I guess I had always known. If I had to rely on killing to survive, I would become a vegetarian. Oh I might learn how to fish but that would be the extent of my foraging of wildlife as a food source.
So like many thousands before me, it was no surprise that I was immediately drawn to the tall, braided, handsome, Canadian legend. Dirty moccasins on blue broadloom aside, I had heard his story long before I could read my great uncle Lovat Dickson’s books The Green Leaf (1938), Half Breed (1939) and Wilderness Man (1974) and was enraptured.
Years later I would become an environmental activist. My style however was a little different than Grey Owl’s kind of hands on conservationist approach to Canada’s unsullied wilderness and all its inhabitants of the 1930s. He lived at one with nature taking only what he required to live and giving back tenfold in his lectures, books and films. Saving the beaver and gaining renewed respect for the aboriginal peoples were just some of his many goals.
Now me? I love all animals. I especially love my dog. However, I am afraid of dogs in general having had a bad experience at age four with a cocker spaniel jumping up on me and knocking me down. Henceforth I would cower in cars, refusing to get out when there was a dog as greeter. I just never told our dogs of my fears. Little did they know over the years that they could have ruled the roost so to speak, with an iron paw and a loud bark.
I’m also afraid of bees, well anything that buzzes. I don’t kill anything either which puts me at a distinct disadvantage. Neither do I swat, kick, or try to scare anything away. I don’t get out of moving vehicles anymore though; so I think I’m getting this phobia under some control. Right?
I once sat in my bedroom upstairs, towel across the space between the floor and door waiting for my husband to get home because a bee got in the kitchen door as I let the dog outside. When he got home and found me there, his only comment was: “What did you think the bee would do, find its way upstairs, drop to the floor and crawl under the door?” In hindsight pretty funny. Not.
I don’t care. Laugh if you will. I still remember the day sitting in the car at a publicity photo shoot for my husband’s band. We were out at an old abandoned railway trestle and it was scorching hot out and me sitting in the car with the windows rolled up, waiting. Sweat rolling off me I sat and watched a bee land on the hood of the car, walk up to the window and shimmy itself down through the ventilation grate…Next thing I knew it was squirming through the inside grate trying to get into the car. Me? Oh, I was standing outside with the door closed watching fascinated.
Don’t get me wrong, I am an environmentalist and do truly love animals and nature in all its forms. As such, I advocate for a proper balance between humans and the various natural systems on which we all, human and non-human, depend. I have spoken out publicly in support of our natural environment and the sustainable management of its resources through changes in public policy and individual behaviors. I have worked with government agencies and citizen groups alike to assure problems are addressed and new technologies are both developed and used.
I just like to do all this from inside a building or in front of a TV, petting my dog, not tree hugging in the great outdoors. Bees you know…
I’m certain, Uncle Rache and Grey Owl would understand.
Grey Owl was truly a man before his time, a leader and visionary to societies in Britain, Canada and the United States and through his books to readers around the world. To his peers and royals alike he preached a message that society needed on the backs of the First World War and the subsequent great depression and heading into another war time.
Picture it. A quarter of all wage earners in the U.S, were unemployed. Severe drought caused the plains to become dust bowls. In Europe Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany marching into Austria and Japan invaded China. In Great Britain King Edward VIII gave up his throne. People were looking to be distracted from their troubles when along comes a storyteller weaving hope and life into a dark troubled time. Something everyone could get behind and support.
Archie was always obsessed with the Indian as a child in Hastings England where he was raised by two maiden aunts and a grandmother. He fantasized about his roots wishing he had been born into the culture he loved. After leaving England at sixteen years old he set out to learn their ways of survival in the wilderness of northern Canada. He became not only a trapper but a guide and keen woodsman. He was made a blood brother after proving himself to a band of Ojibwa and given the name of Grey Owl.
One hundred years ago…. 1917…. Archie Belaney came home from his stint in the Great War. A twice injured foot and the mustard gas exposure he suffered from led to depression as he wondered if he could ever get back to his life in the wilderness. And he was shocked to see that all was not how he had left it. Speculators had virtually raped the forest of trees leaving miles and miles of rocks and tree stumps absolutely desolate country in their wake. They trapped fur bearing animals almost to extinction using viscous equipment that left the animals when caught tortured until they thankfully succumbed.
