Thursday, March 7, 2013

Grey Owl

Photo credit: wikipedia
A discussion of the writings of Grey Owl is hardly complete without some knowledge of the man himself. I might guess that not everyone knows of him, because when I tried to search the internet for him, mostly all I got was Grey Owl Coffee, Grey Owl Street, Grey Owl Realty, and a smidgen about his namesake, the Great Grey Owl. I had to dig to find him buried in the digital tombs of the internet. That means not many people have been looking for him. If you love nature, the water, and paddling, this is a man you want to know better, and his writings even more so.

Grey Owl lived from 1888 to 1938. He was born as Archibald Stanford Belaney in Hastings, England, to a farming family. He attended the Hastings Grammar School as a youth, and one of the things that will first strike you right in the face as you read his writings, is how a grammar school student, who went to live with the animals in the wilderness, should be such an astounding writer, thinker, observer, and intellectual when our students today with higher education and college can so often fail to string a dozen words together into a cohesive thought. Okay, that’s the end of my editorial. As things went poorly for the family, this 12 or 13-year-old went to work for a timber company. That didn’t last, however. Always a prankster, he dropped some large fireworks down the chimney of the company’s office woodstove. Nearly destroying the office building got him fired. On March 29, 1906, he boarded the SS Canada bound for Halifax, ostensibly to study agriculture.

He shortly left Toronto for a move to Temagami, Northern Ontario, where he worked as a wilderness guide, forest ranger, and trapper. He had always been a voracious reader, and nature and Indian culture and lore fascinated him. He began to feel he could identify with the Indian, started telling tales about being born of a Scottish father and Apache mother, and that he had moved from the U.S. to Canada to join the Ojibwa tribe. He lived with the Ojibwa, learned their language, took the Ojibwa name Wa-sha-quon-asin, meaning great grey owl, and began signing his name only as Grey Owl. He never looked back. Through his studies and work, he became a devout conservationist and naturalist. He moved to the Canadian Shield and settled in Northern Saskatchewan on Lake Ajawaen.

Grey Owl wrote nearly a century ago, but his words are still timely in regards to man’s greed and shortsightedness in his dealings and brutality towards wildlife, natural resources like minerals, oil, and timber, and even our dealings with each other. He said, “It would seem as though the making of money would excuse almost anything, and that nearly any undertaking, however unethical, can be termed “business” and so get itself excused, provided it is successful and does not muscle in on some big-shot monopoly.” He wrote “The Men of the Last Frontier”, “Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People”, “Tales of an Empty Cabin”, and “Pilgrims in the Wild.” In addition, he appeared in films, was a traveling lecturer, and wrote countless shorter articles.

He later joined the 13th Battalion of the famed Black Watch, and went to France as a sniper in World War I. He was wounded twice, developed gangrene, and was sent to England for treatment in 1916. After the loss of a leg, he returned to Canada.

In 1917 he was summoned to the Court of King George VI and met Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The king and his daughters believed they were meeting a real Indian. By this time, most other people believed he was Ojibwa as well.  A couple people that knew his real background kept his secret. It wasn’t until after his death, and a search of his papers, that the public learned that Grey Owl was Archibald Belaney. It hardly mattered. Grew Owl had lived his life as an Indian, and would forever be known as a paddler, conservationist, and a man at one with nature. After dying of pneumonia in April, 1938, he was buried near his cabin on Lake Ajawaen in his beloved wilderness.

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