Category Archives: Blog

Vietnam, The Draft, Resistance And Racism

This is the first part of a discussion triggered by The Girl in the Kent State Photo.

At a demonstration against the Vietnam war at Kent State University (Ohio) in 1970, four students were shot and killed by the US National Guard

From Corky Evans, Winlaw, BC

I was raised in a white, middle class town. It was an enclave of Oakland, California called Piedmont. It was made into a legal entity (I figure) by rich white people who did not want to pay taxes to Oakland. Working people were their servants and gardeners or their employees in business “downtown.” Some people there were so rich that when my part of town played baseball against them the newspaper reported the game as “The Serfs Against the Squires.”

I went to church, a progressive church also full of white people. I said those words every day that you are taught to say about America in school. I hid under my desk for air-raid drills in case Russia started a war and bombed our town. I wanted to grow up to be Don Larsen and pitch a perfect game in the World Series. 

When I was sixteen my mother married a guy from Tucson, Arizona and we moved. I went to a much poorer school with so many students they had to run two shifts. The first shift started at 6:30 and the second shift ended at 6:30. I had good friends. I dated girls, worked pumping gas and selling plants and washing dishes in a cowboy bar. My girlfriend’s father was a General in the Airforce at a base outside of town. I went to church Sunday mornings.

I think I was privileged, for sure. We had money as a family and I had my own money from working various jobs. But I also think it was a completely normal American upbringing. I was not a student. I made a deal with the Dean of Boys at my high school. The deal was that if I agreed to withdraw my name from the election for Student Body President he would assure that I could graduate.

When I was about 17 I went back to Oakland for the summer to stay with my dad and work. My dad had a friend staying with him that I had known all my life. His name was John. John was a war hero from WWII. He was also a College professor and a person with serious depression and other troubles that my family felt had come from his time at war. John was staying with us while he attended a Veterans Hospital for treatment of mental illness. I liked the guy. We slept in the same room, as did my step-brother Andy. 

One night when nobody else was at home John wanted to strike up a conversation. He said “So, Corky, what do you think you would like to do when you grow up?” I said “I think I would like to be a jet pilot like my girlfriend’s father in the Air Force.” John’s face turned dark like I had never seen and he said “That’s a good idea. Then you could kill people from 10.000 feet and never have to watch them bleed.”

I went home to Arizona and got a call from Andy saying that John had shot himself in the garage. I think I had heard of Viet Nam by then but I had never thought about it and had no idea where it was or what was going on. But John had got me started thinking about war. The closest connection I had to the military was when a friend of mine got a girl pregnant who was underage. A judge told him he could go to jail or enlist in the Army. 

Then stuff began to unravel. Thanks to my deal with the Dean I graduated. I was allowed to go to a small college in Oregon only if I agreed to attend summer school and passed some courses. I was elected Class President. I smoked some grass. I began to learn about Viet Nam. It occurred to me that maybe the stuff I had grown up to believe was maybe not the whole story. I dropped out by Christmas. 

Over the course of the next few years much of my family fell apart. My older brother was arrested at demonstrations from San Francisco to New York. He was given electro-shock and never worked again. My step-brother Andy and I went to a demonstration at the Oakland Induction Center with thousands of other people. He was arrested and wound up in solitary confinement for singing in jail. My step-sister Cesca married a black man and moved into a white neighborhood. They both had good jobs at the time. Her for the phone company and him as a foreman in a factory. They were arrested for armed robbery and held in jail just long enough to lose their jobs and their house.

My dad was in the Air Force in WWII and again in the Korean War. Then he went to Law School on a program called the GI Bill and became a Public Defender. He believed in the justice system. He believed in his job. When Andy went to prison my dad tried to visit him in prison. The Guards refused him entry even though he had worked there interviewing clients for years. He flipped out. It broke his heart and his faith in his life’s work. He began to look for ways to leave the country.

I told my dad I was going to mail my draft card back to the government. And accept prosecution.  He said “then you will go to prison and get raped, you won’t like that so you will take heroin to feel better. Then when the war is over they will let you out and nobody will recognize you as the person you once were.” He gave me and Andy his truck and he told us to go to Canada. We got as far as Oregon and while we were there Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for office again. Andy and I were young. We imagined that Johnson was the bad guy and now the war would end. We turned around and went back to Oakland.

I was called up for physical by the Draft. I went to the induction center and passed all the tests. They sent us, with a Sargent to mind us, to lunch at a diner across the street. I climbed out of a window from the Men’s Room and ran. 

During a demonstration at the Induction Center I was witness to an assault on a Police Officer. Hundreds of Police were there and when dawn broke they charged the people. Andy and I had spent the night in a church with a group of people who thought they were pacifists. (Maybe I did, too.) Then we went and sat with a group of people who wanted to block the building and remain non-violent. When the police charged they broke heads with clubs as they moved through that group sitting in front of the building. I moved. And then helped people turn over cars to make a barricade. And the demonstration turned into a riot.

Maybe an hour later I was in an intersection with a crowd of people when the Highway Patrol cops charged the demonstrators. I did not have time to escape the area so I stepped behind a pillar outside a store. As the cops went past me a black woman in a hospital worker’s uniform walked beside the pillar and out onto the street. She looked to me like she was on her way home after a graveyard shift at the hospital. Her arms were full of grocery bags and she couldn’t see over them to realize what she was walking into. Maybe 40 cops were charging across the intersection. All the demonstrators had run so there was nobody for the police to confront as they moved through the crossing. Until they got to the pillar I was hiding behind. At exactly that moment the woman with the grocery bags stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of the cops. They clubbed her against the plate glass window she was passing. Her bags ripped open and she fell forward, oranges and milk bottles spilling out onto the sidewalk. When she hit the ground they picked her up so they could club her again. This time she fell over a city garbage can that toppled and spilled its waste. A heavy steel conical lid came off the garbage can and bounced on the pavement as the cops went past, still clubbing the woman. 

I was that white kid raised in safety and ignorance. I was drawn forward in the wake of this outrage but had no response. As I watched in horror a young black man, my age, ran past me, grabbed the garbage can lid, spun like a discuss thrower, and threw it at the cop who was now beating the woman in front of him. The guy who threw the lid just kept spinning as he let go, and kept on running back around the corner he had come from. The lid hit the cop at the base of his helmet. I know it hit the helmet from the sound of the clash, a sound I can still hear. The cop went down. The 39 other cops turned around and saw: me.

The intersection where this happened was on the edge of the black community in West Oakland. I spun around and ran. I was young and fast and not weighted down with flack jackets and clubs and helmets. I outran the cops and kept going until I crossed into the white and wealthier part of town. When I slowed down I understood what privilege was, I think for the first time in my life.  My step-brother Andy got out of prison on bail. At dinner he told us what had happened to him. When his mom and my dad expressed sympathy he said “Oh, my charges are nothing. My cellmate is in real trouble.” My dad asked what his cellmate was charged with and Andy said “Assault with intent to kill. A police officer. With a garbage can lid.” I asked Andy what the guy looked like. He said, “White, young, thin.” Then I told my story. My dad asked Andy who the guy’s lawyer was and Andy said “Bob Truehaft.” And my dad got up from the table and called that lawyer to tell him what we had discussed. Then he came back and said to me, “You go and see him tomorrow.”

Bob Truehaft was the first real Communist I had ever met. His office was above the Army/Navy store downtown. The only reading material in the waiting room was the Workers World. When I got into his office he said, essentially, “What do you want?” I said I didn’t want anything. I had just come to tell him what I had seen. He asked me where I had been and I told him the street and the time. He got up and took a big stack of photographs off of his filing cabinet and shuffled through them until he found the one he needed. He showed me the picture, taken I guess by the cops from above the parking garage across the street. He said “Is that you?” I said “Yes.” And then he repeated, in a sort of angry voice “So what do you want? You are here telling me this person in this picture, who is obviously breaking the law, is you. You didn’t come here to say that unless you want something from me.”

So I got kind of pissed off and said I came there to tell what I knew. I had been taught that the truth was important. He said “This is America. Nothing is free so what is your price?” I got up to leave and then he calmed down and talked to me and I told him what I knew.

A few weeks later I sat in the hall at the Courthouse with 6 Highway Patrolmen, all of us waiting to be called in to testify. The cops were openly building a common story to give a testimony. They testified and then I was called. I was asked if the guy in the dock was the guy I saw throw the garbage can lid. I said no. I was asked how I knew for sure and I said “because he isn’t black.”

