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.


The Waves of Cascadia

Here we are on the surface of the Yellowstone Plume, the newest part of my country, Cascadia.

These are the Mammoth Hot Springs.

It’s hot there, and exquisite.

And stunning. It’s all on the surface for you to see.

Up to the north and west, in a land of volcanic collisions rather than a vast eye of heat, the same process of water-borne minerals being deposited as salts takes place when the old sea beds are bared by dynamite.

When I contemplate how many times these salts have cycled through the sea, I am struck by how the Yellowstone Plume and the Pacific Ocean off the Cascadian shore are the same.

Salt Hanging Out With the Salmon in the Salish Sea

We could call them the Pacific Plume and the Yellowstone Sea.

Vernon, British Columbia, A Cascadian City

Not just that. Look how the atmosphere and the landforms, and the lakes play along. That’s fog from Kalamalka Lake lying over Coldstream Ranch in the middle distance. Consider for a moment how clouds, mountains, fog and the breakage points of uplifted seabeds, and the volcanoes erupting through them, are all the same sea and the same plume. It is useful to give them separate names, such as hill and cloud, sky and water, volcanics and so on, but those are words that come from far away. Here, they are the same energy folding into and outside of itself. The knowledge contained in a great European thinker like Descartes, or a great European dramatist, like Shakespeare, has its equal here, in exactly what you are looking at in this image. If you do not see it, it’s time to go walking! In this country, there is no such thing as a mountain.

These are not mountains.

Coyote Den in Priest Valley, looking west over Fjord Lake Okanagan

Cultural Blindness and Agricultural Practice

Culture is a powerful thing. Here is some earth, laid bare by a plow, in preparation for seeding in the spring. In the past, it has been used to grow tomatoes. This last year, it lay fallow, to recover.

In Canadian culture, this is an image of fruitfulness, taken at the most fruitful time of year. Enjoy it.

The only thing is, it’s not fruitful, it’s dead. Look at how this soil is nothing but congealed clay and sand. Living soil, that things grow in, is a complex environment of fungi, microbes, insects and dead and living plant material. This is just clay and sand.

And it started like this.


That’s how powerful culture is.

Construction Gone Bad in Vernon

Men have been digging at the hill to make a level place to build houses, and have put up a wall of blasted rock to hold the hill back. Note the deer.

In the two months since this wall was constructed, it has rained, oh, 0.5 millimetres once. It was enough to barely wet the soil.

But still it flowed.

And flowed!

Imagine what 2 mm. would do!

Imagine 1 cm.!

What were they thinking?

Were they thinking?

It sure doesn’t look like it.

It will be the city’s problem some day.

Someday soon.

How embarrassing.

As for the deer, she has been doing a little erosion of her own.

Her angles are precise. Note how she has loosed a little avalanche on the left.The rain ought to make good use of that when it comes.

There should be laws against this kind of stupidity and carelessness.

California Quail in the Rainforest

The ancient salmon forests of the Pacific Coast were felled long ago. Well, most of them.

Some of the lost ones went to houses in Vancouver and Seattle. People still live in their bones. Others, though, still stand.


Others, with long grains of clear cedar, which might have been used for fine cabinets and ceremonial screens, were turned into fenceposts, to herd humans and cattle and to hold grapes up to the sun to create jug wines, but that’s all in the past now. Now, the quail come.

  Hooo- HooOOOOoooo! Don’t our forests have new life now!


Crazy Okanagan Water

Today, I’d like to show you some water in its living environment and some crazy water. First, living water:

That’s mock orange, doing its thing. Home to deer, porcupines, bears, lazuli buntings, people, American goldfinches, chickadees, finches, quail, crows, pheasants, fritillary butterflies, swallowtails, yellow-bellied marmots, meadow voles, coyotes, wolves, magpies, northern flickers and everyone else who still manages to survive on this ruined grassland. Now for some crazy water:

I showed you this image of the bear I spooked out of the mock orange the other day, but it bears (ha ha) repeating in this context, because that’s not a natural landscape it is walking through. It is, actually, something much like this:

Syrian government officials walk on a road, back dropped, by damaged buildings from fighting with Free Syrian Army fighters in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in the north prepared to regain control of the central city of Homs following last week’s cease-fire agreement after a fierce, two-year battle with the rebels trying to oust him. (AP Photo)


Look at it again, if you please:

This is a ruin from a war over the land fought unevenly over the last 160 years between the valley’s syilx people and various industrial farmers. By 1871, the land was trashed by overgrazing born of ignorance. What you see here, a chokehold of big sage interspersed with invasive cheatgrass, both of them useless in these numbers for supporting complex nets of  life, are replacements for a rich grassland that flowed with life through the year. The rich grassland was a creation of a partnership between the earth and the syilx. Its trashing was an act of aggression: ignorant, for the most part, but aggression nonetheless. Still, a small amount of life survives in the ruins: voles, and the coyotes, bears and hawks who hunt them, all dependent on the lighter-coloured plants you see above, the arrow-leafed balsam root, a kind of wild sunflower that has adapted to the ruins and is recolonizing them. That is a vision of hope: a ruin, sure, but hope nonetheless. Note how much water these flowers represent, and how much of it flows through a renewable web.

