Reading Balsam Root, Writing Earth, Reading Mind

Here’s a word. Don’t let abstraction fool you. Just be with her for a moment.

As you can see, she’s a living creature. Don’t let her dead stalks fool you.

Because they’re not dead. They collect cold at this time of year. They will hold the first snow and help it melt slowly, so none escapes the soil around the plant’s core. There are millions of words in this word family, scattered across the grassland. You could call this a story about snow. You could also call it holding entropy. Look at the wind in the image below, blowing up-slope. Look how the words in this poem are mixed with the words of a poem of blue bunch wheatgrass. The spacing here is the spacing of the roots of the bunchgrass. The balsam root fills in the spaces in between, to catch the shallow water.

It’s a beautiful poem, set at two levels. However, it is capable of fifty or a hundred, which is a hundred different ways that a person coming to it can speak the Earth’s mind, provided that person has grown up in this language. However, this grassland is a ruin. 150 years of European culture here has seen to that. There are four languages here now. The cheatgrass, the green carpet in the image above, that steals water from the missing 98 parts of speech here, that was brought by cattle before 1871, when common land grazing led to competitive land use and everything grazed down to dust. It’s a little better now that we have the fourth contemporary part of speech, the road, although the roads aren’t well either. Look at the one below, ignoring the water. We have enough water that we can ignore it? Oh, hardly.

Still, I don’t just mean roads like that. I mean the balsam roots. So often they are described as plants that adapt to depleted grasslands and withstand grazing by cattle, even to flourish. They are wondrous, for sure.

But this whole perspective of surviving grazing by cattle is a little “off”. Aren’t the balsam roots, rather, flourishing? After all, the rangeland experts even say that, although those men and women with notebooks are not pleased by it, because, you know, less for cattle. But flourishing it is.

Words should be used with a little more care, I think. Words like this:

Notice how even the cheatgrass can’t stop balsam root from speaking her mind, and how her so-called “dead” stalks are creating wells of heat and snow melt in spring’s deep cold. That’s not death. That’s a message. Look at the well of heat and water below, and how out of a one-dimensional plane the balsam root makes a watering hole, in which she sits and broods. This is not a human use of space.

If a human were to speak that language, it would not be in the language of environmental assessments. That would be a translation, and translations should be made with care. It is always preferable to learn the original language, nysyilxcen or French or German or even English (better yet its roots in Old Norse and Anglo Saxon; better yet its common roots with proto-indo-european.) After all, balsam root, that makes wells of heat, sits in a well of heat. This water, called Kalamalka Lake by Bill Peon, an early Hawaiian pioneer in these parts, who also gave the name Bonaparte to two rivers to the north and south, is heat. Look at Pyramid Mountain peaking over the ridge of the Commonage in the back, from across Okanagan Lake, holding cold.

So, that’s the beginning of a language: heat and cold. It is matched to the alteration of bunchgrass and balsam root. That is not a chance operation. It is telling us a way to be here. We can go very deep in this language. Here is bunchgrass collecting the snow, melting it, holding it, and delivering it to its living roots in the melting and cooling it creates (just like balsam root) all winter long. Bunchgrass goes warmer (and higher) and thus deeper.

And then it makes nests in the spring.  In this stage, they are effectively greenhouses, and transfer water onto the balsam roots between them. Marvellous.

What’s more, this is a midwinter shot. More snow will come, and like the snow here, it will flow into soil gently warmed by the grass and the balsam root, to different tolerances, without flowing downhill. This is not flowing water. It is a pulse. The beat of a heart. A breath. Together, the two pulse all winter long. Notice below, that they do this in coordination with landforms.

The resulting patterns guide the summer into its own opening, holding heat and water across a broad seasonal span. It would not be possible to flourish without it. Without, the grassland would be a desert, but make no mistake, that is a desert of language, that exactly matches the failure of reading that is the colonial act. Luckily, there is still grass and balsam root to pulse across the land’s shoulders, wells, gullies, crowns, draws, hips, shoulders and breasts (although not human). Stones participate in this pulse.

Lots of them. It’s a volcanic country, after all, which means that it falls apart, or, better said, opens and carries gravity (the earth’s core) all over the place. In other words, stones bend space. It is another music. It too can be read.

Stones take music into even greater detail than the broad pulse of the flowers and grass. They turn snow into greenhouses of heat.

In effect, they turn snow into stone. They carry this transformation later, within themselves.

That is reading and writing, taking up, transforming and passing on. Nothing is frozen here. Not even this:

Summer’s sun, last summer’s sun, coupled with the heat of the Earth’s core, is devouring that snow from below. Soon, it will reveal itself in the summer to come:

The waves of the wind, created by the turning of the earth and the heat of the sun on variously-placed slopes in the pulse of time remain. In other words, the balsam roots…

… are something the Earth is telling us, and I don’t mean in a pop-culture, Stephen King, voodoo kind of way. I mean in Earth’s way, which in this place is a language opaque only to Europeans, Americans, Canadians and other colonial officials like that, who will soon only have a desert to match their inability to speak this language.

To be generous, foreigners simply don’t know this language-not-spoken-with-human-tongues or these poems-not-written-in-human-books. I should know. I was one. Not my proudest achievement, but I had a lot of training in it, paid for by a colonial government eager to transform me into someone who could read the world as texts and so help develop the colonial state into an independent being. Unfortunately, it can’t be done. Fortunately, the balsam roots retained the Earth’s generosity and had more to say.

