Salmon On the Way to Sea

While making arrangements for my father’s funeral a week ago, I walked down at dawn to the mouth of Simm’s Creek, on Eastern Vancouver Island. No, this is not rain.

Four years from now, with some incredible luck, this plucky little salmon will be coming home.

Others like it will be returning to the fire forests (note the smoke) over the mountains to the east. Fire, water and fish: it is enough.

Where the Mountains Become Water

In my country, the rivers are born in the mountains. Here is born the Missouri, the Columbia, the Fraser and all their ancestors and all their daughters.

This particular mother is the Cascades: a sea bed melted in the deep earth and lifted into the sky by a younger sea. Look at its wave break in a crest of foam.

This is one of the old ones of the Columbia, the Washaptum. Here, the mountains become water again. Note how they turn to eggs of stone. Look how the current is the flick of a salmon’s tail. Look how the sun comes in waves. This is the wave trough. It is like the call of a whale.

Look how the water and the rock braid together in these depths. This is the deepest floor of the sun.

Look how water and sun and stone and sea mingle and part and mingle again in these depths. That’s how it’s done.

Since the beginning of civilization, long before the pharaohs, Owhi’s people, the Pisquouse, came here to meet the salmon the mountains were calling out of the distant Pacific where they fed on the sun. This is the power song. This is where fish make people.

Come, they called.

Come and be born.

These are the eggs of humans, as the mountains make them.

This is a man rising from the stream to breathe his sun.

This is what he sees when he looks back to his birth. This his mind and heart. These are his children’s children’s children’s children, calling for him to help them be born.

This is what we do here in Cascadia.

We are being born. Sometimes it means writing stories about all of this on our ancestral rocks, just as the pines do. Here the fish are born from the mind that is born from minding the fish.

Everything else is the dying. Does this sound fanciful to you? OK. What about this?

Poisoning the earth down the road from my house, in the Columbia Headwaters at Head of the Lake.

Maybe you like your royal gala apples with poison. When Woody Guthrie, the Traitor, sang his song, “Roll on Columbia…”
This is the impounded river: a chain of shipping locks full of southern, warm water salmon-egg-eating-fish.

… he bragged that the Columbia River, the great salmon river of the world, would live on in the electrical grid, translated into pure energy. That’s part of that above. Here’s some more, on the Okanagan Lake Shore:

That’s what these stones …

… look like after Woody’s betrayal. Let us love each other again.

Let us be the children of the mountains again.

By These Fish We Take Our Measure

From the shore where fresh water mingles with salt ….mount

…and the tide comes in and out and humans erect the stories of themselves they have always lifted into the sky…up

… and the stories of their shadows come to joke and feast …


… to the tidal river, where salt water meets with fresh and forests are brought in from a depopulated coast …


…and where people tell stories of conquest …

simonfraser… as if it were a game for children …soldier

… and build ancestral poles to live in, above a train station decorated with gigantically-enlarged computer pixels and a banner that Canada is “a tent upon a hill” …


… to the gravels laid bare by the drought created by the falling of forests far upstream and the burning of coal across the ocean that both paid for it and brought its people to it …

P2000133… and the Nlaka’pamux fishery idled at the feet of the old trail between the grasslands and the sea….P2000075… by the need for a few fish to find some place cool enough to spawn …

P2000140… fish which are stranded in channels cut away from their route upstream through the fresh-water tide zones that rise and fall each year …P2000200

… by 150 years of railroad and highway infill, such as here at Chapman’s Bar …


… the fish, the great sockeye salmon of the Fraser …
P2000193 … are having troubles making it home this year ….P2000122…as the rains come too late …P2000194 … and in the warm water …P2000189

… our ancestors die too soon. P2000196 As we grieve for them after their journey to the open Pacific …P2000111 … and back …P2000128 … it is vital to remember … P2000094 … that this is not a romantic or bittersweet story …P2000100

… and it is not a story of nature and its excess and abundance, and the birth of life in death and renewal or any other such story …P2000088

…this is the year in which a people who have built a tent in which to live upon a hill watch the fins rot off of their ancestors ….P2000191… who circle idly…P2000099…unable to go on …P2000095…while we pray for rain to cool the rivers for the few with some muscle left, and for those which will follow …P2000190

…including us, who come from no tent but from these mountain tides …

P2000082 … and these ancient mid-Pacific volcanoes cast up onto the shore and ground down into bone …P2000216

… and rain …

P2000161 … and the memory that is not a looking back…P2000170

…  but a looking forward. Here are some of those sockeye salmon from the Horsefly River, two weeks of salmon travel north, in 2006.


…and here again today, as the glaciers melt away …


By these fish we take our measure.

