All posts by Don Gayton

The Kelowna Savanna

Premier Gordon Campbell at the 6 billion tree planting ceremony.

The gentle curve of the hillside draws me forward. Maybe it’s a guy thing, being attracted to curves, but with each step I see more of this grassland, and more of Okanagan Lake’s northern reach. Then come subtle ecological changes, as the hill’s aspect gently shifts from southwest to northwest. Here I am, just twenty blocks from Kelowna’s downtown, on a remnant piece of Okanagan sublime: Knox Mountain Park. As I start down the trail, I’m on a dry and rocky southwest face. I see sagebrush and cactus, reminders of our biological connection to the Great Basin of distant Utah and Nevada. Then further along this curving footpath is the signature Okanagan landscape trinity; delicate bluebunch wheatgrass, arrowleaf balsamroot in full flower, and the statuesque ponderosa pine. Still further along the footpath, as the land shifts around to a northwest aspect, I see the hallmarks of a cooler, more northerly flora: rough fescue, rose, and snowberry. Here a tiny but outrageous shootingstar commands me: get on my knees to honor its royal purple. 

I am at pains to face away from the City on my dawdling walk. The lake beside me is completely still. If I stick to certain trails, I can avoid seeing the sprawling suburbs that surround the Park.  A trailside sign informs me of the City of Kelowna’s Official Flower: the arrowleaf balsamroot. I do hope City officials are aware of this vast irony: naming balsamroot the official flower while doing their level best to eradicate its habitat.

A friend of mine is working on what she calls the “Okanagan Esthetic.” She’s got a tough job. Hard to visualize a local spirit of place when we can zip down Highway 97 at 110 kilometers an hour, pass row on row of identical suburbs and chain big-box stores, while Boeing 737s shuttle overhead, and our car radios blares the latest American pop song. But I am convinced that a true local esthetic is possible. Bunchgrass, balsamroot and ponderosa pine would certainly be a part of it. Along with pinot gris and merlot. 

The landscape pulls me along, and I allow myself the distractions of botanical identification, knowing all along that the most important view is not at the species, but at the ecosystem level. Or perhaps at the artistic level. Maybe the person best equipped to understand the subtleties of Knox Mountain is the landscape painter.

Psychologists say humans, if given the choice, overwhelmingly prefer the intermediate landscape–scattered trees in grassland—rather than closed forest or open grassland. And this is what we have on Knox Mountain: the intermediate landscape, Okanagan savanna. But for how long, I worry.  The absence of recent fire here, on a landscape that demands it: too many juvenile trees are sprouting up on this dry mountainside. We have extirpated the frequent, light, housekeeping fires that Indigenous folks formerly used to keep grass and trees in that savanna balance. 

Finished with my walk, I’m back at the viewpoint by the parking lot, a good place to think about an Okanagan Esthetic, with the Valley’s biggest city in front of you, and a wonderful remnant piece of Valley habitat behind. Okanagan Mountain Park in the distance triggers memories of Firestorm 2003.  Rough fescue and shootingstar behind me; several good coffee shops, a great independent bookstore, and Ballet Kelowna in front. A magnificent but overstressed lake to my right, a four-lane commercial strip to my left. Raw materials for an esthetic.

This viewpoint is a dry and bony rock outcrop. It hosts a small bronze plaque commemorating the six billionth tree planted in BC, spaded in by a former Premier. The tree seedling soon died a drought-stricken death, leaving a patch of bare dirt next to the plaque. Tree planting has a long and honorable tradition in this Province, but no self-respecting tree planter would ever put a seedling in such an inappropriate spot. I’m sure the Premier meant well, and it was a good photo op, but ecologically misguided. He should have planted arrowleaf balsamroot instead.

small bronze plaque commemorating the six billionth tree planted in BC, spaded in by a former Premier

Homage to Jane

Jane Jacobs
American-born Canadian social and urban activist & author Jane Jacobs (1916 – 2006), with a sign around her neck that reads ‘Conscience is the Ultimate Weapon,’ attends a boycott at Public School (P.S. 41) (at 116 West 11th Street), New York, New York, February 3, 1964. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

I don’t remember precisely when I encountered Jane. I would have been an impressionable young hippie at the time. Many of those youthful impressions have faded, but not those from The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which I first read at some point in the late 1960’s. As a young ecologist I had not given urban planning a second thought, until I read Jacobs’ book. It was a revelation. She showed me that cities function like living organisms, and that urban planning is the reciprocal, or the flip side, of ecology. Her precepts of mixed use, low rise, high density and pedestrian orientation spoke strongly to me, even as a country boy. In my visits to various cities, both in Canada and the US, I naturally gravitated to the neighborhoods that demonstrated those characteristics. That was where I found used bookstores, inexpensive ethnic restaurants, experimental theater and shoe repair. 

