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:

Indigenous Land Ownership Rules

The Snow Buckwheat Country:

All at Once

The Grass Country:


One…

…by…

…one.

It’s not indigenous if it isn’t expressing the energies of the land.

The energies are there for all to read, all together or one at a time.

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.

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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.

 

Bunch Grass: the Beavers of the Grasslands

Look at the wonder that is bunchgrass. In this country in which snow falls and soon evaporates into the air, the amount of water a plant can keep from either flowing away in the sun or evaporating in the dry air is crucial. The bunchgrass in the image below, taken today on Turtle Mountain, is preventing both evaporation and flow. Effectively, on a forty-degree slope it is holding water in place and changing the seasons. Have a look. This is technology that we can develop further and put to extensive use.p1430045

See that? The grass has two aspects: uphill stalks that climb up to the sun, and downhill ones that follow gravity to the earth. The sun that catches in the grass lying on the snow…p1430079

… melts the snow to water …

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… ever further and further back. It soaks through the snow on the downhill side of the grass …

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… ready to be captured there by the extensive root system of the plant and delivered back, uphill, to its core under the lifting power of the sun.

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Effectively, each bunchgrass pumps water up hill to a distance of the length of its stalks, in a process that uses cool weather melting to store water and the drying effects of the sun to keep water from following gravity to the valley floor. Water only flows downhill here in any volume when the grass is broken. It’s no different with beavers.

 

The Private Landscapes of the Okanagan Valley

Here’s a healthy stand of bunchgrass, which I showed you a couple days ago. As I mentioned, the Okanagan Valley of the North Eastern Pacific Rim probably looked like this 200 years ago. It probably looked like this in 1858, and likely even through 1859 and 1860.
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Then came cattlemen, and cattle, which ate it down to dust and an invasive weed, cheatgrass, by 1871. Sagebrush (look at the image below), as native to this place as bunchgrass, took advantage of the vacated ecosystem and spread like fire. Cheatgrass (green below) filled in the remaining space, grew green all fall and winter, flashed quickly in the spring, and was dead by May: sharp, prickly and inedible. Rain that fell on the land evaporated away in a few hours. A rich landscape became a desert. Cattle did that or, rather, the fences men kept them penned with did that. Look closely.p1410553

The clearance of 6,000 years of Syilx care of these grasslands through the insult of putting cattle on them remains, today, in 2016, ironically, there’s almost nothing for cattle to eat here. What a shame. It would be like clearing the cities of Europe away to create ruins of stone and sand in which one could plant olives. That this situation is close to what Europe is dealing with today with intense pressures from Africa and the Middle East is not lost on me. It would be foolish to think that here, in the west of the West, we are immune from the same pressures. We aren’t. They look like the European grape plants below, in the shadow of a November cloud, which are here to increase land values in the same way the fences of ranchers in the 1860s were there to increase land values, to turn, in other words, indigenous land into a product that could flow through the accounting books of a centralized government, instead of through the living process of the land:

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There are ironies. An ethical system of accounting would return the land to the Syilx, with an apology and an acknowledgement that a transformation of a humanly-cultivated land into a managed “natural space” was a failure. That’s not the way of things, though. The social succession here is to view the land not as the space of a cold war battle running since 1858, nor as a social ruin, but as “nature”. That’s a wondrous word that includes this cheat-grass-lined (and dangerous; it’s slippery as all get out in the rain) deer trail …

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… and this poplar tree, planted as an agricultural air-sprayed chemical buffer for a walking trail built on a filled-in irrigation canal commissioned by Earl Grey, of Earl Grey Tea fame, and blasted by the approach of winter it’s unsuited for.

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In short, “nature” appears to be a term containing things that are not ‘natural’ to this place, or ‘native’ to this place, and not particularly well-suited to it either: creatures inhabiting more the ruins of failed human social interactions with land than the land itself. Perhaps the following image can clear this curiosity up a bit:

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What you’re looking at is the same landscape as this …

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…, but after ten years without cattle. Look again:

p1410544 The sagebrush is still a bit out of hand, the cheatgrass is still stealing water from everyone and creating a desert, but the bunchgrass is coming back, although in balance with this new, water-poor “cheated” environment. This “Nature” isn’t a “natural state”, isn’t the way things were before settlement …

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…but the mechanism by which the earth achieves balance, with the forces at play upon it. That’s the same as saying that the first hillside I showed you above, this one…

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… is the balance achieved when cattle are placed on this landscape. It is, in other words, the signature of cattle. You can see a young one signing her artwork below.

Interestingly enough, in this version of nature, there is scarcely room for cattle or food for them, which is a way of saying that the balance is forcing them off. Note how the cow below is pushed off its diet of weeds by the traditional sagebrush removal process of this place, fire, and finds its natural environment: a gravel pile.

That doesn’t mean that either gravel or green grass and sagebrush are the natural state of the Okanagan Valley today. It does mean that the idea of grazing cattle on this land is unsustainable. It doesn’t fit at all. The earth wants something else. Look at it bringing November water for it—water that sagebrush catches poorly, cattle destroy and cheatgrass burns away too quickly.

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The colonial use of this land was for cattle grazing, yes. Because that idea bankrupted itself, and the return of the land to the bunchgrass and people who know what to do with it is not considered, for complex and ultimately unethical reasons, doesn’t mean that the post-colonial use of it should be one particular romantic use of “nature” —a space for “recreation,” like the golf course spilling over the top of the hill below. That use doesn’t inhabit natural space but a ruined social space, which it attempts to renew by renewing not the productivity of the land, which was here in 1858, but the aesthetic enjoyment of private space in “nature”.