Blood of the Earth

I live in the country of the Columbia River, above the lake that spills into one of its tributaries, the Okanogan River. In this country, there are many rivers like the Okanagan, such as the San Poil, the Kootenay, the Spokane, the Methow, the Wenatchee, the Snake, the John Day, the White Salmon, the Willamette, and the Young. That is just one small list of many rivers of energy pouring into one great stream that flows out to sea. Each draws the energy of a piece of land, some of them almost four billion years old, others countable in the tens of millions, together into one flow that pours straight into the Pacific, without a delta or a single shoal, only an underwater bar that brings the desert to the mouth of the sea. Today, I was in the John Day. It looks like this:


Heart of the Earth, John Day River Valley

And look what I found growing out of this old volcanic ash:

bitter2That’s right, bitter root, the most important foodstuff in this country. And she was blooming…

bitter3These are the blood of the land. Together, they flow into the water, and out of the water comes …

,,,our hearts, here in the Columbia Country, the red fish, in this case the Sockeye of N’kmp, that have gone home to Siberia and have come home to the Columbia. This is more than the maple trees of the East. This is everything.

Meditation on Light

The human mind reads patterns.

panorama2 Perhaps it does so because it is formed from an earth rich with patterns.

panorama4 Perhaps the moment of apprehension of pattern is called meaning.P1360572


Perhaps that comes after the moment and is weaker than it is.

P1360581 Perhaps “meaning” is a false path, because there is none.

panorama2 But perhaps there is pattern, shared, and that is more. 200 years ago, Goethe proposed a science based on such principles. 100 years ago, Heidegger proposed a philosophy based on these principles. They have been discredited because their observations led to neither science nor democracy. No?

P1360461What if you include the earth and the water in the community of humans? Isn’t that where we need to go?

P1340092 The arrival of the first snow. Bella Vista.

Shouldn’t we include the sun?

P1310914 And our brothers and sisters teaching us how to come home?


Nk’mip Sockeye Salmon Coming  Home, Okanagan Falls

What are we afraid of? Losing our identities? When we can gain the world? Isn’t this how we can stop being an endangered species?



A Year of Walking & Learning Part 3

My walkabout in the last year has led through the fields of industry, innovation, and education. What I have found comes from observing the earth. Its raw materials are gravity, rock, the sun, air, and water. That’s a lot, actually, and it does great stuff with it. This, for example:

Sylix Salmon Fishery, N’kmip

The young fish go to sea, swim to Siberia, mill around where this land was when it was young, and come back, right where the last of the previous winter’s snows are streaming over the gravel left in the wake of ancient glaciers.

If you want awe, that’ll do. It’s also a technological lesson, about water, energy, and where to look for technology. Here, for example, is an image from Germany, which shows how humans, working together with the earth’s forces, can create stable, fruitful systems, just like that salmon system above …

Riesling Vineyard on the Mosel River, Germany

Here’s half of the story: the rain that falls on the trees is drawn by gravity down through the scree in which the vines are rooted, and passes from there into the river, which carries it to the sea, which brings again the rain. Here’s the other half: the leaves that fall from the trees, decay and feed a rich universe of microbes, which are washed down among the vine roots, where they provide the vines with nutrients and the oxygen that the roots need, before they are filtered out by the wetlands on the riverbank to deliver pure water once again to the river.

Technology doesn’t have to be big, but in a dry landscape like this, it does have to be about water. I’m working on dozens of ideas along this field. Here’s one. It’s story that starts with highly-manufactured water:

Inniskillin Riesling Ice Wine

An Okanagan industrial success.

Each 375 ml. bottle of ice wine represents hundreds of litres of water, collected in high country lakes or from deep groundwater wells, and pumped over the sand of former grasslands and shrub steppes. The day will come when this kind of industrial profligacy is no longer socially acceptable, because people will want to drink that water themselves. We might as well head off this showdown between social classes now, before it becomes critical. I suggest we do it by looking at the grass…

Blue-bunched Wheatgrass, Turtle Mountain

In forest landscapes, trees are dominant. Here they are weeds. In their place is blue-bunched wheatgrass. 

There’s a reason for that. The old stems of this grass are stiff, woody tubes that collect rain and dew, if there is any, and even fog, should the winter bring that, from a large area around the heart of the plant. They then deliver this water by gravity to the plant’s heart. This inverted umbrella also prevents competing plants from establishing themselves in the space between bunch grasses. As a result, a bunch grass slope looks like this…

Grassland Slope, Methow Valley

All that’s missing here to make this a stable system is a layer of blue-green algae between the grass clumps. Since this is a site in reclamation, I hope it will come.

