Out of the Interior: The Lost Country

interior

Cacanadada Press, 1993. 2nd Printing. ISBN: 0-921870-23-X. 6 x 9, 209 pages. $12.95

Bookman Summary2

Extending the form of autobiography, Rhenisch explores immigrant experience in the orchard gardens of the Okanagan. The search for paradise in the new land is portrayed thorugh the experiences of a young boy struggling against the authoritiarianism of patriarchy. This is a book that helps to fill a gap in the history of twentieth-century British Columbia. Prose of unrivalled intensity and beauty.

Bookman reviews2

In the promotional material for Out of the Interior: The Lost Country, the publisher proclaims that in this work Harold Rhenisch has succeeded in “extending the forms of autobiography.” This work not only lives up to its billing, but may even exceed it. …a series of vignettes that are moving, beautifully written, and, like dreams, sometimes startling in their clarity of vision. Daniel G. Payne, Western American Literature

Friends told me how good Harold Rhenisch’s Out of the Interior is, but I was leery. Rhenisch is a very good poet, and good poets don’t often write good prose. But Out of the Interior is even better than I was told…. And it’s just about the best thing to come out of the Okanagan in years. Charles Lillard, The Victoria Times-Colonist

With a sensibility sharpened by the daily natural observation of living and working on the land and shaped by the transplanted European cultural traditions of his childhood, Rhenisch is a hardy hybrid. His ability to stand at the flashpoint where art and nature converge produces, in the compact and compelling Out of the Interior prose that is almost Japanese in its intensity and austerity….

When poets turn to prose, too often it is only to prove they can write as badly as the rest of us. The initial queasiness that accompanies the sight of a three- or four-paragraph “prose poem” on a page is quickly dispelled here. Out of the Interior is a sequence of illuminations Rimbaud would envy for their lyricism and imagistic density, yet Rhenisch never loses his grip on the narrative chain that links each piece to the others.

As autobiography, Out of the Interior is a kind of masterpiece, an account of the formative experiences of a fine poet, ruthlessly edited of all the boring bits, shot through instead with the enhanced visions that are given to children and poets.

“Make it new,” was Ezra Pound’s standing order to poets and Rhenisch has that very special gift of making those “usual old familiar words” jump up and dance, as if he’d just invented them.

In more than 200 pages of prose, there isn’t a single cliche, trite image or shopworn phrase, or even a single sentence that doesn’t bear the mark of long and careful thought.

When Michel de Montaigne invented the essai, it was the intellectual game of a bored aristocrat in retirement, pillaging classical authors for food for thought. Modern and postmodern writers have transformed it almost beyond recognition, but few have succeeded in working a magic as pure as this. John Moore, The Vancouver Sun

Out of the Interior is not a book easily put aside. It haunts me because it speaks to the “people who have genuinely and with deep feeling, given themselves to the earth.”… Rhenisch doesn’t explain away the death of agriculture, he describes it, and it is a painful collective loss. He has given us excellence of craft and a depth of understanding that I haven’t come across in prose in a considerable length of time.

All the world is in this book. Andrew Vaisius, Prairie Fire

Prose Memoir of post-colonial, immigrant orchard life in British Columbia. At the same time, it is the story of one man’s journey from the patriarchy and the prisons of history. Innovative in form, this book has been called “as good as anything out of Provene.” Patrick Lane

bookman excerpts2

These excerpts comprise a sequence from the latter part of the book. They can be read in sequence or independently.

Sauerkraut

SURE ENOUGH, as soon as my father reached the height of his career, he suffered great misfortune: thirty acres of cabbages plowed under because the marketing board returned him three cents a pound—less than the cost of picking them; twenty-five acres of tomatoes, the plants bought cheap—and a dry yellow, and losing their leaves—from Michigan, that began to ripen on the 28th of August, and which were frozen dead that night in the rocky field at Siberian Flats, a freakish wind coming straight off the mountains, draining through the high meadows of lupins and larch and peat, out of the tundra of the stars; seventy-five acres of onions droughted when the power line over the old Fairview mine site was wiped out for ten days by fire and all attempts to get a diesel pump working to draw water from between the fins of the trout in Keremeos Creek, in flood, failed.

