Practical Ways to Re-Indigenize the Grasslands. Really.

Two days ago, I suggested that the former grassland hillsides of the Okanagan Valley (now large, private expanses of unproductive and water-wasting weeds), an area at least equal to the 100s of 1000s of hectares of lost grasslands on the valley benches and the equally extensive lost wetlands of the valley bottom, can be reclaimed for environmentally productive use by weaving into them again valuable plants that have demonstrated an ability to enter the old ecosystems and fill now-lost niches. The balsam-root niche, a kind of clumping wild sunflower,

First of the Year! March 14, 2015

… could be augmented by forms of domestic sunflower…


My Wildflower Garden, with a Bird-seeded Sunflower

… and extend the season for birds and deer, replacing niches currently empty due to extirpation by cattle ranching, as well as provide seed and flowers for human use. Similarly, as I pointed out two days ago, the niche of early greens such as desert parsley…

Desert Parsley, a Few Days After Snow Melt

Seed is a secondary crop. Other early parsleys provide root flours.

… could either be augmented by seeding wild parsley and other cold climate greens, or extended into the lost lily niche by planting or seeding asparagus extensively, to present not one feral plant (as below) but thousands.

Asparagus Looking at New Opportunities

Should predation be a limiting problem, the plants could be protected by screens of young roses or hawthorns.

Black Hawthorn

Not so young, but it was once. There are several generations here. Note the youngest daughters to the left.

However, the reintroduction of human, nutritional and environmental values into degraded, industrialized, colonized and privatized land and, as I pointed out yesterday, healing its structurally racist agenda, need not solely concentrate on crops such as those above. Crops for bees and birds are also essential, if pollination, seed distribution and fertilization are to take place without human labour. For that, a concentrated reintroduction of grazed-down native thistles, would be a good start.


Cirisium Undulatum, Wavy-leaved Thistle

Thistles want to grow here. Here is a colony of scotch thistle…

… poisoned this spring under government orders to protect the grazing values of hillsides such as this …

In Colonial Society, this land is called a farm.

No, it is a mine. It mined ecological value, and is now a tailing field. So it is in a culture that started with a gold rush.

…which has virtually no grazing value of any kind.The grazing value was actually in the thistles!

Currently, wild bees are in crisis, wandering off the droughted, flowerless grasslands to access flowers in such places as my wildflower garden, which are rapidly disappearing, due to government recommendations to remove vegetation on private land, to conserve water. Soon, they will have nowhere to go, while their European cousins, the honeybees, are dying off because of high tech, nicotine-based insecticides sprayed on industrial farms. These are problems that a rejuvenated grassland could help solve. There would also be winter seed for birds, where this year there is none. We are facing a starvation winter that does not need to be. This is an interwoven grassland, which will provide most of the labour if we set it up and work to maintain its balance.


It would be naive to think that the class of property owners within Canada would relinquish the real social value of their private property rights in order to allow open community foraging on their land, and it is probably equally unlikely to expect that they would hire individuals to walk great distances daily over irregular terrain, in order to harvest a crop, such as asparagus, growing within the interwoven ecology of reclaimed syilx grasslands. However, there are practical ways forward. A burn can get things started.

9 Months After the Fire

It has the advantage of eliminating a great subsidy that communities pay to private land owners: their overgrazed, overgrown sagebrush and weed lands along city margins provide a huge fire risk.

Spot the Bear Trying to Blend In

Should fire come, it will be the communities that pay the price of damage, and pay the cost of fighting the fires. That is a massive subsidy. Levying environmental charges against landowners who cover their land in explosive weeds would be a start.