We lived for several years in Nelson, BC, a former mining town pasted on a steep mountainside. Nelson has one of the most vibrant and viable main streets of any small town in North America, not because of enlightened urban planning, but because there is simply no room for sprawl. No spaghetti suburbs, no soulless suburban shopping malls. In contrast, the towns in the Okanagan where we live now are on much gentler terrain, and suburban sprawl is the order of the day. Every town, from Osoyoos right through to Armstrong, is busy expanding its footprint. Kelowna, our flagship city, is busy trashing another Jacobs precept, with its downtown high-rise apartments and office towers. 

If you think of it, mixed use, low rise, high density and pedestrian orientation are very similar to ecological principles. In spite of our suburbs, freeways and glass towers we are animals, after all.

Jane Jacobs had no professional credentials as an urban planner, yet she took on the New York establishment and won several key battles that preserved neighborhood life in that city. She and her family moved to Canada in the late Sixties, in opposition to the Vietnam War. We can be proud of that.

We Canadians need another Jane Jacobs, someone who slices through all the self-serving urban planning and developer bafflegab. I do recall a resonant advertising slogan for an upscale housing development on the far outskirts of Kelowna: “Close to Nature, Minutes From Downtown.” That is a totally wrong-headed and unachievable urban dream, yet somehow we delude ourselves and buy into it. 

Our Okanagan towns and cities are stuck in a kind of frontier/capitalist mentality, but I am sensing the very beginnings of a tectonic shift, amplified by climate change concerns. Somewhere out there is a young urbanist revolutionary who will write The Death and Life of BC Interior Towns and Cities. I eagerly await that book.

Vietnam Canada and the Draft 2

From Fred Danenhower, Summerland BC

My oldest brother drew a lottery number of 29 on his 18th birthday in March of 1968. I was 13, 5’1” and playing sports all the time. As a family we didn’t really have a religion but my father had been raised a Quaker and was a CO during WW2. He served, but as a psychologist in New Jersey, not on the front lines. He was against Vietnam from the beginning, thought Lyndon Johnson was an idiot for escalating the war. My mother was liberal politically, independent, ahead of her time, a working mom with 4 kids. My parents were united, not wanting any of their sons to go to a war they didn’t believe in. At 13 I was aware of Viet Nam and civil rights-they were talked (ranted!) about at the dinner table, but I was still pretty naïve. I can remember canvassing for Eugene McCarthy with a friend of my sister’s, not out any dedication to the cause but because I really liked her. During that time, the thing affecting me most was the assassination of Martin Luther King. Solving the disparity between blacks, minorities and whites took a huge hit and I lived it everyday while going to school. Our Santa Barbara neighborhood was white and wealthy, Milpas St. was black, Delavina St. hispanic, not so well off.

Between March and August of 1968 my mother had decided to go to Canada. Her reasoning was to provide a safe haven if my brother had to leave the US. We two younger sons were going with her. I saw it as a big adventure, we had been to Yellowstone, Banff and Oregon, camping, so I assumed Canada would be more rustic. We would be mountain men, not surfers. Some time at the beginning of August we packed up a 1958 Chevy station wagon with everything the family would need and started north. We visited my grandmother in Oregon, then hit the border at Osoyoos, Wednesday, August 28th. Within 2 hours we were landed immigrants.  My mother had researched job possibilities. Starting at Osoyoos we went north, with the idea of going through the Okanagan, then on to Banff, but she applied for work everywhere along the way. Friday afternoon we landed in Salmon Arm and she was told she could start work Monday morning. We found a motel that rented by the month and were home. I was going into grade 9, could walk to school and in retrospect I must have been a bit of a novelty. By October I did not want to return to California, but I missed my friends. But Canada was a wild, wonderful place. So when the Democratic national convention was on, Kent State happened, Nixon was elected, the Vietnam protests escalated, I was in Salmon Arm, and not really connected to all that. I was accepted easily because of sports. It was fun: I developed a ‘harem’ of girls who all had to be kissed “good morning” at the beginning of every school day. My older brother had a much tougher time fitting in, he was more introverted and a genius. People were intimidated. His motivation for staying in Canada was much more real, he did not want to go to Vietnam. My mother had a similar experience. She didn’t connect with anyone at work, missed her friends, and thought Canada, while beautiful, was backward. The three of us regularly camped at Yard Creek on weekends-a wonderful family time.

