During our recent Provincial election, two highway campaign signs were defaced with graffiti near our home. I am not averse to public protest: if this were Belarus, I might tolerate or even approve of defacing Mr. Lukashenko’s billboards. But this is contemporary British Columbia, where a centre-right party is politely duking it out against a centre-left party, and individual democratic rights are not at stake. Defacing a political campaign sign here in BC is a craven act of cowardice and stupidity.
Far more disturbing than the defacement itself was the actual graffiti on the signs: An “A” superimposed over an “O,” the symbol for anarchy, one of the many extremist political symbols currently on view in the troubled streets of the United States.
The origin of the symbol, dating back to the 1800s, is interesting: the word for anarchy starts with the letter A in many languages, and the O symbolizes order, meaning that with anarchy, there is perfect social order. Good luck with that.
At this moment in time, just before the American election, most of us Canadians are fully absorbed in the high-stakes drama playing out to the south of us. But we must daily remind ourselves: that is them, not us. We are Canadians, we reject political extremism and threats of violence of any stripe, right or left. We are comfortable with three, four or even five political parties in any given jurisdiction, and we don’t engage in the incredibly toxic binary political separation that currently rends the very fabric of American life.
Don’t let this American political extremism seep northward across our border. Be vigilant, and when any evidence of this toxic seepage is seen, move quickly, firmly, and most of all politely, to root it out.
The opposite of racism is not tolerance or passive acceptance. I was given an example of this as an adolescent, even though it was years later that it became clear to me.
Junior High School, Fullerton, California, 1959. A packed classroom, of thirty students. There are a dozen of us white kids, and we all sit in the front of the classroom. Behind us sit all the Latino kids, recently arrived from Mexico. Many of their fathers work at the Hunt’s Ketchup factory at the edge of town. The Latino kids are respectful, quiet and attentive. But from the teacher’s perspective, they are invisible. Her attention is all to the white dozen in the front, and the rest are ignored. The Latino kids never raise their hands to ask a question, and are never called upon to answer one.
As a keen seventh-grader I thrived on that extra attention, and this bizarre racial arrangement barely registered in my consciousness. Now fast-forward to Seattle, Washington in 1963, when both I and America were waking up to the issues of race. My high school, in Seattle’s South End, hosted an eclectic population of white, black, Japanese, Filipino and Jewish students, so the issues of race and ethnic differences were front and center. I played football, and our team was mostly composed of black kids. Our team’s locker room became a fascinating social laboratory, where traditional roles were reversed: we white kids got the shittiest lockers, had to wait until the black kids had finished showering before we got to, and we were the butt of (mostly mild) taunts and jokes.
This was a totally new experience for both groups. In the midst of the chaotic and fast-paced lives of seventeen-year olds, this locker room lab offered three invaluable life lessons. The black kids saw how they could play a more dominant role in American social life. We white kids got a small taste of what racism is like, even though it was mostly in jest. And all of us saw that we could work, and play, together.
Our head football coach, a white guy, was merely a cipher. We all respected and followed Brennan King, the affable black assistant coach. After winning an important playoff game, Brennan invited us dozen or so varsity players to supper at his favorite haunt, a popular jazz restaurant in Seattle’s black neighborhood on Jackson Street. We had no idea what to expect as we filed in to the spacious basement venue. As soon as the last of us got in the door, the entire restaurant crowd stood up and applauded.
The current website of that same highschool in Seattle offers text in five different languages.
When we moved to Canada, one of the jobs I had was with the Saskatchewan Indian Agriculture Program. Three of us worked out of a small rural office in Fort Qu’Appelle; a Cree, an Egyptian, and myself, the honky. We took great pleasure in gently upsetting everyone’s established racial stereotypes.
The opposite of racism is not passive acceptance. It is reaching out. It is active engagement.
(Note: this is the text of a letter sent to The Nature Trust of British Columbia, by myself and colleague Fred Marshall, in regards to livestock management in the White Lake Basin, an important ecological area in the South Okanagan.)