Seeing his livelihood disappearing and watching the horror on his young Indian wife’s face led him to think. When they accidentally killed a mother beaver Anahareo (Gertie) convinced Grey Owl (Archie) that they owed it to the poor things to take the pair of orphaned kittens home to raise.
This experience proved to be an epiphany for him. Through them he began to see that all animals feel and have feelings. Living hundreds of miles from civilization he began to write about the wilderness and his beaver children. It was sometime before he received financial aid from this and they were lucky to survive with no other income.
He once postulated that “Kindness to animals is the hall-mark of human advancement.” And to this day I totally agree. Conversely if my dog doesn’t like a person, they are suspect in my books until proven otherwise.
Grey Owl as an author was a massive success and so was invited to Britain to go on an extended lecture tour. Journalists started to refer to him as a “full-blooded red indian.” He did not contradict this label because as he once said he would do anything it took to save the beavers. After his death it was this controversy which attached itself to his name. He was called a fraud and an imposter but those who knew him and what he stood for would have nothing of it.
Grey Owl’s books reflect his philosophy of life and could be summed up in a word “tolerance”. He did not fight to have the logging halted or the fur trade abolished. He saw compromise as a solution to most environmental concerns. Trees felled and new ones should be planted. Animals should not be hunted in the spring but allowed to survive in nature to produce more before taking the older animals in as humanely a method as possible. Clean water and air should be available for all of nature.
My great uncle was Grey Owl’s biographer, publisher and friend. After his untimely death at age fifty Rache compiled The Green Leaf “to record the closing scenes of Grey Owl’s life, and to reflect, by setting out some of his letters and some extracts from his published and unpublished writings, something of the integrity and nobility of his spirit.”
And so here we are 79 years after one of the first and greatest environmentalists and conservationist’s death at a cross roads. Some think of 2016 as a watershed year and fear for the future. Some don’t even realize how much was accomplished in that year.
The Giant Panda, arguably the world’s second cutest panda, has officially been removed from the endangered species list;
Tiger numbers around the world are on the rise for the first time in 100 years, with plans to double by 2022;
India’s dogged commitment to reforestation saw a single day event planting more than 50 million trees, a world record;
China has announced a firm date for the end of the ivory trade, as public opinion is becoming more staunchly environmentalist;
A solar powered airplane flew across the Pacific Ocean for the first time, highlighting a new era of energy possibilities;
British Columbia protected 85% of Great Bear Rainforest – the largest coastal temperate rainforest on the planet;
2016 saw the designation of more than 40 new marine sanctuaries in 20 countries, covering an area larger than the United States;
Atmospheric acid pollution, once a gloomy reality, has been tackled to the point of being almost back to pre-industrial levels;
Fossil fuel emissions flat lined in 2016, with the Paris agreement becoming the fastest UN treaty to become international law;
A huge majority of EU Parliament voted to save Europe’s most important nature laws and the world’s biggest network of protected areas;
Arctic foxes have been found denning in Finland for the first time in two decades;
Shell Canada has relinquished its 40 year old offshore oil exploration permits in Arctic Canada;
And last but not least, America’s Arctic will be free of new offshore oil and gas drilling, at least for the next five years.
However, this is the reason we are talking about Grey Owl today, almost a century after his death. Government decisions can be temporary. So as stewards of the earth we have to remain vigilant.
Thirty five years ago I led a successful fight to oppose the siting of a poorly planned, technologically unsound hazardous waste treatment and disposal facility. I followed that up working for the government in producing the safest plan to deal with Ontario’s industrial wastes. My eldest daughter was five years old.
She is now forty one and we still don’t know where these wastes are going or if they are being treated properly. Why? We thought we had done the job and retired from the battlefield. Just ask Lois Gibbs of Love Canal fame whether you can ever afford to “retire”.
Oh we have made strides in many areas. Today we have PETA; hunting and trapping regulations and guides; environmental laws and conservation organizations all over the world. However all it takes is a change in a government’s perceptions and goals to send us back years.
Take climate change for instance. According to David Suzuki’s analogy on climate change, “We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.”
Wonder what Grey Owl would have to say about that?