Man Facing West

Canadian Literature, 214/Autumn 2012
Don Gayton has done important work as a writer and activist concerned with ecology, culture, and the fraught coexistence of the two in the North American West. Growing up in a conservative American family, Gayton early discovered that he did not fit in with the kind of culture his father) represented. A stint in the Peace Corp, followed by opposition to the Vietnam War and eventually a move to Canada, cemented these differences. In Man Facing West, he brings together autobiographical sketches with short historical fiction and fantasy pieces to critique Western ideas of environ¬mental domination and social hierarchy.

While Gayton’s autobiographical sketches provide a brief but important look at how political differences can affect family relationships, Man Facing West does not overcome its fundamental structural problem. The short, disconnected chapters, interspersed occasionally (and seemingly at random) with heavy-handed fictional sections, rob the narrative of momentum. Gayton’s life of political commitment has led him into conflicts of all kinds, with family, politicians, and the conservative general public, but too often the book shies away from actually depicting the crux of those encounters. For a book framed as a memoir, it is curiously without introspection. Gayton tells us there is conflict, but we never see it. So, when he ultimately tells us that he and his father have reconciled their differences, the reader remains unmoved. Man Facing West raises many crucial questions about how we are to live in North America, but the text ultimately feels like it is avoiding the heart of the matter. —Alison Calder

Event, Fall 2011 (Vol 40.2)

Reading Don Gayton’s ‘Prologue,’ I briefly feared meeting yet an­other elderly grump at pains to show why his life and politics have been exemplary, but then he made me laugh by describing his largely autobiographical stories, a crafty blend of fiction and non-fiction, as literary catch and release, for which you do not need a license.’ Amused and curious, I stepped into the country of Man Facing West.

About two-thirds of Gayton’s stories are chronological and memoir-ish. Varying greatly in length, they focus on high (or low) points in his journey from a loving Republican family to solo student. Peace Corps member, Vietnam war resister, and then to marriage and an­other loving family on the Canadian prairies first and eventually in British Columbia, with ecology and land preservation at the centre of his life. Smitten, I’m now eager to read more of Gayton’s work, such as Wheatgrass Mechanism: Science and Imagination in the Western Canadian Landscape (1990) and Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden (2007).

Gayton’s writing is admirably specific and precise. “Destination Dungeness” describes how in childhood he made bullets for a deer rifle, while in “Curious Rarity” he unexpectedly meets the silver buffaloberry:

I was exploring the far-eastern edge of the Granton that fateful day, along a small ephemeral stream. As the stream’s watercourse reaches a slope break, there is an alluvial fan of sorts, where shrubs seemed to prosper. Many of the saskatoons and mock oranges were head high and more…one of the shrubs caught my sleeve with a viciously sharp thorn, a good two inches long. There were hawthorns in the area, and that was my first thought. But with its dusky, smooth-margined leaves, this was no hawthorn.

With striking clarity, “Little Bluestem and the Geography of Fascina­tion’ explicates theories of plant distribution and further exemplifies Gayton’s delight in nature:

I could be entertained for hours if I were handed a stack of distribution maps on transparent plastic sheets, all to the same scale. If they were stiff enough, I could shuffle them like cards, and one by one place them over each other, to see if the five-lined skink might confess to some clandestine geographical relationship with the Kirtland’s warbler. Or the three-tip sagebrush with the stinkbug, and so on.

A happy scientist, this. “Little Bluestem” also illustrates Gayton’s appreciation for different ways of knowing. He classifies students of plant life as either lab coats “who refuse to look at a plant until it’s been through a Waring blender” or cowboy hats. After one of the former identifies not one but three kinds of photosynthesis, it turns out that these different biochemical groups...fit nicely with one of the cowboys’ pet categories — cool-season and warm-season grasses. Academic study and field experience illuminate the text. Gayton finds such completion satisfying, even hopeful.

Politically, he has followed a path familiar to his and my generation, from conservative upbringing to more radical adulthood. Unlike many of our peers, however, he is not sour on his young self, not embittered and humourless. Although he despairs over industrial society’s ruination of the planet, he is always constructive, sustained by the Earth’s ingenious resilience and beauty. As well, the decades have mercifully ended his estrangement (rooted in Vietnam) from his father. ‘A Schooner in Memory’ shows the two travelling together, with Gayton relishing his own inherited landscape—physical, intel­lectual, emotional.

