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.



Betraying the Earth

Good intentions are not enough. Contemporary systems of governmental organization and the structures that support them ensure that principles of conservation can become something else entirely. The Government of Canada is currently in the process, for example, of side-stepping its own environmental-protection legislation by the simple device of declaring lakes of use to mining companies to be mine effluent ponds, and not lakes. Under that definition, no environmental standards are at play. You can read the full article here. This kind of thing shows up in our valley, too. The image below shows a new stretch of highway, designed to make traffic flow more rapidly through the valley. It has been in operation for a year. Notice that a large amount of input on habitat restoration and protection has resulted in laying (no doubt at great expense) dead fir trees on the crushed rock of the infill slope, as habitat for insects, birds, seeds, and, hey, maybe porcupines and bears. But, look at it in comparison to the slope above. It’s not habitat for anything except for dead trees. A serious attempt at maintaining environmental integrity would not have separated one side of the hill from another, or would, at the very least, have planted oregon grape, sumac, saskatoon, choke cherry, douglas fir, mock orange, rocky mountain maple, poison ivy, wild clematis, blue-bunched wheatgrass, prickly pear cactus, and whatever else is growing on that slope, but, no. A few dead trees and the rest is supposed to follow. In the end, the trees are an expensive art installation, but that’s about it.

P1530091Highway 97

Lake Country, British Columbia

There is a point at which an ideological system takes more effort to maintain than the benefit gained from it. Sadly, we crossed that barrier long ago.


A Damselfly in the Wilderness

I live in Oregon Territory. My part is owned by the Government of Canada now, but it  started here, in the musings of an American in his last hours. His name was Henry David Thoreau.

The sun sets on some retired meadow, where no house is visible, with all the glory and splendor that it lavishes on cities, and perchance as it has never set before–where there is but a solitary marsh hawk to have his wings gilded by it, or only a musquash looks out from his cabin, and there is some little black-veined brook in the midst of the marsh, just beginning to meander, winding slowly round a decaying stump. We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening.


So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.


Henry David Thoreau, Walking, 1862.


Sounds like this wilderness is a pretty beautiful place! There’s only one snag: it was recently cleared of its Indigenous peoples; the wilderness that Thoreau sees to the west of New England, and which the United States will soon populate, is a created object. Thoreau treats it as a refreshment for inbred intellects and a place for re-creating wild life within humans — which he identifies as “Indian” life. What Thoreau doesn’t mention, and likely didn’t know, is that it had to be achieved by killing those “Indians”, because they were in the way of this life-giving wildness. Ironically, they are to be honoured by creating wildness within American souls. And so we get this …


Vernon Rowing and Paddling Centre, Swan Lake

Settler culture re-creation on the shores of a Syilx food lake.

That is the point of North American history. It comes down to that image. For a time, there were dreams of growing food and healthy children on this earth, but, well, a look around the paddling centre (a former farm) will show you just how temporary that idea was …


… and a closer look will show you something amazing…

damselsnailbDamselfly in the Invasive Weeds

Still making a go of it after all these years; still turning the sun into pure spirit; still moving it around.

The earth just doesn’t give up! In contemporary Okanagan culture, the rowers, the weeds and the damselfly live in the same relationship to agriculture and its attempts to find a language halfway between local and distant cultures. They have all gone wild. The only difference between them is that the damselfly has moved from non-wild Syilx earth into wild Syilx-less earth, while the others have moved the other way. It’s the only one not looking for wildness, because it’s the only one already in it. In other words, the wildness was never in Syilx territory. It was in Thoreau’s head, and in those of his countrymen. all along. When you row on Swan Lake today, you are rowing in Thoreau’s head, laid as a map over the water and the land. Beautiful, eh!

Next: Wildness Moving Back to the City; culture and respect moving back to the land.




Bringing Life to the Political Table

Politicians represent humans and the workings of their societies. I believe that is just not good enough. For instance…

P1600064Not Represented by Politics

In a political process that is skewed towards dealing with human society separate from the greater society of which it is a part, many citizens of society have no voice. This yellow-bellied marmot, for instance, freshly up for his four months of sun. Did his appearance appear in the local newspaper? No it did not. There isn’t even a reporter covering the marmot beat. No articles on the quality of the balsam root crop this year. Nada.

One assumption behind the culture that creates human-centred political philosophies is that life will take care of itself — it’s a kind of an accidental thing that evolves and changes and adapts through a mysterious process called “wildness”. Well, when you live on a piece of land and it is your identity, there is no wildness You can only get to such a place if you assume that it is there for human use, and as soon as you assume that, you are not there. Behind that assumption is the one that humans and life are somehow different. Behind that is a notion about specialness and God (Adam and Eve munched the apple and then were kicked out of the garden.) God must be miffed to be so misunderstood. The garden is still here! Here God is, saying “deer”, and lo a deer walks across the grass, but politicians hear only “resource”. Anything else is for children. Sentimental, you know.


Half-Starved Doe

Denied a viable life by human predation on her food, shelter and travel needs, this is one half-starved critter with a nasty-looking sore on her other cheek. Locally, this is known as a “problem deer”. The suggestion is “removal.” Another word for that is “death.” Another is “no room on the planet for you.”

Here’s an idea: if it’s for children, it’s probably about right. If that doesn’t seem right, it means you left the garden and are looking for a canister of weedkiller and some rodent bait. That means you are the problem. Politicians, for example, propose ensuring the health and sustainability of the human societies they see as their business. Around here, the different ways of doing this are strangely reduced to a choice between “the economy”, which means building roads and buildings and green space, like this …


Multi-Million dollar Plan to create 4 blocks of Green Space With a Road…

… where there was a road before.This is “economy.” Vernon

… or through a thing called sustainable resource use, which is like saying, “We’re going to look after the earth…for people.” What, are we slave owners? After 17 months working on this project and paying attention, as best I can, to the land around me, I have learned a different road. Take a look …


No, not the arrow-leaved balsam root, or the last clumps of bunchgrass sheltering beside it, or the sagebrush, but the pile of old trees. Some kid came up from the orchards long ago and built himself a fort out of grassland trees. That’s a resource. You use it, it fills a purpose, and then you’re done. Meanwhile the ants, termites, birds and bees that lived in those trees are… gone.

The earth is not a resource. To say it is one is like saying that your mother is a resource, or your child, or the blood in your veins, or the spinach you planted in August  (the stuff that overwintered under the snow for four months, and now, mid-May has made a spinach pie for eight, out of 6 spinach seeds (6!) — which is what I served here last night), is a resource. No, it is not a resource. It is life. If it were a resource, it would be so to something that is not-life. Is that you? Not-life?


Skeleton Weeds Given the Heave-Ho

If you’re not in favour of public intervention in the grasslands, if you consider it wild and consider that it will look after itself, or that the budget must wait because a new sports field in town has a 5 million dollar priority, then you’re in favour of the replacement of the grasslands by this noxious weed, brand new here and waiting for no political discussions.. If we don’t stop this evil of human neglect and carelessness now, the entire valley will be wiped out of half of its life within a couple decades. Next year is too late. My year-to-date: 2000 plants removed. That is 20,000,000 viable seeds removed from the wind. You want to know what evil looks like? It is this.

So, let’s have a look at something else popular with Green politics: “The Environment”. Have you ever seen an environment? Let’s look. Is this an environment?


Balsam Root and the Earth’s Deep Mantle Blasted to Make a Subdivision

Not an environment. Life the whole way. And some reshaping of the living earth to fit automobiles (non-life).

OK, is this an environment?

P1600516Arrow-Leaved Balsam Root Gone to Seed

Hardly an environment. Many insects live on and around and off of this plant, but that doesn’t make it an environment. It means that, together, the insects, the plant, the air, the soil, the microbes in the soil, the sun, the snow, the marmots, the deer and the rain are life. Life, lives all at once. A lot of it is living off of those balsam root seeds. To illustrate that, take a look at that image of the balsam root and the ruined “tree” fort that opened this blog, but two weeks later …


Balsam Root Seeds, All Gone

The deer have been by.

The seeds are hard to gather and shell, and once you’ve done so you have a lot of work for very little… if you’re a human. That might be worth it, but the deer do it easily. They just digest the whole flower head. There’s a point in there about wildness. In contemporary thinking, that deer is wild. In earth thinking, that deer is a person — as are cattle, politicians, and grocery stores. It means that it needs a voice in politics. Since it can’t speak for itself, we must speak for it. It doesn’t mean it cannot be used for food, especially since it is such an efficient and gentle harvester of wild sunflowers, but it might mean that it can no longer be harvested for sport, because it is us. Any use of deer for food is a sacred responsibility, that starts with looking after the earth as if it were our mother and our child. Any politics that talks about resources will fail. There are no resources. There is life, and there is death. There are only our sisters and our brothers. Some of them serve a role as food, but they still have a place at the table, on their terms, not ours. Oh, and as for the Garden of Eden?

P1610744After a Morning Rain

God didn’t kick us out. All he did was give a choice: live in the garden or live in the weeds. He was kind of hoping, though, that we’d choose the garden. Every morning we are presented with this choice anew.

Up to this point, politicians have largely been the kind of people who choose weeds. I’m not kidding. I found three election signs today, all hammered into the northern flanking motion of hawk skeleton weed in the valley, the number one threat to the long-term viability of the Okanagan Valley. It makes almost every other species here an endangered species — and not in some unforeseeable future. Obviously, the people working for these politicians did not know that there is evil, or that it must be dealt with now, not with talk or pounding in signs, but by doing the real work. In my speechlessness, I offer red arrows to show where the largest of the weeds (769 individuals in total) are …

P1610841 So much for the social democrats. And …P1610837… so much for the Neo-Conservatives, and …

P1610843… so much for the other Neo-Conservatives. As for the Green Party, our most enthusiastic candidate from a city far away urges us to build an economy out of local food processing. That’s a good start. It will do amazing things for human social infrastructures. It still doesn’t subordinate humans to life, though, or bring life to the political table. When that party does that, then the economics of the other parties will become as foreign as the skeleton weed is now. I don’t want humans to continue to be that weed, or to continue to vote for it. Yes, vote for it. The state of the land is a direct representation of the state of our politics. That hurts, but sometimes it’s good to stare the truth in the face and then to start in on the real work, with renewed vigour.

Idle No More

The Idle No More movement has my full support. Incredibly enough, the Prime Minister of Canada and his Indian Affairs Minister, both tasked with the care of the Queen’s subjects and her lands, hold a different point of view. Maybe they don’t understand history. The Prime Minister of the English Queen’s Canadian dominion, for instance, claims to be a Christian man. How he reconciles that with his intensive militarization of Canada and a rewriting of Canada’s history to align it with the views of its military and royalist elites, I have no idea. I doubt that he has ever been to the site below, because it has been so forgotten it’s not even on the map…

siebenkopf The Base of the Phallus of Siebenfelsen, Yach, Black Forest

When the Germans moved into this valley on the edge of the Roman fortified border, the celts moved up into the hills. Things stayed like that for a long time, until the celts were eventually assimilated. This is the bottom skull from the pile of stone skulls which makes the phallus of the large, multi-figured temple site at Siebenfelsen. At first glance, it looks like a random pile of stones. It bears a message, though: we stand on the graves of our ancestors. It bears an alternate message, for those who can hear: we are all Indigenous. To people worshipping other gods, even the Christian God, this kind of material would have seemed demonic. We can move on and look at it clearly now.

The ongoing relationship between Christians and Celts eventually was resolved. In one way, the old Celtic worship of life spring from the dead and of vines bearing fruit into the sky, became the German wine industry…


Crows Resting During the Morning Vineyard Snail Feast Kaiserstuhl, Germany

A bit of German technical brouhaha added to a bit of Catholic symbolism added to a bit of roman ingenuity added to a bit of celtic worship of the wild vines on these hills, and you have Riesling spätlese mit prädikat in a tall brown bottle spattered with sparkly labels even a crow would love.

In another way, Christianity took over the forms of worship of the ancient world…


Icon of Christ, Görlitz, Lower Silesia

My family’s homeland is in the coal fields of Silesia. It was the Golan Heights of its day. In the 1920s, African soldiers of the French Foreign Legion rode through the streets on horseback and attempted to keep the peace between the Poles and the Germans with horsewhips. This stupid behaviour led to a brutal war and the death of Silesia as a homeland. This Icon could only come from Silesia, where East met West: a Russian Orthodox art form, made out of Silesian coal, representing Christ in the place of his mother, learning from God to offer Catholic bread and wine, created out of the ancient, pre-Christian religious symbols of Eleusis. The devotion with which an article like this was carved out of coal was the main point of the art form, and is devoutly non-Catholic, as was its message of rebirth. I include it here because it shows how traditions blend. That is, at best, the way of peace, not of war.

In the collapsed economy of post-war Silesia, in which communists and nazis fought it out daily in street battles, my grandfather, Bruno Leipe, with his name on a Nazi death list, decided it was time to join a commune in Canada. In keeping with German communism, it was a very religious affair, just given a new, non-Christian and non-communist form…


Bruno and Martha Leipe and an Unknown Man

Sharecropping for the Casorsos in South Kelowna, 1929. The best model for this situation was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This, however, was not California. When the economy collapsed, Casorso wrote off their bill at the company store so that they would have the money to keep going. Importantly in this, the Casorso family had been working these fields since they followed Father Pandosy three generations before. Here we see Bruno and Martha and a part of their tomato crop. I think it would be safe to say that Bruno and Martha entered the message of that Silesian icon above, in a manner that maintains the celtic-German and polish-German cultural unions that lay behind it. They show that even on this continent that degree of accommodation was humanly possible — even if broken by financial speculation in distant centres.

This tradition of unification continued, with the agricultural development of the entire Canadian Okanagan, and large parts of the American Okanogan as well. European crops were planted on native land, and in the industrial metaphor of the time created both orchards, a culture, and food. One of the last surviving orchards from that time looks like this…


Royal Gala Apple Orchard at Winter Solstice, Bella Vista

Despite the industrialization here, something of a worship of the land, and of human resurrection through it, remains. Currently, for example, this orchard is farmed by a Sikh family, who have brought to it their own dreams of land and the wealth, both social, spiritual and economic, that can be created by working with it.

And then something happened. Specifically, Canada became an urban nation, recolonizing its land from central urban engines, at the same time at which Indigenous peoples, long shut out of industrial agriculture and its largely Christian metaphors and long victims of a policy of cultural genocide that was its mirror (and was even run by the Church), began to find their voice. The results are a tangle of competing values, written like protest slogans on the land itself…

P1330685 Snya¿stán Centre, West Kelowna

This is the land of the Westbank First Nation, set aside as a fishing and hunting site and now rented out on long term leases for wineries, strip malls, boxstore malls, hotels, restaurants, and vast retirement villas decorated to look like a piece of Toronto. The Indigenous root of this aesthetic is not the land so much as the annual ceremonies of gambling and aesthetics by which North American peoples once settled their affairs.

The Canadian Prime Minister and some (only some) Indian Bands would love to see more of this: Indian Reserves turned into urban corporations, leasing land to ease the land-ownership pressures of the Canadian economy. It contains contradictions. For one thing, those pressures need to be politically addressed, rather than just given escape valves at the expense of the land. For another, here at Okanagan Falls … P1330678 Syilx Statue, Christie Memorial, Skaha Lake

… a Syilx man celebrates the return of the salmon (held back still by the dam just out of sight in background left of the photograph), while White culture celebrates the sun by lying in it half naked.

Even if both cultural groups, Syilx and White, were to get what they want out of this political compromise, they would remain distinct cultural groups, even more separated than were the celts and Germans of the Black Forest long ago. Those groups had the land in common, and a common Roman enemy (which, nonetheless, they eventually assimilated). What contemporary groups have in common is a concept of contemporary politics, centred in urban images, and extended into the land, using the land to support its own purposes. That might sound workable, but this is what it looks like:P1160919

The Rise

Two thousand acres of the last grasslands in the Okanagan, at the mouth of a sacred Syilx valley, on land disputed still in the Land Claims process, in danger of being completely overrun by weeds because the Ministry of the Environment has seen 96% of its capacity gutted since 1990, dynamited and bulldozed into building lots, most empty, on a pyramid scheme of ever-increasing housing values, purchased by oil people from Edmonton as short-term investments, not in land but in social and economic relationships, bankrupted by the American Housing Crisis, and now 75% empty. No one lives here, and the land has been removed from the people forever. The honesty of this picture allows for a reconsideration of all of the history of Canadian occupation of this place: even though Bruno and Martha and Casorso and Pandosy before them moved into their images of paradise and gave their bodies to them, completely, there was within that an unstated destruction of other relationships to the land in favour of using the land to represent contemporary economic pressures. What gets passed on to our children in this fashion is as much those economic relationships as the spiritual ones, and so the human story narrows, rather than expands.

The land has become a resource, to be developed into a mirror for economic relationships to central areas of power. It does, of course, still contain within it lesser threads of power, with connections to the earth, natural forces, and deep spiritual connections, but history has shown that the ones that have triumphed under Canadian administration are those that destroy the earth and rewrite it as an urban space. There is great beauty and strength in urban spaces, but to recreate the whole earth in their model is asking for trouble, at worst, and a terrific gamble at best. Even the Syilx of West Kelowna are playing that game now and the Queen’s Prime Minister wants that economic success to be written across the rest of the earth under his dominion as well. In this context, a context of redefining Indigenous relationships to the earth and society within the context of a political system based on private land ownership and the transformation of land into a mineable resource in the construction of a virtual rather than a physical country, the Idle No More movement has to somehow find its way. That is a daunting task. For the moment …


… the locals are able to sift through the empty houses on the hills, through a network of empty lots and narrow riparian corridors, but there has been talk of late of shooting them all, because they won’t move out of the way when elderly people go out to walk their lap dogs. I have deep respect for elderly people, their dogs and their relationships, especially when they choose to be a part of this land. If we’re not all on a road to becoming Indigenous, we are on a road of destroying the earth, no matter how we mask that with fancy words. Canada may have once been a beacon of hope in the world. Now it is a chain of twenty cities redefining the earth in their own image and freezing that land within images of somewhat dysfunctional contemporary political structures. In that context, for me, Idle No More means that when the choice has to be made I will stand on the side of the earth, and other people who stand with Her, every time. It also means that I will look at history in its fullest scope, rather than how it looks this week.

The Ethics of Nature Photography

Humanly created machines are great at capturing light and holding it tight for another day. It’s not so special, though. Everybody in the neighbourhood is into it. The juniper people, for instance …

Gingko Leaf and Juniper

Unlike the gingko, whose light ranchings days above these junipers are done until the spring, the junipers remain all saddled up outside the light corral but sleeping with their hats tipped over their eyes. They’ll start munching on light again when things warm up and the ginko will put out new leaves to join in the feast.

Even though light scarcely filters through the winter cloud these days, it’s still all here, a whole summer of it. Photosynthesis is one way to take photographs of light, but the seasons affect different light eaters differentlyHere’s a moving picture of light that can be viewed instantly…

Staghorn Sumac

All summer long, the sumacs have trickled away the energy of the sun and reconstituted it in elaborate photographs we call fruit clusters, which they hold up to the sky. Eat that, James Cameron.

Another way to capture light and store it is to make photographs, as I have done to present these moments to you. And what is a photograph but a way of mechanizing the touch of light photons to the human retina — a kind of photography, for sure, that is caught in memory and out of which humans construct a visible world, that they then walk through. Some of our brothers and sisters use the process more holistically. Instead of using the intersection of light and water to create thought worlds, as humans do, they represent it with their bodies.

Moss Photograph of the Sun

This isn’t digital photography, mind you, nor even film or daguerrotypes. It does, however, develop— very, very slowly. 

Such light photographs as the moss makes on the above rock can be viewed two ways: as the present moment, which follows the future-trending progress of time as the moss grows, or as a future photograph which is viewed, in the present, in a half-developed form. The latter idea fascinates me. If I were, for example, to destroy this moss photograph by overturning its rock host in the first world, the one of conventional time growing into the future, that would be that. Time would move on, undamaged, without it. If I were to do so (God forbid) in the second view of time, the one in which the photograph is not yet fully developed, I would be destroying the completeness of the earth and myself, and preventing the story from reaching its full depth. I would be locked as a biological stranger in an impoverished present.

Northern Flicker Late in the Day

The photo is a bit weird because I had to muck around with the exposure, as my little time-compressing, mechanical-brain camera machine was not calibrated to deal with so much sky so late in the day and originally turned the flicker black as coal. Unfortunately, as a result it caught only part of the light, and so left everything looking a bit like an ice cream bar advertisement that spent too many summers sitting in a corner store window.

In the image above, a flicker, a biological life form, is adapting well to an earth narrative that long ago sacrificed the future development of the Peace River to produce its own technology. The rivers’s future development as part of the chain of light developing on this planet has been altered by this intervention. What is done to the Earth is only neutral if the present is considered to be the real focus of time. That’s quite the human bias. In fact, to think like that, a human has to separate herself or himself from the world — powerful technology, for sure, but one that might not lead to the survival of biological earth.

High Density Apple Orchard Viewed from Above

Life as a machine.

And what is a machine? It is the human will, set above the will of the Earth. There’s no way we’re going to have a healthy environment unless these machines are set to work more closely with life’s development. Time had to be stopped to produce this image called an orchard. The expectation is that it will develop further within human social networks, when the light pictures it makes, apples, are eaten by humans. If such herding of time is going to have any ethical meaning, then the social networks need, ultimately, to develop within contact with the earth, the water, and the sun. Anything else is a fantasy.