Reality and Illusion in the Okanagan Valley

Here is a slideshow of some images from the web about orchards in my country.

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Here’s the reality.


They’re not orchards. They are thickets. What do people actually want, though? Why, to camp out in nearly abandoned, gentrified orchards, like this:


Yes, the images are both mechanized, in that they both rely on fantasy, but there’s something hopeful in them both: the mechanized orchard represents an attempt to fulfill a vision of the land and to support a family’s life; the fantasy orchard represents, well, the same thing.


An attempt to hold onto the past, or to freeze time into a still life. Dikeakos documents the ironies well.

The Private Landscapes of the Okanagan Valley

Here’s a healthy stand of bunchgrass, which I showed you a couple days ago. As I mentioned, the Okanagan Valley of the North Eastern Pacific Rim probably looked like this 200 years ago. It probably looked like this in 1858, and likely even through 1859 and 1860.

Then came cattlemen, and cattle, which ate it down to dust and an invasive weed, cheatgrass, by 1871. Sagebrush (look at the image below), as native to this place as bunchgrass, took advantage of the vacated ecosystem and spread like fire. Cheatgrass (green below) filled in the remaining space, grew green all fall and winter, flashed quickly in the spring, and was dead by May: sharp, prickly and inedible. Rain that fell on the land evaporated away in a few hours. A rich landscape became a desert. Cattle did that or, rather, the fences men kept them penned with did that. Look closely.p1410553

The clearance of 6,000 years of Syilx care of these grasslands through the insult of putting cattle on them remains, today, in 2016, ironically, there’s almost nothing for cattle to eat here. What a shame. It would be like clearing the cities of Europe away to create ruins of stone and sand in which one could plant olives. That this situation is close to what Europe is dealing with today with intense pressures from Africa and the Middle East is not lost on me. It would be foolish to think that here, in the west of the West, we are immune from the same pressures. We aren’t. They look like the European grape plants below, in the shadow of a November cloud, which are here to increase land values in the same way the fences of ranchers in the 1860s were there to increase land values, to turn, in other words, indigenous land into a product that could flow through the accounting books of a centralized government, instead of through the living process of the land:


There are ironies. An ethical system of accounting would return the land to the Syilx, with an apology and an acknowledgement that a transformation of a humanly-cultivated land into a managed “natural space” was a failure. That’s not the way of things, though. The social succession here is to view the land not as the space of a cold war battle running since 1858, nor as a social ruin, but as “nature”. That’s a wondrous word that includes this cheat-grass-lined (and dangerous; it’s slippery as all get out in the rain) deer trail …


… and this poplar tree, planted as an agricultural air-sprayed chemical buffer for a walking trail built on a filled-in irrigation canal commissioned by Earl Grey, of Earl Grey Tea fame, and blasted by the approach of winter it’s unsuited for.


In short, “nature” appears to be a term containing things that are not ‘natural’ to this place, or ‘native’ to this place, and not particularly well-suited to it either: creatures inhabiting more the ruins of failed human social interactions with land than the land itself. Perhaps the following image can clear this curiosity up a bit:


What you’re looking at is the same landscape as this …


…, but after ten years without cattle. Look again:

p1410544 The sagebrush is still a bit out of hand, the cheatgrass is still stealing water from everyone and creating a desert, but the bunchgrass is coming back, although in balance with this new, water-poor “cheated” environment. This “Nature” isn’t a “natural state”, isn’t the way things were before settlement …


…but the mechanism by which the earth achieves balance, with the forces at play upon it. That’s the same as saying that the first hillside I showed you above, this one…


… is the balance achieved when cattle are placed on this landscape. It is, in other words, the signature of cattle. You can see a young one signing her artwork below.

Interestingly enough, in this version of nature, there is scarcely room for cattle or food for them, which is a way of saying that the balance is forcing them off. Note how the cow below is pushed off its diet of weeds by the traditional sagebrush removal process of this place, fire, and finds its natural environment: a gravel pile.