There are, however, many ways, other than prescriptive fire and penalizing levies, for providing benefit to landowners for a retreat from the industrial land-mining called farming. For one, there is a model from Germany, where land is valued. Take a look at an egg-and-bison (yes!) farm north of Lake Constance:


The upper building is a new chicken barn. To get permission to remove agricultural land from production, the farmer was asked to provide an equal amount of land restoring lost ecological values to the district. He chose to plant the two hectare field inside the corner formed by the approach of the driveway to his larger set of buildings (hen house and packing facility) in wildflowers. He receives no payment for this, other than what he can earn from his eggs. Switzerland does it a little differently, providing subsidies of many different kinds, for such varied ecological values as bird habitat (old apple orchards rather than new ones), wild flowers (fenced off areas of pasture, off limits to grazing and cattle), and so on. We could enact legislation of a similar kind, tailored to meet our needs. What’s more, there’s this:

That’s traditional European farming applied to this land, with its corollary soil degradation. This method of farming allows for efficient machine access, in large unified planes. However, there’s also this…

That’s a shared coyote, snake, porcupine, deer and bear trail up a dry creekbed. Rather than being a plane removed from an interwoven environment, it is a line through it, allowing easy access to varied environments left and right, up and down slope. We could use this model to create access pathways, of use to all who use the hillsides, but making foraging efficient in a new agricultural model. And that’s just for starters. We can do this. If we don’t, we will die. The fence below?

It’s only for people. We can make such violent forms of social interaction unnecessary. And that’s just the start.

Loons Confusing Eagles

I’ve watched loons intimately for 25 years, and I just noticed a couple of splendid bits of camouflage for the first time. The light was right. First, the tail. Not only does it hold a chick on that scooped back but in the absence of a young chick riding up there, it looks like one. Confuses an eagle like all get out, I suspect. Eagles aren’t that bright.P1200861 Thing is, there are two loons, rarely together, and usually one chick, often floating alone in the middle of the lake, on the principle that eagles are punctual (they are) and can be relied on (well, not really; they’re slouches). The chicks are often riding, though. When larger, they’re swimming at a parent’s breast, usually Mom’s, although Dad brings fish, so that’s good. And look at this second bit of camouflage: a ghost chick swimming along at the breast line. It’s all in the feathers.P1200878

Or is the chick in behind and slightly older, with its head peeking up, going in the opposite direction as Mom? An eagle is slouching at speed. It can count, but, sheesh, where to go? This moment’s hesitation is why there are still loons, because by the time the eagle has figured out, it has passed by. Beautiful!

Let’s Expand the Notion of “What is Life”

P1760919That is alive, I think that’s easy to agree on. We call it a sedum, drawn up out of soil by the sun. This, too.


Like the sedum, this one is self-replicating, hence the ‘life’ moniker. We call this one ‘robin’, but it’s just stuff, organized in a certain way, really. Here’s some more stuff, organized in a certain way.

P1780679 Salt, drawn out of the soil by the sun, that’s what that is. We call it evaporation. In a way, this is what all life is. The major difference between this and the, ahem, robin, is sex. This guy had that in mind too, by the looks of things.


That’s an important difference, but let’s not make more of it than it is. The salt is alive, within the context of the earth and the sun. It is part of a singularity. The fact that life is defined as a multiplicity is no fault of the living earth or its unreplicatable nature. Here’s some salt drawn up out of the soil by the sun.

Lovely, isn’t it! but let’s remember, both it and this..

… and “simple” evaporative processes are all responding to the force of the sun. Certainly, there is a distinction between those that are active about it, like the flower above, and these ponderosa pines crystallizing, so to speak, around the water that the sun draws up through their needles …


… and those that are passive about it all, like the salt, but if we perceive them from outside of an anthropocentric point of view, they are all alive. This is, too.


 Skrutustadir, Iceland

That makes three forms of life: perceived, evaporative, and procreative. What strikes me as significant about that list is the first term: perceived. Whether it’s colour…

purple … or colour…P1760930

… it doesn’t matter. Salt, plants, birds, and perceived spiritual form all share the same characteristic: they are perceived with eyes of the earth. Those are human eyes, among others. If we choose to see instead with eyes of logic, let’s say, and define ‘life’ according to stricter, more limiting criteria, such as “the group of all things that self replicate and have their own agency”, we are only fulfilling the boundaries of the boundaries that we have set. I find that a prison. I would rather live with the things of the world. This, for instance.


What on earth is it doing behind a fence set up, ostensibly, to block the passage of deer through an orchard, but, really, set up to prevent a farmer from shooting deer passing through the orchard because it is the culture of orchardists to shoot deer for what are, in the end, small economic consequences. Humans are top predators. They define life as predators do. Pity.


To predators, Russian thistles, like the ones blooming above, are a noxious weed.

