All posts by Don Gayton

The Mechanics of Warmth

A house enjoys both physical and emotional warmth, but in a Canadian winter cold snap, it is the physical component occupies our attention. Visible heat, in the form of a woodstove, always seems more gratifying than the anonymity of gas or electric heat.   There are two parts to the physical warmth of a house: the generation of heat, and the keeping of it. This latter has always fascinated me: window seals, door sweeps, vapor barriers, insulation batts and even double-muffled dog doors I find immensely compelling. I cut my teeth on this subject in Saskatchewan in the early 1980’s, that brief time when we Canadians actually cared about energy conservation. A friend, Rob Dumont, built an energy efficient house in Regina. I “can heat it with a toaster,” he bragged.  Dumont was the subject of some popular envy at the time.

This Summerland house we live in was built sometime in the 1930’s, with the classic floor plan of the era; small rooms and narrow hallways, a basement fruit cellar and a half-story loft upstairs. The anonymous carpenter who built it was no professional, but he didn’t stint on materials: the floor joists are massive rough-cut 2×12’s. When we renovated the interior, I stripped off mountains of lath and plaster to get down to the bare 2x4s, which actually measured up to and even beyond their name. The one material the anonymous carpenter did scrimp on was insulation. Actually he didn’t scrimp: there was simply no insulation at all. Just a few newspapers here and there, which made for interesting historical reading.

Insulating a new house is a challenge; insulating a heritage 1 1/2 story renovation moves beyond challenge into obsession. You have to consider air movement, condensation points, R values and airtightness while completely swaddled in dust mask, gloves and overalls. Peering through foggy goggles, you join vapor barriers with a runny black goo that promises to stay sticky for thirty years. You spend endless hours in claustrophobic crawl spaces. Insulation dust mixes with sweat to form the itchiest compound known to man. But somehow, the job goes forward. You become expert in cutting batts without measuring, and laying them into uneven joist spaces with a perfect press-fit. You seal vapor barriers like you would tuck a cold child into a warm bed. And you prowl the house like a forensic detective, looking for tiny air leaks.

I am a great fan of Roxul, an insulation batt that is partly made from an enormous mining slag pile near Grand Forks, BC. It’s a little stiffer than the ordinary fiberglass insulation, and I discovered that it cuts beautifully with a serrated bread knife. Who knew.

The payoff to this prolonged and itchy obsession is heat retention. You don’t keep cold out; you keep heat—produced by you, the dog, the woodstove, the baseboard heaters, the coffee pot, the bathtub, even the toaster–in. All this is so you can sit in comfort in an easy chair next to the woodstove, with the dog on your lap, and contemplate the soft mechanics of warmth.

I don’t look forward to winter, but once it’s fully arrived, I settle into it.  Days get short, and my world gets smaller. All those springtime tasks I planned on doing got pushed into summer, then into fall and are now blissfully forgotten. The focus now is on the mechanics of warmth. Domestic life centers around the woodstove in the living room. The woodpile is assessed on a daily basis, and I am reminded of a universal law of firewood physics: the driest wood is always at the bottom of the pile.  Next to the woodstove is an easy chair, and next to that is a coffee table, where piles of half-read books and research journals accumulate.  Stale coffee cups and an empty wine glass or two the remaining space. Both the dog and the cat make their sleeping areas close to the stove, but whenever I leave my easy chair for a moment, one of them will instantly colonize it, claiming my residual body heat.

An easy chair in front of an energy-efficient woodstove is a good place to speculate about the carbon footprint, which is actually more like a highly interconnected spider web than it is a footprint. Every log I put in the stove sends a packet of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. But every log I put in means I use less electricity, which in BC’s hydro-based generation system doesn’t produce carbon, but troubles our rivers instead. And the beetle-killed lodgepole pine I’m burning: is it better off to stay in the forest? Will it burn anyway, in a wildfire? Is cutting firewood one way of reducing the density of our overgrown dry forests? What about the fuel and chainsaw gas I use to get the wood? It seems that climate change has made everyday decisions far more complicated. But I suspect the real truth is that our previous decisions were far too simple and shortsighted.

