In the month that marks the 75th anniversary of Grey Owl’s death and the 125th year since his birth the environment challenges still make this man’s life a testimony to our need to take steps to take better care of our world. To paraphrase Grey Owl’s own words, ‘you belong to nature, it doesn’t belong to you,’ tells us something about his concerns and our responsibility to the environment.
Grey Owl’s life was controversial to say the least, but
his love for the wilderness and concern over its future cannot be disputed. It was a message he delivered over and over again in the 1930s as he toured Britain and speaking before the king, and later in the USA and Canada: the wilderness is not endless, it needs to be preserved and cared for. In his
lifetime he’d witnessed beaver and other furbearing animals in Canada decline to
alarming numbers. He’d seen large swathes of wilderness cut down under the axe and saw blades that clear cut their way across Ontarios and Quebec in the great thirst for timber to feed the building of ships, houses and all manner of man made goods. The
wreckage left in the wake of such tree felling took its toll in the rapid decline of the wildlife deprived of its habitat and the First Nations people who subsisted in those areas.
Anahareo, Grey Owl and friend
Grey Owl, born Archie Belaney, came to the Canadian wilderness from Hastings England after a childhood enthralled by tales from James Fennimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ernest Thomas Seton. Barely eighteen, he headed straight to the Quebec side of Lake Temaskaming and fell under the tutelage of veteran woodsman, Bill Guppy. Under Guppy’s eye he learned essential bush
skills including paddling and portaging a canoe, important in a region filled with lakes and waterways. Archie spent much time with Guppy until one summer he met a young Anishnabe woman from Bear Island, Angele. Though she knew little English they managed to communicate and he met her extended family and became her acknowledged boyfriend. Less than a year later he married her and lived with her and her family on Bear Island. She bore him a daughter and within a few months of her birth Archie’s restless temperament compelled him to depart in search for new wilderness and adventure. For the next few years he acted as a fire ranger in summer and trapper in winter, sending money to Angele sporadically. In addition to that he became known as an inveterate storyteller, his skin browned in the sun and his chiselled face and dark hair all contributing to the occasional mistake that he was an Aboriginal.
Just before the war, in 1913, he met a young woman Marie Girard and invited her in the bush after a drunken tear. The pair emerged in November and a short while later Archie enlisted in the army and was sent overseas, probably before he knew tha Maire was pregnant with his son. War did not deal kindly with Archie, neither physically or emotionally. Trained as a sharp shooter he was exposed to mustard gas and suffered a crippling wound to his foot. Sent back to Hastings to recuperate, he fell into the company of a childhood friend, Ivy Holmes, a stunningly attractive former dancer who had toured Eastern Europe. Under the encouragement of both families the two married, since none but Archie knew of his prior marriage to Angele and he remained silent. But not for long. A short while later, he made his way back to Canada and wrote to Ivy, before she joined
him there and explained the situation. She divorced him.
Back in Canada, the exuberant inquisitive storyteller transformed after the war into a morose drunken brawler, his lungs and missing toes preventing him from any sustained activity. Slowly, while under the care of an Anishnabe family, The Espaniels, he regained enough physical strength to work some of the year and eventually resumed his fire ranger duties and trapping and occasionally guiding. It was in 1925 while guiding at Camp Wabikon that he met the woman who was to change his life. Anahareo.
He courted and wooed Anahareo carefully; she was only nineteen and he was in his thirties. But he was smitten in truth by her feisty spirit, her young beauty and
her quick mind. All this made him take her to the wilderness and her own joy of it and his patient (and not so patient) tutoring kept her there with him. She’d
grown up in a town next door to the wilderness, but not in it and so she attacked her lessons in bushskills with all the energy and enthusiasm of someone who needed to make up for lost time. That the two were bonded over this love of the outdoors and all the creatures it contained could not be doubted as they accumulated whiskey jacks, a moose, squirrels and various other creatures around their various homes. Such love compelled Anahareo to relinquish her new trapping regime, the cruelty it sometimes imposed was too
much for her. It was the two little orphan beaver kits that brought their concern and care for wild animals sharply into focus and Anahareo encouraged Archie to write his observations of the wilderness down.
How could they not be charmed by the energetic McGinty who took Archie’s mackinaw out for a nice long swim while Anahareo and Archie chased her frantically. Or McGinnis’eager assistance when he ably cut down a pole for them, the pole that
supported their humble tent. They were also won over by ‘their sneezes and childish coughs, their little whimpers and small appealing noises of affection, their instant and pathetically eager response to any kindness….’
All those and many more things filled Archie’s writings which later became published in Pilgrims of the Wild and other of his works. The stories and ideas soon found great popularity in Britain, Canada and even the USA as Archie was continuously asked to speak about his work with the beavers. The expanding Parks Canada recognized Archie’s work as an opportunity to link their own efforts at building a national park system for the nation and asked Archie and Anahareo to implement their plans to establish a beaver colony in one of their new parks. The public began to see and hear of Archie’s work under the name ‘Grey Owl’ a choice he made in the light of some assumptions made by some of the media and his own efforts to bring a persona into play that he thought would be most effective. Who better than an Indian to speak about the wilderness?
It was a choice that would resonate down through the
years and raise the spectre of ‘fraud’ shortly after his death in 1938 when the truth of his real heritage was published. It would cast a shadow over his work in conservation, put into doubt the truth of his message and render ineffective his very timeless message that ‘we belong to nature, nature does not belong to us.’ But today we can and must see beyond the controversy and puzzle that was Grey Owl’s life and look once again at what he was trying to tell us.
You can read more about Grey Owl and Anahareo's story in my biography, Anahareo: A Wilderness Spirit, published by Fireship Press.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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