Don Gayton, Landscapes of the Interior

As I've confessed once already on this blog, I didn't get what Don Gayton was all about when I first came across his writing, in the form of The Wheatgrass Mechanism: Science and Imagination in the Western Canadian Landscape. The book wasn't helpful with what I was trying to accomplish academically at the time (a dissertation on nature in 18th-century British literature), and it didn't help me retain contact with my BC home landscapes while I lived in Edmonton, and for whatever reason, I sighed and put it aside. "Not my thing," was roughly my thinking at the time.

Of course, I regretted this greatly when I had the good fortune to read his most recent book Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden, which I enjoyed enormously. "Bugger," I thought, "gotta try Wheatgrass again."

And then this semester, Don Gayton was the Roderick Haig-Brown Writer in Residence at my university, while I'm teaching an upper-level English course in nature writing. He agreed to come speak with my class, and I prepped for the event by reading some of his work, including dipping back into Wheatgrass and (more importantly for this post) reading for the first time his Landscapes of the Interior: Re-Explorations of Nature and the Human Spirit.

This book should have been assigned reading in my nature writing course this semester, even if he hadn't come to speak with the class. Cast as a series of visits to places of remembered importance to him, Landscapes of the Interior gives its reader the best of Gayton as ecologist and Gayton as writer. He reflects persistently on the ways in which he's finding or creating meaning for himself in particular places, but he's also careful about the scientific information. On occasion, this means we get to watch an ecologist's mind get stuck on a problem, and I found that helpful in some complicated, rewarding ways.

In one passage set in a small coulee leading down to the Oldman River out of a Lethbridge suburb, for example, Gayton gets angry about a motorbike track that's torn up a small patch of topsoil that'd take a hundred years to replace. Ever the ecologist, though, he then remembers that the coulee is relatively young and hence subject to slumping and slides much more potent than the spinning wheel of a dirt-bike. (Indeed, there are fresh signs of slumping right in the same area.) Inspired by the ecosystem management conference from which he's cheerfully playing hooky, he can't help asking further questions beyond his ability to answer at this point:
Could ecosystem management define a sustainable level of soil disturbance, and a ratio between natural and anthropogenic disturbance?
What about the invading grasses that clog the hillsides around me? How could I put them into an ecosystem management framework? Could I somehow determine a natural, pre-European contact rate of new species invasion, and then make sure that the arrival of these alien bromes and fescues and agropyrons does not exceed that rate?
In other words, it's not just that I'm congenitally slow to figure out the best way to do things. Sometimes it's just hard to figure things out. I know this, and yet it's nice to see the same predicament afflicting someone with the relevant skills and knowledge I wish I had.

As I dug back through this book for details to talk about here, I realized just how fully I've occupied Gayton's book these last days, as I slowly worked through it while fulfilling all those other tasks and obligations that fill my time. And I couldn't find a single key detail, since I appreciated the book so very much, so rather than a pivotal moment, here's something simply to chew on, instead:
In our society, there is an almost automatic reference to aboriginal or Far Eastern cultures whenever nature or land-based mysticism is considered. There is no question that that these cultures are far ahead of ours when it comes to spiritual connections to the landscape, but for us to concentrate so exclusively on foreign approaches amounts to an elaborate cop-out. By borrowing other peoples' rituals and approaches, which have little or no chance of serious, mainstream adoption, we neatly avoid the central question of building a spiritual connection to the land into our own culture. This is cultural appropriation of the worst kind. (p.120)


Jeremy said…
Great review -- this book at a major impact on me when I read it the first time, and I've gone back to it since. Beautifully written; powerful and personal.

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