Cowboys rode up to the gate

Douglas Lake cowCowboys, dogs, and dirtbikers: unexpected visitors to Monkey Valley

The Douglas Lake Cattle Company has the grazing rights for the land all around Monkey Valley. So it is not really surprising that I’ve seen quite a few cows—and a fair number of bulls, too—but that’s another story. It was a real thrill one August morning to see a couple of cowboys, who rode up to the gate to let me know they were bringing the cattle in to graze the piece of land on the other side of the fence. They were on horses, and wore cowboy hats and jingling spurs. Real cowboys!

Kurt was about 15, and the other one, whose name I’ve forgotten, was possibly in his 60s. They were real polite and friendly, and invited me to come visit the cow camp where they all stay for the summer. I never did go, but maybe one year. Now and then over the years I have seen their trucks and horse trailers parked beside the road, when they are in the process of moving cattle from one area to another. In the spring the cows are turned out to graze at low elevations where the snow has melted, and they gradually move higher into the mountains as the summer goes on. In the fall they move back down again. The workers at the cow camp move the cows around, and tend to injured cows and calves as well.

~* Oh, the life of a cowboy is lonely… Campfires and beans, and bitter dark coffee… *~

It’s a way of life that has been romanticized in the movies, and settlers in BC have been raising cattle for up to 120 years. I led a Northwest Earth Institute discussion group on sustainability in Merritt in 2006, and we talked about the kind of land in this area and what food sources it will support. According to one of the participants, whose family has been ranching in this area for decades, the land around Merritt is dry and hilly and supports cattle grazing on the grass but would not be suitable for growing soybeans. I respect her point of view, and think she’s probably right.

However, much of the land on earth that is suited to growing crops and diverse plant life has been razed for cattle grazing to supply us with cheap beef. We’ve all heard from people like John Seed’s Rainforest Rescue organization about how a large percentage of the earth’s rainforests have been burned to the ground. Here’s a plea from Matthew Fox, author of Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth, from the chapter of the same name in The Soul of Nature (p. 214):

«Today we need to have ecological virtues. For example, vegetarianism or semi-vegetarianism is an ecological virtue. There is no longer any excuse for a human being in the so-called first world not questioning his or her amount of consumption of meat. In fact, if North Americans alone were to cut back just ten per cent in their meat consumption, sixty million humans would eat today who were starving. The amount of land, water, and grain we are using to feed an addictive meat habit is simply unsustainable in our time.»

This is one reason the Monkey Valley Retreat Centre serves vegetarian food.

Saturday morning cookies at Monkey Valley

Karen\'s chocolate brownie cookiesI woke up this sunny morning with a yen for chocolate cookies… for breakfast. With a cup of decaf… served on the porch.

The wonderful thing about Saturday mornings is there’s time for indulging such fantasies. So I got out the silver mixing bowls and baking sheet, and the delightful measuring cups and spoons of all different sizes, made of white plastic. These things must conjure up sweet memories from childhood, for I feel happy whenever I see them. I gathered ingredients from their various hiding places: the mouse-proof wood chest in the hallway where I keep dry goods, the top shelf of the cupboard, the fridge.

Now, as a single person usually living alone, if I bake cookies it’s me who’s going to eat them all! I still usually make a full batch, but today I was limited by the Earth Balance Whipped Buttery Spread—I only had about ¼ cup, plus a little extra for greasing the sheet. So there was no option but to make half a batch, and hope they would last long enough!

Here’s the recipe for the full batch; you can see it’s an easy one to cut in half.

Karen’s chocolate brownie cookies (*Adapted from The Joy of Cooking’s quick oatmeal cookies*)

Sift together:My mom gave me this book when I first moved out from home—long before the 1997 edition!

  • 1 c sifted whole wheat flour
  • ½ t salt
  • ½ t baking soda
  • ½ t baking powder
  • ½ t cinnamon
  • 4 T (heaping) cocoa powder

In a separate bowl cream together:

  • ½ c Whipped Buttery Spread (or other margarine or butter) + 1 extra T because it’s whipped
  • ½ c brown sugar, packed
  • ½ c white sugar

When smooth, mix in:

  • 1 egg (try to use a small egg if making a ½ batch)
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 1 T rice milk (or milk or soy milk)

Turn on the oven to 350°. For me anyway, this is plenty soon enough to start preheating the oven!

Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients, mixing until smooth. Mix in:

  • 1 c quick cooking oats

Mix in:

  • ¾ chopped walnuts

Drop the cookie dough onto a well-greased baking sheet, in lumps of about 2 T or a little more. A dozen should fit on most baking sheets.

Bake for 10 minutes. While the cookies are baking, make a cup of coffee, wash up the dishes, and take your vitamins.

Remove from the oven, and let set for 1 minute. Remove to a plate to eat immediately(!) or to cool further. Store in an airtight container to keep the soft chewy texture.


– icing sugar instead of white sugar; the resulting texture is slightly softer, very good.
– spelt flakes instead of oats; these cook up slightly more chewy than the oats
– omit cocoa and use raisins or dried cherries instead of nuts

Basically, most substitutions will turn out well with this simple, adaptable recipe.

The final step is to take 3 or 4 cookies outside, along with a cup of coffee, and enjoy this incredibly yummy treat in the sunshine on the porch overlooking the creek and meadow.

And that’s exactly what I did!

Soapberry Indian ice cream

Indian ice cream—a gift from the land

BC Nicola Valley soapberriesAt the August vision fast at Monkey Valley, the spot where our council circle met had some translucent reddish-orange berries that looked very succulent. I licked one and found it to be very bitter. The faster asked what they were, but I didn’t know, and didn’t even recall seeing this type of berry before. After the faster went out on her two-day quest, I looked up the berries in Roberta Parish, Ray Coupe, and Dennis Lloyd’s Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia. I discovered they are soapberries. I remembered that my friend Pam told me soapberries are the stuff Indian ice cream is made of.

While the faster was out, my co-guide Kim Ashley (a Soapberry Indian ice creamdifferent Kim than my sister, Kim Rempel) and I decided to try making the ice cream. We gathered the berries in the traditional method, by spreading a cloth on the ground and then beating the bush with a stick! (Following the instructions in Nancy Turner’s Food Plants of Interior First Peoples.) But we used electric beaters, not so traditional, to whip the berries with a little water into a beautiful pink foam. We didn’t have the traditional whipping implement—a piece of cedar bark—on hand. The mixture was still quite bitter even with brown sugar and a few wild raspberries added. An unusual but interesting taste. The whipped foamy texture is wonderful—a real treat.

This treat was part of the welcome-back-break-fast feast. It was really neat, to offer the faster some food gathered from the land. It strengthened the feeling that the spirits of this place welcome us doing the old sacred ceremonies here. Ho!


Mix 1 cup berries with 1/4 cup water and 4 tablespoons brown sugar, until all the berries have dissolved into a stiff pink foam.

Vision quest—maintaining sacred tradition

Cultural misappropriation of sacred ceremony

Cultural misappropriation is a danger in adopting Evelyn Eaton's The Shaman and the Medicine Wheeltraditional ceremonies for contemporary use. It is true that peoples on every continent have used solo time in nature for spiritual purposes. It is a human birthright—a way of connecting directly to the natural world and to deeper realms of spiritual realities. Yet so much has been taken from the first peoples of North America, and there have been incidents of anger about Caucasian groups using first peoples customs. Even in cases where a white person has been trained and given permission by a Native American medicine man, such as in the case of author and medicine woman Evelyn Eaton, others in Native American communities have disagreed and been angry with those who allow white participation in their traditional Native American ceremonies such as the pipe ceremony and sweat lodge.

What to do? How to navigate this territory of cultural misappropriation? Certainly, when using or adapting traditional first people ways, it is vitally important to do so with respect and with honouring of the first peoples of the land where we do sacred ceremony, and with thanks for the teachings we have received. The School of Lost Borders, which teaches a modern vision fast rite of passage, changed from using the term vision quest to using the term vision fast. They did this out of consideration for Native Americans.

I believe that in this time of ecological crisis the earth and all the people on it need us to be aware of our interconnectedness with the earth and all living creatures. The old ways of the first peoples are needed, to help foster this awareness. Some Native American leaders and writers agree that the old ways are needed, and they are willing to teach them to all people, regardless of race. With over 50% of the earth’s population living in cities now, we need a ceremony that brings people out into wild nature. And certainly, people of all ages need rites of passage to bring meaning, celebration, and an awareness of being part of the wholeness of our world. I believe that the need for and value of this ceremony is great. My own personal experience of it, fasting annually for the past three years, is that it is so healing and transformative that I want to offer this experience to others. So I have chosen to learn to guide others in the vision fast ceremony as taught by the School of Lost Borders.

BC eagle feathersMy friend Janet, who has the Métis heritage, gave me an eagle feather and sage to use for smudging in the traditional way. I feel she invited me into these ways with her gifts. She has encouraged me to offer the teachings I learn to First Nations people in the Merritt area. I have felt shy about doing this, and think it must be very inappropriate. But she told me to do it. People want to be in the sacred ceremony. In some cases the old ways have been lost to the first peoples themselves, and they are hungry to learn wherever they can. I have invited First Nations people from the Merritt area to events at Monkey Valley, and will continue to do so, even though I still feel very shy about it.

I try to remember to use the sacred ceremonies I have learned with respect for the first peoples. I thank the ancestors of the land where the ceremony is being held. I thank the spirits of the land, and the grandmothers and grandfathers, and ask for their help and guidance in keeping the fasters safe and teaching them what they need to know. The spirits seem to listen and to help. This is all I know.

Vision quest—background

A rite of passage

Peoples of many cultures have created traditions and ceremonies involving solo time in wild Faster in Wyoming's red desertnature. In North America, the plains peoples are the most well-known groups to use the ancient practice of the vision quest. John Murray recounts, in editors Michael Tobias and Georgianne Cowan’s The Soul of Nature, a story of discovering a vision quest site in Rocky Mountain National Park. Archaeologists from Colorado State University and the National Park Service studied the site and determined it had been used for vision quests and fasts from 10,000 years ago until about 500 years ago. This is remarkable! Long before the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, the first peoples of North America had been using spiritual ceremony to help their people live and thrive.

The vision quest was used as a rite of passage to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. The quester would fast from food, people, and shelter. In some groups the faster would go forth naked, with only a bear-skin robe for warmth and protection. Severing from her people (I don’t know for sure if young women participated in this ceremony, or if it was only males in traditional societies who used this rite of passage, but today they definitely do!), the quester would enter a threshold space—a space between worlds, a place of spirit. The faster would be invisible to her people—a spirit form—until returning back across the threshold, sometimes after four days and four nights of fasting, sometimes for different periods of time. Upon returning, the quester would tell her story of the fast. The story would be received by her elders, and the entire community would know that the quester had successfully crossed over into adulthood. She might have received a vision, or a gift to bring back to her people. Incorporation, the final stage of the vision fast process, would involve living her gift or vision—bringing it back to her people, and making it real.

There are historical accounts of Native Americans who saw the coming of Christopher Columbus’s ship in a vision, but didn’t know what it was because they had never seen a ship before. There are many accounts of first peoples visionaries seeing the coming of the “white man” and the ensuing drastic effects on their way of life.

Today, First Nation peoples in some parts of North America still use the vision quest ceremony. Contemporary groups such as the School of Lost Borders and Monkey Valley Retreat Centre also put people out on the land to undergo the rite of passage of the vision fast. See the Links page for other contemporary organizations who offer vision fasts.

Clinging to summer

Pink PearlLabour Day is over. It’s September. There’s no denying that summer is over, even though the sun is still bright. The wheel is turning around to the west, to the harvest, and the dying time of the fall. As a Scorpio born in late October, I always relish the coming of the fall. Maybe it’s memories of back to school and new school clothes and the smell of pink erasers. I keep one in a drawer just so I can smell it now and then. Remember those back to school days, with yellow pencils and maybe even a new set of coloured pencil crayons?