That doesn’t mean that either gravel or green grass and sagebrush are the natural state of the Okanagan Valley today. It does mean that the idea of grazing cattle on this land is unsustainable. It doesn’t fit at all. The earth wants something else. Look at it bringing November water for it—water that sagebrush catches poorly, cattle destroy and cheatgrass burns away too quickly.


The colonial use of this land was for cattle grazing, yes. Because that idea bankrupted itself, and the return of the land to the bunchgrass and people who know what to do with it is not considered, for complex and ultimately unethical reasons, doesn’t mean that the post-colonial use of it should be one particular romantic use of “nature” —a space for “recreation,” like the golf course spilling over the top of the hill below. That use doesn’t inhabit natural space but a ruined social space, which it attempts to renew by renewing not the productivity of the land, which was here in 1858, but the aesthetic enjoyment of private space in “nature”.


The argument could be made that this is the natural space the land finds when it is inhabited by humans, as demonstrated by these homes in the cheatgrass and the November fog…


…but that argument is just silly: not all human activity is balanced in this way, and not all human activity is based around private enjoyment. After all, who enjoys this land’s water privately and doesn’t share?  That’s right, our old friend:



Our mirror.

The Okanagan’s Missing Water

Here it is.


Blue Bunch Wheatgrass

This 10-year-old re-seeded slope shows the likely historical condition of the valley under Syilx stewardship. This grass is very much alive.

The valley hasn’t looked like this since 1858, but as you can plainly see it can be replanted. Look out your window right now. Do you see someone out there replanting the bunchgrass? No? This grass that translates water into hydrocarbons, which in turn hold rain and snow from evaporating and flowing away, while using it to nourish themselves? Do you see Saskatoon playing the same trick out there?

We could have that. We could even more easily incorporate its process, which is this:

The land we love in the Okanagan has been made by a process of stopping the flow of water. It is the process of holding it and keeping it.

There’s a trick to that. It means that the valley’s big lakes, like the old double-spirited lake (now called Kalamalka) below…

… are not water but reservoirs of potential water, which can be delivered by evaporation and cloud to replenish hydrocarbons and the web of life that moves through them, such as the balsam roots, saskatoons, douglas firs and ponderosa pines in the foreground above. In other words, in this inverted landscape, in which the sky more often removes water than delivers it, this guy …

… and this one …

… and humans, such as I am and such as you are (if you are a Google Bot, eat your heart out, sorry)…

… are marine creatures moving through an aquatic environment in which water is a series of connections in a matrix of carbon, not nineteenth century colonial technology like the stuff below (a vineyard intravenous tube).


Piping Water Downhill, Using Gravity

Our work here is to help water stop flowing, or, perhaps better, to help it flow as slowly as possible, through the greatest possible hydro-carbon web and the greatest possible connections between its joints, where we, the weavers, excel in our work of transferring energy. That is not the same as harvesting water or energy, but there is a point of connection:

When there are abundant points of connection between carbonized water, there is abundant excess water for us to live from.

Call this water gravity. The trick is to stop it from flowing, so that we can flow, not to use it quickly and wait for the snow from somewhere to bring us some more. We need to take care of these things ourselves.


Surely we’re not so proud that we can’t learn from the grass.

The People of the Grass

Just look at this Great Basin Giant Wild Rye in the late November sun. It’s growing up the hill from my house, in land set aside for new houses. Actually, it was planted, to mitigate the effects of road-building and house construction — to embed that work within an act of ecosystem reconstruction and natural sustainability. Beautiful, isn’t it.p1410294

