Farley Mowat, impassioned Canadian writer about nature, dies at 92

May 8

Farley Mowat, one of Canada’s best-known writers, whose impassioned books about wildlife and native cultures inspired generations of environmental activists and sparked criticism of his methods, died May 6 at his home in Port Hope, Ontario. He was 92.

A friend, Stephen Smith, confirmed his death to the Canadian Press news agency, saying that Mr. Mowat collapsed at his home. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.

From an early age, Mr. Mowat (rhymes with “poet”) was stricken with what he called “virus arcticus,” or arctic fever. He drew on his wide travels throughout Canada for his more than 40 books, including many that brought early attention to environmental degradation, the treatment of animals and the plight of native peoples.

He became such an outspoken activist that U.S. customs officials barred him from crossing the border in 1985, noting that Mr. Mowat was on a list of “subversive” foreign nationals.

Mr. Mowat wrote novels, memoirs and children’s books, as well as a 1987 biography of Dian Fossey, the American naturalist who sought to save African mountain gorillas and was found murdered at her home in Rwanda in 1985.


Canadian author Farley Mowat. (Bill Becker/AP)

Mr. Mowat was best known for his reports from the remote regions of Canada. Since the age of 14, he had traveled with scientific expeditions to the barren north, where he was powerfully affected by the wildlife, the people and the land.

Seeking solitude after shattering combat experiences in World War II, which he later wrote about in “And No Birds Sang” (1979) and other books, Mr. Mowat journeyed to northern Canada in the late 1940s.

His first book, “People of the Deer” (1952), about Inuit natives whose lives were dependent on the region’s roaming herds of caribou, brought attention to the poverty and other struggles of a forgotten culture.

In a second book about the Inuit, “The Desperate People” (1959), Mr. Mowat said Canadians had condemned segregation in the American South and apartheid in South Africa but ignored the poverty of their own indigenous people.

“Indeed, we looked virtuously in all directions,” he wrote, “except northward into our own land.”

His writing inspired parliamentary debate in Canada and changes in the country’s practices toward the native inhabitants of the Arctic. Acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood, writing in the Toronto Star in 2012, noted that “People of the Deer” had the same impact on the treatment of native peoples as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” had had on the environmental movement.

After participating in a scientific study of wolves in northern Manitoba, Mr. Mowat published a book about the experience, “Never Cry Wolf,” in 1963. To get closer to his subject, Mr. Mowat said, he even adopted the diet of wolves for a while, subsisting on mice.

He described the animals in terms of a nuclear family, with responsible parents who cared for pups abandoned by other wolves. He was particularly taken by the wolf den’s patriarch: “His dignity was unassailable, yet he was by no means aloof. Conscientious to a fault, thoughtful of others, and affectionate within reasonable bounds, he was the kind of father whose idealized image appears in many wistful books of human family reminiscences.”

Mr. Mowat’s sympathetic, humanizing portrayal of the wolves provoked widespread anger from farmers and other people who thought wolves were predators that should be eliminated. The book led to a more sensitive understanding of wildlife by the public. After “Never Cry Wolf” was translated into Russian, the Soviet government abolished the hunting of wolves.

From the beginning of his career, critics raised questions about Mr. Mowat’s research methods. The sharpest rebuke came in 1996, when journalist John Goddard compared Mr. Mowat’s archived diaries and field notes with his published books. Writing in Canada’s Saturday Night magazine, Goddard concluded that the author often relied on exaggeration or outright fabrication.

“I never let the facts stand in the way of the truth,” Mr. Mowat said at first, describing his work as “subjective nonfiction.”

In the end, he maintained that the larger issues he explored in his books — the shabby treatment of the environment and indigenous peoples — remained intact.

“I thought these books would change the way people think about the natural world and the course of human destiny,” Mr. Mowat told the Toronto Star in 2012. “But we’re still killing whales. We’re still killing wolves. We’re still contaminating the air and the land and the water around us.”

Farley McGill Mowat was born May 12, 1921, in Belleville, Ontario. His father was a librarian, and in the early 1930s the family settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Before he turned 12, young Mr. Mowat was writing a column on birds for a local newspaper.

He served overseas with the Canadian army for three years during World War II, returning traumatized by the gruesome battlefield scenes he witnessed in Italy. After the war, he graduated from the University of Toronto in 1949.

He wrote about his childhood in a series of warm memoirs and children’s books, including “The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be” (1957), which New York Times book critic Orville Prescott pronounced a book of “irresistible charm.”

Mr. Mowat’s first marriage, to Frances Thornhill, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Claire Wheeler of Port Hope, and two sons from his first marriage.

For years, Mr. Mowat used his writing as a form of environmental crusading. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society named its flagship in his honor.

Mr. Mowat was gregarious and lively company, well known among other writers in Canada but, as time passed he seemed to lose hope in the human race.

“I keep my optimism alive and revitalized by accepting the fact that we are a bad species, and probably haven’t got much time here,” he told The Washington Post in 1994, “and it’s not going to break my heart when Homo sap wanders offstage.”

Then he added, “Wanna get some more coffee?”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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