Seeing with Different Eyes: Initial reflections from the Blackfoot Phenology for Farmers Course

Posted by Rachel Spruston on December 15, 2021

Blackfoot Phenology

Photo by Travis Lee, Invermere, BC

As part of the Blackfoot Phenology for Farmers course, led by Beaver Bundle holder Ryan First Diver, a group of farmers, growers, and food lovers across many Indigenous territories and ecosystems have committed to one year of active ecological observation. Students pick a study site in their area and visit it often in order to recognize and learn from the patterns, relationships, and cycles they observe. (So far, students have observed and identified over 170 different species of plants, animals, and fungi at their sites.) Throughout the course, students are capturing their observations through images and words, which are shared as quotes throughout this post.

Participants also gather online every month to share their observations and reflections. These discussions are cofacilitated by Ryan First Diver and Danielle Heavy Head, who is also a Beaver Bundle holder in the Blackfoot tradition. Their perspectives and knowledge are incredibly insightful and they enrich our understanding of changes throughout the year and our role as humans in the landscape!

“The K’ómoks First Nation refer to these lands as Xwee Xwhya Luq, meaning “a place that has beauty, beauty that is not only seen but also felt” and we are beginning to understand this.”

INDIGENOUS TERRITORY ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Because this course is centred on Indigenous ways of thinking and relating to the world, it is especially important to acknowledge that this course takes place on the traditional, ancestral territories of many Indigenous Peoples, who have stewarded their lands since time immemorial. Most Indigenous communities in Canada have never surrendered control of their land, and all are living with the harmful and ongoing legacies of a colonial system that does not recognize their land title and rights. Acknowledging this reality is a first step towards reconciliation and decolonization. 

“Humbled, I made my offerings – some food, tobacco, a few stray hairs I am always shedding, some of my hot tea, and a little tuna for the stray cat that is currently finding shelter amongst the willows too.”

While this course is taught from a Blackfoot perspective, participants are joining from across Turtle Island and beyond with a spirit of connecting to and learning from Indigenous perspectives in order to become better land inhabitants.

Photo by Mike Crape

Below are some of the Indigenous territories represented in the group:

Unceded Snuneymuxw, Hul’qumi’num, and K’ómoks territories on the West Coast

Unceded Sinixt, Secwepemc, Ktunaxa, and Syilx/Okanagan territories in B.C.’s Interior

Treaty 1 Territory, home of the Brokenhead Ojibway, Sagkeeng, Long Plain, Peguis, Roseau River Anishinabe, Sandy Bay and Swan Lake, and many others

Treaty 2 (1790 McKee Purchase) Territory, home of the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Haudenosaunee, Attiwonderonk, Myaamia, Wendat, Erie, Tobacco, and many others

Treaty 6 Territory, home of the Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Tsuut’ina, Stoney-Nakoda, Nehiyaw, Ojibway/Saulteaux/Anishinaabe, Inuit, and many others 

Treaty 7 Territory, home of the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda, Tsuut’ina (Sarcee), and many others

Treaty 8 Territory, home of the Michif Piyii (Métis), Denesuline, Woodland Cree, Nēhiyawak, Dane-Zaa, Blueberry River, Doig River, Fort Nelson, Halfway River, McLeod Lake, Prophet River, Saulteau, West Moberly and many others

Unceded Mi’kmaq territory on the East Coast

Pōneke (Wellington), Aotearoa (New Zealand) 

Photo by Mike Crape

THE BLACKFOOT PERSPECTIVE

As farmers and people who think about the connection between our food and where it is grown, it is our responsibility to build a relationship with the land. And like any good relationship, it grows stronger the more time you spend together getting to know one another. 

“I stepped into the area for this visit and felt a significant shift in myself. I noticed a familiarity as I entered, I felt happy to be there and curious what everyone was up to. I felt a peace in my chest that I wanted to visit with everybody, like meeting up with a friend.”