An Antidote for America’s Illness

Re-read Walt Whitman (1819-1892). (If you aren’t familiar with his work, you are in for a treat.)

He is celebratory, and pansexual. An Everyman, and solitary poet/thinker. An American patriot and passionate internationalist. Critical thinker and Dionysian hedonist. Naturalist and urbanite. A pacifist, and an unabashed feminist. Devoted to personal freedoms and to empathy. And one hell of a poet.

(The following quotes are from Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, Toby Press, 2003)

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more
than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
My spirit has pass’d in compassion and determination around the whole earth,

I have look’d for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands,
I think some divine rapport has equalized me with them.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Will we rate our cash and business high? I have no objection,
I rate them as high as the highest—then a child born of a woman and man I rate beyond all rate.

We thought our Union grand, and our Constitution grand,
I do not say they are not grand and good, for they are,
I am this day just as much in love with them as you,
Then I am in love with You, and with all my fellows upon the earth.
We consider bibles and religions divine—I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give life, it is you who give the life,
Leaves are not more shed from the trees, or trees from the earth than they are shed out of you.

Resist much, obey little.

Walt Whitman is my hero.

Walt Whitman is my hero.

From Sagebrush to Politics: Leonard Marchand

Leonard Marchand
Leonard Marchand

Reading scientific literature can be like a treasure hunt. You read one research paper, and then you read that paper’s references. That leads you to another related paper, and on to its references, and so on down an unexpected daisy chain of research.  Mostly you simply finish up with a better understanding of some narrow topic, but once in a rare blue moon, you hit buried treasure.

This happened to me a few years ago, as I researched the ecology of sagebrush in British Columbia. As I plowed through paper after paper, working backward in time, I ran across reference to The Ecology of Sagebrush in Interior British Columbia, by one L. Marchand. Now that surname rang a bell, but more for Canadian federal politics than for rangeland research. I was unable to find the paper anywhere online, so I investigated further and found that it was actually a 1964 Master’s thesis, from the University of Idaho. I contacted U of I Research Librarian and found that they did have the original copy, and if I was prepared to put my grandchildren up as collateral, I could actually borrow it. Of course I agreed.

As I waited impatiently for the thesis to arrive, I refreshed my memory in regards to Leonard Marchand. Born on the Okanagan Reserve near Vernon in 1933, Mr. Marchand collected a number of Aboriginal “firsts” in his long and varied career: first Aboriginal to graduate from the UBC School of Agriculture; first to receive a Master’s degree at the U of I; first to become a federal Member of Parliament, and first to become a cabinet member. He was the third Aboriginal to be named to the Canadian Senate, after James Gladstone and Guy Williams. Along the way, Mr. Marchand also became a member of the Order of Canada. Intrigued, I tracked down a phone number, contacted Len at his home, and told him that I had borrowed his thesis. After a delightful chat, he said, “you know, I loaned my only copy of that thesis to a colleague years ago, and he lost it.”

I decided to take action. When the thesis arrived I had it scanned, then printed a copy and had it bound.  Later I had the pleasure of hand-delivering the resurrected thesis to Len and his lovely wife Donna at their Kamloops home.  As we thumbed through the thesis together, I was stunned by the amount of work that had gone into it. Len’s sagebrush research involved vegetation monitoring, taxonomy, soil studies, root growth studies, common garden studies and genetic analysis. And the list of field plot locations was daunting: Kamloops, Summerland, Alkali Lake, Shingle Creek, Garnett Valley, Greenstone Mountain, Rock Creek and Anarchist Mountain, with additional sites in Squaw Butte, Oregon and Dubois, Idaho. Anyone doing that same amount of research work today would demand at least two Ph.Ds for it!

After completing his thesis, Len was planning to do a Ph.D in range management at Oregon State University, but Canadian politics intervened. As a youngster, Len had met George Manuel, head of the North American Indian Brotherhood, and the two stayed in touch. Manuel had long advocated for an Aboriginal presence in Canadian federal politics, and saw Marchand as the ideal candidate for such a role. In 1965, Manuel convinced J.R. Nicholson, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration (Indian Affairs was under that Ministry at the time), to name Len as Special Assistant, and the rest is history. In 2000, Len published his autobiography, Breaking Trail. It is a fascinating read.

