Cultural Blindness and Agricultural Practice

Culture is a powerful thing. Here is some earth, laid bare by a plow, in preparation for seeding in the spring. In the past, it has been used to grow tomatoes. This last year, it lay fallow, to recover.

In Canadian culture, this is an image of fruitfulness, taken at the most fruitful time of year. Enjoy it.

The only thing is, it’s not fruitful, it’s dead. Look at how this soil is nothing but congealed clay and sand. Living soil, that things grow in, is a complex environment of fungi, microbes, insects and dead and living plant material. This is just clay and sand.

And it started like this.

 

That’s how powerful culture is.

Girls Fun Day Out in the Okanagan Snow

Wanna have some fun in the snow? Well, if you’re human, sledding is great. Bit of a bumpy ride down, and watch for the cacti under the snow and broken off volcano bits and all that, but whee.p1460632

However, then there are the pros. Slalom …

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Loop-de-loops!p1460616

Graceful glides down through the powder at 16 Below. Bright sun. Nice.p1460617

You can ski alone.p1460621

Or in tandem.

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Or as a trio.

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It’s all in the stance, of course.

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That’s my amateurish man track to the right. I admit, it’s slow skiing. p1460743

But fun.p1460737

And beats the crowded conditions at the bottom of the hill.p1460694

Fast food joint, you know.p1460750

Boring. Better to hit the slopes with the girls.

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Yeah.

 

So, You Don’t Like Plastic Bags, Right?

Let me show you the problem with that. Here’s the hill.P1000621

Nice, huh. Voles till it. Gophers. Weasels from time to time. Coyotes. Yes, Coyotes. Rototillers of the West! Nothing to complain about. Keep those plastic bags away, right?

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You bet! Then comes the next step. Fence.

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If you wonder where the rain forests went, those are the ancient red cedars rich there. But the story of the plastic bag doesn’t stop there, no no. Then there’s tilling, aka “breaking ground.” See?

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You could plant some tomatoes there, right? Wrong!  The following image shows where you plant tomatoes:

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I mean, what’s the use of tomatoes ripening in September? People want them in July! In August! Yah! So, plastic heats up the soil and speeds that up, and the fertilizer gets spread through that water tube you see there. Very nice. And at the end of the season? Off to the dump with this stuff. You see, there’s no way around the plastic bag. Even if you put on your grandmother’s apron and cradle the tomatoes in that on the way home, the plastic has already been used, and it’s soon to be in the landfill, too. Late in the year? Well, as you can see, once the U-Pick, save the world from plastic home canners are gone, the farmer has his own rituals…

A couple weeks after pulling out all the plants and discarding the tomatoes, things are almost back to normal.

It’s not, you see, about a plastic bag. Meanwhile, on the edge of the farm, amidst the discarded plastic irrigation hoses of past years, life carries on …

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The lambs quarter weeds there (not the feathery cheatgrass in back or the forgetmenots up front) make better eating than spinach, but does anyone here? No. No plastic needed. Early season. Crop off long before the water dries up. Across the road, where the apple trees are torn out because the money is not in them? Same thing!

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Down the road a kilometre-and-a-half, where a replanting scheme (see yesterday and the day before) has gone all wrong, well, what do you know…

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No plastic bag. See that? That’s the way. But tomatoes in the Okanagan? I hardly think so. This is one of the prices we pay for the myth that it is hot here. Canada needs this myth. We need to stop talking about plastic bags.

Why British Columbia Needs To Extend Its Support for its Fruit Industry.

Nice farm, huh.P1010370 What are they growing?P1010371 Trouble and debt.P1010373Approximately 66,000 apple tree roots planted last spring and grafted late last summer. P1010380 Subsidized by the Ministry of Agriculture. The idea is to save money: plant the root, graft a desired bud onto it in early August, cut it off above the bud in March, and grow a tree. Trees cost about $10 wholesale if a nursery does this. Looking at the mess below, that might be a good idea.P1010381Thing is, this is the North Okanagan and late August is too late. A month too late. Grafting success should be between 94 and 99%.  We’re looking at, um, less than 1%.P1010393

Land: $1,400,000. 30 Acres. Government estimated costs, other than trees: $180,000. My estimates: roots (rootstocks, actually), $100,000; grafting, $20,000; grafting wood, $66,000. Total, estimated: $366,000, plus the land, for a big whack: $1,766,000. I might be a bit off on these figures, but even as educated guesses you can see that

that’s a hell of  lot of money gone down the drain.

Look below. You can see that the weeds have gotten out of hand. The trees whacked off below … (the graft on the third from the left is growing, but how can it compete with the weeds?) …

P1010396 … should all be two to four inches high. My apricot grafts from the summer are10 inches high. They start earlier than apples, though. My nectarine was slow, but they’re late. My apple trees (not babies like these) have grown 6 inches. We aim for that, but expect a delay. I grafted three apple trees on August 20, fearing it was too late, but I had a chance at some rare grafting wood, so nothing lost. They didn’t make it. That was a week before this grafting job (above) started. I feared the worst all winter long. Sadly, my fears came true. For healthy nursery growth, the rough measure is: 1 foot, by June 30, and 1 inch a day until the third week of August and perhaps into September in a warm year. The deal is: apples in the second year, with careful and expert growing. The deal is: weed the things by hand; we’re not fooling around here. Weedkiller (see above) doesn’t reduce competition; it only reduces tangles. This farmer is busy grafting a small portion of his 66,000 new trees this spring, at about $2 per tree, and is not getting to fertilizer, water, weeding, or anything else. I bet the pockets are pretty empty.It’s crisis time. The deal is, the government invests $2.50 into the trees, approves a paper plan and an expert inspection of the site and documents, and then lets the farmers go at it, because “they’re the experts and they know best.” I saw that quote in the fall, but can’t find it right now. It’s not an exact quote from the government, but it’s from a politician, and it’s close. There’s an answer to it, though:

No, they don’t.

The culture has been broken. (Yes, it’s not called agri – culture because it’s agri- business or something. It’s an ancient culture.) Today, knowledge is no longer passed on. Not specific knowledge like this. It’s not as if you can go to IT school and learn this stuff. You have to learn it from someone who has done it, for years. I learned it when I was ten, from Karl Mangold, and 12, from Joe (Sepp) Treidl, and when I was 22 from Hugh Dendy. I learned about early season grafting disasters in 1970, on the old Richter Ranch, which isn’t called, we learned that winter, Siberian Flats for nothing. We’re talking 48 years of knowledge in my hands. I went to the local college, warning that this was going to happen and it could be prevented. I was told that no courses can be offered unless industry demands them. That’s how the college does things, I was told: it provides specific training to workers that industry wants trained. Well, the thing is, and I’ll say it only once, we used to have a network of horticultural experts who made sure that this didn’t happen. Now we have none and now it does.

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But the rhetoric is very fine:

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick (October 15, 2015) –

“The B.C. treefruit industry asked for a long-term replant program and the B.C. government delivered it. The funding is available now and it provides employment and business opportunities for B.C. growers while ensuring British Columbians have access to fresh and local foods.”

BC Fruit Growers’ Association president Fred Steele –

“Replant is critical to the future of our industry as we need to produce high quality, new varieties of tree fruit to compete locally and to seize export opportunities. We appreciate the B.C. government’s early launch of the second year of the replant program and their investment in the renewal of B.C. orchards that is critical to the future of Okanagan tree fruit farms.”

It’s time to bring the horticulturalists back. Ted Swales, we need you, man. All you giants, gone to spirit. I remember you. I remember when this stuff worked.