It’s more than beautiful, actually. There are three seasons of stalks here. One has lost its seeds to winter birds and the knees of deer as they knock their way through in the snow. The grass uses the energy of both to cast its seeds at a distance from the stalks. When the seeds land on the snow, their darkness gathers heat to melt their way down through the snow to the unfrozen soil below, watered by the snow they melted to make their path. Down there, they sprout, in the warmth of sunlight magnified by crystals of melting snow. By the time spring comes, most of “spring’s” work is done. This is the grass that first drew settlers to the Pacific Northwest. The Cayuse War of 1848, which started all the other Indian Wars north of California, was fought in this grass, and, in part, over this grass. Two hundred years ago, this grass, and its seeds, were valuable, for fibre and food. In the North Okanagan, where I live, giant wild rye is not as plentiful as it was in the Cayuse’s Walla Walla Valley. Due to its relative scarcity this far north, I think it’s safe to say it would be surprising to find unbroken stands of grass with year-old seeds and three-year-old stalks, untouched by human hands. The stuff is too valuable for that. So, look again:


This is nature without humans. They have been removed from it. It was forcibly done, Replanting the grass without bringing the people home to it is still removal. It doesn’t matter what words are applied to it. Colonial societies, even in their mature, independent phase (we call it “post-colonial”), often claim a right to the land on the principle that all human activity is natural. Yes, it is. It is still violence, though, even if it is called beauty, or ecological regeneration, as long as it does not bring the people back. We could do that, you know. We have shown that we can plant riches.


For the moment, they are empty. In romantic poetry, this sense of loss (in this case “a lost Eden”) intensifies the sense of beauty. The effect is called “bittersweet longing.” In post-modernist poetry (post-colonial culture’s equivalent to romanticism), it is called “desire.” It is more than either. It is a waiting, an offering, an emptiness actively calling to be filled, and a gift. Do we dare take it? Do we dare not?

Bringing the Water Home

I bring home the name of water. It’s not that it reflects the sky, as the picture below from Hvalfjörður shows, so much as it brings the light from the sky inside it. So many substances reflect light from their surfaces. Their substance must be inferred from a superficial glance. Humans are pretty good at that. In fact, we’ve built a civilization around it. What we haven’t built in contemporary times is a civilization around the interiors of things, and around the way they hold light within before releasing it again. It seems a small thing, but look at it.



This is, after all, the process of the sun. There, it takes every photon of light 100,000 years of bouncing around in the sun, of being reabsorbed and re-emitted, before it leaves the sun to travel to, well, this Icelandic river. It is also the process of photosynthesis, in which every photon of light bounces around in a tiny reflective chamber. One in 2000 or so gets eaten by the little blue-green algae kept hostage at the chamber’s core. That’s a lot. You can see that effect of light in the grass and the hayfield above, and even, in deeper tones, in the birch and poplar woods. If we want a new relationship with the earth, we would do well to start right here, not with water as a substance (vatn, in Icelandic), nor even with water as a flowing and a becoming (á, in Icelandic, from aqua, as in aquaduct, or, as we know it in English, river), but as a deepening and a holding, a way of stopping light for a moment, manipulating it for various mysterious processes and then letting it go.p1400402 Along the way, it concentrates attention, and life. We, you and I, have an ability to see that. That is an approach to the human visual impulse on which a new relationship to the earth can be built. To start with, human eyes are filled with water. We see through it. It’s hardly a wonder that we can see its depths. As for its name? Well, it embodies the eye, but its name comes from the open mouth and throat that receive it: water, aqua, á (ow)… they are all an opening and a receiving. An eye that is a mouth? A mouth that is an eye? Both and neither.


But it’s a good start.

Imagine Aesthetic Tourism

Today, another lesson from Iceland.
p1390461It’s almost 2017. Now that art is no longer in the galleries but in the world, shouldn’t art tourism be outside of the galleries but in the light. In Iceland this month, it is sunset all day long. The palettte is exquisite. p1390144The “galleries” sell handcrafts.  The light goes on.p1400031
We do well to remember that “art” is the indigenous handcraft of Europe, taken up by the bourgeois class and extended. Now that the bourgeois class has Facebook, we can all move on, back to the light.


