Drought makes it easier for birds. They need the help. Sucks for stink bugs and lilacs-planted-in-the-wrong-place, though.
Drought makes it easier for birds. They need the help. Sucks for stink bugs and lilacs-planted-in-the-wrong-place, though.
The Okanogan River (left) Entering the Columbia
At the mouth of the Okanogan River, which begins with snow melting on the rocks above my house in mid-winter, water is privately owned, whether flooding the old Hudson Bay Company potato fields in the background right above, or the southern flats of the Colville Federated Tribes’ Territory (foreground left). That’s the way things work in this stretch of my valley: the bounty of the earth is transformed into individual wealth, which is then leveraged for profit. The only land-based health comes through the process of flooding you see above, which is called wilderness, a term to indicate the romance that silences native land in the West. Strangely enough, fires on private land alienated from water, are fought with public funds, just as the use of fear and public funds were used to fight imagined native aggression in 1858 and 1891 at the site in the image above. When there is talk of wilderness in this valley, it is talk of the dispossession of people and water, which are the same thing.
It is a catastrophic summer in the Interior of British Columbia. Close to 15,000 people have been evacuated from their communities. Indigenous communities who refuse to leave are isolated. Read about the grim situation at Anaham here: http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/first-nations-community-holds-on-as-fire-threatens The question of why these people have chosen to stay in the face of catastrophic fire, isolation and great danger can be answered only in troubling ways. They are, however, simple enough. The tsilqhot’in are this place of fire. There is no evacuation. A lot of this has to do with a century and a half of great cultural hurt, but there’s a positive story here as well. Perhaps this image from the height of this land, at the crest of the Yellowstone Plume, in the great caldera that is the heart of winter …
…and fire on this continent and which anchors our country, Cascadia, like the eye of a pool in one of her rivers displays something of the answer:
A pine rooting on the face of the cooled molten plume, from this post about my journey to the height of the land: https://okanaganokanogan.com/2015/09/28/cascadia-land-of-fire/
If we call these uncontrollable and violent fires “wild fires”, we are participating in the environmental destruction that has created them rather than in the solutions that will control them. Until then, they will remain gothic and destructive, like the nineteenth century creations that they are. At the moment, of course, we must protect our homes and our loved ones, with all the vigour we can bring to this terrifying and important work, but let’s do it in a way that leads directly to the future that must follow this catastrophe of environmental mismanagement. Let’s call these fires by their correct names. They are not wild. Fire lives in this plateau. Smoke, such as obscured Okanagan Lake below, is the natural form of summer here.
Through neglect to honour fire’s primary place, it has been called into violent incarnation by excess fuel. The explosive sage below, above my house, is a bomb waiting to explode, and it’s the creation of bad resource policy. It can be fixed. We will have to be doing this in the next few years.
To say these horrific fieres are wild, is to say that an abstract notion of fire is fire’s base state, and that fire that escapes the boundaries of the controls of intellectual understanding is “wild”. That’s insulting. In Cascadia, wild fire control began a bit more than a century ago, to protect the nationalized forests made out of depopulated native space for the benefit of industrial and recreational use. This management regime was a replacement for indigenous fire management, in land forcibly removed from indigenous control. The indigenous understanding was based on living within space. The replacement, modern civilization, declared the land wild and foreign to human consciousness. That was a lie. Fire remains far bigger than any human or any collection of humans. Perhaps the image below of when the grassland hill above my house burnt a few years back and the fire turned to life within a few weeks can illustrate the edges of the tsilqhot’in resistance to evacuation. Within a few weeks, this:
Nootka Rose Sprouting from Cooked Rock
Let’s bring the irresistible force of living and destructive and creative fire within our social group and develop strategies to tame it. It’s coming to us anyway, horrifically. Yes, let’s save our homes, our farms, our communities, our forests, and our lives with all the effort we can bring to it, but let’s then move on to build a society that recognizes that fire is the natural state of this place.The failure to create civilized, or artful, fire within organic environments such as grasslands and forests, except at moments of catastrophe when fire sweeps in waves across the land due to being ignored for too long and its potential disrespected, is also a created state, but not one of which we should in any way be proud. And I want to be proud of how we live with fire. This work can wait until the crisis is over, but we can start now in a small way, by throwing away that awful racist term: wild fire. The time for that was 160 years ago, two weeks ago, today, and tomorrow. Fire is here to stay. Let’s hope we are too.
