Tu es mon compagnon de voyage!
Je veux mourir dans mon canot
Sur le tombeau, près du rivage,
Vous renverserez mon canot!
When I must leave the great river
O bury me close to its wave
And let my canoe and my paddle
Be the only mark over my grave.
Translated by Oliver Call.
I can’t recall for sure where I first came across the book Tales of an Empty Cabin, written by Grey Owl. It was possibly just a random book search. I’m glad I did though, because it is a remarkable book, and extremely well written. Grey Owl’s entire life was a bit of an enigma. The world first heard of him through his writing, and then eventually speeches that he was asked to give. To the world he presented himself as a Native American who had an Apache mother and moved to Canada to join the Ojibwa and first was a wilderness fur trapper, who then turned conservationist. His writing is very pervasive, romantic, and tugs at the heartstrings. For me the pendulum swung the other way – I started out as a conservationist, swung to a trapper, and now things are evening out between the two. Time will tell where that ends up for me. If you choose to read the book, keep in mind the time frame that it was written. In the early 1900’s beaver populations were drastically reduced due to exploitation. With the benefit of conservation laws, seasons, and limits, the beaver population is back with a vengeance. Here in Maine current laws are very liberal for the taking of beaver as the state has a large population. I believe that the ambivalence lies within all who take to the woods to some degree, and the pendulum can swing fast or slow in the process. Certainly reading Grey Owls account of listening to the mate of the beaver they had shot calling out through the night for its mate is very emotional. In the story one of the people in the traveling party kills a beaver, and during the night they hear it’s mate calling out for it. The member of the party sleeping next to Grey Owl asks what that noise is, and Grey Owl dismisses it to him as nothing. But he knows what it is.
Trappers understand animals and their habits more than anybody, and it’s often hard to explain the conundrum of being able to empathize and befriend a creature of the wild whilst running a trapline for another. I guess I can empathize somewhat more with the coyote with mange, or the beaver with mallocclusion. Beaver, like other rodents have teeth that continuously grow, and they need to gnaw to keep them sharp, and the correct length. Mallocclusion is when one becomes out of alignment, or grows past the point where the beaver can gnaw it back, and the creature is left unable to eat, and sometimes the teeth grow long enough to puncture the skull. I’ve seen it.
My favorite story in the book is The Tree. The author describes in great detail the very long life of a tree, from when a squirrel accidentally dropped a nut on the ground, to the deer browsing it’s neighbors, the rabbit eating its bark, and the moose using it for sparring practice. It goes on to describe the native American that visited it, the white man that explored it, and the road coming through that killed it. It is a fantastic story that puts a lot of life and time into perspective for me.
Grey Owl is most famous for his cabin at Ajaawan Lake, where a beaver house was incorporated into the cabin, and he was made Honorary Warden for the protection of the beaver colony. The story is in the book, and is a well regaled account of the daily activities of the beaver, who were allowed to roam the cabin. It is also probably the first case study of its kind on beaver behavior. I love the stories of the beaver tetter-tottering around the cabin on their rear legs carrying mud for the lodge, of how the male would become aggressive and jealous of the author when the female would come into heat, and the stories of chairs and other woodwork being eaten and chewed in the authors absence. It must have been some interesting times, and it is great to be able to share them in the book.
Grey Owl never made it to his 50th birthday. For someone that passed so young, he had an incredible life. After his death, the enigma of his life was discovered. He was born in England in 1888, and had no Native American ties at all, a fraud that dented the conservation movement he had created, but certainly did not change what he did, or his experiences. It’s just who he wanted to be, and what he became.
Here is a video of Grey Owl, his cabin, and the beavers – I wish I could hear the real sounds in the video, the narration is a little cheesy, but the video makes up for it -
And a short video of his cabin and the lake;
And apparently I missed the memo when the movie came out – but one did – I’ll be watching it soon – here is the trailer: