Farley Mowat and I go back a long way. I didn’t know him personally but his stories taught me much of what I knew about the Canadian north when I was a kid. He was the quintessential Canadian writer, not just because he wrote about Canada, but because, like the land, his stories held, and continue to hold, such power. And he was from my time. When he mentions Eric the Red and Leif the Lucky, I smile. Those were the Vikings that fascinated me in third grade, when the bottom half of our notebooks were lined and the top left blank for a pencil sketch of the explorers. Long before Ragnar Lothbrok. It was a time when authors (white males) wrote with omniscient (godlike) viewpoints and felt no need for political correctness because it didn’t yet exist.
Lost in the Barrens
I spent the last few days reading myself to sleep with Lost in the Barrens. This is the book that teachers recommend to boys who don’t read, for within its pages lie adventures they will never experience any other way. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet that Gary Paulsen of Hatchet fame found Farley Mowat’s books when he was a kid.
Written in 1956, Lost in the Barrens was the third book Farley published, and it won the Governor General’s Award. This “survival story” details the adventures of an orphaned Toronto boy named Jamie Macnair and his Cree friend Awasin, who go hunting caribou with the Chipewyans and end up lost and fighting for their lives in the land of their tribal enemies, the Eskimos.
The two sixteen-year-old boys ride out a six-month mythic hero’s journey where they are tested step by step and page by page. They encounter:
- rapids that destroy their canoe, matches, and most possessions
- a stonehouse grave with Viking treasures (Farley tells its tale later in The Curse of the Viking Grave, 1967)
- physical injuries and starvation
- the sight of 250,000 caribou moving in long files down the valley and later an epic hunt
- winter in the barrens and a blizzard that nearly kills them both
- wild animals that they tame (a fawn and two lost sled dogs) and some that they don’t (wolverines and wolves)
- snowblindness (the White Fire) that nearly drives them mad
At its heart is Awasin’s wisdom and Farley’s theme: “if you fight against the spirits of the north you will always lose.” Its echo resounds as the boys arrive home: “always travel with the forces of the land and never fight against them.”
The Forces of the Land.
I grew up in southern Ontario not far from where Farley spent his final days and some blue moons, the land calls me. I don’t know if it’s ancestral memory, karmic echoes, or simply the allure of home, but this land draws me like lodestone. A kind of madness ensues and I find myself on realtor.ca pricing Kawartha cottages where I went to university, or sorting through faded black and whites, or just visualizing the fields and trails where I rode my horse in Pickering.
My memories are forged on the flora and fauna of what I grew up calling the Eastern Woodlands. I understand the way of the land there; know the names of all the trees and plants; can still smell the odour of wax-pressed fall leaves and crave the sugar bush; remember the purple trillium, and the enormous oaks and elms that shaded us from summer sun so we could read beneath their boughs. And though I’ve lived in British Columbia for two decades I’ve never lost the lure of the lakeside cabin in the bush.
Like Yeats and Thoreau I long to cast off the city and “live deliberately” — until I think about mosquitoes and black flies, -30 Celsius and a metre of snow, and remember just how deliberate that is.
But still it calls. And, in part, I owe that calling to Farley Mowat.
Farley died in 2014 at the age of 92. He was still writing. Maclean’s magazine wrote such a stunning salute to Farley at the time of his death that I can only point the way.
In his hand he held a tiny sea shell, so old that when Awasin took it, it crumbled into dust between his fingers.
Jamie looked out over the broad valley to the dim blue line of the hills to the east. He spoke with awe. “Thousands, maybe a million years ago, this must have been one huge ocean, ” he said. “And these hills were just islands in it.”
Awasin was not surprised as Jamie expected him to be. “There’s a Cree legend about that,” he replied. “It tells of a time when the whole northern plains were all water and the water was filled with strange monsters.”