The District Attorney got up and said “You say your name is Evans. Who is your father.” I told them my father was Phil Evans. The District Attorney then said to the Judge “I move that this witness’s testimony be stricken on the grounds that we all know his father and his father would have taught his sons to lie.”

The accused was found not guilty and as we walked out of the building I realized that his crime was he looked a lot like me. The cops had just run far enough to find somebody that they could imagine was the person they saw after the can lid hit their compatriot.

Bob Truehaft stopped me on the street. He said “Thank you.” And then he said “come and see me tomorrow.”

When I went to see him he said “Why aren’t you drafted yet?” And I told him about escaping from the Induction Center and I said I did not know what would happen next. He said “So now I will tell you what we will do for you. My law partner, Malcolm Bernstein is the best draft lawyer in America. He is in Viet Nam right now with Tom Hayden. As soon as he comes back we will become your lawyers and try and keep you out of the war.” So, as it turned out, he was right, everything in America does have a price.

The first thing we tried was an application to be a Conscientious Objector, based on my 18 years or so as a Christian. I built a portfolio of people who would say that I was a Christian and believed that “thou shall not kill.” I was advised that in order to have your Draft Board believe you it was best to bring a Minister to the hearing to speak on your behalf. My Draft Board was back in Tucson so I made an appointment and traveled, for the last time in my life, back to Arizona. I went to see Reverend Barr, the Minister of the church I had belonged to when I lived there. I actually thought he would help me. When I made my request he said “No I won’t help you. If you won’t go kill gooks for Christ you are forbidden to ever enter this church again.”

The Draft Board members said they were sure I was a Communist and I was raised by Communists and rejected my appeal and pronounced me 1A, the designation for those at the top of the Draft list.

A few months before that trip to Arizona I had met a woman. Martin Luther King had been assassinated and the people at the church I had been raised in as a boy decided to have a Retreat to talk about the issue of race in America. I got hired to wash dishes by the cook at the camp they were meeting at. They had a guest speaker.  She was a woman in her twenties who was studying Black History at Oakland City College. After I finished the dishes I went up to the meeting house to hear the presentation and discussion. It was going very badly. The church folks were wealthy white people whose only contact with black people was as workers in their homes or businesses. The woman trying to communicate the history of racism in America was trying to use facts as information. People like those in the room don’t believe in facts if they contradict their cultural beliefs. I found myself intervening to try and help the woman explain her position. I had been raised among such people. I knew who they were and what they might be willing to consider.

The next day the woman offered to drive me back to the city and I met her kids. We saw each other a few times. It looked like there was a chance for some romance happening. Essentially, she said “Your ignorance is in our way. Take these 5 or 10 books home and read them and then come back.” When I got off the airplane coming back from Tucson I had no idea where to go or how to live. I was pretty sure I was going to war. I phoned the woman with the books from the airport. I told her I had read the books. She came and got me.

She said “I belong to a group called Whites Against Racism, WAR for short. We are good at organizing and we know what has to be done but we aren’t good at speaking. Here’s the deal, you join the group and talk for us in public. We will tell you what to say and you say it in such a way that people will listen. In exchange, I will marry you and you will become the step-father of two children and become Draft Exempt.”

I agreed to the deal and moved into her apartment in Berkeley. Her apartment was registered in somebody else’s name. She was sort of in hiding. She had been married to a black guy and her daughters were mixed race. After her marriage ended she and her daughters lived in a house in East Oakland.  Some people painted swastikas on her house and said if her children lived in that house they would burn it down. And then they did. With Molotov Cocktails through the window while the family slept inside. They got out before the house collapsed. 

When the police came they only showed her pictures of black people. When she said Black people don’t threaten to burn out black people, the cops said she must have friends who are Leftists. She ran. From the people who had burned down her house and from the police who now suspected her of being a troublemaker. And lived in apartment rented by a friend.

We started to fall in love. At which point we called off the marriage deal. It seemed foolish to get married to solve a political problem and then not know if we were really married or not. And my dad said “You can do anything you want with your own life. But not with kids’ lives. You marry her for real or you move out.” Which seemed like good advice.

The year I turned 21 and my dad turned 50 I got married and he and his wife left the country. I never saw him again.

