Farley Mowat and Me

As has been widely reported in Canada (here, for example) and even in the US (NY Times obituary here), the author and conservationist Farley Mowat has died at the age of 92.

I admit I hadn’t realized he was still alive. But the news made me sad. I’ve had many literary heroes in my lifetime, many of them much more important to the person I am today than Mowat. But he was the first, the first writer I loved more as a presence (and, in his case, a conscience) thank as a mere name attached to whatever book I happened to be reading.

I believe it was my mother’s friend Thea, a kind of surrogate mother to me in my early childhood, who first gave me one of his books, Never Cry Wolf (1963) the story of Mowat’s time in the “barren lands” of Northern Manitoba in 1948-9, where he was charged by a governmental agency to investigate the unexplained disappearance of the caribou population.

As a child I loved wolves, all animals really, but wolves especially. I’m not sure if that love predated my reading the book, and that’s why she gave it to me, or if it was reading this book that made me love them. At any rate, I read it many times, and what sticks with me most is what sticks with most people about it: Mowat eating mice to see what they were like, since they made up the bulk of the wolves diets. This fact puzzled Mowat—how could such large creatures live off of such tiny ones?—but more than mere curiosity was at stake. If wolves lived almost entirely off mice, they weren’t the ones responsible for the decline of the caribou. Mowat’s conclusion that wolves were not to be feared and exterminated was a minority opinion at the time, though it is accepted wisdom among scientists today.

Wolves were good animals for me to love. They were underdogs, a position that has always appealed to me. They were beautiful and smart. And they were remote from my daily life; even growing up in Western Canada, where wildlife was a part of life, I never saw a wolf in the wild. Wolves were something to think or dream about, not something to have to reckon with.

That suited me because my interest in animals—which lasted a long time; for many years I wanted nothing more than to be a zookeeper when I grew up—had one particularly strange aspect. I did not actually like animals very much. My father forbade animals in our house, and it wasn’t until my sister and I were teenagers that she circumvented (by which I mean simply ignored) his interdiction by bringing a cat home one day. (It seems fitting that it was father who gave me, a little later in my childhood, a book that would prove even more important to me than Mowat’s, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which was as much about people as about animals.) You might think that the absence of any real animals in my life would make me all the more eager for contact with them. But I don’t think so. Instead, that absence allowed me to love animals in the abstract. I was never one of those children who mucked about in woods or fields or swamps with specimen jars. I did not ride horses and volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary (not that children volunteered in those days; we didn’t have to do nearly as much as children do today, thank God).

Truth be told, animals kind of freaked me out. (In retrospect this seems quite a reasonable response to the otherness of animals—a sentiment Mowat would certainly not have shared, since his lonely childhood was spent largely in their company, and he thought of them as friends.) I liked my animals in the zoo, or seen from the car in the mountains where my family spent most of our weekends. The detachment of the zoo-going experience—me watching them through the glass or bars, or, increasingly, as this was the 70s and ideas about zoos were changing, over a moat—suited me just fine.

There was something hopeless and false about my passion for animals, which was, it seems to me now, really a blind for a more genuine passion, one that still drives me today, to know about things, to achieve mastery through knowledge. If I am honest, I think it was mostly a way for me to accumulate books about animals. Accumulating books on whatever subject matter rules my current fancy has been my greatest life-long passion.

At any rate, I liked Never Cry Wolf a lot. I can still picture my edition, the cheap white Seal paperback with the photo of the wolf on the cover. Many years later, when I taught my first self-designed course in graduate school—a course on foundlings and feral children—I called the course “Never Cry Wolf” in private homage to Mowat, even though his book or its ideas had almost nothing to do with the course.

