1995 Margaret Laurence Lecture

Mowt_Farley


"A Writer's Life"
By Farley Mowat

It’s a pleasure to be here, if only because I hold Margaret Laurence in great affection and regard, and am happy to do what I can to help keep her memory green.

Her feelings about me at the beginning of our long friendship were somewhat ambivalent. In a letter to Al Purdy written in 1971, she expressed her reservations about me thusly:

Dear Al: Got your letter of April 20 a few days ago. Farley sounds in good form. I think you know that when I first met him, I thought he was a slob, but now, over the years, have changed my mind and find I really like him, although still somewhat on guard with him (except that well-remembered occasion at your place when Farley and I sobbed on each other’s shoulders, revealing drunkenly to each other how inadequate we felt in various areas of our lives. Ah, well . . .).

Ah, well, indeed. One of the things that bothered Margaret was the arbitrary classification of writers into those who write plays, verse, and fiction, as opposed to those who write what is dismissively called non- fiction. Margaret thought this was damned nonsense. Worse, it seemed to her to be a kind of literary apartheid whereby non-fiction writers were placed outside the pale, becoming literary non-persons.

Well, tonight I find myself – one of those literary non-persons – at the sanctified head table, even if only by default. And I’m going to take advantage of my temporary elevation to the godhead to issue a ukase in the name of Margaret Laurence, one which I sternly adjure you to accept and obey.

From now on, that invidious characterization, non-fiction writer, will no longer be tolerated. From now on, its use will constitute a most serious and unforgivable breach of Political Rectitude. From now on, there will only be three categories of writers: playwrights, poets, and prose writers. The triple P. Long separated by arbitrary class distinctions, all prose writers will henceforth be united under one banner. I decree this in Margaret Laurence’s name, and solemnly warn the world that her wishes in this regard are not to be ignored. The lady remains as capable as ever she was of dealing with transgressors.

Proof of her continuing ability to influence mundane affairs is not far to seek. Until last year, this prestigious lecture had always been delivered by one of the literary anointed, a novelist, poet, or playwright. No literary nonperson had ever been invited to present it. It became apparent to Margaret that none ever would be invited. So she intervened. Last year, the lecture was to have been given by the illustrious poet Irving Layton. Alas, failing health prevented him from doing so. A substitute had to be found in a crashing hurry, and the only one who could and would take on the task was Pierre Berton – a man who stands in the very van of non-person writers.

An isolated incident? An accident of fate? I think not! Tonight, the revered novelist Robertson Davies was to have entertained and enlightened you. But scant days before the event he, too, was forced by ill health to withdraw. And who was the only pinch hitter available to fill the void? Non-person writer me!

I hope that those entrusted with the selection of future Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecturers have got the message. And I take this occasion to add an injunction of my own. Do not wait until the “senior writer” of your choice has become too senior. Such a course demonstrably has its perils. I suggest that henceforward you hedge your bets and give some of the young farts a chance.

And now I come to the subject upon which I am being paid to expound: my life as a writer.

I am a storyteller in, I hope, the ancient tradition of the saga man. That tradition is deeply implanted in my genes. My father was a storyteller par excellence. An example of his ability is his account of how I took my genesis. I have preserved it in my recent book, Born Naked. And do not look at me askance. If I can’t read from my own work on an occasion such as this, and if I can’t use such an occasion to promote said work, then the hell with it.

On a cloudless August day in 1950 my father boarded a Trans-Canada DC-3 at Toronto’s Malton Airport. The airplane was eastbound for Montreal on a course which would take it not too high above the northern shore of Lake Ontario.

Angus Mowat was always an excitable man. On this occasion he was stimulated to effervescence. Not only was this his very first “aerial voyage,” it would carry him over a coast with which he had been familiar as a smallboat sailor through most of his life.

Puffing furiously on a hand-rolled cigarette, he peered raptly through the porthole. The world of his younger years unrolled below him, and he recited aloud a litany of seamarks as these hove into view and then were swept astern: “Frenchman’s Bay! . . . Peter Rock! . . . Colborne! . . . Presqu’ile!”

