A Summer Home for the Family, On Earth and in the Sky

Here we are in a community garden in Stein am Rhein, Switzerland, an old roman fortress, and before that a 4000-year-old settlement where Lake Constance becomes the Rhine.

A shaded picnic bench for the parents, in the middle of the garden, and a magpie nest for the kids, up in the sky, where they like it.

Rome, and the old sub-alpine culture might be gone, but its shadow can be very fiine!

Okanagan Spring Colours

Rose, dogwood and grass have recorded the winter sun and now, as that sun gives over to a spring one, release that knowledge. With this wisdom of grey, red and yellow the year begins.p1500354

Softly.

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Okanagan colours are always soft, as they shine through a nearly waterless sky, in a valley that focusses the sun as a lens. It is a pleasure to experience two seasons at once.

The Land Speaks and We Listen

When the land presses energy out, it makes a trail. Water can follow that trail, or that trail can be picked up by shrubs and lifted to the air, as in the image below.
p1480103This old principle of the earth is called Dicht, or thickening. It is the earth’s way of distilling energy into form, as it does with the saskatoon bush below.
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It does the same with these mule deer does.p1480468

In their case, because they have great agility of movement and great endurance and strength, the Dichtung (thickening) that the land does to create them is very complex. Still, it is understandable. They are at this distance, because it is as far as they wish to go to be safe, given that this is the sunny slope and the snow is difficult everywhere else. They are on the ridge line, so they can watch both ways, with their escape route open. p1480469

I mean, why go to that shadier snow to the north?p1480436 These does are, in other words, following the same pressure of the land’s forms as creeks, ponds, and bushes do, and the fact that I found them here, by chance, is because I was following the same flows. What’s more, these flows are mapped out across the land by these does.p1480439

As anyone who knows this land of volcanic outcrops and sagebrush knows: if you don’t follow the deer trails, you’ll be retracing your steps. Follow the trail.

p1480238 But it works both ways. Here are the does fifteen minutes later. I’m far below by this time, looking back up the hill. You can see them grazing in a tight group, far tighter than when I first found them. This is the group they made in a defensive posture from me, in a position determined by my presence. It will slowly open out and shift across the grass.p1480521

And don’t think they aren’t still watching. Or that I’m not watching, too.
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We are all flowing together. None of us are flowing in any direction not given to us by the land. Well, the land and the sun.

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Shine on.

And Yet People Complain About Winter. Huh.

Why?p1450117

Isn’t it beautiful?

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Maybe they should leave the north and go home. I feel so sorry for them. They have to endure this:

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And this:

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It must be very hard. I know, for my part, it would be hard, very hard, to endure a winter that was not at 20 Below Celsius, at least one night. And in this January moon we had a week. Oh, glory!

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But, seriously, I have to listen to these complaints on the national broadcasting system of the country that I was born to and must pay allegiance to, to live here? Really? That’s shameful. Well, time to go for a walk and forgive.

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I am, after all, on this earth, to learn humility. Sometimes it’s easy.

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Sometimes it’s hard.

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Against the Descending Night, A Prayer in the Rushes

I am not angry.p1470038

I am sad.

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My elders taught me that these were cat tails. They taught me that poetry was a fairy tale.p1470033

They taught me that these were swamp weeds. They taught me that words expressed thoughts.

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I learned later that these rushes were the winter food of snow geese, who summer in Siberia, when it is like our winters here in this fjord lake valley. But that was not enough.

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I learned later that the people who are this land that has brought me to the sky built their houses out of these reeds. Why did no one tell me this? Why were they separating me from my body like that? I am nothing but this body. These rushes are my thoughts. I am them walking.  It was not enough.p1470051

I learned later that I have ancestors, far older than my elders. To them, these were not plants. There were no plants in their world. There was the sound of wind rattling the stems, calling them. It is all that I am.

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It has not been enough. There is only the world of men, I was taught forty years ago. If you do not accept their way of speaking, and I promise you I was instructed in this, then you are an outlaw and can expect the laws to be used to suppress you. I am not speaking in metaphor. This was the point of philosophy forty years ago. Men wanted to build a world that consisted only of a social network.

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And they did do that, but not for those of us who are the world, who are a rush brushing against a breast with the sound of geese leaving to overwinter on the seas of the moon. As if that were up in the sky, and not right here.

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As I grew through adulthood into middle age and then past it and became a last remnant of a lost earth, under stars most men and women have never seen, younger people began to correct me.

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They had learned well. They were very helpful. They told me that this was a wetland. Not the moon. I do not think that they were trying to kill me, the poet, the man of the rushes, but the effect was the same.

