Agriculture

9. The Healing Land?

After a meditation on what the benchlands of the mid-Similkameen produces on its own at The Place of Yellow Flowers…

Siyaʔ, The Food Chief, at Blind Creek

it’s time to return to the orchards that are there now. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the sagebrush was torn out and tilled under as the flats were prepared for planting. Most orchards were in place by 1952, with the goal of settling Canadian or British soldiers who had experience in farming. More specifically, these were small farms that would keep one man working, on a model developed by the British Columbia Ministry District Horticulturalist Ted Swales: a mix of apples, pears, apricots, peaches, cherries and plums that would provide continuous work for one man. In addition, trees of various sizes were interplanted, so that the maximum number of trees per acre could be achieved: plums between apples, peaches between apricots, that kind of thing. Ted was thinking that the mix-up would prevent rapid spread of disease from tree to tree. Unfortunately, he was ahead of his time. This patch-work approach would have been perfect for the organic farming that is in place today, but goofed up fertilizer and pesticide use, which soon became the industrial norm. The 1960s, after all, were on their way.

My Father Hans Rhenisch hard at it in his pear orchard in 1970

The sprayer is an antique Hardy, with a three-cylinder engine to drive an aircraft propeller, to really get that stuff up there. Perhaps you can see that Major Kavanaugh, an artilleryman, surveyed the planting of these trees to be perfect in every direction, down to a milimetre? That’s how the war was won. The wider pear trees are Flemish Beauties. The narrower ones are Williams Christbirnen aka Bartletts.

The whole Veteran’s Land Act plan, as mentioned in Chapter 7, was designed to transform rural areas into markets for Canadian urban production. In short, they were designed to urbanize rural areas, but only insofar as they consumed materials produced in such places as Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal. It was a good plan, in terms of replacing Canada’s reliance on supply chains with Britain that were broken by the war, but if you consider that it was enacted on land with a shaky development out of a clearly-held smelqmix family story, it is, in retrospect, a little troubling. One could have, after all, developed smelqmix capabilities and the capabilities of the “land”, the tmxʷulaxʷ, into transforming the Canadian urban world, something being increasingly called for today, socially, at any rate.

Photo from the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail

It’s ironic that both Ted Swales’ farm model and the resurgence of the land and her people were simultaneously three generations in the future. But so it was. It is also ironic that farming did nothing for the PTSD of the new agricultural settlers. Most drank heavily. Several beat their wives terribly. One flew light aircraft out of the Penticton Flying Club as if they were spitfires. One newly-minted farming man, who had been blown up in a tank at El Alamein, had the shakes and could scarcely hold a cup of tea. My mother, echoing Pauline’s mother’s frustration, raged that another veteran had never met a single mortgage payment, and was more-or-less kept on government suffrage. Another veteran set up a full military checkpoint on one of the roads through the settlement, and stopped and grilled me daily before letting me pass. It was a German thing. I was twelve years old. He tended to let much of his ripe fruit fall from the trees. That drove my organized German father nuts.Wait a minute. A German farmer in a settlement of Canadian soldiers? Isn’t that risky? Let’s ask the land, Tah-la-basket, about that. Tah-la-basket?

            (As the wind blows through the valley, the land says nothing. Yellow flowers bob on the hill. As we look closer, we notice that it is not a hill. It is the face of the sun.)

Perhaps memory is more useful.

Hans Rhenisch in His Favourite Hat, 1968 or 1969.

One day, he got a 22 bullet through this hat, fired from the farm below. The farmer said he was shooting at birds and missed. We’ll never know what he was aiming at.

At any rate, a decade after Barcelo’s Ranch, aka Blind Creek, was chopped up into 12-acre lots and planted into mixed orchards, two old soldiers, Jacobsen and Kavanaugh, sold out to one of the German boys they had been trying to murder in 1943 and 1944. This kid had his own share of PTSD from the experience…

Hans leaving his Nazi Father for Canada in 1952

For nearly 6 years, my grandfather was the head of surgery at one of the main hospitals treating wounded German soldiers from the Eastern Front. A 2-kilometre-long train of pain and blood arriving every 3 days.

…yet had managed to grow old enough, and had run far enough, to have sons of his own by a woman whose father had dragged her into near starvation in the North, on his own flight — this time from World Wars I and III. These were scared, wounded people looking for the land to bring them peace, something the land might have offered once, except, well, we’ll let the land and her people tell us about that:

Similkameen Valley: Peace? I haven’t known peace since 1858. There was that battle at Palmer Lake, and that other shoot-out at Brushy Bottom. Bullets flying every whichaway. What a racket.

Dixon Terbasket: And 2,000 of my people shot in the back of the head, execution style, in the Tulameen, for the bounty on their scalps in California. You know, nice black hair with long braids like this. (He fingers his long braids to demonstrate.) They really liked those. (He mimics a handgun firing at a long line of heads in turn.) Phmph! Phmph! Phmph! Phmph!

Similkameen Valley: See? That’s what I’m talking about.

Oh, dear. For the new father of 1962, Hans Rhenisch, peace meant spraying his fruit trees with nerve agents left over from a stockpile built up to kill any German who might have splashed stumbling out of the sea at Dover in 1940.

The farmer across the road used to spray this stuff without a mask and with a lit cigarette dangling between his lips. He had had a hard war flying Lancaster Bombers into Germany.

Our German fruit grower was so busy …

The New McIntosh Apple Orchard (1964), paying its way with some potatoes.

The year before it was tomatoes between the peach trees, which died that winter in the cold. In the next chapter, we will find out how he financed all this.

…that in 1963 his sick wife lay unattended in bed for close to a year and his youngest son, who somehow survived the poison to be telling you this tale, was left to be raised by a pine tree, a creek and a mountain of yellow flowers, with occasional baby-sitting assistance from Pacific rattlesnakes and western scorpions. From these teachers he learned to read the world. 

(A red-tailed hawk rises up screaming into the wind and vanishes in the blue river that flows constantly overhead.)

So, can “land” heal wounded souls? Or do people have to learn to become it. In other words, can the tmxʷulaxʷ heal instead, freed of the actions which made it into land in the first place? The answers to these important questions lie deep within this book. First, though, in our next post we will find out how Hans Rhenisch’s Black Market experience as a boy in wartime Germany changed the experience, how a Canadian soldier helped him, and a little bit about the costs and benefits to his son, and this history. Until then, the valley has other stories to share…

Vialo Orchard, Barcelo Road, Blind Creek

This is one of Ted Swales original plantings. It was here that Wayne Still served me Buddhist bread and cabbage soup (both delicious) while we wrote the proposal that secured funding for organic codling moth control in the Similkameen and the eventual start of organic farming in the valley.

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