Category Archives: Blog

Shevchenko and Babel

A few weeks ago we organized a benefit fundraiser for the people of Ukraine. I wanted the money to go for the purchase of weapons but I was voted down in favor of humanitarian support. The evening event was hastily organized but very successful; we raised over four thousand dollars. Event participants got to enjoy Ukrainian food, music, singing, and readings. I volunteered to read briefly from two Ukrainian writers: Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) and Isaac Babel (1894-1940). Both writers came from Ukraine but lived much of their lives in St. Petersburg, Russia. The lives of both ended violently, in the endless conflicts and purges of the Russian empire. 

Taras Shevchenko’s 1845 poem Testament is heartrendingly appropriate to the current Russian genocide in Ukraine:

When I die,

let me rest, let me lie

amidst Ukraine’s broad steppes.

Let me see

the endless fields and steep slopes

I hold so dear.

Let me hear

the Dnipro’s great roar.

And when the blood  

of Ukraine’s foes flows

into the blue waters of the sea,

that’s when I’ll forget

the fields and hills

and leave it all  

and pray to God.

Until then, I know no God.

So bury me, rise up,

and break your chains.

Water your freedom  

with the blood of oppressors.

And then remember me

with gentle whispers

and kind words

in the great family  

of the newly free.

Taras Shevchenko

Isaac Babel is one of the most anomalous and idiosyncratic figures in modern world literature. Born into a middle-class Jewish merchant family in Odessa, he thrived in that port city’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and cosmopolitan environment. His literary talents were recognized by the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky.  He served in the Red Calvary, associating with Cossacks who were the absolute antithesis of the Jewish intellectual. I first got to know Babel in my highschool Bolshevik days, when I read Russian writers voraciously, and exclusively. The book I have, Isaac Babel: Collected Stories, was published in 1960 and contains a lengthy but valuable introduction to Babel’s writing by Lionel Trilling. Diving back in to that book after sixty years was like bumping into an old and respected friend, one who is idiosyncratic and full of surprises.  Babel’s stories are highly condensed as he navigates through Odessa neighborhoods, Polish battlefields, Jewish gangster rivalries, whorehouses and Cossack battalions. The stories are all very personal, but somehow he writes as both spectator and participant, simultaneously. I suspect Babel was sexist even back in his unreconstructed era, since he was incapable of describing any female character without mentioning their bosoms.

I’ll end this with a couple of Babel quotes:

A well-crafted story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story”

“In our day, bad taste is no longer a personal defect; it’s a crime. Even worse, bad taste is counter revolution”

Bringing the Wind Home

Marcellus Jacobs

Back in 1984 I was assessing agricultural land in southern Saskatchewan. This was the beginning of the era of “suitcase farming,” where operators left their rural homes and moved to nearby cities. My work often took me by these abandoned farmsteads. Passing one, I noticed a curious rusty metal box in a refuse pile. It turned out to be the electrical control box for a wind turbine. Previously I had worked for Saskatchewan’s short-lived Office of Energy Conservation, and wind-powered electric generation had been an area of interest. So I took the box home with me.

Long story short, the box subsequently gathered dust over the course of a couple of decades and a couple of moves, until a basement water leak meant I had to move a bunch of stored stuff. There it was, long forgotten but suddenly a very tangible artifact.

Electrical control box
Electrical control box
Jacobs Wind Electric Co. label
Jacobs Wind Electric Co. label

The control box is an integral part of the Jacobs Wind Electric Plant, Model 25, producing 40 watts of DC power. The Jacobs story actually starts in 1922, on an isolated farm in Vida, Montana. Just to orient you, Vida is south of Wolf Point, Montana, which is directly south of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. Young Marcellus Jacobs and his brother Joe are playing around with primitive wind generator designs, hoping to provide some electric power to their farm home. (In the 1920’s, large American cities had electricity, but rural electrification for places like eastern Montana was still years away.) Marcellus had learned to fly, so they had access to two-bladed airplane propellers, but they soon discovered that a two-blade design created too much vibration, so they created a three-blade design, which went on to become the standard for wind electric generation.

Marcellus and Joe started a small factory in Vida, producing and selling wind turbines, towers,  control boxes and storage batteries to farms in the area. Much of the demand came from the desire for access to radio programming. The Jacobs boys created a wonderful newspaper ad that showed their mother Ida ironing with an electric iron while she listened to the radio with a headset. The Jacobs company became quite successful and in the late 1920’s, they moved it to Minneapolis, to be closer to parts suppliers. 

In the late 1930’s, rural electrification became a federal priority in the US, and interest in home-based windpower generation dropped off dramatically. However, this was not the case on the Canadian prairies, which had plenty of wind, and did not connect to the electrical grid until, in some cases, the 1950s. So literally hundreds of used Jacobs wind plants migrated from the American midwest to rural Canadian communities like Melita, Manitoba, Peebles, Saskatchewan, and Milk River, Alberta.  Hence the origin of my rusty Jacobs control box. 