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I am not angry.p1470014

The people who lived in books told me that my ancestors were simple people, who read themselves into the land, but “we” understood reality now.p1470054

They told me that what you see in these images weren’t the sound of the cold calling through the sun and the sun answering. They told me about reality. I think they thought I knew what this stuff was. But I am not sure.p1460999

In return they were very helpful. They told me that my languages, English and German, were not languages of the world but were very useful systems of social codes and abstractions.p1470015

They were even more helpful. They told me that mathematics was true, that cold-hardened steel was true, but that spirit was not one thing or another and so not “true” because it could not be cold or hardened.

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They told me that Beauty was not a measuring device for the presence of life in a land and its people, or in a people and its land (if it’s useful to say one thing twice) but a pleasurable response designed by a force called evolution to create babies, which, to reason, which they understood, was a clever product of randomness and an elegant expression of it.

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In their world, there were no men of the rushes. But there were reasonable things.

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Where they saw wetlands, that could clean water for their cities of asphalt, steel, concrete and glass, I saw bows, arched, and water fields, and arched with them, and was arched, but it did not matter.p1410980

I did not see grazing grounds, or a lump of rock circling the earth, and that was that. They told me they did. Sometimes I suspected that they were looking at words, but I didn’t know that for sure. They did say that what I saw was “poetry,” though.p1410981

I saw the sky. I knew that much. Written in the earth.p1410989

I saw the geese were the moon flying. Written in me.p1410986

Who could I speak to of this? I live in a country in which such talk is called romance. It is not a complement. It is something to be corrected. It is also called poetry in this country. It is something to be corrected.

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There are people in this country who are called people in authority: professors, city planners, property developers; it is all the same. They come from other countries to this one. They correct me. They don’t say, “We call this a wetland.” They say it is one. When I say, your city is in the middle of my valley, and I wish it would go away, they are shocked at what they call my naiveté. I think they think I live in books, but I’m not sure.p1420291

They use the word ‘we’. I don’t. I’m sorry about that. It has caused confusion.p1420292

We the rushes, I should have said, and not cared that they don’t think they have a language for the earth that accepts its personhood. I should have said, we the children of the moon, meaning the eye of a bird in the night, and if they insisted on a stone then a stone thrown into a pool, rippling.p1420293

I kept silent. I am sorry about that.

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I did not know myself. I was deferent, as I learned from the water and the land, bending with the wind and the rain.p1420043

It’s not that I didn’t feel the energy within this body and world I am. It’s not that the rushes didn’t hold the answers to every question in the world. It did not matter.p1470001

I was well trained, and believed them when they said these things were all separate, and only the seeing of them had form, and this seeing was less than theirs and was called “poetry,” which I didn’t feel they liked much.

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I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. I, of course, wanted to live among them. Some of them I even loved. Some I still do, more than myself.p1470009

Some of them, though, told me that the stuff in the image below (for example) was Nature. They told me about the seriousness of literary committees, and that there was one way of doing things, and it could be taught, and they would run the committee now, because I was talking about rushes and land and they were busy people and needed to talk about important things. Serious things. Things they could say to each other, not to rushes. I suspect they didn’t know how to talk to rushes, but I’m not sure.
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Of course they needed to talk to each other. They were young. I was too much a child of my ancestors and not enough a child of their books. I was a knot of tangled threads.

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By their pride, they taught me how to untangle that. They tried to teach me that poetry was a thing made of words, set in metres and rhythms, and even that these things could be fixed, and that poetry was not snow geese and not the waiting for snow geese and not houses made of the body by plucking its hair the way a musician plucks the strings of a lute. They taught me that men — a kind of puppet that a soul can operate in the way a robin operates an apple tree — speak this way, and that women had other things to talk about. I’m happy for them, and though at times I have wished they would have said what that was, what they needed to say, one of my friends, a woman and a philosopher, has kindly explained to me that this kind of talk is just the puppet talking and it should just be ignored. I was excited. This sounded smart and new.
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Caught in the spell of young professors of literature, one of whom even said, despite my protests, that all men hate the earth and want to destroy it, I forgot myself and tried to argue, and when I failed at that, predictably, forgot myself again and stopped writing poems for the world, even though I had had elders who taught me the old ways, even though they only cloaked them in the words of literary men, for their own protection.
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They could not protect me from my misunderstanding.

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I did not tell the important literary people, who know how things get done in their world that I cannot see, who know the traditions of how to train people, which looks like the training of horses to me, that the boat of my ribs is the lute, that I am singing with old Vaïnomoïnen, the smith of the Milky Way, here on the star road, as my people have sung since men found iron and struck it with a hammer instead of making war.p1470028

I am sorry. I should have told them. I should have said, “I do not want to make war.” I should have said, “I would like it if we loved each other.” Well, the last time I said “I do not want to make war” was the day, thirty years ago, on which I learned that many people, who call themselves poets, and I presume they know what they’re saying, want war. They delight in it, they told me.

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I am repeatedly told that as a man who speaks the words of his ancestors, I am of their kind. A tribe, they call it. No.