In a recent visit (May 8, 2020) to the Nature Trust’s White Lake Biodiversity Ranch, we noted some issues that disturbed us as Agrologists and as range managers. We would like to bring these to your attention.
On May 8 we observed livestock in three different pastures: Observatory, Lower Parker and Welsh Lake. According to the 2014 Grazing Management Strategy for the White Lake Basin Biodiversity Ranch, the “even year” (2020) rotations are as follows:
Observatory: Sept. 11-Oct. 20
Lower Parker: Apr 20-May 31 & July 6-July 10
Welsh Lake: June 21-July 20
We are aware that rotations need to be adjusted from time to time, but we do question why two out of the three pastures are currently out of rotation.
Modern range management strategies emphasize larger herds grazing for shorter periods of time in a given pasture, with longer rest periods in between. This encourages non-selective grazing and adequate rest periods, allowing our slow-growing native grasses to recover. This is essential in the spring, a period when native grasses are particularly sensitive to defoliation. We do not see this strategy reflected in the Biodiversity ranch rotation schedule.
The White Lake Basin has a long history of invasives, many pre-dating the Biodiversity Ranch. However, we are concerned that the current grazing practices are encouraging existing and new invasives. Observatory Pasture is one striking example. Diffuse Knapweed (Centaurea diffusa) populations are collapsing right across the southern Interior, due to successful biocontrol. Yet Diffuse Knapweed is extremely common in Observatory Pasture. Sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), a relatively new invasive, is now well established in the Basin.
Riparian Grazing Management
We were particularly distressed by the condition of lower Park Rill Creek (designated as “Riparian env” on the pasture map). Cattle have total access to this portion of the Creek, and they have destroyed all the riparian vegetation. As a result the Creek has downcut some two to three meters below the soil surface. This is inexcusable at the best of times, but even more so given the number of riparian and wetland-dependent species at risk in the White Lake Basin.
We do hope these issues will be attended to, and that the White Lake Biodiversity Ranch will someday live up to its name.
Fred Marshall, RPF, P.Ag Box 2, Midway, BC V0H 1M0
Don Gayton, M.Sc, P.Ag(ret). Box 851, Summerland, BC V0H 1Z0
This wooden bench sits under the shade of a sumac, part of a native plant garden bordering the sidewalk at our town’s library. I am sitting here, preparing to follow the instructions of Wolfgang Von Goethe. The auto parts store is next to the library, and as I dither, I begin to recognize a pattern in the cars that park in front of me. Big, late model pickup trucks for the auto parts store, small, older SUVs and sedans for the library. But all this keen observation is simply postponing my assignment, given to us by Dr. Nancy Holmes, poet and professor of English, in a nature writing seminar at the library. She has given us instructions on the five steps of the Goethean Method of nature observation, which has nothing to do with the relation between lifestyle and automobile choice.
The first step is to choose a natural object for observation. I cast my glance around and fix on a group of anonymous tall-stemmed ornamental plants near my bench. They are still in flower but rather scruffy looking, since it is late August. This garden is nothing like wilderness or even nature, but I can conveniently practice the Method on these plants from the comfort of my shady bench. Okay, Goethe says to firmly put aside all foreknowledge—particularly the scientific–of the natural object and just observe it as is, where is, but do so passionately. Which is odd since Goethe was also a scientist. I do that: in this case observational rigor is simple since there isn’t much to see. A group of tall stems with occasional, slightly withered leaves. Round, kind of spiky inflorescences with a few remaining pinkish flowers that a bumblebee visits. Is this one of the 356 native bumblebees of the Okanagan? Firmly, I snap a bracket around that diversionary scientific rabbithole, and proceed. My passionate observation of the plants is going well but something, some vague sense of familiarity, begins hovering out in the suburbs of consciousness. As an ecologist, I am acutely aware of this uncontrollable plant identification motor that runs in my head whenever I am outside, but for the Goethean exercise I have shut it down. As I lean in for a closer observation of the plants, something rips through the thin fabric of bracketed observation: square stems. The stems of these plants are square in cross section. I can’t help it; the autonomous motor re-starts. Square stems equals mint family. I pluck a leaf to sniff it; not quite mint, not quite lemon and pungent, like thyme or oregano. Immediately another motor starts up, that of memory. Of midsummer Saskatchewan prairie grasslands, of redolent pink flowers amongst a sea of native grass. That unique, unmistakable scent. Ignoring Goethe, the plant ID motor fires again: Monarda. Monarda fistulosa. Bee balm, or Wild Bergamot.
