Part One of this essay was published in February and can be found here.
When the Rivers Rise (Part Two)
Twenty years ago I asked a hydrologist at work about the possibility of BC, a province of rainforests, going dry with climate change. Though I can’t remember exactly the question or answer anymore, the gist I carried away is that we can expect the overall amount of water to stay the same, but the patterns of where and when it arrives to alter significantly. Groundwater may dwindle, for example, but we might still have access to the same volume of water in torrential rains too great for absorption into waterways and containment systems. The timing of water is crucial too, he explained. Too much in 24 hours after an eight-month drought and you lose all your topsoil, compound that with melting snowpack and the flood plains overflow.
More recently a different co-worker explained to me the importance of understanding flooding as a crucial part of the riverine ecosystem. Like forest fires, he said, we have tried to contain flooding in ways the system can no longer tolerate, and simply building higher dikes in response to each event isn’t going to protect human and animal populations any longer. Although it seems impossible in the face of human industrial, agricultural, and residential activities, the best thing we could do is let the rivers return to their natural course and allow biomass to regrow in floodplains instead of covering them with concrete.
The Town of Princeton is built on the floodplain of two rivers, making it poorly situated to survive in the first place, but something I hadn’t realized until I came across a lithograph from the late 1800s, is that at some point in the early twentieth century the Tulameen River was repositioned from its natural course. Though I can’t find any written history on this, the lithograph clearly depicts the Tulameen River cutting through the center of town as opposed to the far edge where it runs today, spanned by the Tulameen Bridge which was built in the 1930s. Perhaps in response to massive flooding in 1894 (documented in settler journals of the time), it seems that rather than move the burgeoning town, horses and hand labour were used to rechannel the river to a more convenient location.
Likewise, the Sumas Prairie, the site on which hundreds of thousands of animals died in November’s floods, was once a massive shallow lake known by the name Semá:th Xόtsa by the Semá:th people. Drained in the 1920s to create farmland, its demise is proudly proclaimed in a roadside marker from the 1960s which speaks to the land “reclamation” project so crucial to the development of the province. Often when travelling to the interior, I have taken a break at the rest stop where this marker sits outside the RV parking lot on the edge of the farmland basin, and marvelled at the arrogance of “reclaiming land” from a waterway teeming with life.
The relocation of the Tulameen River, the draining of Semá:th Xόtsa (Sumas Lake) are emblematic of a worldview which sees nature as problematic, a challenge to be managed through heroic efforts and hard labour. Flat land is easier to farm and build on, and so we pave river deltas, removing the flexibility of the land to absorb volumes of water. We eradicate trees and shrubs to create crop and grazing land, and damage the earth’s sponge in the process. A large lake grows and recedes with unpredictability, making it hard to build houses and roads around, and so we drain it into irrigation channels that eventually dump all that freshwater into the sea. As settler people, our way of “knowing” the world has been to change it to suit our short term interests without really understanding what kind of future we make in the process.
Online commenters discuss the flooding cycle in Princeton and the Lower Mainland as part of a natural cycle that we always recover from. From Alaska through BC and to Washington, there have been several notable floods over the decades. 1894, 1948, 1972, and 2007 are all historic flood years, and to hear some people tell it, 2021 is just another one of those. But the difference between the earlier floods and the most recent version is in the timing and the cause. Flooding in the Pacific Northwest has historically taken place in the springtime when the freshet (snow melt runoff) happens at a greater volume than rivers, streams and marshes can absorb. What made the floods in November unusual is not only were they triggered by torrential rain, but they happened in the fall and melted snowpack at entirely the wrong time of year. Like the Pacific Northwest heat event in June/July, the floods of November fell way outside of “normal” patterns.
Not only are these extreme climate events giving us an entirely new weather vocabulary to work with–“heat dome” and “atmospheric river” becoming part of our lexicon overnight–they are exposing the history of our human efforts in a new way. They are changing how we see the ecosystem in which we live. Suddenly the sound of hard rain on the roof creates unease, the prospect of a heat wave doesn’t signify the pleasure of after dark ocean swims in the summer but hundreds of people dead. Our way of knowing the world, is spun around, creating a realization that results in denial and anger (our first two stages of grief on the way to acceptance). Recent “trucker convoy” protests and the Q-Anon root they come from may be one symptom of this. On the surface they present as reaction to government regulations that hitherto seemed unthinkable, but can also be seen as part of a larger pattern of response to a world we no longer have “control” over in ways we have been encouraged to believe.
As I finish up this essay, a hard rain in defiance of Spring Equinox spatters against my skylights and windows. It runs in rivulets down my driveway and forms in pools around the garage doors. I think to myself, for the thousandth time since last fall, that we really need to clear the ditches of debris when things dry up again, re-dig them if necessary so we do not fear an overflow spilling through the yard and into the crawl space at the next harsh forecast. We have entered the period of freshet when the rain will again bring snow from the mountains into the waterways, and I wonder how much farther rivers (only partially receded after fall flooding) will push outside their banks.
