The Price of De-Indigenizing the Land

While talking about Cascadia the other night, I was asked: how can accepting Indigenous principles of land use…

Earth Feeding Wasp

…possibly help a world of 8 billion people, all hungry and needing to eat?

(Not to mention everyone else.)

A common Western cultural assumption is that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the world’s human population, because of its ability to harness efficiencies and produce incredible volumes of food on the land. For example, the image below (from eastern Cascadia) shows a corner of the old lily bulb fields of the Nimiipu’u, looking to the west. They are now wheat fields, and there are more wheat fields across the Snake River, as you can see. Most of the wheat of the United States is grown in this region. These fields are important — so important that they are maintained by economic subsidies and trade protection. You could say that their continued existence in this form is political. If the politics were different, they would not be here, not like this. They would have evolved into something else. Whether you are pleased with the way it has worked out or not, that’s hardly contestable.

Camas Prairie

More than economic wealth and political power have been traded here, however. Common ownership and genetic diversity have been replaced with private ownership and an efficient monoculture. Ecological webs have been replaced by linear inputs: weedkillers and industrial fertilizer. “Inputs” is a fitting term for a culture that was brought to Cascadia and plowed into its prairies.

Apple Orchard, Vernon, British Columbia

Planting, settler culture calls it, although the image above does suggest that plants were already present. Food plants, even.

Balsam Root in Priest Valley

It’s curious that there’s talk these days of the need to switch over to a diet of crickets raised in large industrial factories, to ease the burden on the natural world, while natural food stuffs, such as the flowers above, are avoided. Is that because Indigenous crops are unwanted in North America, other than corn, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, beans, apples, radishes, onions, peaches, apricots, cherries, walnuts, wheat, and so on (almost all the crops in the world)? Is it because “wild” harvest is unwanted? Is it because its wealth cannot be concentrated easily in a few hands, and so its potential (and tastes) remain] unexplored? Whatever the case, there must be some pretty powerful feelings, at any rate, to accept crushed crickets, factory-raised by the millions in sterile environments, as a substitute to even digging up one spring shoot and nibbling on it …

… or chewing on one seed head out of millions.

For some reason, these remain aesthetic products …

…proofs of wild nature, not the food plants they were before they were accorded 19th century notions of female beauty and virgin purity in a world of male action and industry. Those were the two parallel sides of colonization.

Mother Earth, plowed.

If you want to read sexual metaphors into this image, feel free. Just note how barren this once-rich soil has become from 120 years of this. Look how it is clumping up, with no organic matter left. It’s dead.

The high hills were reserved back then for so-called feminine, or spiritual values, in a sense of the imported cultural values that name the primary power of existence as God, or an unending gush of energy, as my Indo-European ancestors (and perhaps yours, too?) put it long, long ago, placed at a height, or head, or godhead:

The Waters Above and the Waters Below at Kalamalka Lake, with a view to the Centre of the North Okanagan World, Terrace Mountain

Note that when water falls out of the weightless sky, it acquires weight and lies in the basin of the lake. From there (or from other such basins) it is diverted to irrigate farms in the valley bottom, while the heights, heaven itself, with all its “feminine” values, is allowed to remain undisturbed. What a ritual form of spirituality!

Balsam Root Remains Off-Limits

If you see a sexual metaphor in that, feel free.

These aren’t, however, the only factors at play here. The industrial model that maintains the wheat fields of the Camas Prairie and the Palu’us uses land as a place to apply technology. This technology is dependent on eliminating other species…

Putting in a Grocery Order on a Minesite-turned-Reservoir in Conconully

… and using the land as a staging ground for the application of seed and chemicals. That’s actually the point of doing it in the first place. It also requires huge investments in machinery and huge amounts of capitalization. These are the facts. You can place values onto them, but those forces are in play here, however they are valued. I think it would also be fair to all points of view to note that such agriculture is highly dependent upon both capital and industrial infrastructure. It takes place, in other words, within a combined social and industrial context, that must be protected and maintained in order for food production to take place at all. Below, for example, is the water pumping station for a pea farm that goes on for miles in South-Central Cascadia.


