Come Join the Discussion on Visual Culture on Tuesday, December 5

Where: Alternator Centre for the Arts

Time: 6-8 p.m.

Date: Tuesday. This Tuesday. December 5.

I hope you can come and take part in a discussion about the visual culture of the Okanagan. Tania Willard and I will be speaking at Kelowna’s Alternator Centre for the Arts from 6 to 8 p.m. on December 5, which is this Wednesday. Tania will be talking about her #Bush Gallery curatorial project and her work as a Secwepemc artist and curator. Expect to learn about this exciting work:

I will be speaking about the connection between eye and world in the valley, through a discussion about English as an Earth Language. I will work to set the concepts of Land, Landscape, Property and Place to the side and replace them with living terms. Expect to see images from Iceland, the Okanagan and across the Pacific Northwest, as I explore the words of my ancestors, including “Far”…



…”Head,” “Fell,” “Thick”, “Eye”, “Flow” “Self,”… class mapping in Downtown Kelowna…

… and this guy’s Mexican woes.

I hope to see you there. There will be lots of time for you to speak as well. The event is organized by Katherine Pickering of the University of British Columbia Okanagan, and, yes, UBCO landscaping will form part of the show. See you there, eye to eye.


The Teachings of Water

When I look into the water I see blurred shapes. Or do I?

Are they not, rather, revealed ones?

Is this not a message from my body?
Is it not the intersection between opening through movement and movement through opening?

Is it not the lesson of the water that they are the same? Is this not the blood speaking?

Is it not saying that life and the body each have their languages? and that they touch?

and that this is the mystery?

Qanats for the Okanagan

Late afternoon in the grasslands. November. Light’s almost gone. Cloud everywhere. Nothing much to look at here. Zzzz.

Or, maybe there is. Have a look just down the trail. The guys building a new townhouse kind of, well, absented themselves for a couple months, but they’re back at work, hurrah, and look what the grass thought of that, eh.

So, rather yellow, yes, and shy on proteins, yes, but coming in nicely at the edges before they tilted that heat-absorbing shield back up. With that in mind, let’s look at our hillside again.

See that scree running down from the head of the hill there? It forms an underground river, a kind of qanat, such as the watercourses of ancient Arabia, the Gobi Desert, North Africa and the Roman Rhine, with water, slight as it is, protected from evaporation by a cover. And there’s more! Look how the grasses and sage are moving in from the side, soaking up the heat stored in the rock and harvesting it, just as this grass…

… did with its metal shield. And what have the construction boys been up to? Ah, very important high tech environmentally conserving work, all according to regulations, and, dagnabit, the seeded grass cover washed away, the dust fencing collapsed, and water wreaking its havoc, as it will, and all blamed on, you know it, yes you do, global warming and a shift in weather patterns to try the patience of St. Francis and all foundation forms contractors.

Ah, but is it terribly wrong? Is that not the first step towards building a qanat? Don’t you have to wash the soft soils downhill, to make a seedbed down there for the coming water? And don’t you have to dig a channel to collect rocks — in this case, from side erosion — to form the qanat? Why, yes! And would not plants, over time, fill in the sides of the channel, bulking up on the sand they’ve caught as it drifted across the hill, and slowly building the soil up, as they have in the image below?

Perhaps trying to do it on the fly, all at once …

… is a good effort, but, you know, this one …

… with grass instead of poly cloth and rocks instead of tiny little grass seeds in a pap of recycled newspaper, is going to cost less in the end? I mean, it doesn’t need maintenance, or but thickens over time. Besides, it has room for snakes, and you like snakes, right?

Hmmm… maybe not ants. Well, I’m sure they’ll sort it out. And as you walk up the hill harvesting this side growth, what is there for you, to make it easy? Why, a staircase of stones! Beats slogging up the muck.

You’re just going to find ants on the muck, and they’re not half so fun as snakes, or what washes down from the muck and can feed you.



Vertical Lakes, Subsoil Dams and the Bear’s Cold Storage

There was forty centimetres of snow on this draw a couple weeks ago. Don’t think it’s all gone.

