Out of a Garden, A Desert: The Nuts and Bolts of Settler Culture

Every generation and social class in Canada gets to make the country new, in their own image. That’s part of being in a settler society. Settlement is a permanent process, and everyone gets a shot. This is an observation separate from the limitations placed on Indigenous identity, and how it is remade continuously by settler culture as well. To illustrate my point, here’s a hillside in Bella Vista, above Priest Valley in Vernon. The trees at the top of the hill were planted as an affirmation of culture by a Japanese-Canadian family in the 1970s. Internment camps were part of their experience, as was the paradise they built around a lovely cedar house behind the screen of trees. The hills below were seeded in flax, and bloomed blue in the spring.

Now, though, the orchard is owned by an Indian family, whose approach is more practical. Note the piles of gravel and dirt pushed up against the hill, after a burst water line eroded their driveway. No attempt to add an aesthetic touch to the scene is needed, because it is perfectly practical as it is. The house has been rented out to French, Australian and Canadian tenants, who aren’t watering the trees. Landscape watering has fallen out of fashion now; creating a desert is seen as a greater good. They weren’t surviving theft and internment, or building a place in Canadian culture that held some vestiges of Japanese beauty. Embracing drought now fills the same role for them. The irony here is that this drought is an artifice. The flax, identical to a native species, is gone for unknown reasons, the green vines on the rocks are Virginia creeper, an invasive species, and the grown grass that dominates everywhere is cheatgrass, a nasty invasive piece of work. The land might be returned to non-irrigated conditions, but it is no longer Indigenous land. It is settler land, inhabited by settler species. It is the Okanagan equivalent of viewing the bombing of Cologne, which looked like this once the bombers had done their work:

Cologne, Germany, 1945

And in the whole process, no individual acted badly. The culture, however, was insatiable. That is what makes settler culture so hard to combat. I kind of liked the flax, though:

And it doesn’t need irrigation. Couldn’t we honour our Japanese history by planting whole hillsides of this stuff, instead of cheatgrass? If one is going to change the land, this is a splendid way to turn the cultural urge into a blessing.

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