Where William Faulkner meets Grey Owl it’s Black and White and Red All Over
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.
— The Book of Proverbs
This strains the limits of human credulity, I know, but there was one crown jewel unturned, one tiny morsel of royal Canadiana overlooked, in that endless orgy of mourning for the Queen after her death on Sept. 8.
The future Elizabeth II was a precocious 11-year-old when she met and was captivated by the tall, hawk-faced modern Hiawatha known as Grey Owl in December 1937, by chance on the first anniversary of the abdication of her future gig by her uncle, Edward VIII.
The Manchester Guardian had already commented on the touring Grey Owl’s “true nasal twang of the Canadian Indian” during an earlier triumphant, sold-out lecture tour throughout the country. “There never came a Redder Red Indian to Britain,” proclaimed London’s Sunday Express.
The Queen’s encounter with Grey Owl, Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, He Who Walks by Night — none other, of course, than her countryman Archie Belaney in disguise — unfolded almost 85 years ago. And that, you have to figure, would have made her one of the last people to remember conversing with the legendary conservationist and outrageous fraud, who was buried behind Beaver Lodge in April 1938 at age 49 after a death brought on by pneumonia, lungs weakened by being gassed during the First World War and three decades of binge drinking.
Beaver Lodge was Grey Owl’s name for the cabin on the shore of remote Ajawaan Lake that he shared — from 1931 until his death — with a couple of tame beavers called Jelly Roll and Rawhide and, intermittently, one wildly independent woman he called Anahereo.
Ajawaan Lake, in a remote part of Prince Albert National Park in northern Saskatchewan,
remains pretty much as he described it in his book Tales of an Empty Cabin, a publishing sensation on the royal reading list back in the Thirties:
Thirty miles from the camps, and beyond the distant narrows, accessible only by water, is Ajawaan Lake. … Far enough away to gain seclusion, yet within reach of those whose genuine interest prompts them to make the trip. Beaver Lodge extends a welcome to you if your heart is right; for the sight of a canoe approaching from the direction of the portage, or the appearance of some unexpected visitors on the mile-long trail that winds through the forest from larger and more navigable waters, all coming to bid the time of day to Jelly Roll and Rawhide and their band of workers (i.e., their litters of kits), is to me an event of consuming interest. Save for my animal friends I live here quite alone, and human contacts, when I get them, mean a lot, and are important.
Probably no one alive today has met more memorable cranks, eccentrics and nut jobs than the Queen during her 96 years on our big round ball. Heck, think of the parade of weirdos from 10 Downing Street alone. But I reckon none was stranger than the buckskinned author, lecturer and star of several 35 mm documentary films, who during the Depression enjoyed John James Audubon/John Muir/Mark Twain-level fame as the popularizer nonpareil of Canada’s forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife.
Asked by a reporter shortly before his death about his afternoon audience with the Royal Family, which they had requested after attending his lecture at Buckingham Palace that concluded with a “well, goodbye, Brother, and good luck to you” slap on the back of a beaming King George VI, Grey Owl described Princess Elizabeth as “the most attentive young lady who ever came to one of my lectures.”
In her account in the Toronto Star, reporter Hazel Canning wrote:
Grey Owl came away a warm admirer of Queen Mother Mary. He said she was reserved, at first, but later asked him questions about the details of housekeeping, with two beavers under the same roof. She warmed up, smiled, was most kindly and interested. And while little Princess Margaret stood shyly behind her grandmother, never once speaking a word, Princess Elizabeth was quite the young lady. Her last words to Grey Owl were: “I wish I could go to Canada and see your beavers in their home.”
The Queen never did make it to the cabin in her more than 20 trips to Canada, but I found myself standing beside it 40 years ago, after a two-day, 40-kilometre hike/paddle round trip through Prince Albert National Park, the southern boundary of which is about 90 kilometres north of the rough-and-tumble Saskatchewan city from which it derived its name. (The city itself, of course, was named after the Queen’s great-great-grandfather.)
How rough and tumble? Put it this way: When I covered P.A. city council in the early 1980s, one of the aldermen kept a pet bear chained to a stake in his backyard. How you gonna fight City Hall?
By the time I got to Grey Owl’s cabin, his original Beaver People were long gone, as was Charlie, the huge bull moose he had tamed. But half of a 50-year-old beaver lodge remained inside the saddle-joint cottage fashioned out of rounded logs keyed at the corners, with the other half of the beaver quarters connected by a tunnel exiting two metres below the lake surface.
