Farley’s Last Words

by Ray Grigg

When Farley Mowat died on May 6, 2014, at age 92, his incessant flow of writing stopped, words about him shifted from the present to the past tense, and an examination of his life and influence began. But some conclusions were immediately obvious. There was only one Farley — mention Farley anywhere across Canada and it had to mean Farley Mowat. He was also one of the world’s first eco-warriors. And, as a writer, he will probably have the last word because of the enduring character of print — 17 million copies of 44 books translated into dozens of languages will ensure that the echo of his presence will influence many others well into the future.

Nature writer and advocate of “the 99.9% that is not us” Farley Mowat, b. 1921 d. May 06, 2014.

For a man who seemed so overt and uninhibited, the deeper Farley was, in many ways, a private person. But we get clear glimpses of his thoughts, feelings and commitments. At 13 he was already writing about nature, had started a magazine called Nature Lore, and as a young teen was publishing a nature column in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix — he used the $5.00 per column to buy feed for starving geese and ducks. Nature and writing were the two passions of his life.

The other formidable experience in his life was war. Like his father who had been indelibly scarred by the First World War, Farley’s perspective of humanity was forged by the five years he spent as a Canadian soldier fighting his way northward through Italy during the Second World War. “I came back from the war rejecting my species,” he said. “I hated what had been done to me and what I had done and what man did to man.” After the war and a university education, he immersed himself in the Canadian North where he wrote about the wilderness, wild species and aboriginal people uncontaminated by civilization. This long therapeutic session focused and clarified his attitude about humanity. “We are a bad animal,” he confided, “— a really bad animal.” In Never Cry Wolf he wrote, “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be — the mythological epitome of a savage, ruthless killer — which is, in reality, no more than the reflected image of ourself.” He has described us as “an evolutionary mistake” and “a dangerous abomination.” So, for the rest of his life, he said, “I transferred my allegiance to the other — the 99.9 percent of life that is not us.”

And the more he learned of nature, the less he thought of humanity. He frequently warned that we must learn to live in harmony with the natural world or we perish. “It’s a matter of survival,” he declared. “Either we learn to do this, or we cease to exist. We have no God-given right to survive forever. We have screwed up so badly in so many ways so obviously that only an utterly stupid species would consider that we have much of a future, as things stand. Only by recognizing how far off-track we’ve gone, are we likely to be able to recover our footing and carry on.”

For his own survival as a wild, shy and private animal illuminated in the headlights of fame, Farley invented a persona. In his later years, he candidly described a conversation he had with his publisher, Jack McClelland: “I think we were having one of our liquid lunches, and we reeled back toward the office. Jack said, ‘You have to present an image.’ So I listened and I worked out my image: a kilt-wearing, swaggering, mooning, drinking Farley Mowat. It was always a cardboard cutout, and it was very useful. I could carry it in front of me, and be my own self behind it. I don’t need it any more.”

Age has a way of dissolving the persona of cardboard cutouts. And the authentic Farley became clearer as he aged. At 92, with millions of books sold and a solid reputation as an prescient environmentalist, he had no legitimate rationale for maintaining an artificial image. His energy, vitality, irreverence, mischeviousness and incisive opinions were even more sharply expressed with the passing of years. As Shelagh Rogers of CBC radio confided when interviewing Farley, “I never knew what I was in for.” These encounters with the media in his later life are full of deep insights as he continually contrasted nature’s wisdom with humanity’s folly. “Our tragedy is our loss of animality.” In his judgment, “We’re under some gross misconception that we’re a good species, going somewhere important, and that at the last minute we’ll correct our errors and God will smile on us. It’s delusion.”

Facts, too, were delusions for Farley. “Most people are wedded to the idea that facts are truth. Don’t trust people who say they have the facts.” From Farley’s perspective, facts are the instruments used to exploit nature and manoeuvre ourselves farther from the very foundation of our being. “Nature,” he pronounced, “is life.” The only credible fact is nature’s wisdom; everything else is our deviousness. So, ever true to his animal nature, he declared that, “I am what I feel I am. Knowledge comes to me through feeling.”

His feeling for the future was not so much bleak as biological. He pronounced us “an evanescent species”. In the unfolding of nature, “Our own species will disappear,” he concluded. “Every species is born to die. Nothing ends. It’s all one continuous flow.”

As for his 92 years in this “continuous flow” — 79 years as an eco-warrior — he deemed his life’s work to be ineffective. “I could honestly say I’ve fought the good fight,” he concluded shortly before his death. “But 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.”

But he has, of course. The world would be a less conscious place had Farley not been here. Granted, he couldn’t alter human nature — history is the process of defining what that might be — but he was, if nothing else, a hopeful part of it.