What is your passion? Your spiritual outlet? Your intellectual pursuit? For many, it’s all about the garden. Writer and ecologist Don Gayton explores the connections between people and gardens in Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden.
The collection of essays, most of which are previously unpublished, took about three years to come together.
“The idea of bringing ecology into our yards and gardens started life as just a few sentences, but then it just kind of took hold and grew into a book,” Gayton says.
Gayton, who lives in Summerland, BC and works as an ecologist when he isn’t writing, writes creative non-fiction essays that have a personal feel not found in strictly academic, scientific writing-
“I am a non-fiction writer, but as a reader, I’ve always been heavily influenced by fiction. So I bring some of the techniques of creative writing into my non-fiction. I bend everything except the facts — which are sacrosanct, because I’m a scientist,” Gayton explains.
“I do like writing humour, and there are dribbles of it throughout the book, but the chapter called “Split Eden” is funny, so I like it.”
Gayton says some parts of Interwoven Wild stand out for him. “There’s a section called The Rhythm of Trees that 1 find satisfying — it’s a nice round trip.”
While he examines the relationship between humans and the environment, Gayton does not concern himself with injecting meaning into his writing to send a specific message to readers.
“I try to avoid take-home messages, because they pull down the quality of my writing,” he says.
“I like to get really close to a subject, study the hell out of it, and then just let the writing go where it will. Sometimes the best way to get a message across is to have no message at all.”
Nature is without a doubt a major inspiration to Gayton’s writing. He is the author of several other works of creative non-fiction, such as Kokanee: The Redfish and the Kootenay Bioregion (2002); Landscapes of the Interior: Explorations of Nature and the Human Spirit (1996); and The Wheatgrass Mechanism: Science and Imagination in the Western Canadian Landscape (1990).
As is the case with many writers, he finds the muse is hard to pin down.
“Life is an itch, and writing is the scratch. I do like feeling of craning a really fine sentence.”
Gayton hopes readers will realize that taking part in the nature that immediately surrounds them — particularly by being active in their gardens — is a multi-faceted activity.
“My book will help them see their little garden or yard as a fascinating and phantasmagorical universe, and that the activities of gardening and landscaping are both profoundly frivolous and profoundly serious.” — Paula E. Kirman
Of fall the possible definitions of a garden, I like Don Gayton’s best: “A garden is a gift, a celebration and a revelation.” Gayton’s idea applies equally well to his own efforts, as an ecologist landscaping his suburban yard, as to the more political and activist agenda of guerrilla gardener David Tracey. Both use their trowels to cultivate broad connections — Gayton’s to the ecology of the land, Tracey’s to the social ecology of community — and both have written deeply wise books. There’s plenty of fertile, nurturing mulch in these two works — and loads of sly, humble humour.
“Have you ever been walking down some gray and dreary street, feeling gray and dreary yourself, when you spotted a flower growing out of the pavement and it changed your whole day? Me neither,” writes David Tracey in Guerrilla Gardening, setting the tone for his “manualfesto” (equal parts manifesto and manual) on gardening in public spaces with or without permission.
There’s a rogue attraction to such guerrilla action, but Tracey makes a convincing appeal 10 instincts that go well beyond the simply subversive. He argues that guerrilla gardening is all about taking an active role in preserving and improving our shared environment, planting a tomato in an abandoned lot may be a small local gesture, hut it has profound connections to questions of responsibility and choice. Who decides what our communities look like and how they function? Every one of us, so grab a trowel.
Even the most hesitant guerrilla will find the many wise nuggets in this book inspiring. Some of the most useful include: cities are alive; wilderness is within; growing things is easy; miracles happen all the time; think like a plant; design for diversity; and. finally, get up and grow.
Instead of penning a political call-to-action or how-to manual, Gayton in Interwoven Wild approaches the garden with an ecologist’s eye, describing his garden beds as “microecosystems in training.” Building from his own experiences on his 12-metre by 30.5-metre suburban yard in BC, Gayton explores key ecological concepts — everything from the microbial life of soil to climate change and wildlife — and their relationships to the garden. His essays mix philosophical rigour (what is the garden but a “split Eden,” part cultivated, part wild?) with down-to-earth musings (“The ideal gardening personality is probably a mix of hippie, planner, and military strategist.”)