Then the good Communist lawyer guy figured out that now I really was the step-father of two kids and filed for an exemption with the Draft Board. At that time you could make more money on welfare with two kids than you made as a private in the Army. America didn’t want soldiers’ families on welfare so two kids was enough to get a deferral.

Then People’s Park happened. When we got married a weird aunt gave us a tree for a wedding present. A tree is a strange thing to give people who live in a tenement. We stuck it out on the fire escape and looked for somewhere to plant it. Pretty soon we heard that some people were making a park out of a dirt parking lot near us in Berkeley. So we took the tree there and planted it. Then we got captured by the fun of making something beautiful out of something ugly. We went every weekend when we weren’t at work and planted grass and bushes and built stuff for kids to play on.

Ronald Reagan was the Governor of California at the time and he wanted to be President. He realized that if he came down hard enough on the people in Berkeley that were building this illegal park he could be famous all over the country. One night we were drinking wine with a friend who had been drafted and was about to go overseas. It came on the radio that 10 or 20 busloads of cops from towns all over Northern California had arrived to take back the park. I went. 

Standing in the park with maybe 50 other people, after midnight, I picked up a rock. Then I looked out at the assembled police firepower around us and realized, “they WANT me to throw this rock. If I do, all of these people are at risk.” And I dropped the rock and picked up the rakes and shovels and hoes and took them to the seminary across the street to hide them. Many others did too, and when we were outside the perimeter and the cops and their contractors began to put up a fence around People’s Park.

The next day the city went crazy. One of the cops with a deer rifle killed a guy sitting on a rooftop watching the riot. Then the National Guard came and surrounded the block we lived on with barbed wire. They used tear gas from helicopters. One of our kids said “Mommy, the sky’s on fire.” We had a pistol under the mattress. It wasn’t ours and we had no ammunition. But for the first time in my life I realized that my Draft Board had been right about one thing: I was no pacifist.

So we left. We came to Canada in a pickup truck and lied at the Border and said we were on vacation. War resisters in Vancouver taught us how to apply to stay. We borrowed money and put it in a bank account in Oakland to make it look like we had $1000. I found an employer who would write me a letter and say I could have a job. We went back across the Border and got haircuts and came across and lied again, saying we were coming to take this job and wished to immigrate. Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister. He had told his Border Guards to be kind to young people at the Border. They knew we were lying. We had no real money of our own. We did not speak French. We had no College or University degrees. They let us in. They let us in and they let us stay. The kids are grown up now and I haven’t lived with their mother for a long time. But we are all still here.

This is supposed to be “about” the Kent State killings by the National Guard so many years ago. I do not think I was touched by the event like would have been expected. By the time that happened I had lost my sense that any of us could survive the violence unleased in America. It took Neil Young to make me pay attention.

Ohio, by Crosby Stills and Nash (1970) Written by Neil Young

Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio….
More on the Kent State photo at https://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/68976-the-girl-in-the-kent-state-photo

A Nagging Wish for the Divine

Jack Logie on horseback
Jack Logie on horseback

Local history intersects with world history, resulting in entanglements. As a resident of our small town of Summerland, I was casually aware of the family surname Logie, as in Logie Road, which winds through an industrial area and some adjacent vineyards. But then I stumbled on to mention of one Jack Logie, and his highly alliterative “Summerland Social Issues Summer School” from the 1920’s. This School, apparently, taught a melange of mysticism, arts and crafts, trade-unionism, and socialism.  Wow! Right here? In my bucolic, sleepy, politically conservative small town, which was a mere village in the 1920’s? 

Of course I was hooked, and dove right in.

Helena Blavatsky
Helena Blavatsky

Ok, be patient as we virtually transport to southern Russia, 1831, as Helena Blavatsky is born. Blavatsky masters several languages, travels to India and England, writes prolifically and pioneers a new religious movement called Theosophy. This new Theosophical torch then gets handed off to an Englishwoman, Annie Besant (1847-1933), also a prolific writer, traveller to India, adoptive mother of Krishnamurti, supporter of women’s rights and of various independence movements. Besant gives a lecture in New York, triggering the formation of the American Theosophical movement. Shortly after that, a Canadian chapter is born.

Theosophy is very difficult to pin down, as it ranges from the rational to the occult, with many levels in between. The three Declared Objects of the Theosophical Society are: 

  • To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.
  • To encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science.
  • To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.

