Don Gayton: The Art of Place
In 1951, the rancher-writer Richmond Hobson penned the book Grass beyond the Mountains, a classic account of ranching near Anahim Lake, in the Chilcotin. A friend of mine, who hails from Virginia, was so entranced by the book that he actually moved to the Chilcotin. I, myself, was captivated by another artistic representation of place, in this case a magnificent desert photograph by Ansel Adams called Moonrise over Hernandez. My friend didn't stay on in the Chilcotin and I never moved to New Mexico, but these two anecdotes serve to illustrate the power that art can exert upon our personal sense of place, of home, and of local identity.
I believe a sense of place is absolutely vital. And I believe that art in all its forms - from dance to literature to architecture and everything in between - is fundamental to creating a sense of place. As a recent immigrant to the Okanagan (Summerland, to be exact), I've been busy assimilating this region's artistic identity. I've read Harold Rhenisch and George Ryga. Studied the wildlife paintings of Allan Brooks. Attended live theatre at the Bare Bones. Revelled in the architecture and welcoming ambiance of the En'owkin Centre. Leafed through the colourful, local apple-box labels of days gone by. Scrutinized local wine labels as I enthusiastically imbibed the product. And of course, wandered bemused through statuesque ponderosa pines and elegant bunchgrasses. I've also inhaled deeply the scent of big sagebrush, and gazed across to rock bluff and lake and emblematic mountain.
There is much I have yet to experience, but as I get to know my new home region, I sense an underlying tension. Our Okanagan has the highest concentration of unique species and ecosystems in Canada, together with some of the highest population growth and urban expansion rates in the country. Okanagan nature and Okanagan society are on separate rails, and they are diverging rapidly. The imprimatur we are putting on the Okanagan is increasingly about us, and less and less about the land itself.
Our relationship to nature and to place is not firmly woven into the fabric of contemporary culture. Repairing this tragic disconnect between society and nature is one of the fundamental tasks of our time, and I believe artists will be key players in this historic repair.
We have abundantly shown how simply providing information about ecological crises and environmental degradation is not enough to spur action. Detailed information is instantly available to all of us on how we pollute our atmosphere, overdrive our roads, overfish our oceans, overcut our forests, and overuse our grasslands. We know, but we don't care.
Information is not enough. In order to come to life in our minds, nature and ecosystems need context and cultural packaging. Nature needs story. Think of Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf. Nature needs art. Think of Allan Brooks' magnificent bird paintings. Nature needs music. Think of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Nature needs images, as in the photographs of Ansel Adams or the films of Godfrey Reggio. Nature needs pottery, poetry, architecture, fabric arts, and ornamental gardens. These cultural artifices contextualize, editorialize, and memorialize species, ecosystems and landscapes, and make them memorable to us. The artistic images persist long after the viewing or the reading or the listening.They hang in our minds and manifest at odd moments. They refer and they correlate. They link forward and backward in time. This to me is the genius and the core of Indigenous Peoples' Knowledge. Such data is all carried within the enfolding womb of story, ritual, and culture.
So what I propose is nothing short of outrageous: that the marginalized and underfunded Okanagan arts community becomes a cultural seamstress, repairing the gaping tear in our social fabric, reweaving nature and sense of place back into our culture. This is a large, but not an onerous task, for we have compelling materials to work with. Rattlesnake Island. Mission Creek. The Chopaka grasslands. McIntyre Bluffs. The aromatic marriage of ponderosa pine and big sagebrush. The silent flit of a downy woodpecker through the forest. Late sun glinting through a stand of bluebunch wheatgrass. Our faulted and tortuous valley geology.
We need to avoid the trap of artistic tokenism though, where art becomes subservient to business and the lackey of real estate. Funky wine labels and imported American plays and bronze eagles marking entry to the newest subdivision are not enough to anchor us in this Okanagan place. Certainly collaboration between business and the arts should be encouraged; but art must be local, and must be able to stand on its own.
Place is essentially a cultural construct, built up in our minds through stories, books, movies, and songs. Some regions have a very highly developed cultural sense of place, like the English countryside or the American South. The place-sense of other regions, like ours, is sketchy and needs more work.
I swim occasionally at the Penticton recreation centre. My idea of a good workout is half an hour in the pool's hot tub, followed by five minutes of doing laps, so I have a lot of time to look around. On a wall above the hot tub, a big, bright mural depicts a cute underwater scene with lobsters and treasure chests and sea monsters. Why couldn't that mural be a fanciful underwater scene drawn from the aquatic ecology of the Okanagan-Similkameen, with fierce tiger salamanders and friendly Chinooks and diving ouzels and dancing freshwater clams? Why is it that we are always so afraid to celebrate the local?
I'd like to think of myself as a member of this arts community I refer to, since I am a writer of obscure texts. Like all artists, I am subject to those days (weeks, sometimes) when nothing comes forth. No inspiration, no artistic output, nothing but galloping self-doubt. I have found the best remedy for this writer's block is a long walk in the woods or the grasslands. To remember that beauty. To see plants and animals and insects that are totally dissimilar from me, carrying on separate and complete lives totally disconnected from my own, and who, frankly, don't give a damn whether I live or die. For me, this is an artistically refreshing and renewing experience.
Whenever I drive to Kelowna in the summer, I look to see the painted turtles in a tiny pond adjacent to Highway 97, between Gorman Brothers and the Coquihalla turnoff. They are always there, basking on a log in spite of the thunderous traffic. They anchor me. They give me hope. Someday soon, I shall write a poem for them.
Don Gayton is an ecologist and writer, based in Summerland. His book Landscapes of the Interior won the U.S. National Outdoor Book Award. His new book Interwoven Wild: An Ecologist Loose in the Garden will be published by Thistedown Press in 2007.