We’re talking about the inner life of the sand crab. Or at least I think we are. Farley Mowat may be 87 years old and a little frailer than he once was, but his mind is as nimble as ever, and we’ve gotten onto the topic with a few hop-skips I seem to have missed.
“There they are,” says Farley, squinting at me through his facial shrubbery, now rather more sparse than it used to be. “Just sitting there in the sand, bothering nothing and being bothered by nothing. For a hundred and fifty million years, unchanged…”
“Lacking a little in drama,” I say, bemused.
“Well, precisely!” Farley says gleefully. “That’s the point. Now take your top predator species. There’s drama! Drama all the time. Nothing but drama. Just look what turmoil they cause. Then look at how short their time on earth typically is – they arrive on the scene, cause havoc for a geological millisecond, and poof, they die.”
He’s not talking about the dinosaurs, but about Us. Conversations with Farley often come back to the human species and its “boundless cruelties,” its pernicious effect on the other citizens of the planet – that is, all the species that Farley refers to in shorthand as “the Others.” It is one of the great themes that runs through his 42 (and maybe counting) books, along with the great north and its people. Farley is the polar opposite of those grim politicians who profess to love and serve “the people” but who don’t seem to like actual individuals very much. He’s gregarious, has many good friends, and relates happily to people from different cultures and walks of life. But he has no time for humans in the collective sense.
Talk to many of Farley’s friends, and they will say he is a pessimist with a gloomy view of what is to come. Farley himself denies this, and says he remains optimistic. But it turns out his optimism includes the rather radical notion that our killing ways will extend to ourselves, that we will be absent from the planet’s future. And that we won’t be missed. Does he really believe this? Who knows? “But it is what keeps me going,” he says.
Farley has just published his latest book, Otherwise, the title a backhanded reference to those Others. It describes his life from boyhood through to post-war adulthood, and is written with his trademark ease, the prose almost invisible in the story, and filled with good humour. But the thrust of many of its anecdotes is clear. And sometimes rather dire.
Part of the story is Farley’s attempt to connect with the Others and his early efforts to find purpose in his life through science. But then as now, animal studies relied on “sample” collection through shooting and skinning. He describes the carnage resulting from his own small efforts, and how it eventually soured him on science. “What you have to understand is that killing is fun,” he tells me. “We are programmed to kill. I enjoyed killing. When a bird erupted from a thicket I reached for my shotgun and bam! bam! Oh, good, another rare one to study…. It was a thrill.”
His Second World War experiences in the Italian campaign, recounted in Otherwise as well as in earlier books, only confirmed his belief that humans revel in effortless savagery, and when he returned to Canada he found it impossible to fit into what was thought to be normal society. He couldn’t go back to science, either, and since he had been an inveterate note-taker all his life, he took to writing. It kept him from having to confront the awfulness he saw all around him. It still does.
Otherwise seems to me more directly autobiographical than many of Farley’s books, so I ask him: Why this book, and why now? He downplays the premise of the question: “All my books, except the preachy ones, have been autobiographical,” he says. They all represent episodes in a life, told not in sequence, but as they were ready to be told. He has led an interesting life and been to many remote and interesting places, and millions of readers have followed along. Perhaps, as he has hinted, all the busyness and travel and even the great good humour is at least partly a cover for his lack of connection with the everyday business-as-usual of our species.
And what about the strong hints from McClelland & Stewart, Farley’s publisher, that the new book will be his last? Here Farley hedges with a “perhaps.” He’s still taking notes, of course – he’ll probably try to turn his last breath into a story – but it’s unclear whether those notes will make another book. At his age, Farley admits, the organizational demands of writing a full-length book are increasingly intense. And his memory isn’t what it used to be, either. “Put it this way,” he said. “I remember very clearly what it was like to get laid for the first time. But who it was, and when, I haven’t a clue.”
I first met Farley more than 25 years ago, at a party at Anna Porter’s house. The beard was fuller then, and redder, and Farley was a touch more, well, belligerent. But I remember listening to his stories, and noticing how they relied on the telling detail, the revealing anecdote. If the details went missing, Farley would have to rely on introspection for his stories – and then he wouldn’t be Farley, would he? He considers himself a storyteller, in the spirit of the griots and the jongleurs of old. “I’m a simple man,” he tells me (knowing very well that I consider this statement to be, in one of his own favourite expressions, the sheerest bullshit). “I loathe all talk of ‘artistry’ in writing. Literary fiction delves into character and motivation, but I never get into the heads of my characters. I don’t know how. Hell, I don’t even understand myself, never mind anyone else.
“And if someone tells you writing is easy, he is either lying or I hate him.”
I ask Farley which of his books he likes best, or even still enjoys, but he will not be drawn. He does mention The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, not because of its merits (though it has plenty), but because it captures a turning point in his own history. One place the boat wouldn’t float was off St. Pierre et Miquelon, where he put in for repairs and met an Ontario girl studying French. That was that – he and Claire, now 75, have been together ever since, some 50 years in all.
As for his aforementioned “preachy” titles, they include his two books about the Inuit of the Barrenlands, People of the Deer and The Desperate People – two powerful polemics against a callous Canadian system that condemned its marginalized peoples to famine and lingering death. Along with his lyrical Never Cry Wolf, his defence of a creature both reviled and persecuted, these were his first published works. The great barren north gave him his purpose, and his method. It proved he could tell tales that could charm and entertain and sometimes instruct. And it allowed him to be both in the world and apart from it.
These days, though, the books about the plight of native peoples are also a source of regret. “I’m convinced they just made things worse,” he says. “Oh, I don’t have any guilt, really – I was, at worst, well-meaning. But I should have realized that you just can’t live by those traditional ways in the modern world. And so what you have now is the worst of both worlds, a people utterly dependent on handouts, bereft of culture, with deep and unsolvable problems…. And I do think I contributed to that.”
Not that he’s altogether given up courting controversy. Otherwise is dedicated to the combative Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society, whose exploits against whalers and, more recently, seal hunters are well known. Watson’s boat, not coincidentally called the Farley Mowat, was impounded last winter by the Canadian Coast Guard. Farley, prudently, is circumspect about the recent controversy. “Just thought it was time Watson got some credit,” is all he will say.
After lunch – borscht from homegrown beets, sliced peaches, homemade banana bread – we go outside into the late-summer sun. The Mowats’ summer home in Cape Breton is high on a hill outside the bucolic village of River Bourgeois. Their 200 acres encompass a pristine, small peninsula with stone beaches, several bogs and wetlands, and the hill on which their house perches; last year they arranged to deed the land to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust and will do the same for the house “when we’re gone,” in Farley’s words.
Until “gone” comes, they will continue to maintain two houses – they winter in Port Hope, Ontario. Nor do they lack for company. Claire has her own large circle of friends. Sandy and David, Farley’s two sons by his first wife, Frances, visit when they can. But Farley and Claire both need, as they always have, “alone time” – time to be quiet, to garden, to think, to read, to make notes. Although Claire admits that 87 “is closer to 90 than 80,” the couple betrays no sense that time is running out.
I think about asking Farley whether he is content, but I don’t. I don’t think contentment is high on his list of virtues. We walk around the homestead a little, past the garden and past the little greenhouse cobbled together from old storm windows. The dog, Chester, amiably says hello by sticking his nose into my crotch. Overhead, the contrails of some military jet dissipate in the thin blue. The bogs are gold amid the green. The sea glitters.
It is a lovely, lovely place. And Farley knows it is just the kind of thing that our species is busily screwing up.