What a lovely plant, named in honor of Nicholas Monardes (1493-1588), a Spanish doctor who wrote about herbal medicines brought back from the recently discovered New World. There are some twenty species within the Monarda genus, all of which are North American natives, found pretty much everywhere, but only rarely in British Columbia. Ironically it was the Europeans that made them into popular ornamentals, which this one is. The name Bee Balm comes from the leaf’s reputed ability to soothe bee stings, and the Wild Bergamot name from its scent similarity to the true citrus Bergamot, a component of Earl Grey tea. Monarda flowers with their long funnels and hanging lower lips are hugely popular with insect pollinators, but the leaves not. In fact First Nations used a Monarda leaf concoction to keep their meat from spoiling. Reviewing contemporary wildcrafting literature, Bergamot oil seems to be a cure for pretty much everything from warts to menstrual cramps, making the skeptical reader a bit suspicious. Monarda was traditionally wild-harvested on the Canadian prairies and sold to perfume makers, who used the essential oil as an ingredient in their products. That cottage industry disappeared when chemists were able to synthesize a laboratory replacement for the oil.
Okay, enough of all that. Bracket all that historical, economic and scientific stuff and put it to one side. Stop telling this plant what it is, and give it a chance to explain itself to you; to your rational mind, your senses, and your imagination. Turn off your woo-woo shit detector, trust Goethe, and seek new organs of perception. Definitely a challenge for me, but well worth the effort.
A short walk through a tony Kelowna neighborhood has particular meaning for me. This walk is one taken by our fellowship of Cancer Center patients too cheap to pay parkade fees, and who don’t mind the three-block walk for free neighborhood parking. I have another personally meaningful walk in the White Lake Basin, an hour or so by car south of Kelowna. These two walks are joined by a tree, and separated by 50 million years.
During the Eocene Epoch the White Lake Basin supported lush semi-tropical vegetation. The signature tree species of that Epoch was Metasequoia, the Dawn Redwood, a deciduous conifer with lovely pinnate leaves. Fossilized bits and pieces of those delicate leaves can be found in the Basin, encased in sandstone. A few small samples I have collected are on display in our living room.
I was dimly aware of the history of Metasequoia, thought to be extinct until a single grove of it was found in China in the 1940’s, but I had no idea it had become a landscape tree, until I discovered one on my Kelowna cancer walk. There it was, big as life, in someone’s front yard. The tree’s unique foliage, a kind of hybrid cross between needles and leaves, provided instant recognition. I nipped off a single leaflet from the suburban Metasequoia, took it home and laid it alongside my fossil specimens from White Lake. They were absolutely identical.
I’m not altogether sure what meaning I should draw from this 50 million-year personal coincidence. How could I have not known Metasequoia is now a relatively common landscape tree? Should I marvel at the amazing durability of nature? Or the humbling of human history by fossil trees?
When I do the cancer walk, starting from free parking, past the Metasequoia and down the three blocks to the Sindi Ahluwalia Hawkins Cancer Centre, I am part of an unspoken community. We are all heading there for diagnosis, radiation, chemo or consultation. I am also keenly aware of my trivial membership in this community, an old man with low grade prostate cancer. That is forcefully driven home to me whenever I pass a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf. But like the Metasequoia, we all soldier on.
