To Canadian Author Farley Mowat, the Place Where No Birds Sang Was a Chilling Wasteland
Unlike most of Mowat's other works, No Birds is not a paean to nature or creatures living beyond the perimeter of civilization. It is a grim account of the 58-year-old author's World War II experiences in the Canadian infantry. As a foot soldier, Captain Mowat crawled up Italy's spine in one of the bloodiest, longest campaigns of the war. Yet No Birds is far more than a battle memoir: It explains the origins of Mowat's misanthropy. "I came back from the war rejecting my species," he says. "I hated what had been done to me and what I had done and what man did to man."
A year after his discharge in 1946, Mowat took a job in the Barren Lands of Canada's Northwest Territory as a government biologist to study wolves. For months he subsisted on their diet of mice and raw, parasite-infested caribou. While roaming the tundra, he was befriended by the People of the Deer, an Eskimo tribe. Soon Farley was firing off diatribes to the government about its mistreatment of the Eskimos. He was quickly sacked. To publicize the tribe's plight, he turned to writing and found his life's work.
When People of the Deer was published in 1951, Mowat was branded a liar by a cabinet minister during a stormy debate in parliament, but the controversy rocketed him to fame. He has been a crusader ever since—on behalf of whales, seals and primitive peoples. But Mowat's doom saying is relieved by wryness and wit. Readers grow so fond of his subjects that their well-being often becomes a national cause. In 1969 a translation of Never Cry Wolf, an engaging account of the animal's habits, appeared in Russia with the odd title Wolves! Please Don't Cry! In short order, the government banned the slaughter of wolves that had been encouraged for decades in the belief they were wanton killers. The film version of Never Cry Wolf, written by Jay Presson Allen and directed by Carroll (The Black Stallion) Ballard, will go before the cameras this spring.
Throughout his life Mowat has turned to animals when his fellowmen fail him. "I look at groundhogs and feel very friendly," he explains. "They don't ask anything of me. I am not at ease within civilization. Everything outrages me that outrages nature—and most of what modern man does outrages nature. I sorrow for this species which is making itself alien on its own planet. If we finish up in a caldron of disaster, there's some slim hope a few survivors will emerge cleansed of mankind's destructive madness."
Artist David Blackwood, who illustrated Mowat's Wake of the Great Sealers, discounts the author's pessimism. "He constantly yearns for isolation," Blackwood says, "and yet can't exist without people. He thrives on an audience, preferably one that listens and doesn't argue."
Though Mowat is his country's best-known and best-selling author, he has been disdained by members of Canada's literary Establishment. "They have decided what is valid writing and what is not," he snaps. "They've drawn the line so close to their backsides that people like me are automatically excluded." Mowat has no intellectual pretensions and, worse, a raucous public image. His most celebrated dido occurred 10 years ago at the prestigious Stephen Leacock dinner. He showed up in his Sutherland kilt (the Mowats are an offshoot of the clan) to receive the humor prize for The Boat Who Wouldn't Float, a yarn about the leaky schooner he owned. Rum soon had Farley buoyant. "He began dancing on tabletops," a friend recalls, "and then flipped his kilt. Nothing was underneath. It wasn't the first time he'd done that sort of thing. But anybody who knows anything about Farley Mowat remembers that."
His tippling has made the ginger-bearded writer a folk hero from the outports of Newfoundland to the remote settlements of Keewatin. He has terrorized bureaucrats, disrupted television tapings and once invaded the home of a network executive at 3 a.m., insisting on drink and women. Canadian writer Silver Cameron calls his friend "the Only Living Farley Mowat in Captivity and—emphatically—Not Housebroken."
Mowat figures his unruly conduct is consistent with his origins, being as he "was conceived in a green canoe on the Bay of Quinte and born in a taxi between Trenton and Belleville, Ontario." His eccentricity may be traceable to conflicting role models in his parents, Angus and Helen Mowat. Descended from a long line of bankers and clergymen, Helen, now 84, was a bulwark of rectitude who attempted to instill some piety in her only child. "She tried to get me to attend church," Farley says, "but I learned how to make really noisy, high-pitched farts that mortified her." Angus, with an arm rendered useless by a World War I wound, tried beekeeping briefly before becoming a librarian in Trenton. He moved on to successively higher-paying jobs in Belleville, Windsor, Saskatoon and Toronto, where he was appointed director of public libraries for the province. An avid sailor, hunter, builder and aspiring novelist, Angus was also a passionate womanizer. "Father made love to all of the unattached and some attached librarians in Ontario at one time or another," Farley claims. "My mother put up with it until he fell in love with a woman 30 years younger and ran off with her when he was 72." Angus died two years ago at 84.
