Water Closet for June 6, 2014
Canadian writer and environmentalist Farley Mowat died May 8th at the age of 92. He didn’t like the United States, the Canadian government, or for that matter the human species. As a gregarious raconteur he liked individuals and entertained us all with good books for two-thirds of a century. In 1986 he was stopped by customs from entering the United States for being a “subversive”. [pullquote]”Farley Mowat caught a glimpse of that former life before it was gone. He eloquently told us of it”[/pullquote]He railed, not always accurately, about his and our country’s faults. His critics accuse him of being fast and loose with the truth.
One old Yankee Closeteer much admired him forty years ago after reading People of the Deer, the first of his almost 50 books. It is beautifully written. Yet even in his own country, one so proud of him, he was perceived by many as an angry pest. In his long life he often criticized society for environmental crimes and for attitudes and policies that hurt native peoples. He was ridiculed on the floor of parliament for allegedly false accusations about the treatment of Eskimos and Indians. Later we learned many of his criticisms were valid. Worldwide, in 52 languages, readers liked this warm storyteller from a land largely of ice, snow and cold liquid water. His wide subject range encompassed everything from children’s stories, to novels, to semi-scientific papers. Never Cry Wolf, a study of wolves, while very popular, was severely criticized by some scientists for being far too anthropomorphic.
Sadly up until the end he saw his own as a dangerous species taking others down. Outspoken, he threatened our innate optimism so necessary for us to carry on. He would severely criticize and then might say to listeners with a friendly smile “Let’s go have a drink.” We in the Closet get the feeling from several obituaries that he had lots of friends plus millions of admirers. Many Canadians consider Mowat a national treasure perhaps right up there with short story writer and 2013 Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, also from Ontario. Great Alice lives on. We wonder what she thought of Farley.
Mowat was interested in nature throughout life. As a boy he wrote articles about birds for a local paper. After a disillusioning three army years fighting in WWII Europe, he returned home and sought escape. He had heard of natives relatively unspoiled by contact with whites in The Barrens of central Canada, on tundra above the Boreal Forest. He outfitted himself with gear and found a young bush pilot in Churchill on Hudson Bay willing to fly him 200 miles west to the area of the survivors, the Ihalmiut, “People of the Beyond”. The natives’ food, clothing, and summer shelter were of caribou. In the winter between caribou migrations they trapped arctic foxes for white traders who supplied them with rifles, ammunition, and stomach upsetting flour. By the late 1940s diseases of the whites and indirectly their trade goods, had decimated their population from a few thousand to less than fifty. The caribou still passed through their watery land at times by the tens of thousands. When they didn’t many natives starved despite the traders’ inadequate flour and sugar. The price of fox pelts fell. The traders left. Ammunition became hard to get. The hunters in just a couple generations had lost their spear making skills along with others that had developed in a very harsh land over hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. When Mowat arrived he found a friendly people in ragged caribou hide tents spread out around several lakes. In a couple years he learned to speak their language and know them all by name. He recorded their sad decline. In time he blamed the government in Ottawa for its policies toward them. Two cultures clashed, one weak and dying, the other rich and powerful, the latter very unwise in Mowat’s opinion. A few years after he returned to the “civilization” he often disdained, he wrote People of the Deer and the battle was joined. He is credited with changing governmental policies toward native peoples for the better throughout Canada. If you want to read something by Mowat from his long shelf we recommend you start, as he did, with his description of the Ihalmiut now gone. You’ll learn of a culture where anger was the worst thing a person could show; about parents, kin, and neighbors who invariably raised children without punishment. According to Mowat most became admirable generous adults. At first he occasionally showed anger toward some only to be left burdened with shame and regret.
The Ihalmios’ place between those of the caribou was one of water. Permafrost below ground, with muskeg and lakes all around. The caribou spend their summers far to the north in open pond-pocked tundra where the does give birth to the next generation. In winter all retreat south to the boreal forest where there is some shelter from low spruce. In going and coming they passed by the hunters who shot a few hundred from countless thousands. The caribou wade, swim rivers and lakes, trot on ice, get caught in snow drifts, bog down in muskegs, and otherwise live yearlong around water solid and liquid. In summer days of continuous light and high heat, the tundra literally hums with plant, bird, and insect life. In the dark winter all freezes solid except that water in mammalian and bird blood and in that too when food is scarce.
While reading People of the Deer again after hearing of the author’s death, and while writing this, we wonder what it is like people-wise there now. It would be easy to go on line and find out. We do know the rich fly in and out of the lakes to hunt caribou and to fish. While we wonder, do we really want to know? The best parts of Mowat’s detailed account are of stories and songs sung in crowded igloos below the flickering aurora borealis throughout long winter nights. The old hunters told of the days when caribou were shot with fine hand-fashioned spears from often even more beautifully made kayaks. Those are the stories Mowat and his readers loved best, not accounts of planes with tourist hunters or of the outrages being perpetrated by the extractors of oil shale from vast open pits to the west near the northern edges of the boreal forests. We well know the peoples who lived so closely to the land are gone. Here in New England it has been more than three centuries. The Indians and Eskimos houses are no longer of caribou skins in summer or blocks of ice in winter. The stories and songs of others come in from the south via TV. These say nothing of the past. The old hunters are dead. A few of their spears, drums, kayaks, and bows are in museums.
Farley Mowat caught a glimpse of that former life before it was gone. He eloquently told us of it. May he, cantankerous cuss that he was, finally rest in peace.
WATER RESOURCE AND CONSERVATION INFORMATION
FOR MIDDLETON, BOXFORD AND TOPSFIELD
|Precipitation Data* for Month of:
|30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches
|2013 – 14 Central Watershed Actual
|0.0 as of 6/3**
Ipswich R. Flow Rate(S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For June 3, 2014: Normal . . . 51 CFS Current Rate . . . 37 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru April. Normalsdata is from the National Climatic Data Center.
**Updated May and June precipitation data is from MST gage..