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I did not tell them about the mind that was a spark from the anvil of the world.

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I should have, right then. I did not tell them about the darkness that is light, the matter that is time, in the little time I have in the world before I am the world again, without time. I didn’t expect that they would understand something that is beyond understanding, and so I was silent, partly out of deference and partly to protect myself, lest I be torn from the world into words and when I turned around again there would be no world at all.p1470026

I was afraid of that, and in my fear I failed them and myself.

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But I am not sad. Sure, they would not have listened. They would not have heard. How could they? We did not share a language. But, even so, some things are not said for people. They are said for the rushes and the wind.

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I should have forgiven them easily and at once. These were, after all, people like myself, who understood war too well, whose ancestors had been driven, as mine, into its throat and had been swallowed alive, as my people were.

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After all, this land was captured by countries across the sea, not by love but by violence, and if I grew up in that violence and read it as love, and if they grew up in that violence and read it as my own, why should I be bitter? I am not.

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I am joyful. I catch the sun. I am not sad because of that. I shake my stems in the wind. It is a small gesture, I know, but it follows the winds of time, just so. Just so.

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I have found myself at last, just so. I am weaving the sun and the earth together, not because they are not already there, but because I love them.p1470030

Because I hear them speaking.
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This speech is not in words.

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(Well, unless you will accept that these are words, which is generous and bold of you.)

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Is that too much to ask? I don’t know.

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I don’t know how it is among you.

 

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I think sometimes you do.

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I think of the children, often. I think of the poets among the children. Those who have not found their voice in the world yet. Those few who run their fingers along a blade of a sound and feel the foundations of a house, the stretch of a thought, the music of a heart lifting as a snow goose on its way to the Siberia, where it speaks the language of ice with all that is.

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With all that it is possible to be.

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These are the wings.

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Listeners, please, if you think I am making a poem, then I have not used my words well. Here, this is a poem:p1470041

Please read it again and again and again. Don’t look to me. I am just a rush speaking the wind. I am just the wind, speaking a rush. I do not mean poetry by that. That is something we were all taught.p1470042

That term is something I have lost. I don’t need to go looking for it.  I do not need to put one word on top of another word on top of another word until they make an image of the world.

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Nothing’s lost, but things are found. I am already here.
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I have always been here. I don’t need science to do this for me, either. That was for people trying to escape a war, and that’s a fine thing.

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There was a time I was a child in a school. I was being taught that one form of literature, science, is true in the world, and all others are entertainments, which can be studied by science and then, observed and classified, would be true, as they had not been before. I was not taught about the smith who sailed the boat of his ribs down the Milky Way. I found him on my own. I walked outside. I breathed.p1470045

Please, forgive me for reminding you here of what might sound strange to you. Breath means the world to me. This is not poetry, I should add. It is the world speaking. What goes by that name today — poetry — is a dark magic, but it is not the world, or me, or speech, or, I suspect, you, and the words it uses are not the words of my language, or, most likely, yours. They look the same, yes. These words I write here, and you read, though, are not the words of my language. If you sense any poetry here, perhaps I have managed to move myself just enough out of the way that you can feel the rushes brushing against your cheek, and … can you smell them, too?

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I can. They smell of dry water. It’s hard to explain. But why shouldn’t it be. Explanation is a game of words and this is not words or a game. This is the world.p1470085

I love the body of you.

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Don’t you? My brothers and sisters, the wind has been waking into the sound of rushes. That’s all. It has taken some time.p1420293

It has been growing into itself to find you. I was born knowing this. I have been remembering before it is so late that I am no I at all.

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I apologize for the delay. I was born to people who made a hammer out of the language of my ancestors, that spoke the sound of a goose’s wing, that came from the lungs, and because I loved them I believed them. That is the right way to enter the world.
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But now I am the elder. I can let those old stories go.

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I can let them go to Siberia.

p1420352I can follow them.

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I am the elder to no-one’s children, not even my own. I know that. I write for the rushes, as I always have, because that is what they have heard as they have written me. I dare not stop. Do you?p1420344

Whatever children may follow, they might have need of the language of the earth. They might find each other on its paths. I don’t know. I pray they will. I know only that night is coming. The machines are coming for us. They will live in our place. We the rushes will be the silent dead.

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Young men write language for the machines now, while young women write the story of their bodies and measure the world to strip it of language and cast it naked on the sand for the sun to write upon. I do not profess to understand. It has to do with dreams, I think, but the young women aren’t saying. Many of them are quite angry, although they have difficulty saying about what. I understand. It’s a hard journey, life. It’s hard waking.
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I hope the young men find them there, though. I hope the young women will have them, in their wordlessness. I hope there’s enough wordlessness to go around. It’s awkward, but it can’t be helped. There is no other way to see in the dark. I hope we will protect them.

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The machines are merciless.