 

The Great Tractor Show

In November, the poet Howard Brown and I are giving a show about tractors. He has the long poem. I have gallery walls. Somehow we’ll make this work. We’ve been taking photos. It has been haunting. Two farm boys at the end of the world of farming, suddenly seeing what we just saw before as work.P1410917 Here’s Howard, deep in thought and memory.P1410017So many guys out there, trying to find the shape of their bodies in time. There are no words for it… except for Howard’s maybe. Got any tractor stories? Any tractor photos? Send them along! Look at this old John Deere go, right in traffic!

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Amazing. Machines built on a human scale, as if they were tools. They were. Like I said, amazing.

 

Environmental Accounting & Poverty

In my last post, I spoke about the Old Norse concept of a tun, a farm yard constructed at the intersection of social and physical earths. I argued that tuns created the foundations of economies because they were places of creativity. Kind of like this saskatoon bush, really:

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Saskatoon on the Bella Vista Ridge

There are not many tall bushes on the grasslands, but each one is a centre for bird, animal and insect life, that comes to it from the grass and goes out to the grass from it again. They are places of commerce and energy exchange, far exceeding the energy they bring to the grasslands in the form of berries. Without saskatoons, there would be neither flickers nor magpies. They help move energy, without drawing it down. In fact, they increase it. That’s what a tun does, too. Rocks like this also act like tuns:

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Moss and Hoarfrost

Spring for sure! Well, for the cold-lovers, at any rate. By the time the heat comes, these mosses will be dormant. In the meantime, they remain as islands of environmental resilience, scattered through the grasslands and ready at any moment to seed it with cold-loving organisms, should the weather get permanently icy. Tuns are resilient like that. Unlike forms of investment based around capital, they react instantly to changes in the energy yield of a farm. That’s because they are locations of energy exchange, not locations of energy consumption.

I also suggested that creativity is not a human quality, but one created through the qualities of a space, including human reactions to it. I think that’s the main point: a tun brings forth creative energy along its own model, as do other basic technologies such as a string, a field, a barn, a highway, a city, a harbour, a town square, and so on. The whole discussion is here on my Icelandic blog. This week, I’ll be showing how this principle is active here in the grasslands of the Pacific Northwest, in both natural and created spaces. So let’s begin. First, a couple houses. The neighbours, you see, have been renovating.

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Magpie Nest in Black Hawthorn (red variant), Bella Vista

I met some walkers the other week who suggested that these were the ugliest nests in the world. “Not at all,” I answered, with my usual enthusiasm. “They have a door, and a roof, and are totally protected by thorns. These are most beautiful nests!” By the look on their faces, I think they thought I was stark raving mad.

Mad or not, I can spot a tun when I see one, and that hawthorn is one for sure. It is a place of doing (i.e. tun.) Oh, and up the hill, new neighbours are moving in.

house“Sagecroft at the Rise” Subdivision

This house will likely cost $650,000 once it is finished. It has a wooden chimney and a, well, like the magpie nest, a wooden everything, but that’s where the similarity stops. The magpie nest draws no energy from the natural system around it. The hawthorn still hawthorns, the rain still rains, the hawk still hawks, and the pheasant still pheasants.

P1060190Pheasant and Human (and dog)… at Cross Purposes

The new house on the hill is also a place of doing, especially for the six months during which it is being constructed out of ground-down mountain and chainsawed forest, except this doing is a subtraction from living systems. It is, I think, a clever means of turning $600,000 of environmental debt (carbon emissions, water acidification, water degradation, habitat loss in mountain, forest and grassland locations, and so on) into $600,000 of social debt, which, once paid (to humans, not to the earth) becomes wealth. The flow of this energy, from earth to tun to humans who create from it a social energy engine of wealth based upon debt, is the foundation of Canadian economy. The only thing is, the debt never gets paid. It’s a trick. Here, maybe this will show you what I mean. Here’s a particular piece of technology even older than a tun:

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A Field!

How romantic, eh!

This field has a human social value of approximately $1,000,000 (I know, I know, Canadian dollars, but, still, eh.) Now, watch carefully. First, a lush grassland, capable of producing tons of food annually on every hectare. If cared for, it can produce both a surplus for human use and support thousands of microbial species, a hundred bird species, dozens of mammal species (small and large), even more dozens of butterfly species (you won’t find them anywhere else), as well as easily a hundred species of grasses and succulent flowers, most edible, some medicinal and a very, very few ridiculously poisonous. To repeat, careful husbandry creates a living profit here: by improving the natural system, humans make it more productive, and live within that created, productive space. That’s the original model. Then comes colonization. The land is given to settlers, who immediately clear that entire living infrastructure off of it, creating a massive debt to the earth, but, and here’s the magic again, the clearing of the land counts as a human social “improvement”, as does a fence erected around it, like this:

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Does This Look Like an Improvement to You?

The fence, and the barrenness of the land (a few species of grass) are called improvements, because they represent the point at which the land has been made into a human artifact. Before that, it was deemed to be “unimproved” and nearly valueless. The “improvements”, such as the fence above, are written down against their capital cost until they have no value at all. After that, the land can be improved again, with a new fence (The post above is from one of these second generation improvements.), and the whole cycle of transforming human debt into wealth continues again. The only thing is, the economical calculations miss the actual source of the wealth here: life, drawn from the sun. The small amount of hay cut from this field has a debt to pay, not to bankers and investors, but to all the species, and all of their energy, that was written off to remove this land from natural production. That is not only an energy debt, but an ethical debt as well. One of the neighbours is dealing with it in his own way:

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Great Blue Heron Mouse Hunting

The obvious signs of written-down natural debt are the weeds, the ornamental trees that are turned into bonfire kindling, the abandoned fence, and the lousy state of the hayfield. A less obvious sign is the human cost: all of this represents debt that some man or woman is unable to pay or willing to take on in the hope that scarcity of “improved” land will result in a rise in land prices exceeding the rise in debt. This is what happens when a technology (in this case a field and a line that bounds it) that flow freely through a tun are converted to an economic system unconnected to the earth. It’s kind of like using an eggbeater to mow your lawn.

P1060104Heron in the Grass, Airport in the Heron’s Fishing Hole

What could be more clear?

The earth fixes problems with life and adaptation. Humans attempt to fix them by removing systems even further from life. Either that or in some way applying absolutely the wrong technology. For instance, weeds heal the soil by drawing up deep nutrients, and they’re alive, so they must be good, right? In fact, most citizens of the Okanagan are unaware that the brown grassland hills are actually brown weed hills. Does this matter? Yes. It’s like putting sugar in the gas tank of your car. Here, this is what I mean:

P1060207Chinese Elm Tree  Causing Global Warming

No, this is not a tree. It is, however, the leaves of an invasive chinese elm on a dirt roadway. In the absence of leaves, the roadway was reflecting sunlight and keeping the soil frozen in the winter, as it should be. Because of the leaves, that fall after the snow instead of before it, the leaves darken the snow surface, heat up the snow, melt it, and cause spring weeks before it should be here. This is murder on the natural economy. Literally. Snow, too, is wealth.

P1060211These Leaves Are Not Valuable Green Manure

They are in the process of changing the climate so that food plants will not grow wild here, and only a few crops, in fields, fed by expensive water piped down from the high country, will remain. That represents a human power relationship. It is not ethical.

If it were ethical, it might look a bit like this:

P1060189 Ring-Necked Pheasant and Human Tracks.

And the dog, too, of course. 

Pheasants are also an introduced species, but they fit into the natural system and enrich it. As the image above shows, they do this by going one way while the humans go another. At the moment, we’re crossing paths. It’s time to turn to the right, and follow the pheasants. And the heron, of course.

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The alternative is unpayable debt (which, by the way, is poverty.) This is poverty:

P1060150Harold! What on earth is that?