If the garden is a gift, celebration and revelation, so too are these two books. Read them and grow.
— Lorraine Johnson
Don Gayton is a working ecologist whose professional research has concentrated on prairie ecosystems. He’s also a graceful essayist. I’ve long admired his earlier book, The Wheatgrass Mechanism: Science and Imagination in the Western Canadian Landscape, a collection of personal essays that explores the natural landscapes of western Canada, especially the prairies of the northern plains. Gayton’s new book, Interwoven Wild, turns his attention to his own backyard. In these knowledgeable and often funny essays, Gayton rambles around his own and others’ gardens, finding abundant occasions to consider the fitness of plants, the foibles of gardeners, and the role of gardening in human history from an ecologist’s point of view. Gardens provide Gayton laboratories for observing how “human creations meshed or clashed with those of nature” (12).
Gayton is at his best when he brings ecological concepts such as edge zones, succession, or phenology to the small scale of a garden. In one such instance, Gayton notes that due to our evolutionary background, “the human psyche … is naturally attracted to long vistas” (106). That’s why we often try to make our domestic landscapes mimic the spaciousness of a grassland / forest edge typical of the savannah. But we can create interesting gardens on a smaller scale, Gayton says, by “substituting complexity for distance. By building layers, gradations, interruptions and switchbacks, the gardener creates a landscape of visual density and possibility” (106).
It is illuminating to contrast Interwoven Wild with his earlier book, The Wheatgrass Mechanism. It, too, is a collection of personal essays that ranges among ecology, history, mythology, and cultural references. But in The Wheatgrass Mechanism, Gayton always places his digressions in the context of some aspect of the ecology of the North American tall-grass prairie. He elucidates the complexity of the prairie and his own responses to it while maintaining the “distance,” the landscape-scale perspective.
In Interwoven Wild, on the other hand, Gayton often hops from personal anecdote , to brief scientific fact, to cultural comment, interweaving them more by his associative powers than by the contextualizing power of an actual landscape. The complexity is there, but fragmented. I occasionally wish Gayton would offer a deeper inquiry into his observations. For instance, of the gardener’s penchant for planting non-native species, he writes, “Moving plants from one place to another is a primordial human urge … In fact, gardening, landscaping and even agriculture are mere incidental side effects of our compulsion to move plants” (62). Gayton is partly poking fun at the gardening impulse here, but there’s nothing incidental about the enormous ecological disruption caused by industrial agriculture.
Both Gayton’s garden and his writing about it reveal a jovial and perceptive intelligence. Gayton’s observation that we create gardens by “substituting complexity for distance” applies nicely to these essays as well, moving as they do between concepts, anecdotes, facts, images, and opinions to create these brief but complex literary occasions. — Charles Goodrich
Interwoven Wild is a wonderful little book of lyrical prose that reveals the magic and beauty of the ordinary as seen through the eyes of a "biologist with literary inclination." The book is composed of fifteen essays that cover topics as diverse as mimicry, composting, whimsy, mapping climate information, horticultural therapy and terroir. They are all woven together by a rhythm that courses through the book directing the reader's attention from micro-level specifics, to middle range groupings, to an expansive landscape view, and back again. Tied into this undulating movement is the constant play between culture and nature, the tame and wild, the fabricated and organic, and the scientific and aesthetic. The result is an eclectic mix of fascinating facts about ecology and plants, tips and history on gardening and landscaping, and modest pronouncements on the uneasy relationship between humans and the rest of the world.
