Hope for the Earth: Settler Lessons from the Voles

The bunches grass bunches up. With the help of snow, it mounds. We could call it mound grass.

We could call it a village.

Note the vole highway in the lower centre of the image.

In their glorious, sunlit cities under the snow, the voles call it that.

Then they go back under the ground, into the dark. A human city, on the other hand, is made out of harder thatch and bristling with protectiveness. This is the irony of technology. It extends your reach, but places non-human environments at a distance, which always recedes.

Technologically-driven farms do the same thing. The vineyard below produces (poor) stress-reducing chemical mixtures, called wine. The mountain in the back produces experiences that release a stress-reducing chemical in human brains, called dopamine. So do humans deal with the stress of living in their tragic bind.

Rather than looking at the image below as an intrusion into the thatch, however, look at the small things within it that give hope. The line of poplars in the foreground, bring birds in close. The pollarded willow houses starlings. The other trees are perching and nesting sites. They were all planted in the mid 1970s.

They were all planted by a much-aligned group of people called Boomers, who had, for a brief time, a culture that wanted to mix worlds and to live in Nature rather than apart from it. It was imperfect, but you planted stuff for other people, those who were not human.

Here’s the current state of that dream: a plastic digging crane and other tools beside a lopped-off hedge in the snow. The wrong stuff stuck. Housing became a social investment, rather than an environmental one. It continues to advance on the grass, but this time without trees.

If there are plants, they are largely chosen to be unattractive to birds and animals. The green values in these very expensive houses ($1 million and up) have to do with energy use, insulation, and so on: protective developments, against the infiltration of the world. And, yes, sadly, these houses are also owned by Boomers, although built by later generations. Something went wrong along the way, but before we lay blame we might remember that the people who buy these houses come from elsewhere in Canada. They are, quite simply, looking at this place from afar, and so move into houses designed to give a view but, like migration itself, are not embedded. They are just there, representing distance. This isn’t a generational problem. It’s a problem of migration. It is also what is currently called settler privilege. It certainly is that, yet there’s more going on here than that. Look at all of this together, here in Vernon:


There’s your vineyard, your Skihill, your grass, and your houses designed to look like they’re on the Mediterranean. The grass, though, was planted to meet environmental protection standards, as a way of getting approval for this subdivision and as a payback for ruining the grassland hill.  It didn’t work, but there’s hope there. For one, regulations had an effect, no matter how cynically they were manipulated, and people do want to live out in the world. They’re scared, though. They want safety and protection. They feel vulnerable. Those are natural consequences of settlement and migration. All the current protest in Canada, with anti-oil activists blocking rail lines and highways and streets to force settlers into discomfort, has as its goals something similar to this grass:

For one, it is an indigenous species, adapted to this environment, woven into it, and supporting more than human life. On the other hand, it is deliberately placed here, to heal a disturbance. It is, in other words, profoundly Canadian. But that is a message of hope. It means that there is more than one path to healing the terrible wounds and aggressions of settlement and migration. Discomfort and comfort go hand-in-hand. Settling relationships to Indigenous people also mean settling relationships with the land. When I was making these images, a couple stopped and asked what I saw. We talked for five minutes about voles (they hadn’t seen the tracks) and bunchgrass, about bird nests and hawks, about deer and snow and how the grass was sculpting the landscape in partnership with them. They thanked me, and we walked on, just a little bit more together than we were before. I hope so. Without hope, there is only war, and it destroys everything it reaches for. There is no room for cynicism here. There’s too much that we can actually do together, because the people are not at war. When our stories tell us we are, then we’d better change our stories, for the love of the grass, our older sisters, and their partners, the voles.

Can you see the vole trails here? They keep the grass.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.