Category Archives: Blog

A Mountain and a Digital Departure

I find joy in unexpected connections. Call them daisy chains, serendipities, Vulcan mindmelds or whatever, they offer momentary celebrations of life’s connectedness. 

I had one of these random events while searching for the Indigenous name of a mountain in the Chopaka country, west of Osoyoos in southern BC. “Black Mountain” is it’s settler appelation, which is totally unsatisfactory since there are several other Black Mountains in British Columbia. It is also known as “Crying Peak” and “Kruger Mountain West,” but these are no more evocative than the Black Mountain name. This modest 1300 meter peak stands by itself, overlooking the Nighthawk border crossing and the adjacent Similkameen River Valley. 

I went on the hunt for the mountain’s name in Nsyilxcen, the language of the Syilx people of this region, and that led me to a linguistic website based in eastern Washington. I didn’t find the mountain’s name, but in browsing through the website, I found some early photographs of the construction of Grand Coulee Dam. This massive dam was built in the 1930’s, and displaced large numbers of Syilx as it flooded a massive expanse of the Columbia River Valley. As I scrolled through photos of the workmen, I was reminded that my father was one of those thousands of workmen during the Great Depression. 

So I decided to follow that daisy chain, to see if I could find a picture of Dad, fresh out of highschool, as he worked as a laborer on the dam in 1935. Using “Gayton” and “Grand Coulee Dam” as internet search words, I scrolled through the first few Google pages without success, but at the bottom of each succeeding page was that enticing “next page” button. By page five or so, I knew I was getting further and further afield, but then suddenly the name Anna Hadwick Gayton popped up. 

One of the attributes of an unusual surname, like mine, means there is some statistical chance you might be related. So I dove into that webpage, and soon discovered a family connection. I have always been weak on family lexicological terms, so I can best describe the connection this way: Anna Gayton (1899-1977) was the daughter of my paternal great-grandfather’s brother.  

Digging further, I found that Anna grew up in southern California, and was the fourth woman in the US to obtain a Ph.D in Anthropology. The title of her 1928 dissertation was “The Narcotic Plant Datura in Aboriginal American Culture.” She did fieldwork with the Yokut and Western Mono Indians, curated Peruvian textiles and pottery, and studied the religious festivals of the Azorean Portuguese community in California. She was also the Chair of the American Folklore Society, back when folklore study was a recognized discipline. Her extensive list of research publications spans five decades. 

I am humbled by this woman’s grit and determination, finding success in the male-dominated discipline of anthropology. I am also intrigued by the great breadth of her research interests. Could some of her fierce and wide-ranging genes have been passed down to me, but they simply haven’t expressed themselves yet?  A comforting but illusory thought. I will settle for the momentary joy of unexpected connection. 

A Book for the New Year

After a protracted literary dry spell, a new book of mine is out: The Sky and the Patio (New Star Books, Vancouver). In this collection of 25 essays, I use our backyard patio as a springboard to delve into our human relationship with nature. The essays are rooted in the Okanagan, and embrace such diverse topics as turtles, winemaking, antelopebrush, salmon, fire ecology and book collecting.

The book is difficult to categorize, but the closest fit would be “nature writing,” a term which evokes the now-nostalgic era of Thoreau and Muir, Leopold and Lopez. However, three major contemporary challenges have fundamentally disrupted this romantic literary tradition: the loss of nature, climate change, and Indigenous reconciliation. Writing from within my own honky agnostic settler perspective, my essays attempt to confront those challenges, while still making room for personal communion with nature.

My previous books have garnered a number of writing awards, including the BC Book Award, the Canadian Science Writers Award and the US National Outdoor Book award, among others.