The shade on the south western slope is keeping it damp in the soil, and the bunchgrass on the hot north eastern slope is holding it in its roots. Same thing one cut to the west, below.

Welcome to the vertical lakes of Bella Vista! The saskatoons and choke cherries in the gap between the two regimes thrive on the water gravity draws down from the lee slope and the warmth from the grassy one.

As the winter progresses, the snow will come again, and will be caught in the tangle of bushes, effectively making tiny lakes of cold — artificial glaciers, if you like.

We could, of course, encourage this snow collection, by cutting the land so that the wind deposits the snow in these draws, which can be planted and harvested. Even hot, dry cuts, with inopportune sun exposure, can still delay the drought of August by enough weeks to support a few shrubs. If this were a flat hillside, they would not be here.Even without enough water to host some shrubs, the shade effects create two separate harvesting climates. That’s useful, too.

We could, of course, help out, as the rain erosion in this abandoned housing excavation suggests. Currently, snow is pushed to roadsides, so it can flow through storm sewers into the lake system. We could store it, instead.We don’t have to think small, either.

Look how a natural stone dam in the middle of a draw forces the subsoil water up the slopes and creates a lake of trees, effectively moving the boundaries upslope and using gravity to pump water to the bushes.

The harvesting period of a crop can be extended in this way. Think of it as cold storage, at no cost. Mind you, there are bears. Here’s his tunnel through the hawthorns.

I usually think like the fruit grower I am, but, hey, if it’s more productive to set up these orchards and harvest the game that shelters in them, that would work, too. It beats saying that the land is so weedy and overgrazed that it has no agricultural value any more and should be turned into housing, for which there is no water. It is called “doing something in particular.” I like that.

25% of Fruitgrowing Agricultural Productive Capacity in the Okanagan is Wasted

Here’s an industrial apple plantation after harvest. The trees are in long rain rows to facilitate mechanized farming, using multi-ton tractors and spraying equipment (combined weight of about 5 tonnes). After harvest, the impact of the equipment on the soil is plain to see. Average orchard compaction runs to 120 tonnes per year running alongside the tree rows per year.

I estimate that 25% of the soil above is heavily compacted, which means, effectively, it carries less than enough oxygen to adequately support life, reduces tree growth by up to 75%, dramatically reduces photosynthesis due to narrowing of leaf stomata, and increases production of ethylene gasses (hastening ripening in storage). Compensation will have to be made through increased fertilization, leading to decreased fruit flavour and increased orchard nitrate run-off, compounded by the inability of the soil to hold water or water-based nutrients Think about it. There are 35,000 acres of vineyard and orchard in the Okanagan. For the benefit of mechanized production, about 25% of the soil surface is lost due to heavy equipment uses, or 8,500 acres, and the ability of the trees and vines to prosper on the other 26,500 acres is reduced by up to 75%. Is that a fair trade?  We could effectively eliminate heavy equipment and free up 8500 acres for new production, which would be enough land for between 850 and 1700 young farmers. While you’re wondering about that, here is that orchard two years ago. Have another look…

See the leaves that the frost has dropped below the trees Those brown strips are lying on weed-sprayed land. As you can see, another quarter of the land has been sprayed with weed-killers.  Between compaction and weed-killing, in other words, only 50% of the land is reacting naturally to the atmosphere, and the land is potentially carrying only 50% of the microbes needed to feed these trees, requiring yet more artificial nutrients. Presumably, a system of managing the trees and the removal of the crop without the heavy equipment would be subsidized by decreased nutrient use, increased tree health and productivity, and decreased capital dependency, all offset by an increased entrepreneurial pool. Ah, why not have a look in the winter, before you make up your mind:

