The Sky and the Patio: An Ecology of Home
Review By Daisy Pullman
May 16, 2023
Don Gayton’s latest book, The Sky and the Patio explores the cultural ecology of the Okanagan Valley across twenty-five lively and conversational essays. Whether it is backyard wine cultivation, the history of tree ring science, or the environmental politics of golf, a wide range of ecological topics are brought to life with entertaining and informed personal reflections. While The Sky and the Patio is a profoundly local collection (only a couple of essays venture outside the Okanagan), Gayton wrestles with questions that are relevant throughout BC and beyond. How can individuals cultivate connection with place, particularly when living as settlers on stolen land? What does it mean to live sustainably? How can urbanization needs be reconciled with the protection of the natural environment? This last issue is particularly well illustrated through Gayton’s focus on the Okanagan Valley, an ecologically precious and sensitive region that is experiencing some of the most rapid population growth in Canada.
While this collection is not an academic text per se, it is deeply educational. Many of the essays draw upon Gayton’s expertise as an ecologist specializing in grasslands, but he never veers into scientific jargon. Clear explanations and the integration of personal, often humorous anecdotes (I particularly enjoyed reading about Gayton’s attempts to swim with turtles in Turtle Naivete) keep the essays accessible and engaging (153). The collection contains a wealth of information on the ecosystem of the region. As a relative newcomer to the Okanagan, I came away equipped with new species names like ponderosa pine and sagebrush, and a deepened awareness of and affection for this landscape.
Gayton is self-reflective regarding his position as a white settler on unceded Indigenous land and deftly interweaves discussions of Syilx history and culture throughout the collection. However, when it comes to considering his other privileges, he falls a little short. For example, Gayton opens the collection with a description of a leisurely evening on his patio. But a patio with a salmon dinner, a “fruity Okanagan Chardonnay,” and the time to read for pleasure is a real luxury and something that many in the Okanagan don’t have access to (11). Some reflection on the stark economic disparity in this area would have helped to offset the slightly too cozy impression given by some of the essays. Each of the essays is a reasonable length, however, twenty-five is a couple too many and the collection could have benefited from being trimmed down. While very interesting, several essays, including Chinook Wawa and The Pantheon of Dusty Heroes, feel out of place with the collection’s overarching themes and perhaps belong to another book (123; 169).
Essays such as Giving Nature a Voice which explores the history of nature writing, and Places of Attachment, which discusses not only the methods but the emotional dimensions of long-term ecological monitoring projects, would work well on the syllabus of many environmental studies courses (93; 113). Gayton’s writing is engaging and personable throughout, and The Sky and the Patio is a delightful read for anyone with a fondness for the Okanagan or an interest in place-based environmental writing.
Gayton, Don. The Sky and the Patio: An Ecology of Home. New Star Books: Vancouver, 2022. 219 pp. $18.00 paper.