Up Chute Creek: An Okanagan Idyll
November 4, 2013
Review By Theresa Kishkan
In the early 1970s, Melody Hessing and her husband Jay Lewis bought acreage in the south Okanagan near Naramata. They called their property the Granite Farm. They were idealists, hoping to build a house and a life in place. Up Chute Creek: An Okanagan Idyll is the chronicle of that pursuit, detailing the difficult and exhilarating work of creating foundations, framing walls, and learning a new terrain. It is also an admirable treatise on the shifting nature of our relationship to places we love and aspire to know.
The Okanagan that Hessing and Lewis moved to was a place of “stucco motels, benchland orchards and fun-in-the-sun tourism” (6). This was before the estate wineries, the lavender farms, the artisan cheesemakers, the purveyors of speciality honeys. Yet it was always a storied place. I think of Sandy Wilson’s wonderful film, My American Cousin, based on her late-1950s childhood at Paradise Ranch; or even earlier, the Home Theatre of Carroll Aikins in Naramata, where productions of The Trojan Women and Synge’s The Tinker’s Wedding took place in a theatre over a fruit-packing shed, officially opened in 1920 by then prime minister Arthur Meighen.
This book is lively and original – part photo album, part journal, part musical score: the Chute Creek Falls Overture (35) and the Torch Song (174) – in A minor if you want to hum along – are unexpected delights. The use of lists is one of the pleasures of this book, and their cumulative effect is not unlike that of a birder’s life-list: close observations and encounters with the natural world that form a provisional calendar. In their seasons, weeds exasperate, birds entertain and annoy (a red-shafted flicker drilling into the wall ruins sleep). And the landscape is alive with predators: an amusing little riff on predator control from the perspective of coyotes, cougars, rattlesnakes, and so on makes a serious point about interspecies relationships.
Melody and Jay find ways to fit into the human community, too. But, as a couple, they have difficulty attaining an ideal balance between the hard work inherent in homesteading and outside employment that utilizes skills long in the learning and that provides necessary income. Melody continues PhD studies and teaches at a local college. Two children are born and the balance shifts again. “Time flies; things change. Home is where you can make a living. Over the next two decades I teach Sociology in Vancouver at various colleges and universities; Jay works at different jobs; the kids are in school” (137).
The adjustments at the Granite Farm mirror the transformations in the Okanagan Valley itself. When Melody and Jay bought the property in the 1970s, road access was a little problematic, though the neighbour selling the land was willing to allow them continued use of an existing access point. But one day, that changes: “Bit by bit, fences chopped the landscape into subdivisions and orchards, pasture and vineyards, fragmented and subjugated to human use. When we purchased the steep land on the northern fringes of Harrises’, we assumed an entitlement founded on word, nuance, and better times, on a friendship attenuated by shifting relationships, market values and the passing of time.” (143).
As a sociologist, Melody Hessing is ideally placed to observe and record the evolution of a community and the small niches within it. When demographics change, the values of a location and its history are remembered in different ways. A remnant of a wooden flume from the old days of the Paradise Ranch occasions a brief meditation on contemporary water use and the way it can polarize a community. Agriculture’s dependency on irrigation doesn’t always keep pace with climate change, the cycles of drought and abundance. The Okanagan Mountain fire that brackets the book is a valuable reminder that landscapes reshaped by humans are particularly vulnerable.
Up Chute Creek is an important book that speaks to issues both broad and particular. It does so with humour and fierce intelligence and moments of pure poetry: “Right now, peach-pink Kokanee trout are spawning in Darke Creek, already bleached to grey and white. Ghost trout, they are just able to swim in a holding pattern against the flow of water. How much effort does it take to resist, to stay still against the current?” (205).