Len passed away in the summer of 2016. There is a sagebrush flat near where I live, just off of Highway 97 at Trout Creek. It was one of Len’s research sites, from 1963; I actually found some of his old plot stakes there. Every time I pass that flat, I am reminded of how privileged I was to have met this eminent Canadian. He is no longer with us, but he definitely left his mark.

An earlier version of this article was published in the BC Grasslands Magazine.


Kinder Morgan Meditation

So we have bought a heavy oil pipeline. No Canadian analogy comes to mind, so I’ll go with the Brooklyn Bridge, or those fantastic real estate deals on Florida waterfront. With this purchase, our Federal Government has emphatically stated that petroleum trumps everything. Or, in the words of Alberta’s premier, petroleum is Canada’s lifeblood.

How wrong is this purchase of the Kinder Morgan pipeline? Let me count the ways. My tax money is being used to facilitate shipping unrefined bitumen to China, the biggest carbon dioxide emitter on the entire planet. We steadfastly refuse to build our own refineries, thus maintaining our traditional Canadian status as hewers of wood and drawers of water. As exporters of first beaver pelts, then raw logs and now, unrefined bitumen. We refused Energy East, thus eliminating the opportunity for Alberta petroleum to replace the imported petroleum that eastern Canada currently consumes. I could go on to describe the horrendous spill risks in the busy and constricted waterways of the BC coast, or the illusory job numbers, the trampling of indigenous land rights, the terrible economics of the purchase, the toxic nature of the diluents used to move bitumen, but I desist, since I feel a nosebleed coming on.

Petroleum use in all its forms, including its bastard spawn plastic, constitutes an addiction. The symbol of drug addiction is the discarded needle in the alley; the symbol of petroleum addiction is the tricked-out Ford F-350 truck with a driver, no passengers and no payload, on the daily commute to work.  Psychologists agree that moderating an addiction is nearly impossible; you either go full on, or go cold turkey.  So we are faced with a profound problem; not only are we citizens and governments unconcerned about our addiction, the cold turkey option is impossible.

It strikes me, and I have no proof of this, that the Canadian public is less concerned about carbon emissions and climate change than we were five years ago. The general public support—or at least resignation—in regards to this purchase is perhaps a symptom. If I am right about this erosion of climate change concern, then that is a much bigger issue than the pipeline. Is it defeat? That anthropogenic carbon-driven climate change is inevitable, and we can’t do anything about it? Is it denial: climate change is fake news? Is there some perverted religious basis: we are mandated to exploit the earth, and a better world awaits us? Or is it simply a form of social exhaustion: there are too many things to worry about, so let’s fire up the F-350 and go get burgers at the drive-through?

A mea culpa here: I am guilty as the rest of us. This was brought home to me a few years ago, when I drove from the Okanagan to Vancouver to attend a climate change event. I was halfway there when I realized a huge irony: I was driving a Ford Explorer to a climate change conference. But then I was able to rationalize the irony away by pointing out (to myself) that said Ford Explorer was sixteen years old, and the carbon costs of destroying it and getting me into a new vehicle would be astronomical. And so on. I’m sure lemmings have similar rationales.

Lately I’ve had occasion to research the whaling era (roughly 1845 to 1895), an eerie forerunner of our current petroleum era. Whale oil was the predecessor to petroleum, used for lighting and a host of other applications. The whaling industry was rapacious, totally unregulated, and had devastating ecological consequences. One out of three harpooned whales was never recovered, and sank dead to the bottom.  The ocean of the whaling era was the equivalent of today’s atmosphere; nobody cared what happened to it. And the avarice of the whalers was more than matched by the demand for their product.

As a kid growing up in the Fifties, I remember the advertising slogan, “better living through chemistry.” My wife remembers the first mass-market plastic container, Prell shampoo, guaranteed not to break if you dropped it in the shower. That postwar era set the stage for how we live today: disposables, commuting, suburbs, plastic everywhere, eight-lane highways, and the total dominance of the private automobile. I am reminded of the pundit who said we drive cartoon cars, and live in cartoon cities.

