Remembering Farley Mowat

When writing about the recently deceased, it is typical to share memories. In this case it is entirely redundant to put the typical “remembering” next to the name Farley Mowat.  Farley was and is unforgettable.

I have known and worked with Farley since the 1970s, becoming close by the late 1980s.  Farley and his brilliant wife Claire have been dear friends; Farley, my daughter’s god-father.  We spent Christmases and parts of every summer together for all that time. I always had Farley’s encouragement – not to mention a commitment to bail me out of jail if it was ever needed.

He was an inspiration to me and many others; some he did bail out of jail. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Society, named a vessel, dispatched to oppose illegal whaling and christened “The Farley Mowat.”  As much as Farley’s awarding as Officer of the Order of Canada meant to him, it paled in comparison to the pride he felt in knowing that the “R/V Farley Mowat” plied the waves of the Antarctic in defense of the planet’s Leviathans.  His connection to wild things embraced whales and Paul Watson. Paul’s tribute to Farley, “The most significantly awesome man I have ever known,” begins to touch on the many ways in which Farley was one of a kind.

First and foremost, he was a writer.  His talent was enormous and he wrote with great discipline, daily and always.  The fact that he authored over 40 books, sold 17 million copies, translated into 52 languages and at least five of them making their way to the screen speaks to the over-sized scale of his talent. His loss is not only a loss to Canadian literature, but to the world.

He was a passionate defender of the written word. He was also thrilled when the Ottawa school district named a school after him.  Getting children to read mattered to him. That his father was a librarian was part of why he was always available to defend the role of the public library.  He had no use for computers, cell phones or blackberries.  He typed his drafts on an old manual Underwood, correcting in red ink. His concession to modernity was to finally get a phone answering machine. When we last visited, he came menacingly close to throwing my blackberry into the snow:  “if anyone else had dared to bring that infernal contraption into this house, it would have been pitched out the window by now.”  I obediently put it away.

His defense of our natural world was unflinching. His allegiance lay not with his own species, with whom he had a fraught relationship.  He was no misanthrope; he loved people, but he had very little use for humanity as a whole.  He observed very personally the cruelty and horrors of war.  He served in the Second World War, fighting with so many brave – and terrified – young men of the “Hasty P’s” – The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. The brutal campaign in Italy is chronicled in “And no birds sang,” a book to turn anyone into a pacifist. In 1945 as a young intelligence officer, he negotiated with the Nazis to get food drops to the starving Dutch civilian population. He would have hated being described as a “war hero,” but his heroism is beyond question.

Coming home from the war, he loathed his own species. And we did nothing to redeem ourselves. Farley Mowat railed against our serial devastation of one ecosystem after another, driving species after species to extinction. Most recently he took up the cause of protecting the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the threat of oil and gas drilling.  Our greed and recklessness has finally led to a climate crisis with the potential to destroy our own species. Farley thought such an end would benefit whatever species could survive us.  On this we disagreed, but on nothing else.  In his last years, even our politics lined up, as he embraced the Green Party.  That his last published letter supported our efforts meant the world to me.  He wrote, “Without the Greens why would anyone bother to vote at all?” (December 4, 2013, Globe and Mail)

But it is the memories of the private Farley I will cherish. He was, far from his public persona, a caring, thoughtful and empathetic soul. There was no better friend, no better source of comfort at a time of loss, no greater cheerleader when the chips were down. I can hear his voice, “Okay kid, get back to work!”

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.