.) These stones are covered in green slime (like in the picture from Vernon above) in the wet (summer) season.


Look, I know I’m as old as the hills, but I think it’s completely beyond acceptable that this has happened. In 1970, you could drink this lake. The water was clear for three or four metres, at least.  You could swim in it. Now people do this:


You could make soup out of that junk, but would you spoon it up?

This is in Vernon, by the way. The  slime and weird whiten and purple crud photo at the top of this post was taken to the left of this image, where the brown resort apartments meet the lake. The current $900,000,000 (!!!!!!) water improvement project for Greater Vernon includes dumping millions of litres of treated water into this arm of this lake, letting the lake miraculously clean it, then pumping it back out again and spraying it on lawns, orchards and vegetable fields. From beginning to end, this is obscene. Ah, you think that is bad? Well, the image below is no better.P2190102

That’s the main channel of Okanagan Lake, ten kilometres north of Okanagan Centre and forty kilometres north of Kelowna. What you see is cloud, and below it a layer of smog blowing up from the city. In 1970, this air was so clean, there were no impurities in it at all, and certainly not brown smog blowing in. I remember the first time I saw smog in the Okanagan. It was in 1980, rolling south from Kelowna. Now, many people say,

that’s progress,

or even …

You can’t stop progress.

That’s bullshit. It’s a crime, that’s all, pure and simple. I know. I have the memory. I carry the grief within me. Just look at this!P2170755

That’s four days ago. Look at the brown smog in those clouds. Chances are it has blown north from Seattle or Vancouver: hundreds of kilometres away. It does that. Look at the lower level of smoke drifting up the main body of the lake, moving north from Kelowna, 35 kilometres to the south. Look at how it pools in the Shorts Creek Draw (in the middle right of the image, between the two low white clouds.) For the love of all things decent, hundreds of people get their drinking water from that creek!

Why It’s Important to Talk About Creativity

Over the past month I’ve exploring human identities and creativity and their impact on the environment. I do this because I have brothers and sisters, not just humans (but humans, too, including you), who I care about:

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Those are just a few of the people I live with and who make my life. Living without them would be this:


Downtown Vernon, British Columbia

Over the last few weeks, I’ve presented a history of the development of the contemporary Western idea of self, and related that to three traditions of creativity:

American, which tries to activate a private Christ-like self to create a human who acts at one with God but leaves emotions as a mystery;

French, which leaves mystery and creativity to God, and encourages a self which makes refined objects out of received inspiration; and

German, which places creativity as part of a group that stretches back a few thousand years back in time.


The Green Man of Davos, Switzerland

This is indigenous memory that goes back through the first Cro Magnon settlers in Switzerland (their descendants are called the Swiss today) to the Himalayas, at least: to the roots of what we call human, at any rate.

Sure, Swiss. German is not a people. It is a language. You get up into the Swiss mountains and that German starts sounding like the French and the French like the German, and both of them sound like the Welsh from Caernarfon, which came from ancient Assyria long ago.


Caernarfon, from the Eagle Tower

One of the reasons I am doing this is aesthetic. I have two degrees in Creative Writing: the first, in 1980, was a degree in writing and the world, taught by a witch, who was a world expert on surrealism, poetic forms, literary modernism, the poetry of World War II, Robert Graves (the mid-century master of Mediterranean and Welsh mythology) and Welsh verse:



Robin Skelton …

… holding poet Susan Musgrave’s Surreal Art in his back garden.

The second degree, completed in 2007, was a masters level course in how to write in order to fit into North American pop culture, which, nonetheless, presented itself as a course in world writing. At that point, I realized that the discipline of Creative Writing had purified its American roots, and that earlier attempts to merge it with world literary culture had been overwhelmed. Social expression had supplanted art — the tradition of craft that had raised writing (and painting and sculpture, etc) as a vital member of the Enlightenment Triad of Art of Science and Religion that came from the dismemberment of the pre-Enlightenment Unified World. I am concerned that art is now expected to live wholly within the boundaries of a technological society, and interact with its citizens and technologies, first, and with the world through them. The thing is, though, I live here:


P2190425Coots Waiting to Migrate North

And one local gull looking for sandwich rinds or, well, hey, anything, really.

If anyone were to suggest, as contemporary Canadian forms of creativity and “art” do, that I have to give up my natural habitat, as encroached as it is …


… and take on a purely social one ….


This Blackbird Needs to Be in a Fir Tree Next to Those Rushes

Later, he needs to move into brown birches, and then the rushes themselves.

… that would be an unacceptable and dehumanizing demand, and yet that demand is made hourly and daily.


Rock Scaping

To adapt human lives to a technological water system, which has replaced the natural abundance of indigenous water systems in order to satisfy the needs of industrial agriculture and the political and social demands of deliberate overpopulation caused by inappropriate political systems, the land is turned into a parking lot. Better to recreate living human relationships with more than over-simplified social boundaries.

And so I have taken my long experience with art and creation and the reading and creation of texts, as well as my long experience with the quite different genre called Creative Writing, and have walked with them out into the world. The story today is not human. It is the earth.


Fraser River Sockeye Salmon NOT Making it to the Spawning Beds

It is a story of a warm river, the warmth of which is caused by certain ideas of the social embeddedness and rights of certain types of individual behaviour at the expense of others.

It is by expanding the sense of the human, based on accurate measurements of past human identity and creativity systems, that we can best change the earth. The image of the restaurant employee smoke pit and natural gas valve system is not a natural human environment. It is the environment for people constrained by technical definitions and power structures…



… that are very real and completely unacceptable. To expand this social conversation, I will next introduce other forms of creativity, from other cultural traditions —Icelandic, Native American (Plateau), Byzantine (Russian orthodox) and Islamic (Sufi). We could go on for months, around the world, but that’s a good start, and should be enough to make the point out of my own experience. I don’t want to talk about things which I do not know. That would be disrespectful.  Somehow, the human image below, needs to be reconstructed…


19th Century Human Technology

A will extended across a ruined grassland slope. The fence represents the boundaries of both body and will — the American actualized self — and converts the earth into land, or, to clarify, into a series of independent actualized selves creating a common culture through their interaction. No intellectual or artistic comment is allowable, because it is this act of conversion which is the root of the culture. The state of the grassland (see any grass?) shows just how little of the earth this concept is capable of maintaining.

To this, we all have to contribute how we can. By the offering the story of my experience with creativity, I hope to be able to enrich the language with which we all speak with the earth, and which becomes the earth that speaks with us.


This You

When you feel that without words, you will know that we are walking the same path. I call it human. It doesn’t matter what I call it. It’s life.

After completing my exploration of creative context, I will explore the nature of the self in its contemporary creative contexts, including artificial intelligence and other artificial human contexts. Then we will talk about the world and what we can do together.