Central British Columbia is going up in flames.
Towns in which I used to live, with my friends, have been evacuated in the face of fire. We got off the plateau just in time yesterday, before the last road over the Bonaparte Plateau was closed, leaving our beloved Big Bar Lake to face the smoke alone.
May the fire ride gently across the land, may the wind still and call the rains, may we all come safely home, may the lakes and trees receive us, may we humbly accept this second chance.
This is not a metaphor.
It is a projection.
Across 135,000,000 kilometres of travel through emptiness, the sun reforms.
The earth focusses it.
Call that fire, that ancient word for coals: red.
Call that life. It melts the cold.
That you cannot see the leaf-shaped sun that forms inside the snow and seeks out the earth, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Let’s set the idea of dead matter aside and go back to the earth.
Oxygen is explosive.
Welcome to the fire planet, water creature
People write poetry for many reasons. Any that is written is not poetry, though, but an incantation that allows for poetry, a force within the universe, to appear. People cannot be taught to bring these appearances forth in the world, because people are not in conscious control of a process that is, ultimately, not human. People can, however, be led to moments in which the possibility of appearance is possible. The rest is up to purity of heart. Not very modern thinking, is it. No. Here’s a moment of possibility:
That’s the Okanagan Nation fishery on the Okanagan River below a cliff that is an ancient story and which records the history of a war between the Syilx and Secwepemc people that ended with an agreement to share this land in the grasslands inland from the North East Pacific Shore. This is my home. Here is a cliff face in South Iceland. Geologists will point out, rightfully, that it is an ancient seashore cliff (that runs for a couple hundred kilometres) lifted away from the sea by tectonic forces. This image was taken from a point on the old seabed, for example. That kind of thing. It also has a stile and a beautiful woman who I love and who (I am blessed) loves me, walking through grass almost as tall as she is. This is a moment of my ancestral memory. It forms the foundation of my book The Art of Haying. It’s not, after all, a cliff. This is me. It is also, if you have eyes to see, a troll, with two gaping eyes, a pug nose, and a broad, frog-like mouth, with water spilling off the top of its head and forming a farmyard spring. You can see the farmyard rhubarb patch to the right of the image, just above the green lump, which is the ruins of an old turf house. What I’m doing here is showing you how an image of the earth is seen when ancestral memory and contemporary thought are one. I am not asking you to agree with this, disprove this, argue it, or abstract it in any way because it is incontrovertible. Still, if you’re used to setting this kind of material deep within a form of romantic consciousness called the unconscious, subconscious, memory, fantasy, imagery, emotion, creative imagination, or any of the modern terms that separate your identity from it, a bit of a guide might prove interesting. You’re seeing a few things. The troll, for instance. A large-green headed ram below the troll’s right eye. An ewe’s skull, teeth bared, below his chin. Another below that. A scatter of human heads, all formed of stone, on the ledge above the bottom section of the falls, and a baby troll peering out of the steeply-angled green hill just to the left and behind the stile. What’s more, the troll has one eye open and one closed. It is Oðin, the Norse cultural hero who plucked out one eye at the well at the centre of the world as payment for receiving wisdom. There is much more, plus a beautiful woman walking through it. The image, framed by the boundaries of the technology of the camera, is called art, because it brings these correspondences into relief, but, hopefully, I have pointed out successfully that these images and correspondences are in the world, exactly in the way that modern humans, such as you or I, are trained to read or parse poetry. On that foundation, let me point out that when a man is one with his mind and with the earth, he looks out at the earth and sees himself. What that means is that walking through this landscape, I am walking through my thoughts, which is, of course, exactly the process of writing a poem. There are a few things, though, which the poetry of the world is not: fantasy, for instance, emotional confession, too, literary dialogue, for another. It’s not a portrait of my feelings, an exploration of my thoughts, or the opening of a social dialogue. It is not an installation or a performance. It is not art. And yet it is poetry. This is poetry:
Ancestral Watcher at sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ.