A recent review of The Sky and the Patio:

The book can be ordered through your local bookshop or online at

Victoria Musings And Meanders

This pathway is narrow, completely enclosed by a towering canopy of trees. My bike moves me silently over the bark mulch path. Emerging into sunlight again, on the eastern edge of Beacon Hill Park, I ride through a quiet and tree-lined neighborhood of Victorian homes, and then back to our temporary residence. A working vacation brought us here; we rented a small basement apartment on Dallas Road, a few blocks from Beacon Hill Park. Running parallel to Dallas Road is the linear Waterfront Park, a wonderful series of bike trails, separate pedestrian paths and green space, all fronting the shore of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The Waterfront Park and the trails are frequented by bikers, rollerbladers, runners, walkers and more dogs than I have ever seen in one place.

Victoria cycling map

During the day I can look across the Straits to that long attenuated arc that is the Olympic Peninsula. At night the distant flash of the Dungeness Lighthouse reminds me of my childhood in nearby Sequim, Washington.

At the west end of the Waterfront Park is the cruise ship terminal. These massive, fourteen-story, carbon-belching floating petri dishes arrive, disgorge four thousand gawking passengers for eight hours, and then depart again, off to the next scenic destination. What a way to kill the planet, in total luxury.

I am not a fan of British colonialism, but I have to make an exception for their late Victorian domestic architecture, on full display here in Victoria. The fronts of these old homes are delightful, with stairways, porches, balconies, railings, stained glass, stonework and flowerboxes. Their small front yards are equally delightful: instead of stereotypical bland lawns, they sport a profusion of ornamental plantings, together with curving walkways and statuary. About every 33rd house is a modern black box (literally), a soulless, blank construction of glass and prefab. Their total lack of architecture is bad enough on its own, but in the context of these Victorian neighborhoods, these newer homes stand out like warts. I agree with my colleague who says: a house needs a face.

Bikes, many of them electric, are everywhere in this town. The City has gone to great pains to make the urban streets bike friendly, and an internet-based biking map lets you plan your route to minimize riding in traffic. The Dallas Road bike trail has a counter that typically registers six hundred bikers a day. When I am on one of the City’s dedicated two-way downtown bike lanes, with a concrete barrier between me and car traffic, I feel like an unworthy member of the privileged elite. Victoria has recognized that urban biking is here to stay, and has built the infrastructure to accommodate it. I wish the towns and cities of my home valley of the Okanagan would do the same.

I have had a lifelong interest in snorkeling, and I was able to indulge myself in the waters along Dallas Road. As a rather large person, I struggle to get into wetsuit, boots, gloves and bonnet, even though they are all XL. By the time I am fully suited up, I am exhausted. But then I immerse myself, adjust to the cold of the Straits, unfog my mask, blow out the snorkel and allow the magic to take over. Drifting along with minimal effort, I look down into a totally alien but fascinating environment of seaweed, rock and sand. My vision is tunnel, only encompassing a square meter or two, but it is a moving picture of total fascination. My very being floats in a state of unhinged serenity. The occasional crab or bullhead or starfish is simply an added delight.

James Skwarok and Mr. Floatie

My first time snorkeling here was at Clover Point, but then I discovered it is Victoria’s sewage outlet. I changed locations immediately, but it did remind me of Mr. Floatie, the wonderful enormous brown turd costume, complete with sailor hat and bowtie, worn by protestor James Skwarok. James objected to Victoria dumping its raw sewage into the Straits. He and his fecal alter ego were instrumental in forcing the City to finally begin treating their sewage.

In my urban cycling explorations, I was struck by the number and size of heritage churches. Most early immigrants to Victoria were English or Scottish, and yet Catholic churches are everywhere, testimony to the early missionary zeal—and wealth–of that religion.

The first morning after our arrival, the traffic on Dallas Road was incredibly noisy. I was about to seek other accommodations when I discovered it was Deuce Days, a parade of old hotrods and souped-up vehicles. Later I was scanning the Times Colonist newspaper, and found this scathing letter to the editor, which I quote in full:

Deuce Days, a redneck celebration of toxic masculinity and dinosaur car culture, is the last thing Victoria needs.

Inviting this invasion of older white heterosexual males to parade their fetishized internal-combustion vehicles only perpetuates their notion of entitled privilege and the deeply entrenched interests of car culture, both of which Victorians have fought long and hard to put behind us.

