The controversial Farley Mowat: His word has always been his sword
by L. Chrystal Dmitrovic
His writing career began five decades ago by raising an unpopular issue with the Canadian government. Since then, a number of his works over the years have been included for study in Canadian schools. He was invested as Member of the Order of Canada in the 1980's (one of our country's highest honours), awarded numerous Governor General's Awards, and has been presented with honorary degrees and accolades in recognition of his contributions to literature and humanitarianism.
In many ways, it's just as it was fifty years ago. Notorious for speaking his mind, Mowat continues to turn up in the news either propounding an issue or just being it. Despite charges in the media that some of his writings contain embellishments or fabrications, his literary and personal popularity remains high.
His books are topical, definitely not fence-sitters. Some deal with the environment, or various specifics of his life; others center on historical personalities and events. Most releases contain a measure of scientific observation. His most special talent, however, of earnestly weaving emotion and opinion into the facts to create powerful narrative, continues to invite and ignite readers to react - one way or the other.
The family tree has its share of legends. Great-great uncle Sir Oliver Mowat, once a student in the Ontario law office of Sir John A. Macdonald (Canada's future first Prime Minister),became a long-serving premier (1872-1896) of the province. Farley's librarian father, Angus, a WWI Vimy Ridge survivor, experienced minor success as the author of the novel Carrying Place.
With his father's encouragement, Mowat displayed early literary talent. An opportunity to share an evolving sympathetic affinity for animals arose when he began writing a nature column in a Saskatoon newspaper before entering his teens. Later, a skill for straightforward storytelling was honed during WW2 while on a tour of duty as volunteer private with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, an Ontario unit which saw front-line action during the Italian campaign.
In contrast to the anxious times, their exchanges were often humorous. Angus reminded how the young Farley had once mesmerized a door-to-door saleslady with a discourse on the prickly details of porcupine lovemaking. By return mail their son worked out rough sketches of what would one day become known as The Dog Who Wouldn't Be (1957), drawing on childhood recollections of one eccentric canine member of the menagerie the family accumulated no matter where they lived.
Mowat says about his predilection for animals, "I've always felt a truer kinship with, and an inclination to trust, the integrity of lower species rather than my own. My WW2 experiences tended to validate my early observances that whereas an animal would never betray its basic nature or its niche in the world, man could and readily did when the opportunity presented itself."
After a stint disarming and destroying enemy munitions at war's end, Mowat was decommissioned a decorated Captain and Intelligence Officer, and soon after earned a degree in biology from the University of Toronto. While in Saskatchewan's far north in 1946 as a scientific collector - shooting and killing bird specimens for museums - Mowat put down his gun. Realizing the brutal futility of killing in the name of "scientific destruction", he began to ponder his life in connection with that of the Earth's. Then, during field trips studying a variety of fauna in other northern Canada areas, he became aware of the hardships of vicinal Eskimo tribes, brought on by government attempts to assimilate them into the white man's culture. He came to the aid of one group, whose prime sustenance had been deer, supplying them with fishing nets courtesy of the Canadian government. The longer he remained in their company, however, the more apparent it became that the group's seemingly innate reluctance to adapt as members of a totally dissimilar culture would cause them to perish. A hundred years earlier they had numbered in the thousands, and had now dwindled to under 100. Mowat's repeated requests to the government for aid were all denied. Compelled to make their plight known, he drew from a journal in which he'd detailed the disappearing ways of their aboriginal hunting and gathering society, and shaped his reflections into an article, selling it to a magazine.
His first book soon followed. Championing that nearly-extinct population known as the Ihalmiut Eskimo, People of the Deer (1952), was published in the U.S. following repeated rejections by Canadian publishers. When the story of the Eskimos' sorry existence spread through the North American media, the Canadian Federal Government was finally forced to stop sweeping the problem under a parliamentary rug.
