Farley Mowat: a life-changing voice from the Canadian wilderness
You can be a virgin to books the same way you can be a virgin to sex. Farley Mowat, the great Canadian author and naturalist who has died, aged 92, broke my reading virginity.
Never Cry Wolf, his fictionalised auto-bio about his time spent observing wolves in sub-Arctic Canada, was the first English book I ever read from start to finish. It was part of my efforts to learn English as a second language at a Toronto high school.
Some things you read in your youth stay with you for the rest of your life. This famous passage from the book was one for me: "We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be - the mythological epitome of a savage, ruthless killer - which is, in reality, no more than the reflected image of ourselves."
Mowat held up the mirror so we could see who the real savage killer was. This was powerful stuff for a teenager who up till then had spent his whole life in Hong Kong's concrete jungles. You cannot look on life the same way even if you just spent a short time in the Canadian wilderness. You cannot be the same person again if you had gone on a spiritual trip like Mowat's - though we now know he made up a lot of stuff in the book. He sounded almost Heideggerian when critics accused him of making things up. "I am wary of 'facts' ... My experiences suggest that they generally conceal, or at least becloud, as much as, or more than, they reveal." You can say he aimed for a higher truth by not letting facts get in the way. More than any other great Canadian writers - Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler (a real city boy) - Mowat represents the great Canadian spirit of nature; his environmentalism driven by humility and awe before wildlife.
This national characteristic is sometimes caricatured as that of the provincial Canadians from The Great White North, most famously in the hilarious creations of Bob and Doug McKenzie by the comic actors Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas in the 1980s.
But it also becomes deadly serious in the fight over oil sands exploration, an important national resource whose extraction can be highly damaging to the environment.
It is, in a deep sense, a fight for the national soul that Mowat exemplifies.