When the cabbages were plowed under they rotted in the black, stony earth. They became brown balls of mucus, and rose in a sulphurous gas. It sat heavy over the ground for months. One old man, living there in one of the last houses of the old, waterless townsite of Upper Keremeos, claimed that as long as those cabbages were rotting in the ground his rheumatism was cured and he could move his arms at will. Great flocks of vultures came up from the marshes of the Indian reserves at Similkameen and Chopaka to feast on those fermented fields.

The last shipment of cabbages went to supply the Polish fishing fleet off the West Coast. Late one night a call came in from the sea, full of the static of storm: the cabbages were rotten and were exploding in the hold. “Do not,” my father said years later, pounding the table, bitter, “store cabbages with cherries. Don’t let the packing house do it.”

Half an Acre of Cabbages a Night

IT WAS POINTLESS to sit around trying to shoot the marmots. That was obvious. Some lesser man might have given up, but at 4. a.m., when the starlight was just beginning to thin the air, my father set one stick of dynamite down each of their sandy runs, there among the stumps of the first pear trees planted in the Okanagan carried by packhorse from Oregon in 1898, and blew them all to hell.

Watching the Mountains Breathe

OVER AND OVER my father was being taught a lesson, but he did not realize it until it was too late and he had lost even the land he loved. Years later, when I had finally given up on farming myself, and had buried for the winter the last of my ten thousand nursery trees in sawdust and the late November soil, I was standing there at Brushy Bottom, soaked from the water I had just poured over the trees to keep out the frost. My knuckles were bleeding from draining the pump in the dark and cold, for water-soaked skin cuts as easily as a leaf. The night rose ancient above me, and as I stood there a great weight seemed to rise off the mountains. For the first time in years they breathed openly. A god had left me—a vicious, vindictive god. I had come again into the earth. For the first time in years I broke out laughing; and chill, and rich in my cold, walked as dark as starlight up through the mud and the mock-orange and the tangled hulks of the elderberries to my truck and home, in the wind and gravel. If you had been standing beneath one of the pines there you would have felt the first snow drifting in on the wind, but you would not have seen me there, only the darkness.

The Packinghouse Directors Make Their Way Home

IN THOSE YEARS men drank in earnest. It was an obligation, a serious business, and a rite. One night in 1969 my father and his friends were driving Ramsay home in his brand-new Buick. It was 2 a.m. They were on their way back from a directors’ meeting at the co-op packinghouse and Ramsay was dead drunk in the back seat. When someone piped up that “These things have a wheelbase exactly the same as a diesel locomotive,” they couldn’t resist. At the level crossing of the Great Northern Railroad, half a block outside the packinghouse door, just past the dark shadows of the loading bay and its drifts of tumbleweeds, they drove the car onto the tracks and took off the wheels. With a last, black bottle of Canadian Club between them, they idled all the way out of the country, deep into Washington, in the night. When they finally woke, with a start, out of their warm, steamy sleep, they were at Ellisford, twenty miles south of the line, smashed into the bumpers at the end of the dead line outside the sprawling tin roof of the Omak packinghouse. This was the far north of the U.S.—an abandoned area. A wasteland. Indian territory. But to us it was&emdash;and is—southern, and exotic. There under a greasewood and gravel American moon they all tumbled out for a piss under the stars, and the crickets sang. With that hot desert wind blowing over them, soft as the skin of a rattler or the frictionless wing feathers of a burrowing owl, they shunted the car into reverse and idled all the way back into Canada, talking away the night. Through the swamps and willowscrub of the Indian lands stretching both ways from the border, with the moonlight flooding the car like a bird’s cool breath, they talked about women, and booze, and fruit, and war.

When they returned to the level crossing by the Similkameen United Growers Packing Shed, they pulled the wheels out of the trunk and bolted them back onto the car. It was 5:30 The sun was just rising among the firs on the eastern ridge, high up, at five thousand feet. It was time to go home and change the morning round of sprinklers, then go in for coffee and the beginning of another day. They drove Ramsay and his new Buick home, and left him there until he woke up with a headache. While he slept it off, they went around, doing each other’s sprinklers, and his too, and one by one drifted home. The grass was cold. The light was the colour of lead. It was heavy. You moved through it as if you were underwater at freeze up, or right inside the substance of light.

