1671 The Grass Man Cometh

The Sky and the Patio: An Ecology of Home
by Don Gayton

Vancouver: New Star Books, 2022
$18.00 / 9781554201945

Reviewed by Harold Rhenisch


Two hundred years ago, the Earth was one-fifth prairie, including much of the Okanagan Valley. Now most of earth’s temperate grasslands are gone. In the Okanagan, there are only tiny patches left. Don Gayton has walked them all. This book is his footstep. “Indigenous people have their own land and nature stories,” he says. “We settlers have virtually none, so we need to create them.”

The result is 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. It is the last great run on the Columbia River system. These sacred fish have survived because the syilx have cared for them and are working to increase their numbers.

Gayton’s stories shine in the jumbled culture of the suburban Okanagan. Contemplating his own grape-growing experiments from the comfort of his patio, he meets the silly side of wine culture head on. His target is the Okanagan advertising version of the French winemaking concept of terroir, the effect of land’s peculiarities on wine made from grapes grown on it. He gets real quickly. “My own backyard terroir has been a mix of suburbia, aspirational inexperience and riverstone. I shouldn’t discount the zucchini influence.” Goofy it might be, but it’s honest.

Summerland writer Don Gayton. Photo by Stephanie Seaton

Such open honesty makes Gayton a trusty guide, especially when he talks about grass. Gayton has been on his hands and knees for a lifetime in grasslands. A good chunk of what we know about their history in the Okanagan is his work. These grasslands are matched to the Okanagan climate in ways that manicured lawns and manufactured landscapes only dull.

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. Grass lines the old lake bottoms above it and tosses in the wind. A highway separates the two. Its presence and traffic irritates Gayton, because it’s not a human environment.

The Sky and the Patio, however, is not an angry book. I phoned him up to ask why. “I find anger to be a really unproductive emotion,” he said. Instead, he laughs. Sometimes the laughter is a little forced and sometimes its irony is transformative, but it’s always warm:

Back when climate change was first emerging as a public topic, and the denier debate was in full swing, I was on my way from the Okanagan to Vancouver to attend a conference on climate change. Halfway there, somewhere outside of Princeton, I suddenly realized a monumental and very personal irony: here I was, alone, driving an enormous Ford Explorer gas pig to a climate change conference.

Then he did something about it. The result is this book. I call this approach low-carbon activism. You can do it from your back yard. And that’s the point: the Earth can be your back yard, as Gayton writes:

To name this space a patio seems a bit out of place. The word has Mediterranean or at least Californian overtones, and here I am in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, eighty kilometres north of the forty-ninth parallel. But a patio, in fact, is what this is: a safe, enclosed outdoor space adjacent to a house, specifically designed for leisure. An inner court open to the milder elements, and to ideas. An outdoor room, if you will. A half-hidden garden. Right now, I might be sitting here wearing a down parka and mukluk, but it’s still a patio.

He has just described his book. And his valley. It’s a hot place in the summer. It’s known for that. Often, it’s called the northern tip of the Great Sonoran Desert. Gayton loves a good yarn, yet he’s adamant that there’s no desert here. Rightfully so. It gets too much rain for a desert and it’s only hot here because the Coast Mountains to the west dry out the air. Otherwise, it’s Fort St. John. It’s why this so-called hot valley is also a ski destination and San Diego isn’t.

Okanagan Lake, north of Penticton. Photo by David Pitt-Brooke

The result of this geography is a shrub steppe. Its old growth canopy forests aren’t cedars. They are fescues and wheatgrasses, needle-and-thread grass, and lone individuals of sagebrush, saskatoon and antelope brush. Most trees are weeds here.

Gayton counters arguments that such grassland creatures are rare in Canada only because of the US Border at Osoyoos and need no protection because they’re plentiful down south. He does so by telling of how ours are the most valuable populations. They live where heat, water, cold, grass and trees meet, where species at the very limits of their range have a chance to adapt to climate change. In fact, they already have experienced that. It’s why they’re here in the first place.

Gayton argues that it’s here where we will determine whether the future in the British Columbia Interior is rich with life, or impoverished and capable of sustaining very little over the long term. We will determine which of these futures we will have by how much of the nearly-lost grassland we can still save.

Don Gayton. Photo courtesy Okanagan College Penticton Speakers Series

If Gayton is right, to do that we need a relationship with the grassland, not with a dream of it. For that to happen, though, he proposes that we have to tell stories, hopefully of admiration, wonder and curiosity, and maybe a bit of dreaming from the patio.

When I talked to Gayton about that approach, he laughed. “I think it’s important that the public house and nature are very close together,” he said. “At the pub, you have a drink of wine together and talk about important things. On the way home, you’re out there under the stars, and they become part of the conversation.”

On the hills around Gayton are the trees he loves most of all: the Southern Interior Ponderosa Pine. She doesn’t mind sun, fog, frost or Okanagan cold. On the hill crests above Gayton’s Summerland on any August day, her wax-covered, water-conserving needles burn white. In winter, she’s a cloud of hoarfrost. In between, she is, as Gayton argued in an earlier collection of bioregional stories, Landscapes of the Interior, the heart of a people.

Just a little higher up the slope, though, it’s too cold. Ponderosas give way to Interior Douglas firs. Down in the valley bottoms, though, ponderosas trail up through the Thompson and the Fraser, before giving way completely to firs around Canoe Creek. That’s the kind of ecological power the heart of the Okanagan has. You can travel 400 kilometres north of the hot-cold, wet-dry interface at Vaseux Lake with a few steps up the slope. That’s solid gold in a time of changing climate.

