I am far from my home in Canada, and so I first heard that Farley Mowat had died via… Twitter. It felt wrong, given that there is allegedly a sign at Mowat’s front door that says NO COMPUTERS BEYOND THIS POINT. Signal fires should have brought me the news, or a carrier pigeon. Or a Canada goose.
Farley Mowat died May 6, 2014, aged ninety-two years.
Like many of his readers, I first encountered Mowat’s books as a child. He was, in fact, the first person of any public stature I ever wrote to, at age ten. A Whale for the Killing had entranced me, and I sent Mowat a letter asking how to save the whales, how to save the world, how to live my life. He wrote back promptly, saying, “I can’t tell you what to do.”
It was uncommonly good advice for an adult to give a child, but then, Mowat was uncommonly forward-thinking. Many obits describe him as “an environmentalist,” a throwaway term in an age when the same is said of anyone who drives a hybrid SUV. Consider instead that A Whale for the Killing was published the year Greenpeace was founded, and several years before that group turned its attention to whales. Never Cry Wolf asked people to embrace wolves rather than fear them—in 1963. His first book, People of the Deer, exposed crimes of colonialism in the Arctic and Subarctic more than a decade before Native American issues became a flashpoint in mainstream America. Even Mowat’s beard was ahead of its time.
Describe the Mowat canon and he begins to sound like a polemicist, or perhaps the antecedent to the anxiety-lit of contemporary nature writing. Not so. He was foremost a spinner of yarns. A Whale for the Killing—still my personal favorite—tells of a huge fin whale that becomes trapped in a lagoon, only to become the object of cruel sport for the locals. It’s a storyteller’s story, and yet through it Mowat asks us to ponder whether animals have consciousness; whether the ecological crisis might also be social, a breakdown in our relations with nonhuman life (he refers to whales as “the whale nation”). These are ideas that feel current—even newly minted—today. Mowat made them make sense to a child, and he did it forty years ago.
It is no longer possible to say a few words about Mowat without addressing his facts: you can’t trust them. From his first published book, he was accused of fudging his experiences, and he famously declared “Fuck the facts!” during an on-stage interview in 1999. I won’t defend the blending of fact and fiction here, other than to point out that Canada recently gave a state funeral to a former finance minister but not to its bard of the wild. For shame.
Last year, I wrote Farley a second letter, letting him know how my own book, The Once and Future World, had been influenced by his 1984 Sea of Slaughter, which foresaw by two decades the importance of historical ecology in understanding just how deeply transformed and impoverished a natural world we live in. Once again he wrote back right away. This time, he noted that his eyes were poor and his fingers could no longer find the right keys on his old Underwood—though when he signed off with “Cjeers, Fartley Mowat,” he was clearly being playful. After all, his response to my story about the wise words he had shared with my ten-year-old self was perfectly typed: “I still have no better advice to give.”