Now that we Canadians have been forced to bend over and accept the thrust of this pipeline, a rational and logical response is to demand a comprehensive, revenue-neutral carbon tax, and hope that market forces will help us moderate our petroleum addiction.

Ponderosa Contemplation


A long, low ridge borders our neighborhood, about a kilometer distant. Dry and grassy, with scattered pines here and there, it is fortunately too steep to build houses on. From the leisurely perspective of a backyard evening I scan this hillside, and speculate on a fundamental duality of Okanagan nature: trees and grass. Forest and grassland. The tree that grows here is the hardy Ponderosa, which reaches farther out into dry grasslands than any other tree.

On the ridge’s lower slope the three-dimensional bulk of each tree is visible, as well as the shadow it casts on the grass below. But the trees lined along the hill’s ridgeline are two-dimensional, seen only in profile. With evening light behind them, they are like the black and white illustrations in old forestry textbooks. A few have the classic Christmas tree shape, but most are funky and asymmetrical. There is the beanpole, the bonsai, and the lightbulb. Dead top, leaning left, Charlie Brown and windswept. Red attack, witches broom, schoolmarm crotch. Some an open filigree of branches, others a solid black blob. One perfectly triangular specimen is right next to a standing dead snag. Life on a dry, windy ridge does not make you pretty. It is a rogue’s gallery, a police lineup of deviant conifers. Some have branches all the way to the ground, others their yellow trunks are naked halfway up. Some look like they have stood since the glaciers; others appear new, temporary or even rudely invasive.

When the evenings are longer and supper is over, it is fun to sip another glass of wine and assign adjectives to certain trees on the ridgeline. Aspirational. Overbloated. Calligraphic. And so on.

Ponderosa is not my first iconic tree. As a kid living in Southern California, a large old pepper tree was my gymnasium, refuge, and friend. It’s sturdy trunk and spreading main branches were perfect for climbing. The long, weeping terminal branches with pinnate leaves hung vertically around the tree’s perimeter, creating a large, shaded canopy. It was a quiet, pepper-scented room, with a plush carpet of duff and pure adventure on the ceiling. On one of my more daring climbs I lost my grip and fell, landing flat on my back. Unconscious for a few seconds, I opened my eyes to the radiant canopy. Part of my mind struggled to comprehend what had just happened, while the rest fixed on the infinitely complex mosaic above me, delicate pinnate leaves shot through with light. It might have been a transformative moment.

Trees not only evoke memory, they contain it. Ponderosa remembers fire, and lives somewhere in the ambiguous realm of either withstanding it, or requiring it. Does it withstand fire so well, with its thick bark and progeny that germinate on burned ground, that it actually needs it? When its forests go a long time without fire, creating a dense canopy and cooler microclimate that allows the Douglas-firs to take over, is that a voluntary surrender, or a defeat? When First Nations added millenia of their own prescribed fires to the natural regime of lightning starts, and then when our white settler culture set about stopping all fires, does the Ponderosa even care? Fires and drought suppress trees, and favor grasses. Closed forest canopies suppress grasses. It is a pity the Okanagan didn’t come with an operating manual.

The long, graceful needles of the Ponderosa have a clear surface coating that reflects sunlight. If you are under a mature ponderosa on a mid-afternoon with a breeze, gaze upward through the foliage and you will see thousands of tiny moving points of light. While you sit there, it is also a good time to contemplate the relationship of trees, grass, humans and fire, in no particular order. One of those traditional Spanish leather wine skins, filled with an Okanagan Pinot Noir, would be a helpful asset.