As a child Farley read in his father's various libraries and studied bird life on the prairies. At 13, he became "publisher" of a mimeographed magazine called Nature Lore. Soon he parlayed his bird-watching and writing into a weekly column for the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix at $5 an article. "I was always an outsider in the schools because we moved so much," he says. "I wasn't born into any of those places, I just appeared one day. I was underdeveloped and looked even younger, so I became a very solitary little bugger. One of the antidotes for solitude is writing."
After high school Mowat joined the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, nicknamed the "Hasty Pees." He used his letters and journals from that period to recapture the pain and fear that makes the book And No Birds Sang so immediate and vivid. Incongruously, it was on the battlefield that Mowat wrote his earliest and funniest book, about his boyhood companion, a stubbornly eccentric dog named Mutt. "Sitting in an armored vehicle waiting for the shells to burst around me, I went back to the only safe place in my mind—my childhood," he remembers. "And I began to write The Dog Who Wouldn't Be. It was my escape, and it saved my bloody life." (In 1957 Mowat dug out the manuscript, polished and published it.)
To qualify for a $60-a-month veterans' educational stipend after the war, Farley enrolled at the University of Toronto but immediately disappeared into the Arctic. He returned often enough to meet and marry his first wife, Frances Thornhill, in 1947 and to earn his B.A. in 1949. They built a five-room log house on 10 acres north of Toronto and he began to write in earnest after the Saturday Evening Post paid him the encouraging sum of $750 for his first story.
He and Frances had a son, Robert, now a 26-year-old radio sportscaster, and adopted another, David, now a 22-year-old oil field worker. The couple separated in 1959. Mowat met his present wife, Claire Wheeler, 47, the following year in St.-Pierre, the bleak French island off Newfoundland, when she strolled to the dock for a look at his creaky schooner. An amateur photographer and occasional writer, Claire has filled albums and journals with memories of their travels throughout Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Russia, Bulgaria, Italy and northern Europe. "The Siberians was written almost entirely from Claire's journals," Mowat says. "I have no compunctions about it, I steal from her. But I pay her a good salary for it—which she spends on gigolos," he adds jokingly. (Claire owns one-third of the incorporated Mowat.)
More sedentary these days, the Mowats divide their year between a 150-acre farm in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and a sunny, nine-room house in Port Hope, Ontario. In a small, rather stark room in a house he owns across the way, Mowat remains tethered from December to March to his aging Underwood, which "waits patiently and silently like an old dog for a pat on the head," he says fondly.
"I prepare myself to write with great distress," he continues. "The process is purely subconscious. I can't program what I want to write. There's a wall between my conscious and subconscious, and I have to wait until a little trapdoor opens. What comes out is something over which I have no control. I can use it, manipulate it and shape it, but I can't consciously control it." Mowat categorizes most of his books as subjective nonfiction—"I invented the genre 20 years before Truman Capote came along," he says.
He refuses to take advances on his books and lives modestly, driving a Volvo station wagon to accommodate his three water dogs, descended from a rare Newfoundland breed. He seldom eats out or sees a movie. "I'm frightened by the prospect of being spoiled by wealth," he explains. "I don't want to know how much I have because then I'll become defensive." He insists the comfortable domesticity of his life makes him feel encrusted by possessions, and he wouldn't blink if everything and everyone—except his wife—disappeared tomorrow. "Claire is the one thing I fear to lose," he says. "Cancer, radioactivity, all the things that destroy the flesh are nothing compared to aloneness."
Jack McClelland, Mowat's Toronto publisher (Atlantic-Little, Brown brought out No Birds in the U.S.), considers Farley "the most important Canadian author who has ever lived, because of the success and durability of his books." But Mowat demurs: "In the end, my crusades have accomplished nothing. I haven't saved the wolf, the whales, the seals, primitive man or the outport people. All I've done is to document the suicidal tendencies of modern man. I'm sure I haven't altered the course of human events one iota. Things will change inevitably, but it's strictly a matter of the lottery of fate. It has nothing to do with man's intentions."
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