But if you’d like a little while longer to cling to the long days of August, here is a summary of the postings that describe August days at Monkey Valley. I invite you to stroll through the long grasses of the meadow, and hear the call of the red-shafted flicker once more…

Flying flicker feathers

An August day at Monkey Valley

Red-shafted flickers

I wasn’t completely off the mark when I thought my morning visitor was a Red-shafted flickerwoodpecker. The flickers are a type of woodpecker, but rather than pecking at bark to eat the grubs and insects underneath, they feed on ants and other ground insects, as well as berries in the winter time. I’d never seen one so close before, to notice the black breast-band. What has always struck me is their visual impact in flight, with their salmon-pink under-wings and white rump flashing, and their solid-looking shape. They have the up-and-down, undulating flight pattern shared by most woodpeckers.

When I was growing up my family owned land on Knouff Lake, northeast of Kamloops, BC. We spent a lot of time there, especially in the summer, staying in the one-room cabin that my father built. Bathing in the lake. No electricity or running water. (Many years later my dad put in power and phone.) We canoed around the lake, suntanned on the dock my dad built, swam, hiked, ate a lot of great food. One time bears tore into my sister’s and I’s tent, while the family was away on a day hike. There were paw prints on the windows of the cabin, too, more than 8 feet off the ground. Needless to say, Kim and I slept in the cabin that night, and learned not to hide goodies in the tent!

Monkey Valley flicker featherWhen my dad learned he had brain cancer, in the late 1990s, he had to sell the property, and the family met there for a final farewell. It was a very sad visit, all of us struggling to come to terms with his cancer and impending death, and also losing this land that had meant so much to us. On the last day, as we were getting ready to leave, I went off for a short walk by myself, and found some beautiful orange feathers on the ground. They seemed like a miracle to me. I had never seen anything so magical as these brown feathers with white spots and patterns of orange on them. It was truly a gift from the land, a parting gift. I felt so moved and grateful to receive this goodbye from this place, a memento to keep with me always. I gave some of the feathers to my family, and kept one for myself. I have this feather still, and it is in the north on my altar—the place of my people, and a symbol of the air element.

I didn’t learn until I was studying ecopsychology at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado, and walking to school with a fellow Canuck, that the birds with the orange under-wings are called flickers. Before I even knew what these birds were called I found some flicker feathers on a trip to Boulder, down by the Boulder Creek. I was in Boulder for a weekend workshop on rites of passage, and one night went on a special medicine walk to learn about what the threshold means—one of the three stages of a rite of passage. I had overcome my fear and gone into the creek in the dark, symbolically leaving behind my old self as I crossed through the icy water. I laugh to myself now, remembering how I was afraid the water was so cold it would freeze my legs and I wouldn’t be able to get back to the motel I was staying at! I made it home alive, and the next morning I found a pair of lovely orange feathers down by the creek. These are on my altar now too.Animal Speak by Ted Andrews

Ted Andrews, in his wonderful book Animal Speak says that the flicker signifies new rhythms of growth and healing love. It usually reflects that the stimulation of latent talents is going to be a catalyst for major creative changes in your life. Right now I believe that doing this blog is opening up some writing energy that has been blocked for years, and I am very excited to see what will emerge through this activity!

I have found a few other flicker feathers over the years, and they always feel special to me. And then, the morning before I visited with the flicker on my balcony, I found an orange-tinted feather on the ground below the balcony. My first gift from the flicker on this land. I felt like this place is truly my home now. It has been marked. It has been acknowledged. The land and her creatures agree.

Berry berry woolly mullein

An August day at Monkey Valley

Yearly changes

Last year the wild strawberries were everywhere. I couldn’t walk without stepping on the tiny luscious bursts of red flavour. This year I didn’t see any strawberries, though their bright red creeper vines are still everywhere covering the ground. I don’t know if I just missed their ripening time—perhaps it happened while I was traveling—or if they didn’t fruit this year. I haven’t even seen the dried strawberries that would surely remain if they had already ripened and died. It’s very mysterious!