The Front Line

OVER TIME, DRINK itself became the religion of the valley and in the mid-seventies the drop-out rate at the high school rose to almost 70 percent as we all fought to integrate—or comprehend—an urban education that was dragging us away. The valley was delivered to us as an evil from which we had to escape. A physical life was considered an appalling waste—of use only to the second rate. This was the old British Columbia and I was raised in it, right up to my throat. You will find it nowhere unless you go into the Interior, unless you step out of the twentieth century and into the earth. This is the front line of the battle. Here we are all cripples, to the last man and woman shelled by our own artillery, shelled by the enemy, harried by night raids; dark shapes slipping through the dark, and drugged with nightmare and drink and confusion, and speechlessness-words that do not connect with our world. The land is not something society wants within itself, and yet it is here. Society can only integrate it as an idea, but the earth insists on more. The old gods live.

Breathing

THAT YEAR IN Naramata when Hans Feldt lurched in bitterness out of the cherry tree to pass on to me, in the act of turning away, the future and the ownership of the land, we roasted steaks in the coals to celebrate the end of cherry picking. I drank a bottle of dry Portuguese wine the flavour of rust, drank away a month, three hundred and sixty hard hours of harvest, in which I tried to do the work of one tractor and three or four men because I knew no other way to find worth in myself. I had learned nothing else from my father. That night I erased my whole life. I threw my whole life up. I sat blankly in the cold grass with the stars towering overhead, The black fronds of the trees swayed beneath the stars like shadows of themselves, primeval—tall, sinuous birds.

That was the summer we would walk out into the lake as far as we could, and then dive, hugging the cold sand at the bottom, re-breathing the air in our mouths and our lungs over and over until we could go no farther. As the back pressure built up within our skulls, we floated up to the surface like trout rising to snap a fly out of the bottom inches of the air. Then we suddenly broke free, in the calm black water, two hundred feet from shore, breathing, breathing deeply, and we were happy with that.

Chrysanthemums

I SIT INSIDE tonight with a cut-glass vase of chrysanthemums the colour of dried blood. The whole room is filled with their thin scent. On the transparent waves of the air it is a music and replaces the air in my mind with itself. So it is there that the flowers bloom, and when I reach out my hand to touch them in the vase on my desk I am touching my past.

My mother had one of the largest flower beds in the valley. When I was five years old I would go around with her to the old ladies in the valley to collect plants, and then out again to plant them. There were fifty kinds of flowers there, from crocuses to carnations, daisies to lilacs, and, in the last dry-leaf hours of the fall, chrysanthemums, flowers the colour of dried flowers, of pippin apples, with the earth showing easily through the colours, flowers the colour of dreams, and of love.

It was among those flowers that I first saw the dancing, drifting scarlet of poppies. Their stems oozed with an opium-thick white glue—like Lepage’s White Bondfast. It was bitter to the taste. No one told us it was poison.

In later years, when I was working on Brian and Tricia Mennell’s frozen vineyard, above Similkameen Station, Mount St. Helens blew and the ash drifted down for days, giving a perpetual evening to the air. I then came to prefer dandelions over all other flowers—for their subtlety of colour and for their white seedheads, so full of light itself and of themselves only what could amplify the light. But now again, as I did when I was a child, I prefer the poppies and the mums. They are a distillation, a richness added to the air. They speak of generations of human care, flowers created on purpose for no other purpose than their own creation.

Capital

MY MOTHER WAS never a strong woman. As the years on the farm wore her down further and further she gave up more and more on the garden, until we finally tore it up, and the vegetables behind it, and put in lawn. That was the year my father came to understand the meaning of capital. We did not have to kill our own chickens any longer, or salt down grated cabbage in the basement, or brew our own beer. Nor did we have to bury carrots in a deep pit in the garden and, as the snow whipped gritty and sharp over our faces, our fingers numb and nearly useless from even one minute out in the snow, grub down into the warmth of the earth for their damp and their heat. That was the year the dreams began to erode with fatigue.

We hurled my mother’s flower garden over the edge of the hill that spring, yet even to this day, after twenty years, the yellow irises thrive there. Cast out among the sage and cactus and rock-crocusses, and unirrigated, they have spread to cover sixty square feet, and bloom tall and rich, like a small sun on the slope, busily converting spring meltwater into light. I’ve seen no other irises with such colour. I think when we are young we long for the colours of the earth and later, just as I have done with farming and my mother did with those flowers, we throw them away. Against the pressures of society and income and against the pressures of the self, which they are meant to serve and nurture, they cannot hold up. And we these things intensely.

