[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Farley Mowat has died. Long before I knew anything about alternatives to the late-20th-century American way of life, long before I considered myself an environmentalist or localist or anti-capitalist, long before I had any kind of serious understanding of what it actually means to be committed to “conservation,” I was being taught by Mowat. In 1983, I went to the theater and watched Never Cry Wolf, a film which most might remember today as a vaguely hippie defense of chasing after wolves in the tundra in the buff, but which for me cracked open questions–about nature, progress, and humanity’s place in our understanding of both–that haunt me still:
In 1984, in my sophomore year of high school, I read People of the Deer, and while more than a few books from that year have long stayed with me–like Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle or Richard Wright’s Native Son–it was People of the Deer‘s powerful, lyrical, and indignant condemnation of the technological and economic motions of the world that left devastated cultures in its wake which, as my thinking over the past 30 years have more than demonstrated, obviously had the greatest impact:
When trading ceased to pay the high profits always required of it, the great company withdrew its post and the new way of life which had been taught to the People in their innocence now became death. Men who were once great hunters of the deer had instead become great hunters of the fox, but men cannot eat fox pelts. The People could not change their ways again. “Surely,” they thought, “if we trap the fox this winter and take the pelts south, we shall find the trader has returned.” But when the hunters traveled south, the trading post stood empty and decayed, as it had stood for many hungry years. The traders came, stayed briefly while their profits warranted, then left the land, abandoned it, and thought no more of the destruction they had wrought. Franz lived their still. And he could not drive out the hidden knowledge of the fault….
It was mid-March and Angleyalak had returned from a futile hunt during which he carried no gun, only a crude bow which served him little better than a toy serves a child; for the men of the Ihalmiut had forgotten how to make cunning bows of horn, during the long years when they had no need of bows, and the bright guns and shells were to be had in return for pelts….
For a month before that final hunt of Angleyalak’s there had been no more than a mouthful of food for each person on each day, and this hunt had been a last desperate effort to halt the slow attrition of the gut. The hunt had failed, as it was bound to fail, and now the course of things followed and inevitable pattern which the hunter could no longer break, no matter how he tried. Death was upon the camp and all that the people there could do was to channel the approach of death so that the least important of the living might go first. There was no open mention of the problem, for none was needed. While Angleyalak still lived there was still hope. But should he, the hunter, die, then the family must perish, even thought the deer returned in numbers to the Little Hills (People of the Deer, 1951, pp. 55-56).
Mowat never ceased representing, in all his writings and activism, a usually mostly hopeless alternative: one that respected Canadian sovereignty and attacked the global capitalism which the superpower war-machine made possible (he was once refused entrance into the United States, perhaps on the grounds that he’d once shot his rifle at American planes carrying nuclear payloads through Canadian airspace, thousands of the feet over his head), one that looked for a more sustainable, less exploitive, more rooted way of life. His frustration gave him an Abbey-esque edge, ultimately concluding that the best things that can be done with national parks is keep human beings out of them as much as possible. I don’t care for kind of defiant environmental absolutism. But I prefer to contextualize it with some Grant-style red Toryism, and see in him a man who loved the local world near him–the vast, deep, quiet Canadian wilderness–so very much, that keeping it separate from those systems which would poison it seemed like the obvious imperative. That’s a position I can respect–and even, if not to the same degree, hope to emulate. RIP.