A Missing Lake and a Web of Contested Relations - GTEC Reader

A thought experiment: What might a missing lake unfold for us?  Also, what patterns might emerge as we follow the lines that connect seemingly dissimilar events?  And, from an encounter with these events, what fears, warnings, as well as hopes and creative possibilities might emerge?

Here is an event: The historical transformation of a geographical entity, from a location once called Sumas Lake to what is now called Sumas Prairie.

From this event, patterns which connect, as Gregory Bateson would say, come to life. But, the patterns emerge only as we attend to the particularities of the event.

A Geographical and Historical Event — Sumas Lake to Sumas Prairie

According to Deleuze in Difference and Repetition, thought comes into life through an actual encounter:

“Something in the world forces us to think.  This something is an object, not of recognition, but a fundamental ‘encounter’… It may be grasped in a range of affective tones: wonder, love, hatred, suffering.  In whichever tone, its primary characteristic is that it can only be sensed.”

So, we continue with something in the world which forces us to think — an encounter with a lost lake.

Between the cities of Abbotsford and Chilliwack, in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, an area of land carries both fruitful and devastating histories.  These are little-told histories. This place is today called Sumas Prairie — though, the area is not a prairie, and never truly was a prairie.

This location is now encountered as a large area of flat farmland bordered on the South by the Northern edge of the Cascade Mountains, and on the North by Sumas Mountain.  This farmland produces corn, flowers, vegetables, and turf for lawns, among other things and is also home for a number of large dairy and poultry farms. Roads and field boundaries are laid precisely North/South, and East/West – the most prominent and politically significant of these lines is the USA/Canada border, which cuts through the Southwestern corner of the area.    Traversed by a major thoroughfare, the Trans-Canada Highway, the land is maintained as productive farmland, in part, through a network of drainage ditches, dikes, and pumping stations, all which help keep the spring floods at bay while also providing water for irrigation purposes.

Trumpeter Swans on farmland that once was Sumas Lake, 2014 (Sumas Mountain in background). Photo: Kinman.

In winter the land attracts an abundance of life, particularly migratory birds.  This is the winter home for numerous flocks of trumpeter swans, as well as many other species of waterfowl.  The swans feed in the old cornfields and the remnant winter greens in the pasture lands.  Other birds set up residence here in the winter, including an impressive number of raptor species: many bald eagles, along with red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks, northern harriers, sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, barn owls, short-eared owls, American kestrels, merlins, peregrine falcons, even the occasional northern prairie falcon and gyrfalcon.  All of this is watched over by large flocks of crows and families of ravens, residents who have been a steady presence in this location through all the changes that have occurred.

This list of species I provide are birds that I have personally witnessed (over a period of about 25 years) on the land that is now called Sumas Prairie.

Ecological abundances are still moving over the land, and they hint at something significant that came before; for the land carries with it a certain haunting.  This haunting is evident in that telling flatness of the land, in the year-after-year return of the winter waterfowl and raptors and in the fertility of the soil.  This haunting is of histories largely forgotten yet moving like ghosts upon this land.

Things were once different.  Prior to the 1920s, this same area was a large, shallow body of water.  There was no Sumas Prairie, there was Sumas Lake.  This lake was home, as well as the source of food, for the Sumas — or Sema:th, people.  Ray Silver, a Sema:th elder, quoted in an article in the Vancouver Sun in June, 2013, says, “The lake was, I don’t know what you’d call it, our fridge I guess. It meant everything to our people.”

The Sema:th people called this lake the Big Opening. The word Sumas means an opening.  An opening of water, along the Fraser River, where spring floods can disperse.  An opening of light emerging from the ancient forests.  An opening between mountains.  An opening of travel for salmon, sturgeon, eulachon, and the people to the river.  An opening for food, for hope, for ancestors, for life.  This is an opening whose particularity is now closed, except in memory.  Laura Cameron, a writer who has thought a great deal about this lake and has worked hard to retrieve it into our contemporary memories, talks of this lake as: “An opening between water and history, the interplay linking the stuff of nature and its historical representation within culture.  The entry point is specific, local, and currently non-existent: a southwestern British Columbia lake… Sumas Lake”

According to Chad Reimer (Before We Lost the Lake: A Natural and Human History of Sumas Valley), the Sema:th learned to orient their lives around these fluctuations.

“The Sema:th and their neighbours had few problems accepting and working with the lake the way it was… The Sema:th view of the world itself was based on transitions and transformations, not the rigid distinctions of the White world.  The space between things – a littoral zone in the cosmos – was as real as the things on either end.  The physical and spiritual, human and animal, land and water – all occupied this world together, continually moving from one to another.”

The government of British Columbia, however, chose not to adjust to the realities of Sumas Lake.

Sumas Lake, 1915.

In the 1920s something happened which the Sema:th people never believed was possible.  The British Columbia government built a series of dikes and pumping stations, and thereby diverted the Chilliwack River into the newly-constructed, and renamed, Vedder Canal.  The river which once fed into the lake, was diverted to flow directly into the Fraser River, completely detouring the Lake.  Sumas Lake was drained.

For the Sema:th, their home, their source of life and sustenance had been taken away.  They were never seriously consulted about this action.  In fact, when the decision to drain the lake was being considered, Chief Ned, of the Sumas Indian Band, spoke the only recorded words of opposition.  His expression was stark and unsettling: “I am against the dyking because that will mean more starvation for us.” The warning of “more starvation” fell silently upon the political powers of his day.  The lake was taken away, with no ear for the people who had lived with that lake for countless generations.  No compensation was ever provided for their loss. Reimer, again:

“From the start, they dreamed of ridding the land of its wetness, of draining the lake and dewatering the valley. The wetness of the land stopped them from creating the life they desired.  It also was something that had no place in their grand view of the natural world, which was built on the distinction between two fixed elements – land and water.  Lands that were wholly dry, and water that was not sufficiently wet, were not understood or accepted on their own terms.  Instead they were vilified, written off as “dismal” marshes, swamps and bogs.”

Today, we don’t encounter a Sumas Lake.  Instead we encounter the farmlands, roads, dikes and canals, now called Sumas Prairie. And yet, just yesterday I witnessed the winter swans feeding on this lost lake.

Family therapist, photographer, poet, author and musician… Chris Kinman’s work reflects sources from Bateson to Hoffman to Deleuze and Guattari. Currently he works as a therapist and provides supervision. He consults with human service organizations and has an interview show on YouTube. Chris has two Masters degrees, in Marriage and Family Therapy and in Divinity, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Education.