The object caught my attention immediately. It sat on a shelf in the “men’s section” of our local Thrift Shop, along with the usual old trowels, jars of rusty bolts and random door hinges. Made of strong gray and black plastic, the thing consisted of two interacting screw clamps mounted atop fluted cylinders, with a hole underneath. No markings, no manufacturer’s name. As I turned it over and over in my hands, fascinated, I discovered a label that a Thrift Shop volunteer had affixed to it. Evidently the volunteer was as baffled as I, since the label said:
Before going into more detail I need to pause momentarily, to provide background information on our Thrift Shop. Hugely popular, its official name is the Summerland Hospital Auxiliary, although if you use that name you often get blank stares. The Shop generates hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for our hospital, by selling donated items at 50 cents or a dollar, with the odd rare item going for as much as $20. Stuff is dropped off in the alley behind the Shop, sorted and priced by the volunteers, and then sold. Clothing, dishware, toys, DVDs, books, puzzles, you name it, chances are you can find it at the Thrift Shop. Originally, senior downsizing provided most of the Shop’s inventory, as our town’s old folks transitioned from family homes to apartment condos. But now, recycling of used items has caught on with the entire community. Many women I know do all their clothes shopping there. Used booksellers pillage the book section. Outgrown children’s skis and boots are donated, purchased, used for a year by the next youngster, and then returned to the Thrift Shop for the next cycle.
The Thrift Shop opens Tuesday to Saturday, 1pm to 4pm. On a typical Tuesday, a crowd begins to gather in front of the doors at about 12:30. They are nervous with excitement, knowing that two whole days of new donations have accumulated since the previous Saturday afternoon’s closing. Canny Thrift Shop volunteers place a few choice new items in the display window over the Sunday-Monday restocking period, thus titillating the crowd even further. Wednesday is also a big day, since the depleted shelves from the Tuesday onslaught are restocked Wednesday morning, from the famous private inner sanctum known as the “Staff Only Area.” Sometimes on April weekends, when half the town is engaged in spring cleaning, the Thrift Shop has to put a sign in the alley behind the store, begging for folks to hold off on their donations for a few days, due to capacity issues.
Nearly everyone in our small town has a Thrift Shop story: the incredible find, the one that got away, the thing you would surely find some use for, the donation followed by the buy-back, and so on.
But I have digressed from the Farbulator, which of course I bought. Its name brought to mind those words you use when you don’t know–or can’t remember—the actual name of the object in question. The Whatzit, the Doohickey, the Doofer, the Denksbumpf, the Schmilblick. I think a thoroughly researched investigation of this incredibly creative genre is worthy of an MA in English Lit. The thesis would of course be dedicated to the individual that came up with Retrospasmodic Farbulator.
A major rockslide recently blocked Highway 97, just north of where we live. This 97, the longest highway in North America, starts in Weed, California and ends somewhere in the Yukon, no one knows exactly where. In this, British Columbia’s steep and narrow Okanagan Valley, the 97 is the only viable north-south travel corridor. The February rockslide started from a high promontory favored by mountain goats. Witnesses said the loosened rocks started out house size, but were then reduced to van size when they hit the pavement. There was instant commuter consternation, since commuting is our lifeblood here in the Okanagan, and there were no obvious alternate routes. No way to get to and from Kelowna, the Big Box city. At first we all assumed the closure would be a matter of a day or two–this simply could not be a repeat of that horrendous prolonged rockslide closure of 2008. But the commuterless, shopperless days dragged on. Adventurous young bucks in F-350’s began exploring various sketchy and unmarked bush roads to get around the blockage. Even more adventurous tow truck drivers began raking in big cash by towing the bucks out. A rumor circulated that a lovely young woman in a party dress arrived at one end of the rockslide and convinced an adoring Mountie to escort her on foot over the rocks, to meet her partner on the other side.
Finally the Ministry of Transportation got involved, and established a signed and graded detour of 200 kilometers, following Forest Service Mains up the east side of the valley. Then a few days later they announced a shorter detour of only 90 kilometers, on the handier west side of the valley. My wife needed to catch the Vancouver-bound bus, which stops on Highway 97 just a short drive north our home, but on the far side of the rockslide. So we girded our loins, packed up toques and mittens, checked tires and gassed up, ready to take on the shorter detour.