A central premise of the practice of Blackfoot Phenology is to learn from the plant and animal elders and to engage with the land as a human being. It’s a chance to learn about and acknowledge the land you live on – to see it with different eyes, as Ryan says. It’s a chance to get to know those who live and have lived in the same space as you do. A chance to begin gaining an appreciation for the deep and embodied knowledge and relationship that the many Indigenous Peoples had and continue to have with this land. 

“Taking each step with more intention, I saw goldenrod gals, a family of Artemisia medicine, ducks foraging for dinner, and invasive Clematis dancing with the Silverberry trees. Also called Wolf Willow, I’ll sustainably harvest her berries to craft into a necklace since we’ve had a frost.”

Photo by C. Rose

Blackfoot Phenology highlights the importance of repetition and learning in context, through careful observation of the same place over a long period of time using all of the senses. As Ryan says in the first lecture, “Time and distance from something can make us lose memory, so we have to keep packing it on.” 

“I lay on my back on the forest floor and stared into the canopy for a time. (Until I was tired of feeling cold and soggy…)”

The course is structured around the 12 Blackfoot moon cycles, and begins with the first winter moon cycle, Iitao’tsstoyi (When Cold Arrives). Iitao’tsstoyi is a time that brings aissiinaattsi (foggy mornings) and makoyisttsomokaan (Wolf Cap snow), a sticky, heavy snow typical of the first snowstorm of the season.

“My fingers were numb, it was tough to write, and the wet snow smeared my shaky writing, forcing me to keep my notes brief.”

The second winter moon cycle is Iitaohkanaikokotoyi Niitahtaistsi (When The Rivers Freeze Entirely Over). As the name suggests, the defining event in this lunar cycle is the surface of the rivers freezing over, an occurrence that is increasingly threatened by climate change.

Photo by M. Zapisocky

“There was a new forest song, as the sound of all those snowflakes hitting the bodies of the plants is slightly different again from the sound of the wind rustling through them, though very similar… In some places, the muffled voice of the creek through the remaining open patches in the ice joined the voice of the snow.”

“Cool, calm, and clear weather has frozen the surface of the lake into a smooth, glossy ice that was better than any zamboni could make!”

“First day the air felt genuinely frosty, like real winter… I dressed warmly, enjoyed a sparkling cold day with a clear sky and freshly fallen snow.”

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

I’kotsaapinako or Maohksaapinako (red sunrises), which indicate heavy winds to come that day, are common during this moon cycle as well.

“Always there is the wind now. ​Also infinite in its beauty and rage as it entangles itself in the trees. ​Their branches engage in the dance.”

“The way they rotated their ears, subtle verbal and nonverbal communications, the size and texture of their antlers, their bells, their shiny coats, mannerisms, and postures… so beautiful in the golden light of the morning.”

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

PHENOLOGY & TRANSITIONS

These moon cycles, for many, were ones that brought visible changes to their landscapes, along with rapid changes in temperature. 

“The entire area has an oscillating aroma between the flowing freshwater of the river and the decaying forest floor. You don’t need the other senses to know it is fall.”

“The morning sun is peeking out further to the south each time I walk.”

“The temperature is much colder today than it has been, I was happy about my last-minute decision to grab my winter coat and hat.”

“The sun goes down quickly these days and the temperature with it as soon as it disappears behind the mountains.”

Photo by Mike Crape

“The leaves are turning colour and I am woken at night by acorns dropping on the roof.”

“The change of color brightens the forest and as the leaves fall more sky can be seen. The forest making way for light to fall to the forest floor on the shorter days ahead.”

“Small things are standing out, as the leaves fall.”

“There’s another change in timbre to the sound of the wind, as there’s now few aspen leaves to rustle, but plenty of dried grass and wildflower stems, which rustle slightly differently.”

“The grasses are drying, and some changed to red, the leaves are dry and browning. The aapa’iai (cattail) have started to pop open. The mi’ksinittsiim (bull berry) are still solid on the branch.”

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

“The wind, often invisible, dresses kinself up in leaves near ground level now.”

