• Tue
  • Dec 23, 2014
  • Updated: 9:19am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:08am

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.


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This article is now closed to comments

But then why is there a photo of Dumbledore?
Reading habit is an interesting topic to me indeed. What is most observable is not staring at people actually holding a book reading. More, it is seeing reams of shelves of books wall to wall. It doesn’t matter if you are a professor or not that I always question about how anyone could be possible to finish reading all these books displaying on those shelves.
Perhaps we have a habit to acquire a book at a bookstore to find something appealing by its title, book reviews or a few paragraphs. That would be the last time to read the book after it finds a place on the bookshelf. I do that too thinking I would read it from end to end someday.
Perhaps there is the vanity kind who uses books as a signifier for being a learned creature by collecting books for show.
On the other hand I know someone who has read War and Peace three times so far. When I visited him, I saw no reams of bookshelves. He probably has only one book – War and Peace by his bed.
Then a coworker I recall the bathroom was filled with paperbacks of Gothic stories -- a most telling reading habit where and what.
Al’s short essay / comment moves on many fronts spreading from reading habit, wolf, author and nature. The main theme perhaps is about Canada of its important resources including human who are writers.
I will pick his quote from Mowat’s observation that wrong claim of wolf savageness as ruthless killer is only “no more than the reflected image of ourselves" to focus back what is observable in Hong Kong’s ‘concrete jungle’.
While wolf may not be ruthless killer in reality, human really is and Hong Kong is not short of savages. They are the property developers especially structured as conglomerates. They are ruthless ‘manipulators’ killing Hong Kong people to live a normal life -- living in a bunk bed or an expansive concrete shoebox-size flat we must.
Wrongly or not to the wolf, a property developer even ‘cried wolf’ when things aren't going his way in Hong Kong since CY Leung became the CE whom many ironically accuse him as a wolf in sheep’s coat. Probably another non-factual claim of wolf’s true characteristic.


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