The Kelowna Savanna

Premier Gordon Campbell at the 6 billion tree planting ceremony.

The gentle curve of the hillside draws me forward. Maybe it’s a guy thing, being attracted to curves, but with each step I see more of this grassland, and more of Okanagan Lake’s northern reach. Then come subtle ecological changes, as the hill’s aspect gently shifts from southwest to northwest. Here I am, just twenty blocks from Kelowna’s downtown, on a remnant piece of Okanagan sublime: Knox Mountain Park. As I start down the trail, I’m on a dry and rocky southwest face. I see sagebrush and cactus, reminders of our biological connection to the Great Basin of distant Utah and Nevada. Then further along this curving footpath is the signature Okanagan landscape trinity; delicate bluebunch wheatgrass, arrowleaf balsamroot in full flower, and the statuesque ponderosa pine. Still further along the footpath, as the land shifts around to a northwest aspect, I see the hallmarks of a cooler, more northerly flora: rough fescue, rose, and snowberry. Here a tiny but outrageous shootingstar commands me: get on my knees to honor its royal purple. 

I am at pains to face away from the City on my dawdling walk. The lake beside me is completely still. If I stick to certain trails, I can avoid seeing the sprawling suburbs that surround the Park.  A trailside sign informs me of the City of Kelowna’s Official Flower: the arrowleaf balsamroot. I do hope City officials are aware of this vast irony: naming balsamroot the official flower while doing their level best to eradicate its habitat.

A friend of mine is working on what she calls the “Okanagan Esthetic.” She’s got a tough job. Hard to visualize a local spirit of place when we can zip down Highway 97 at 110 kilometers an hour, pass row on row of identical suburbs and chain big-box stores, while Boeing 737s shuttle overhead, and our car radios blares the latest American pop song. But I am convinced that a true local esthetic is possible. Bunchgrass, balsamroot and ponderosa pine would certainly be a part of it. Along with pinot gris and merlot. 

The landscape pulls me along, and I allow myself the distractions of botanical identification, knowing all along that the most important view is not at the species, but at the ecosystem level. Or perhaps at the artistic level. Maybe the person best equipped to understand the subtleties of Knox Mountain is the landscape painter.

Psychologists say humans, if given the choice, overwhelmingly prefer the intermediate landscape–scattered trees in grassland—rather than closed forest or open grassland. And this is what we have on Knox Mountain: the intermediate landscape, Okanagan savanna. But for how long, I worry.  The absence of recent fire here, on a landscape that demands it: too many juvenile trees are sprouting up on this dry mountainside. We have extirpated the frequent, light, housekeeping fires that Indigenous folks formerly used to keep grass and trees in that savanna balance. 

Finished with my walk, I’m back at the viewpoint by the parking lot, a good place to think about an Okanagan Esthetic, with the Valley’s biggest city in front of you, and a wonderful remnant piece of Valley habitat behind. Okanagan Mountain Park in the distance triggers memories of Firestorm 2003.  Rough fescue and shootingstar behind me; several good coffee shops, a great independent bookstore, and Ballet Kelowna in front. A magnificent but overstressed lake to my right, a four-lane commercial strip to my left. Raw materials for an esthetic.

This viewpoint is a dry and bony rock outcrop. It hosts a small bronze plaque commemorating the six billionth tree planted in BC, spaded in by a former Premier. The tree seedling soon died a drought-stricken death, leaving a patch of bare dirt next to the plaque. Tree planting has a long and honorable tradition in this Province, but no self-respecting tree planter would ever put a seedling in such an inappropriate spot. I’m sure the Premier meant well, and it was a good photo op, but ecologically misguided. He should have planted arrowleaf balsamroot instead.

small bronze plaque commemorating the six billionth tree planted in BC, spaded in by a former Premier

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