The Ministry’s map of the “alternate route” showed a crude and wobbly V laid on it’s side. One end of the V started at our home town of Summerland; the other end touched down at Peachland, twenty kilometers away up 97, with the rockslide in between. The vertex of the V was near a community far out in the bush called Mazama.
Pavement switched to gravel just a few kilometers out of Summerland, but we soon discovered that frozen graded gravel, with skiffs of ice here and there, provided pretty good traction for our aging Honda CRV. So off into the forest we went, the road continuously winding, angling mostly upward and occasionally downward. The very odd straight stretch of a few hundred meters was usually followed by a hairpin and then a one-lane bridge. This was clearcut country, the vast and seldom visited Southern Interior warehouse of lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, mines, powerlines and reservoirs.
We passed occasional convoys of commuters coming the other way, and they slowed down respectfully as we passed. There was a sense that we were all in this together, and if anyone needed help, several cars would pull over to offer it. When we finally reached our turning point at the end of the V, I realized the community of Mazama consisted of one bush ranch and nothing else. It got dark as we started the long descent toward Peachland, and dry, flaky snow started falling. Fortunately visibility was improved by the bright, continuous meter-high barrier of recently plowed snow on either side of the road.
To help pass the time, we reminisced about that first 97 rockslide, which happened right in the same area. We were returning from Vancouver when it occurred, and we were the first car to be stopped by the lone flagman a few kilometers north of the slide. “How long do you think it will be?” we asked. “Dunno, but you can wait if you like.” We chose not to, and headed back to Kelowna, seeking the alternate eastside route to get home to Summerland. The directions we got were pretty vague, but we set out, winding through the suburbs of south Kelowna, blithely assuming there would be signage. We soon realized we were lead car in a small convoy of fellow commuters who were relieved, assuming they were following someone who knew the road.
Several kilometers later we finally stopped on what had morphed into a glorified, muddy goat trail, full of ruts, rocks and roots. Adventurous young bucks in Ford F-350’s and camo gear were stunned by our surprise arrival at their 4WD playground. They gave us to understand our little six-car convoy was definitely on the wrong road. In fact, not a road at all, and that we best turn around. The car behind us, a Dodge Caliber containing four nurses returning from a convention, needed help. The young bucks provided instant assistance to get them turned around.
We did, finally, make it home, and Highway 97 reopened—19 days later. As challenging as the detour was, we were glad we didn’t decide to “wait.”
But enough reminiscing about the last rockslide and back to the present. Even though we were on the descent to Peachland, we were still way, way out in the bush. I had reset the trip meter at Mazama, and I checked it again when we finally re-emerged on to Highway 97. Forty-six kilometers out, forty-four back: a fearful symmetry.
We arrived at the bus stop in time to get Judy on the bus for her seven-hour trip over the Coquihalla, to Vancouver. It was a true Canadian adventure.
A house enjoys both physical and emotional warmth, but in a Canadian winter cold snap, it is the physical component occupies our attention. Visible heat, in the form of a woodstove, always seems more gratifying than the anonymity of gas or electric heat. There are two parts to the physical warmth of a house: the generation of heat, and the keeping of it. This latter has always fascinated me: window seals, door sweeps, vapor barriers, insulation batts and even double-muffled dog doors I find immensely compelling. I cut my teeth on this subject in Saskatchewan in the early 1980’s, that brief time when we Canadians actually cared about energy conservation. A friend, Rob Dumont, built an energy efficient house in Regina. I “can heat it with a toaster,” he bragged. Dumont was the subject of some popular envy at the time.
This Summerland house we live in was built
sometime in the 1930’s, with the classic floor plan of the era; small rooms and
narrow hallways, a basement fruit cellar and a half-story loft upstairs. The
anonymous carpenter who built it was no professional, but he didn’t stint on
materials: the floor joists are massive rough-cut 2×12’s. When we renovated the
interior, I stripped off mountains of lath and plaster to get down to the bare 2x4s,
which actually measured up to and even beyond their name. The one material the
anonymous carpenter did scrimp on was insulation. Actually he didn’t scrimp:
there was simply no insulation at all. Just a few newspapers here and there,
which made for interesting historical reading.