Below is some more water from the war. This is Chief Emmitt Liquatum of Yale in1881.

Photo: BC Archives.

Note the top hat, a symbol of power from the fur trade days (or at least of a ritual belief in power). It is a beaver turned to felt.

Beaver Keeping the Water in the Sinlahekin Valley

Beavers ensure a balanced distribution of water in dry country but were trapped and traded, often before the first European colonists showed up, for war surplus Napoleonic rifles, in an attempt to stave off genocide. It worked, but barely, and more because of the top hats and pre-Canadian relationships than the rifles. The image of Liquatam was taken shortly after the salmon fishing on the Fraser River, the main food source of his people for 6,000 years, was rendered illegal by the new Canadian government (of 1871 in these parts), to support White salmon fishermen on the coast. I have another image (a bit farther down), which shows the crazy water that comes from this nonsense. It is an image of the north end of 350-square-kilometre-135-kilometre-long Okanagan Lake in this year’s high water. It has been poisoned. This has come about in part because of those dead beavers and the industrial agriculture made possible by their absence, and the private, industrial property aesthetic that presumes prominence for industrial uses of water and land over health of water and land for people and all creatures, and a lack of run-off. All these workings-out of old errors and privatization is now showing itself in this form:


You are looking here at a toxic algal bloom on the Okanagan Indian Reserve at Head of the Lake — more specifically at the water off a recreational property leased by a band member to a White family. No-one wants to swim in industrial sludge, but that’s what this is. Here’s the story: Here is, incredibly, what the story says:

The Okanagan Indian Band released a warning on Sunday to residents and visitors to stay out of the north arm of B.C.’s Okanagan Lake until further notice due to a toxic algae bloom.


The band says the bloom in waters off its land was first thought to be a sewage leak, but testing showed it was caused by a high level of organic material in the lake.


High temperatures over the weekend helped the algae flourish in a soupy mixture that the band says includes everything from burlap and sand debris to sewage, grass, leaves and dead animals.

They are being kind. Here’s some crazy water — in the old lake bed to the north of the lake by the looks of it but perhaps in the old lake bed to the east of the lake:


This is about privilege, even though it seems to be about work and economy and making a country. The thing is, before that country set the industrial terms for water use, water was a common good, shared by all. After 160 years of an uneasy balance between sharing and industrial water rights, filtering water through industrial crops before it flows into the lake, and the old syilx water system it represents, continues the original violence. There’s no way of covering that up, because ignorance is no longer an excuse. Sure, there appears to be a belief that if contaminated water is passed through soil, which is viewed as part of the de-indigenized cultural space called land, which has the other names of earth and nature, it will be again as pristine as the original White impression of indigenous/earth cultural creation in 1858, when all this began. That is crazy. First, because this so-called “nature” was a humanly-maintained cultural space, which gave the earth cultural autonomy, and secondly because the following image isn’t pristine:

It’s the lake bottom in the west arm of the lake, that’s what it is, just south of the algal bloom on Okanagan Indian Band shores which I showed you above, and right beside one of the Okanagan’s major swimming beaches, to which thousands of people come with their children every summer to enjoy what is, hopefully, “the good life,” and why not, family is really important. Here are some images of this arm of the lake…


So is the image of pristine water poisoned by industrialization below. It connects to beach culture, and the recreation use of Okanagan Indian Band lands, through a direct colonial desire to physically enjoy nature. In this case, it is through industrially-management of land, draining water down off the hills, to produce pumpkins for a European harvest festival. This work is done with a mixture of herbicides, fertilizers, cultivated weeds (the things are attempting to heal the soil, yet they are tilled under as they don’t fit the imposed industrial model) and water and sun managed by plastic, thrown away at the end of the season. This is an image from last year This year, this land is empty, except for a trial plot of genetically-modified canola under scientific trial. That the land was removed from life to produce this hyper-industrial product is, I’m sorry, in it context there’s no other word for it, an act of pure aggression and violence. That syilx water flows through it.

Okanagan Basin Water Board, are not absolved of blame just by saying good things.

“Our vision is to have a fully-integrated water system, meeting the needs of residents and agriculture while supporting wildlife and natural areas.”

