Man Facing West
by Don Gayton (Colombia 1966-68)
Reviewed by Tom Hebert (Nigeria 1962-64)
Don Gayton, or anyone who has lived on the Seattle — or west — side of the Cascade Mountains, speaks of the vast, often high, mostly dry Columbia plateau — that is the remainder of Washington — as “East of the Mountains.”
Real Washingtonians — not the usual run of umbrella Seattleites — also speak of the Columbia plateau as “the Okanogan.” This large farming and ranching region east of the mountains brims with wheat and meat, with a river that flows south to the Columbia, a valley, a plateau, sometimes a lake, huge irrigated apple orchards — now laced with vineyards, a geographic assembly that runs headlong into Canada’s central British Columbia where there is a spelling change at the 49° parallel, switching from the American Okanogan to Canada’s Okanagan. It is truly grand country.
As a kid, Gayton lived in both Pasadena and Seattle, later served in the Peace Corps in Colombia and then resisted the Vietnam War, and has for most of his adult life lived in the Okanagan.
This collection of 29 stories, Man Facing West, tells of his early life, the Peace Corps, cow college and pushing cows, government extension adventures, personal and family history, serious grassland ecology, hard science, null hypotheses, and recovered aboriginal memory. He is a man who happily sits in his chair and studies plant and animal distribution maps, making overlays that reveal the complex ecology of a large region of North America, a place he probably knows better, in more planes, vortexes, and lattices, than anyone.
Gayton writes in the Prologue about his fifty-year journey from American Vietnam war resister to an impassioned worker in rural development who “morphed again into an all-consuming bond to landscapes. . . . As they range from verdant to arid, youthful to ancient, honored to mistreated, so do I.”
But with both the publisher and the author, there seems to be some confusion about the nature of this book. In a press release, the publisher claims that it is a “short-fiction collection.” In the Prologue, Gayton claims this, his latest book, is neither memoir nor autobiography, but just stories about “politics, development or ecology.”
While there is deliberate fiction in the book, it mostly is a book of lively essays about his land and what it takes to know it. He begins with a tiny but truly scary true story about why and how his Cubmaster drummed him out of the Wolf Den’s ceremonial Circle. Then Gayton goes on to add both memoir and more autobiography. He does what he promised, that is, in this mix of forms, he achieves a kind of “literary catch and release, for which you do not need a license.”
Learning to write in Seattle from a renegade high school journalism teacher, he writes of another “could-have-been crippling 1963 encounter” with a high school counselor after Gayton came to school without socks.
There is a long piece about a wide-ranging, but mystery, prairie grass entitled, “Little Bluestem and the Geography of Fascination.” How can a reader not keep on reading? In another story, he joins the Peace Corps which had room for an “aimless twenty-year-old with some agricultural background and an admirer of Kennedy.” Gayton became the training program troublemaker, but in-country, he landed on his feet in a small upriver town where, after developing Small Farming Gardening projects of dubious utility, he learned in spades two lessons PCVs in extension-type work should learn: First, do your homework — learn the local knowledge before you get going, and second, understand that most locals are indulging your fantasies of being helpful and that the best curative is to put your beer down and laugh at yourself until your stomach hurts.
Next comes a road trip adventure with his father who Gayton hadn’t seen for several years. They seek out their Nova Scotian roots, discovering in them an almost forgotten ship building industry, a farming community that wore out the land, and the lost Thomas Gayton, a sailor who died in 1858. The Gayton family name is actually remembered by a lobsterman on a dock who knew they were distant cousins. But mostly in this story Gayton and his father discover one anther after a separation caused by Don’s resistance to the Vietnam War.
“Gliding in the Pleistocene” is a 40-page fictional love story that actively shapeshifts through quantum’s space-time and string theory’s multi-dimensional manifolds. We begin this journey with the sentence, “Visitor has been with us for a whole season now, and he is still a mystery.” Visitor and the narrator have newly arrived 12,000 years ago from Asia to this continent as the retreating Wisconsin Glaciation opened up the Bering Land Bridge to foot traffic. Visitor goes out at night to hunt saber-toothed tigers. He brings home the head, minus a tooth. We learn about killing mammoths. Then a shadow passes over. Meanwhile, Cochrane, a tired museum curator, gets ready for another glider training flight. While he flies we learn about glider skills and mechanics, about thermals, about studying the land slowly from on high. Then cut back to BC and more mysteries. Then back to Cochrane’s office when a lovely but previously quiet intern walks into the story, telling him about a prehistoric aboriginal “rock effigy” she firmly believes she has found in a farmer’s field. Then he is back in his glider when he flies into a strange cloud formation and looks down and sees . . . Visitor.
My only fault with Gayton’s book — beyond the burnt wrecked car on a sere desert floor on the jacket cover — is that it contained no maps. For this kind of book the reader needs a map. I suspect the author is moving out of geography and memoir and autobiography now. I bet he’s working on a novel.
Still he makes his living as a “grassland ecologist” and a writer and writer-in-residence — supporting a really large family — after his Peace Corps service in Colombia and a stint as a hired hand on an eastern Washington cattle ranch, Gayton began his official Canadian career as an agricultural extension agent in rural Saskatchewan, working mostly with First Nation (Indian) farmers.
He sums up this work with, “I did truly love extension, and was grateful for having stumbled onto the profession: the conveying of appropriate technical information; the honouring of experiential knowledge; the edge of social justice; the delicious reciprocity; the Jeffersonian conviction of the value of rural people and rural life; the notion that if you are really proficient at extension, at providing people with not only good information but good sources of information, you’ve successfully worked yourself out of a job.”
And with that, I guess, I’ve worked myself out of this review.
Tom Hebert is a writer and consultant living on the Confederated Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon. Known on the reservation as “the Indian horse guy,” for the past decade he has been an Earth Team Volunteer for the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and Tiichám, the tribal conservation district. Hebert was recently commended for “extraordinary, sustained, imaginative, timely, and transformative volunteer efforts.” For the same work some Indians recently spiked a tire. As a self-described thorn in the side of every bureaucracy he has ever worked in, including the Peace Corps, Don Gayton would understand.
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