The Okanagan’s Missing Water

Here it is.


Blue Bunch Wheatgrass

This 10-year-old re-seeded slope shows the likely historical condition of the valley under Syilx stewardship. This grass is very much alive.

The valley hasn’t looked like this since 1858, but as you can plainly see it can be replanted. Look out your window right now. Do you see someone out there replanting the bunchgrass? No? This grass that translates water into hydrocarbons, which in turn hold rain and snow from evaporating and flowing away, while using it to nourish themselves? Do you see Saskatoon playing the same trick out there?

We could have that. We could even more easily incorporate its process, which is this:

The land we love in the Okanagan has been made by a process of stopping the flow of water. It is the process of holding it and keeping it.

There’s a trick to that. It means that the valley’s big lakes, like the old double-spirited lake (now called Kalamalka) below…

… are not water but reservoirs of potential water, which can be delivered by evaporation and cloud to replenish hydrocarbons and the web of life that moves through them, such as the balsam roots, saskatoons, douglas firs and ponderosa pines in the foreground above. In other words, in this inverted landscape, in which the sky more often removes water than delivers it, this guy …

… and this one …

… and humans, such as I am and such as you are (if you are a Google Bot, eat your heart out, sorry)…

… are marine creatures moving through an aquatic environment in which water is a series of connections in a matrix of carbon, not nineteenth century colonial technology like the stuff below (a vineyard intravenous tube).


Piping Water Downhill, Using Gravity

Our work here is to help water stop flowing, or, perhaps better, to help it flow as slowly as possible, through the greatest possible hydro-carbon web and the greatest possible connections between its joints, where we, the weavers, excel in our work of transferring energy. That is not the same as harvesting water or energy, but there is a point of connection:

When there are abundant points of connection between carbonized water, there is abundant excess water for us to live from.

Call this water gravity. The trick is to stop it from flowing, so that we can flow, not to use it quickly and wait for the snow from somewhere to bring us some more. We need to take care of these things ourselves.


Surely we’re not so proud that we can’t learn from the grass.

The People of the Grass

Just look at this Great Basin Giant Wild Rye in the late November sun. It’s growing up the hill from my house, in land set aside for new houses. Actually, it was planted, to mitigate the effects of road-building and house construction — to embed that work within an act of ecosystem reconstruction and natural sustainability. Beautiful, isn’t it.p1410294

It’s more than beautiful, actually. There are three seasons of stalks here. One has lost its seeds to winter birds and the knees of deer as they knock their way through in the snow. The grass uses the energy of both to cast its seeds at a distance from the stalks. When the seeds land on the snow, their darkness gathers heat to melt their way down through the snow to the unfrozen soil below, watered by the snow they melted to make their path. Down there, they sprout, in the warmth of sunlight magnified by crystals of melting snow. By the time spring comes, most of “spring’s” work is done. This is the grass that first drew settlers to the Pacific Northwest. The Cayuse War of 1848, which started all the other Indian Wars north of California, was fought in this grass, and, in part, over this grass. Two hundred years ago, this grass, and its seeds, were valuable, for fibre and food. In the North Okanagan, where I live, giant wild rye is not as plentiful as it was in the Cayuse’s Walla Walla Valley. Due to its relative scarcity this far north, I think it’s safe to say it would be surprising to find unbroken stands of grass with year-old seeds and three-year-old stalks, untouched by human hands. The stuff is too valuable for that. So, look again:


This is nature without humans. They have been removed from it. It was forcibly done, Replanting the grass without bringing the people home to it is still removal. It doesn’t matter what words are applied to it. Colonial societies, even in their mature, independent phase (we call it “post-colonial”), often claim a right to the land on the principle that all human activity is natural. Yes, it is. It is still violence, though, even if it is called beauty, or ecological regeneration, as long as it does not bring the people back. We could do that, you know. We have shown that we can plant riches.


For the moment, they are empty. In romantic poetry, this sense of loss (in this case “a lost Eden”) intensifies the sense of beauty. The effect is called “bittersweet longing.” In post-modernist poetry (post-colonial culture’s equivalent to romanticism), it is called “desire.” It is more than either. It is a waiting, an offering, an emptiness actively calling to be filled, and a gift. Do we dare take it? Do we dare not?

Sustaining the Okanagan 20: Tourism Lessons from Iceland

Winter or summer, Icelanders send the 7 tourists for every Icelander out to see “nature.” Icelanders have noticed that people from other countries get a kick out of this kind of thing, no matter what the weather. Icelanders are too busy for that stuff. The 326,000 of them have a country to run, plus they need to go shopping. Here’s where they might send you. Note: it’s probably exactly where you’d like to go.

This water flowed through pastures once, until lava covered them. Now it flows twenty kilometres under the lava, before erupting in 300 springs. No sheep farming anymore, but there are compensations.

How beautiful!

Delicate, too.


It’s not that the Icelanders don’t go on holiday. They go up the hill from here, to this.


Birch Forest

These tiny trees once covered the lowlands of the country, but the ancestors of the Icelanders, and their sheep, cut them all down, burned them and munched them 1000 years ago. Those that have regenerated under protection or have been replanted are an abiding symbol of endurance and resurrection. For an Icelander, a holiday among the trees is about as good as it gets. So there are some lessons for the Okanagan here. They are:

  1. A tourism industry doesn’t need “industry partners” or “tourist activities”. It needs something beautiful, someone to show you the way, and someone to grill a lamb for you in a remote location.
  2. People will pay a lot of money to spend fifteen minutes with the earth and its water, and it will change their lives.
  3. Local people want different opportunities than visitors.
  4. When people are too busy to welcome you, don’t worry, their family members will:

p1390520One of the peculiarities of Icelandic travel is the need to be watchful for cars stopped right in the middle of the road and even abandoned there while the occupants get out for a moment with sheep or horses.