That’s a technology perhaps as useful as the gravity that feeds nutrients to otherwise barren scree slopes in Germany to produce the world’s greatest white wines. Rather than spending millions of dollars to disrupt ecosystems to deliver high volumes of pressurized liquid water to agricultural plantations throughout the valley, why not create tiny systems of metal or plastic spines that can feed plants in place with water that comes from the sky? They won’t capture much, but not much is needed. There are alternatives. One could devise a kind of fog screen to harvest the winter clouds that roll over the hilltops here. Tiny trickles of water multiplied millions of times could bring much needed water into traditional piping systems. Why not? Solar cells work on the principle of just that: tiny amounts, millions of times. Water is at least as important as electricity here, if not more so. But if all that doesn’t appeal, then why not just do what the plants do themselves and create miniature islands of mutual support? There are many ways of doing this: seasonal succession …

Even in the World of Weeds, Succession is a Useful Technology

This is a new, unstudied ecosystem, but it follows some basic rules. Cheatgrass uses up winter water and covers the ground in a choking carpet in the spring, but by midsummer morning glory (the white flowers here), russian thistle, and vetch have all had their turn at lying on top of it and allow its thick mat to act as a mulch. There are ways to cheat cheatgrass. 

… using someone else’s rain-capturing abilities …

A Host of Plants Thriving on the Water Caught by a Saskatoon Bush, Turtle Mountain

Biscuit root, moss, and cheatgrass are all using the water the bare, deer-browsed trunks of the saskatoon concentrate from infrequent rains. It’s not the amount of water that matters here. It’s where it is. Rocks planted on the landscape provide the same island-creating function.

or just using blank space capable of catching a lot of water and shedding it quickly…

Wireweed on the Gray Canal Trail

Notice how the long arms of the wire weed can quickly catch water in those two minutes after a summer thunderstorm before the water either flows away off of bare ground or evaporates again into the air.

Surely, we can build devices as clever and simple as these, especially if we choose plants with moderate to low water requirements, which brings me to …

Radish Seed Pods!

Why fight drought and heat to produce a wet climate crop like radishes or broccoli past the early spring, when you can grow a crop of radish or broccoli seeds in near drought conditions and use plentiful winter water to sprout them for fresh crops that need no refrigeration or transportation?

But why stop there?

Red Root Pigweed

A traditional Indigenous grain crop, now just a common farming weed. Crops like this, with very low water requirements, are perfect candidates for innovative grassland farm technologies.

One thing’s for sure: as long as technology continues to view the land’s processes as the enemy, to be cured by the application of industrial technology to transform it into something called the Garden of Eden, the knowledge of the Syilx people, and other Indigenous peoples, will be denied to our industrial vocabulary. I think we need all the help we can get. Studying First Nations culture is one of the essential steps towards developing new technologies, but don’t forget. This land was created by the Syilx over thousands of years of cultural intervention. When you walk the land, you walk through that story. You just have to learn how to read. That’s why education and the art of writing are so important to developing new food sources, strategies, and technologies, and that’s why we’re here, walking the land with the coyotes …

Coyote Trail, Okanagan Landing

Down among the subdivisions every night to bother the house cats and porch dogs and tulip-munching deer, up into the high hills around the water reservoir every night, with lots of time down in the hayfields for some howling practice in between.

… and the deer people …

Doe and Her Spring Fawn in the Knapweed

And wondering about that ridiculous fence that separates them.

I wonder about that fence, too. This one seems to work better …

Rosebush With Built In Fence

Bushes like this provide islands of safety for young plants, like asparagus.

Tomorrow: seasons, and air. Then, ethics.

Wild Life on the Hanford Reach

Here is a basic guide to life in the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing (note: not wild, just free flowing) stretch of the American stretch of the Columbia River.

First, the security camera operators…

Second, Canadian tourists asking a local for directions …

Third, a non-unionized member of the cleanup crew…

Fourth, a grass removal specialist, off to make the rounds of the reactor grounds. First, the long shot, to show his native environment …

… and then a closeup to show his work equipment …

Fifth, one of the few remaining members of the water cleanup patrol arrested by two nameless invaders from a tribe of wild animals downriver…

Sixth, other members of the invading tribe working hard to haul a 4.5 foot long young sturgeon from the perhaps isotope rich sludge at the bottom of the river so they can let him go and try again (entombed reactors in the background) …

Seventh, another boat from the rather extensive invasion fleet…

Eight, hope for the future …

I consider the capture and killing of increasingly rare and ancient animals for sport to be rogue behaviour, not befitting membership in the earth community. Compare this to a representation of an elk / human interaction by the original people of the river, who lived on the sites above…

Elk or man? Who is negotiating with whom? The question has a new urgency.