We Are the Earth and the Earth is Us

I want to show you an image of the mind. Since that’s difficult, let me show you an image of the world instead, with my fingers crossed that the mind will be revealed in it if I give you the context. It’s an image of an abandoned rangeland fence high above Okanagan Lake. It speaks of the end of the ranching industry and the development of the land into a residential golf course resort. Given that this is the most sensitive and threatened grassland in the north of my valley, and one of the few left, this development required special approval. (In fact, the road built up the hill to service this resort destroyed an 8,000-year-old rattlesnake den, which seems to be way more than rude.) The way to get approval to build houses and golf courses on sensitive land is to sell ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ values that will ‘conserve’ species for ‘posterity’. Such conservation is pretty darned unlikely, but that’s why this stretch of land has been left ‘wild’ as ‘habitat’ for native species: it’s a social negotiation. In my mind, it’s less a living landscape than a zoo, but let’s just leave that, because this is Syilx land and thus sensitive in its own right. And just look at the view. As romantic as can be. You could sell $350,000-$1,700,000 golf course house lots like hot cakes with a view like this, especially to someone from cattle country, who’s changed his Angus herd in for a covey of oil wells and is missing them terribly. Fair enough, but that’s not the image of the mind I promised. That’s just a little background. Here’s the mind:

P1510311You see, the ‘wild’ness promised consists of a hillside overgrown by sagebrush (overgrazing in the past, combined with fire suppression) and trampled by deer (barred from the valley below by very operative orchard and vineyard fences) which have no business here where there is nothing for them to even nibble on. In other words, the ignorance that sees this rich landscape, transformed by ignorance into an impoverished landscape of weeds, is the same ignorance that the land displays in its weediness. The fence is the means by which that was accomplished. It remains, its work done, as something no longer extricable from the land. In other words, it too belongs in this transformed landscape, or this impoverished mind: just another weed, in a landscape of weeds. It is as if the land reflects precisely the attention given to it: settlers who come in as alien species, leave behind a landscape of alien species, and for images of beauty choose records of the moment of claiming a rich land, such as this fence and the bittersweet image of the loss of that richness (again, the fence). Now, let me make a proposal: it is exactly like that. The Earth is us and we are the earth. Calling the view in the image above “nature” is the problem, because that proposes an active force separate from human forces. It isn’t.

Badgers: Gardeners of the Sun

The balsam roots are tossing in the wind.P1220733This grassland is on a hill because it is created by hills. Wind and water never stop moving there, powered by the turning of the earth among the stars.

P1220708Badgers help. They go into the hill, hunting marmots that live inside the hill.



Balsam roots and badgers get along famously together. Here’s a nicely tilled seedbed, ready to go.

P1220762And bees.  They dig holes into the hills, too.



Badgers, marmots, balsam roots, the turning of the earth among the stars, and bees. All on an ancient seabed ground up by a glacier.P1220745


On a hill. What a stupid place to build a house.







Oh To Be a Heron in the Springtime

The Okanagan hosts the world’s only urban heron rookery. Things are full of action there at the moment.


The Rookery, Vernon

The rookery, however, is on private land, surrounded by tire dealerships, a walled housing village, and various mechanical shops. Currently, the “owner” of the land is protecting the herons’ right to this, their space, despite the protests of neighbours about the danger these trees present. If life is to survive the industrialization process in the Okanagan, land ownership rules will change to give priority to these birds, in the way that agricultural land uses are currently protected. When all thrive on this land, all thrive. Blessed be.

I am a Weed and Proud of It

Would you call this a weed?

P1300819Russian Thistle aka Tumbleweed

How about this?

P1300825Full Bloom!

I found four colour variants today: Gold, Yellow, Pink, and Red.

What is a weed? The everyday understanding is that it is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it. In the case of russian thistle, which came over with seed grains from the Ukraine and soon spread across the West almost a century and a half ago, helped along by the over-grazing of natural grasslands by sheep and cattle, run by large landowners attempting to create themselves as a gentry, this means that a weed is a plant that interferes with economic progress.