What the biologist-author had been emphatically stating about Canada's "Caribou Peoples"since the late 1940s was finally acknowledged, and for the first time Ottawa began shipments of raw meat and dry goods to those northern tribes it had previously denied existed. Mowat the activist was born, and the experience left a definite imprint. When asked today about the state of politics or politicians in general he has a succinct answer: "Abysmal. Their business-as-usual philosophy revolves around 'propaganda for commerce'."
And he doesn't hold back punches. He lists with gruesome candor, for example, statistics and techniques used to reap the fauna of this continent's Northeastern seaboard, as shown in a volume like Sea of Slaughter. Another book may present the reader with the gory details of the number and kind of parasites in a deer carcass. In complete contrast, he frequently backdrops observances with description of the surrounding geographical beauty. Canada North, for example, showcased a picturesque and fascinating Arctic -- drumlins and pingos, a photo tour of blooming spring poppies and rhododendron; interspersed among the graphic splendour is interesting trivia, such as the fact that true Eskimos rarely took baths.
Over the next weeks the episode escalated into a media circus bringing more worldwide attention to the author and his book(s) than he ever could have imagined. Supposed and half-truth statements in the press, on TV and radio on both sides of the border branded Mowat a "pinko" because of his travels to the USSR, and the possibility was raised of his being a terrorist due to a 1968 threat (published in the Ottawa Citizen) to fire his rifle at U.S. Strategic Air Command bombers carrying nuclear arsenal if they flew over his then residence in Newfoundland. When questioned by a reporter during the 1985 border incident if he had actually shot at any aircraft, Mowat replied, "...Do you think I'm mad? Why, suppose I'd brought one down! The consequent explosion would have eliminated half of Newfoundland."1 Mowat never made it south of the border, later referring to the venture as his "impossible journey".
As to whether Mowat harbours extremist views is a matter of opinion. While admitting that he and the common sports hunter have never seen eye to eye, he assents that a genuine need for hunting exists - he has personally killed to eat in order to survive - although sees few reasons for it in our modern concrete jungle cultures. "The only time you can justify it is when no other alternatives are available for food, shelter or clothing," he contends. "With economic times so bad, people are hunting for moose and deer to feed their families. That's understandable. And the wolf and whale aren't the only symbols of my concern. The spring bear hunt in the province of Ontario was an absolute abomination. I don't think Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun could have committed a worse atrocity. At that time of year, the female is just emerging with her cubs, and to take a mother bear, what kind of trophy is that?"
Zoos are another sore spot with him, feeling that wild animals should be allowed to exist in their primal environments with as little human interference as possible. The touting of ecologically friendly zoos, in his opinion, veils the reality that the new zoos are no better than the old. "In these 'new and improved' cages, animals still pace back and forth or exhibit bizarre behaviour," he says. "Surely enough programs on TV depict animals in their natural environments which can teach us far more effectively. What can possibly be learned from an animal that has had to adapt its behaviour and existence to a man-made milieu?"
He similarly distrusts some conservation/environmental organizations. Before supporting a group in word or wallet, he ensures it can prove they aid or protect in the best interest of the subject animal. A great concern is how little is really being done financially and internationally to protect habitat and species decline. "Unlike a lot of people, I've walked through the world with my eyes open," he says. "I truly see man and animal as one and the same - living things. How can you not have compassion? So many voices are saying 'We have to do this and this and this to save this animal or that environment' and it's all just talk. In this society it's becoming ever more apparent that man's arrogance keeps him from remedying the barbarities he's already committed."
Mowat remains passionate about many domestic and
international issues, though declares, "I've done my part,
and it's time the young fellas take the lead and carry the
torch. Today I strongly support the moral environmental
stand Captain Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society (SSCS) take against pirate whalers. He has
tirelessly and unselfishly tried to help other forms of life
on this planet survive. In that vein, I'll always oppose the
seal hunt, and like anyone else, I turn away if the newscast
becomes too graphic."