Thanks for asking! That’s two houses (improvements), a bunch of coastal junipers (improvements) and in back a grassland and sagebrush steppe in which all the plants are piled up to be burnt … and abandoned, for five years now, because the real estate development paying for the vineyard as a lure for increasing house prices (improvement) and causing more human debt (and, for other humans, wealth), went bankrupt. Well, duh. What did they think would happen if they piled the wealth of 3.5 billion years of increasing complexity onto a heap and burnt it?  And the cause of that? An accounting system. Look:

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Capitalism Doing Its Worst

The productive grassland at the top of the image has been “improved” by digging it up with a ridiculously expensive piece of equipment (a most admired improvement), which replaces human labour (this is called good business management), in order to plant a single species crop (this is called efficient agriculture), which is harvested, pressed and sold as a luxury product (wine, which is called a food), of which there is too much in the world already (which is called marketing). The market that matters is the one conducted with the earth and the living world.

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Fabric Dye priced out of the market by Big Oil.

We have been depreciated.

Writing and Farming Are One

Some thoughts on “writing” today, including my other love, “farming”, and another one, “art.” A smorgasbord, really! First a note: There are few writers left in the world (but many keyboarders), I know, but, still, with a little generosity for old paper-based technologies, writers write on paper (or keyboard onto screens) and farmers put up fences in fields and plow fields in long lines like epic verses … ah, you see? Writing. Here are one farmer’s animals in the Lagarfljót, Iceland, sitting within the boundaries of his pages… ahem … fields…

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Horse and Sheep in the Spring Sun

The horse appears to be pushing at the boundaries of his rhyme scheme.

If you exist physically in a physical world, then farms like this are surely an art form. The pages are written on the land, rather than in books, but they are pages, nonetheless. In the age of  Creative Writing Departments and, bless us, Literature, it’s not the way we who write “words” like to think of our art, but it’s honest. After all, many of our languages (including English and Icelandic) were invented by sheepherders and fishermen. When we speak, or write (or keyboard), it is their voices that echo through the fields … ahem,  pages … of our books (or screens) — in other words, through our farms. Here is one of a farmer’s writing implements …

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Horse-Drawn Hay Rake Put Out to Pasture…

… and ready to drive the earth up into the stars. So much for the Industrial Revolution. Why, once even typewriters like this were created in foundries and then set loose like horses into the folds, I mean fields, of the world.

I make light of this important idea, I know, but it’s only because I find it so delightful. Think, for example, of what writing echoes in this farmer’s language called English: one wrights metal (and stage plays), one spells words (and magic), one writes poems, one performs rites, one tells stories, and in the end what one has to show for one’s craft (and art) is what one has wrought, wrote, read, invoked, spelled and played. In other words, it’s like this:

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A Tangled Mess of Manure Spreader and Hay Rake

… somewhat forgotten over the hill (if you were wondering where that expression came from.)

There is, however, another form of art, indeed a language of its own, which has not wandered into such tight fields of electrified wire and driftwood fenceposts and old bits of barbed wire tufted with horse hair, that can help us wrights and spellers and invokers through our gates into the pastures of the high country, and that is the art of painting, and it’s industrial child, photography. In painting, one lays down colour and fills it in (as, indeed one does in music, as well), whereas in photography, one “takes” a picture — not in the sense of theft, but in the sense of “taking a temperature” or of something “taking place” — in other words, one is engaged in a moment of presence, one is present, one is there, or, rather, here …

horsecraterThree Icelandic Horses and Pseudo-Crater at Lake Myvatn, Iceland

From these artists, we wrights and readers can take a blessing: instead of placing ourselves in the roles of givers and receivers of human intentions (stories, poems, plays and even novels, if your taste wanders in that direction), we can take a poem, lay down words, and be present, through our attention, in the world. This is what our ancestors meant when they created our language. This is what they are still saying when we “use” it, or “speak” it.

klaustur20My Writing Desk at Skriðuklaustur, Iceland

It’s about the light.

A long time ago I was taught to write poems by the orchard trees I lived among. After twenty seven books about people and their stories, the light has found me again and, once again, is wrighting me, and I am glad.