Deuce Days belongs in a backwater hick town where these good ol’ boys can hide from progress and hope for a return to the good old days when men were measured by the length of their car.

This letter triggered a whole tirade of angry response letters. I get the sense that Victorians have strongly held opinions.

Cities and nature are inimical to each other: that is a fundamental axiom. However, I do see a glimmer of collaboration in Victoria. Of course nature has outdone itself here by providing meandering bays, points and estuaries, frequent unbuildable rock outcrops, and vegetation that lends itself to parks, walkways and tree-lined streets. Still I have to congratulate the hundred thousand residents of Victoria; they have done a far better environmental job than has Kelowna, a city of comparable size.

Victoria’s upscale neighborhood of Oak Bay intends to ban all gasoline-powered lawn equipment by 2026. I can’t wait to read the angry letters to the editor, from the owners of fetishized riding lawnmowers.

Shevchenko and Babel

A few weeks ago we organized a benefit fundraiser for the people of Ukraine. I wanted the money to go for the purchase of weapons but I was voted down in favor of humanitarian support. The evening event was hastily organized but very successful; we raised over four thousand dollars. Event participants got to enjoy Ukrainian food, music, singing, and readings. I volunteered to read briefly from two Ukrainian writers: Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) and Isaac Babel (1894-1940). Both writers came from Ukraine but lived much of their lives in St. Petersburg, Russia. The lives of both ended violently, in the endless conflicts and purges of the Russian empire. 

Taras Shevchenko’s 1845 poem Testament is heartrendingly appropriate to the current Russian genocide in Ukraine:

When I die,

let me rest, let me lie

amidst Ukraine’s broad steppes.

Let me see

the endless fields and steep slopes

I hold so dear.

Let me hear

the Dnipro’s great roar.

And when the blood  

of Ukraine’s foes flows

into the blue waters of the sea,

that’s when I’ll forget

the fields and hills

and leave it all  

and pray to God.

Until then, I know no God.

So bury me, rise up,

and break your chains.

Water your freedom  

with the blood of oppressors.

And then remember me

with gentle whispers

and kind words

in the great family  

of the newly free.

Taras Shevchenko

Isaac Babel is one of the most anomalous and idiosyncratic figures in modern world literature. Born into a middle-class Jewish merchant family in Odessa, he thrived in that port city’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and cosmopolitan environment. His literary talents were recognized by the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky.  He served in the Red Calvary, associating with Cossacks who were the absolute antithesis of the Jewish intellectual. I first got to know Babel in my highschool Bolshevik days, when I read Russian writers voraciously, and exclusively. The book I have, Isaac Babel: Collected Stories, was published in 1960 and contains a lengthy but valuable introduction to Babel’s writing by Lionel Trilling. Diving back in to that book after sixty years was like bumping into an old and respected friend, one who is idiosyncratic and full of surprises.  Babel’s stories are highly condensed as he navigates through Odessa neighborhoods, Polish battlefields, Jewish gangster rivalries, whorehouses and Cossack battalions. The stories are all very personal, but somehow he writes as both spectator and participant, simultaneously. I suspect Babel was sexist even back in his unreconstructed era, since he was incapable of describing any female character without mentioning their bosoms.

I’ll end this with a couple of Babel quotes:

A well-crafted story doesn’t need to resemble real life. Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story”

“In our day, bad taste is no longer a personal defect; it’s a crime. Even worse, bad taste is counter revolution”

Bringing the Wind Home

Marcellus Jacobs

Back in 1984 I was assessing agricultural land in southern Saskatchewan. This was the beginning of the era of “suitcase farming,” where operators left their rural homes and moved to nearby cities. My work often took me by these abandoned farmsteads. Passing one, I noticed a curious rusty metal box in a refuse pile. It turned out to be the electrical control box for a wind turbine. Previously I had worked for Saskatchewan’s short-lived Office of Energy Conservation, and wind-powered electric generation had been an area of interest. So I took the box home with me.

Long story short, the box subsequently gathered dust over the course of a couple of decades and a couple of moves, until a basement water leak meant I had to move a bunch of stored stuff. There it was, long forgotten but suddenly a very tangible artifact.