No peas when the power goes off.

This is in the hottest and windiest part of the Columbia Basin, down at the old Paxcu ford across the Columbia River at the old Chamna Fishery. In fact, it is so hot that without this infrastructure, there would be no peas. We should note, most of the frozen vegetables eaten in the United States and Canada are grown industrially in this region. These fields are important. They also wouldn’t be possible without a massive environmental subsidy (the elimination of other species and their networks) …

Wavy Thistle and Friends

…and a massive political and social one (the Grand Coulee Dam, which provides the power for these pumps and the water for many similar fields to the North.)

Stopping a River in Its Tracks

In the past, farming was an activity that drew life from the land, and through the work of a farmyard (in a space called a tun, or a “doing” or a “town”) converted the products of the sun and the land into wealth. Now, the farmyard exists to convert wealth (capital, created by concentrating trade in town centres) into food. The change is demographically understandable, but the new method is not as stable as the old one, and it’s quite a lot more vulnerable to such things as economic disruption and climate change. That’s a topic that is much in the air these days. Literally.

Orchards Above Vernon Airport in the Smoke from Burning Forests to the North

Now, if by “climate change” is meant an overall heating of the climate caused by a rising rate of heat-absorbing carbon in the atmosphere, I don’t think this is what we’re looking at above, even though there is a lot of smelly, half-burnt carbon in that late summer air. Please note: I don’t mean to lessen attention on the seriousness of the ongoing increase of atmospheric carbon. I do mean, however, to add some complexity to the discussion. The smoke above is, I believe, little different than the industrial farms it is filtering through and raises questions of health common to them all. Many people in the Okanagan Valley, for example, suffered from mental illness because of the low-light conditions during that two-month-long smoke event last year (and the same the year before). Many others had to stay, unproductively, indoors, due to respiratory issues. They couldn’t breathe outdoors. On their own planet. The social life of Vernon suffered greatly. That’s a health issue. Not only were people physically impacted, but they were spiritually separated from the Earth and socially separated from community. In the most basic sense, that is political, as politics is the business of the polis, the body of citizens, which took a big blow.

Nothing Left But the Weeds

After a 170 years of colonization, this polis denies cattle (for example) citizenship status, yet uses the erosion of the productivity of the land that they cause as an excuse to transform large sections of land from grazing (essentially, the wearing down of Indigenous crops, or mining) into housing for wealthy settlers from Canada, because the “owner” of the “private” land has a “right” to receive “value” for “his” (often) “investment.” Those are all cultural values. The health of a community of settlement is at stake, yet so is the health of an ecological community, and the health of the citizens of that settler community. Those are also important factors, but those ones are left to “Nature” or God, as they were in the original male-female split of settlement. A neat trick, as if caring for God’s “Nature” were somehow not of social concern, and not connected to land use in a larger sense.

Marmot at the (almost) Top of the World, Peshastin Pinnacles, Central Cascadia

To use 19th Century terms, it appears as if caring for God’s “Nature” (a tautology, if there ever were one, a definition of something by itself) were “women’s business” and not the concern of the people who run this country, or that it’s not a social health concern when a unified universe (another tautology) is divided into artificial male-female categories, which are then pitted against each other to deliver pre-determined ends. Now, it’s true, this Earth is a gendered place, but, still, dividing things up like this does prevent a certain set of values from gaining economic traction. Picking berries while the birds pick them around you, for instance…

Quail in a Siya? Bush

In the 19th century terms still alive and well in the 21st Century, such values are excluded from economic discussions, because they are not considered the basis of economic activity. To say so is considered “sentimentality”. And yet, behaviour like this bird displays is the basis for Indigenous economy, which does divide the Earth along socially gendered lines, yet also grants more power to women.  Could it be that the real issue is not gender, and thus won’t be solved by changes in gender roles? Might it be that it is a consequence of being thrown into a foreign environment and trying to get by? That’s settler experience, and it’s fully understandable. Could it also be anti-Indigenous racism? It wouldn’t be surprising. If it so, then it’s no exaggeration to say that racism has profound consequences for social health and, by extension, the health of individuals within the polis, including this popular event:

The Vernon Farmer’s Market

This bi-weekly event (weekly indoors in the winter) unites small agricultural and craft producers with other people in town. It is one way in which a society of industrial agriculturalists is working to build healthier communities, and it’s a success. There is a long way to go, however, as most of the products here are unattractive to most people, either because of the high price this model often demands or because this is a highly class-based and race-based place. Not everyone shops here. It is an elite social activity that affirms settler cultural values, including its social stratifications based upon dispersions of industrial wealth. You won’t, for example, find balsam root for trade here, or apples for 25 cents a pound. You also won’t find crickets, though. And you’ll also find the promise of more positive change to come. Nonetheless, it is political, and the health of the land is at play (not to mention the long-term health of the polis through the ability to maintain or expand the productive capacity of the land over time.)

The health of individuals in the polis is also affected like this:

Pineapple Weed and Shepherd’s Purse are gathering water at this poisoned power pole, while the paper trash from Brazilian and American conglomerates, a plastic store tag, an aluminum pull tab and an automobile muffler pipe moulder away beside a fast-food restaurant in Vernon.

This agricultural site (Pineapple Weed and Shepherd’s Purse are food stuffs) growing at a water harvesting site (the pole) is poisoned, rather than being developed into an agricultural model. The day may easily come, sooner than we expect, when we need sites like this for survival and will have to poison ourselves with chemical leakage from that pole, just to stay alive. At the moment, the potential here is generally unrecognized and these objects are disdained. In other words, naturally-occurring life within the heart of the city is disdained, called “weeds” and is littered with garbage. Rather than the food being honoured by being taken into the body, the act of degradation is taken in and normalized. This is unhealthy. Similarly unhealthy is the smothering of  productive soil with shade cloth and river rocks, so that one can save water, and the labour of mowing weeds. It’s all well-intentioned, but weeds have a way of trying to heal the Earth anywhere they can, and as for the water…

Vernon City Square

The water has to be killed with chlorine to look this pure.

… is it really all for us? Hardly. All in all, the removal of land from broad natural cycles is not healthy for the land. The land’s bacterial count is going to be low in a monocultures wheat field, for example, and its ability to support multiple species has been almost eliminated. Human life does not have to be this way. Farmers in Britain have started to plant low hills of weeds, much like low earthen fences, at regular intervals across fields like this, because beetles, which hunt pests, can’t travel more than 100 metres from their nests (in weedy land.) Sacrificing a bit of land-efficiency for lower pesticide use is proving to make economic sense. What’s more, it is raising productivity. It also brings back beetles, birds and rodents, with no loss to farm incomes. The net result is an increase in farm stability and resilience through an increase in ecosystem health. That is a tiny example of what can be done by applying an Indigenous principle to land use, in this case the principle that the land belongs to all living things and people can only thrive if all are thriving.

Is This Any Worse Than Growing Saskatoons as a Decorative Plant Alone?

An Earth in which there are no species not kept by industrial farms is an unhealthy world for humans. Humans are social and spiritual beings. The life of an environment adds to the health of human social connections. What’s more, my experience growing peaches and apples both organically and with industrial poisons is that organic orchards have far, far fewer damaging insects and far more bees and wasps — not the wasps that might sting you, but ones that feed on damaging pests, a control method maintained not by expensive industrial machines but by plants, which host the wasps.