In the fall of 1969, my father was diagnosed with cancer. My brother stayed and finished Grade 12 in Salmon Arm, and we moved back to California over Christmas. At this point I was simply not very connected to the US–I was a visitor. My oldest brother was using student deferments to avoid service, so things were okay.  My mother decided she was going to tour Europe in the fall of 1970 (my father was better) and we kids could come if we wanted to. Another adventure! We toured Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and England in 1970/71. From Europe, we flew back to Montreal to avoid the US, and drove across Canada. My brother enrolled at SFU, and I was left with room and board in Salmon Arm. A story: I crashed my bike and tore up my knee, which became infected. I went to the doctor but knew nothing about gov’t provided medical. I walked out of the office with a cleaned up knee, and a lunch bag full of medical supplies. Free. Once again, humbled by the generosity of locals. I finished high school in 1973. I have really fond memories of hitch hiking the Trans-Canada and Highway 97 North, having adventures during those days. One time, I bullshitted a drunk welder coming out of Cache Creek, telling him I had a licence and could drive (he luckily passed out quickly) and made it all the way to Quesnel before leaving the truck on the side of the road. My goal was to see how far I could get on $5. My father died in the summer of 1973. I went on to UBC, and my brother was still at SFU. When I turned 18, I quit crossing the border, we had not registered with Draft Board 100, so we were not registered for the draft and technically illegal. My mother came north for good in 1976, the same year I became a citizen. I went for the citizenship hearing with my girlfriend as a character reference, the judge looked at her, then me, asked “is this your girlfriend?” “Yes” I answered. “Then you must be alright,” he said, and the hearing ended (she was better looking than I was).  

When I reflect on it now, I think I was similar to the girl in the photo at Kent State. I was not paying attention to the US much, as I felt Canadian and was cruising through the teen years, having a great time. My life directed by my parents, my living experiences happening mostly by chance. I have had conversations with friends of my older siblings who went to Vietnam. They describe the horror, some still suffering the effects of PTSD or agent orange, their lives were never the same. Others did amazing things to avoid service, dieting to be underweight, pretending to be crazy to get a dishonorable discharges. 

I am Canadian, incredibly grateful my mother made the effort to move, and that Canada allowed us to come.

A Nagging Wish for the Divine

Jack Logie on horseback
Jack Logie on horseback

Local history intersects with world history, resulting in entanglements. As a resident of our small town of Summerland, I was casually aware of the family surname Logie, as in Logie Road, which winds through an industrial area and some adjacent vineyards. But then I stumbled on to mention of one Jack Logie, and his highly alliterative “Summerland Social Issues Summer School” from the 1920’s. This School, apparently, taught a melange of mysticism, arts and crafts, trade-unionism, and socialism.  Wow! Right here? In my bucolic, sleepy, politically conservative small town, which was a mere village in the 1920’s? 

Of course I was hooked, and dove right in.

Helena Blavatsky
Helena Blavatsky

Ok, be patient as we virtually transport to southern Russia, 1831, as Helena Blavatsky is born. Blavatsky masters several languages, travels to India and England, writes prolifically and pioneers a new religious movement called Theosophy. This new Theosophical torch then gets handed off to an Englishwoman, Annie Besant (1847-1933), also a prolific writer, traveller to India, adoptive mother of Krishnamurti, supporter of women’s rights and of various independence movements. Besant gives a lecture in New York, triggering the formation of the American Theosophical movement. Shortly after that, a Canadian chapter is born.

Theosophy is very difficult to pin down, as it ranges from the rational to the occult, with many levels in between. The three Declared Objects of the Theosophical Society are: 

  • To form a nucleus of the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color.
  • To encourage the comparative study of religion, philosophy, and science.
  • To investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.

Theosophy was simultaneously able to juggle some very diverse ideas: karma, trade unionism, the Sixth Root Race, social activism, Shambala and the Astral Plane. Gee, and I thought we invented karma in the Sixties, and I was sure that Shambala was a suburb of the hippie community of Nelson!