This expensive system of posts and wires is designed to eliminate labour, allowing for this land to be farmed with a minimum of employment and a maximum of capital investment. In other words, those 850 farmers would be working on this land if it weren’t for this mechanized system that has replaced them. Not only would the land be healthier, but so would the community. If you think of it, though, apples are shipped to packing facilities in 800 pound containers. There they are loaded into 32 pound containers, or even 20 pound ones, before being shipped to market. It would take a lot to convince me that we couldn’t eliminate the weight load on orchards by moving the fruit out of the orchard on lightweight fruit-bearing systems (they exist), even ones that made use of the pole systems. At  $25,000 -$75,000 per orchard/vineyard acre, a 30 acre orchard revitalizing its 25% lost land would have an instant land investment of between approximately $250,000 and $750,000. I am sure a system could be worked out for a tiny fraction of that benefit. Mind you, we could also talk about the 25% of fruit-growing land that is currently idle in the Greater Kelowna area, due to land speculation and gentrification issues. If that number holds for the entire value, then we need to revise our figures: 50% of Okanagan fruitgrowing land, or enough for 1700 full time orchard owners and their families, is being wasted, right now, today, every day. Do you want to chop it up another way? Sure: something between 25% and 50% of the horticultural water in the Okanagan is being wasted, without even taking into account the need for increased irrigation to make up for poor plant vigour. And here’s the thing: we ran out of water in 1992. That was, again (what’s with these numbers?) 25 years ago.


A Sky Map of the City of Coldstream

Downtown Coldstream, on the valley bottom north of Kalamalka Lake,  is the hole in the centre of this map of clouds. The ribbed clouds below it are the eastern edge of its uplifting energy. The illuminated cloud in the foreground is related. It often hangs above Middleton Mountain, at the north end of Kalamalka Lake and the southern edge of Coldstream, at the confluence of the Coldstream and Priest valleys. Time and time again the pattern is repeated. When the illuminated cloud is being blown north (as it is here, slowly), it reforms within fifteen minutes. Similar mountains taking form in the air are evenly spaced behind it. What a beautiful map. What a beautiful dance of earth and sky.

Fall Rain in the Grasslands

So, it rains, right. 35 centimetres of snow have already melted. Now the rain.

Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.

And the sun.

Melting stuff, even through the clouds of rain.

So, that’s fun.

But what’s it all going to do? Flow away? Not if we can help it! Let me introduce my friends, the beavers of the dry hills, the water keepers!

Look at them hold onto that rain!

They are not going to let it go, not these girls.

No way.

Or at least not yet. This is the grassland equivalent of a storage dam, a big lake in the mountains holding back the rivers so that the soil (and the roots) aren’t oversaturated, and moving the water out to the root tips, where bacteria can use it to dissolve minerals (for the roots) and roots can draw it in. In this case, when the wind comes and that sun will start drying things out again instead of just warming them up, well, down will come the stored rain, bridging the drying effect, and keeping the soil wet until the frost comes. Run off is prevented in this way. Soil health is protected from the air in this way. Isn’t this a beautiful aerial lake?

And my other sisters, the ponderosa pines, are in on it too. Look at them carefully aligning the water beneath their branches. When it falls, it will water the dryest parts of the soil, the ones protected by the needles.

Not only that, but look at this young one drawing the rain in, shedding it off her waxy needles, and then holding it on their rough undersurfaces. Right now, she is breathing through a cooling veil of water. It’s a kind of hibernation.

Not only that, look how needles, splayed horizontally by the weight of water, hold water droplets between them in stronger bonds, by their naturally-occuring capillary tension, making capillaries in the air. That’s a technology that can be adapted to water storage and transport systems. Yet other sisters in the grasslands use the rain to keep their fruit fresh, and keep a nice healthy bacterial environment, so the frosts of January and the sun of February can set those bacteria to work breaking down the acids of these fruits to sugar …

… right when the birds will need it. Until then, beauty keeps humans in thrall.

But who would mind with a grassland team like this?

The Pueblos of the Okanagan

Here’s a bit of limestone about a metre across that bonked off the escarpment and has been lying around in the grass of the high hill doing what rocks do best…

… sheltering and incubating life.