Additionally, an industrial orchard smells of poison. An organic ones does not. The pure physical uplift of that, the feeling of safety, is powerful. That’s a subtle issue of health, but the kind that can inspire people to greater productivity and innovation. As for those, let’s look at an apple orchard in the Okanagan Valley:

Royal Gala Apples in Vernon

Most apples in the world are grown on this system. The desired variety is grafted onto a layered root of a different apple species. The root is extremely dwarfing, produces (very large) fruit very early in the tree’s life, is very weak, subject to constriction at a bad graft union, and susceptible to irreparable damage from cold or drought, and has a shortish productive life. As you can see above, the trees are tied to wires, to prevent them all from falling over, trimmed in the summer to allow passage of equipment and to allow the sun onto their fruit, to ripen and colour it. This mechanical intervention is caused by the need to pump large volumes of industrial fertilizer through the water system, to support these weak trees. By pruning the trees very hard at their crowns, their tendency to produce apples without growth is arrested and they erupt into shoots, which draw the sap through the weak systems of the tree, keeping everything healthy. As a result, many other points of the tree grow excessively. Removing them two weeks before harvest corrects the problem. If that all sounds expensive, it is. However, apple monocultures are unable to sustain the work force needed for a month of harvest (and little for the other eleven months of the year), which means that labour is darned hard to find, especially skilled labour. The apple management system above addresses the shortage. The savings ensure the survival of farmers, but at a social and environmental cost. Labour, after all, is still needed. Those branches weren’t pruned off by a mechanized saw. They were snipped off by men with clippers, who threw any non-perfect apples on the ground at the same time (2 weeks before harvest) because costs too much labour to sort apples in a packing house. The men who do this work are temporary foreign workers from Central America: solid, hard-working men with families back home. They are good people. They are also not allowed to settle here, with their families. Think of this objectively: a people living from agricultural production is unable to organize itself to pick its own fruit; instead of inviting people to join its community to do so, it hires them on a temporary basis, allowing the social problems that led to a lack of labour to be solidified. These temporary workers are then paid to throw fruit onto the ground that would employ other local people, fruit cheap enough that people working for low wages could afford. What’s more, as these workers are not permitted to stay and develop their skills in depth, they are hired year after year to do the same mechanized orchard work, in an orchard system that has proven it is economically and socially unsustainable (except by such political manipulations). In the end, the system prevents natural growth, change, innovation and adaptation, the very things needed in a time of changing climate. And that’s where we began. With smoke. Here’s some:


If this smoke looks like water, that’s because it is, but water that comes from high country lakes or deep wells to feed these sprinklers (to produce water-wasting turf for aesthetic purposes in the hottest parts of the valley) is water denied to other parts of the landscape, such as in the very hills and forests that are burning. In other words, the beautiful, cool, life-giving water you see above, or rather its transport to this field and tens of thousands of hectares of fields like it, has dried out the landscape as a whole and is one contributing factor to its current burning, with all the social and environmental costs attached to that. In comparison, balsam root gathers snow in the winter from between the even greater water-gatherers, the bunchgrass, stores it, and uses it to get through the summer drought.

There is no transport of water, with all of those costs, no denial of water to any other species or any other location, fast spring run-off is prevented, and the hot dry air of this rain shadow zone is unable to get a grip on it and carry it away. Effectively, heat is reduced (a goal of the fight against global warming,) and the land’s productivity is increased, with no land out of production. Habitat for dozens of species is created, including for the gophers and voles eating the roots of this plant and the coyotes and hawks that eat them. One can say, “Oh yes, but we don’t eat them, and there are so many of us,” but that’s unhealthy. Having so many children might just be unhealthy. For everyone. Still, children are beautiful, and it’s not an issue of children at all. It’s not at root an issue of population. It is only so because other choices have made population critical. It’s not the Earth that can’t sustain a population. It’s the Earth that can’t sustain an approach. There are millions of hectares of land in the Okanagan Valley and in Okanogan County. There are hundreds of thousands of hectares set aside for agriculture, so that a few people can farm, which can produce the foundations of an economy, on which communities can be built. The rest of the land is set aside for water gathering, nature, grazing, and recreation, even though it is all productive space. Tomorrow, some detail on how unproductive that is and what we can do about it. Until then, everyone practice blending in now:

Crab Spider at Work

How can you tell this image is 7 years old? Simple. No smoke.

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