Our story now moves back to Jack Logie, born in Manitoba in 1881, trains as a pharmacist, moves to Summerland and opens a pharmacy. Diminutive, with one bad leg as a result of a childhood illness, Logie dives into community affairs with amazing energy. A talented musician, he forms the Summerland Brass and Reed Band. He is a Noble Grand of the local Odd Fellows, he reads poetry, leads young people on hikes into the mountains, and studies local Indigenous culture. 

As the Great Depression sets in, Logie becomes concerned about working people, and is influenced by the rising tide of socialist and Marxist thought. In response he starts a local handicraft group to create pottery, wood carvings and basketry for sale. He builds a log cabin adjacent to the main road, where the crafters can work and sell their wares. Theosophy is in the air at the time, and it is a natural for Logie. He signs up.

Now for an aside, where local events again intersect with national ones. As Logie embraces Theosophy, so do Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and Lawren Harris, they of Group of Seven fame. In turn, Lawren Harris introduces British Columbia painter Emily Carr to Theosophy. 

Jiddu Krishnamurti was chosen to become the Theosophist’s guru, but he eventually breaks away from all organized religions, becoming a powerful and thoughtful force on his own.

But back to Logie. In 1922, Jack starts his School at the log cabin, which runs for ten days each summer. Tents and cots are made available to out-of-towners, and speakers come from all over Canada.  Topics range from arts, music and economics, to Marxism, poetry, theater and pottery. A prominent visiting speaker is Reverend. J.S. Woodsworth, the iconic Canadian social activist and founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) the progenitor of the NDP.  

Meanwhile a group of Theosophists on Vancouver Island create an Aquarian Foundation and build a retreat near Nanaimo. The Foundation transforms into a toxic cult, led by the infamous Brother XII (Edward Wilson), who eventually absconds with a fortune donated by wealthy devotees. 

Logie leaves Summerland in 1927. This may have been due to the local press and business leaders, who were of course not thrilled with Jack’s brand of politics, but he definitely left his mark. Jack Logie’s log cabin still stands. I pass it every time I drive from our home down to Okanagan Lake, and it reminds me synthesis is possible: arts and politics, philosophy and crafts can mix to mutual benefit. 

Putting aside all the occultist Vedic/Astral/Sixth Race woo-woo bullshit, Theosophy does offer something to this lifelong but pining atheist: the notion of a Secular Divine. That God is actually humans and nature, together. 

Theosophists do believe in a secular heaven. Coincidentally, it is called Summerland.

American Tragedy, Canadian Mandate


Events surrounding the recent American presidential election prompt a number of adjectives– despicable, ludicrous, pathological and so on. But the word that comes to my mind, as one who spent the first 28 years of his life in that country, is tragic.

I do have to remind myself that Donald Trump is merely the visible tip of an iceberg, one that we didn’t see coming. To understand why a third of adult Americans buy in to fake news and crazed conspiracy theories, one has to back up twenty years or so, and question schools, teachers, parents and the society in general that allowed this third to lose its grip on both facts and ethics.  That loss is what paved the way for Trump, and Mussolini, and Hitler. Pathological personalities come to power partly on their own accord, but mostly because the public allows them, either passively standing by or by active welcome.  

One of the observations emerging from the Trump/Biden election is the totally bizarre and arcane mechanics of American presidential elections. Surprisingly, this is the first time the machine, which makes Rube Goldberg’s Self-operating Napkin look simple in comparison, has nearly broken down.

Self-operating napkin – Rube Goldberg

Many of us Canadians have been watching American presidential election news obsessively. Certainly it is hard not to, but beyond that it is almost second nature for us, and for our news media, to closely follow US news. As one wag said, “Americans are woefully ignorant about Canada; Canadians are sinfully knowledgeable about the USA.” But it is important to remember that their political systems are not the same as ours, and their social ethics are not the same as ours: in fact they are poles apart.

It is time we begin making clear US/Canadian distinctions: honoring our system of government, celebrating our multi-party system, re-engaging in politics from local through to federal levels, standing up for multiculturalism, and guarding against the northward seepage of conspiracy theories across our southern border. In short, being proud Canadians instead of surrogate Americans. I say this particularly to my fellow dual citizens and ex-Americans living in Canada. There is a fine line between ho-hum laissez-faire patriotism and toxic super-patriotism. We can find that line.

The United States has always thought of itself as the beacon of democracy to the rest of the world. Their example is now severely dimmed and tarnished. It is time for us Canadians to proudly raise our beacon, and the world will thank us for it.