Near the mouth of the Murray Canal, the plane tipped a wing as it lazily changed course. By then, Angus was squirming in his seat like a birthday child. He was over home waters now and approaching Trenton, where he had been born. When the head of the Bay of Quinte opened before him, he could no longer contain himself. He began urgently calling for the stewardess.

She came at the double and a fine, buxom lass she was too, prepared to deal with whatever dire emergency might have arisen. Angus grabbed her arm and shoved her down into the window seat with, perhaps, just a touch too much fervour. She gave him the sidelong glance of a woman who knows herself to be irresistible and remonstrated gently, “Really, sir. This is hardly the time or place.”

“No! No!” he cried with some asperity. “Look below, dammit! See that little island in the bay? That’s Indian Island! And thirty years ago my son Farley was conceived in the lee of Indian Island in the sweetest little green canoe that ever was!”

Firmly removing his hand from her arm, the stewardess eased back into the narrow aisle. There she paused before replying evenly, “Congratulations, sir. That’s quite an amazing feat . . . in any colour canoe.”

Whether or not my life actually began in such aquatic circumstances – my mother denied it; she said I was conceived in the horse barns at the Canadian National Exhibition – my writing life did not begin until 1935 when we moved to Saskatoon. There were some foreshadowings, however. My words first reached the printed page in 1931, when the Windsor Border City Star published a letter of mine extolling the virtues of the sycamore tree. “Sicamores,” I wrote, “are the rarest and beautifulest trees I have ever seen, and should be spread.” I admit to having had an ulterior motive in publishing this accolade to the sycamore. A pal and I had set ourselves up as entrepreneurs, peddling sycamore seeds door to door in Windsor’s residential districts, and we needed all the promotion we could get.

In 1933, the Mowat family moved to Saskatoon, where there were no sycamore trees; but my early predilection for non-human creatures continued to flower (if a predilection can be said to flower – and before an audience of professional wordsmiths it behooves me to watch my step). I became more and more involved in the lives of the Others with whom we share the planet (and generally treat abominably), and, soon after reaching Saskatoon, acquired a pair of white rats. In proper rattish style, these two soon became several dozen who pre-empted our garage.

Not everyone shared my high regard for the little rodents. Most of our neighbours believed all rats – white, black, or varicoloured – were vermin and ought to be exterminated. When rumours about our cellar tenants got around, threats were made to report us to “the Public Health.” My father was annoyed at what he took to be an infringement on our privacy. I was indignant at what I regarded as rampant prejudice, if not racism, and began my first public crusade for animal rights. The following appeared in the Victoria School Record early in 1934.

If you were to ask me to name an interesting pet that can be kept in a small house I would immediately reply “the White Rat.” This small animal has helped mankind more than we can guess. When Pasteur was attempting to find a cure for rabies the rat played perhaps the most important role of all.

It was this little creature that took the deadly injections of dried rabbit brains by which Pasteur was able to determine whether his cure was effective. . . . Most hospitals now have a room set aside for breeding White Rats for medicine. They give their lives that ours might be saved and although you could hardly call them heroic, their great service to mankind will never be forgotten.

Not only are they useful but they are very amazing as pets. They are exceedingly loving toward each other and when a male and female are separated for a few days they show ever possible affection when re-united. . . . Almost everybody who comes into contact with White Rats in a very short time becomes keenly interested and warmly affectionate toward them.

Billy Mowat

Billy, a name I chose to replace the inevitable grade-school corruption – Fartly – became my moniker during the years in Saskatoon, and it was under this sobriquet that my literary life could be truly said to have begun and come to its first fruition.

In December of 1934, a new magazine joined the ranks of Canadian periodicals. As is the Canadian way, it did so without fanfare. Nature Lore The Official Organ of the Beaver Club of Amateur Naturalists came quietly upon the scene.

It will come as no surprise to learn that Billy Mowat was the editor-inchief. He wrote an impassioned editorial for the first issue, from which I quote: “Birds and animals do not get heard enough in this country and are not treated well. The Beaver Club intends to do something about this. Every 5 cent bit contributed to this magazine will be spent on the betterment of the birds and animals of Saskatchewan. . . .”

I also wrote most of the text, although I attributed many of the pieces to my loyal tribesfolk. It was the least I could do. They fanned out all over Saskatoon in fine weather and foul, hawking copies of the magazine to all and sundry.

The public’s reception astounded us. Within a week, the entire first issue, amounting to fifty copies, had sold out. The three subsequent issues, with press runs of a hundred copies each, did almost as well, earning a grand total of $25.45, which was more than many people were then being paid for a week’s labour.

The articles may have been a little didactic: “Planestrius migratorius [the robin] is a prominent local insectivore”; or somewhat overblown: “The crow can talk extremely well and is as intelligent as most people.” Nevertheless, the effect was to at least engender some interest in and sympathy for wild creatures amongst people who had never previously given a thought to the possibility that they might have something in common with other animals.

The several issues of Nature Lore (the magazine died the death when spring came and there were better things for us to do) gave me scope to develop the skills of a prose writer, but I did not neglect poetry. I was then of an age to begin having fantasies about girls with the consequent risk of growing hair on the palms of my hands. . . . Oh? Not all of you get the relevance of that remark? Too bad. You were born too late.

In any event, one of the girls I fantasized about was Muriel Pinder, the darkhaired daughter of a druggist who had done exceedingly well for himself during the Prohibition years. Muriel lived in a rococo, strawberry-pink, stucco mansion a block away and was regarded by the boys of the neighbourhood as hot stuff. Alas, she did not regard me in the same way. I wrote her this poem:

No bird that flies in summer skies,

No mouse that lurks in sacred church,

No fish that swims in river dim,

No snake that crawls on sunny walls

Can stir my heart the way you do

With raven hair and eyes so blue.

She returned this offering by next day’s post, with her critical evaluation written across it in purple ink: “Ugh!”

As the Saskatoon years unrolled, I went through a hunting phase, but it did not last. Having taken part in the slaughter of ducks, partridge, prairie chickens, crows, rabbits, and gophers, all in the holy name of sport, I began suffering a revulsion which produced a poem indicative of the direction life as a whole, and my writing life in particular, would take.

Sport

 

A flash of flame that flickers there,

A rain of lead that hisses by,

A deafening crash that rends the air,

A wreath of smoke floats in the sky.

A bark from the dog as it gallops past,

A laugh from the man who holds the gun,

The flutter of birds that seek to fly,

The words: “Good work!” when the deed is done.

A ring of feathers scattered round

A quivering pulp of flesh and bone.

A pool of blood on the autumn ground.

A life has passed to the great unknown.

My aversion to bloodletting was well developed by the time the Second World War began.

Nevertheless, in 1940 I joined the Canadian Army as a private in an infantry regiment; went overseas in 1942; served – mostly with the infantry – throughout the campaign in Italy; and ended the war as an intelligence officer in northwest Europe. I wrote quite a lot during the war itself. Partly out of outrage, horror, and despair; partly in an attempt to make light of what was hellish darkness; partly in an effort to escape from an unendurable reality.

I am going to dwell at some length on what the war meant, and did, to me. I do this for two reasons. First, because the war had such a profound influence upon my development as a writer. Second, because 1995 is the fiftieth anniversary of v-e day, an occasion which surely deserves commemoration, and one which I am sure Margaret Laurence would wish me to make much of.

What follows is a sequence of excerpts from what I wrote while actually in the crucible.

I shall begin with part of a letter to my parents written in January of 1944 from the village of San Leonardo, on the Adriatic coast of Italy.

Last night brought a story that may or may not amuse you. It has long been an ambition of the brigade major to inveigle a dental detachment to come forward from base and attend to the toothaches which abound in the front lines. But the dental corps has such demanding needs – running water, electricity, refrigeration, heaters, and trucks converted into swanky living quarters – that they are loath to expose themselves and their equipment to the uncertain “weather” up where we live.

However, last week the BM succeeded in his machinations and two whopping big trucks full of incisors, molars, and dentists rolled into the village square where we were laagered. Our camp commandant suggested they might sleep better if they bedded down with us in the nice deep wine cellars of some of the surrounding houses, most of whose upper floors are now in a somewhat dilapidated state. The dentists would have none of that but climbed into their comfy caravan truck parked in the square in the midst of a clutch of ammunition trucks and went beddy-byes.

Along about 2300 hrs, Jerry did a stonk of the village. One shell fell in the square and set fire to a lorry loaded with 75 mm tank ammo. The dentists heard the shell land all right, and when they peered dazedly out of their daintily curtained windows they saw the flames leaping up from the burning truck. They may also have heard someone shouting that it was an ammo truck aflame.

Well, you can say what you will about dentists, they can move as fast as any of us when the mood is on them. And they know what slit trenches are for, even if only in an academic sense. They found one handy to their mobile home-away-from-home and popped right into it.

Shortly thereafter the tank shells began to let fly and the square became a pretty lively place. Not that we lingered to enjoy it. Everyone with any sense headed down into the vino cellars to wait until the fireworks were over. The poor sods of dentists were pinned down in their slit trench. No doubt there was considerable squirming and grunting in the narrow confines of their sanctuary, but they had no “better ’ole” to go to, with AP shells and hits of truck ricocheting around the square.

To shorten the story, when the explosions ceased the harassed trench dwellers were seen to emerge and stagger back to their trucks, which had been well perforated but not immobilized. There was the grind of starters, the clash of gears, then the roar of rapid acceleration as they departed down the road leading to the rear. In the morning, I sauntered over to look at the remains of the ammo lorry and happened to cast a glance into the slit trench that had saved the dental plates. It wasn’t a slit trench. It was a well-used latrine trench left behind by Jerry when he skedaddled out of here a few days ago.

Some day I must have my cavity filled. But not just yet.

The light-hearted touch was part of the armour we adopted in order to stay sane. The following poem conveys some of the darker side of things. It was written after the death in action of my company commander, who had been father and brother to me.

For Alex Campbell. Killed Christmas Day, 1943, Ortona

 

Who calls his name across those lonely fields

hears no voice answer for his lips are sealed

against the empty chambers of a mind

where, once, a poet’s voice was wont to find

expression for its pangs and fleeting raptures.

Finds nothing now. Nor will again recapture

the beauty seen by eyes or heard by ears,

through the forgotten – and the unlived years.

Who calls to him waits endlessly in vain,

through the chill threnody of wind and rain.

Straining towards the dark, he only hears

the gentle echo of his own heart’s tears.

And the shrill, mocking night alone intrudes

on the eternal vastness of his solitude.

Early in the spring of 1944, my regiment was ordered to make a “feint” attack in order to provide a diversion for an offensive farther to the west. I wrote an account of this foredoomed action which was published in Maclean’s a few months later. The following excerpts will, I hope, give the flavour of the whole.

As a liaison officer, I drove up to the front an hour before the show began. My driver had the most extraordinarily fluid ideas about time and space. Reduce both to a minimum as fast as possible. He came by his ideas honestly. Driving a jeep in one of the fighting regiments is no sinecure. He took me over the valley road and down the sloping stretch we called “the shooting gallery” – under enemy observation – so fast that the patient Jerry artillery spotter on the far hill hadn’t time to get a single shot away. We got to the battalion headquarters observation post in record time and I told the driver to find an unoccupied slit trench and wait.

The observation post was in an isolated, shell-battered, stone farmhouse on a hill overlooking a flat, featureless plain dominated by Tolo Ridge, where the Germans were dug in.

In a ravine just back of us, six Sherman tanks began revving their engines and turning their turrets slowly from side to side, as if offering slow dissent to the query, “All set?” We couldn’t see the infantry. They were up ahead in a series of gullies, lying doggo.

With a colossal cacophony the artillery opened up and the smokescreen and the barrage went in. Zero hour had struck.

The lead Sherman made good time up the road. There weren’t any mines. A pioneer patrol out last night had swept right up to the forward edge of the Jerry positions. Now the dust from the barrage was blending with the thick, pillaring wall of smoke. The sound of bursting shells made a blurred, continuous thumping like the heartbeats of panic-stricken giants in the earth. The tanks seemed to move through it without noise, like toys being pulled on a string. The uneven but continuous flaming curtain of the barrage was beginning to grow ragged as the enemy artillery sent shells through the smoke, hoping to catch and shatter the attackers.

In the gullies, the companies of infantry waited, watching that appalling upheaval of ground and sky with swelling horror.

The sergeant in the lead tank hit his head on the turret and started cursing at the top of his voice. Three mortar bombs crumped savagely in front of the Sherman and they felt her shudder. The engine died and the sergeant couldn’t make the driver answer. When he bent over him he saw blood. The gunner was snarling like a cat and working frantically at the hand rotating gear. The tank was suddenly very silent, then against its lifeless sides came the thudding of machine-gun bullets. The concussion as the tank’s 75 was fired brought the sergeant round like a whip. “Goddamn! Goddamn!” he screamed at the gunner. “Who the hell told you to fire!”

The loader slapped another shell into the smoking breech.

People were running around in the OP like headless chickens. All the radio sets were crackling and the hubbub was like a busy morning on the stock exchange – though the words were different.

“Hello, Sunray . . . only one tank left on the right . . . two on the left . . . they’re getting it from some eighty-eights.”

In the gully, the infantry waited for the word to go. Enemy mortar bombs were bursting all around them now, searching, searching. A company commander was wriggling as if he had suddenly found himself lying on a nest of driver ants . . . thinking . . . “Christ, why don’t the tanks get on with it . . . this fire’s just bloody awful . . . why don’t they get on with it!”

The tank troop commander had the hatch open and his head out. Fifty yards ahead, seven Germans were running madly up the slope through the twisted props of a vineyard. A burst from the Browning caught them midway in their rush and they went down. There was a wet spot here and for a moment the tank bogged, then she pulled out with a deep, stubborn roar and clambered quickly up the slope onto the objective. All the time the gunner was pulling at the lieutenant’s leg, trying to get him to draw his head in.

A low, stone farmhouse a hundred yards to the left of the tank was chattering hysterically as its defenders sent streams of machine-gun bullets bouncing sharply off the armour. The lieutenant’s body sagged, headless, into the tank’s interior.

One section of infantry started across an open stretch at the double, all bunched up, and was straddled by four mortar shells . . . ! The rest of the platoon passed through them and only one man paused to glance at the human wreckage. A bullet took him just below the left arm, punching up through his neck.

The fire grew heavier as the whole enemy front began concentrating on the naked infantry, whom they could now clearly see. Overhead, shells from our twenty-five pounders and mediums kept up a continuous overtone of whines and whistles that blended into one throbbing flight of terrible wings. The attacking infantry could see no enemy. But a corporal let go a burst from his tommy gun into the air. For a moment it made all the men around him feel good. Then suddenly they were going back, running, stumbling, crawling, running.

In the ravine, their company commander clapped on the earphones and spoke to the co. “We’ll try again, sir! We’ll try it again,” he said. He was almost crying. The remnants of his company huddled under the lip of the gulley, breathing very fast and shallow, not looking at each other.

The commanding officer stood at the op window and there were things in his face it is not good to see. The smell of phosphorous fumes and of burnt explosives was drifting back so thickly that at times it was hard to breathe. The noise was less, though.

Back in the gulley, one or two men were smoking as they crouched below the crest, almost oblivious now to the stray mortar bombs that lit near them. Most of the wounded were already on their way to the regimental aid post in the deep ravine. The lieutenant in command of this little group sat by the radio set with his hand held out in front of him. He seemed fascinated by the way it was shaking.

Like a play that has run overtime, the great noise of battle ceased. It did not fade; it stopped. I honked on the jeep’s horn and after a moment my driver came up the slope towards me, munching a chocolate bar and stuffing a pocket detective novel into his blouse. “Pretty hot, eh?” he said as we started back. “Yeah,” I answered, “hot,” and we rolled noisily over the bridge.

One of the stratagems I used to maintain a degree of sanity was to write verse for a bestiary which, I told myself, I would some day publish. This sort of thing:

The carrion crow, I’ve heard it said,

Lives on the entrails of the dead.

It loves to gorge on rotting bowel,

Which spoils it . . . as a table fowl.

Or in a somewhat lighter vein:

The double-crested cormorants

Sport twin cerebral ornaments.

The female sings in high soprano

When not engaged in making guano.

In winter she lies doromant.

Sex was seldom far from our escape fantasies.

The Earthworm is bisexual.

