Amid the rambling wild roses that border the backyard of Canadian writer Farley Mowat stands a vertebra of a whale. The luminescent bone protrudes from the soil like an ancient relic, and on first glance resembles an ethereal statue of a one-legged, bowing angel. It was 1972 when this world-renowned literary spokesman for the wilds and his wife, Claire, found the bone half buried in the sands of the Magdalen Islands. They dug it up with their hands, and eventually placed it by a pond here at their seaside summer home.
``It's symbolic of the whales and what's happened to them,'' says Mr. Mowat, who has written frequently on the subject. On the west coast of Newfoundland, he says, ``half the beaches are whale bones.'' And in Red Bay, on the southern coast of Labrador, ``the bottom of the harbor is coated with whale bones.''
These are the remnants left behind by whaling crews of bygone days that serve to remind him of the devastation man has wrought on this marine species that once swarmed the oceans in profuse numbers. For Mowat, it is also a warning of what may happen to all wild species if adequate preservation measures are not taken soon by world governments.
``What concerns me is the diminution of the remaining populations [of animals] which are not yet officially extinct, but who have been so reduced they are, in effect, either extinct or on their way to extinction,'' he says.
``We are doing it worldwide, everywhere in the world. We're visiting a kind of mass destruction that hasn't been seen since the great die-off of the dinosaurs, and maybe what we're doing is even worse, even more disastrous.''
A recently published statistic by highly regarded environmentalist Norman Myers confirms that at the present rate of extinction, we will see the loss of 50,000 species a year by the year 2000 (predominantly insects, and not including plant species), and will be driving 130 species into extinction every day.
Mowat is one of his country's most honored authors. He has twice won the Governor General's Award, the most prestigious Canadian literary award. He is the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for his contributions on interracial relations and was decorated with the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honor. He is also highly regarded by a wide range of environmental organizations.
``He's admired in the sense that he has brought ecological issues to the public,'' says Daniel Moses, editorial director of Sierra Club Books.
Mowat's environmental concerns run deep in his writings. Most of his 28 books -- which he refers to as ``cause books'' -- are rife with Canadian imagery and Arctic settings. They tussle with issues of endurance and survival, draw upon the interconnectedness of life, and highlight man's compassion for and inhumanity to his environment. They are poetic, palatable, humorous, and often strikingly frank in their message. Perhaps best known are his books ``A Whale for the Killing'' and ``Never Cry Wolf,'' bot h of which were made into films.
``Never Cry Wolf'' was the first book ever written in defense of the wolf, Mowat says. It was Published in 40 languages, it and even drew readers from the Soviet Union. Yet he laments that the book did little to raise consciousness about the plight of this endangered species.
``As a species, it's gone. And men continue to destroy it without thought for what they're doing, simply for selfish reasons.''
Then there is the Atlantic black right whale, which numbers about 300.
``It's an endangered species, and we spend a lot of time and energy on it. And people go out and whale watch in the Bay of Fundy to see a black right whale,'' he says. ``Yet that animal is finished. Reproductively it can never recover. In the 30 years since it's been protected, the population has not increased.''
``There's obviously no going back, there never is in any evolutionary process. But we can change our attitudes, we can move sideways, and agree to realize the necessity for some kind of coexistence,'' he adds.
A stout, impish man of Scottish descent, Mowat has a quick wit and a ruddy, Rip van Winkle beard of slightly orange tint. His brash, outspoken manner has more than once branded him as a rabble-rouser. Yet behind the roguish faade is an affable man with a kindly demeanor, and a heart of inestimable compassion. Seated by a picture window that opens to a misty Nova Scotia bay below, he talks of his most recent pursuits.
``I am an observer of the natural world, and part of it, and over the years I've been aware of the fact that birds, animals, and fishes in this region -- the region in which I live -- have become steadily scarcer. It came to bother me, and finally I decided to investigate and see if my impression was correct.
``The investigation led me into tortuous byways, and I discovered that I was entering a cave of horrors. The deeper I dug, the more I discovered. The destruction that we have visited upon animal creation is absolutely, incredibly large, huge, terrific, devastating. Devastating is the word.''
The study led to his writing the book ``Sea of Slaughter,'' published last April by Atlantic, to ``ring the bell'' for environmentalists. It is his most serious and extensive -- yet least entertaining -- work to date, a work that required of him ``five years of servitude.''
The only book of its kind, ``Sea of Slaughter'' re-creates the conditions of life on the Eastern Seaboard of North America from the year 1500 to the present day. As a documented case study, it includes grueling detail of the massive destruction of wildlife in that area. Mowat had a computer specialist run the raw data compiled in the book through a computer, and he found the results astonishing.
``[The specialist] came up with the horrifying conclusion that we, Western man, Western culture, have destroyed between 80 and 90 percent of the biomass -- that is, the literal, physical volume of natural life on the Atlantic seaboard, and the immediate adjacent interior.''
The book cites, for example, the history of the Eastern wood buffalo that roamed the woodlands of New England and northeastern Canada. They were the largest and most abundant herbivores in the eastern forest, yet the entire population was destroyed by settlers. The only records that verify this species' existence come from observations and journals of early explorers and settlers who are quoted extensively in the book.
Mowat also notes that when settlers first arrived, such an abundance of marine life existed that fish were literally skimmed off the surface of the ocean. This food source has so diminished today that some fish species are no longer available in markets. Scallops will be unavailable to consumers in the near future if the present overcatch continues, he predicts.
``Sea of Slaughter'' also documents the virtual extinction of the Eskimo curlew, a bird so plentiful that settlers randomly raised their muskets into the air to bring down as many as a dozen with a single shot.
``It literally numbered in the tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions,'' he says. ``[Today], it is believed by some biologists that there may be a dozen individuals -- maybe as many as 25 [left], but nobody knows.''
Mowat points out that recent grasshopper plagues in the plains regions of the United States might be linked in part to the extinction of the Eskimo curlew. Grasshoppers were the major part of the bird's diet during its migration over the plains region. Early settlers may not have recognized the repercussions of their actions, says Mowat, but today we can study their mistakes to avoid creating further imbalances in the ecosystem.
``We will inevitably destroy our underpinning if we continue this way,'' he warns. ``We're part of a life-sustaining structure, and we're only one manifestation of it. Destroy the structure, and we'll go, too.''
As jarring as the message is, however, Mowat fails to adequately mention in the book legislation enacted over the last 15 years in defense of wildlife -- such as the US Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Last summer, Mowat was denied entry to the United States by the Immigration and Naturalization Service when he attempted to cross the US-Canadian border on a publicity tour for ``Sea of Slaughter.'' The INS cited the McCarran-Walter Act as reason for the refusal. (The McCarran-Walter Act was enacted in 1952, and cites 33 categories of inadmissible persons, including anarchists, communists, persons affiliated with communist organizations, or anyone whose actions are considered ``prejudicial to the public
interest.'' Under the same act, the INS denied entry to Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez, Italian playwright Dario Fo, South African poet Denis Brutus, and others. Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was denied entry in 1954, when he was editor of a radical Montreal magazine.)
The act is viewed by some as an infringement on freedom of speech. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts introduced a bill last year to revamp the McCarran-Walter Act.
At the prompting of his publishers, the Atlantic Monthly Press in the US and McClelland & Stewart Ltd. in Canada, and with support from US and Canadian news media, Mowat pressed the INS to specify the reasons for his rejection. In his new book, ``My Discovery of America,'' which was due out yesterday, he documents his ordeal. The book is a brief -- though sometimes trivial -- 100-page synopsis, liberally doused with Mowat's characteristic humor. After hearing a variety of reasons for his rejection -- in cluding alleged communist affiliations and his firing of a .22 caliber rifle at a US Strategic Air Command plane carrying hydrogen bombs -- Mowat concludes that the INS was merely tossing a red herring in his path.
``They never produced any evidence at all that could effectively explain why they stopped me, and why they hadn't stopped me before -- I'd been going to the US periodically for years. The story comes out in the book. It is directly related to `Sea of Slaughter,' '' he explains.
``The reason that I was stopped, despite the excuse given, was that the anti-environmentalist lobby in Washington, including the gun lobby and the sports hunter lobby, did not want `Sea of Slaughter' to be propagandized by me in the US.''
The INS denies Mowat's accusation. ``I don't know of any connection like that,'' says Duane Austin, press officer for the INS. ``We don't critique books and decide we don't like them.''
The reason for the denial ``is not a matter of public record,'' he adds.
Despite the controversy, environmentalists agree that Mowat continues to play a key role in stemming the diminution of endangered species.
``He is such a lightning rod,'' says Allen E. Smith, president of Defenders of Wildlife. ``No one will be able to sweep endangered-species issues under the rug with Farley Mowat around. I find that useful.''