Thing is, people don’t need a lot in order to have a profound experience. They need guides, pizza (the Icelandic national dish), wool sweaters, maybe a hamburger (the other Icelandic national dish), an IKEA bed, sheets and a pillow, fried chicken with fries (the third Icelandic national dish) and the occasional place to stop driving, get out, and lean over a fence. In the Okanagan, we send people off to wineries to buy drugs and tell them they are tasting the land, although if we were honest we’d say they are tasting a colonial dream, and then we’d rip out the vineyards to plant Syilx choke cherries, mariposa lily and nodding onion rather than pinots from Southern France, Traminers from Egypt and Rieslings from the Rhine, and say “Welcome to the land. Enjoy that a bit. We’re driving to IKEA in Vancouver for the weekend. If we did, maybe we’d start seeing tour busses parked at the side (well almost) of the road, spilling with travellers running out because Turtle Mountain is reflecting in a puddle, because tour busses do that in Iceland. In Vernon, in the Okanagan, busses bring similarJapanese tourists in by the thousands to buy propolis and royal jelly at the aviary, or a small bag of apples at the faux farm village and gift shop, while the nature they really want to see is just on top of the rocky glaciated upthrust seabed/volcanic outcrop/spirit rock/ancient lakeshore at the top of the orchard, an easy ten minute stroll away. People don’t travel to see colonial culture. They come from it. They want affirmation that the earth is still alive and beautiful.



Surely, we can learn to help them with that.


The Okanagan 55,000,000 Years Ago

Before glaciation, the smooth, rounded hills of the Okanagan …



… were a series of cinder cones and stratovolcanoes rising above a 100 kilometre slip along (across) a deep fault. Perhaps parts of Vernon looked like the Berserkjarhraun.
p1370720Likely, Kelowna looked like Snaefell, with or without its glacier.p1380167

Westbank or Summerland might have looked like these outwash floods from Snaefell.p1380108

Likely, large parts of the valley were full of cinder cones like the ones below at Berserkjarhraun. The ice would have carried them away, ground them to sand, and dumped them in the waters off the coast of Oregon.p1370543

There were probably mystical creatures everywhere, like this elvish sheepdog and sheepfold at Dritvik.p1370125

And little people. All carried away by the ice and turned to sand.p1370203

The next time you walk the Oregon Coast, remember where you are and whose bones you are standing on. For now, to know the Okanagan it helps to go to Iceland, where these powers are still young. To know Iceland, it helps to go to the Okanagan, where they are 55,000,000 years old.

p1270026 p1270014 p1270104

Some things change little in all that time. The ice didn’t take everything away. Look at what endures and what blossoms.

Holiday Cultures Compared

This is Icelandic holiday culture. A lava field, a cliff, a waterfall and thou in a little summer house.


In the Okanagan, holiday culture is about making and spending money, usually involving high-powered gasoline-driven boats, or these nuts, one of whom is water-skiing behind a personal watercraft, and falling every 100 metres (at best).


Colonial cultures are like that. In the icelandic case, the country gained independence by gaining the country. In the Okanagan’s case, colonialism is still in process from the oil culture to the east. It’s not yet time for an indigenous Okanagan holiday culture. It’s still time for work.



A Walk in the Fog

Boundaries show the limits of consciousness. When they are foggy, magic happens. Look how this grove inhabits the fuzzy boundary of the fog. It holds to itself and yet extends, not only across the pasture but into the fog. It makes sense. The grove is all about holding to itself and yet remaining open, drinking wind and eating light. Is it an active force? The question is absurd. It is a balance.p1300783

Now, look what happens when we pull back and include a human boundary called a wall. The tree is ‘contained’. It does its magic work within a human frame. That frame is what we call ‘civilization’. Note how it walls us out as much as it walls the tree in. To get to the tree we have to pass through the wall. We can be either on one side of it or another, but not both at once… unless we take the wall down stone by stone and carry them back to the quarry where they were once dug.


Fortunately, we have other metaphysical technologies. The one below is called a “way” or a “path”. In North America, we would call it a “trail”, but that’s a peculiarly colonial word, as fragile and riddling as a wall. A path is better. A way that extends to no end, from no beginning. A dancing ground, so to speak.


The trees know this. Look.


These paths for water rising into the sky don’t dissolve with the seasons. The tree neither lives outside of them or only at their tips. They are not histories. They are moments of presence. Now, add the wild. In this case, an ibex. This non-human point of view makes the entire scene as wide as the universe. It looks back, not just out of this animal, but everywhere at once.p1300861

That looking and that presence is who we are. Walls have contexts. They are not the path.


They are not the way.p1300903

The way is not through the trees. It is among them.

When Trees are Hills and Hills are Trees

p1300900Look how simple these high European landscapes are, how swept by the sea, how chewed by cows, how much the earth has been given over to the sky. Now, compare with the Okanagan, where overgrazing by cattle leads to bushiness.


Look how high European oaks root in that sky, in a world without colour, but with exquisite shades of light and dark, in a weave of time.


And compare that to the Okanagan, where there are no oaks.



Here it is the land that moves in time. Here a walker passes through the hills the way a celebrant (or a cow) passes through the oaks of the Jura. Friends, these hills are our trees.


Plants are the hills between them.

The (Post) Colonial Landscape

These plants have gone wild from a garden above them. Not one is native here. They are native to Eastern North America.p1270436

To survive in its illusion of seasons, White culture requires extensive plantings of this colour. It is taught in school, even. It is even called “fall colour.” It is the east in the west, really. This is history, written in a story of loss and longing, of the pain of separation and an attempt to heal it with physical gestures of care. Let’s praise that care.


Let’s follow it.