Don Gayton, The Sky and the Patio

A little way into The Sky and the Patio: An Ecology of Home, Gayton opens his essay “Eocene Walk” by describing the walk he regularly takes with other cancer patients from a residential area near a hospital (free parking!) to its cancer clinic, and another walk a hundred kilometres south, in the White Lake Basin: “The two walks are separated by 50 million years, and joined by a tree” (p.47).

This is, in other words, a book of a great many subjects, that we encounter in the company of a writer with a wildly perceptive eye.

Now, it doesn’t get much better for me than to see Harold Rhenisch reviewing Don Gayton, and in The BC Review a year ago, that’s what you were treated to. Here’s how Rhenisch summarizes the proliferating subjects of Gayton’s latest essay-collection-as-memoir The Sky and the Patio:

“… a rambling, personal vision, a conversation sweeping in draft dodgers (Gayton was one), American poets and nature writers, spiritual seekers, amateur winemakers, coyotes, cancer patients, city parks, golf courses, observational science, Spanish adventurers, the art of firewood, cannabis, cowboys, grilling recipes and the salmon that pour up the Okanagan River each summer and fall.”

These are short essays, mostly, 25 of them spread across a little over 200 pages, and they’re classic examples of old-guy writing about long occupancy in a specific place. More specifically, these are essays by a grasslands ecologist who has retired to the same grasslands steppe location where he spent the majority of his career, namely the Okanagan Valley, and who has both a sense of humour and an eye for detail.

The Okanagan’s known to many simply as Wine Country, and for good reason, but that’s not Gayton’s point except as one of many crucial settler misunderstandings about this place. The Okanagan has less than 200 years of settler history (including wine) overlaid onto many thousands of years of Indigenous history, with numerous Indigenous cultures still living actively in place as well. By and large, though, the Okanagan’s settler culture remains woefully, wilfully ignorant about the place and what it would take to live respectfully here.

Rhenisch again:

“The Okanagan-Similkameen grasslands have grown for ten thousand years on the old lake bottoms, riverbeds and outwash plains of ancient, post-glacial lakes as big as inland seas. As Gayton points out, one of those glaciers is still here. It melted in place and is called Okanagan Lake.”

This goes a long way toward explaining the strange and special topography and geology of the region, with its hard knobs of rock and its expanses of tall, sandy cutbanks, but it’s only a start. Gayton has studied these lands for most of his working career, but (with humour) he declares that he has a long way to go. In conversation with an ancient antelopebrush (Purshia tridentata), Gayton insists that we need to listen to the land and its beings:

“Engage with me, it says. Unlock my ecological secrets. Stand with me, write me stories, and give me standing. In return, I will be the patient recipient of your confused honky settler yearnings. Together, we will abide” (p.144).

Those words “honky” and “settler” appear occasionally throughout these pages, the first mostly for humour but the second in earnest. (I suspect that his use of the first is meant to leaven for some readers his use of the second, but I’m not sure it’ll reach across the divide.) The path that he’s trying to draw or walk in these pages is a tricky one, trickier for him—and for me—than for some others. He’s writing out of ecological knowledge, seeking both cultural knowledge and a greater knowledge of the region’s ecology, but he’s aware that it’s a limited approach. Specifically, it means that he’s unable to access at least a few time-honoured cultural approaches to nature:

“To one side of my narrow path is Syilx knowledge and culture; to the other side is religion. As honourable as these two worldviews are, they are out of bounds for this honky agnostic settler. Thus, I must make it up as I go along, from random bits of ecology, literature, and introspection” (p.210).

That’s precisely the same triumvirate that guide me, and I think the majority of other BC writers whose work I treasure. Among those with multiple volumes, I’d single out at least Rhenisch, Theresa Kishkan, Tim Bowling, Rita Wong, Adrienne Fitzpatrick, Gillian Wigmore, and Alejandro Frid. It’s not that religious faith isn’t part of the picture for some of these writers, even if it isn’t at all part of mine, but the more I reflect on it, my BC seems best depicted and comprehended by something like a systematic magpie examination of the place. For each of them, too, there’s a push toward social justice in learning how to live in this place, most clearly in Fitzpatrick’s and especially in Wong’s.

Is this book for everyone? Absolutely not. Not everyone appreciates a dose of irreverence in nature writing, and Gayton’s determinedly irreverent at times. It takes a few essays, in fact, before you get past the mostly biographical, and I don’t think every reader will push through that without some coaching.

Especially early on, too, it can feel like a settler book for those not interested in becoming more than a pre-reconciliation settler, if you see what I mean. Some readers will be put off by not seeing enough clues about the perspective that Gayton’s actually animated by, even though he gets there fairly quickly and has a great many fascinating things to say about that.

And as I say, it’s classic old-guy writing that will resonate in special ways for middle-aged and older male readers. (It's me, hi, I'm the problem, it's me.)

But for me, as I’m certain would be true for a very large pool of potential readers, it was a joy to spend time with Gayton in The Sky and the Patio. I’ve found all of Gayton’s books well worth revisiting and pondering, and though it’s too early for me to compare the staying power of this one in my own honky settler agnostic mind, certainly this one deserves a great deal more attention than normally accrues to natural history books.

Wow, do I ever wish that we could borrow the lustre from British natural history, and shine it onto British Columbia natural history….

(It’s prostate cancer, which Gayton downplays and has easily survived so far, and the tree is metasequoia, or dawn redwood. Although it was thought to have gone extinct 50 million years ago, a small population was found growing in Sichuan province in 1943. It’s now a popular landscaping tree all over the world.)


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