The pictures are everywhere: the terrible washouts of rail lines and highways in the Fraser Canyon, that severed Canada’s third largest city for a week. As you can see in this photo of the vanished highway at Tank Hill in a bend of the Thompson River, water is a powerful force. The catastrophe is rightfully blamed on an extreme weather event, caused by a changing climate. It was always, mind you, a pretty lousy little piece of highway, only here making a tight curve under the rail line and blasting up an always-eroding hill to get out of its highly-reinforced path in the river channel.
This is what rain can do. That’s a weather event. However, there are two other factors here, which are also weather. One is underground weather. It has a lot of the same characteristics as weather in the air: oxygen, carbon dioxide, breath, trees, clouds, rain. It also has many of the same events as the surface of the Earth: rivers, floods, trees, rocks, mud and so on. These three weather systems had to be overwhelmed at the same time for all this to happen. The area has already been fragile. There is only a road here because there was nowhere else to put it, with the railway taking the best route, and, as I said, the cliffs are always falling apart, just not like this. However, into this mix came last summer’s fires. You can see their effects among the trees at the top of the image above. They put a kind of shellac on the surface of the soil, which repels water. At that point, the subsoil weather cannot absorb the clouds, slowing them, leaving the surface of the soil to flood. This is such a flood, as it is expressed on near vertical slopes feeding into a draw already filled with debris. I don’t say all this to diminish the severity of what happened, only to prepare the way for the following image. It shows ranch land in Vernon, further inland and about a third as wet as this section of the Thompson Canyon.
This land is not going to wash out in a storm anytime soon, but I think the image illustrates how some of the same failures are going on here. In this case, the soil surface, formerly a complex community of grasses, flowers, lichens and bacteria, essentially a breathing skin on the surface of the Earth, has been replaced with two species: invasive cheatgrass, which steals nitrogen and water and dying early, increasing summer fire risk; and big sage, in densities caused by overgrazing by cattle. That’s not all. Big sage is part of the weather system of the grassland, moving deep water to the surface and sharing it with other plants around it, which, in turn, bring birds, which help renew the sage and which the sage helps shelter. The sage is now pumping up water for the benefit of sage (highly flammable) and cheatgrass (highly flammable). What was a landscape in which bunchgrass held water in woven baskets underground and passed it along to other bunch grasses, other plants mined any free water between them, and any water that penetrated the soil’s skin was moved downhill by gravity, and slowed by sagebrush, has been overwhelmed. There is too much water here as well and, ironically, without the bunchgrass, far more shallow than it should be, overloading the surface atmosphere with clouds of water and further decreasing the ability of plants to breathe underground. This is not a catastrophic environmental collapse in the same way as the washout at Tank Hill, but it’s not that different. In both cases, the ability of the atmospheric spaces in the soil, powered by gravity, to absorb and move water, have been compromised; in both cases the Earth’s skin has been transformed.
This is the membrane that sorts out the balance between water, gravity, air (both above and below ground), life and soil. It acts like a membrane in a lung, across which oxygen and carbon dioxide pass during breathing, or the membranes that plants use to shift electrons from one molecule to another and create life on Earth. It’s a delicate thing, and almost as old as the Earth, and when it is gone, the Earth can’t breathe. Essentially, it has water on the lungs, or perhaps only pneumonia, and can’t breathe well. In extreme situations, it has a heart attack. That is what we have all experienced over the last two weeks. Again, I’m not trying to lesson this terrible situation in any way, or to suggest that the collapse of the grasslands is of the same level of engineering disaster as what you see below.
I am, however, pointing out that the two events are profoundly linked, and that what has happened to this highway and this rail line is the same as what has happened to the grasslands, only more immediately dangerous and dramatic. Right now, we all have to concentrate on getting our communities and transportation systems dried out and working again, and getting people safely housed for a long pandemic winter. The grassland is just as pressing, though. Apart from the ever-rising threat of fire that its condition represents, its poor state contributes to flooding throughout the Okanagan and into Okanogan Country, as well as depleting the stock of insects and birds that pollinate plants and keep the hills’ lungs working (and the farms below them.) Birds and bees are already vanishing as the conditions of the grasslands deteriorates. We can expect a disaster of greater proportions. Blaming it on “climate change” rather than human transformation of multiple weather systems functionality would mean we have learned nothing here today. Climate change is real, and is going to get worse. The transformations that we have made to the Earth’s systems are, however, also real, and they are also climate. There’s one more thing. These effects play out in a social climate, as expressions of it.
Please, never think that you are looking at “nature” or “a piece of Earth.” When we say those things we are already demonstrating that we are not looking at ourselves, which means we’re not looking at what we are capable of, what the Earth is capable of, what we have done, and what we can do to give the Earth the power to integrate what we are too weak to hold together ourselves.