The Natural History of the Bookshelf

I decided to organize my books. The origin of this impulse is obscure, but since I’ve been acquiring books for about fifty years, this seemed like a decent interval. I own more than a hundred titles, but probably less than a thousand. It seems crass to actually count them. The books are contained in eight or ten bookshelves scattered through various rooms of the house. A few are from my father, momentoes from his youth, which he passed on to me. One such is Will James’ Smoky The Cowhorse, from 1929. And three Tarzan novels, from 1912-1914. Tipped into one of the novels is a note from the man Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, obviously in response to a childhood note my father wrote. It says, “I have a dog too, and he gives me great pleasure.” Then there is a series of Russian novels, heavily weighted toward Maxim Gorky, from my highschool Bolshevik days. A section on Sacco and Vanzetti abuts publications on the Great Spokane Flood, which are next to the entire Dr. Seuss oeuvre. And so forth.

I started by consolidating novels by the same author, which didn’t take long, but served to open up the larger question: what are my organizing principles? Alphabetical would of course be pedantic and silly for such a small library. Fiction/nonfiction made some sense, but how would I accommodate the Annie Dillards, the Wallace Stegners, the James Agees, who wrote in both genres? Friends jumped in with facetious organizational suggestions. By jacket color. Another, gleaned from an interior design magazine: turn the books around, spine in, so as to achieve a consistent aesthetic against white walls.

Then there was the question of what to put in which bookshelf. Recently I installed a new floor-to-ceiling shelf in the living room, and right away realized that bookshelf positioning plays a major role. The contents of this tall bookshelf now confront me as I enter the living room, whereas the shorter bookshelves, and the ones oriented parallel to my customary line of vision, really do not register. Ask any bookstore person: the books that get seen are the ones that get read. Books at eye level get the attention: books at ankle level are pretty much orphans.

A good quarter of my books are in a large upstairs guest bedroom, which is a boon to literary house guests, but for me they only register on my infrequent trips upstairs.

I have another bookshelf, one of those antique office affairs made of dark oak, with glass-fronted doors guarding the contents of each shelf.  At the bottom of the unit are a whole series of shallow wooden pull-out drawers, apparently for storing important documents. Each drawer has a finger-sized hole in the bottom that must have facilitated document removal. I acquired the bookshelf years ago when the government office I worked in was being closed down. The shelf, a battered relic of the manual typewriter era, had been tagged for “offsite storage.” I knew exactly what that phrase meant, so I removed it covertly, as a retirement gift. This unit now contains my old books, my meaningful books, and my old and meaningful books.  Obviously this shelf, which is next to a very comfortable overstuffed armchair, would be exempt from any house-wide organizational scheme.

Then there was the issue of the bedroom bookshelf, which is the repository for whatever I have brought in with me for bedtime reading, plus a few other volumes that I have consciously placed there. The theory behind the conscious placements runs like, “I’ve been meaning to read this one for months and if I put it here by my bed I might get desperate enough to pick it up.” The bedroom shelf also contains a few hefty books that I will never read cover to cover, but that I enjoy opening randomly, like Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, or A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander.

Then there is the Apocrypha Shelf, containing books I don’t know what to do with. Like an aquarium book, but I sold the aquarium. A flora of a region I’d hoped to visit, but now never will. A self-help book; not likely. All of these are candidates for the Thrift Shop, where they might find a new home and be loved.

Speaking of the Thrift Shop, I have a friend who has the largest personal collection of books I’ve ever seen. A retired antiquarian bookseller, he is getting up in years and has put his collection up for sale. No one wants to buy it. But I often meet him coming out of the Thrift Shop, with books under his arm.

In the end, my organizing effort came down to a bit of dusting, straightening, and very limited organizing. I was simply no match for the fierce independence of these wonderful books.

Cowboy Dreams

As a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy. That seems desperately old-fashioned, but as a suburban adolescent I yearned for that simple and passionate life, riding rimrock country on a trusted horse, amongst sagebrush and arroyo. While my contemporaries built youthful fantasies around Superman and GI Joe, mine were drawn from my father’s bookshelf, where I found Western novels, including those of the artist and writer, Will James.

Immensely popular in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, James was a folk hero to my father’s generation. He was not an author who chanced to write about cowboys; instead, he cowboyed, and then wrote it down. His heartland was the open range, and his twenty-six novels contain glorious sketches and paintings of wild mustangs, lone horsemen, and sagebrush. I fell headlong into his book Smoky, written in 1926, as well as The Lone Cowboy, penned in 1930.