This is poetry:
nm∋lqaytkw at Chopaka
This is my home mountain and my home river.
Look at it this way: on a foundation of geology, weather and biological evolution, on a field of societal evolution and history, on a journey of personal presence and breath, in a unified consciousness, this is an image of my self, which reveals itself to me as I walk through it. Some nut has built a concrete water diversion structure in it, which is the way of modern, non-unified consciousness, but make no mistake: it is inside me. I have to accommodate that. That’s where I live, in a space in which every breath, every thought, everything I see and walk through, is poetry, which is not, I feel I should stress, not something I make, something that can be studied in a university department of literature, taught in a department of creative writing, or something anyone else can make. This is not something I made. It is vital to remove the traditions of book thinking from images like this. Book thinking? Yes. If you see a landscape in the following image and if you see a narrative in it:…
… it is book intelligence you are viewing it with. Behind that green flood bar, just to the right of this image, the plutonium for the Trinity Test and the Nagasaki bomb was manufactured, as well as most of the plutonium for the Cold War. Does that stag look like he is swimming home? He isn’t. He is home. So am I. This is my poetry. Anyone can find Facebook on their own, god help them. To find their ancestral, non-human intelligence, the thing that makes them human, a guide helps. Here’s mine:
He was the earth, standing up and walking. He was the sea. And I? I am here to tend an ancient fire
I used to think that this fire could be kept burning in books, but that was before I realized that literature was a game of artifice and I was not speaking of artifice. I still passionately work with poetry, edit books of poetry, review them, write poetry, and walk through it daily, but I do so from the ancient context I hinted at above, because the work is to keep the world alive, all of it, or die. In my recent book of ghazals, Two Minds, the Sufic force of unified nature, the Sufic Green Man, Khdr, fills the body and mind emptied of self, the lost traveller or lover all-in-a-tangle, with the world, so that the world is there at the core of the soul’s movement through the world, not the technologically-created, abstract, book-based, Enlightenment self, as beautiful a piece of engineering as it is. We can be more.
… where their descendants live.
This is what I have learned during 58 years on this earth. It is not what I was taught. It is more. This is my standard for poetry. It must be alive. After all, I am a man of the earth. I am memory. I am keeping the fire.
The grass is a cultural being. So are cat tails and so is poetry.
Talk about a rhyme scheme, eh!
First, the grass. Not only does it have its own culture, but it is part of the body of human culture in these valleys, canyons and plateaus between the mountains, on the west of North America.
Yellowstone, North Gate.
You are not looking at dead grass here. You are looking at water catchers, upside down umbrellas, which the grass has made to draw water from the air. You are looking at upside down wells.
To keep them from matting on the ground and reducing the land’s productivity, fire burns them away, so they can be renewed. Traditionally, people have set those fires. It was the first stage in the primary, human civilizing impulse: cooking. First you make the land productive with fire (you make it into an art form), then you harvest it.
Here’s a different way of being grass, one not native to this place, and one not harvested. It is, accordingly, not an art form, but is wild:
This is cheatgrass. It bursts like flame out of the soil in October, grows all winter under the snow (yes, under the snow) and has replaced hundreds of indigenous species in the tapestry that is the body of this place. Look how it collects water. It urges it to flow off into the soil, where old thatch holds it from evaporating, and then it uses it all up, denying its use to all other plants. It loves monocultures. That is not the bunchgrass way. The image below shows what happens when fire is suppressed in this landscape…
Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park
Do you see that bunchgrass there, at the end of 8,000 years of history, encroached by soap berries and escaped farmyard grass? It will soon drown. Below is an image of what happens when trees are not controlled by fire. The ponderosa pine below has showered the land with fire, or needles, if you will. They burn the alkaline soil down to acid. Look at the bunchgrass drown.