I grew up on the edge of a vast rainforest that generated the weather as much as it thrived from it, and in that way I thought I knew where I was from. But as we move through the changing seasons, I realize that much of my worry revolves around the unpredictability of what comes next. The patterns no longer form clearly, and we are left with questions unanswered.
March recipe: Nettle Beer
For the first time ever I am sharing a recipe I haven’t developed myself or even tried - but it’s nettle season and perhaps one of you will be inspired to try this and let me know how it goes. I got this version of the Nettle Beer recipe from Homestead Honey
8 ounces of fresh nettle tops or 4 ounces dried nettles
1/2 gallon water
1/2 cup turbinado or raw sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon ale yeast
Harvest the top few inches of fresh nettles – you will need 8 ounces for this recipe. Be sure to wear gloves to avoid getting stung! If you do not have fresh nettles, you can make this recipe with dried nettles.
Place the nettles and water in a pot and bring to a boil on the stove. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
Line a strainer with a fine mesh cloth (cheesecloth will work great) and strain the nettle liquid into a large bowl or crock. Be sure to squeeze the cheesecloth to extract all of the liquid from the nettles. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve.
Cool the liquid to room temperature and then add the lemon juice, then sprinkle the yeast on top of the liquid. Cover the bowl or crock with a towel and let it sit at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for three days.
After three days, strain your nettle beer through a fine mesh sieve and funnel it into bottles, leaving at least one inch of headspace. We like to reuse Grolsch beer bottles for this purpose (you can sometimes find them at thrift stores, or on Craigslist).
After one week, transfer to the refrigerator and drink within one year. Enjoy the lemony-tangy refreshing flavor of your homemade nettle beer!
In the workshop
I was going to post about having the big loom warped this month, but as I started to weave on it, I noticed some crossed threads and mis-threaded heddles. Yesterday I cut the warp in order to make some repairs - but I’m sharing it anyway to underscore the incredible amount of fussy labour involved in hand weaving. If the finished product wasn’t *so* satisfying, no one would bother with the work. By this weekend I should have all 565 threads in the right place and will be on my way to weaving a new piece of fabric.
From a Spiral Notebook: The first of my shared things this week is this newsletter by poet and creative work friend Kelsey Andrews. Once a month she opens her notebook and shares her sometimes dark (and often funny) thoughts with the world. She has a unique gift of seeing through a perspective that is slightly askew, and you will too if you subscribe to receive her eloquent words in your inbox.
Feed the Monster: BA Lampman is an artist and writer. I know her through Jill Margo’s Creative Good sessions, but also she is married to a musician who has played at my house on multiple occasions. Her monthly newsletter is fantastic - an exposition on her creative process as a visual artist (collage! sketchbooks!), her Life’s Work project capturing the story of her mother’s Lewey Body dementia, and life in general. A good read with inspiring visual content. Highly recommend.
Thrums: On Gabriola Island we really have to make our own fun, and last weekend on the vernal equinox some friends from up the road put on this streaming music and video show. Featuring a weaving loom (sound and video of the weaving process) and a whole lot of noise, it’s a really cool collaboration and available on Bandcamp for free or by donation. These folks push the boundaries and make new work in new ways - elastic and inspiring!
We are nearing the end of the first quarter of 2022, which means I am doing a review of projects and plans for the next quarter. Some of you know that means I’m working with the Creative Good planner in anticipation of the next round of Follow Through (creative accountability) sessions. So first of all, a shout-out to Jill Margo who runs these sessions and some encouragement to those of you who want to create but don’t. Programs like Jill’s are out there and one of the ways you can discover your way back into creative practice. I’m not sure if she has spots available for the session starting in early April, but I would encourage you to go to Creative Good and find out if that sounds interesting to you.
Secondly, all this creative planning and working over the last year (or five) has got me to the point where I have started to write a book. Which doesn’t mean anything really except that this newsletter might change a bit as a result. I’m thinking that rather than stand-alone essays, I might share excerpts of the book project instead. Or I might decide to write about that project and get your feedback. Or I might use the newsletter to engage in a bit of open letter-writing. In any case, as I figure out that project, this one will likely change. I’m still going to come at you monthly and let you know what I’m thinking about any which way.
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If you want to hear more from me, find my blog at Red Cedar or follow me on Instagram @birdsongworkshop - otherwise, I’ll see you here again next month.
You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, But it always comes roaring back. (Tom Waits)
I really found this read intriguing. Thank you Megan. Meddling with the natural order of ecosystems rarely ends well. I think one of our biggest human failings is the inability, or perhaps the refusal, to look ahead and acknowledge that we are a part of a huge system that doesn’t revolve around our individual needs.