Insulating a new house is a challenge;
insulating a heritage 1 1/2 story renovation moves beyond challenge into
obsession. You have to consider air movement, condensation points, R values and
airtightness while completely swaddled in dust mask, gloves and overalls. Peering
through foggy goggles, you join vapor barriers with a runny black goo that promises
to stay sticky for thirty years. You spend endless hours in claustrophobic
crawl spaces. Insulation dust mixes with sweat to form the itchiest compound
known to man. But somehow, the job goes forward. You become expert in cutting
batts without measuring, and laying them into uneven joist spaces with a
perfect press-fit. You seal vapor barriers like you would tuck a cold child
into a warm bed. And you prowl the house like a forensic detective, looking for
tiny air leaks.
I am a great fan of Roxul, an insulation
batt that is partly made from an enormous mining slag pile near Grand Forks,
BC. It’s a little stiffer than the ordinary fiberglass insulation, and I
discovered that it cuts beautifully with a serrated bread knife. Who knew.
The payoff to this prolonged and itchy
obsession is heat retention. You don’t keep cold out; you keep heat—produced by
you, the dog, the woodstove, the baseboard heaters, the coffee pot, the bathtub,
even the toaster–in. All this is so you can sit in comfort in an easy chair
next to the woodstove, with the dog on your lap, and contemplate the soft mechanics
I don’t look forward to winter, but once
it’s fully arrived, I settle into it.
Days get short, and my world gets smaller. All those springtime tasks I
planned on doing got pushed into summer, then into fall and are now blissfully
forgotten. The focus now is on the mechanics of warmth. Domestic life centers
around the woodstove in the living room. The woodpile is assessed on a daily
basis, and I am reminded of a universal law of firewood physics: the driest
wood is always at the bottom of the pile.
Next to the woodstove is an easy chair, and next to that is a coffee
table, where piles of half-read books and research journals accumulate. Stale coffee cups and an empty wine glass or
two the remaining space. Both the dog and the cat make their sleeping areas
close to the stove, but whenever I leave my easy chair for a moment, one of
them will instantly colonize it, claiming my residual body heat.
An easy chair in front of an
energy-efficient woodstove is a good place to speculate about the carbon
footprint, which is actually more like a highly interconnected spider web than
it is a footprint. Every log I put in the stove sends a packet of greenhouse
gas into the atmosphere. But every log I put in means I use less electricity,
which in BC’s hydro-based generation system doesn’t produce carbon, but
troubles our rivers instead. And the beetle-killed lodgepole pine I’m burning:
is it better off to stay in the forest? Will it burn anyway, in a wildfire? Is
cutting firewood one way of reducing the density of our overgrown dry forests?
What about the fuel and chainsaw gas I use to get the wood? It seems that
climate change has made everyday decisions far more complicated. But I suspect
the real truth is that our previous decisions were far too simple and
Re-read Walt Whitman (1819-1892). (If you aren’t familiar with his work, you are in for a treat.)
He is celebratory, and pansexual. An Everyman, and solitary poet/thinker. An American patriot and passionate internationalist. Critical thinker and Dionysian hedonist. Naturalist and urbanite. A pacifist, and an unabashed feminist. Devoted to personal freedoms and to empathy. And one hell of a poet.
(The following quotes are from Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, Toby Press, 2003)
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
My spirit has pass’d in compassion and determination around the whole earth,
I have look’d for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands,
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.
Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
Will we rate our cash and business high? I have no objection,
I rate them as high as the highest—then a child born of a woman and man I rate beyond all rate.
We thought our Union grand, and our Constitution grand,
I do not say they are not grand and good, for they are,
I am this day just as much in love with them as you,
Then I am in love with You, and with all my fellows upon the earth.
We consider bibles and religions divine—I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give life, it is you who give the life,
Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth than they are shed out of you.