In time I woke from my cowboy dream, lost track of the novels, and forgot about Will James for about forty years, until a meandering journey to Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park brought it all back again.  The trip was a quest to understand the core elements of that part real, part mythical region we know as the West. The Park seemed an excellent place to start.

Well off Canada’s Highway One and near the small community of Val Marie, the Park was created in 1988 to represent the Canadian prairie biome. The solitude and spectacular ecology of Grasslands make it a haven for seekers, romantics and avoiders of the beaten tourist track. If you chose Grasslands as the spiritual heart of the Canadian West, you wouldn’t be far wrong.

Walking the Park’s interpretive trail above the historic Frenchman River, with Seventy-Mile Butte in the distance, I was struck by an intriguing sense of déjà vu. What was it about the subdued pastels of grass, rimrock and badland, the endless horizontal vistas under a dome of prairie sky, that made them so familiar? A subsequent tour of the local historical museum gave me the answer: the paintings of Will James.

My western quest had taken a sudden new turn. Returning home, I searched out the old novels and began to research my forgotten childhood hero. A truly amazing story emerged.

Will James was actually Ernest Dufault, born in St. Nazaire, in the Province of Quebec, in 1892. He too was smitten by the cowboy life, and spent all his spare time dreaming about and sketching imagined life in the West. Leaving his home at the tender age of fifteen, he got off the train in Saskatchewan, and began working on cattle ranches in the wild south country. His learning curve was enormous: within two years, the young Ernest had mastered English, horseback riding and cowpunching. And he continued to sketch, on envelopes, bunkhouse walls, on anything he could lay his hands on. Horses dominated his art, and that love affair would continue to for all of his short life. Slowly, young Dufault began to invent his own western image, both in his mind and on sketch paper; ten gallon hat, black vest, scarf knotted around the neck, pointed boots, pant cuffs turned up, a Bull Durham roll-your-own held casually in the side of the mouth. Always mounted on a horse, or standing next to one. With jet-black hair, hawk nose and chiselled features, this young man was as handsome in real life as he was in his self-portraits.

Name has much to do with image, and during this time Ernest began experimenting with anglo, western-sounding handles for himself, eventually settling on the monosyllabic Will James. That was a prophetic early step along a journey towards fame, fortune, and an early death.

As I researched further, I found references to Ernest Dufault/Will James popping up in various Canadian prairie communities during his six-year stay in Western Canada. One of his trademarks was to leave a signed and dated sketch or photograph of himself wherever he went. These artifacts, together with local histories and rancher accounts, have him passing through or working in communities like Maple Creek, Ravenscrag, and Gull Lake as well as Val Marie. A sole postcard the young man sent to his family was postmarked at Sage Creek, in the isolated Milk River country of southern Alberta.

As he drifted from one ranch to another, Ernest found an older mentor in Pierre Beaupre, a fellow Quebecois, who helped him learn English and the ways of the Western cowboy. In 1911 they filed adjacent homestead claims in what would become the Grasslands Park, nearly a century later. “Bopy,” as Will affectionately called him, was to become a seminal figure in James’ autobiographical novel, the Lone Cowboy.

A scrape with the law followed by a stint in the Maple Creek jail nourished James’ fugitive tendencies. Upon being released he fled south across the Montana border, leaving literally everything behind–his homestead claim, his partner, his family ties, his real name and his Canadian identity. He was now fully remade as Will James, Montana cowpuncher, rodeo rider, storyteller and itinerant artist. Legend has it that James met the great cowboy painter Charles M. Russell, who encouraged him in his work and got him started writing his stories down. Those early works came to the attention of the popular New York magazine Sunset, and soon Eastern readers were devouring James’ short stories and sketches.

Will James literally embraced the American West, cowboying and rodeoing through Montana, Utah and Nevada, working as a stunt rider in Hollywood, sketching, and writing everything down. He saw himself as indestructible, but bronc riding and a habit of binge drinking were taking their toll. His marriage to Alice Conradt, daughter of a wealthy Reno ranching family, brought some temporary stability to his life, and his stories lengthened into novels. These were wildly successful: Smoky, The Lone Cowboy and several others were bestsellers, reprinted over and over again.

