Seeds for Grassy Mountain
Seeds for Grassy Mountain and Plants for Grassy Mountain are artworks created for the upcoming exhibition entitled Processes of Remediation: Art, Relationships, Nature at the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery. The work in this exhibition emerged from research and reflection on the past, present, and future of coal mining in the Municipality of Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. These communities were built by settlers in the late 1800s and early 1900s when Canadian Pacific Rail, drawn by the area's vast coal deposits, extended its main line from Lethbridge westward.
Seeds for Grassy Mountain is an artwork created in collaboration with artist, botanist, herbalist, and educator Latifa Pelletier-Ahmed and co-owner of ALCLA Native Plants. We created a series of seed packets of plants that grow on Grassy Mountain, a mountain in what is now known as the Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, that may soon become the site of the Grassy Mountain Coal Project, an open-pit metallurgical coal mine, to be operated by Australian-owned Riversdale Resources, through its wholly owned subsidiary Benga Mining. It is projected to extract 93 million tonnes of coal over 23 years. As we collected, cleaned and sorted seeds, we have been having conversations about coal mining, returning to the question: what life is lost when we bring life to a mine?
Left: Alana Bartol and Latifa Pelletier-Ahmed, Coal Plant, Seeds for Grassy Mountain, 2020-21, seed packet with various seeds from plants that grow or have historically grown on Grassy Mountain. Right: silky lupine, silvery lupine, and rough fescue seeds.
The wild-collected seed packets will be for visitors to take and plant in their garden or neighbourhood or wherever they like as a way to create a connection to Grassy Mountain and think about how we can connect with damaged landscapes. The seeds include native plants such as Silky and Silvery Lupine, Wolf Willow, Fringed Sage, Scorpionweed, Meadowsweet, Prickly Rose, Fireweed, Rocky Mountain Fescue, and Yarrow.
The seed packet designs are inspired by the research I have been doing on the potential impacts of the Grassy Mountain Coal Project on land, air, water, wildlife, and all life forms including humans.
Alana Bartol and Latifa Pelletier-Ahmed, Crowsnest Watershed, Seeds for Grassy Mountain, 2020-21, seed packet containing fireweed, yarrow, rocky mountain fescue and/or rough fescue, and tufted hairgrass.
There are over six different types of seed packets with 14 different types of seeds of plants native to what is colonially named Alberta, taking into account many considerations, including seed preparation, care and how the plants relate to each other. Some seeds require scarification (weakening of the seed coat to speed up germination) and/or stratification (simulating seasonal conditions that seeds must experience before germination). The seed packets come with instructions on how to grow and care for the plants and have been created with many questions in mind. What soil, light, and water conditions do the seeds require? What time of year should the seeds be planted? Which seeds will grow best together?
Cleaning and sorting yarrow seeds for the seed packets and ALCLA's 2021 seed supply.
In creating and distributing these packets, we also think about the connections we are creating between the seeds and other people. Who will take the seeds? Where will they plant them? Will they continue to care for the seeds and steward their development into plants? What are our responsibilities to the seeds and the people whose care we are placing them in?
Alana Bartol, Paintbrush, Plants of Grassy Mountain, 2020. Heated milk on paper, 17.78 x 25.4 cm, original drawing. Photo: blkarts.ca.
I am just getting to know some of these plants. I haven't had the experience of growing or caring for all of these species and I have yet to encounter all of them in nature. I always learn a lot working with Latifa. She readily shares her plant knowledge and experience with me. Sometimes I regret not recording our conversations. Without the consistent and direct experience of working with these plants, I forget much of the knowledge she shares. Each time I work with plants, whether it is through art or not, I know I am building my knowledge and also developing a relationship with them.
Plant growth can be hard to predict. Some seeds may never germinate while others will thrive with little attention. We included Paintbrush seeds in packets with other grasses or wildflowers so that they will have a community of host plants to draw from. A semi-parasitic plant, Paintbrush contains specialized roots called haustoria that invade the roots of host plants in order to thrive. I recently learned that Paintbrush does particularly well with a Sage or Lupine host, though we did not try that combination in the packets. There can be shifts in plant community dynamics when a semi-parasitic species like Paintbrush is introduced, potentially weakening any dominant species that it parasitizes which could in turn allow other species to thrive.
Latifa and I are thinking about ways to connect with audiences through seed and plant care workshops and/or walks in the spring/summer of 2021 when the exhibition will still be running. The more I learn, the more I think about how this work has been a way for me to build relationships with the plants themselves and Grassy Mountain. With Seeds for Grassy Mountain, Latifa and I hope this work might create an entry point for others to do the same.