Other stories in Man Facing West surprise the reader with new first person narrators, such as “Henri Bonpland”, an obscure Parisian botanist specializing in tropical palms’ of the early 19th century, and with third-person tales of (among others) a Spanish priest, a drylander on a Pacific beach, a Yukon geologist and a Texas accountant who has never seen a butterfly. I wish that this narrative mix had been expressed in the book’s design. The pages are cleanly laid out, but a fresh typeface or other visual distinction for these differing viewpoints would have added pleasure. And why not give story titles on each right-hand page, instead of endlessly repeating the book’s name? “Gliding in the Pleistocene” is the best of this second group. Full disclosure: time-travel usually produces in me an eye-rolling Oh yeah? Two pages in, though, I was completely taken. The energy of the intertwined storylines is irresistible, the voices strong and both land- and airscapes are imagined with Gaytonian clarity. When the daring paleontologists fly into their old and newfound land, the author seems to envy their wild chance to synthesize its knowledge with their own. Gayton’s admirable and unusual book is all about that continual openness to learning and to action.

Prairie Fire Review of Books, Vol 11 #1, 2011

Don Gayton is a writer and ecologist from the BC Interior who has published some six books of nonfiction in the personal “nature writing” genre. He is a Canadian by choice, attached to place, but someone who has also lived and explored elsewhere. California, Mexico, Colombia, Washington State, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia all appear in this volume although, as the title Man Facing West suggests, the locations are centrally “western.” Ecology and botany are passions that Gayton has crafted into careers in agriculture, forestry, and rural development. As both a biologist and a writer, he sees connections which he translates into stories about person and place. In the writer, and in his work, there is the organic link between cultures (plants growing together) and cultures (humans nurtured in a landscape). His persona suggests that of the contrary, challenging both peers and authority figures. He states in the Prologue, “In my case, resistance to an unjust war transformed into a passion for rural development and then morphed again into an all-consuming bond to natural landscapes” (10). As a scientist and writer, he still insists on pointing out the answers to the questions we don’t want to ask (9). Luckily for readers of this collection, the answers are proffered in the form of a variety of stories.

Man Facing West inspired me to want to read more of Gayton but the local library system (barely 200 km from his hometown) lists only two titles, and not the one I wanted, Landscapes of the Interior. I did read and enjoy his Okanagan Odyssey: Journeys through Terrain, Terroir, and Culture, in which he looses his love of words, expanding from the origins of the word “landscape” to his own definition, “a tract of land, hopelessly entangled in aesthetics and culture” (OO, 67). He explains the use of the word “terroir,” stressing the link between land, grapes, and wine. I like this thought that ideas grow from real specific things attached to the real world of earth, water, and sky. I like the way he does not hide his romanticism: “Wine transforms ordinary confusion into an ecstatic form of wonder. . . . We still crave place, and wine is our surrogate for it. . . . We imbibe, and for a moment we feel connected. Wine is a message in a bottle” (OO, 60–61). But the fact that libraries seem to prefer to emphasize circulation and “pop culture” is disappointing. Learning more and more about where we live, which writers like Gayton help us to do, seems to me a necessary way to develop attachment to the land, which in turn will lead to acts of caring and conservancy. Unfortunately, BC is still a province where economics seems to trump environment every time.

That phrase, “entangled in aesthetics and culture,” applies to Man Facing West. My one problem with this collection is with its aesthetics, with Gayton’s deliberate and celebrated (should I say contrarian) attempt to meld fiction and non-fiction. The fact that the reader is given no clues as to which stories are fiction or “invented memory” and which are non-fiction creates problems with credibility. Did the cub-scout leader in “Flag Day” really strip the boy of his badges and banish him? Or is this story fiction, with the leader a handy symbol of authority who creates cognitive dissonance in a child by an inappropriate overreaction to an accident?

Anger and punishment are inappropriate in the story’s situation; modelling the proper reaction, the protocol, to an accident causing a fallen flag would have been a teachable moment. Trust the tale but not the teller. But not being able to trust the teller is a problem when it comes to his attempting to shift the paradigm. Not being able to trust the scientist is an easy out for those who do not want to listen. Even clumping the fiction and non-fiction into units would have helped. I did enjoy the stories that were obviously fiction — about the botanist’s assistant, “Humboldt and Bonpland,” and the chariots-of-the-gods story of time travel in Saskatchewan, “Gliding in the Pleistocene.” But did the writer and his once-estranged father really look for ancestral graves together, as in the story “A Schooner in Memory”? Or is it a case of “invented memory,” of “victim,” heal thyself? Come to think of it, did the former teammate and Vietnam vet at the high school reunion really say: “Gayton, I did the right thing, and so did you” in “The Fracture of Good Order”? (226) A benediction, certainly, and one I would like to believe was truly given.

Man Facing West is enjoyable, especially because many of the locations are familiar and it pleases me to read about them in books. It is also interesting to learn about the background of a conscientious objector, the lessons demonstrated to us by the people we are sent to educate, the possibility of using imagination to bandage family wounds, the potential of all narrative to heal and to teach.— J.M. Bridgeman

J.M. Bridgeman writes from the Fraser Valley.