In his previous books, Gayton introduced us to the ecology of grasslands and alpine forests, but in this book he meanders about his suburban yard and home and describes the complex ecological relationships he finds there. The reader is given a short primer on the science of concepts such as succession, food chains, chaos, introduced species and pollination. Gayton provides enough detail for the reader to appreciate the complexity of the biology, but he also animates these processes by connecting them to stories of specific landscapes or features in his garden. Be it the terraforming ability of the roots and rhizomes of Kentucky bluegrass that allow it to successfully and spontaneously invade the spaces between the garden footpath, the mutualism of the ponderosa pine and the nitrogen-fixing sandalwood-scented snowbrush, or the obligate pollination of the yucca plant by the yucca moth, Gayton's garden ecology is full of scientific insight.
Gayton interacts with his garden not only as laboratory, but also as a canvas, theatre and therapeutic sanctuary. As he provides a tour of various features of his garden including the compost bin, blue-flowered camas, featureless lawn, and garden shed, he highlights the artistry of the garden and the personalities of its individual elements. Be it the fulsome blooms of the bellflower, the ruthless, glistening impatiens, the excessive weeping of the severely pruned yet tenacious Concord grape, or the obsessed dandelion hunting of Spud the longhaired dachshund, each are characters in Gayton's on-going gardening production. But Gayton's garden is also a site of repose, the place he goes to reflect and reconnect. In these garden contemplations we learn of some of the sadness and joy, and triumphs and absurdity of Gayton's life, and through this we are shown the curative powers and valuable instruction of gardens and nature.
Hence, at its core. Interwoven Wild is an examination of the interactions of humans with the rest of nature. With humour and meekness, Gayton recounts his failed attempts to use gasoline powered tools to quickly transform a corner of his yard, his relentless and often failed attempts to delicately prune, transplant and weed, and his ongoing impulsive construction of stone walkways and walls. From his own mistakes and discoveries he offers useful instruction on the ethics of transplanting native species, introducing edges into domestic landscapes, and the key principles of landscape architecture, but more so, the reader is reminded of the humility, creativity and tenacity that should feed a gardener's spirit. This is not, however, a book only about Gayton's personal interventions with nature but also those of a host of other gardeners, ecologists, artists and landscape architects, such as: Harold Odum, Claude Monet, Percy Wright, Frederick Law Olmstead and Ann Ophelia Dowden. Through short biographical details of these individuals' interactions with domesticated landscapes, Gayton provides historical context that enhances one's appreciation of various gardening and landscaping elements including greenhouses, taxonomy, and tulips.
My only minor quibble with the book is a declaration that Gayton makes in the first essay about the work he does now. In his words: "I've lived with scientific ecology, and read many tomes on deep ecology. Now I'm content to work on a canine-friendly, street-level hybrid, which I call shallow ecology" (13). Gayton's self-effacing manner and his bond with Spud the canine dandelion wrestler is part of the charm of these essays, and his ability to explain complex ecological and horticultural principles in terms accessible to most make this book not only informative but delightful as it allows readers to apply the science, wonder and frustrations of his gardening pursuits to their own worlds. So I am fine with the first part of his characterization of his work; however, contrary to Gayton, I don't think this book is an example of shallow ecology. In my own recent attempts at integrating the ideals of permaculture into my yard, I have found that I am constantly wrestling with both ecological and environmental principles in an immediate and practical way. As I attempt to transform a strip of weeds along my fence-line into a productive raspberry patch, or deal with contaminated soil in one of the few sunny spots in a vard overgrown with towering spruce, environmental ethics are transformed from abstract theory into immediate challenges that I wrestle with financially, physically and ethically. These are not matters deserving of stunning "Adamsesk" photographs, but instead practical small challenges that build toward a bigger whole. Hence, instead of shallow ecology, I read in Interwoven Wild a thoughtful recognition of the frequent folly and tragedy of human interactions with the natural world, but also the possibilities, creativity, and necessity of this reconnection in ways that are feasible not only for the rich, leisure-class. Through his explorations of the textures and intricacies of gardening and landscape design, Gayton reminds his reader of the importance of re-weaving nature back into culture on a daily basis, wherever she lay her head at night, and that is anything but shallow. — Lorelei L. Hanson, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Human Geography at Athabasca University.