Subsequent generations of the inquisitive, acquisitive, semiaquatic rodents had painstakingly added to the lodge. The latest additions of logs and branches had been anchored to the lake adjacent to the dirt floor of the cabin in the spring of 1981, where I stood before a plaque at the site featuring a quotation from the singular character for whom this site had been built:
I hope you understand me. I am not particularly anxious to be known at all; but my place is back in the woods, there is my home and there I stay. But in this country of Canada, to which I am intensely loyal, and whose heritage I am trying to interpret so that it may be better understood and appreciated, here at least, I want to be known for what I am.
His place might have been back in the woods, but with his lecture tours and book promotion and other speaking commitments, Grey Owl was frequently away from this tranquil spot.
And in truth, the last thing he wanted was to be known for what he was:
• A bigamist who married five times (depending on your definition of marriage).
• A deadbeat father who abandoned children by several women.
• An Englishman who had fabricated an ever more elaborate fantasy about being born in an Indian encampment in Mexico to an imaginary Scots-American guide (a friend of Buffalo Bill Cody, no less) and an Apache woman (a close relation to Geronimo, natch).
• A raging, brawling dipsomaniac like the real father who had abandoned him and disgraced his family.
• A faker terrified that his masquerade (known to many) would be exposed.
It’s a complicated legacy for a man proud to be known as a naturalist and defender of Indigenous rights, decades ahead of practically every other non-Indigenous person in the country.
Grey Owl was as ahead of his time as he was a throwback to his beloved historical romances of James Fenimore Cooper and the writings of Ernest Thompson Seton, who incorporated what he believed to be American Indian elements into the traditions of the Boy Scouts of America.
But then, I, too, am getting ahead of myself.
A WET SEED WILD IN THE HOT BLIND EARTH
At the risk of having this essay head so far south that it drowns in a flooded Mississippi river like the one at the heart of his feverishly beautiful but under-appreciated novel The Wild Palms (aka If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem), I want to switch streams to talk about the great William Faulkner for a while.
I’m willing to bet that the 1949 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and two subsequent Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction (1955 and 1963), considered by many to be the greatest writer the U.S. South has ever produced, has never before been paired with the relatively lightly regarded northern oracle.
The near contemporaries (Grey Owl was born in 1888; Faulkner, nine years younger, was 64 when he died 60 years ago this July) were both compelling characters, pranksters, and would have enjoyed each other’s company, I like to think.
Given that Faulkner was also a desperate alcoholic, “subject to severe bouts of depression, driven early on by the unassuaged fear of failure,” as niece Dean Faulkner Wells relates in her charming and poignant 2011 book, Every Day by the Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi, the two had quite a lot in common.
We catch up with the literary genius, author of at least four indisputably great novels — The Sound and The Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! — sometime in the Forties in the following excerpt from Faulkner Wells, who was 75 when she died of complications from a stroke four months after her memoir was published. By way of explanation, she called William Faulkner Pappy; Jill was his daughter and Vicki his step-granddaughter:
Sometimes Pappy took us on hikes. We knew the paths with our eyes closed, but he taught us to walk in silence, heel to toe, the Indian way, and how to read animal signs or mark a trail for someone to follow.
Early one Saturday at sunup he led Jill, Vicki, and me out of the kitchen, finger to his lips, behind the barn, down through the sandhills, past stink creek — deeper and deeper into the woods. He sat us on a fallen log and spoke in a whisper about the first people who walked the land, the Chickasaws. They walked in silence, he told us. No footfall could be heard, not a sound of a broken twig, no crunch of leaves underfoot. If we respected the silence of the forest, only then could we experience the wilderness.
With the dark forest surrounding us, he knelt and, as we crouched beside him, picked up a handful of dirt and leaves, and said, “Hold this. Smell it. It belongs to no one. This is the way the land should be treated, with respect. The earth is ours to protect as the people who came before us did.” We were young then, but I don’t think any of us ever forgot what he said that day.
Faulkner’s concern for the environment and alarm at the way the Deep South of his youth was being clearcut by the timber industry to make way for roads and subdivisions, railroads and one-crop farms, is evident in several interrelated stories set in his mythic Yoknapatawpha County, based on Lafayette County in Mississippi where he spent most of his life.
“The Bear” and “Was” stories in his book Go Down, Moses are partly about environmental degradation, a concern that also comes to the fore in A Light in August and The Wild Palms. The rise and fall of blindly ambitious Thomas Sutpen’s intended dynasty in Absalom, Absalom! can be read partly as a warning against the heedless severing of our bonds with the natural world.
A DIFFERENT PLACE, A DIFFERENT DAY
As a child, Grey Owl became an adept practitioner of walking “the Indian way” — or at least the stealthy way First Nations people were depicted as slipping through the forest in Cooper novels and Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha, which he devoured as a lonely boy.
Here’s a description in Hiawatha of Chibiabos, an Indian whose style Grey Owl — the young Archibald Stansfeld Belaney — did his best to emulate while trooping through the nearby St. Helen’s Woods as a critter-crazy, snake-pocketing student of Hastings Grammar School on England’s southeast coast:
Where he passed, the branches moved not;
Where he trod the grasses bent not,
And the fallen leaves of last year
Made no sound beneath his footsteps.
Abandoned by his parents (his dad was a coddled, upper middle-class, ne’er-do-well drunk who squandered the family fortune; his working class mom a hapless 15 when she had him), raised by two middle-age aunts, Archie was one of those kids of yesteryear obsessed with “playing Indians.”
He wasn’t unlike the more than 40,000 German “Indian hobbyists” who even today frequent retreats where they stick feathers in their hair and whoop around in bogus “noble savage” costumes based on the works of writer Karl May and his Winnetou character. The laser-focused Sussex lad just took it to the next level.
After sailing to Canada in 1906, ostensibly to study agriculture and for a time apparently winding up as a salesman at Eaton’s in Toronto, the young Archie Belaney moved to northern Ontario’s Lake Temagami region, where he married an Ojibwa co-worker at an inn and was taught by Indigenous people in the area how to eke out a living as a trapper.
To cut a long story short, he realized his childhood dream by taking on the name Grey Owl and gradually morphing into an ardent naturalist working for the preservation of the wildlife he had once trapped, especially the endangered beaver. He railed magnificently against destruction of the boreal ecosystem, the savage brutality of the traditional English-style fox hunt (in which Faulkner revelled), and especially against those who hunt purely for “sport” in North America, leaving carcasses to rot while mounting trophies like stuffed heads and antlers.
Grey Owl’s basic take on conservation, a message he spread to hundreds of thousands of readers and attendees at his more than 200 lectures in Britain, Canada and the U.S., was succinctly expressed in this letter he wrote in 1934:
I do not think hunting should be by any means abolished, but that more consideration should be shown in the treatment of animals destined for slaughter (on fur farms) & that the methods used in trapping should be less cruel, & that Wild Life should not be made a burnt offering on the altar of the God of Mammon. No one could accept my views in their entirety, being as they are a purely personal point of view, but they might learn to think, & to remember that an animal is as capable of both physical, and to some degree mental suffering as are some humans. Also that the forest is not a place to turn into shambles, just on account of the greed of people who care nothing for the Wilderness or its inhabitants, human or animal.
It was while cocooned at Beaver Lodge, 50 kilometres from the park headquarters at the townsite of Waskesiu — where my family spent two weeks every summer during the Fifties and Sixties camping in a tent, a trailer or a shack tent with a canvas roof— that he wrote three of his most famous works: Pilgrims of the Wild (1934), children’s book Sajo and her Beaver People (1935), and Tales of an Empty Cabin (1936).
They are all of one accord with Faulkner’s admonition to the children in his charge to cherish the Earth. And while Faulkner is rightly heralded for his meticulous attention to diction and cadence in his long, flowing sentences (frequently contrasted with Ernest Hemingway’s minimalist understatement), Grey Owl deserves more credit than he has been given, since his exposure as a fraud, for the first-rate intellect and craftsmanship on display in his finest prose.
Take this description of the view from his perch on Ajawaan Lake, for example, in Pilgrims of the Wild:
On all sides of the cabin where I write extends an uninterrupted wilderness, flowing onward in a dark, billowing flood Northward to the Arctic Sea. No railroad passes through it to burn and destroy, no settler lays waste with fire and axe. Here from any eminence a man may gaze on unnumbered leagues of forest that will never fill the hungry maw of commerce.