“And now with no foliage to hide behind, the forest is forced to give up some of its secrets.”

“Decay seems to be everywhere now. Leaves litter the forest floor. The trees seem more gray and everything is damp. Always damp. A veneer of dullness now covers the land.”

“The only vibrant green I still see are the mosses… The spruce are still green (as ‘ever’) but it’s a different green… It’s less vibrant.”

“The message from the trees is one of slowing down.”

Photo by Alex Pulwicki

EMBRACING CHANGE

“Sometimes, transitions must be bold and loud, and lead to the casting off of what was once familiar. This week I’m listening to how loudly the trees, shrubs and grass speak as they let go of summer and prepare for winter: dried leaves rustling, popping, dancing and crackling.”

Many places held stories of a long, hot summer, even as they began the transition into winter.  

“The forest floor is littered with reminders of last summer’s heat and drought.  Auburn cedar bits, branches dried, and broken from the trees.  Among all I find the skeletal lace of broad-leaf maple.  Long ago fallen…”

For some plants, the arrival of winter came as a relief. 

Photo by Angi Zimmerling

“Not all is falling, or withering. With the rain the mosses and lichens have come alive, revived from the dormancy of summer drought.”

“None of the birch trees had any leaves left, the aspen were tilting from yellow to gold, and any green was draining from the willows. The only thing green was the grasses which are flushing back out after the summer heat devastation..”

These lunar cycles also brought rain and changes to water levels, and water was a common thread running through many observations. 

“The seasonal swamp/pond is rapidly filling. ​The pond that was edge to edge duckweed only a few weeks ago shows a steadily rising water level.”

“The last storm was with high tides and so much sand and driftwood now lines the beach.”

Photo by Robin Johnston

“The marsh where we walk and sit and watch and listen is filled again after this month’s rain.”

“Rain in the forest is a drumbeat.”

“It was unusually warm for this late in October and I walked in the water in bare feet.”

LEARNING FROM ANIMAL ELDERS

Many students observed animals making preparations for winter, such as birds beginning to migrate, fish spawning, and other critters making food caches and reinforcing their homes. Some animals also change their physical appearance during these lunar cycles. 

“The Blue Jays are still quite raucous, some are migrating in large flocks while others look like they want to stay for the Winter.”

“We’ve been noticing hundreds (probably even thousands) of snow geese flying overhead. They fly in huge Vs that expand and contract, almost like they are tied together by giant elastic bands. Their responsiveness to each other is inspiring.”

“The arrival of larger numbers of Crows this week tells me that the Corn will be off the fields soon.”

“Last visit we had noted how birch deadfall decomposes from the inside out, leaving the bark. This visit we saw how a squirrel has made use of this gift to store their dried mushrooms! We think the squirrel must’ve hung the mushrooms out to dry first and then packed them in there… I recently read that Cree people learned dehydration techniques from squirrels, and I can definitely appreciate that. I can’t think of a better place to store dried goods in this place.”

Photo by Luke Wonneck

“Squirrels have been busy and I’ve found several large chestnuts hiding under hay, compost and long grass.”

“I followed the sound of a woodpecker to its source. He was fun to watch and let me get pretty close. He reminded me of myself in the way he worked, and in the way he chirped at me to tell me he didn’t want to be watched.” 

“Just as I figure it is time to start heading back, something catches my eye. Red flashes in the water! My eyes take a second to adjust against the bright glint of the sun against the ripples, and as everything comes into focus I see them: spawning kokanee!”

Photo by Travis Lee, Invermere, BC

“We were startled by a snowshoe hare, which burst out almost from under our feet. It was now perfectly white.”

Still others observed how the natural world records of the passing of time. 

“The holes in the cedar tree were made by woodpeckers… The spider-webs tell me the excavations – which might have been for nesting – haven’t been used for awhile.”

“The previous year’s seeds were still on the part of the branch closer to the tree, and you can count the number of years old a branch is by the sections of seeds stuck to it.”

