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:

Source: https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2017/11/16/humans-blind-imminent-environmental-collapse/?utm_source=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=161117

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.

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

http://www.cbc.ca/books/literaryprizes/33-writers-make-the-cbc-poetry-prize-longlist-1.4389859.

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 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d1/Columbia_River_Basin_map-sr.svg

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: https://okanaganokanogan.com/2012/04/16/sacred-waters-part-one/

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.

 

Weaving the Environment

So, what of it, eh. If settlement had taken a different turn and adapted to local cultural knowledge and traditions, and “colonialism” wasn’t even a word, what would we see if we looked at these woven thule reeds?

Would we see the wheatgrass weaving ladybirds out of the wind?

Or wasps weaving the flowers that wove them?

Or invasive knapweed weaving this ruined soil back into the fabric of life?

Would we see these million dollar homes as being at home here?

Would we plant trembling aspens, dependent upon industrial water?

Would we say this is a summer of drought, or that it had moved in the heat? Would we not move there, too?

Would we poison this water reservoir with toxic herbicides the day after this image was taken of a beaver feeding on water flowers at dusk?

History is what it is, but the moment of settlement is never lost.

Water in Fire Country

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.

A Short History of Whiteness in Cascadia

It’s not a physical thing.

Apricot in Her White Gown

White is a tricky, racial word. Here’s a small piece of a meditation on it from my book in progress, Commonage: The War for the Okanagan.

In English in these parts between Northern Oregon and Alaska and Western Montana to Haida Gwaii, “White” applies to people of Caucasian background, as long as both of their parents are Caucasian; people whose parents might include a Scots Hudson’s Bay Company trapper and a Cree woman from Manitoba are deemed to have negated all “White” rights, or at least it started out that way. People such as Hudson Bay Company Factor Peter Skene Ogden’s wife Julia, whose parents were Sanpoil and Nez Perce yet who was raised by a French Canadian-Cree trapper after her mother’s second marriage, was accorded civilized rights by the British but not by the Americans. People such as the Oblate missionary Charles Pandosy, who came to love the Yakama and despise the Americans yet betrayed the Yakama to the US Army in 1855 to protect it from a war it could not win, was occasionally accorded “White” status, despite being Catholic, but Father Nobili, who built a mission at the Head of the Lake Village at a) Nk’mp, or Osoyoos Lake, b) Garnet Valley, or Summerland, or c) Head of the Lake on Okanagan Lake, in 1840, wasn’t, probably because he was Italian, and Italians weren’t “White” in those days, although they are now. It was all very complicated. From an indigenous perspective, “White” actually applies to the dried white salmon of Mnassatas Creek, where this story took the form of a fish and saved Pandosy from starvation brought on by his own ignorant notion that he was living in a wilderness. This salmon was white because sockeye salmon harvested far up in their watersheds, when they’ve gone into their red spawning colours and have devoured all the fat in their bodies after a long journey, develop a white crust over their red flesh when split the traditional Yakama way and dried in the wind. So, yeah, if the Yakama were calling a man a “White,” they probably meant the red sunburn he got out in the shrub steppe and the white, peeling scab that followed a few days later.
No doubt, the Yakama knew the Christian symbol, Ichthos the fish, and stories of Christ as the Fisher of Men in the “wilderness” of the desert of Galilee. I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Swapping fish stories would be a good connection for any missionary trying to convert fishermen in the “wilderness” of the Columbia Plateau — a country in which salmon were people, in an age in which the children of salmon fishers were dressed in white to be baptised by priests. Some jokes are too good to pass up.

 

Beautiful Old Tree

Image

Peaches are scrubby little bushes from the Gobi Desert, that live to be fifteen years old, more or less, before they succumb to their many fragilities. Here’s one I’ve been caring for twenty years, after another man cared for her for nearly twenty before that. A quarter of her sisters have died, but a week ago she was the first one blooming this year. Her name is Glohaven.
Still gorgeous after all these years. Some fifty-five years ago I remember images of blossoms like this, with my father as the photographer, and it was a tree like this (her name was Vee), with just the right branch, who taught me how to climb trees. I worked at it for weeks. I have a whole lifetime to return the gift.

A Canadian Education

Canada is a big country. Here’s a tiny piece of it in the west.

What you’re looking at is a bit of a collision between a volcano and a seabed off the coast of North America, that became part of the land about 110,000,000 years ago, and then became a local landmark. Perhaps you can see the highway that cuts across the ancient trail it marked? (That’s our bluff again, in the middle of the image, which views it from the south, rather than the east, as we did in the preceding image.)

The first wave of colonization, the Hudson Bay Company’s pack horse trail, followed the old trail. The new trail, which follows the Hudson Bay Company’s route from the south (politely, we call it the United States of America now, for old times sake), is the result of imported technology (German freeways, Swedish dynamite, American earth-moving equipment, and so on) that came in on the trail until it became it. The old landmark still stands, though.

And it’s still doing its old work, of marking the paths of power. It’s just that now it is part of Canada, which has a culture with certain prerequisites. For one, it is a country imposed on an indigenous state, which means that indigenous landmarks must be translated into Canadian terms before they can be read. For Canada, these terms are displays of social power imposed on the landscape, such as the German architecture below.

Only the wealthy can play this game, but there are lots of them. Social power within Canadian society in this region — in other words, Canada in this region — is about extending these intrusions.

It is a complex game, and by making these images I have broken its rules, which are to look out at views of water, rather than looking back at Canada looking out. That is simply not done. It is breaking a social code.

These views, for instance are easily worth $1,000,000 each. As you can see in one below, they show the next in the series of indigenous landmarks, at a romantic distance, and the houses of other wealthy people along the lake, at an appropriate distance that allows them to be romantically embedded in nature, as befits an imperial British settlement.

Canada is a very romantic project. Thousands of people look out, at sufficient distance that a forest being trucked to a plywood plant disappears into landscape (look below.) Again, apologies, I have broken that taboo by making this image.

The next image breaks that taboo, too. Here you can see that one of these houses has constructed a garden, or perhaps a chicken run, from creosote-treated railway ties, covered with netting, to get past the ridiculous steepness of the land and its inappropriateness for chicken runs and gardens. It’s not pretty, but that’s because it is made from outside of Canada. The rule is, don’t take the picture until you’ve moved far enough to the right or left that the Canadian presence on the land disappear. Then make the image.

 

 

One of the reasons for the netting is that Canadians moving into landscapes like this situate cell phone towers and garbage dumps around areas of the greatest indigenous significance. It is a subconscious part of the process of subjugation, and it does have its ironies, because those areas are the best for display houses with the most romantic views, but the garbage does attract eagles, romantic birds for sure, and ravens and crows…

… which do interfere with the illusion that there is no garbage here. You simply can’t use the land as a canvas for the social display of an imported culture, which exists only in the display, when those pesky birds steal your chickens and strawberries. It can’t be done. Now, a Canadian, of course, has it hard, because Canadians are just people, after all, with the same desires as any others: family, shelter, a bit of love, lots of aggression, and strawberries, plus breakfast eggs, if they can get them. It’s not their fault that they have to acquire these essentials through a social grid laid out upon indigenous space that Canada bought for them 146 years ago (not from its owners but from the British, who gave themselves the right to trap furs here, on the strength of a navy no-one had the means to mess with) and they’re doing the best they can…

… continually rebuilding roads to get their social grid in the best shape possible, as far as such social grids go. Yes, the result is ugly, but you’re not supposed to see it. You’re supposed to live within it and look out. And when you do (below), please do yourself a favour, don’t look at the erosion caused by thousands of young people leaving the trail to go out-of-bounds down to the rocks to jump into the lake.

That’s deadly, and is to be overlooked. That’s the rule. The landscape is to be read as an archetype, as if you were the first person who was ever there. The irony of a country-as-a-social grid, such as Canada, is that when you turn around, from the land, and look at the grid …

… it looks improvised at best, and even a bit desperate and chintzy. The image above is a private road for wealthy land-owners to use to access their view property below the bluff I showed you above. The gap between its imposed, utilitarian ugliness and the romantic beauty and intense social power it grants, is why literature in this country is a social game, with landscape entering it through social avenues such as scientific tropes, academic understanding, queer readings of landscape, environmental activism, and so forth, but never on its own terms. Those are considered  romantic …

… not because the earth is romantic, but because that reading of romanticism is also deeply embedded within Canada, which is a romantic social product written on the land. It can’t escape itself. If you leave that romantic reading, you are no longer in Canada, but looking at it. That’s the rule. It is such a powerful  mechanism that the country’s literary artists, embedded in the social training system of its universities, are unable to break it: there is no audience out there, and no market, just a few weeds growing in the haphazard infrastructure created by the social application of powerful foreign technology.

Literary people would starve out there, and that’s really not good. I can afford to show you these images because I am what is called in Canadian social terms, a sub-class of Canada’s imperial homeland, the United States, White, Male, and Old, ie an Old White Man: an undesirable thing, anyway, with no social power in literary society. These are not the terms of the culture of the land, of course, but that’s a different thing; Canadians live in cities. They have the second largest country on earth but not to live on. It is to harvest industrially, in ways which minimize access to the scars of such harvest (swaths of uncut trees lining highways, to preserve romantic view lines, and so forth), in order to concentrate the wealth of the land within the social grid, which is reserved for people who are extending the networks of power laid across the land. Those networks are the only country there is. That an old man such as I am (I’m 59, not old perhaps by an objective standard, but old and unwanted in this culture), sees something other than the omnipresent beauty of the grid and the notions of identity it fosters, is, by definition, romantic, because in the definitions of the culture, all land (and hence all that is attached to the land) is romantic; the only exit from romance is through the social networks. I can laugh at that all I like.

I am only trespassing on the land reserved for the social power of wealthy men, which is how I took the image above. That I consider access to that land my human right is another indication of how non-Canadian I am. That image above is evidence of a crime. That I only stepped a few metres onto private land, unoccupied land being advertised for sale, does not erase that. The image is romantic. Neither you nor I were meant to see it, and that buck was being protected in order to be shot as a trophy. That is the rule. Perhaps, if you’ve read between the lines of this post, you might get a sense, or the beginnings of one, of why the indigenous villages, which are called “Indian Reserves” of this country are described in terms such as this:

There are no economic reasons for Attawapiskat to exist and it does so only because it is underwritten by the Canadian taxpayer. http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/john-ivison-the-rising-toll-of-canadas-failed-experiment-with-isolated-reserves

The statement is an offense to human dignity, but then, you see, so is the poverty in the image that accompanies it:

Villages such as this are not “isolated” in a passive sense, as the article suggests, in that they are “in the bush”, or “in the wilderness”, or “far from culture” but isolated in a far more active sense, in that culture (Toronto, Vancouver, or even my small city of Vernon, for example) have placed them in isolation, as the name for these spaces, “Indian Reserves”, makes abundantly clear. The space below is exactly the same kind of space.

Canadian culture — the survival of the social grid — demands that we look the other way.

Or at least maintain the respectful distance that preserves privacy (ie social privilege.)

Or the corollary distance that embeds social display within the landscape, to create the illusions of wealth, belonging, power, beauty and ease that are every human’s desire and are fulfilled in the Canadian overlay in precisely prescribed forms.

Your way to them is through the university and its botanical gardens.

But do ignore the banana peel. You will fail at your studies if you concentrate on that.

The Mystery of Clouds and Ice

Clouds are water vapour held up by air, and are named after clods, or lumps of earth.p1490817

Ice floes are clods of ice held up by water. But in the world of light, which surely is a world, they are the same. There is a mystery there, as yet unravelled.p1490931

Western culture was working at it, until the guns of Verdun. We shouldn’t have given in.

The Spirit Whale of the Okanagan

Here’s what might sound at first like a fantastical story, but it does end with a deeply practical point. I hope you enjoy it! To start, look at the spirit whale of the Okanagan at the end of a winter day. The first people who came through here 12,000 years ago were ice-edge hunters from the ocean to the West. They would have known about whales moving through leads in the ice. The trees in the foreground would have been underwater then.p1480903

Look at the big fin of the whale’s tale to the south. That’s quite the whale.p1480921

Over time, she has risen from the water. The purple line below was the lake shore 12,000 years ago. The red one, 10,000 or so. The drop was rapid in each case.

lakes

As you might just be able to make out above, when the tide was in (so to speak), the whale’s tail would have had three heads. Its fin would have been hidden. Swinging to the left, her head would have looked like this:

old

She was underwater, that’s what she was. Her body was a canoe full of animals. That would have been intimate knowledge to oceanic ice-edge hunters, and common to a number of indigenous flood stories. Look below for a closer look of the prow. The whale’s head is just a tiny island, leading the way like a porpoise. In this image, the ancestral animals who are the cargo are more clear.

head

The image below shows the stern of the canoe again, as it would have appeared above the lake, blunt-nosed as we would expect, with two trails of froth. The stern itself is a clown’s head, a motif we see on hundreds of sacred rocks in the Pacific Northwest. Whatever the reasons are is a discussion for another day. For now, let’s just be present on this ancient shore.

tail

There’s no way of knowing if people viewed the whale this way or not 12,000 years ago, but one thing is certain: over the course of half a day she lifted out of the water and left behind a lake in the shape of a snake. Two thousand years later, she did it again. Today, that snake is called, derisively, Ogopogo. With more respect, but in equally colonial terms, she is called a lake. That discrepancy between spiritual and European knowledge is worth keeping in mind, when assessing my story of the mountain that is a whale: whether they are indigenous or scientific, story-tellers bring their knowledge and see it reflected in conversation with the forms of the land. People who come from that land, however, see the spirit first.

p1480907As a man, if that’s what I am and not “tree walking” or something like that, what I see in the image above is my self. I can’t say I understand this, or do not. “Understanding” is the wrong concept to apply to that presence, and can only access deep threads of European knowledge and explanation. Like “lake” or “mountain”, however, such activity comes from somewhere else and does not describe the bond between my body, spirit and mind and those of the land. Even “land” is the wrong word for this stuff. I seem to be evolving past words. What’s next, I wonder.

Reviewing David Pitt-Brooke’s Walk Through the Grasslands

I spent the early winter reading a beautiful and, unfortunately, incomplete book: Crossing Home Ground, by David Pitt-Brooke. It records an epic walk through the grasslands of Southern British Columbia: my own home ground. My detailed review was just published today in The Ormsby Review. You can read my review here (with beautiful photos by Pitt-Brooke): http://bcbooklook.com/2017/01/26/in-praise-of-grass/#more-30105. I’m thrilled that it is out. My goal in writing the review was to honour the book and the conversation of which it is a part. I’d like to show you a few images from that context. They are beyond the scope of the book, but help to anchor its discussions, I think. Here’s the mouth of the Okanagan River, as it enters the inundated Columbia. It is here that the private armies that invaded the Okanagan in 1858 crossed the big river on their way north, and it is here that scouts tagged invaders for later skirmishes in the Okanagan and Similkameen.

mouth

This is The Forks, a major stopping point on the ancient trail to the deep north and the Hudson’s Bay company brigade trail that followed it. It is here that the route forked, to the Similkameen Valley to the distant left (the trail is a county road now, as you can perhaps make out), and to the Okanagan to the right. The image shows the Similkameen River joining the Okanogan.Tforks2

This is some of the Similkameen Grassland, above the Similkameen Gorge and looking towards Hurley Peak in the Pasayten Wilderness. Pitt-Brooke camped high above this country, just over the Canadian Border behind you as you view this grassland, and looked down on it at dusk.hurley

High up on Kruger Mountain to the left in the image below. This is Richter Pass. That green hayfield in the bottom is lost Richter Lake, drained to grow sileage corn. This is British Columbia. The Washington side (above) is in better shape.

He saw farms down there in Washington. Well, mines.mine2 The grass in this country, as Pitt-Brooke accurately points out, is damaged, but not irretrievably. Here is some grass and sagebrush above Nighthawk, Washington.  chopaka3

Areas directly on the Hudson’s Bay Company Trail, such as Garnet Valley below, have suffered the worst — grassland ruins that have not created a lot of prosperity, either.garnet

Here’s one of the culprits at work in Priest Valley, above my house in the North Okanagan. She is being grazed on a landscape of invasive weeds. That’s dalmation toadflax around her. You can see she doesn’t like it. Rush skeleton weed, though, well, she likes that. Almost all the bunchgrass is gone. That looks like a stalk of needle-and-thread grass in her mouth.

That missing grass is the original human habitat, and almost none is left on earth. Our bodies were made for this landscape. This is who we are. Luckily, there is some left. Here’s some bunchgrass that is grazed responsibly in Farwell Canyon, in the Chilcotin.

This is the grass that Pitt-Brooke loves. So do I. Please read David’s book, and then go out yourself to see what you can see. You might see wonders, like the virtually pristine grassland in the bed of Dry Falls, a waterfall that was once 30 miles long, falling 300 feet over these basalt flood lavas, from a river 300 feet above them. The only weed here is one stalk of toadflax in the foreground.

Before this became a Washington State Park, it was a ranch. The grass came back. We can do this.