Alana Bartol, Yarrow, Plants of Grassy Mountain, 2020. Charcoal and milk on paper, 17.78 x 25.4 cm, original drawing. Photo: blkarts.ca.
Plants native to what is now known as Alberta are trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers that grew in what is now defined as the province before settler colonization by Europeans. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Commission on Protected Areas Temperate Grasslands Specialist Group, temperate grasslands are "the most altered terrestrial ecosystem on the planet and are recognized as the most endangered ecosystem on most continents." In Canada, Grasslands are the most threatened terrestrial ecosystem. Approximately 68% of native prairie in so-called Alberta has been lost due to ongoing settler colonial development of agriculture, industry, towns and cities, and infrastructure such as roads (Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute 6). With little protections or conservation efforts, remaining native prairies are under threat as industry, infrastructure, agriculture, and human populations continue to grow.
Mountains are not for mining
Since I began this work, the 1976 Coal Policy was removed by the Alberta government. Though the Grassy Mountain Coal Project predates the removal of The Coal Policy (the Project has been under review for five years), the loss of the policy means that more mountains may become mines.
As a guest living in Mohkinstsis (Calgary), in Treaty 7 Territory for the past five years, I would like to say that I have been shocked by the ideological petro-state propaganda created and promoted by industry and government, but I am not. Enterprises like the Energy War Room (aka Canadian Energy Centre) are part of a multi-prong strategy that also includes a public inquiry into foreign funded anti-Alberta energy campaigns seeking to suppress dissent and to intimidate anyone that might challenge their message. As outrageous as these initiatives of the Alberta Government seem, they are a tax-payer funded reality. These initiatives propel extractive populism and promote the settler-colonial-capitalist mindset, seeing exploitation and resource extraction as the only way forward, but it is not the only way.
Video still. Work In Progress: Processes of Remediation. 2020. HDV. 7 min 46 sec. By: blkarts.ca
Awareness, activism and resistance to open-pit coal mining in the Southwestern Alberta is growing.
There is a lot to absorb, learn and reflect on, but there are many ways to get engaged. Here are some of them:
Federal petition e-2912, calls on the government to cancel the Grassy Mountain Coal Project application
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Southwestern Alberta has a letter campaign calling for new coal policy and was granted intervenor status in the public hearing for Grassy Mountain Coal Project
Albertans for a Coal Free Southwest has a letter campaign to say no to the Grassy Mountain Coal Project
Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) organized a Day of Action against coal mining Alberta's Eastern Slopes, on the same day that the public hearing for the Grassy Mountain Coal Project began
Livingstone Landowners Group has been vocal in their opposition to the project
Dr. Ian Urquhart, AWA Conservation Director and Editor of Wild Lands Advocate has been following the public hearing on the Grassy Mountain Coal Project on this blog
The public hearing for the Grassy Mountain Coal Project is still underway. You can observe the hearing (past and future sessions) via the livestream on YouTube. A schedule can also be found here, with a list of topics that have been or will be covered. The regulatory panel is still accepting comments from the public and can be emailed at: iaac.grassymountain.aeic@canada.
Video still. Work In Progress: Processes of Remediation. 2020. HDV. 7 min 46 sec. By: blkarts.ca.
Restoration as Partnership
As we look for solutions to address climate change that reduce carbon (CO2) emissions and lower greenhouse gas concentrations already in the atmosphere, restoring and conserving prairie grasslands should be part of that process. Grasslands have the potential to store millions of tonnes of carbon, most of which is stored in the soil. In these ecosystems, plant roots and soil microbes work in partnership to store carbon.
In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, asks us to view restoration as an opportunity for partnership (333). Partnership is relational, it is an ongoing process. How partnerships are developed and maintained is important. Can we envision the land as a partner? Can we see plants and the more-than-human world as partners or will we continue to see partnerships with industries as the best way forward? In my next post, I will be looking at some of the ways in which people are working in partnership with each other as well as the more-than-human world towards ecological restoration.
Adler, Lynn S. “Host Species Affects Herbivory, Pollination, and Reproduction in Experiments with Parasitic Castilleja.” Ecology, vol. 84, no. 8, 2003, pp. 2083–2091. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3450033.
Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, "The status of biodiversity in the Grassland and Parkland Regions of Alberta PRELIMINARY ASSESSMENT 2015." Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute, 2015.
International Union for Conservation of Nature World Commission on Protected Areas Temperate Grasslands Specialist Group, "Temperate Grasslands." International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2020.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Wood, Stephanie. "Meet the people saving Canada's Native grasslands." The Narwhal, 31 Jul 2020, https://thenarwhal.ca/carbon-cache-grasslands Accessed 29 Nov 2020.