The Soapbox: Remembering Farley Mowat

Justin Crann
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Farley Mowat died this past Tuesday. He was 92 years old.

Justin Crann

Canadians know Mowat as an author and environmentalist. He was an ideologue who was either beloved or reviled. He was a member of the Order of Canada. And to a younger version of this reporter, he was a phenomenal teacher.

Let me be perfectly clear: I never knew Farley Mowat personally. I never met the man or exchanged a letter or phone call with him. He would never have been able to pick me out in a crowd.

But through one of his books, titled Never Cry Wolf, I learned an essential life lesson that still guides the way I think and the way I do my job.

Though the book has been published for decades, many may never have read it. That could come as a surprise, seeing as Never Cry Wolf is arguably one of the most controversial and famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) novels Mowat every produced.

At the core of the novel is Mowat’s account of his experiences on the arctic tundra as a recent graduate, following and even “living with” a pack of arctic wolves.

It came about as an assignment of the Dominion Wildlife Service — an investigation into the plight of caribou in the region, and whether wolves were at fault for the decline, which at the time was a popularly held belief.

What Mowat ultimately asserts within his novel is that human hunters, and not wolves, are responsible for the decline of caribou populations.

Further, he writes, “we have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be — the mythological epitome of a savage, ruthless killer — which is, in reality, no more than the reflected image of ourself.”

But Mowat’s conclusions were eventually questioned, and the book created a controversy after it was published.

Some alleged Mowat’s comments on the behaviour of wolves were founded on an insufficient amount of research. Others contended he borrowed from the work of other people to produce his own.

The most substantial criticism came from wolf expert L. David Mech, who said, “Mowat’s (book) seems to be basically fiction founded somewhat on facts. It appears to have been compounded by his own limited adventures with wild wolves, plus a generous quantity of unacknowledged experiences of other authors; a certain amount of imagination and embellishment probably completely the formula for this book.”

In other words, Mech was saying, Mowat’s Never Cry Wolfwas hogwash.

Whether it actually is or not is not the intended topic of my column, however. As a young boy, the stories told by Mowat in the novel were astonishing and offered a different understanding of the animal that was the novel’s subject.

But more important was the lesson I took away from the book.

That lesson is to never take anything — a novel, a belief, a philosophy — at face value, question everything, and establish my own understanding of the world, based on my own experiences.

For that, I am infinitely grateful.

Organizations: Dominion Wildlife Service

Geographic location: Canada

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