He’s he, but also she.

Though this may seem a happy state

It’s not quite trouble-free.

For one end is the female end,

The other is the male,

And so the Earthworm seldom knows

Just where to find its tail.

Protection from things that go whump in the night was a preoccupation.

The shy and self-effacing Mole

Is happiest when in a hole.

Moles seldom to the surface come.

They aren’t so dumb!

Literature offered another avenue of escape.

A poet named E. Allan Poe

Kept a raven that talked like a crow.

It quoth, “Nevermore,

You mad son-of-a-whore!”

Which, for Poe, was le mot à propos.

And, of course, our thoughts often turned to food.

When dining on a Mouse or Rabbit,

Owls have the most disgusting habit

of glutching hair and bones and all,

which forms an undigested ball.

So, after Owl has had his sup,

he turns his head and brings it up.

Perhaps it’s staying out so late

that make the Owl regurgitate.

And even then I was making mock of my betters.

“Pigeons on the grass, alas!”

is a poem by Gertrude Stein.

“The Yak is out of whack, alack!”

is mine.

Wherever we went, whatever we did during those long months that stretched into years, we were never in sanctuary. Even on our rare leaves far from the front, the war could and did catch up with us. I wrote this piece after a leave in Naples.

We sat on the terrace of the “Orange Grove Club” and looked out over the ethereal blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea. . . . Beneath our feet the bay lay quiescent. Along the curve of the shoreline, towards Sorrento, glaring white buildings with red and garish roofs clustered on the foreshore close to the brilliant sea as if in flight from the gargantuan threat of Vesuvius smoking thinly above the grey line of mountains behind them.

It was very hot, but up on the crest of the ridge, suspended over the teeming, stinking cesspool of the city, we were touched by gusty little breezes that came, high-flying, from the snow-capped peaks beyond Cassino.

Frank slumped in an ornate wicker chair, a glass in his hand full of a sticky concoction composed of equal parts of gin and ice cream. He looked out towards the purple loom of the island called Die and said, “My mother used to tell me that joke – ‘See Naples – and Die!’”

“Hell!” I said. “I’d sooner Siena and suffer.”

He turned his head lazily, eyed me for a moment and replied, “Mowat, it’s too goddamn bad Jerry didn’t put a Teller mine under your jeep. You don’t deserve to live.”

The afternoon was passing very pleasantly. The drinks were lousy but they were at least cool. The conversation was sparse and aimless. Best of all, the war was five hundred miles away.

I sprawled back in my chair and peered up into the blue dome, thinking how much it resembled summer skies over the prairies. I thought that if I looked hard enough, I might even see a red-tailed hawk soaring ponderously in great lazy circles. Suddenly I did see something. In the shining expanse of emptiness, there had appeared a tiny cloud, a puffball of a cloud, a foolish little white cotton dab that seemed ridiculous in that majestic cone of space.

At the same moment, my ears caught the dull “woof ” of a shell-burst and I was instantly flat on my belly on the marble terrace. I got quickly up and sat in the chair again, wiping the dust from my knees and feeling foolish. “It’s those goddamn reflexes,” I said. “They double-cross you every bloody time . . .”

Frank was leaning forward, his head cocked sideways like a terrier. Then I too heard the faint irregular beat of engines, muted but menacing, penetrating the dull moan of the city’s noise as the whine of a fly penetrates the sultry murmur of a crowded school room.

Next moment there was bedlam beneath us. Sirens on ships, hooters on destroyers, sirens on buildings, cluster after cluster of ack-ack guns all joined their angry and indignant voices in a shattering cacophony. The sky became speckled with the little cotton dabs and the wump, wump, wump of the bursts came back to us as something felt rather than heard.

“My God, my God!” Frank yelled. “Caught our silly buggers napping for sure! Oh Jerry, you smart sneaking bastard!”

Right out of the eye of the sun, an evenly spaced string of twelve tiny silver beads appeared and began to sink gently towards the sea. A destroyer had slipped her cable and was dashing across the fairway in the bay below, belching greasy black billows from her twin funnels as she laid a smokescreen. Along the docks and from every high point around the harbour, other massive pillars of smoke began to rise.

