Green Fire

Cheatgrass burns off a whole season’s water at once … in early March.


By May, this will be a desert, and this fire will be red. This sagebrush-cheatgrass culture takes the place of a complex world of 100s of species. It is the result of exploitive grazing in the 1870s. When will we adjust our agricultural regimes to this new timing? Spring is actually in October now. Right now, it’s been like that for about 138 years. Would 139 be long enough? 140?

Red June Cheatgrass, Colville Federated Tribes Reservation

Saving the Grasslands One Garden at a Time

In forest fire season, even the grassland hills are suffering in the smoke.P1420117Note how the golf course road zig-zagging back and forth here manages to take all the water away. Note as well that there are few species growing here: mostly cheatgrass (which is responsible for summer drought), sagebrush, a few mariposa lilies, the odd death camas, a few remaining desert parsleys, the odd thistle and a fair number of blue-bunched wheat grasses. Most of the flowers that bloomed here a century ago, and most of the medicine of the Syilx, are gone. What is a poor bee to do! Aha! Off to Harold’s place!

P1390103As I showed you yesterday, a few square feet of xeriscaping using wild flowers does a few powerful things. You don’t have to irrigate more than two or three times in a season. You don’t have to move the thing. You can have fun scything in the fall (scything is very fun). And birds, toads and insects thrive here. I posted a pair of goldfinches feasting on my catnip yesterday, and then I realized, whoa, just think (and I did): if the normal density of flowers on the grassland hill is about  one plant per square metre, my density of about 200 plants per square metre (I collect the seeds each fall and sow them back in, so there’s no expense) means that in my 25 square metres of wildflower garden I am providing the insect and bird habitat of about 5000 square metres of land up on the hill. That’s pretty close to one acre. Here’s the thing. In my little subdivision there are, oh, I dunno, about 100 houses. If we all took care of an acre like that, 100 acres of grassland could be saved. There are another 100 houses in the subdivision a mile back down the road, and 50 more in the other direction. Just above that one, there are 1000 building lots gouged into the grassland and doing magnificent service in destroying it. I’m thinking today, it doesn’t have to be a story of destruction. If each of these houses had one small wildflower garden, together we’d be helping to maintain some 1250 acres of grassland. If we went further and planted some appropriate plants along our roadsides and walking trails, we could easily double that. It might be that the grasslands are so compromised that they will not return, but that does not mean that we cannot live in them in new ways. It would take almost no water, and, I mean, really, when the alternative is this?


P1420192 … or this?

P1420179Walking Around the Old Neighbourhood

More life for less water, and the use of our dwellings to help the grasslands and to bring them close. There’s no downside. This is the kind of things a progressive city council could fix almost instantly. We would become rich.





The Trail to Nowhere

It started as a trail to the promised land. Here at the Whitman Mission in Walla Walla, in Oregon Territory (now in the State of Washington), it has led to a hill of cheatgrass, an invasive weed, and a monument to the dead, who got caught between worlds. This was the arrival point for thousands of new immigrants to the territory along the Oregon Trail in its early years.cheat

We live in the ruins.

Snow? No Problem!

Cheatgrass shows us the way to the future: harvest snow.


Cheatgrass at the Edge of Winter

There is no need to wait for the rains or to finance high pressure water systems worth hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s all a matter of planting the right crops and developing the technology to harvest them. On the very edge of the snow is a microclimate that balances abundant water with the rising spring heat. It last for only a few days.

P1210886Our future depends upon understanding its processes and developing technologies that harvest them. In the meantime, it is a place of deep beauty.

For the Love of Weeds

There is a group of plants that produce food, require little or no irrigation, little care, and are open to be shared by human and animal grazers. They are called weeds. They should be called the future. I’m going to be celebrating them all week long. For openers, here is lambs’ quarters. This is one of the classic Canadian weeds. Here it is at the beginning of September:

Lambsquarters in the Brown, Grassland Hills, September 1, Without Irrigation

Each of these plants can have about a million seeds. Um, that’s lambs’ quarters with the pale clusters of seeds, not the prickly Russian Thistle in the background. That one is a true invader. They’re getting along, though, right? Right?

A weed, yes, if you let it get out of hand in your tomato patch, because you’ll never, ever get rid of it short of chemical warfare, but, you see, the thing about weeds is that many of them are the food plants of indigenous North American people. This is one. Given that water is getting more and more precious, don’t you think it’s about time to give up on colonial forms of engineering and just embrace the continent and what it can grow for us? This stuff is closely related to Quinoa, was one of the major food staples of Indigenous North America, and is still grown as a grain and a leafy vegetable in Mexico. What’s more, in a landscape such as this one, seeds planted in the fall will sprout pretty much the day the snow goes in March, and will produce a leafy crop in two weeks. The young plants are better by far than spinach, both taste-wise and nutritionally, and can be grown pretty much anywhere, without infrastructure or water systems, because by the time the heat comes they are done with being a leafy crop and have moved on to being a grain. Speaking of grains, here’s another one:

Red Root Pigweed, Bella Vista
This stuff is even pushing through the herbicided wasteland of this dead field.

You got it. Another indigenous American crop, both for medicine and for steamed leaves. It is still used in India today as a staple of cuisine. And, yessss…. like lambs’ quarters, it has a million seeds per plant. And where it grows, other members of its family, the Amaranths, will grow as well, producing highly-nutritious, protein-rich grains. The related amaranth, Kiwicha, was one of the staple foods of the Incas, and provided up to 80% of their caloric consumption before the conquest. And, yesssss, like lambs’ quarters, the stuff will grow anywhere and couldn’t really care a whit about irrigation, as it sends down honking deep roots and takes care of business well. What’s more, here in the cheatgrass infected grasslands, it can mine water as early as cheatgrass, and then punch through the cheatgrass barrier and outlast the fire-prone interloper by going deeper and higher, and that’s what you gotta do. And farm culture sprays herbicides to kill this stuff. Pitiful. Global warming is going to raise the mean temperature of the Pacific Northwest by between 0.5 and 7 degrees Celsius by 2050. Let’s be ready. If we poison the gifts from the past, we have no-one to blame but ourselves.

Tomorrow: Sprout culture for drought management.



The Red Shift 2

Palettes of colour can provide lenses with which to enter into the landscape. That was the story last week. To put on those glasses, click here.  The earth may be an art installation, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have certain genres of its own that go beyond human interest in light, colour, and beauty. Today, an attempt to describe the red shift that is taking place in the western North American Grasslands, in less human terms. So, here’s one of the signature flowering plants of this formerly rich wildflower world, the pungent, lift-your-heart-to-the-sky yarrow …

Still Hanging in There After All These Years

Yarrow and Rabbitbrush hanging on among the new immigrant weeds.

I can’t give you the complex sagebrush and ashen scent of this flower, that lingers for decades in the back of your mind and describes all this land between the mountains, where the clouds float overhead and the screams of red-tailed hawks carry for miles above the bunchgrass, but I can get a bit closer …

Yarrow in Its Glory

Once one of over fifty varieties of flowers from which the bees of the grasslands collected honey, in many areas yarrow is now their only nectar source, for weeks at a time. Note the spiky cheatgrass trying to steal her water in the lower right hand corner of the image.

This is, however, a story of great hope, because after decades of cheatgrass, the yarrow is still here: one of the species that can survive its water-hoarding. Yarrow is, however, also a cultivated plant that with a bit of coaxing can be brought to flower in raging colour. Here is a plant that a landscaper forgot to load onto his truck while developing the golf course subdivision up the hill a few years back …

Red Yarrow Going Rogue

A prince among weeds.

For all the red shift the colour of this plant makes in the landscape, look what else it does …

Wild Bee Collecting Necar

I watched a variety of bee species on this yarrow community for fifteen minutes. Not once did any choose the native white yarrow to the right.

Here’s a closer view …

Just One of the Species Making Use of the Red Shift

Perhaps keeping the grasslands alive as a landscape is as simple as introducing the right weeds. If a bit of colour up on the hill brings the landscape back into balance by replacing lost, brightly-coloured flower species, which insects can easily find in that sea of brown and grey, with brightly-coloured variants of plants that have shown that they are a match for the worst of weeds, then I’m all for painting the hills red.

The Red Shift

I think it is interesting that the civilization that has determined the expansion rate of the universe through a physical property called the redshift, has been the civilization that has expanded over the earth and transformed it from a physical space to a visual one. The red shift shows up on earth, too. Here’s what it looks like close to home.

Natural Intermontane Grassland Farwell Canyon

Except for the temporary introduction of a fence (no longer used), this land has not changed in 4000 years. 

This is just one of the grasslands in northwestern north america that claimed the old lake bottoms of giant lakes that formed at the end of the last period of glaciation, about 10,000 years ago. When the ice dams that formed the lakes broke, the water rapidly cut down through the lake bottoms, to produce terraced benchlands. The grass that thrives here, and the sagebrush that grows at the lower, hotter, and drier altitudes, are yellow and grey, like this…

Benchland Above the Chilcotin River

Note the pale straw colour of the blue-bunched wheat grass. These are the signature colours of the American West. 

The photograph below, however, shows what they look like today in the Okanagan, a few miles south, where weeds have largely overtaken the natural grasses:

Bella Vista Grassland Today

Notice the addition of stray alfalfa (green), russian thistle (brown), and, especially, cheat grass in full seed (red).

Now, this might not be the full red shift, which is an effect of the speed at which objects move towards or away from a viewer, but it might be this similar red shift. A red shift due to optics or radiation transfer … yes, that’s what painters and plants work with. When this land was colonized, in the period during which modern astronomical physics was also invented, it was the task of painters to observe the world and to create palettes of colours that could give name to it, so that its colours would be available to others, later. This form of painting lost the aesthetic battle to abstraction. Perhaps, though, it still retains value. Here’s another view …

The Red Shift

Our painters and designers are going to have to come up with a new palette of colours.

This is not just a story about colour, though. It’s also a story of change, movement, and expansion. As I said, I think it’s fascinating that it shows up not just in theories of the structure of deep space and the universe itself, but in the smallest details of local life. My gut says that these phenomena are connected, and that one can be understood in terms of the other. My gut also tells me that this …

Bluebird Box (click)

Such boxes are set out along trails to provide habitat for bluebirds, as a part of the process of ensuring the continued health of grasslands.

… is a sign that the landscape has been completely transformed. These boxes are over five years old. They have never been used. There are no bluebirds. There is just not enough grassland left for them. The world that was tan and blue, is now grey and red. It appears to be moving away from us at the speed of light. It is brand new. It has never been described. What stands before us is the great age of exploration.

Prickly Pear Cactus

And today we stop breathing. Once upon a time, there was a prickly pear cactus. It lived high up on a warm rock outcropping in a cold place, and was as happy as can be. In the spring, well, some springs, when conditions were just right, it bloomed. Here it is, blooming …

Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus Okanagan Landing

The flowers lasted for a few days, and then fell off, but while they lasted they were like finding the sun had settled like little birds at your feet. You just had to be careful not to step too close, because then you’d have prickly pear cactus climbing up your leg, and those things leave little sting holes that last for days.

Peering into the Flower

A good time to blush.

Some of the prickly pear’s flowers were yellow, some pink. And usually that would be that, but while people go about their business in the valley bottom and the grasslands are ignored, cheat grass has been moving into this dry environment and rooting in the small amounts of dust that collect underneath the cactus. In this situation, cheat grass acts as a sponge, trapping water right there where the rock should carry it away, and…

Slime Mold and a Cactus Duking it Out

Folks, this is not good.

Soil Atmosphere in Crisis

For thousands of years, farmers have been trying to keep the living earth at bay by stripping all plant life from their fields. Because of evaporation issues around the destruction of organic soil-air boundaries, most of those historic fields are salty and useless now, yet the process continues in this corn-on-the-cob field in Okanagan Landing…

The Poisonous Relationship Between Water, Soil and Heat

A privately-installed artwork for public consumption (really.) And what’s better than art that you can eat, eh?

This, however, is an agricultural installation with an eye on the future. Applause is deserved.

The Old and the New

Agricultural test plots in preparation for being wrapped in shadecloth, on old orchard ground heavily cropped for years by corn. Notice the compaction of the fine, non-organic lake bottom soils, and the scrubby crop of weeds. This dirt is unwell.

Given that if we can’t keep this soil alive, we’re eating out of petri dishes, I suggest that experiments in plant breeding, such as the one above, might be something too old, too late. The plants being tested here are not creatures of the soil but creatures of the air and the light: they root in air, they branch and leaf in air, their pollen is carried on the air, many of them release their seeds to the air, and up there in the air they eat the light. The soil is an environment for bacteria and fungus, which regenerate the soil atmosphere, so that the roots of the plants can breathe. To refresh a previous conversation along these lines, the oxygen in the soil comes from below the root zone of most plants, where organic material that has slowly fallen down through the soil is decomposed by bacteria.

The Irony of Weeds

The complete Mediterranean model for this form of agriculture included the pasturage of goats and sheep, which fed on wild land and brought organic material back to the soil in their faeces. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in its absence, the only thing that is keeping the precious subterranean atmosphere alive on this field is the cultivation of cheatgrass and stray weeds in the spring?

Seemingly, cultivated plants are only possible if they rise out of non-cultivated environments, or environments subsidized by wild material. At the moment, I suspect the system is limping along in the surface area of the soil, where oxygen levels fluctuate with the seasons, rising in the spring and dying in the fall when the ground freezes, while the deep atmosphere is becoming toxic. It is a seasonal process but not a sustainable one. Our universities should be studying this. The answers might be more important than global warming or improved processes for standardizing the production of wine in industrial laboratory environments. If our grape vines are setting roots down into dead air, what then? I’ve not found any studies on this yet. If I do, I’ll let you know.

Wild Grain

Today, these notes on a dry country inland from the Northeastern Shore of the Pacific Ocean have me in a working class city on a rainy island in the Atlantic off the coast of Europe, happily among the people who bought into the agricultural dream of my valley over a century ago. It’s the kind of place in which Empire comes home to stay. England is no longer written large across the face of the earth here, in the rubber plantations of Burma, for instance, in the tea plantations of Darjeeling, the coffee plantations of Nairobi, or even in the apricot plantations of my own Skaha Lake. Instead, it’s written in green hedged yards surrounding brick government housing and a statue of Cromwell, the revolutionary and subjugator of the Irish, standing tall outside a feudal estate belonging to his enemies, while women from former colonies sit at his feet and talk while their children play around them. It’s a place that revels in the elastic strengths of irony and wit.

Oliver Cromwell, Wythenshawe Park

An unusual photograph of the Okanagan, but one nonetheless! On a sunny day, the people of the Empire sit at his feet with their kids. Source.

Because of its long connection to England and the kind of Empire that Cromwell championed, the history of the Okanagan (currently under the administration of Canada) is bound up with this place. Because of its long connection to the English agricultural dream, and Cromwell’s puritan and republican ones, the history of the southern half of the valley, the Okanogan (currently under the administration of the United States of America), is bound up with this place. Here in the Okanagan, these traditions, the one that subdivided the land (New England) and the one that bought into it (English) meet and look, surprisingly, like this:

Cromwell in the Okanagan

Cheatgrass going to seed in late May. Bella Vista Road Ditch.

Ah, cheatgrass! Scourge of the West! Destroyer of the habitat of the sage grouse and the bitterroot! Evictor of the mariposa lily and the butterfly! Mother of Fire! You have much to answer for, but today let us sing your praises. You have brought all of history to this present moment, as a seed that we can plant. Today, we can learn from you and help you grow. Are not those of us who live in the ruins of Empire just weeds as you are? Are we not  proud, happy, and thriving weeds, as you, our sister, are? And, since you are here to stay, might you not be cultivated?

An Early Form of the Okanagan in Front of Manchester Cathedral

This photograph clear shows the “Pedestrian’s Friend” in the middle of a busy traffic street, in front of Manchester Cathedral before his evacuation to Wythenshawe Park to make way for a one way street.

Is cheatgrass really a one way street? It has destroyed the relationship between land and fire in the entire North American West, but now that climate change is altering that relationship even further, maybe it will prove to be a gift of a different kind. Here’s what I’m thinking: when European culture got its start back in the fields of Mesopotamia, wild grasses were domesticated and raised to support cities. For European culture, the primary grass among these is wheat, but if beer’s your thing, then it’s barley. In the Okanagan Okanogan, though, the dominant grass with the potential to create a new civilization is cheat grass. Its yields of seed are high — not so high as that of wheat, but, hey, unlike wheat it needs no weedkillers, no irrigation, no cultivation, and has no competitors or weeds of its own. I wonder what malted cheat grass beer would taste like? Or cheatgrass muffins?

Note: Just your friendly blogger off on a research trip to Europe to get some perspective on the social-agricultural dimensions of this project. For the next few weeks, expect posts moving between eco-agriculture in North America and its earlier versions in Europe. These researches will eventually form the historical foundation of the curriculum of the new educational movement, the Okanagan Institute, which this blog will transform itself into over the summer.