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.



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.


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?

Saying the Names Shanty Makes the CBC Poetry Prize Shortlist

The journey you have been walking with me on this blog is making its way further out into the world. What great news! CBC Books has announced its shortlist for the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize. Look at us proudly standing in for our poems.

The Poets and the Poems

l to r: Cornelia Hoogland (Tourists Stroll a Victoria Waterway), Laboni Islam (Lunar Landing, 1966), Sarah Kabamba (Carry), Alessandra Naccarato (Postcards for My Sister), and Saying the Names Shanty (Harold Rhenisch).

I am proud that my poem Saying the Names Shanty is making its way across the country today as one of the five short-listed poems, and I am humbled that only five poets are representing the 33 poems of the long list, announced last week. That is a great responsibility.

The Full List

Wouldn’t it be great if all 33 of us read our poems together and then opened the floor to a big open mic for the other 2400 entrants. It would take a full weekend, at least. Or a year-long tour. I’m all for it.

Closer to home, you can see that my writing workshop group here in Vernon is thrilled. And surprised!

And here is my poem swimming towards the Manhattan Project’s moth-balled plutonium reactors on its journey into the world…

…across the nx̌ʷɘntkʷitkʷ and on…

The nx̌ʷɘntkʷitkʷ (The Columbia River), or Who Needs the English Language Anyway!

By Columbiarivermap.png: Kmusser derivative work: Ivan25 (Columbiarivermap.png) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of that water is the snow that falls on the valley that speaks, in part, through me as Saying the Names Shanty. The nx̌ʷɘntkʷitkʷ is one of the big rivers of the continent, with a massive pull, but it looks like the poem has good legs, so that’s good. As I mentioned last week, here, the poem is about saying the names for the social fields, rivers, grasslands and rivers in which I live, including the qawsitkw, below, that leads salmon through the reactor fields to Siberia and back home to the rattlesnakes and prickly pear cactus.

The Syilx Fishery at nʕaylintn.

The last unbroken salmon run on the Columbia and the source of renewal for the whole plateau.

The poem is one of many eyes of this story I have landed on. Here are some of its sisters, at Ktlil’x:

The sacred water at the heart of my country, with a rogue Russian Olive trying to blend in as only a date can.

There are more images here:

You can find out more about syilx names for this country on the naming project, sqʷəlqʷltulaʔxʷ, or, roughly, Voices on the Land.

In the spirit of coming together, let’s sing a poem today and be brought to life by its voice, wherever it finds us, however we make ourselves open to it, in a shared giving of thanks that poems can still find us. I’m so proud that my poem is out there, giving thanks in a brighter voice than I can without it, and in your company, too. What a bonus! Thank you, from a Transparent apple tree and its dandelion-headed caretaker.


Defying Gravity

Water can pool on near vertical surfaces. If it has a little help.

Moss transforming a vertical surface into a series of horizontal ones

Bella Vista Hills

A lake doesn’t have to be continuous to fulfill its function of being a læk, a watering held so it can be used. I am fascinated at how moss allows itself to stretch and flow, taking on some of the characteristics of water, in order to hold it in the air, right in the sun. That’s pretty close to the magnificent manipulations of photosynthesis itself. Perhaps the two gestures arose from the same power.

Imagine the Technological Possibilities!

Imagine if you could regulate heat loss and roof melting simply by switching from a flat roof to a roof covered in river rock, or a lightweight approximation of it. The insulating properties of the rock would keep the cold of the snow away from the roof, while the relative warmth of the snow would insulate the rock. Temperate change be gradual. What’s more, air flowing around the rounded forms of the rock would draw off the heat they give off while cooling under the effects of the snow, which would draw off the snow in channels, while allowing the insulating processes of snow and rock to continue. The rounded rocks are essential to make the process work. 

One Day After the Snow

Such a construction technique applied to even greater open spaces would allow for the gradual melting of snow, preventing sudden run-off events and allowing for a steady pumping of water through an environment. Notice how cheat grass uses thatch (below) to incubate seed in warmth, along a similar principle…

… while using the thatch to keep a warm layer of air next to the soil. By the time freezing happens, the soil will be drenched with melted snow. At that point, melting will add heat to the soil.

Three dimensional roofs with channels, that manipulate freezing and thawing processes to maintain steady states or gain an advantage on climate, that’s the way. Of course, you could farm like this, too. Then again, is that not the general form of Cascade, with an uneven surface generating warm valley floors?

The Big Bar Esker Against the Marble Range

And again?

My Grandfather Bruno Leipe and His Dog Pootzie Above the Similkameen, c. 1963

photo Hugo Redivo

In the case of the Similkameen, the warm valley floor is a sea of infilled river gravel in a deep glacial trench, which takes us back to where we began…


Cascadia is a dynamic land, isn’t it! By reducing run-off, and spreading out growing seasons, much of the work of industrial agricultural systems can be done at no cost, after original set-up. And we’re still talking about systems of depreciation and extraction, why?

Predicting the Weather

The unrelieved heat and dryness of the summer has led to the outcome predicted by those of us who have lived in this valley for a couple generations of memory, or more. Here is my filbert, ten years old, learning it.

A hot dry summer is not about heat, but about timing. When spring is 3 weeks early and  the land goes through Autumn in mid-July, 3 weeks early as well, then winter will come hard and fast, bringing the missing water, and also 3 weeks early. It can bring prolonged drought as well, but usually when the cycle is shifted the other way: late frost in the spring, monsoons in July instead of June, and then the summer’s drought through the winter. Right now, though, catkins in the ice.

I was in the south of the valley yesterday, and looked north. The wind was eating off the tops of snow clouds, and rolling them over themselves. That’s not weather that is passing by but weather that is opening out of the pressure of the air. “Weather’s coming,” I said. “CBC reported flurries,” I was told. But I already knew. Am I predicting the arrival of spring? No way. It’s too early for that, but the day will come that I will know what I have already known because I have already experienced it, and it will find voice. This is what it’s like to be home.

Why It’s Called a Grassland

Look what happens! The grass grows, and dries in the sun, to catch the snow. No snow. A raven, though! But look…

… then it snows.

Now the grass is bent in an arc, down to the soil. The energy shift continues. Watch.

The even snowfall is soon uneven, built around structures created by grass, all with exposed faces collecting heat and lee faces collecting cold.

But there’s more! Soon, the hill, one even gradient of soil, becomes a series of waves.

Beautiful waves. Waves created by grass built to bend to the wind. Now it is bending the snow that is carried on the wind. That’s the same thing, isn’t it?

A day later, and the sun begins to work on the faces of heat and cold the grass has made out of the wind.

It creates miniature avalanches, slumps, and flow patterns in the snow, deepening wells and extending connective membranes. The snow will melt in these patterns. But that’s not all!

The grass also guides the deer. The grass turns them into wind.

They follow its patterns. So does the sun. Look at it, spilling between these clumps of snow buckwheat, which are holding the snow.

Just as the deer’s trails are made at the intersection of their angular anatomy, grass and gravity, so are the sun’s trails made at the intersection of their expansive planes, grass and the form of gravity known as exposure. The sun’s trails are flat. Look how grass makes dimension out of this flat world. The tiny avalanches in the image below show the grass at work.

The summer that will build new stalks of grass to harvest and sculpt the sun into the following spring’s water starts here, at first snow.

By the time spring comes along, most of the preparation has been done. Grassland people, this is your snow: