Melody Hessing: The View from Naramata
Melody Hessing came to the Okanagan Valley in 1973, when she and her husband built a house on the rocky slopes of Okanagan Mountain, north of Naramata. The following excerpts are from a forthcoming book about her experience of the south Okanagan landscape.
When we moved here, the Okanagan Valley seemed like a mirage, an illusion, a hothouse Brigadoon of liquid open lake and threadbare, dry hills. Living in a cul-de-sac meant that we wouldn't be a drive-by to somewhere else. People wouldn't live here if it meant half an hour's drive just to buy a litre of milk.
Nowadays they'd run!
I'm not kidding. Ironmen and Ironwomen bike, swim, run back and forth to work, to school, to town. Extreme sports athletes - climbers and skiers and cyclists somersaulting from rock cliffs - have replaced farmers and tractors and 120-per-hour harvest marathons. Western Living features Naramata homes - minimalist architect-designed houses. One pine tree, a rock, tile floors, stark furnishings. No people. No marmots either.
A huge cloud blankets the sky to the south, with a sombreness that I am learning to associate with Okanagan winter. A temperature inversion socks in daily over the valley nowadays, due to carbon dioxide from cars, wood stoves, and the burning of orchard prunings. Even sunshine days are muffled by a lint-grey cold.
Around the Naramata townsite, huge cottonwoods tower overhead, their bark crevassed to supply them with oxygen. Along the shore, we spot pygmy nuthatches, Lewis's woodpeckers, golden crowned kinglets, mountain chickadees, buffleheads, coots and mallards. The sun blushes into the afternoon, backlighting the cliffs to the northeast. The lifting cloud exposes a crinkle of snow up to the KVR tracks and the rolling ridgeline.
As I take another load of supplies out to the house site this afternoon, a ping pong moon bounces into the sky and over the railroad tracks. The nightly moat of darkness soon surrounds the house. The coyotes start yipping, in a tight, tiny siren of cries. "Yip, yip, yiiiiiippp!" I squeal back. Then their reply - little squeaky cries, shrill and sharp.
Temperatures are dropping fast. Even before the bears have denned, I am hibernating; putting on fat, progressing from one cup of cocoa to the next as I putter around the house. This morning the world beyond the cliff is foggy: a diffuse grey, featureless and infinite. There is no lake.
A bedraggled kestrel perches on the snag out back.
* * *
"You'll never guess what Lucy found."
Leslie, Alex and Jeannie's neighbour, cups her hands in front of her on the kitchen table while Lucy, her golden retriever, whines just outside the door.
"We give up. What is it?" Jay stands behind Leslie, staring at her hands. She slowly opens them at the top, revealing something furry and greyish-brown, like a mouse or a bat.
"What is that?" blurts Jay.
"Have a better look," says Leslie, depositing the fur ball into Jay's outstretched hand. "Hold it close. We need to keep it warm. Now, what do you think this is?"
Jay cradles the little ball of fluff, stroking it with one finger. "It's rounder than a mouse. The face is softer. It reminds me of a pika. The face is fuller. Like a squirrel. Where did you find it?"
"You're getting close. Lucy brought it home. She carried it into the house, and dropped it on the floor."
Jay holds the little creature up to his face. "It has enormous eyes, for something so small, and its tail is so bushy and flat" Suddenly, his entire face crinkles in an enormous smile: "It's a flying squirrel!"
We name the squirrel Lindy, short for Lindbergh. As new parents, we heat milk and feed him day and night with a dropper. Lindy is nocturnal; he comes to life in the evening, when we take him out of his bird cage and watch him scrabble around the room, around the bed, across the kitchen counter, up the drapes, across the kitchen floor. At night, as we lie reading in bed, he darts up and down our bodies, over and under our pyjamas - an erratic furry movement with scratchy claw marks, up and down.
We've started wearing underwear to bed.
"We can't keep him, you know," I blurt to Jay at about 2:30 in the morning. "Lindy's got to live where he can be a squirrel."
"Mmph." Jay's head is burrowed under the pillow. "He's a squirrel here."
"Yeah, but what about wild life? We're moving here so that we get to see things in the wild, not in our living room." I'm talking to a pillow.
"And there's also the nocturnal thing." My pillow and I listen to scratching sounds: Lindy scampering down the counters and across the floor.
"You're nocturnal anyway. Maybe you should take the night shift." Jay turns over onto his side and is immediately asleep again.
* * *
Lindy's going squirrelly in the house, but we don't know how to help him adjust to living in the wild. Jay builds a small box, just bigger than a birdhouse, and cushions the inside of it with strips of old flannel, and a woolen sock. He nails it to the big Douglas fir next to the parking lot at the new house site. We'll bring Lindy food and water, and we'll check in on him every day. There will be enough human activity in the vicinity for him to be weaned gradually from our presence.
The first night is traumatic. For us, anyway. Lindy buries himself in the box, sticks his head out through the round front hole, then digs back inside.
The next day we drive up early. The
re is no trace of the squirrel. The only sign is the red sock, pulled out partially through the entry hole. "How could we have been so stupid?" asks Jay, slumped against the tree. "We should have trained him - how to hide, what to eat. Why did we ever adopt him? How can you possibly keep something so wild? What were we thinking?"
Jay doesn't talk to anyone for a week.
* * *
Newcomers mix in with the old: Margie and Tom live in Graham's place downhill; Carol and Joe have settled in on Mill Bay Road. Our new access from the public road forges a connection to Indian Rock and the lake. This makes Kathy and Jeff practically next-door neighbours. Further south, Naramata and Penticton are filling up.
Close to the house, Coyote pads up the road. His single-file footprints track the frosting of silt that cakes the flat sections. Just downhill from the record of his passage, the sidewinder tracks of a rattlesnake curve across the sand; below them, three-pronged prints of quail arrow the softened silt. A black-tipped osprey circles its nest in a Douglas fir above the creek, clutching a fish from the fast-food outlet where the creek meets Okanagan Lake. I watch Coyote filter downhill, his golden eyes gilded by early morning sun, his brindled body blending into the leftover straw of yarrow and knapweed. SCREECCH! A red-tailed hawk disappears over the rise. Coyote sniffs at a clump of mule deer hair, hanging from an old barbed wire fence straggling across the hill from a half-century before.
This new road makes its small contribution: fragmenting habitat, compacting soil, introducing weeds. It meanders through fountains of antelope-brush (Purshia tridentata), that fan uphill from the gate; scraggly branches arching over sparse terrain, nubbly as larch, their toothy wedge-shaped leaves smothered in blossoms. Fireworks of lemon-coloured, cinnamon-spiced blooms attract bees and butterflies; the hillside vibrates with motion and sound.
Later, out the living room window, she watches a mule deer munch bottle-brush branches of antelope-brush, chomping through tiny toothed leaves like a machine. This hillside is connective tissue, linking British Columbia to the Columbia Basin of the Pacific Northwest, a topography of badlands, wastelands and deserts; the dry, open sparseness of the entire, conquered North American West. The radar headset of mule deer paddle ears drifts slowly down the draw.
An hour later, she drives downhill towards town. Tire treads erase the history of morning.
* * *
The Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) is one of British Columbia's largest snakes. Most rattlesnakes live out their lives near a winter den (hibernaculum) and return faithfully to it each autumn. The snakes are vulnerable to human-caused disturbance and killing. They prefer dry, usually rocky and rugged landscapes with sparse or scattered tree cover. Terrain having suitable hibernating sites is important for rattlesnakes. In British Columbia this usually involves rocky ridges with crevices or deep talus slopes.
- Province of British Columbia, Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks
"Hey, Sibyl." He s-curves across the cave towards her.
"Don't 'hey' me, Randy. Enough sweet talk. You know, fall is coming on, and we haven't even started looking for a new den. As I recall, you promised 'something between Tara' and the Roman catacombs, combining the functional simplicity of the old world with the whimsy of the new...'"
"A new hibernaculum? This one's tested and true." He whiplashes next to her before she can slither away.
But she's having none of it. "You tried to pull the same stunt last year. Promised me everything, spring and summer, with all those eggs hatching and these new predators nosing about. Now they're here every day."
Her tongue darts in and out as she slides towards the crevice opening.
"That's why we need to chat. They're denning on our property! You should see it. They know nothing about denning," he hisses in disgust. "They're excavating right out in the open. It's hotter than hell! What are they thinking? And this is our place."
Sibyl curls back towards him. "Omigod! I've been feeling bad vibrations. Soon as you can shake it, we'll be history. They have a thing about snakes."
"Yeah," he rasps. "Remember Grandpa's story? About how the guys came up from the ranch and shot out the little Diamondback cousins, back when they lived on the lower east side of the cliff?" She slithers back. "That's not as bad as that story about the time they torched the whole family on the northern talus perimeter. Grandpa just managed to escape. He was out of the den when it happened. All they heard was footsteps, and the clink of metal and that horrible smell! Grandpa could smell it from way over behind the ridge. They poured the stuff out of the can and down into the rocks. A spark seared right into the rock, back to Grandma and all the young ones. Meltdown! He said the smell was horrible. We lost generations, not to mention the old family hibernaculum."
Sibyl sidles up to Randy. "You're right. We've got to get out of this place."
* * *
Community: Orchards, Hippies, and Change
Fruit trees surround Alex's little "barn" where we're living. Recently, white pits of new cherries have emerged, swelling to salmon pink and then ripening through the Revlon spectrum - persimmon and strawberry red to hues of cranberry and burgundy. Driving down the road, cherry orchards look like Christmas.
Along the road into town, the signs and stages of tree fruits are everywhere - guys on tractors wearing gas mask respirators pull tanks of spray; workers prune trees, surrounded by antlered corrals of cuttings and branches; co-op trucks cart faded red bins.
One day, Alex trudges up the driveway, heading towards his upper cherry block, slumping, hands in pockets. Things could be better. He's having a hard time finding pickers. With such a small acreage it's difficult to get people in for the different harvests. The cherries are almost ready to go, and it's been looking like more rain. Soon the crop will be shot.
Jay and I look at each other. It's payback time.
The first day, we meet Alex at 7:00 in the morning. He sets up ladders and buckets. The ladders for picking fruit are three-pronged with two feet at the bottom of the ladder steps, but only a post, like a pivot, for the downhill side. You can prop them against the tree, but you need to make sure they're secure when they're free-standing. The rungs aren't flat, but rounded. No grip.
By 4:00 pm, I'm exhausted. My arms and legs, shirt and shorts are covered with cherry juice, like shrapnel wounds. My hands are stained purple, even under my fingernails. Jay climbs down his ladder. "Maybe we're being too picky."
Alex has come to check on our progress. He takes one look at our buckets, then glances at our buckets of seconds, and shakes his head.
"Well, what's this?"
"Those are our seconds," I chirp. "We couldn't just throw them away. We'll use them."
Alex sighs. "I don't think you understand. This is a business! I have to get this fruit to market."
He scans the two trees and the seconds' buckets, shaking his head. "At this rate, mine will get to the co-op three weeks later than anyone else's, split from rain and delay. It's too late."
He turns and walks away, muttering over his shoulder "Tomorrow just try to pick. Don't think. Just pick."
The next day as we walk up the hill, I notice movement in the branches. It looks like a couple of Quebecois kids, judging from the car licence of their van parked just up the road. They've already covered the bottom of a bin.
"Bonjour, les copains," I smile as we walk up to them, buckets jostling in our hands.
"Salut les deux," smiles a young woman in jeans, her face shining down from the leaves.
"Vous avez cueilli combien de paniers hier?" I ask her.
"Ummh. Qu'est ce que tu crois, Claude?" she looks over to a long-haired guy on the top rung of a ladder at the next tree. As if he's just hit the jackpot, or pulled three cherries on the slots, fruit tumbles into his bucket. "Moi, je n'compte pas. C'est plus facile comme ça."
Then Claude descends from the clouds of greenery, grinning. "Mais hier j'ai cueilli d'environs 50 paniers. Et vous autres?"
Jay walks up the road in disgust, shaking his head. "We got 10 each!"
We bring the radio with us so we can listen to CBC. We're starting to get the hang of it.
We drink twice as much tea.
We take fewer breaks.
We try not to rescue as much doomed fruit, to be more ruthless. My neck and shoulders are killing me, but on Saturday, our last day, together we fill 35 buckets!
Alex angles up with a rueful smile, "I don't know just how to say this. But you're the slowest pickers I've ever seen."
* * *
Alex tells us about his initiation into the fruit trade: "We'd moved in next to Pete and Laura Long. Pete really helped me through that first year. I knew nothing about growing fruit. He got me through with the basic sulphur, lime and oil treatment. In July when I was out in the orchard one day, laying out irrigation pipe, I came across this enormous rattlesnake. I wasn't even wearing my boots. The only protection I had was the pipe. So I stretched this thing out on the hood of my truck. I went down to Pete's, and asked him to come up and have a look see. I was quite proud, you know. My first Okanagan kill!
Pete was not pleased. He only said, "Well done, Alex, you've killed a bull snake. This snake would consume hundreds of mice if left to its own devices. We're always happy to have them in the orchard."
* * *
Donna and Bill are picking their peach crop. Donna sounds apologetic on the phone. "We've never done this, never asked for help, but we are desperate. And it's only for two days. We thought maybe sometime we could return the favour and help you guys with the house."
They haven't checked with Alex for references.
Peaches are harder than cherries. It's July, Death Valley hot, and with peaches you have to be picky about colour. Today, Donna's one-year-old, Marianne, is playing on an old blanket in the shade. The rest of us are up the ladders. Jay and I have been here since 5:30 this morning.
Climbing down to empty my basket, I'm soaked with sweat, and it's not even noon. At the top of the ladder, it's 100 degrees, and a rash of cloying peach fuzz covers my hair and scalp and neck. I feel like a bee in pollen, coated with peach fuzz. I'm itching like crazy.
I yell to the next tree. "What do you do about the fuzz, Donna?"
Donna is wearing a long-sleeved shirt, and shorts, but she's scratching too.
"Oh," she says, climbing down the ladder. "I just try not to think about it too much."
She empties her bucket, and swoops the baby under her arm. "You know, mind over matter! We're almost through for the day. See you tomorrow."
* * *
It's winter solstice.
Tonight Joe Denton, the hippie down the road, is throwing a solstice party. We usually meet Joe when he hitchhikes to town, grubby and bathed in an aura of garlic and sweat. Sometimes he drives a relic of a truck barely held together by baling wire. Joe has carved an orchard and garden from a bare hillside of Crown land; he works harder than anyone we know.
To get to Joe's, drive up the dirt road toward town. Just past the old dump, where you run into pavement, veer off into the bunchgrass, knapweed and sagebrush, following an old track that winds downhill. Tonight a couple of old pickups are browsing atop the hill.
A lighthouse moon beacons across the field of illuminated snow. If it weren't for the snow and the full moon, it would be hard to even see Joe's place. But there it is: a tiny cabin, windows glowing with candles and kerosene lamps. The beat of drums dimples the bitter night. The lake silvers out like an angel wing, reflecting the moonlight.
After slogging downhill through the snow, we stumble inside and take off our boots and coats. Sprawled on the floor around the fireplace are about twenty people. Some of them we know only by sight. There's Robin, the cute American, and Jean-Guy, looking like a troll, who came out years ago to pick fruit, and Sonja, a surfer girl who lives with Joe, sweet and shy with big blue eyes, who smiles and beckons us to cross the room. We sit on the floor and have a few beers and enough dope to belong to the night and the scene. Guitars and drums and song weave everyone together in the rhythm and the place.
Joe's cabin is a tiny pod of kindred souls hanging on to one another in a place where, for the most part, nobody can afford to stay. Nobody belongs to the Fruit Grower's Co-op and most of us don't pay taxes, but we all live in this place by our wits. People in this room know how to graft fruit trees, what to do about peach curl, how to fix irrigation pipes, where mushrooms grow, and how to make music. The windows perspire with condensation, the floor throbs with drumbeats, and we are one breath.
Naramata Bench-Press Cross-Marathon
Tired of the same old triathlon? Looking for something with a little more interest? Want to combine your winery tours with a little physical challenge? Feel like flexing your palate? Then the Naramata Bench-Press Cross-Marathon could be just what you're looking for! In this event, local wineries of the Naramata Bench support Canadian athletes while promoting the development of the local winemaking industry.
THE COURSE: Standard marathon length of 26+ miles. Runners will follow the Naramata and Chute Lake Roads to the Glenfir station of the Kettle Valley Railway, and return along the KVR tracks to Smethurst Road, and back along the Naramata Road, across Upper Bench Road into Penticton. The course intersects with 20 wineries.
Each contestant will stop at ten randomly selected wineries to sample their premier selections. Contestants must correctly identify and rank four out of five of the wines tasted and then proceed along the course. The purpose of the race is to promote local vineyards and to integrate physical and stamina with oenological sophistication. Entrants will be restricted to those having previously raced in accredited marathons and capable of paying the not insignificant entry fee.
RUN DATE: Canada Day
* * *
I'm in Naramata at Nancy and Jack's, having a beer.
"I spent the whole bloody afternoon in town," Jack snaps. "The Wal-Mart parking lot was like the Super Bowl. Safeway was worse than the beach. More of those RVs (Jack's fifth-wheel is parked out behind the house) every year. It's getting worse! We might as well leave the place in the summer. The place has gone to the dogs."
"Yeah, Jack, but we're the dogs too," I pipe in. "We live here."
He slams his beer down on the table. "No. You know what I mean. It's all quarter-acre lots with megahouses, or corporate agribusiness. Or trust fund vineyards. Nobody starting from scratch. Nobody real."
Nancy's ready to take him on. "They're all real. That's the problem!"
Jack tilts his beer this side, then the other. "I mean nobody with dirt under their nails, nobody who's gonna starve if they don't get a crop off."
This is getting under Nancy's skin. "So, does that make us any less real? We don't farm. But we love this place. And it's home."
"But people have to eat," Jack fumes. "And farming is basic - growing stuff to eat, staying alive." I butt in. "John Travolta was into staying alive. He's no farmer."
Nancy manages a limp smile. "Growing fruit isn't better than working in Shopper's Drug or Home Hardware. Just different. It's a living."
Jack's looking grim. "I've seen a whole way of life go down the drain because the government hasn't had the guts to support Canadian fruit. We grazed the place down to the nubbins, and cleaned out the fish and whacked down the forest, and now somebody else has bought the ranch."
* * *
Our neighbour Eleanor has organized a neighbourhood Okanagan Mountain hike.
Slogging up the path from Commando Bay, her friend Victor Wilson charges ahead of our large group. His walking staff pounds a stiff pace up the packed trail, his old army knapsack pulls snugly against his back. His white hair is trim, his posture is erect - shoulders back, chest strong, shirt tucked snugly into his khaki pants. He is the very model of a modern major general. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his brow, as the rest of us straggle uphill in the heat of early autumn.
The "Colonel" speaks with precision. "At the head of this canyon, where we meet the Wild Horse Canyon trail, we'll stop for a break."
It's Yom Kippur today, the day of atonement for one's sins, although I'm probably the only one here who knows. I think that this hike may qualify. My grandmother immigrated to New York City from the Ukraine in 1911. She wouldn't speak to me about her youth, the pogroms, her fear in old country and new, or her husband's death, which left her penniless with two babies to support.
When I was a child, we would visit her in the Bronx. With a heavy Yiddish accent, she dispensed soft orange-coloured, peanut-shaped marshmallow treats, while her new husband, Morris, bestowed 50 cents to each of us kids on our annual visit. Their threadbare apartment, across the street from the Bronx Zoo, was exotic and dark and smelled like another country.
This Yom Kippur, I'm dragging myself up a dusty trail, through ponderosa pines and rock candy mountains, surrounded by people with British accents. They press on. They never complain. They smile at one another's witticisms; they pack healthy lunches with apples.
It's hot going up the Wild Horse Canyon trail. The leaves are brittle and parched and the dust from our boots is silting the air. Heat blasts from canyon walls back into our faces, stifling conversation, suffocating breath. As we crest to the southern swing of the lake in the late afternoon, Victor pulls out his canteen and takes a long swig, then turns just ahead of Jay and me, his eyes glacial and cold. "I did have something I wanted to tell you two. I thought you should know that I've purchased the property adjacent to yours."
He turns to continue uphill.
"What?" I speed to catch up with him. "You mean the Northwood land? I didn't know that was for sale!"
Jay is right behind me, breathing hard. "The Northwood piece? That's hundreds of acres. I didn't know that was for sale!"
I chime in: "But Victor, we thought that piece would revert to the Park, or at least become a part of the Park someday."
He slows again, and turns to look at us with icicle eyes. "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know."
* * *
Today I'm thinking about my lecture on Marxist theory as I drive up Drought Hill north of Peachland - I think about how the material conditions of people's lives shape their behaviour and ideas. According to Marx, I rehearse, our beliefs are determined by both the social and physical world in which we live. My mind wanders. Does anyone "belong" to this place anymore? Is home just anywhere you hang your hat? Any place with a paycheque, un bon boss, une job steady? How are we attached to place when we no longer derive our subsistence from it? How do we know what's there? Having an orchard means that you are tied to growth and seasons, to food and markets, and to the market for your food. What about natural capital? If local flora and fauna do not contribute to our material well-being, how do we know what it is? And why would we care?
We've passed the honeymoon period. So has everyone else. Every community experiences conflict, but here, everyone seems to be squabbling:
James and Bonnie have lost their road access;
The Ranch has notified the neighbours about "trespassing";
Johnsons have contested Matt and Suzanne's water access;
Everyone is mad at Chapmans for running their cows all over the place;
Meanes' boat throbs louder than Chute Falls in full flood;
Applications for additional water rights on the creek have been made....
So it isn't Happy Valley. I know that. When we moved here, we enjoyed a détente. We didn't have previous alliances, and there were fewer demands on roads and water. But below the surface, there were always conflicts. The cleavages and factions are a lesson in the human geology of place, the upheavals and splits and drifts of friendship.
Neutrality is a myth.
The Ecology Community: Birding
About 190 species of birds breed in the South Okanagan. Not only is this almost half the Canadian total, but it is probably the highest total for any area of similar size in Canada, and close to the highest in the United States and Canada. - Habitat Atlas for Wildlife at Risk
9:00 am: Cherry Lane Parking Lot. Birders coo and chirp to one another, laden with backpacks and bird books and scopes.
9:10 am: We zoom past the big osprey nest on the tower, onto the Channel Parkway, south to Okanagan Falls and Oliver, winging past Vaseux Lake (Coots! Mallards! Widgeons!), orchards and vineyards (Kestrel! Magpie! "What is that in the pond?").
10:15 am: From Osoyoos, we drive up to Spotted Lake, where binoculars and telescopes soon stagger sagebrush fencelines. Trucks tornado past, en route to Osoyoos and the Kootenays. In the tailspin you hear:
"No, tree swallows."
"Eagle!" I shout, pleased to be the first to spot it.
Someone corrects me. "Turkey vulture."
Darn! I missed the dihedral flight, the two-toned underwing, the soaring, circular pattern. But nobody seems to care. They're intent on the next sighting.
The whole parade! Nature surges through the valley with spring and sunshine and green, with migrant species and indigenous beings blooming and breeding and carrying on.
Next stop. "Red-tailed hawk!"
"Where are you looking?"
"Over there, see..." Jim G. gestures across the power line and over to the sagebrush.
"Bluebirds!" shouts somebody up the road.
"Western?" asks John.
"Looks like Mountain from here," says Debbie, folding her scope and heading across the road.
Jim S. codes the sightings in his notebook. It's like Bingo Night in Canada. "Green-winged teal. Over on that far side."
"Oh, yeah, I've got 'em."
"Is that a ruddy duck?"
"Could be. Oh, and look! Phalarope!"
Jim S. sets up the scope, and we take turns peering into the magic circle. Birders see a feathered universe; they are attuned to the sounds of music - calls and songs; hoots, chirps and whistles, warbles and chitter, tittering, chittering, larking, soaring - entire operas of birdsong.
What counts in birding is experience and patience, the ability to stand along a country road watching a ditch for migrating warblers in a clump of yellow-green willows, knowing where to look, having the patience to look and look and look. Up above Osoyoos, after a lunch break at Blue Lake, with the occasional fly-by of lazuli buntings and western tanagers, we poke around the high sagebrush country. And then, high above, gurgles and chuckles and tiny threads of sandhill cranes.
(April 16, 2004, Blue Lake, above Osoyoos)
Spring gossip: turkey gobble way up high.
A babel of loosey goosey cranes
threads the sky in a crazy blanket stitch,
under and over blue sky and white clouds,
mending their ways,
weaving earth and sky.
They kettle the wind like a teapot
on the stove, curling up and up.
You get downright dizzy, so you sit
a while, all afternoon, watching
pinwheel cranes twirl higher and higher,
strung out like wash to dry, 'til in a wing beat,
their north cross-stitch of flight
is just a trace.
Then, when they're gone,
when you think you've seen it all
and the breeze
whispers sweet nothings,
another line bends back the night.
It's early September. I'm on leave from work, and Phoebe has come up for the weekend. She's in the house reading, while I'm playing outside with my new plastic pond. A familiar sound filters through the air, indistinct at first, then louder and louder.
Gurgle, gurble, glurk, gllucck, glaaakkk, ggllurk, glurk. Sandhill cranes!
"Phoebe! Come quick! It's sandhill cranes!"
I run out to the front of the plateau overlooking the lake, craning my neck and scanning overhead. Crack! The screen door slams shut. Phoebe is next to me with the old binoculars, the ones that I ran through the wash by accident. Just overhead, way, way up, is a wavering line of cranes, as if we're imagining it. The line repositions itself into a V-shape, a distinct chevron, and flutters off in several strands. Heading south.
Home for sandhill cranes is not a destination resort. Home is also a matter of coming and going. It is the journey, the sky, movement, the topography of mountains and rivers and flatlands and deserts and scrub and open space.
And then they're gone.
Sic transit gloria mundi. So passes the beauty of the world.
* * *
October 22, 1975
Full Moon Rising
Minutes of the Predator Control Board
North Naramata, BC
Present: Coyote, Black Bear, Bobcat, Cougar, Rattlesnake, Great Horned Owl, Golden Eagle Regrets: Grizzly Bear, Bald Eagle, Ferret
The meeting was convened and chaired by Coyote. Owl served as recorder (although all others are hereby notified that this position will revert to rotation at the next meeting). Minutes of the last meeting and the night's agenda were approved.
The meeting opened with a general discussion concerning increasing predation on indigenous species by invasive humans. Concerns were expressed by all participants about the escalation of hostile activities of Homo sapiens in this region, the subsequent destruction of habitat, and increased danger to, and potential extirpation of, indigenous species especially predators, in response to this colonization.
1. Coyote reported increased incidence of assault, ranging from shooting to more barbaric forms of attack - in response to alarm, government policy, and fear. In spite of increased litters, Coyote is concerned about future outbreaks in rodent populations and an inability to maintain carrying capacity;
2. Cougar and Bobcat expressed concern for increases in hound-tracking hunts, which recruit domestic species to human objectives, subvert natural species bonds, especially in feline and canine species, and reduce habitat safety;
3. Bear documents significant increases in predator activity directed at juveniles and young, especially in spring and fall, when pre- and post-denning activity increases vulnerability and food supplies are scarce;
4. Reports by several members (Bobcat, Cougar, Bear) of incursions of human activity in all terrain, during all seasons. Increased roads, snowmobiles and helicopter activity diminish animal safety, while extensions of hunting seasons produce additional vulnerability.
The motion brought before the PCB at the preceding meeting has been formally approved and carried. The motion as approved reads: "The range and capabilities of human predators in traditional predator habitat should be restricted."