A Plant That Will Not Be Controlled is Called a Weed

In turn, that means it is a plant that interferes with the privilege such men have for mining living environments for their living members, until nothing will grow but plants such as russian thistle, which attempt to heal broken soil. Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, is, in other words, those of us who are from anything other than a small privileged class, trying to live among the few remaining indigenous peoples who were cleared off of the earth by colonial or colonizing land-use practices. These practices are called farming. They are really the mining of the earth of life and the negating of it by turning it into economic capital that cannot be returned to the earth. Instead, it is given to non-living systems, which are called jobs and economies. These are things that do not live on the earth.


In a Land Sense Divorced from the Earth, this Deer Browse is Called Weeds

(The deer are called a nuisance and the sagebrush is called a protected ecosystem.)

I know I promised to explain how language goes astray today, but I found that these images so clearly set out an issue about the colonial and economic legacy behind contemporary word usage that I would share them with you instead. Monday will bring us back around to the words. Until then, here are a few more from the essay…

I don’t think it’s up to government to find answers. I don’t think it can. Its concepts of private and public ownership, its subdivisions, highways, forest practice codes, educational curricula, criminal codes and health contracts are all more or less set and will continue to turn out more or less the same result as they have in the past. This is their strength, actually. They endure. Luckily, you and I do more than that. We are alive. All of us, men, women, children, black bears, otters, sea lions, salmon, blue-tailed skinks and even tomato hornworms live in earth and water and air — not as resources but as living things on a living earth. That’s the other side of the British Columbian political system. It is called the commons.


What I’d like to emphasize about the commons is this: it is older than the law, cities and corporations erected on its strengths. It is not sustained by ownership, as the law built upon it is,  but by the lack of ownership. It is that old; it extends beyond the power of any state. Without it, there would be no British Columbia, people wouldn’t fly-fish on the Campbell, the Fraser would be dammed above Lilloett, and there wouldn’t be any salmon anymore. And there I am, talking again about the legacy of Roderick Haig-Brown. I’m proud to do so, because he lived a full life in the commons, as a writer, a fisherman, and a magistrate — all of them with no more authority than that which he held as the birthright of every man, woman and child. He never accepted less.


We have. In Canada today, nearly forty years after Haig-Brown’s death, the proud, ancient English tradition of the commons is best known as the House of Commons, a place that isn’t really a house and is common mostly in the sense of people gathering in order to be rude (common) to each other and to the institution.


I’d like you to think of this: being rude to the institution means being rude to you and me, because we are the commons.

The other day, I left you with an image of a Northern Flicker, to stand in for the words that subordinate its rights to human language and all of its difficulties at touching the world. Here she is again …

P1290946I would like to leave you with a thought for the weekend: if language reduces the earth to human social categories and conversations, is not the way towards healing the earth the path of granting social equality to the earth? It would, of course, mean having a language that could speak intimately with it. Fortunately, we do. It is very old, but fortunately it is very much alive — only subordinated to the will that has led us away from our common, living heritage. That is called theft. Next week, we’ll be talking about that. Happy Thanksgiving.




Sex in the Grass

So, you see your beloved …P1080401… and you make your move, surrounded by thistle perfume on a pillowy bed suspended in open space and swaying on the wind, ahhh… perfect …

P1080319… and, sheeshHHH! …


… it kinda spoils a good bite in the back, that’s what it does …

P1080391Obviously, the world needs more grassland thistles.



Ogopogo From the Air, and a Story for You

Here’s the Ogopogo, seen from the air just after Thanksgiving …

Mid-Okanagan Lake, with Ogopogo Photo: Anassa  Rhenisch.

Thanks for giving, Anassa!

For the full story of this corner of the lake, why not check out the first third of my talk a week back to the Okanagan Institute? Just click here: okokintro2, and it will come to you. (Note, I had to shrink file size, so if the images are looking wonky, do shrink your viewing screen size until they come up clear.) An intriquing view, I hope, of how a book can unfold from its footsteps as if it were always there and suddenly we saw it come clear around us, among the trees and the grasses. This project is becoming a real family affair. A photo from my daughter above, and a narrative style (in the .pdf) that flows through both pictures and text. Thanks to my wife, Diane, for pointing out that such an approach makes a far better narrative than the (wordy) essays that my love of words has carried me to in the past. I’ll have an audio version soon, as well as the rest of the talk. One step at a time!