This is happening on our watch, in our time, in our parks, in what contemporary culture calls nature and “wilderness,” while attention is directed towards smokestack emissions and pools of plastic in the middle of the sea. We don’t have to go that far. Nature itself is the culprit.
Let’s be clear about this nature. All of the parks of the west were created out of former indigenous cultural space. That’s to say: around 150 years ago, there was no nature here; only social space. Then it became “wild,” when dispossessed of its people and left fallow. It became a different art form: one that created emptiness where there had been fullness, and a mechanical earth where there had been a living one.
Royal Gala Industrial Apple Plantation, Bella Vista
This process started in Washington in 1892, when all federal lands purchased for tiny sums during rushed treaty-making processes and not by then already dedicated to Nez Perce or Spokane or Skoielpi use (among many others), were rededicated as national forests. Land that had formerly been maintained by fire, now was expensively protected from fire, to preserve its “pristine” nature.This “pristine” nature is, in other words, a culturally-created thing.
The culturally-charged process of plant succession.
This process moved to British Columbia in 1922. The fire still burns. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to combat every year, to no avail. That’s the fire we can see. This, below, is also that fire, though:
It is burning within Syilx space. The grass that has almost been replaced here by “nature” is still a cultural being, but it’s now viewed with terms appropriate to “nature,” which are not the terms appropriate for viewing culture: beauty, for instance, wildness, for another, health, for yet another, inanimate, for another, plowable, for another, and developable, for another. And that brings me back to poetry. Here is some Cascadian poetry (Please click on the link to view. It will open in a new window.)
That is a cultural product produced in this place, one which heartfully honours a tradition, but it is, as you will have noted if you clicked on it, a poem about people and human attitudes towards all kinds of things, but includes no attitudes of grass or fire or rain to anything. It’s not about that, likely on the anti-romantic presumption (accurate enough) that no-one can speak for these things. In their place, I think the poem is about taking wild human energy (a created art form) and distilling it down to points of social utility, and through a process of manipulating that social machinery enabling people who live within it to ultimately come to a physical experience of grass through the only route the tradition allows: through the mind; not the body. The body plays the role of memory. This has been the American poetic project for over a century now. Here’s an early draft of it, from the American poet Hilda Doolittle, written a century ago:
the great sea foamed,
gnashed its teeth about me,
but you have waited,
where sea-grass tangles with
Hilda Doolittle, from Hermes of the Ways
It’s beautiful, and lands solidly on grass and brings it to life in the mind, but it is a thing of the mind trying to escape itself by means of the earth. It can’t shake that. It is, in other words, bookish. Often Hilda tried the trick she uses in the following poem:
O white pear,
thick on the branch
bring summer and ripe fruits
in their purple hearts.
Hilda Doolittle, from Pear Tree
In this one, she uses the same memory trick but also speaks to the tree, yet her identification is incomplete; it is an artifice only; she is not the tree, nor is she its flowers. Her poem is a construction of words and energy contained with words — a thing of memory, in other words, a funereal ode. Her identity is untouched by it, and is not transformed by it. It is infused with it, for sure, and, no doubt strengthened, but, still, untouched. And the poem is very beautiful, too. It is not of this place, of course, nor did Hilda mean it to be. I use her words only as an example of how poetry and land can remain separate, even in intimate moments, and how American identity engineering often places the land within fences, called words — farms, cities or streets, if you will — and observes them from there. That is a very anglo saxon thing, of course, but for me, as a man of the grass, this is a step away from the earth not one towards it, because for me the grass is not just a part of a social group, but also of a self. To say “O white pear” just won’t do. It would be like saying, “Oh me.” And then there’s Paul Nelson’s riff on Whalen, with his
“having the curious ability to make one think
that a mind has been slowed down.”