Theosophy was simultaneously able to juggle some very diverse ideas: karma, trade unionism, the Sixth Root Race, social activism, Shambala and the Astral Plane. Gee, and I thought we invented karma in the Sixties, and I was sure that Shambala was a suburb of the hippie community of Nelson!

Our story now moves back to Jack Logie, born in Manitoba in 1881, trains as a pharmacist, moves to Summerland and opens a pharmacy. Diminutive, with one bad leg as a result of a childhood illness, Logie dives into community affairs with amazing energy. A talented musician, he forms the Summerland Brass and Reed Band. He is a Noble Grand of the local Odd Fellows, he reads poetry, leads young people on hikes into the mountains, and studies local Indigenous culture. 

As the Great Depression sets in, Logie becomes concerned about working people, and is influenced by the rising tide of socialist and Marxist thought. In response he starts a local handicraft group to create pottery, wood carvings and basketry for sale. He builds a log cabin adjacent to the main road, where the crafters can work and sell their wares. Theosophy is in the air at the time, and it is a natural for Logie. He signs up.

Now for an aside, where local events again intersect with national ones. As Logie embraces Theosophy, so do Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and Lawren Harris, they of Group of Seven fame. In turn, Lawren Harris introduces British Columbia painter Emily Carr to Theosophy. 

Jiddu Krishnamurti was chosen to become the Theosophist’s guru, but he eventually breaks away from all organized religions, becoming a powerful and thoughtful force on his own.

But back to Logie. In 1922, Jack starts his School at the log cabin, which runs for ten days each summer. Tents and cots are made available to out-of-towners, and speakers come from all over Canada.  Topics range from arts, music and economics, to Marxism, poetry, theater and pottery. A prominent visiting speaker is Reverend. J.S. Woodsworth, the iconic Canadian social activist and founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) the progenitor of the NDP.  

Meanwhile a group of Theosophists on Vancouver Island create an Aquarian Foundation and build a retreat near Nanaimo. The Foundation transforms into a toxic cult, led by the infamous Brother XII (Edward Wilson), who eventually absconds with a fortune donated by wealthy devotees. 

Logie leaves Summerland in 1927. This may have been due to the local press and business leaders, who were of course not thrilled with Jack’s brand of politics, but he definitely left his mark. Jack Logie’s log cabin still stands. I pass it every time I drive from our home down to Okanagan Lake, and it reminds me synthesis is possible: arts and politics, philosophy and crafts can mix to mutual benefit. 

Putting aside all the occultist Vedic/Astral/Sixth Race woo-woo bullshit, Theosophy does offer something to this lifelong but pining atheist: the notion of a Secular Divine. That God is actually humans and nature, together. 

Theosophists do believe in a secular heaven. Coincidentally, it is called Summerland.

American Tragedy, Canadian Mandate

Trump/Mussolini

Events surrounding the recent American presidential election prompt a number of adjectives– despicable, ludicrous, pathological and so on. But the word that comes to my mind, as one who spent the first 28 years of his life in that country, is tragic.

I do have to remind myself that Donald Trump is merely the visible tip of an iceberg, one that we didn’t see coming. To understand why a third of adult Americans buy in to fake news and crazed conspiracy theories, one has to back up twenty years or so, and question schools, teachers, parents and the society in general that allowed this third to lose its grip on both facts and ethics.  That loss is what paved the way for Trump, and Mussolini, and Hitler. Pathological personalities come to power partly on their own accord, but mostly because the public allows them, either passively standing by or by active welcome.  

One of the observations emerging from the Trump/Biden election is the totally bizarre and arcane mechanics of American presidential elections. Surprisingly, this is the first time the machine, which makes Rube Goldberg’s Self-operating Napkin look simple in comparison, has nearly broken down.

Self-operating napkin – Rube Goldberg

Many of us Canadians have been watching American presidential election news obsessively. Certainly it is hard not to, but beyond that it is almost second nature for us, and for our news media, to closely follow US news. As one wag said, “Americans are woefully ignorant about Canada; Canadians are sinfully knowledgeable about the USA.” But it is important to remember that their political systems are not the same as ours, and their social ethics are not the same as ours: in fact they are poles apart.

