So like many thousands before me, it was no surprise that I was immediately drawn to GREY OWL, the tall, braided, handsome, gray-eyed Canadian legend. Dirty moccasins on my great aunt’s white 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.
Horatio Lovat Dickson was my great uncle. Rache, as he was known, was a notable publisher and writer, the first Canadian to have a major publishing role in Britain as a director of Macmillan & Company in London. He is best known today for his biographies of Grey Owl, Richard Hillary, Radclyffe Hall and H. G. Wells. His last work was The Museum Makers (1986), a history commissioned by the Royal Ontario Museum.
Rache had only been in London two years when in 1929 at the age of 27 fate brought Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) and he together. The man he was introduced to described himself as a half-breed born in Mexico of an Apache mother and Scottish father.
He arrived in Canada at the age of seventeen in 1906 intent on learning the ways of survival in the wilderness that he so loved. For his first few years he lived the life of the hunter trapper in the wilds of northern Ontario trading in furs for his livelihood.
When he had inadvertently killed a beaver mother his horrified young Indian wife Anahareo persuaded him to foster the orphan kits. Seems she played on Grey Owl’s Achilles heel. He empathized with the animals he trapped, always feeling deep remorse about taking their lives for him to survive. That sadness stayed with him and eventually would change his life when he began to see the horror of trapping through his young wife’s eyes. The fact that his wife loved their adopted brood, McGinnis and McGinty, led to Grey Owl saying: “She loved them and I loved her. How could I not love them too.”
Since the end of WWI the fur trade was inundated with those seeking their fortune from the fur trade. Whole beaver colonies were being decimated by the indiscriminate slaughter of these gentle animals.
McGinnis and McGinnty were the beaver kits who lived in Grey Owl’s log cabin and became quite the tourist magnets even though it was an arduous journey mostly by canoe into the wilderness to observe them back in the 1930s. Of them he writes:
“Had my finger pressed but lightly on the trigger that fateful morning, these two tiny creatures, whose coming saved from slaughter so many of their kin who followed them and materially changed the lives of several people, would have passed like two wisps from some wandering breeze, back into the Great Unknown from which they had so short a time before set out.”
Grey Owl and Anahareo decided to try and save these animals from certain extinction. Thus began their journey. Once he decided to give up his fur trapping livelihood Grey Owl needed to find a way to survive in the wilderness while searching for a sanctuary to save what was left of the beaver population – if they could. A life-long ambition to write saved the day when a manuscript he sent his mother found its way to a English magazine and was published.
Immediately his writings attracted a following and he was asked to write a book about his conversion from hunter to conservationist which the British journal Country Life promised to publish when completed.
However, when they saw fit to change the title of his book, without informing him, to: Men of the Last Frontier, Grey Owl refused to have anything more to do with them stating they just didn’t get it. His book was about Nature, not man. His famous quote makes this philosophy quite clear, “Remember you belong to nature, not It to you.”
So when Hugh Eayrs, then president of Macmillan Publishing in Canada suggested Rache as an honourable man who would serve him well and not change his words, Grey Owl declared him his publisher of his second book Pilgrims of the Wild. This, the most famous of all Grey Owl’s remarkable books is the story of the journey he and his wife took without hope or desire of personal gain, looking to find a sanctuary for the last survivors of the “Little People”, the Beaver, before they became extinct in Canada.
Through lengthy written correspondence Uncle Rache and Grey Owl got to know one another. Grey Owl was a prolific letter writer and Rache was fascinated by his simple and genuine character which was fleeing from the social order in which we all live.
In his book Wilderness Man The Strange Story of Grey Owl, Rache declares that it was indeed ironic that he himself had left Canada to seek his fortune and that his “first money-maker would be in a book by an unknown Métis from the adjoining province from which he came,” in Canada.
As an editor and publisher he said, “One does not have to be an expert to pick out a great book; it is the not-so-great that demand judgement. Important books have their own authority; something masterful is apparent as soon as one begins to read. Pilgrims of the Wild is to life in the Canadian wilderness what Robinson Crusoe is to life on a desert island.”
Having read and re-read all of Grey Owl’s books I have to say I totally agree.