Although having built a strong reputation of his own through Greenpeace, and the SSCS now operating out of Malibu, it was another interest under the banner "Friends of the Wolf" which had caught Mowat's attention in 1984. Watson, who'd purposed to protect wolves in the Yukon and British Columbia, says, "Farley contacted me personally, and was truly supportive of our efforts. Although I always came up with my own strategies, I habitually bounced my ideas off him just to see what his opinion was." Since then, the two have worked together frequently in an association that extends beyond wolves. (While both seek to raise awareness about endangered species, Watson focuses primarily on the marine realm due to his particular skills with ships.)
Since the early 1990's Mowat has served as honourary International Director for the SSCS, and has been featured in the society's newsletter. He has a measure of input into the society's future directions. Extols Watson, "Farley, as one of Canada's most famous writers provides us with moral support in the way that he naturally lends credibility to the movement. It shows that we're not bizarre and can be taken seriously. He's also an incredibly creative person, and very flamboyant in expressing that creativity."
Mowat's being creative has brought the SSCS, which takes no conventional avenues toward self-promotion like direct-mail or media campaigns, a measure of public notice. It has largely been his magnetic power to draw the media which has increased awareness of the group and their mandate to be an organization that regards itself "interventionist" by actively seeking to uphold existing international conservation law against illegal activity.
That ability to attract attention has shown no signs of diminishing. In 1998, after Mowat boarded the Ocean Warrior in Sydney, Nova Scotia to join SSCS monitoring of the seal hunt, a gathering press followed. Watson picks up the story at the point of their arrival in the Gulf of St. Lawrence between P.E.I. and the Magdalen Islands, "The government put ice breakers on us. It must've cost them millions of dollars. We were in a 'no-take' zone, meaning, no sealing allowed. We had every legitimate right to be in the area. Then we took note of what looked like to be a small number of sealers getting ready to harvest, but there was no other evidence of hunters around. On closer inspection, Farley and I could see they were actually Mounties, posing as though they were going to shoot seals. We didn't fall for the trap."
With a history of the SSCS naming its vessels after naturalist authors (such as the Cleveland Amory), the Ocean Warrior was renamed the Farley Mowat in February 2002. Reflagging under Canadian registry in the Cayman Islands, Watson could think of no other name. (He'd also discovered that "Ocean Warrior" was the moniker of a British Columbia tug.) Before any official change, Watson called Mowat, and recalls, "I asked Farley if he'd mind that we name the ship after him, and he warned that it would likely get me into a lot of trouble! Neither of us knew of a boat ever having been named after him, but a search was conducted to ensure we had free legal right to use his name. It seemed appropriate to name a Canadian vessel after one of Canada's most internationally respected personalities. It's also fitting as the word 'Farley' means 'danger' in a Norse dialect, and that says something to our traditional enemies in illegal whaling, the Norwegians."
Uncontrolled world population growth, which the two men
view as a pernicious threat to the survival of all species,
is another topic they feel needs immediate address. Says
Watson, "Farley and I have a bio and ecocentric outlook as
opposed to an anthropocentric one, which most people have.
We continually discuss population issues. In 100 years at
present trends the world population will have exploded to 50
billion people. That's a physical impossibility; the Earth
can't support that kind of exponential growth. Farley
expressed it best when he said 'We're going to crash like
the yeasts under the weight of our own numbers.'
A Whale for the Killing was a two-and-a-half hour TV movie which starring actor Peter Strauss also felt perfectly represented his personal stand on whaling. In Mowat's opinion, "the productions themselves were quite good. While films never follow books to the letter, in this case they do follow along quite closely on parallel tracks. In both movies I feel that the intensity of the issues was captured effectively."
Never Cry Wolf in either medium has brought a peculiar notoriety. His daily mail is often littered with public school class letters referring to him as "that man who eats mice"; indeed, the book contained his own gourmet recipe "Souris à la Crême".
But mouse stew aside, Mowat's books have been regarded as political hot potatoes when published in the free world and non-democratic countries alike. The two aforementioned classics and Sea of Slaughter continue to create confrontational dividing lines between common citizen, environmental group and high government. When Never Cry Wolf was published in the then USSR (as Wolves! Please Don't Cry!), it launched unheard of before public debate in the still-communist regime, which led to that nation becoming the first in the world to pass legislation designating the wolf a protected species.