And there is a new crop this year: wild raspberries growing all around the house, clusteringWild raspberries up against the stairs, under the porch, even beside the road. Luckily I am here at the right season to enjoy these fruits. Each morning I’ve taken a yellow bowl out to gather some red globules to add to my breakfast cereal. Last year there was just one small patch at the north-east corner of the porch overlooking the creek. It is amazing how they have spread. Maybe it’s the work of the chipmunks, eating the berries and pooping out their seeds all over the place!

Woolly mullein basal rosetteThe woolly mullein, also known as lamb’s ear, goes through a two-year growth cycle. One year it grows woolly leaves in a rosette pattern on disturbed earth like the road, which was put in as a logging skid trail just a few years ago. The second year it grows upward from the basal rosette in a startling shaft that reaches as tall as five or six feet, with yellow blossoms at the top. (According to Roberta Parish, Ray Coupe, and Dennis Lloyd’s Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia, the woolly leaves make great toilet tissue—a tip for you fasters out there in the wilds.) In 2005, the mulleins lined the road likeMullein - mature sentinels. I’ve been away so much in the past year that the road hasn’t been disturbed enough to prevent plant growth this summer, and the mullein are growing tall right in the middle of the road. I tried to flatten them out with my car tires, feeling very guilty as I did so, because I was concerned that the faster who was driving in both a) wouldn’t be able to find the road and b) wouldn’t know that these amazing growths would bend over as she drove on them, and wouldn’t hurt her car. Once I got over my initial guilt at destroying one of the earth’s beautiful beings, I kind of got into knocking them down one after another. The dark and destructive side of (human) nature!

Another thing that surprised me this year is that the flies are different. For the past few years there were black flies and flies with yellow lower abdomens, both of the usual fly shape. This year the main flies I’ve seen dashing themselves against the windows trying to get outside are a different type, less solid-looking, wings bigger, browner, more transparent. Very mysterious. I have only lived here for six years, but thought I knew all about this place already. I can see how it might take a lifetime. There is so much to learn about the ways of the land and her creatures.


Monkey Valley locationMonkey Valley is a scenic 3½-hour drive from Vancouver, BC.

You can take the Coquihalla highway #5 (which no longer has a toll!), which climbs through majestic mountain passes and emerges on the rolling grasslands near Merritt. Another option is to take the Crowsnest highway #3 to Princeton, winding through Manning Park and along the Similkameen River.

A map and detailed directions will be provided when you register for a program.

The nearest Greyhound bus depot is in Merritt, a 45-minute drive from the retreat centre.Wildflower garden As there is no bus service from Merritt to the retreat centre, carpooling is encouraged. If you have room in your vehicle to bring someone, or need a ride, please contact the retreat centre and we will connect you with each other.

The nearest airport is in Kelowna, BC. From there it’s about a 1½-hour drive to Monkey Valley.

Swimming hole at beaver dam

An August day at Monkey Valley

Gone swimming—Part 3

I started across the dam, sometimes walking on twigs and branches above the water, and Creek above swimming holesometimes slightly below the surface. The walkway felt sturdy, though, and I wondered why I’ve never tried this before. Halfway across I noticed that the water right below the dam was quite deep. Hmm. I retraced my steps to the bank, and undressed, leaving my hiking shoes on. I gingerly lowered myself into the creek, using the branches supplied by beavers for footing, and found myself in waist-high water. Yow, it was cold! I scrambled back out again, but soon took another plunge. It was silty but with solid ground beneath. The water grew murky from the stirred-up silt. I lowered myself into the coldness, a bit at a time, until I was up to my neck. I did it! The coolness traced on my skin felt wonderful, after I was out of the water again. The residue of coolness fades quickly, but it always feels so cleansing—a sacred ritual, a blessing from the water spirits.

I dried, dressed, and crossed the dam, hiking up the hill to the house. It turns out that after an hour and a half of searching, I found a spot only about 50 yards south of where I started! I’m sure some writer through the centuries has something clever to say about that. Me, I just felt pleased with myself about the whole adventure, and didn’t even take a shower before bed.