The Goose (Issue 9 Summer 2011)

 

Don Gayton has long occupied an intermediate zone between science and literature, arguing for the coexistence of (and conversation among) differing points of view and kinds of knowledge. Trained and working in science, drawn to literary writing, his best work brings to bear insights from both domains. He’s used to a kind of mixed vision, but that’s not to say he’s found it easy to reconcile science’s demand for clarity and verification with the free-ranging reach of his imagination.

 

Combining essays with short stories, Man Facing West enacts Gayton’s attempt to bridge another divide, that between fiction and nonfiction. His decision to mix forms creates a work that is less focussed than, say, The Wheatgrass Mechanism’s exploration of a single landscape. But at the same time the assemblage suggests that a landscape — or for that matter a book or a life — is more capacious and less explicable than we usually think it.

Though Gayton states this collection is “neither memoir nor autobiography” (“Prologue”), what I find most fascinating is the way the contours of a self emerge from its disparate pieces. Not all carry the same weight, but all contribute to a sense of the personality and intelligence behind them. In Man Facing West we meet an evolving self, shifting not fixed, much like a landscape. Perhaps this is not surprising, since Gayton writes: “many people define themselves through jobs and achievements. I look to landscape.”

Family may be the earliest of our defining landscapes. Gayton explores his in several essays, remarking that “guns, military history, and Republican politics were all major themes in our household, as they were in the country itself at the time.” But the family also read John Muir and Thoreau: “there was also a persistent minor theme...of the importance of the individual conscience...of patriotic dissent.”

These notions of individual conscience and dissent generate a recurrent presence in Man Facing West: the figure on the periphery. By inclination or by accident this individual finds himself on the edges of groups and communities. His ideas differ from conventional or dominant ones, and lead to his either being excluded or choosing to leave. Where he fits is a conundrum He may be a fictional character or Gayton himself.

In “Flag Day,” the young Don Gayton takes a dare and climbs the Wolf Cub flagpole. When the pole snaps he plummets to the ground wrapped in the flag: “an unearthly, horrified silence prevailed. I had just broken the fundamental vow of every American—to never, ever let our flag touch the ground.” Expelled from the pack, “a tectonic shift had occurred, and I was alone on a new continent.”

In high school, Gayton learned to make a home in not belonging. In “Renegade Letterman,” he observes that “a desire to be different, always there in the background, was now a strong motivation.” Naturally athletic, he played football happily but refused to wear his letter or go to club meetings; drawn to literature, he hung out with the other “callow seventeen-year-old dissidents.” Athletics and art, both marginal to mainstream life in the school, made odd bedfellows, but it would seem that Gayton was at home in both of them, rendering his own ecotone.

The Vietnam War looms large. It led to Gayton’s breaking with his family and eventual move to Canada. Though rejecting the war, he was haunted by doubts about his own courage. In the essay “Resisterville,” he describes a 2006 reunion for Vietnam-era draft dodgers, veterans, and political emigrants where “the scattered flotsam of anti-war experiences merged into a long-delayed, spiritual convalescence, and a collective vindication of our solitary convictions.” His reflections on the War and its long term effects are valuable, not only for himself but for making visible to us the “virtually invisible demographic” of Canadians who share that wounding experience.

The botanist Bonpland, narrator of the story “Humboldt and Bonpland,” abandons Humboldt and their explorations in Venezuela “for a shedding of science, of taxonomy, of culture” because, he writes to Alexander, “You demonstrated to me that analysis can never be separated from conquest, so I am formally abandoning analysis.” This is a radical assessment and a commitment to a different way of knowing.

Gayton’s determination to think imaginatively as a scientist fuels much of this book. His essays observe and ask questions, but his fiction extends ideas and observations, giving them vividness and emotional force. “Gliding into the Pleistocene” is haunting in its depiction of the Pleistocene landscape, a place made real through Gayton’s imaginative longing to inhabit it, combined with his deep understanding of landscape formation.

An ecotone is a transitional area between two ecological communities — a forest and a grassland for instance. Including species from both communities, and also edge species (those that are unique to the ecotone), it displays greater biodiversity than its bounding communities. This between-place is suggestive of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s transitional space, an area between our inner and outer worlds where identity is created and imagination is in play. Don Gayton finds himself in both versions of between places. In this book, he’s feeling his way into their overlap, where two different ways of knowing mingle.

Like any landscape, Man Facing West is amenable to various readings and resists summary. I’ve followed one track through it, casting an occasional glance along some side trails: to think lovingly about the land and our place in it is its invitation.

MAUREEN SCOTT HARRIS, poet and essayist, was born in Prince Rupert, grew up in Winnipeg, and now lives in Toronto. Her awards include the Trillium Book Award for Poetry for Drowning Lessons (2005), first prize in Prairie Fire’s creative nonfiction contest (2007), and the WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize (2009).