For Mowat, ideal humanity embraces man and beast and knows no geographical or political barriers, and he is a staunch defender of the enduring human spirit that prevails no matter what the country's political categorization. "Because these people have had a Communist past doesn't mean they can't feel deeply about social or environmental injustice," he says. "That, for example, the Chinese are so-called 'inscrutable' is bullshit. Do you think my books would have been published there if their society was as crushed down by the heel of dictatorship as claimed?"
On the personal front, Farley now 82 and a grandfather, has shared the past 39 years with second wife, Claire Wheeler, a graphic artist whom he met on the Isle of St. Pierre in Canada. (Mowat has two sons by first wife Fran.) A well-mannered black Lab-mix named Millie, adopted 12 years ago from an animal shelter, completes the family.
In private they are very normal people. Little things round out their lives. Mowat is a connoisseur of Earl Grey teas, and unwinds to soothing classical Romantic composers like Schubert and Ravel. Fully recovered from a mild stroke in the mid-1990's, he hasn't altered anything in his daily routines. A daily nap recharges him, and he admits, "I'm still a hearty meat eater who needs a lot of protein." Claire prefers baroque and cooks as a hobby, mainly fish dishes she perfected early in their marriage. Over a number of years she has worked at becoming fluent in the French language.
With two writers working out of their historic Port Hope, Ontario home and a Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia farm property, each has their own office and their pens don't cross. "We don't necessarily inspire each other,"Mowat explains , "but we're supportive of each other's talents and strengths. For each of us, the mystery of writing is simple. When it has to, it will flow out of you."
Never equating quality of talent with hardware
advancements, he prefers to use a manual Underwood
typewriter to put down his thoughts, and one hard-worked
dinosaur defying extinction proudly graces his desk.
Ethically, he will not produce a work solely because of
popular current interest. "There isn't a point where I know
a life experience, or an issue, is going to become a book. I
just start writing when I have something to say," he says.
"Even before writing was invented, we passed on stories from
one generation to the next; that's how we create history. I
pass on what I've lived and witnessed." He considers writing
to be his life inasmuch as also being his only hobby. He
won't name a favourite book he's written but admits, "Some
I'll read again, others I won't."
Sea of Slaughter was the first with Mowat, and Elliott realized during initial discussions that she was going to be working for a most original boss. She recalls his instructions about manuscript preparation:"Don't worry, it doesn't have to look like a bride going to her wedding", and "I can't spell - I hope you can." She was impressed soon enough with, as she says, "Farley's incredible word power. It has sent me scurrying for my dictionary with great regularity. I don't believe Canada has a more superb wordsmith."
Mowat's output to his publishers became "cleaner", and a change in his personal correspondence was also noticeable. Remarks Elliott, who in the early days worked on an electric typewriter making an original plus three carbon copies of manuscripts, "One correspondent commented on the sudden neatness, asking if Farley could have actually shed his Luddite tendencies. But I'm sure anyone who's received a letter that Farley has typed himself on one of his ancient Underwoods no doubt treasures it, complete with x-ings out, insertions between the lines, misspellings, typos and occasional hand-editing." Throughout the refining process on book or letter, she feels they are "a great working team", and reveals "Farley is always most considerate about workload, and even does all his own filing."
Not surprisingly, when Mowat was bestowed with a Toshiba laptop in 1990 for outstanding achievement in the environment field, it soon became Elliott's portable repository for the occasional extensive library research she conducts for the Mowats, her main employers. (Working what she refers to as "half-time" for the couple, she's also engaged as a copy editor by other authors, publishers and institutions.)
Over the years she's come to know him as a friend. "Farley, with his intelligence and unpretentious attitudes, can been outrageous, says Elliott. "He certainly doesn't suffer fools gladly, and doesn't miss a thing, yet he's swift to lend an ear and dispense sage advice. He adeptly cuts to the heart of any matter, assesses facts, then acts on his decisions. He's organized and self-disciplined personally and professionally. Yet, I don't think he'd quite know what to do with himself if he couldn't write about what is most important to him in the world."
