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.
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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:

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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 …

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… 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.

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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:

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

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…, 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 …

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…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…

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… 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.

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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”.

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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…

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…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:

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Cheatgrass

Our mirror.

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