Electrical control box
Electrical control box
Jacobs Wind Electric Co. label
Jacobs Wind Electric Co. label

The control box is an integral part of the Jacobs Wind Electric Plant, Model 25, producing 40 watts of DC power. The Jacobs story actually starts in 1922, on an isolated farm in Vida, Montana. Just to orient you, Vida is south of Wolf Point, Montana, which is directly south of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. Young Marcellus Jacobs and his brother Joe are playing around with primitive wind generator designs, hoping to provide some electric power to their farm home. (In the 1920’s, large American cities had electricity, but rural electrification for places like eastern Montana was still years away.) Marcellus had learned to fly, so they had access to two-bladed airplane propellers, but they soon discovered that a two-blade design created too much vibration, so they created a three-blade design, which went on to become the standard for wind electric generation.

Marcellus and Joe started a small factory in Vida, producing and selling wind turbines, towers,  control boxes and storage batteries to farms in the area. Much of the demand came from the desire for access to radio programming. The Jacobs boys created a wonderful newspaper ad that showed their mother Ida ironing with an electric iron while she listened to the radio with a headset. The Jacobs company became quite successful and in the late 1920’s, they moved it to Minneapolis, to be closer to parts suppliers. 

In the late 1930’s, rural electrification became a federal priority in the US, and interest in home-based windpower generation dropped off dramatically. However, this was not the case on the Canadian prairies, which had plenty of wind, and did not connect to the electrical grid until, in some cases, the 1950s. So literally hundreds of used Jacobs wind plants migrated from the American midwest to rural Canadian communities like Melita, Manitoba, Peebles, Saskatchewan, and Milk River, Alberta.  Hence the origin of my rusty Jacobs control box. 

The rediscovery of the control box in the basement prompted an exploration of an equally dusty file cabinet, for my old files on wind power. In the cabinet I found a 1985 letter addressed to me from Marcellus Jacobs, answering my request for more information on the company’s history. There is a fine line between personal archival discovery and forgetfulness. 

The Jacobs plants did set the gold standard for wind electric generation. Not only did they innovate the three-blade design, Marcellus and Joe also solved two fundamental problems with wind turbines; controlling overspeeds in strong winds, and keeping internal bearings lubricated. Jacobs Wind Electric Company is the oldest renewable energy company in the US. Marcellus’ son Joe maintains a company website at

The Bubba Demographic

I have had my suspicions all along, but the Convoy has forced us to acknowledge it: Canada has Bubbas. Not just a few, but a whole demographic. The Bubbas are anti-vaxxers, they are comfortable with falsehoods, they are racist and their conception of personal rights and freedoms extends no further than their own selfish selves.

Certainly part of the motivation for the Convoy was sheer exhaustion: after two long years, we are all exhausted. The Convoy says “we’re done with Covid.” Unfortunately, Covid ain’t done with us, yet.

It is a sad commentary that the 10,000 Bubbas who assembled in Ottawa for a weekend have gotten far more press than the 10,000 and more Canadian health workers who have put their lives on the line every day for two years, caring for vaxxed and unvaxxed alike.

I guess we can thank the pandemic for exposing the Bubba demographic, for bringing it right out into the open. As we move forward, as a people and as a country, we must examine how this demographic came to be. Three institutions mightdeserve special scrutiny: families, our educational system, and social media. 

There will always be lone Bubbas, but Canada is too good a country to accept and resign itself to an entire Bubba demographic.  

What a disaster has been perpetrated on to our Canadian flag. Prior to the Convoy’s arrival in Ottawa, seeing a flag was a pleasant, patriotic reminder of this great country we are privileged to live in. Now, post-Convoy, whenever I see a flag, particularly one on a vehicle, my eyes instantly narrow to slits and I grind my teeth, knowing the toxic message it conveys.   

We Canadians have a job to do. We have to take our national flag back from the Bubbas, carefully decontaminate it, and restore its true meaning: the symbol of a country whose people care about each other, and the truth.

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