An excerpt from Grey Owl’s — The House of McGinnis:
“A LOUD THUD, A CRASH, THE TINKLE OF BROKEN GLASS, THEN silence. A sound as of a hand-saw being run at great speed by an expert, a bumping, dragging noise and a vicious rattling; then another crash; more silence.
“And what,” asked my guest as we neared the camp, “is that an earthquake?”
“That,” I answered, with some misgiving, “is the beaver, the ones you are coming to see!”
We entered the cabin, and the scene within was something to be remembered, the devastation resembling that left in the wake of a young whirlwind. The table was down, and the utensils it had held had disappeared; a four-foot stick of wood protruded through a shattered window, and below the one that remained a quantity of wood had been piled, affording facilities for the effective use of a battering ram. The washstand had been dissected and neatly piled in the bunk from which the blankets had been removed, these being included in a miscellany of articles such as dishes, moccasins, and so forth, with which the stove was barricaded. With hurried apologies to my visitor I assessed the damage, but beyond the disarrangements just mentioned, there was no serious harm done; that is, so far, no lives had been lost. I had been away two days, being delayed by soft weather, which, with its exhilarating effect on these animals, accounted for the delirious attack on my humble fixtures.”
As we are all writers here, I have added a brief passage we should be able to relate to as Grey Owl’s describes the challenges of writing while Jelly Roll another of his beaver housemates observes:
“And while I wrote Jelly pursued her own studies, and carried on with her highly important jobs such as moving and placing objects, and took care of little household chores such as banking up the bottom of the door, or the re-arrangement of the wood pile. Often she would sit bolt upright beside me on the bed, looking up in a most intent manner at my face, as though trying to fathom what my purpose could be with that queer scratching noise.
She was a paper addict and was much attracted by the rustle of the stationery, and constantly stole wrapping paper and magazines and books, taking them home with her, and when she was on the bunk with me she would reach out very often at my notebook and other papers, and we sometimes had lively discussions on this matter in which I was not always the winner.
One day however she succeeded, quite, I think, beyond her expectations or mine. Forgetting to erect the barrier between the bunk and the table, I returned from cutting wood one day to find everything pushed off it, including a camera, a lamp, and a row of books; and she had registered her entire approval of my literary efforts by removing the MS. bodily.
A few sheets of my work were scattered on the floor, but the rest were not to be seen. A visit of investigation to the abode of the culprit was received with squeals of mingled trepidation and protest, but I routed her out and raked up the manuscript with the blackened wooden poker and a piece of wire, the paper fiend meanwhile trying desperately to maintain her rights of ownership.
Luckily all of it but one page was recovered, and as she had no doubt scooped up the entire pile with that steam shovel of a bottom jaw of hers, it was little damaged.
But the resulting mix-up was very little short of cataclysmic. Imagine about four hundred loose sheets closely written on both sides, in pencil, with interpolations, alterations, and notes wedged in here and there, with lines and arrows and other cabalistic indications of what went where, and unnumbered, and you may get the idea.
It took me the best part of three days to reassemble, and in some instances, re-write the script. This time I painstakingly numbered the pages.”
A Grey Owl’s publisher, editor and promoter, Lovat Dickson observed that no one could put into words what Grey Owl’s appeal was. However audiences felt themselves ennobled by supporting it. In fact, thirty years later protest demonstrations seemed to mimic the same devotion and passion to an issue. Grey Owl’s message provided the first view into what unregulated progress could do to the environment in which we live. It made the public who had been satisfied, up to that time to enjoy the benefits of progress without asking what the cost of it might be, uncomfortable.
So impressed was Rache with Grey Owl he persuaded him leave the wilderness, cross the ocean and involve himself in the promotion of his book by personal appearances and lectures.
No one was prepared for the scope of his reception. Audiences were captivated by this tall romanticized version of the Indian, handsome, gray-eyed man with the mesmerizing voice and powerful stage presence.
For more than three months Grey Owl lived with Uncle Rache and his new bride in their little cottage in Chelsea. Both men were insomniacs and so talked most nights until dawn. Grey Owl only required a few hours of sleep but Rache suffered. However he just couldn’t drag himself away from this man and the stories he told.