Here’s their image of that:


It’s weird to have one’s valley turned into a cartoon, but note some important things: first, the 10,000-year-old lake of fossil water from the Ice Age is labelled “waste water”, and the river systems are labelled “municipal water” and “water supply” completes a cycle with “waste water.” That’s disrespectful of the bear I met the other day, the syilx, and anything else that comes from this land. In this conception, there is only urban infrastructure, based on colonial water use models. You can see the contrast between desert and lushness in the image of my city, Vernon, below:

This elite blindness is omnipresent and is a sign of ecological poverty. It comes from an intellectual culture that views, without question, this spring’s problems with water in the valley  as problems of extreme high water. Seemingly, if the land had just soaked it up a bit better, like we were used to last year, it would not get nuts like this. Well, it’s not the first flood. Blaming water run-off on weather, when the land’s ability to use water or hold it has been removed, is intellectual nonsense. Worse, when a cause is given, it is global warming. Global warming is serious stuff, but this is the result of the abuse of human-earth water systems, based on an ignorant or dismissive rejection of syilx cultural values, people and knowledge, over anything else. To say otherwise is crazy. The history is very clear.  I wish the craziness stopped there, but here’s some more crazy water, and once again it is crazy with the best of intentions and the worst of blissful ignorance and disrespect:


This is an image of vineyards, formerly the orchards of my youth, in Naramata, looking towards the southern shores of Okanagan Lake, where any muck from the north will eventually flow, before co out through the Okanagan River, in the middle distance of the image, and joining in that dredged, diked channel…


…with the outflow from the Penticton Waste Water treatment plant, before continuing south. It is the poster image of an article on a new water study being conducted at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, at the approximate mid-point of the lake.

The study, worth $1,400,000, is to determine some pretty useful stuff around the role irrigation water plays, including the rates at which dirt, in a hot climate, builds up carbon — not to protect the atmosphere from industrial pollution but to become soil, which is carbon=based life and dead life on which it feeds and which holds its water — under the effects of irrigation. The difference between the agricultural capacity of the soil before and after irrigation would be useful to know, especially since the early irrigated desert cultures of Mesopotamia poisoned their soils with the salt that comes from evaporation during irrigation and turned their gardens into deserts, which are now battlefields in hopeless and helpless wars, not to mention contemporary experience with the same issue in the American Southwest, in order to modify irrigation, but that’s not how the story is told. The media tells it like this:

“When we talk about climate change, we often discuss the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But actually a huge amount of carbon is stored in the soil,” Kirsten Hannam, a research associate on the project, told CBC’s Chris Walker on Daybreak South.


The buildup happens when carbon dioxide in the air is fixed by plants during photosynthesis and converted into leaves and roots. The carbon is deposited into the soil and accumulates over time.

That, unbelievably, is a description of life on earth: carbon, deposited and accumulating over time. How disrespectful. How obscene. But it’s not just the media. Here’s how the government sees it:

“These new investments are part of the government’s commitment to addressing climate change and ensuring our farmers are world leaders in the use and development of clean and sustainable technology and processes,” said

Lawrence MacAulay, minister of agriculture and agri-food in a statement.

Got that? The government is going to address global climate change by using scarce and incredibly precious water, already over-committed by overpopulation of humans, in the Okanagan Valley, and is selling this as a way for farmers to develop clean and sustainable processes. I think this means is that farmers will be using our water to sequester industry’s carbon, and will be paid to do that, instead of producing food, or learning to work with beavers, or respecting the syilx. Really, this has to stop. The spring has been rife with young Indigenous writers demanding that the violence stop, and calling out the White community on their sense of entitlement. Well, it’s not about statements of social inclusiveness. It’s about changing the story so that the story is a syilx, or a secweopemc, or a cree story, and that’s going to mean that the earth and her creatures, and non-industrialized, non-privatized water are going to have to be at the centre of law and ethics. Anything else is absolutely stark raving mad.

We either stand with the earth and her people or we shoot it in the temple. The problem is: we are her people. The solution, which is easy, is that we are of her water, and we need to go home.

Open and Closed Air in Indigenous Switzerland

In Zurich, this is nature. A sobering thought.

Or, rather, it is a school sports field. Note the tree. It is placed where there is room. Note as well the aesthetic, architectural arrangement of elements. There is a human world in which nature is an architectural element. What the earth is, well, that’s another matter.

Cowboys and Indians

In 1847, it was the Cayuse on the ridgeline, with the lightning flaring from their appaloosa’s eyes and their water monsters painted on their bodies, and early American settlers on the flats below.

These grazing patterns continue today in the Walla Walla Valley, where my country stepped into history with a rifle shot.