The Spirit Whale of the Okanagan

Here’s what might sound at first like a fantastical story, but it does end with a deeply practical point. I hope you enjoy it! To start, look at the spirit whale of the Okanagan at the end of a winter day. The first people who came through here 12,000 years ago were ice-edge hunters from the ocean to the West. They would have known about whales moving through leads in the ice. The trees in the foreground would have been underwater then.p1480903

Look at the big fin of the whale’s tale to the south. That’s quite the whale.p1480921

Over time, she has risen from the water. The purple line below was the lake shore 12,000 years ago. The red one, 10,000 or so. The drop was rapid in each case.


As you might just be able to make out above, when the tide was in (so to speak), the whale’s tail would have had three heads. Its fin would have been hidden. Swinging to the left, her head would have looked like this:


She was underwater, that’s what she was. Her body was a canoe full of animals. That would have been intimate knowledge to oceanic ice-edge hunters, and common to a number of indigenous flood stories. Look below for a closer look of the prow. The whale’s head is just a tiny island, leading the way like a porpoise. In this image, the ancestral animals who are the cargo are more clear.


The image below shows the stern of the canoe again, as it would have appeared above the lake, blunt-nosed as we would expect, with two trails of froth. The stern itself is a clown’s head, a motif we see on hundreds of sacred rocks in the Pacific Northwest. Whatever the reasons are is a discussion for another day. For now, let’s just be present on this ancient shore.


There’s no way of knowing if people viewed the whale this way or not 12,000 years ago, but one thing is certain: over the course of half a day she lifted out of the water and left behind a lake in the shape of a snake. Two thousand years later, she did it again. Today, that snake is called, derisively, Ogopogo. With more respect, but in equally colonial terms, she is called a lake. That discrepancy between spiritual and European knowledge is worth keeping in mind, when assessing my story of the mountain that is a whale: whether they are indigenous or scientific, story-tellers bring their knowledge and see it reflected in conversation with the forms of the land. People who come from that land, however, see the spirit first.

p1480907As a man, if that’s what I am and not “tree walking” or something like that, what I see in the image above is my self. I can’t say I understand this, or do not. “Understanding” is the wrong concept to apply to that presence, and can only access deep threads of European knowledge and explanation. Like “lake” or “mountain”, however, such activity comes from somewhere else and does not describe the bond between my body, spirit and mind and those of the land. Even “land” is the wrong word for this stuff. I seem to be evolving past words. What’s next, I wonder.

Fire, Art, and Global Warming

Despite vital talk of global warming and increased carbon levels from burning, one thing remains certain and even more primary: the earth is a world of fire. The oxygen that plants separate from carbon dioxide makes sure of that. As creatures of this earth, humans participate in fire processes as well. It’s not really a choice. The forest fires of summer, brought on by electrical storms in the overheated atmosphere, are easy to celebrate for their power, but what of the earth’s other fires, ones perhaps more subtle, the fires of spring? They’re everywhere. Look.

Farmer Stripping Another Orchard from the Land

Turtle Bay, Glacial Lake Penticton

Fire is hard work, sometimes, and sometimes it is so a part of the land that it goes overlooked, such as here, farther west along the Glacial Lake Penticton shallows…

Arrow-leafed Balsam Root Bringing the Fire of the Sun Down to Earth

An indigenous eco-agricultural crop being plowed under to make room for a high-tech European one: apples.

It is exciting that in all this burning it remains possible to implement a social solution that would bring all these fires together, so that one man doesn’t need to feel compelled to feed his fires at the expense of those of another’s. There’s enough fire to go around. Perhaps the healing could take place right here…

Fire with Gas Tanks, Spray Shed, and Aluminum Ladder Leading into the Sky

Turtle Bay, Glacial Lake Penticton

That was once an orchard that saw a Japanese family out of the post World War II internment camps. Now it’s a shrine. Maybe it’s time to return the shrine back to its task of healing social wounds instead of reopening old ones just down the road. Perhaps that is also a vital form of respect.

Arrow-Leafed Balsam Root in Jail

For 4,000 years the ancestors of these two plants supported the people here. That’s a lot longer than 80 years of apple growing.

Ah, but contemporary culture is so great at recognizing human social fires. Since the society of the future is about the earth, however, let’s celebrate, just for a moment, the fact that these social fires are intimately connected with the planet on which humans live — and interact with it physically. Such as here…

The Earth Burning Up into Weeds in the Sun

Oh, just a little jump-the-road encroachment from a 1970s-era orchard subdivision onto the balsam root gardens above, nothing more.

Isn’t that cool? Social acts are physical ones, expressing the fire nature of the earth. If you doubt it, perhaps all this snooping around in the ghost waters of a long-vanished lake is dulling the edge of the fire. To rekindle it, let’s go east, to the edge of the Monashees, on the old Syilx summer village site and gambling grounds under the mountain the people called Coyote Sleeping…

A Wild Crafter’s Garden

Clay pot in a slow burn, bringing the fire close to home.

There is a secret that painters have known for a long, long time: colour is a language that can be used to make deep sense of the world, creating instant understandings that would otherwise take huge investments of words that would, no doubt, in the nature of conversations, stray along the way. In this time of learning to speak as the earth, we need the use of as many languages as we can get. Here’s a fire I made the other night in my dining room…

Tomatoes on Fire

Red tomato slice, hollowed out, surrounded by its chopped core mixed with thyme and deveined pink grapefruit, and filled with halved yellow cherry tomatoes marinated lightly in balsamic vinegar. Parsley for colour. Olive oil for sweet balance. 

Yet another language! And it doesn’t even contravene fire regulations!

We are fire creatures. Eliminating fire on earth in the name of global warming is a diminishment of possibility. Eliminating the needless, greedy fires that have created global warming in the first place is a different matter. As for evidence, I offer two more small pieces of evidence. First, an image of fire, destruction, and renewal…

One More Red Delicious Orchard Bites the Dust

And the whole world cheers. This orchard outside of Wenatchee, Washington is slated for replanting. What, you actually like Red Delicious? The cardboard, Vietnam-era apple?

Here, on the other hand, is what happens when fire is suppressed and the earth takes matters into its own hands, so to speak…

Dead Grasslands, West Side of Okanagan Lake…

and a fire that’s going to grow so hot when it inevitably comes to take these weeds away that instead of rushing through the grass and renewing the balsam root, lilies, and wild parsley that can sustain a people it will turn everything to ash and bake the soil back to the stone age, which is pretty much a perfect expression of what this denial of the social nature of fire a century ago did to the earth in these parts in the first place.

Fire is not the problem. The lack of understanding of the social nature of fire is. Right now, the text of that understanding is written in highways. As the fire creatures that they are, humans use them as sites for burning fossil fuels. If that were the only language on earth, if the earth wasn’t rich with languages that allow us to modulate their social environments just by looking out the window and seeing how the grass is doing as it blows in the wind, we would be living in fire poverty. Our own fires would go out as we returned the earth to a physical state that it had long before the conditions were right for our own complex, slow-burning, human fires.

That would be suicidal.