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The argument could be made that this is the natural space the land finds when it is inhabited by humans, as demonstrated by these homes in the cheatgrass and the November fog…

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…but that argument is just silly: not all human activity is balanced in this way, and not all human activity is based around private enjoyment. After all, who enjoys this land’s water privately and doesn’t share?  That’s right, our old friend:

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Cheatgrass

Our mirror.

The Okanagan’s Missing Water

Here it is.

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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?
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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.

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

Light and Shadow Weaving the Land

Isn’t it fine to climb out of the sedges of the wetlands … … and the bunchgrasses of the drylands just above them…

… into the pine grass high up …. P1170933

… among the trees again?

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Interior Douglas Fir and Pine Grass on the Enderby Cliffs

 

At Home in the Earth Community

Like the grass on the Big Bar Esker below, I don’t live in the straight beams of light. I live at the continuity of points of intersection with them, which bend in the wind.

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The flows of water and time create the same effect. The image below shows them in action, at the old Secwepemc village site along the Bonaparte River, alienated by the Hudson’s Bay Company long ago.
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The forms of the land intersect with water and light over the seasons here, to create patterns which lead game animals down to the river, and to the people who live at that intersection. Those of us, all of us, who live on this earth live right there: humans, deer, bears, porcupines, eagles, whoever we are. I’ve provided a second image below, for a closer look. When looking at it, I suggest a close look at the ridge line, the boundary between snow drift and sun drift. Note the game trails that follow those crests, and the meltwater trails that break down the faces of this volcanic ash.

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In that dance with water and light, I live too. There are many other patterns here. Here are just a few…

gravity

Green Water Zone (Low Gravity): plants move water so slowly across the slope that it, and the gravity that intersects with it, essentially pool, like lakes; as the sun mixes with them, they are also lakes of the sun. The esker grasses I showed you express this zone well.

Vertical River: Douglas fir trees take excess water up out of the energy field, as transitional gravity engines.

Gravity Brakes: Douglas fir trees catch the water at the base of high volume flow catchments, and are, essentially, a continuation of the flow into life. In effect, life concentrated in high energy systems takes on secondary living forms (such as Douglas fir trees)

Movement Zone (High Gravity): in this zone, water, earth, sun, wind and time move water rapidly from the pooling of the low gravity green water zone to the pooling of gravity, movement, and all other boundaries in the …

Horizontal River (Boundary Gathering): low pressure zone. Here, where all forces (and game) come together, humans, the boundary-dwellers, naturally collect.

Cold Pole/Heat Pole: the high gravity Movement Zone is powered by the alteration of the earth across seasons (time), across hot and cold faces, an effect extended between the cold and hot seasons of the year by the storage of snow on the cold faces by the wind, which is then released throughout the hot season, not as wind but as water and cold. This pumping action creates the details of the topography of this zone, which is an expression of life (ie boundary) energy.

Game Trail (cold-heat ridge): At the high altitude boundary zone between heat and cold effects, where sight is possible and wind created by the boundary zones, and by larger ones in the mountains and valleys around, animals, which are the expression of crossed boundaries, flow.

Stream (cold-heat sink): At the low altitude boundary zone between heat and cold effects, water and mud not animals flow. This effect is the concentration of the…

Sloughing (Moving Boundary): At this boundary, the energy of the cold-heat ridge is transferred down to the cold-heat sink, in the same manner as gravity brakes. This energy will flow, eventually, to the Horizontal River, which is an expression of all these forces concentrated together, quickened, and alive in the most complex form. In that web of boundaries, the boundary dwellers, are alive.

Together these energy transfer points add up to a living landscape, as complicated as the photosynthesis in a leaf or the flow of blood through a body.

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A “human” body? An “earth” body? An “ecosystem” body? No. A “human-earth-ecosystem” body, or, better put, a community, living, together. They can be separated, but separation will diminish them. Separation will, in other words, also diminish humans. Taken together, its body forms are not human, but human body forms are linked to them. The Big Bar Esker, for example.

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The big heads of the Okanogan, for example …

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Chopaka Mountain and Hurley Ridge, in the Lower Similkameen…

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The power forms of the Snake River …

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… which take many forms…

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The story-telling cliff faces of the ancestral Nimiípu villages along the Kooskoosie River ..

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… or above the Snake, where cloud colours the hills …

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… and so many more. Humans can live in any boundary zone, even artificially created ones, and can extend those boundaries into yet further boundaries. The spiritual boundary pools of Buffalo Eddy, on the Snake, for example…

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The transportation boundaries of North American cities, such as Vernon below …
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Industrial farms, such as this one in Okanagan Landing …

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… and many more.

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Nonetheless, the richest possible boundary zones bring the richest possible life. At the mouth of the Yakima River (below), for example, where its water meets that of my lake and most of the Northwest, flowing on its way to the sea…

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…or here at the sacred Peshastin Pinnacles, above the Pisquouse (Washaptum or Wenatchee) River …

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The alternative is a war against life, within monocultures. Its romantic, sure, with gas masks and capital risk and male sacrifice and courage but that stuff coming out of that sprayer is poison. It kills life. We can talk about the ethics of that, weighing risks and benefits, for a hundred years, but the end of it will be just these simple things: it kills life and it creates only the simplest of boundaries, manipulable by those boundary-dwellers, humans, into harnessing the planet to feed them alone. Note the fence to keep out deer.

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Industrial Apple Orchard in Bloom, Okanagan Landing

Where do you live? Here?

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Moose at the foot of a Big Head on McLaughlin Canyon Road.

Here?
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Spraying a Cherry Orchard Above Swan Lake

Here?

 

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Here?

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These are not just lifestyle choices.

~

Next: the self-identity boundary.