All the James books are written in a slangy western vernacular which now seems dated and a bit silly, but which captivated readers at the time. They held particular appeal to boys, and my father admitted to being under the James spell as an adolescent, just as I was. This speaks to the power of myth, as it passes unchanged from one generation to the next.

America in the 1930’s was a nation undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization, but Will James’ novels reflect none of that. They were about frontier: cities, factories, even automobiles found no place in the James books, and that was part of the secret of their success. In spite its passionate embrace of the Machine Age, American identity was still rooted in the rugged, independent frontier cowboy, and James reinforced that belief. Writing about an unfenced, free-range ranching lifestyle that was largely gone, Will James gave Eastern  factory workers, straphangers and intellectuals alike the opportunity to fantasize that era back to imaginary life.

The Lone Cowboy, James’ “autobiography,” is a fascinating fabrication. In it he makes no mention of his Quebec roots, offering instead this fantasy origin: born on a remote Montana cattle ranch, both Will’s parents are killed in an accident when he is a child. He is subsequently adopted and raised by the French-Canadian cowhand Bopy. Later on, Bopy drowns in an ice-filled Montana river. This clever fabrication provides a logical explanation for Will’s lifelong French accent, while at the same time eliminating any possibility for story verification. All possible loose ends in the Lone Cowboy have been carefully snipped off.

Will’s newfound celebrity status was both a blessing and a curse. Book royalties allowed him to buy a Montana cattle ranch that was to be a romantic haven for himself and Alice. He landed movie contracts for both Smoky and the Lone Cowboy, but was soon shut out of any significant role in either film because of his drinking habits. With fame came increased scrutiny, and people began to question the gaps and inconsistencies in Will’s life story. Like his famous contemporary Grey Owl (real name Archie Belaney), he lived an elaborate lie. The resulting psychological pressure on James was enormous. Paranoid about having his real origins discovered, he swore his Quebec family to absolute secrecy, and then cut all ties with them. Not even his wife knew the true story. An obvious outlet for all this pressure was booze, which his celebrity status provided him with in abundance. Will’s binges and blackouts became more and more common, and his artistic output finally ceased altogether. When he died at age 50 of cirrhosis of the liver, the world lost a mythic—and tragic–hero.

I still have my father’s well-thumbed copy of Smoky, which was given to him by an aunt in 1929, when he was eleven. The book now occupies a proud place on my bookshelf, and serves to remind me of that adolescent dream. Although I never became a cowboy, my life has been somehow tied to grassland, sagebrush, badland and butte. Will James had something to do with that.

(A previous version of this article was published in Western Living magazine.)

Army of 500

The Bald Range is an open, grassy mountainside tucked in among the pine forests of the central Okanagan. Elegant bunchgrasses and hardy balsamroots abound. Native bees and other insects attend the flowers while overhead, solitary raptors work the thermals. The Bald Range is a landscape well suited to epiphany, but its humble beauty has been marred. Historical overgrazing, fire suppression and all-terrain vehicles have each left their legacy of damage.

Part of that legacy is a truly spectacular infestation of a noxious alien weed known as Saint Johnswort, on a portion of the Range. This European weed is common in many parts of BC’s southern Interior and the Lower Mainland, but the populations are typically small and scattered. This is due to a highly successful biological control insect known as Chrysolina. This fat, glossy beetle was purposefully introduced in BC in the early 1950’s and it became a very successful immigrant, spreading its progeny throughout the southern half of the Province. The beauty of Chrysolina is its voracious appetite for Saint Johnswort, and its total disdain for any other plant.

As a longtime volunteer and occasional consultant on the Bear Creek Bald Range (one must be specific—BC has several Bald Ranges), I was acutely conscious of its Saint Johnswort infestation, which in places made up 90 percent of the vegetation, displacing bunchgrass, balsamroot and pretty much everything else. But oddly, there were no Chrysolina attackers. This particular beetle is easy to spot, due to its iridescent black body, but several close inspections of the Bald Range during peak season never revealed a single beetle. This was strange, since the beetle is considered well established by Provincial authorities, and can be found everywhere that its host plant is found.