Vaseux Lake. Photo by Harold Rhenisch

Gayton found one old ponderosa, survivor of fire and drought, growing in a pool of silt and snowmelt that, he points out, it would have taken three of him, tall, long-armed and big-shouldered, fingertip-to-outstretched fingertip, to embrace. It had survived many fires. He uses it to anchor a discussion of the Okanagan as a fire landscape. For thousands of years, fire, both natural and humanly set, swept away young trees and refreshed the grasslands. The grassland peoples and the grass grew up together on this land. Cultural burning helped their community evolve into the form that the settlers of the last 160 years called nature and which in its degraded present form still draws thousands of new settlers every year.

Increasingly, they are met with fire. One of Gayton’s projects as an ecologist was to trace fire history through the scarring it left on Ponderosa pines. He managed to work back into the 1700s, long before any European history here, as he writes in The Sky and the Patio:

This is where fire history intrudes into philosophy, making it all the more interesting. If an ecosystem experiences a human disturbance for long enough, does it evolve to depend on that disturbance? Such may be the case with Indigenous cultural burning in ponderosa pine ecosystems; over the millennia, that ecosystem type adjusted to their burning practices, so much so that our modern fire suppression now constitutes a perturbation. This throws a big monkey wrench into the standard view of nature as a whole and self-regulating system that has no need for humans, but which tolerates our impacts due to a superabundance of resources and built-in resilience.

Watching the Okanagan Mountain Park fire from Kelowna, August 21, 2003. Photo by Gary Nylander via Kelowna Daily Courier and Canadian Press

Gayton is referring to the fires that have been torching the ingrown weed forests of the Okanagan, Similkameen, Cariboo, Thompson and Chilcotin for a few years now, the ones that are called wildfires, destroy towns and economies and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fight. In a sense, these horrific fires are humanly caused as well. In the 1950s, the Province of British Columbia began actively suppressing wildfires. Cultural burning was stopped 30 years before that. Consequently, since the 1920s successive waves of trees have encroached on the grasslands and filled in the forests. Many former grassland areas, such as the benches of the lower Thompson Canyon, are now thickly forested. It is no accident that they exploded in fire two years ago. It’s like leaving an open can of gasoline in a welding shop. Fire is guaranteed.

In others grassland areas, young seedlings — future forests and future fires — are growing amongst the grass. Big old fire-resistant and fire-spaced trees like the one Gayton found anchor small savannahs of bushes, wildflowers and butterflies out in the grass. Mule deer spend their nights in the dry grass under their low-hanging branches. It’s pretty beautiful fire. What Gayton is trying to address with his stories is that people can come to the Okanagan as the land and ecosystems that will have to support them here for 500 years, instead of to an idea of the Okanagan based on the observation that it is warmer than Winnipeg in February and so must be California.

BC Wildfire Service firefighters set hand ignitions along the edge of the Keremeos Creek Wildfire to control burn off fuel, August 2022. Photo courtesy BC Wildfire Service via Keremeos Review

It’s an ecology of home, as Gayton points out in his sub-title. One of the metre-square ecological plots in the grass that Gayton spent his working life returning to on a regular cycle to record its changes over time has been laid over settler life here. The result is a book of town life in the grass. Gayton places immigration and subdivisions in context, telling yarns to gently guide readers to consider what it might mean to live here as if they were going to stay.

Gayton doesn’t have a prediction as to just what a fully-embedded life in the Okanagan might look like, but he’s pretty clear that it will come from paying attention to the land and its people, and placing them at the centre of the world.

Gayton is doing just that these days, using the lengthening winter nights in front of his woodstove to work on a novel about his grassland hero Ranald MacDonald, son of Fort Vancouver fur trader Archibald MacDonald and a royal Chinook woman, Koale’xoa. Ranald’s interest in the widest possible world took him from this isolation to the Red River Colony, hidden Japan, Australia, Scotland, the Cariboo Gold Rush and Fort Colville, near the great salmon fishery, Shonitku, also known as Kettle Falls.

Paul Kane, Falls at Colville, ca. 1847. Courtesy Royal Ontario Museum

It is stories like that and of the salmon at the other syilx salmon fishery, “The Little Falls,” sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ, also known as Okanagan Falls, which Gayton has in mind for us all. The Sky and the Patio holds an implied wish that settler culture will eventually have learned enough from the land and her people that it won’t be settler culture at all but just home, between the Earth and the sky.


Harold Rhenisch

Harold Rhenisch has written some thirty books from the Southern Interior since 1974. He won the George Ryga Prize for The Wolves at Evelyn (Brindle & Glass, 2006), a memoir of German immigrant life from the Similkameen to the Bulkley valleys. His other grasslands books are Tom Thompson’s Shack (New Star, 1999) and Out of the Interior (Ronsdale, 1993). He lived for fifteen years in the South Cariboo and has worked closely with the photographer Chris Harris on Spirit in the Grass (2008), Motherstone (2010), and Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2016), as well as on The Bowron Lakes (2006), all published by Country Lights; and he writes the blog Okanagan-Okanogan. He is working on Commonage, a history of the Okanagan region, highlighting the American history of Father Charles Pandosy and situating the roots of the Commonage land claim in the North Okanagan in American colonial practice in Old Oregon. Harold lives in Vernon. Editor’s note: Harold Rhenisch has recently reviewed books by Calvin White, Garry GottfriedsonSusan Smith-Josephy & Irene BjerkyBill BarleeFred Braches, and Raphael Nowak for The British Columbia Review. His recent book Landings (Burton House, 2021) was reviewed by Luanne Armstrong; The Tree Whisperer (Gaspereau, 2021) was reviewed by Adrienne Fitzpatrick.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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