Including the transfer of this generosity. Now I read them.

And try to pass it on to you. So, let’s look. For one, she’s a circle and a wheel, with boundaries.

For another, there is no cheatgrass here, only a carpet of flowers, growing in the late fall and ready for the spring push. This individual is on a shaded slope. Perhaps we can still defeat cheatgrass.  What’s more, she makes a well of heat with her stalks, and a lip of cold with her leaves, and so can draw the snow in to her heart by the power of the winter sun. Bunchgrass is doing a similar thing around her. Notice her stalks, if you will:

Take your time. The flower stalks are the ones that don’t end in leaves, but just, well, stop. One is pointing directly towards the bottom of the wheel, if that helps. There are quite a few here. The flowers are gone. Deer ate them. So, let’s look at this breath. From the inside, up into the sky, catching the sun, then being carried away by deer (and birds, yay) and taking on new life in them, then withering like tobacco…

… falling, catching the cold, turning it into water, holding it. She’s like a sea anemone…

Sea Anemone at Rialto Beach (L) and Sea Star (aka bunchgrass?) (R)

… but drinking the sun, eating it even. Being it.  Being the sun on earth. Look at her being born.

Sea Anemone, is that you?

Look at her coming into herself.

Look at her become many suns and yet only one.

This is music, a way of patterning land use, and a way of reading even human thoughts and texts. They can be read on the land …

… or in the mind …

Yes, the mind and the body. That’s the land we walk through, reading and writing ourselves. We can write life here, looking into the well (that is deep within us.)…


… or we can write death, as in Predator Ridge Golf Course, between Kalamalka and Okanagan lakes, which devours water and land and produces a kind of human habitat that must be maintained by expensive technical systems.

It is that which our industrial schooling, which I went through, you went through, and children today still go through, was meant to create. Civilized development:

The above image shows Pyramid Mountain, behind a bunchgrass-balsam root field from which life has been removed in the process of making it into primeval space, on which a technical earth can be built. That is such a reduction of who we are. That image above shows what colonialism has done to our minds. Luckily, the earth is generous, and we can use her teachings, and the minds and bodies she continually gives us, in texts, even. Let’s have a look at that. Let’s find a poem… ah, here’s one, from my manuscript “Fission Reactor Operator’s Handbook: Eastern Pacific Region” (looking for a publisher):

Just yesterday, I walked up into the grass, or was it next year? As the sun came in low over the crest of the hill, it lit up the web of a tiny white crab spider. Each joint in her web, stretched between two blonde bunchgrass stalks, sparkled with a different band of visible light. They shifted when I moved to the side in the rustling grass. When I stepped back, they shifted again, as did the stalks. The spider was focussing the sun into a fly, just as I was focussing the spider.

The goal of the book is to explore how the Earth creates and moves energy. The words are arranged like the body of the grassland itself, and embody its energies — the ones I showed you above, and many others. Let’s look at it again:

Just yesterday,  (grounding sounds, deep in the valley), I walked (open movement from the back of the mouth to the front, transforming the “uh” grounding of the first words into a journey) up (the lurch of the body getting onto its feet, up into the sky) into the grass, (but wait, it’s not the sky; it’s the sky on earth, the grass, daughter of the wind) or was it next year? (the extension forward in time through the long “ee” of “year”, with the tongue pushing out the sustained middle flow of the breath into a continuation [what else is a year?]. As the sun (a grounding, but all forward, all bright with the spoken, willed “s” and sustained ‘n’ of the lungs rising into the sinus, the front of the head) came in low (deep into the valley’s shadows, its long ‘oh’ down in the caverns of the lungs) over (the depths lifted by the lips, the lips opening and then the sustain run of the r, right at the top of the forehead) the crest of the hill, (yes, the sound just said that, and now it is being manifest as thought) it lit (this bright short ‘I’ that rises like the sun over a hill, just for a moment, before the ‘t’ sends it away like a bird off the teeth) up (shining made manifest by the deep “u” turned into breath, its twin, pushed into the eyes, and given expression by the lips, making of the whole self an eye, a day of sun, just like that) the web of a tiny white crab spider. (feel the word expand the creature and her legs)…

… and so it continues …

Each joint in her web, stretched between two blonde bunchgrass stalks, sparkled with a different band of visible light. They shifted when I moved to the side in the rustling grass. When I stepped back, they shifted again, as did the stalks. The spider was focussing the sun into a fly,

… until these sounds are animating the body itself and breath becomes steps of a man clambering over rock with a camera, this way and that, like a spider, to reflect the whole motion of the poem, this focussing of the spider, each word set clear as a step…

just as I was focussing the spider.

… this embodiment, that contains the man and the thought and the landscape he moves through, as one, working together. That’s what I’ve been talking about. That’s the world I started this blog in 2011 in order to put on the page. Dry Falls, for example, the great cataract …

Well, so, here we are. We can rebuild these old gardens. They are not lost. This old Wishram garden at Rattlesnake Butte is not gone, just invisible to language. Here, look, and be at home:

Yeah, there’s cheatgrass, that colonial language. We can work at that.

Oh, a note. Please. If you’ve read this as beauty, or as an exploration of aesthetics, or as literature, please go back and follow the path through these words and images again, because this is not a road. It is not a series of signs. It is a path, into yourself. To read it, to write, you just become a different person. But then…

… the earth is asking that of us.

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