By Chris McNaught
Plague and political correctness permitting, there’s little finer on a bright Saturday morning than drifting through a flea-market stall of books from yesteryear. In that, I admit a genetic quirk: a shameless affinity for the raw beauty and pristine scape of our magnificent country just prior to the First World War, as passionately and graphically depicted in unique volumes penned by a band of Canadian and American authors my mother teased as muscular Christians: the dedicated woodsmen, trail riders, climbers, fishermen, loggers and sifters of the forest gloam. And I never overlook the glorious period CPR posters of Banff and Lake Louise to whet my journey back.
I rejoice in the trove of tales, trails and lore bequeathed by my paternal grandfather (whether penned by muscular Christians or just avowed naturalists and storytellers for whom the land and wildlife formed their own religion). I look over my sacred shelves and I wonder who of you, or our children, have brushed, or ever will brush, with Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, first Canadian author attracting real world attention. Roberts and his fellow disciples heralded North America’s rugged allure nearly a century and a quarter ago, yet their prose rarely seems dated; many of their descriptive passages verge on the magisterial. Roberts’ work, such as Kings In Exile, The Haunters of the Silences and The Kindred of the Wild, waved a flag of vivid, wildlife drama above Canada’s young confederation, portraying primal spirit as a national identity.
Stewart Edward White, master woodsman and trailblazer, roamed the Sierras, rode down timber-jammed rivers, bivouacked in all manner of terrain, titling his work plainly for its content: The Mountains, The Silent Places, The Riverman. In The Riverman published in 1908, harking to the boom days of lumbering, his readers vicariously leapt, terrified but skilfully, from log to log, crashing down dark streams, deftly wielding their “peavies” – know what they were? (Editor’s note: a peavy is a pole with a pivoting hooked arm and metal spike at one end, used to manipulate logs.). As America was losing its frontiers, White recorded the California gold rush and extolled the rich virtues of roughing it outdoors.
James Oliver Curwood (1878-1927), another American member of this fraternity of frontier raconteurs, abandoned a university English degree to plunder Alaska and Canada’s great northwest to confabulate all manner of adventure in the wilds – The Wolf Hunters, The Valley of Silent Men and The River’s End, in which a Canadian Mountie “gets his man.” He sweetened some tales with secondary romance to extend commercial reach and several of his themes even enjoyed early movie success.
Animals, however, were Curwood’s lead characters. Once a hunter, like Roberts’ young lad in The Kindred of the Wild who swore never to trap again after staring at dead rabbits in a snare, Curwood was converted to preservationism after killing several bears in British Columbia: “The greatest thrill is not to kill, but to let live.” True to his words, he created his animal books as expiation for his “slaughter,” which he came to regard as almost criminal. In one of his finest works, The Grizzly King, he consolidates his ultimate respect after spotting but not killing Thor, a monstrous bear, “leaving him alone to his freedom in the mountains.”
Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), was a British-born, longtime Canadian resident, latterly an American citizen and a founder of Boy Scouts of America – “Woodcraft is the first of all of the sciences.” He esteemed the “law of the land,” meaning the rule and ways of nature. Back in 1912, he vigorously preached the cultural wisdom of Indigenous people (the Utes, for example) who obeyed that law, dedicating himself to instilling native precepts as a foundation for youth to understand and respect the wilds.
En route, Seton wrote extensively about and illustrated how to construct a teepee, avoid poisonous toadstools and other fungi, locate pure water, create herbal medicines, build a proper cooking fire, sleep safely, leave or follow a hidden track, recognize all flora and fauna, live off the land and generally grow to comprehend how profoundly rewarding woodcraft was.
As for the real-life creatures soaring and bounding through his stories, Seton faithfully rendered their courage and environs and, far from fairy-dusting things, noted “the life of a wild animal always has a tragic end,” cautioning that “we and the beasts are kin.”
In recently enthusing over my rediscovery of these unique annals of our virgin tapestry to a school-teacher friend, I was surprised by her comment that such work was inappropriate or too dark for today’s youth. I may have misunderstood, but I wonder, given the current paranoia of pandemic, nuclear holocaust, terrorism, endless school massacres, gun crimes, partisan rancour, corporate avarice and climate depredation, if a return to the wild might not in fact be both constructive and more comforting? We might then begin to atone for the loss of harmony and beauty in our land.
Unlike the stories of Aesop, Beatrix Potter or Kenneth Grahame (Wind in the Willows, for example), which are unquestioned treasures of course, Roberts, White and Seton did not anthropomorphize their subjects in the wild but ascribed character traits and emotion dictated by observation and scientific reflection on animal instinct.
So much to bind us to the past, should we listen, the key, cyclical ingredient of the present. May we all roam again amongst the kindred of the wild, in that “land of mystery and enchantment.”
Chris McNaught is an author and former criminal lawyer and university lecturer. His most recent novel is Dùn Phris, A Gathering, Pegasus/Vanguard Press, UK, 2020.