“We found an aspen that had been laid flat when a larger dead tree fell on it and looked at how it’s branches had twisted up to try and straighten back to vertical. We talked about how to read history in those shapes.”

TOWARDS RECIPROCITY

During these first two lunar cycles, students grappled with the impacts of human disturbance, both personally and historically, even as they explored what it might look like to engage in acts of reciprocity with their chosen sites.

“This quarry hasn’t been active in this exact spot for a long time, but evidence of it remains even just in the rocks – never mind the impact it had on the other beings in the area. The blasting marks are literally scars.”

“I was using a form of disturbance to counter the impacts of earlier disturbances, and trying to frame all of it in the context of how to listen better to the land and it’s patterns… The land is still there, all the particularities are still there. I could feel them with the forks; where water had tended to run and pool… where the previous inhabitants had trails.”

Photo by Travis Lee, Invermere, BC

“An offering of seeds and sheep wool that I sheared last spring was placed for our flying friends in the area.”

“This area is near the highway and on a lake used by lots of people on the other side, so there’s a bit of garbage washed up on shore. I filled my pockets with it as a way to say thank you for my time there.”

“Farmers have a love hate relationship with beavers… I really appreciate the past stewards of the land for maintaining the bush and leaving habitat for these creatures. We’re really learning how to work with the beavers as partners.”

“I feel confused by the possibility that this beach might not have even existed without the building of this road… Clearly a lot of beings, humans included, find that this place fills a need for them and seek it out for nourishment and enjoyment. Maybe that is enough?”

REFLECTING & ASKING

Many observations were opportunities for personal learnings.

“Nothing in Nature fruits all year. May you teach me how to release this expectation from myself?”

“Not much is needed to put down roots and join in.”

“As humans we tend to shy away from change and I hope to gain wisdom from spending time observing the water and its ever changing state.”

And so many observations led to even more questions!

“This plant, more so than any other in this area, still has plenty of berries on its branches. Interesting, but I have no idea why… The large seeds were traditionally used for beadwork. I wonder if anyone still does that, and how exactly they would make a hole in it?”

“I wonder what it is about the [birch] bark that prevents it from decomposing?”

“How old was she?  Who was she – once – that tree?” 

Photo by Luke Wonneck

“I wonder how the site looked before the road.”

“Which tree loses the cute little pinecones clustered on a twig?”

“What are [the ravens] calling?”

“When do the pinecones fall?”

“Are they reproducing in fall? How will they survive the winter?”

“They are eating non-stop but will they make it? Most ducks have gone south already.”

“What do they think of us?”

“Are there different “varieties” of Dandelion?”

“I wonder how [the geese] decide where to go, where to land, and where to stay? Who makes that decision, and what are the criteria they consider?” 

“Does that always happen in the fall?” 

“What makes a good dam site?”

Photo by J. Tschudy

“I wonder how they choose which trees they’re going to cut down?… Do they all work together to move the big trees, or is this a one beaver show?”

“Who made those holes? How did they make them (chokecherry seeds are hard as rock!)? And how did they eat what was inside through such a small hole?”

“How did that get there?”

“What is that?”

There is so much left to learn. 

“I was so grateful for the reminder to always keep my eyes wide open, ears listening, mind ready for surprise, heart settled, soul seeking awe and wonder… this is also saponihtaan – to bend our whole selves, body, mind, heart, and soul, towards that which we are establishing relationship.”

“It always surprises me when I see something I’ve never seen before. Which is silly. I hope Life is always like that. Surprising…”

We are incredibly grateful to Ryan First Diver for leading this course and sharing his wisdom and stories with us, and to the students, for being so generous with their observations. 

Photo by Natasha Danenhower

“All along the walk I paused and paused. ​”Will you look at that,” I said to the Cedar, the Alder, Douglas Fir, the Rain and Stone, to the River. “Isn’t that something.””

Learn more about the Blackfoot Phenology for Farmers course.

SPONSORS

Thank you to Alberta Ecotrust Foundation for their support of this program!

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