Demand for more lectures ensued when sold out venues had to turn people away. Grey Owl gave talks, signed books, showed films of his ‘beaver people’ and the wilds of Canada, sometimes three lectures a day, each one different, with no notes, all over England to capacity crowds. It was utterly amazing to everyone. Grey Owl was a star…
Two years later he repeated this arduous lecture tour undertaking with even more success and the addition of a private audience with King George, the Queen and the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. A further venture into the United States followed and a Canadian sold out crowd at Massey Hall in Toronto before setting off home to Prince Alberta an exhausted, sick man.
GREY OWL, Archie Belaney, died on April 18, 1938. He died at age 49 years and seven months old from a pneumonia most likely exacerbated by his exposures to the mustard and chlorine gases on the battlefields of WWI. Much, much too young. An international controversy over his origins ensued immediately inundating the media all over the world resulting in Rache’s first book A Memorial to Grey Owl entitled: The Green Leaf”, defending the man, his mission and life.
Back in the 1930’s Grey Owl’s message, warning us that, “The forest cannot much longer stand before the conquering march of modernity, and soon we shall witness that vanishing of a mighty wilderness” was a harbinger of today’s environmental crisis climate change.
Will society never heed warnings? What is wrong with us? As an environmentalist and citizen activist of the Love Canal days I sadly conclude that little has changed in the last century.
Just because we don’t like the message doesn’t make it untrue, unreal, nor not something that can be proven scientifically. These are not “alterative facts” we are being told. They are neither meant to sensationalize, nor is there an economic gain to the messengers.
Archie Belaney, Grey Owl, was truly a man before his time, a leader and visionary to societies in Britain and North America and through his books to readers around the world. He alerted society to practices that would, if continued, cause the extinction of wildlife including Canada’s national animal the beaver, as well as other species and the forests that were their home and his wilderness.
Comparisons can be odious, but humour me for a moment. Picture the world, Grey Owl’s world. A quarter of all wage earners in the US were unemployed. Severe drought caused the plains to become dust bowls. In Europe Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, marching into Austria a dictator who promised to “make Germany great again.” Elsewhere, Japan invaded China and in Great Britain King Edward VIII gave up his throne.
Grey Owl’s books were released when society was looking to be distracted from the problems of the world. Along came a storyteller weaving hope and life into a dark troubled time. The message was something and he, someone people could get behind and support.
His description of the Canadian wilderness was breath-taking. Listen to an example of how he penned his words into pictures and in doing so kindled a love in his readers that we as a country continue to have for our far north to this very day:
“Here, even in these modern days, lies a land of Romance, gripping the imagination with its immensity, its boundless possibilities and its magic of untried adventure. Thus it has lain since the world was young, enveloped in a mystery beyond understanding, and immersed in silence, absolute, unbroken, and all-embracing; a silence intensified rather than relieved by the muted whisperings of occasional light forest airs in the treetops far overhead.”
Unfortunately the world lost its focus on his message with the devastating effects of World War II. It was totally understandable, but a great loss that could have eased the environmental movement into action some thirty years sooner if history had not intervened.
However, what he stood for was, and is, timeless and a message even more powerful and needed today as scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal become extinct every twenty-four hours.
Lovat Dickson wrote three books about Grey Owl. There are a lot of similarities between the two men which I will delve into further as I continue to write but suffice it to say they both felt strongly about Grey Owl’s message and today no doubt would champion the issue of climate change as it threatens our world. As a writer I would only wish each of us could find an editor and publisher like Lovat Dickson that continued to spread the message long after his author and friend was gone.
And that my friends is why we all need to adopt a policy of argus-eyed awareness when it comes to public policy and environmental regulations. To this end we must support each other and the environment in any way we can whether it be through marches, letter writing, or even non-violent civil disobedience in some cases. Be heard. Make your voice count. Stand up for what you believe in and more importantly what you want to leave of this world as your inheritance to your grandchildren.
There is much more to this story as I continue to write and research into the combined lives of these two great authors of the last century. I have no illusions and am not attempting to out master the master storytellers but hope to direct the spot light back onto two of Canada’s exceptional Canadians….