Using a traditional display of paws and claws, the motion was adopted unanimously and will become the basis for future Predator Control Policy.
Discussion of potential mitigation measures for predator management including the introduction of "culls," approval of traditional subsistence predation rights, restrictions on invasion and use of protected areas, the formation of a new wildlife authority "with teeth," and the introduction of a new sustainability program.
The next meeting will be held first at the full moon, next spring, following hibernation. Venue: TBA.
Community in Song: Choir Practice, circa 1975.
Choir practice is the highlight of my week. Every Tuesday at 7:30 pm, more than fifty people of every age and every voice drift into the Naramata Centre to practice. My first performance is in two weeks.
"You can probably fit Sarah Wright's gown, Melody. Why don't you take this home with you and let me know how it works," smiles Roberta Birnie, passing me a long, elegant cream-coloured gown wrapped in a plastic film.
Wow! I carry it out to the house, careful not to drag it on the path. I try it on. This is the most elegant dress I've ever had, with a collar, a deep V-neck, a fitted waist, and a full skirt that swoops to the floor. It's the prom dress, wedding dress, dress-up dress I've always eschewed. I waltz back and forth in front of the mirror. I shrug into the forest-green top-coat. Elegant!
Even if I look like Anne Murray.
Carol McGibney is the director. She's Irish. Animated. Funny. Bright. Warm. Rosy cheeks with short curly brown hair pixied around her face.
"Tonight we're going to warm up with John Denver," she says, waving the music for Annie's Song in front of us.
Like my wood stove, the choir cranks up.
"You fiiiiillllll up my sehnnnnnsssehhzzzz."
Some of us can read music, but most of the time we're reading Carol. Her eyes and voice and hands and body charge into each section; pulling us together into one voice, forging one song from fifty all-over-the-map voices.
Carol waves at the tenors. "Let's pep it up a bit, move it along." Her head is nodding, arms forging a quicker beat, hands beckoning.
"Up, up, pick it up!" She stirs the air with her baton as if she's beating whipping cream, beckons to Laura the pianist to pick up the pace. We drag slower and slower.
"No, no, no. Stop right there!" Carol's face flushes to cherries. She motions to Laura to stop, and then faces the choir.
"Have any of you looked at this music? What happened at section practice?" Her face is plums. "This was supposed to be an easy warm-up. We have a concert very soon, and this sounds like pea soup!" "Let's try it again." And her arms wave us in, like the guys with flares on a small town airplane runway, lighting a strip in the bush. O.K. We're coming in for a landing.
"Like a night in the foorrrr-ressssst."
Ahh, that's better. The sound is full, complete, enormous, rich. It fills the room, leaks through the windows, wafts up the street, up clay cliffs and over benchlands and drifts into the mountains. My thoughts drift. A night in the forest, the far west. Nestled in the rock-bound scoop of Okanagan valley, the choir blankets the hills in sound. This is more than the sound of music. This is the village voice.
Melody Hessing taught at Okanagan College for several years before returning to Vancouver to complete a Ph.D. in sociology. She has taught courses on women, the environment, social theory and social justice at many post-secondary institutions, and continues to be affiliated with the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.
The majority of her writing has been directed to scholarly publications on Canadian environmental policy and women's work. In recent years, she has focused her attention on creative writing, poetry and creative non-fiction about the natural environment. Dividing her time between Naramata and Vancouver, she tries to reconcile the natural beauty of the south Okanagan with the cold comfort of gridlock.
Frances Hatfield was born in East Kelowna, where she was raised in an orchard. She served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women's Division, and subsequently attended the Ontario College of Art, and later, the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr). As coordinator of the Okanagan Mainline Arts Council in the 1970s, she was responsible for coordinating and presenting the OMRAC project, an Okanagan Art Show that toured throughout the province. She has taught at the Kootenay School of Art and in numerous summer art programs throughout the province.
She ran an orchard in Oyama for several years, and lived in Naramata from the 1970s to the 1990s, prior to her current residence in Armstrong. The Okanagan landscape, including the orchards in which she has lived, provide much of the inspiration for her work. Frances continues to exhibit her paintings at galleries throughout the Okanagan.