Finding surprise and magnificence in barren northern landscapes; The World of Farley Mowat: A Selection From His Works, edited by Peter Davison: Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co. $12.95.
This collection provides a splendid introduction for readers unacquainted with Farley Mowat, the fine Canadian nature writer, storyteller, humorist, and prose poet.
Mowat is probably best known for "Never Cry Wolf" and "A Whale for the Killing," two accounts of his close personal involvement with these maligned and abused animals, written long before their causes became fashionable. His is a "world" of tundra and outcrop rock, a place where "only the disembodied whistling of an unseen plover gave any indication that life existed anywhere in this lunar land where no tree grew." Like the scenes before him, his writing is lean, evocative, haunting.And beneath his "achromatic landscapes," Mowat uncovers surprise, complexity, magnificence.
He finds the north's vastness at first deceptive: "There was no lack of color in living things, but it is only that the eye beholds too much in this land that has no roof and no containing walls." On a closer look, he discovers "deep chocolate bogs rich with sepia dyes," "dark and glossy greens of dwarf birch scrub," and "broad spaces where the brilliance of ten million flowers drew to themselves small butterflies gorgeous as any in the world."
One of the finest moments in the book occurs in a selection from "People of the Deer," describing how two Eskimos led him to a point in the "barrens" northwest of Hudson Bay. Suddenly, over the crest of a ridge, they sighted deer -- millionsm of deer -- congregating in a migration so vast the animals could ignore the human onlookers and their howling dogs. It was a stunning moment, an intoxicating encounter with the north's "reckless prodigality with that sacred and precious thing called life."
But the only consistency of nature at such latitudes is its harsh unpredictability. In Mowat's assorted Newfoundland tales, sailors and seal hunters are seen foundering and freezing, and in a selection from "The Desperate People" the same Eskimos who guided Mowat to the deer are faced with starvation. Except for brief reasons of sudden bounty, the life Mowat presents is a sort of permanent goal-line standoff, a small raid on slight possibilities. As one Newfoundland captain comments, "One little thing goes wrong and you've lost out. There are no second chances. The wind and the water see to that." Another old-timer says, "We don't be takin' nothin' from the sea. We sneaks up on what we wants, and wiggles it away."
In such a world, nature can seem sublimely inhuman, vast, terrible. Yet Mowat avoids either sentimental falsification of its harshness or the opposite fallacy of denying any feeling whatsoever for nature. His understanding encompasses both the beauty and necessities of the natural world, and his work seems more trustworthy for recording both.
Another aspect of Mowat's truthfulness is his humor. His prose sparkles with occasional comic gems. One selection, for instance, inspired by enduring tenderness toward a dog from his boyhood, contains a zany anecdote about the time the pet retrieved a stuffed game bird from a store window.
The stories, arranged by editor Peter Davison according to their sequence in Mowat's life, amount to quasi-autobiography. And yet the winnowing process has caused some problems; the isolated passages from "A Whale for the Killingfail to capture the full power and pathos of that work. And the excerpts from "Never Cry Wolf" relate too little of the history of the delightful wolf family Mowat got to know.
The most satisfyingly replete piece is taken from an aptly titled study of Newfoundland, "This Rock Within the Sea." Its description of the land is loving and intimate, as if Mowat had pored over each acre of stone and sea spew. Recounting how the heritage of the region's old fishing villages was destroyed by industrialization, the story becomes a prose hymn to the lost tradition. What Mowat offers is not primitivism but genuine conservatism -- a concern with, as Wordsworth phrased it at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, "things gone silently out of the world, things violently destroyed.
Mowat explains that as a young man, on setting off to study wolves, his aim was to pursue biologym in its literal sense, "the study of life." He complains that "too many of my contemporaries tended to shy away from living things as far as they could get, and chose to restrict themselves instead to the aseptic atmosphere of laboratories." Mowat was right about this imbalance in science, but efforts such as his have helped foster a newer scientific approach that regards life in its context -- not as a specimen.
In "The World of Farley Mowat," the wholeness of life is beautifully treated by a man whose heart and head, whose sharp eyes and wide grin are in strong union. His own wholeness permeates the book, and binds its parts with a shaman's magic.