Not everyone has left home, as you can see.I have wasp (?) nests like this in my storage shed, too, and have been keeping my eye on them for two years now. This brood has settled into a better place all around: nice and warm for the winter, and sheltered from the snow. I hope you’ll think of them when the blizzards come!

The Power of Names and Stories

Take this (no name, please)…

See that rock in back there? That’s this (below, centre of image, again no name, please.):

Now, look at the name it is unofficially known by (Sorry. Wikipedia’s robots don’t know any better):

McIntyre Bluff is a large ridge of rock, made of gneiss,[2] located south of Vaseux Lake between Okanagan Falls and Oliver in British Columbia, Canada. The bluff is located beside Highway 97 and is one of the most well known landmarks in the Okanagan Valley. This landmark is named after Peter McIntyre, one of the Overlanders of 1862 who had also been a guard on the Pony Express in the American West.[1]

First Nations in the area tell a story of a battle centuries ago on top of McIntyre Bluff. An enemy war party from the south (now Washington State) was lured to the top and driven over the cliffs.[citation needed]

Sounds good, right? Not, really. Going to the B.C. Geographical Names database, we get this:

Name changed to Nʕaylintn per request from Osoyoos Indian Band as part of agreement with Ministry of Environment, 7 August 2015.

So, what if Wikipedia was built up not on colonial history…

Credit Union Billboard to Attract White City Folks to Translate Their Sexual Attraction into an Imported European Wine Industry

…but from the land and her people? Might it look  something like this?

Nʕaylintn or “The Chief” is a body and story written on the territory of the land later called “The Land of the Big Heads” of the love, courage and devotion that led to the peaceful resolution of bloodshed caused by conflicting stories and homelands between the syilx and the secwepemc between two ancient villages along the post-glacial obsidian trail linking the northern and southern basalt seas, most recently in approximately the year 11780. For a century and a half after mid-19th century American and British invasion, the story was retold in denaturalized European terms as part of a nationalization process, as the story of a land-form, a bluff above the land grant of one Peter McIntyre, a gold-seeker and Pony Express guard who had come overland from Canada by raft in a disastrous, ill-fated and foolish journey into secwepemc territory north of t’kemlips in 1862. As part of the return of the earth to her care-taking, rather than invading, peoples, Nʕaylintn’s original story was adopted by the regional colonial government in 2015, on request of her story-tellers and story-keepers.

I mean, sure, I bet there are many errors there, and the whole glacial story is missing, but when this is one of the village sites …

The View from Vaseaux Lake, or: Yes, a Lake Can Be a Village Site

… we might as well try. Actually, it’s important that we do, because the Earth needs us. Consider this article in British Columbia’s post-colonial “alternative” news blog, The Tyee:


It’s sad, you know. A regional news source posts an article by a professor emeritus of a supra-regional university with a generic (and romantic) photograph of distant pollution on a nature-industry model, misquoting a German scientific study that was as much about German politics as German industrial agricultural practices, while an important part of the solution, right here, right now, was left out of the story in favour of a species-wide response. Nature is the problem here, and the host of colonial attitudes that came along with it and replaced, for a time, the stories that bind people to the land and compel them to care for it for their survival on the understanding that humans and land are the same. We can, and should, do better. It’s not as if the replacement of a dehumanized nature with a reinvigorated one is difficult, or that this is the only “Big Head” in the valley. Here’s one near the colonially-named “McLaughlin Canyon” south of the colonially-named Tonasket, Washington.

Here’s one at the foot of Sqexe7 Lake:

Is the story known? Yes, you can bet it is. Is it publicized? Hardly. Has anyone asked? Maybe not. Would anyone answer? Perhaps, but stories like this are also the kind of thing one can find out for oneself, and thereafter earn a chance at joining a story-telling circle. They are rich and combine human, environmental and geological history into sustainable foundations, providing respectful barriers to exploitive activity, for which there is no longer any room. Global problems are local problems. Global solutions also have local solutions. Culture can be asked to stop glorifying invasion and settlement and actually settle down to stay. Humans are as well-situated to do this work as natural processes are.