The heavy whack of the 3.7 flak guns became a thunderous tattoo that came to us through the solid rock under our feet and set the glasses on the table tinkling. Interspersed amongst their basses was the slow regular hiccup of Bofors guns . . . and I could follow the red globes of their tracer rising effortlessly into the sky as if by some act of levitation.

Then, clear and evil through the vast bellowing of the guns, came a new sound. A high-pitched, unnatural whine that sent every nerve in my body into a twitching desire to flee. . . .

Over the mouth of the harbour, the glittering beads had miraculously expanded into the smooth and efficient forms of aircraft hurtling seaward. The bellowing of the big guns was now almost drowned in a crackling roar as hundreds of smaller cannon and machine guns joined in.

The leading aircraft began to flatten out over a rift in the artificial cloud that now cloaked the bay, and I plainly saw the bulbous shape of a single big bomb as it sank away from the plane’s belly and slid gracefully downward in a slowly lengthening curve.

Before the crunch of the explosion reached us, the plane had crossed the harbour and was climbing steeply under the cliff on which we stood. We stared down at it and saw the simple black cross against the greenish drab of the fuselage.

“He’s smoking!” Frank yelled, but I too had already seen the fine spume of white vapour that bled outward from behind the cockpit.

The wounded machine lurched convulsively away from the cliffs, sideslipped and then swung back towards the granite wall. Time seemed to freeze and fragile wings to hang suspended in a passing caress with earth, and so close below us that we could see the round helmeted head of the pilot clearly under the dome of the cockpit.

I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t he fall?” and then there was a livid flash of orange flame and a slow rain of fire sinking down towards the foot of the cliff.

A few minutes later, the sirens began to sound the all-clear and a waiter came casually into view in the centre of the terrace. I raised my glass of gin to my lips and drank it down at a gulp, shuddering slightly at the oily, rancid flavour.

And the words flashed unbidden through my head. “See Naples, and die!”

The Second World War was bad enough, God knows, but there are many kinds of warfare, and I am afraid the worst kind of all is being waged now, in our time.

We are now engaged in the most significant conflict ever to involve the human species. It is not the struggle between capitalism and communism, or between any other set of “isms.” It is not the contest between affluent societies and impoverished ones.

It is the conflict between those who possess the means and the will to exploit the living world to destruction, and those who are banding together in a desperate and last-ditch attempt to prevent the New Juggernaut from trashing our small planet.

If the right side wins, this combat may become known to future generations as the Crusade that Rescued the Earth. If the wrong side wins . . . there may well be no future human generations.

After the Second World War, most of which I spent trying not to be killed by my fellow men – an experience that, incidentally, gave me considerable empathy with wild animals trying not to be killed by men – I went to the Arctic as a student biologist to study caribou and wolves.

One evening in the Barrenlands, when the sun hovered above the horizon’s lip, I sat beside an Inuk and watched a spectacle so overwhelming as to be transcendental.

Below us, on the undulating darkness of the immeasurable tundra plains, a hundred thousand caribou were moving – a tide of life flowing out of the dim south to engulf the world, submerging it so that it seemed to sink beneath a living sea. The very air was heavy with the breath of life. There was a sound as of the earth breathing and moving. It was as if the inanimate crust of rock below us had been imbued with the essential spark.

This experience, together with others over the next several years shared with wolves, caribou, Aboriginals, tug-boat skippers, fishermen, and peoples of natural adversity, brought me to a conscious awareness of just how far modern men have distanced themselves from the world that gave us birth, and which still nurtures all other living beings indivisibly linked together, and to us.

I remembered one of Rudyard Kipling’s stories in which Baloo, a wise old bear, tells the human child, Mowgli (who has been adopted into the jungle world by wolves), “We be of one blood, ye and I.” I had felt that this was true when I read it at the age of eight or nine. Now I knew it to be true, and thereafter I became more and more anxious to bridge the abyss that yawned between.

When the 1960s began, I was living in the remote Newfoundland outport of Burgeo.

During the early spring of 1967, a seventy-foot, female fin whale became trapped in a saltwater lagoon close to the settlement. By the time I heard about her plight, she had become the target of a dozen or so rifle-wielding men shooting steel- jacketed bullets into her for sport. Two or three of us came to her defence, hoping eventually to free her.