I still go from farm to farm checking on the work friends, spending a few hours with them, with my clippers, and sharing gossip and thoughts and my life. just as my mother did with flowers, I collect old apple varieties.

That are dying out.

The Colonial Dream

THE TRUE COLONIAL dream is that this land can be made into paradise, a whole society made out of an approach to earth and land. In this country called the Interior we import what we, need of society—books, ideas, laughter—and export what we produce in contact with the soil, our foundation. We are a people without money, buried in work and the relentless, unforgiving obligations of time and history, which we call the land. It is all we have. We have oriented ourselves to the physical earth, and have left all other parts of social life to others, in England, or Toronto, or Germany—or L.A. The irony of the dream is that we speak for equal rights in a society which does not know of our existence, and if it ever heard of us would dismiss us as something of the past, some time of the past, something of no present life. The dream is to live so far back in the past that it is nearly impossible to surface for air.

It is to erase the self and replace it with that ancient conception of space, stars and trees swaying, moving, dancing in the night wind, silent like water.

Faiths and Religions

WITH A POSSESSED father trying to flee deep into the world, all I really had in the way of a childhood was the earth—wind streaming over my face and the scent of rain in dust; rain that for a moment returns dust to that first instant when it chipped off a rock-face in storm, the sharp scent of the earth, spinning in space, rain that gets in between the molecules of rock to shatter it yet farther, in re-creation of its original sundering; but I had nothing of human—commercial or political—worth.

I ran a thinning crew in Kelowna in 1976, and for six weeks the apples spat and hissed into the grass around us, like fire. In that summer of near-endless rain when I was eighteen years old I rode those workers hard. They must have hated me immensely. The boss would come down daily from his handbuilt, glass-fronted house on the hill—built when the industry still had a sense of duration to it—and I would tell him that his workers were no good. Then I would ride them harder. I snapped at them about how to place their ladder in the tree, to use both of their hands, even when balancing on the top of the ladder on a steep hill. “If I can’t hear that fruit falling constantly into the grass, then you’re not working,” I’d say, echoing Max Kohler to my father in ’53, at Chopaka, before the world. We must produce and not mind the pain: we don’t count, the work counts, the work must be done, and always more, always past our limit, so that what is achieved is always the limit. Life lived for a I930’s German vision of the state&emdash; the surrender of the individual to time and fate.

When we took a break from thinning to weed a new planting of apples, the sweat streamed down over us and as quickly evaporated into the breezeless air. The unexpected sun beat over and over at our foreheads like a mallet. Instead of cooling us, our sweat only inflamed us further. Our mouths were as dry as the burnt-up leaves of the thistles. When we put our lips to the hydrant, the cold water felt hot on the hot skin of our faces and chests. Only the pocket gophers were cool, burrowing beneath us with their small dark eyes and hooked feet, eating the roots of the trees like candy, in the dark. Pruning that spring I had stepped through the sod, down into the soft, dried grass of one of their nests. The new gophers were half the size of my thumb—thin, helpless sacs of flesh, their eyes covered with veils of skin. They quickly died in the cold. There in that wide open sky I felt jinxed and hopeless. The world was empty. The god was standing behind my back. If I turned around he would strike me hard with the back of his hand and I would hurtle to the ground. He was terrible, and huge, and shadow. I was in charge, I said, and I would damn well say when we went in or when we did not. “I don’t feel any goddamn heat,” I said.

When Tom came down to our work that morning the workers surged over to him right away. “Put the work off until later,” they pleaded. “Sure,” he said. “We’re all in this together. Work when you want to.”

That was the first blow. The next came a few days later, when we finished thinning and Tom sent the workers over to the neighbour, Ken Day, who’d had a hard time that cold, wet summer keeping any workers on the farm: they’d rather be in Quebec, unemployed. The next day Ken told Tom he’d never in his twenty years in the business seen anyone work so hard thinning or move so fast or so well. When Tom told me, I was shaken up for the rest of the summer.