But does she know the real Farley Mowat, the one who once said about himself, "I had my persona for many years...carried it in front of me like a cardboard cutout: the feisty Scotsman who liked to flip up his skirts in public...My persona was my protective shield."2 Elliott concurs, adding, "He created 'Cardboard Farley', an outrageous character who stood between the real man and the public at large, keeping them at bay. It's as if he were compelled to provide the public with what he thinks they want. People who don't know him, and even some who do, are sometimes unsure of how to respond, so they usually back off. But if you really knew Farley, and if it were possible to sum him up in one word, it might be concerned - about both the individual and the animate world."
She has always felt accepted as a member of the Mowat
family, and has visited them on vacation at their
92-year-old River Bourgeois farmhouse on Cape Breton Island.
Having known them as long as she has, Elliott observes,
"Claire is his closest support system, and is also his
sounding board when he wants to explore his ideas."
The Mowats are especially vocal in their winter residence community of Port Hope, situated on Lake Ontario. It's almost ironic that the couple has lived 31 years less than a mile from a harbour - even once docking a boat there - whose bottom is layered with industry-generated radioactive material. For years Mowat has proposed the necessity of closing off boat traffic and building an impenetrable barrier to prevent further disturbing the contaminated sediment. He finds it appalling that political and business interests are looking to expand a hazardous waste facility in the vicinity of the lake to store low-level radioactive waste in underground caverns.
They also jump into the fray on everyday issues such as health care. As members of a local group that opposed the closure of a local hospital, they couldn't believe it, given all the years of community support and dollars the old hospital received. Mowat regarded the situation as "a put-up job by politicians."
Even so, Mowat chooses to reside in southeastern Ontario. Born in Belleville, he'd also lived in many other locales across Canada due to his father's occupation as a roving librarian. A holiday cottage near Brighton also holds fond memories. Passed on to him unimproved, the summer place boasted a well, not much electricity and "the little house out back". "But I must destroy the myth of a wall signed by famous people," he says. "Not true at all. There was a door my parents and I wrote personal things on. Claire and I later entertained there." When the couple wanted to simplify their lives, the cottage was sold. (Owning as many as five properties at a time was another way of investing for retirement.)
He has felt an intrinsic spiritual connection and identifies his lineage with albeit reputedly opportunistic clans of the ancient British Isles and Scandinavia. Farfarers delved into deciphering mysteries left behind in the East Coast gravel by such bygone travelers. Declares Mowat, "Initial pre-Viking journeys to our eastern coastline thirty-five centuries before Columbus were motivated by simple exploration and mere survival. Then they discovered commerce, that they could kill something and sell it to someone else. Much of the sought after prize was walrus ivory. Then the Vikings who centuries later happened on the northeast coast followed much the same historical pattern of survival and primitive commerce."
So it is that Mowat identifies and documents historical patterns he feels made the modern world and which now threaten to destroy it. His conscience and respect for all life have been the vantage points from which he assayed his surroundings, although sometimes his subsequent analysis and surmise was outside accepted thought. In speaking for all the Earth, he has been an authentic warrior-adventurer whose sword-in-print has challenged people to change their thinking.
Over the decades, he has faithfully barometered man's evolution socially, historically and environmentally as a palette of diverse humanity interacting with various peculiar and majestic habitats and indigenous species. Currently at work on his 39th book (his 38th, High Latitudes, was recently released), it's obvious Farley Mowat hasn't finished telling us how and why we should make things right in our boat in the universe. It certainly appears that many issues will continue to be raised by this compassionate storyteller who, alone or shoulder-to-shoulder with compeers, caught our ear with the music from an old typewriter.
(A biography by Canadian author James King, succinctly
called Farley, was recently released by Key Porter
2 Alexander Bruce, "The Mowat That Roared," Harrowsmith (Volume XVIII, Number 114, March 1994) p.41.