So I added this observation to my list of Bald Range questions and curiosities, and carried on. But by the summer of 2015 it was obvious to our cadre of Bald Range volunteers that the Saint Johnswort infestation was spreading, and spreading rapidly. Saint Johnswort is a well-known herbal remedy for depression, and I figured we now had enough biomass to cheer up several provinces and territories.

I put in a call to Catherine Macrae, an invasive plant specialist with the Ministry of Forests in Nelson, BC, to see if there was any chance of getting a few beetles. She told me the Chrysolina was experiencing one of its periodic down cycles, and few were available for capture and re-release. But she promised to keep my request in mind. Then in the spring of 2016, Catherine’s technicians found a burgeoning population near Nelson, and I got an urgent notice that 500 beetles were coming via express bus to my home town of Summerland.

I arrived at the bus station promptly at the appointed arrival time and—no bugs. Frantic and knowing the beetles experience high mortality from shipping delays, I called Catherine. She gave me the tracking number and I contacted every depot on the various bus routes between Nelson and Summerland, the destination. No luck. “In transit” was the standard unhelpful answer. The Bald Range’s chances for a Chrysolina rescue were fading fast. I waited several anxious hours, made the round of phone calls again, and found the package was sitting at the bus station in Kelowna. The warehouse person reminded me that it was Saturday morning, they were closing in 45 minutes, and would re-open again on Monday. In turn, I reminded myself that it was over an hour’s drive from my house to the Kelowna bus station.

Pedal to the metal on Highway 97, my ancient Suzuki smoking from overexertion, I had visions of beetles dying slow and excruciating deaths in the airless, weedless Kelowna bus warehouse.  But somehow the gods of Kelowna’s endless out-of-phase traffic lights smiled on me, and I sailed right through to the north end bus station, where the package awaited. The warehouse person was not at all pleased to hear that the box was full of insects, and he very reluctantly loaned me a razor knife to open it with. And there, carefully packed in five vented plastic containers, nestled in Styrofoam and sharing a cold pack, were five hundred live, active insects. I thanked the apprehensive warehouse man profusely, and made a beeline, or rather a beetleline, for the Bald Range.

To get to the Bald Range, one drives twelve kilometers up the supremely dusty and washboardy Bear Creek road, a kilometer up a spur road, and finishing with a steep ten minute hike to get on to the Bald Range itself. I had transferred the bug containers from the box into my pack, and now I began to worry that my black backpack was acting as an unintentional solar oven, and the bugs would overheat and die on the very last leg of their epic journey. So I did the hike in record time. Arriving at the middle of the Saint Johnswort infestation, I was relieved to see the bugs were still active in their containers. Now I faced a dilemma that I hadn’t thought of before—where was the best place to put them—a dry spot, a wet spot, a spot with young plants, or mature plants? In the end I decided on five separate locations, each slightly different, and I marked them with my trusty GPS for future reference.


I have been on the margins of biological control for many years, but never actually participated in an insect release. So gently emptying these bugs from their containers was the culmination of a very long personal and ecological loop. Now I was embracing the full contradiction of biocontrol—introducing a new alien species to control an existing alien species. But these are exactly the kinds of delicious paradoxes that keep drawing me back to ecology.

My Chrysolina release was one of the handful of acts of random beauty one gets to be a part of in a lifetime. This delivered beetle population may, in their insect wisdom, take to the Bald Range, or they may reject it and die. After all, they were many kilometers and generations removed from their home country of England. One very plausible outcome of the release: the beetles will be successful, but the niche that Saint Johnswort formerly occupied gets filled by a new alien species from our foul and burgeoning cornucopia of invasive weeds.

Most of my tiny iridescent army of 500 came out of their containers easily, but there were a few which I had to coax out on to my finger, and then place on to a carefully chosen Saint Johnswort leaf. Those last few holdouts seemed genuinely grateful, and so was I.