Even a highway with potholes is worth a gallery visit now.

Sustaining the Okanagan 20: Tourism Lessons from Iceland

Winter or summer, Icelanders send the 7 tourists for every Icelander out to see “nature.” Icelanders have noticed that people from other countries get a kick out of this kind of thing, no matter what the weather. Icelanders are too busy for that stuff. The 326,000 of them have a country to run, plus they need to go shopping. Here’s where they might send you. Note: it’s probably exactly where you’d like to go.

This water flowed through pastures once, until lava covered them. Now it flows twenty kilometres under the lava, before erupting in 300 springs. No sheep farming anymore, but there are compensations.

How beautiful!

Delicate, too.


It’s not that the Icelanders don’t go on holiday. They go up the hill from here, to this.


Birch Forest

These tiny trees once covered the lowlands of the country, but the ancestors of the Icelanders, and their sheep, cut them all down, burned them and munched them 1000 years ago. Those that have regenerated under protection or have been replanted are an abiding symbol of endurance and resurrection. For an Icelander, a holiday among the trees is about as good as it gets. So there are some lessons for the Okanagan here. They are:

  1. A tourism industry doesn’t need “industry partners” or “tourist activities”. It needs something beautiful, someone to show you the way, and someone to grill a lamb for you in a remote location.
  2. People will pay a lot of money to spend fifteen minutes with the earth and its water, and it will change their lives.
  3. Local people want different opportunities than visitors.
  4. When people are too busy to welcome you, don’t worry, their family members will:

p1390520One of the peculiarities of Icelandic travel is the need to be watchful for cars stopped right in the middle of the road and even abandoned there while the occupants get out for a moment with sheep or horses.

Thing is, people don’t need a lot in order to have a profound experience. They need guides, pizza (the Icelandic national dish), wool sweaters, maybe a hamburger (the other Icelandic national dish), an IKEA bed, sheets and a pillow, fried chicken with fries (the third Icelandic national dish) and the occasional place to stop driving, get out, and lean over a fence. In the Okanagan, we send people off to wineries to buy drugs and tell them they are tasting the land, although if we were honest we’d say they are tasting a colonial dream, and then we’d rip out the vineyards to plant Syilx choke cherries, mariposa lily and nodding onion rather than pinots from Southern France, Traminers from Egypt and Rieslings from the Rhine, and say “Welcome to the land. Enjoy that a bit. We’re driving to IKEA in Vancouver for the weekend. If we did, maybe we’d start seeing tour busses parked at the side (well almost) of the road, spilling with travellers running out because Turtle Mountain is reflecting in a puddle, because tour busses do that in Iceland. In Vernon, in the Okanagan, busses bring similarJapanese tourists in by the thousands to buy propolis and royal jelly at the aviary, or a small bag of apples at the faux farm village and gift shop, while the nature they really want to see is just on top of the rocky glaciated upthrust seabed/volcanic outcrop/spirit rock/ancient lakeshore at the top of the orchard, an easy ten minute stroll away. People don’t travel to see colonial culture. They come from it. They want affirmation that the earth is still alive and beautiful.



Surely, we can learn to help them with that.


How Much Should a Trail Cost?

This is an Icelandic hiking trail.
It is public infrastructure for travellers and locals alike. You can see it on the scree slope below.
It is much loved. It leads to the heart of things (and a great view.)


A lower trail is in the image below, should you want to stay in the valley rather than head for the peak.


Here’s an Okanagan hiking trail.


The Okanagan Rail Trail covers 50 kilometres of level land. The costs include gravel, to make it safe to walk on, and rock scaling, also for safety, although the rock scaling risks destroying irreplaceable indigenous spirit rocks. I’m in favour of this fantastic trail and of spirit rocks, so I’m wondering, hey, does it need to be so complicated or so expensive? Let’s take a look at Icelandic rock scaling for safety purpose, one more time.