That was the year my father sold his farm. In all the twenty-one years that he farmed in the Okanagan there was never a summer with so much rain and so little sun. The peaches rotted on the trees. The heavens were washing us away.

The Centre of the World

IN 1953 MY father, a skinny young German with bad teeth, came to Max Kohler’s cattle and fruit ranch at Chopaka for winter work. Going there was like going to Patagonia or up the Amazon. Chopaka is a jagged ridge rising right out of the riverbed half a minute over the Washington border. Against the sky she is a woman, naked, full-breasted, lying on her back, her head thrown back. The Salish of the Lower Okanagan, Indian Territory, called themselves the O Kin O Kane—those who live where they can see the top—of Chopaka. The Fujiyama of the West. The Holy Mountain. Ararat. The Centre of the World. Jerusalem. Delphi.

With Chopaka rising high across the river, and the river cutting the farm loose from it with a great, blue-silver ox-bow of light, and the mosquitoes flooding the shadows between in streams and swarms like squalls of crisp, dry rain, it is a beautiful and sacred site. Huge thunderstorms pour up out of the deserts of the Columbia and collect against the cupped thigh of that mountain with the hail streaming from the black clouds like solid light.

The orchard is planted on a fan of alluvial shale, on the higher ground to drain the frost; the cattle are kept in the subirrigated fields below; the bees range up through the alpine meadows and summer range—each brief flower like a small root fire bursting forth from the soil, giving us some hint of the earth burning below us. The bees feed on the sweet oozings of the flowers, and fertilize them. Out of heavy wax frames and the scent of pine and shavings, we collect their honey—whitesuited, with screens over our faces, and each movement slow and measured—but they drink it from the flowers with their whole being, out of the dancing, burning soil.

The Unknown Country

WHEN MY FATHER arrived here, the connections between the Similkameen and the Okanagan, let alone the outside world of Vancouver, were slight. Today it is less of a world, and its people, true to themselves and their place, and their history of trapping, ranching, and Empire, are out of place—denied the very time in which they live. Time here is an old time. It once prevailed throughout British Columbia, but is now found only in silted mountain pockets. History here has had no break of modernism and nationalism—it is a continuous development and evolution out of Victorian times, and has not diverged from them.

The Wrong Valley

AFTER A WHOLE generation had fled to the cities in the fifties, farms here became nearly worthless. 1962 was the year my father bought his land, staking his claim to the future in the belief that, unlike the past and the present, it would not evaporate. Those were the last years of rural neglect, in the cycle that is descending on us again. Those were the years when the country had given up on colonization. Everyone was leaving the farm, abandoning the dream wholesale, because you cannot farm without a market, and you cannot sell the beauty of the land and the rituals of working the land, which are all you have.

“The place is like an oven,” Dad would say. He’d take you by the arm, whoever you might be, and lead you out onto the veranda, supported by old steel water pipes buried in the ground and filled with concrete. Then he’d point west, through the feathery limbs of the elms, in the cool green light of evening. “You see that spur that comes down from the mountain, and that one on the other side? The valley is very narrow there. That’s where it should be dammed. We could make a lake. Keremeos is up there. You know, we spent all night fighting the packinghouse fire, to save the town. When we were finished, and the town was saved, we stood around, wet, and dark, and said to each other,’What in the hell for?’ We had just realized what we had done.”

It was here my father bought his land, in the Similkameen, where society was a closed club and he was the invader, the outside world, the threat. That he worked so hard to break society up and remake it into a country was a result of his position here, not the cause of it. He thought this was Canada. He thought this, like Germany, was a country.

From the vantage point of time passed it’s obvious he should never have entered a business whose products were sold through a co-operative system, where profit and loss were shared on a community level—a community he could not tolerate. Those colonial farmers were desperately trying to insulate themselves from the truth of their situation—that the world was trying to tear them apart, and had been trying to do so since the first of them fled here. My father was that outside world. When his efforts to rebuild the marketing system, and then his bitter efforts to tear it down, failed, it was the cooperative system that threw him out and banished him. That was the only effective power it had—to make true and visible what was always the case—like signing your name on a dotted line.

One thought on “Out of the Interior: The Lost Country

  1. Pingback: Eco-Agriculture in a Spring Light | Okanagan Okanogan

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