In the end, we could not save her. The bullet wounds, which in my ignorance I had thought might have meant no more to her than flea bites, gave rise to massive and virulent infections from which, one night, she died. And finally I had to accept and learn to live with the sure knowledge that I was a member of the most lethal, murderous, and unnatural species ever to run riot on earth. Thereafter, only one course was open to me. I had to become a full-fledged member of the conspiracy to save the planet.

Since 1967, I have served that cause. Alas, I am not an organization man, so could only do what I have always done best. I worked as a writer. In that role I have written several books and scores of shorter pieces in defence of nature, and in explanation of man’s true place in nature. I have tried to be a spokesman for the other beings who have no voice in how we treat them.

I have not been entirely ignored by humankind. I have been called a liar in the House of Commons by a minister of the Crown. I have been sued by Canada’s largest consortium of hunters – the Canadian Wildlife Federation. I have even been denied entry to the ultimate citadel of the Masters – the United States of America – because some of the environmental causes I have espoused are considered subversive there.

In 1984, I made what I think may have been my most significant contribution – a book called Sea of Slaughter. It details five centuries of human destruction of life on the Atlantic seaboard. Its epilogue sums up what I believe to be the truth about the works of modern man – and the future of life on earth.

I sit at the window of my home beside the Atlantic Ocean. Having led me through so many dark and bloody chronicles, this book comes to its end . . . and leaves me with a terrible and unavoidable conclusion.

The living world is dying in my time.

I look out over the unquiet waters, south to the convergence of sea and sky beyond which the North Atlantic heaves against the eastern seaboard of the continent. And in my mind’s eye I see it as it was before our coming.

Pod after pod of spouting whales, the great ones together with the lesser kinds, surge through waters everywhere a-ripple with living tides of fishes. Wheeling multitudes of gannets, kittiwakes, and others such becloud the sky. The stony finger marking the end of the long beach below me is clustered with resting seals. The beach flickers with a restless drift of shorebirds as thick as blowing sand. In the bight of the bay, whose bottom is a metropolis of clams, mussels, and lobsters, the heads of a massive concourse of walrus emerge amongst floating islands of eider ducks. Their tusks gleam like lambent flames.

Then I behold the world as it is now. In all that vast expanse of sea and sky and fringing land, one gull soars in lonely flight – a single, drifting mote of life upon an enormous and an empty stage.

When our forebears commenced their exploitation of this continent they believed its animate resources were infinite and inexhaustible. The vulnerability of the living fabric which clothed the New World – the intricacy and fragility of its all-too-finite parts – was beyond their comprehension. So it can at least be said in their defence that they were mostly ignorant of the inevitable results of their dreadful depredations.

We who are alive today can claim no such exculpation for our biocidal sins and their dire consequences. Modern man now has every opportunity to be aware of the complexity and interrelationships of the living world. If ignorance is to serve now as an excuse, then it can only be willful, murderous ignorance.

The hideous results of five centuries of death-dealing on this continent are not to be gainsaid; but there are some indications that we may at last be developing the will, and the conscience, to look beyond our own immediate gratifications and desires. Belatedly, some part of mankind is trying to rejoin the community of living beings from which we have for so long a time been alienating ourselves – and of which we have for so long a time been the mortal enemy.

Evidence of such a return to sanity is not yet to be looked for in the attitudes and actions of the exploiters who dominate the human world. Rather, the emerging signs of sanity are to be seen in individuals who, revolted by the frightful excesses to which we have subjected animate creation, are beginning to reject the killer beast which man has truly become.

Banding together with ever-increasing potency, they are challenging the self-granted licence of the vested interests to continue plundering and savaging the living world for policy, profit, and for pleasure. Although they are being furiously opposed by the old order, they may be slowly gaining ground.

It is to this new-found resolution to reassert our indivisibility with life, to recognize the obligations incumbent upon us as the most powerful and deadly species ever to exist, and to begin making amends for the havoc we have wrought, that my own hopes for a renewal and continuance of life on earth now turn. If we – and I include all of you here present – persevere in this new way, we may succeed in making man humane . . . at last.

 
 

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