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I speak out of turn, perhaps, but I do so because love is merciful.

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I know it is an indulgence on my part, but what else? Every child must learn the old ways by touch alone, by breath and blood and bone, by skin and lip and teeth and tongue.

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Only that way will they learn of us and live, and we will live on through them.

The Lessons of Red Osier Dogwood

I went looking for light. In a grey world, it was all in the red osier dogwoods, stəktəkcxʷlɬp, the purifier, the beloved of moose. I spent some time with it as it turned into them.p1450021 p1450016 p1450013 p1450012 p1450005 p1450002 p1440997 p1440981 p1450031 p1440978 p1440977

It is the net of blood in the eye. Anything that passes through it will be guided by it, stroked, and shifted to follow its flows. You feel it all over your skin and over your chest and arms. You can step into it with purpose. You must step out of it with its flow.

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 People of the Grass

Just look at this Great Basin Giant Wild Rye in the late November sun. It’s growing up the hill from my house, in land set aside for new houses. Actually, it was planted, to mitigate the effects of road-building and house construction — to embed that work within an act of ecosystem reconstruction and natural sustainability. Beautiful, isn’t it.p1410294

It’s more than beautiful, actually. There are three seasons of stalks here. One has lost its seeds to winter birds and the knees of deer as they knock their way through in the snow. The grass uses the energy of both to cast its seeds at a distance from the stalks. When the seeds land on the snow, their darkness gathers heat to melt their way down through the snow to the unfrozen soil below, watered by the snow they melted to make their path. Down there, they sprout, in the warmth of sunlight magnified by crystals of melting snow. By the time spring comes, most of “spring’s” work is done. This is the grass that first drew settlers to the Pacific Northwest. The Cayuse War of 1848, which started all the other Indian Wars north of California, was fought in this grass, and, in part, over this grass. Two hundred years ago, this grass, and its seeds, were valuable, for fibre and food. In the North Okanagan, where I live, giant wild rye is not as plentiful as it was in the Cayuse’s Walla Walla Valley. Due to its relative scarcity this far north, I think it’s safe to say it would be surprising to find unbroken stands of grass with year-old seeds and three-year-old stalks, untouched by human hands. The stuff is too valuable for that. So, look again:

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This is nature without humans. They have been removed from it. It was forcibly done, Replanting the grass without bringing the people home to it is still removal. It doesn’t matter what words are applied to it. Colonial societies, even in their mature, independent phase (we call it “post-colonial”), often claim a right to the land on the principle that all human activity is natural. Yes, it is. It is still violence, though, even if it is called beauty, or ecological regeneration, as long as it does not bring the people back. We could do that, you know. We have shown that we can plant riches.

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For the moment, they are empty. In romantic poetry, this sense of loss (in this case “a lost Eden”) intensifies the sense of beauty. The effect is called “bittersweet longing.” In post-modernist poetry (post-colonial culture’s equivalent to romanticism), it is called “desire.” It is more than either. It is a waiting, an offering, an emptiness actively calling to be filled, and a gift. Do we dare take it? Do we dare not?

Bringing the Water Home

I bring home the name of water. It’s not that it reflects the sky, as the picture below from Hvalfjörður shows, so much as it brings the light from the sky inside it. So many substances reflect light from their surfaces. Their substance must be inferred from a superficial glance. Humans are pretty good at that. In fact, we’ve built a civilization around it. What we haven’t built in contemporary times is a civilization around the interiors of things, and around the way they hold light within before releasing it again. It seems a small thing, but look at it.

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Skorá.

This is, after all, the process of the sun. There, it takes every photon of light 100,000 years of bouncing around in the sun, of being reabsorbed and re-emitted, before it leaves the sun to travel to, well, this Icelandic river. It is also the process of photosynthesis, in which every photon of light bounces around in a tiny reflective chamber. One in 2000 or so gets eaten by the little blue-green algae kept hostage at the chamber’s core. That’s a lot. You can see that effect of light in the grass and the hayfield above, and even, in deeper tones, in the birch and poplar woods. If we want a new relationship with the earth, we would do well to start right here, not with water as a substance (vatn, in Icelandic), nor even with water as a flowing and a becoming (á, in Icelandic, from aqua, as in aquaduct, or, as we know it in English, river), but as a deepening and a holding, a way of stopping light for a moment, manipulating it for various mysterious processes and then letting it go.p1400402 Along the way, it concentrates attention, and life. We, you and I, have an ability to see that. That is an approach to the human visual impulse on which a new relationship to the earth can be built. To start with, human eyes are filled with water. We see through it. It’s hardly a wonder that we can see its depths. As for its name? Well, it embodies the eye, but its name comes from the open mouth and throat that receive it: water, aqua, á (ow)… they are all an opening and a receiving. An eye that is a mouth? A mouth that is an eye? Both and neither.

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But it’s a good start.