I was a very serious and dutiful little boy, as you can imagine, and so I read most of Mowat’s other books about what we would today call environmental topics, including the controversial People of the Deer (1952), a study of the Ihalmiut people of the border between Manitoba and what is now Nunavut, and their starvation and suffering as the caribou population dwindled. I remember getting its sort-of sequel, The Desperate People, as a birthday present when I was probably about eight or nine. My best friend David Wilson, brash, a bit of a wag, looked at the picture on the cover of Inuit people in a stark northern landscape and said, “Of course they were desperate, they didn’t have any bathrooms!” Part of me thought that was hilarious and part of me thought it was disrespectful. These were serious books about serious matters. I didn’t know that the books had been controversial, had been derided at by some at the time of publication (Mowat was called “Hardly Know-It” by Northern Hands). Nor could I have known they would be savagely debunked in the 1990s by an investigative journalist who argued that Mowat didn’t know what he was talking about, hadn’t seen most of the things he described, had seriously overstated his experiences.

Mowat defended himself by distinguishing stentoriously between facts and truth. That seems to me both tendentious and appropriate, but what mattered to me at the time, and even perhaps now, was the sense I first got, as a young liberal in training, of a cause that one could feel sentimentally and self-righteously exercised over. (In this regard, these seem to me very Canadian books.)

No matter how badly I felt about the Inuit and the caribou and the natural world in general—I once wrote a letter to the Premier of Alberta protesting a planned hydro-electric plant that threatened the nesting grounds of whooping cranes, a letter that got a patronizing reply devastatingly, to my insecure self, addressed to Miss Stuber—I read these books of Mowat’s more from duty than from love. And in my defense, if one is needed, they were hard books for an eight year old. But Mowat wrote lots of other books, for children or at least about children, and those were the ones I loved and read over and over. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, The Boat that Wouldn’t Float (strange, the intransigent refusals of these titles), A Family of Owls, The Black Joke: I enjoyed them all.

But there were two books that I returned to again and again until they became a part of me. These were Lost in the Barrens (1956) and, most importantly, because I actually owned it, its sequel, the deliciously named The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966). These were adventure stories, again set in that Northern Manitoba tundra landscape so formative in Mowat’s life. They featured three boys, an orphaned white (Jamie McNair, who lives with his uncle Angus, a trapper—ah those Scots names!), a Cree Indian (Awasin) and an Eskimo (Peetyuk). (We called them Eskimo back then.) I learned a lot from those books: how easy it is to tire yourself out walking through the snow (always go single file, so the second person can follow in the first one’s tracks, and be sure to trade places regularly); how dangerous it is to walk through snow all day on a sunny day (you’ll get snow blindness, the description of which I remember to this day, like fine sand ground into the eyes, although you can try to avoid by making glasses from strips of birch bark with slits cut into them). Without making a big deal of it, these books, I now observe, were strikingly inter- or multi-cultural. Mostly they were exciting as all hell and I never tired of them

Thinking about these books today, so many years later, I see that they helped me, a child of immigrant parents, solidify my identity as a first-generation Canadian. In a sense, Canadian identity was born in the 1970s by various initiatives of the Trudeau government; part of that developing identity lay in acknowledging and generating a profound, if problematic because sentimental, interest in the North. (Previously it has been either ignored as meaningless or valued only as an empty space from which to extract resources—a view lamentably still prevalent, with deadly consequences for the people and creatures that live there.)

I didn’t think about any of this at the time. Nor did I read only books by Farley Mowat. I read pretty voraciously, and loved all kinds of books. I had many deep readerly loves, like Gerald Durrell, L. M. Montgomery, Arthur Ransom, and, a bit later, P. G. Wodehouse. But Mowat was the first, and so meant a lot to me, even though he would probably have despaired of me.

 

For a long time I would get up very early on Saturday mornings and read in bed while the house was quiet. (Now that I have a small child, I think what a wonderful gift I gave to my parents. I can hardly wait until my daughter can entertain herself that way.) I remember shaking off my sleepiness, plunging into my book, having long unadulterated stretches of time entirely to myself with no other purpose than to create myself. However fraught or wrongheaded or sketchy Mowat’s ideas and practices—but if he’s remembered at all, it will be as a prescient figure, as one who saw early on that human beings cannot be understood apart from the environment that surrounds them and of which they are a part, and not the most important—I will always remember fondly both him and the gifts he unknowingly gave that slight, reserved boy alone in his bedroom.

I wonder who will be my daughter’s Mowat, that first role model she’ll stumble across who will have nothing to do with me.

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