The rediscovery of the control box in the basement prompted an exploration of an equally dusty file cabinet, for my old files on wind power. In the cabinet I found a 1985 letter addressed to me from Marcellus Jacobs, answering my request for more information on the company’s history. There is a fine line between personal archival discovery and forgetfulness. 

The Jacobs plants did set the gold standard for wind electric generation. Not only did they innovate the three-blade design, Marcellus and Joe also solved two fundamental problems with wind turbines; controlling overspeeds in strong winds, and keeping internal bearings lubricated. Jacobs Wind Electric Company is the oldest renewable energy company in the US. Marcellus’ son Joe maintains a company website at https://www.jacobswind.net/

The Bubba Demographic

I have had my suspicions all along, but the Convoy has forced us to acknowledge it: Canada has Bubbas. Not just a few, but a whole demographic. The Bubbas are anti-vaxxers, they are comfortable with falsehoods, they are racist and their conception of personal rights and freedoms extends no further than their own selfish selves.

Certainly part of the motivation for the Convoy was sheer exhaustion: after two long years, we are all exhausted. The Convoy says “we’re done with Covid.” Unfortunately, Covid ain’t done with us, yet.

It is a sad commentary that the 10,000 Bubbas who assembled in Ottawa for a weekend have gotten far more press than the 10,000 and more Canadian health workers who have put their lives on the line every day for two years, caring for vaxxed and unvaxxed alike.

I guess we can thank the pandemic for exposing the Bubba demographic, for bringing it right out into the open. As we move forward, as a people and as a country, we must examine how this demographic came to be. Three institutions mightdeserve special scrutiny: families, our educational system, and social media. 

There will always be lone Bubbas, but Canada is too good a country to accept and resign itself to an entire Bubba demographic.  

What a disaster has been perpetrated on to our Canadian flag. Prior to the Convoy’s arrival in Ottawa, seeing a flag was a pleasant, patriotic reminder of this great country we are privileged to live in. Now, post-Convoy, whenever I see a flag, particularly one on a vehicle, my eyes instantly narrow to slits and I grind my teeth, knowing the toxic message it conveys.   

We Canadians have a job to do. We have to take our national flag back from the Bubbas, carefully decontaminate it, and restore its true meaning: the symbol of a country whose people care about each other, and the truth.

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

Homage to Jane

Jane Jacobs
American-born Canadian social and urban activist & author Jane Jacobs (1916 – 2006), with a sign around her neck that reads ‘Conscience is the Ultimate Weapon,’ attends a boycott at Public School (P.S. 41) (at 116 West 11th Street), New York, New York, February 3, 1964. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

I don’t remember precisely when I encountered Jane. I would have been an impressionable young hippie at the time. Many of those youthful impressions have faded, but not those from The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which I first read at some point in the late 1960’s. As a young ecologist I had not given urban planning a second thought, until I read Jacobs’ book. It was a revelation. She showed me that cities function like living organisms, and that urban planning is the reciprocal, or the flip side, of ecology. Her precepts of mixed use, low rise, high density and pedestrian orientation spoke strongly to me, even as a country boy. In my visits to various cities, both in Canada and the US, I naturally gravitated to the neighborhoods that demonstrated those characteristics. That was where I found used bookstores, inexpensive ethnic restaurants, experimental theater and shoe repair. 

We lived for several years in Nelson, BC, a former mining town pasted on a steep mountainside. Nelson has one of the most vibrant and viable main streets of any small town in North America, not because of enlightened urban planning, but because there is simply no room for sprawl. No spaghetti suburbs, no soulless suburban shopping malls. In contrast, the towns in the Okanagan where we live now are on much gentler terrain, and suburban sprawl is the order of the day. Every town, from Osoyoos right through to Armstrong, is busy expanding its footprint. Kelowna, our flagship city, is busy trashing another Jacobs precept, with its downtown high-rise apartments and office towers. 

If you think of it, mixed use, low rise, high density and pedestrian orientation are very similar to ecological principles. In spite of our suburbs, freeways and glass towers we are animals, after all.

Jane Jacobs had no professional credentials as an urban planner, yet she took on the New York establishment and won several key battles that preserved neighborhood life in that city. She and her family moved to Canada in the late Sixties, in opposition to the Vietnam War. We can be proud of that.

We Canadians need another Jane Jacobs, someone who slices through all the self-serving urban planning and developer bafflegab. I do recall a resonant advertising slogan for an upscale housing development on the far outskirts of Kelowna: “Close to Nature, Minutes From Downtown.” That is a totally wrong-headed and unachievable urban dream, yet somehow we delude ourselves and buy into it. 

Our Okanagan towns and cities are stuck in a kind of frontier/capitalist mentality, but I am sensing the very beginnings of a tectonic shift, amplified by climate change concerns. Somewhere out there is a young urbanist revolutionary who will write The Death and Life of BC Interior Towns and Cities. I eagerly await that book.