That’s beautiful, too, but it is predicated on the conceit that mind has been sped up in the first place, with a secondary conceit that any subsequent slowing down is only illusory. I dispute that. I think it needs to be strongly challenged. According to settler ideology, the grass is wild, and is the canvas for paintings of human will. In other words, it is this:
A weed-filled bunchgrass slope, a choke cherry tree, and a ponderosa pine, set in front of a monoculture hay field. Coldstream, British Columbia
No-one would want the social identity of that hay, because it is enslaved to individual and social human will. What’s more, to enslave it is to enslave (or fence) human selves, including those of the wielder of will. It’s not about a mind slowing down or not slowing down. It’s about whether that image above shows wilderness or cultural space. It’s about who you belong to: the grass, or other men. Unifying those opposites is not as easy as creating a national forest and building new parks within it for poets to walk through and find beauty.
Fire Pine, Yellowstone
They can. That work has been done. Now it is time for the land to speak. Now it is time for people who are the land to speak — not as a conversation within American or Canadian or Western poetry, and not as an address to or for that fire pine. It means, among many other things, making this tree the centre of the world — not as a symbol of anything. This tree, right here, right now. That kind of thing. Rilke found it a century ago. We are that far behind here. To find that tree probably means finding new words. That is good, honest work. It absolutely means finding new forms. That is powerful work for people engaged in finding poetry in the world and working with it. It means being present, not in memory but in the unfolding that is memory’s form in the present.
Yellowstone North Gate
That is why I have stepped aside from traditions of Cascadian poetry, although few people in this land know it so intimately or have been the channel for poetry within it for so long. I just can’t do metaphor anymore, that’s the thing. I can’t do nature, and if I’m to be bound by a line of will, I want it to come from that pine, not traditions of politics and the poetry of identity politics from a foreign country and foreign traditions. That is or the citizens of those fields. For me, in this grass, joy will do just fine. This is partly what I meant in my new book The Art of Haying: it’s possible to live well as the earth; the ego is just the book talking as it keeps us in line. It’s possible to walk out into the grass. Here’s an article on The Art of Haying in BC Book Look.
Big Bar Wet Land
The sage brush is the weed …
… not the bunch grass. Sagebrush is an indigenous plant, but it comes in a bit thickly when the grass has been overgrazed. Traditionally these weeds were kept down by a) not overgrazing and b) fire. The weeds below were kept down by fire, too.
Look at them now, messing with the grass’s head.
This is called a forest, but it’s not. It’s a grassland, with weeds. Now, there’s an interesting cycle in the grass, in which short-lived pines burn off, the grass comes back, the pines come back, the grass comes back, the pines come back, the grass comes back and before you know it 10,000 years have passed in the sun. This isn’t like that. These trees are sick.
See that? Their only life is in their top two or three metres. That’s where the forest is… scarcely higher than sagebrush. Everything else down below is just shade.
This is the great shade desert created by trees. All it is is fuel. All it is is fire. And billions of dollars are spent every summer in preventing that fire, with very few results, while all we have to do is cut the trees down and take them away, like we would to any weeds. We can throw a few into ponds, for the fish to shelter under, of course.
And leave some for the eagle. She needs them, the deader the better.
Eagles can’t use crowded trees, either, and people belong on the grass. You can see yourself in the grass, right?
We should go sometime together. Summer, winter, pshaw, it’s all good.
Better than this, for sure.
And we like to live with bears, right?
Water moves fire from here to there. It uses heat. Trees do it, too. The sun draws water up through their cells and out through their crowns, drawing water and minerals out of the earth with it. Trees are what is left behind. So are pools. It’s the heat we feel, because it is us: the walkers, the passers-through.
Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone
To stay and become a Cascadian means to love those dead trees. Here they are from another angle.