It is time we begin making clear US/Canadian distinctions: honoring our system of government, celebrating our multi-party system, re-engaging in politics from local through to federal levels, standing up for multiculturalism, and guarding against the northward seepage of conspiracy theories across our southern border. In short, being proud Canadians instead of surrogate Americans. I say this particularly to my fellow dual citizens and ex-Americans living in Canada. There is a fine line between ho-hum laissez-faire patriotism and toxic super-patriotism. We can find that line.

The United States has always thought of itself as the beacon of democracy to the rest of the world. Their example is now severely dimmed and tarnished. It is time for us Canadians to proudly raise our beacon, and the world will thank us for it.  

Shimano-600

Derailleuring

My history with bicycles goes back to about 1954, beginning with a Schwinn pedal-brake one-speed, fat-tired bomber. My next iteration, a few years after that, was a road bike with the amazing Sturmey-Archer 3-speed shifter, which sat right up on the handlebars. That was indeed revolutionary: I distinctly remember the satisfying click the shifter made as I moved effortlessly between all three (count them!) gears.

Bicycles do accumulate, as they are hard to part with. I believe I have seven (excluding the little ones for visiting grandchildren). My inventory includes a Moser, a Bianchi, and a beautiful carbon-fiber Trek from my friend Dave. Recently I pulled out an old Nishiki 12-speed from the back shed, to clean it up and put it on an indoor bike trainer for winter exercise. In the process of going over the Nishiki, I was struck by its lovely derailleur, a Shimano 600, which I had never really paid any attention to before. 

Started by the 26-year old Shozaburo Shimano in Japan in 1921, the Shimano company celebrates its hundredth anniversary in 2021. Shimano started off producing bicycle freewheels, the sprocket that delivers power to the rear wheel but which also allows you to stop pedalling without being instantly launched off your bike.

The modern bicycle derailleur—a fancy term for a gear shifter–is a paragon of mechanical ingenuity. It has to move forwards and backwards, inwards and outwards, all the while maintaining the appropriate tension on a continuously moving bicycle drive chain. When downshifting, the derailleur must adroitly deliver the chain from the smallest sprocket to the next bigger one. Depending on the number of speeds your bike has, it must do this same delivery five, six or seven times, and then back down again when you upshift.  

My Shimano 600 is probably the final state of the art of the “find and grind” style of derailleur, which was soon overtaken by SIS, the index shifting revolution, which Shimano introduced in the 1980s. SIS shifting automatically centers the chain over the appropriate sprocket. 

The delicate filigrees on my 600 suggests that Shimano may have been influenced by their Italian competitor Campagnolo, who built high-end derailleurs that were not only perfectly functional, but elegant as well. What a wonderful notion, to incorporate a bit of art into one of the most relentlessly mechanical devices we humans have ever invented.

Shimano-600
Two highway campaign signs were defaced with graffiti near our home

Democracy, Defacement and Domestic Terrorism

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

Brennan King (far right), night game, Seattle, 1964.

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.  

Biodiversity Ranch

(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.

Livestock Rotations

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.

Invasives

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.

Observatory Pasture, May 8, 2020. Vegetation is dominated by invasives, and non-palatable Wyoming Big Sage (Artemisia tridentata).
Observatory Pasture, May 8 2020. Dense carpet of Diffuse Knapweed rosettes.
Looking SSW to Park Rill Creek: loss of riparian vegetation. Cattle in Welsh Lake Pasture in the distance.
Park Rill Creek. Riparian vegetation grazed out, loss of bank stability from roots, and subsequent streambank downcutting.
Cattle in Park Rill Creek, adjacent to Observatory entrance. This destructive riparian grazing could be easily eliminated with some fencing and an off-site watering facility.

We do hope these issues will be attended to, and that the White Lake Biodiversity Ranch will someday live up to its name.

Sincerely,

Fred Marshall, RPF, P.Ag
Box 2, Midway, BC V0H 1M0

Don Gayton, M.Sc, P.Ag(ret).
Box 851, Summerland, BC V0H 1Z0

Wolfgang Von Goethe and Bee Balm

Monarda image

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.

Eocene Walk

Metasequoia

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.

Naming the Nameless

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:

Retrospasmodic Farbulator.

Price $1

retrospasmodic farbulator

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.

PS: I welcome any contributions to the genre.