This is a different place, a different day.
Nowhere does the sight of stumps and slashed tops of noble trees offend the eye or depress the soul, and the strange, wild, unimaginable beauty of these Northern sunsets is not defaced by jagged rows of stark and ghastly rampages.
Every wish has been fulfilled, and more. Gone is the haunting fear of a vandal hand. Wild life in all its rich variety, creatures deemed furtive and elusive, now pass almost within our reach, and sometimes stand beside the camp and watch. And birds, and little beasts and big ones, and things both great and small have gathered round the place, and frequent it, and come and go their courses as they will, and fly or swim or walk or run according to their kind.
Death falls, as at times it must, and Life springs in its place. Nature lives and journeys on and passes all about in well balanced, orderly array.
The scars of ancient fires are slowly healing over; big trees are growing larger. The beaver towns are filling up again.
The cycle goes on.
The Pilgrimage is over.
Even today, I can think of no more articulate opponent to the people Joni Mitchell castigates in Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody, one of her many songs with a Saskatchewan focus, as “shortsighted businessmen … ripping off Indian land again.”
This is from Grey Owl’s preface to Tales of an Empty Cabin:
The Wilderness should no longer be considered as a playground for vandals, or a rich treasure trove to be ruthlessly exploited for the personal gain of the few — to be grabbed off by whoever happens to get there first.
Man should enter the woods, not with any conquistador obsession or mighty hunter complex, neither in a spirit of braggadocio, but rather with awe, and not a little veneration, of one who steps within the portals of some vast and ancient edifice of wondrous architecture. For many a man who considers himself the master of all he surveys would do well, when setting foot in the forest, to take off not only his hat but his shoes too and, in not a few cases, be glad he is allowed to retain an erect position.
Grey Owl’s writing is all the more estimable when you consider that he used idiosyncratic punctuation, deliberate misspellings, and perceived grammatical errors such as a sprinkling of split infinitives and sentences ending in prepositions — coupled with an insistence that his publishers print his books without making changes to the text — to buttress the impression that English was not his first language and that he had learned to write with difficulty.
Even so, he was accused of having used a ghost-writer in a patronizing Winnipeg Tribune review of The Men of the Last Frontier. Complained W.T. Allison of the University of Manitoba’s English Department:
Before I had read far in this book I kept asking myself how in the world could a half-breed trapper pick up such an elegant style. Even Longlance (an earlier Indian author much respected by Grey Owl), who was a college student, and had long years of experience as a newspaper and magazine writer, would not have produced anything so stylistic as the earlier chapters of this book.
Biographer Donald B. Smith adds this in From the Land of Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl:
Now that the truth of his identity is known, one can find passages that reveal his English upbringing and his prejudices. … His Victorian writing style — full of compound-complex sentences of Dickensian proportions — his love of foreign expressions and Latinized English, all hint at his upper middle-class background.
IN WRITING, YOU MUST KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS
William Faulkner’s subtle, cerebral style — heavy on stream-of-consciousness techniques, Gothic or grotesque concepts, and those long, looping sentences like Grey Owl’s — is tempting to satirize (he even parodied himself in the short story “Afternoon of a Cow,” written under the pseudonym Ernest V. Trueblood).
His approach was certainly not to the taste of those critics who, as a New York Times article written after his death observed, regarded his work as “raw slabs of pseudo realism that had relatively little merit as serious writing.”
But man, so far as I’m concerned, the great Southern short fiction writer Flannery O’Connor had it right when she said:
The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.
I’ve been a Faulkner devotee since opening Absalom, Absalom! as a teen and being blown away by the opening sentence:
From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.
Great horny toads, I’m in! Yessum, Miss Rosa. He had me at “latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes.”
Here are a couple of lines chosen at random from As I Lay Dying, Faulkner’s visionary, darkly comedic account of the Bundren family’s odyssey across the Mississippi countryside to bury Addie, the dying matriarch. The story is told in turn by each of the family members. This is Jewel, one of Addie’s sons, reflecting on the building of her coffin outside her window by Cash, her firstborn:
It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she’s got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. It’s like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he had taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung.
And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn’t keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man can’t sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean.
Her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean. The hands of every person I have ever visited on their deathbed.
This is Darl, the most articulate of the children and the heretofore voice of reason, descending into insanity in the wake of a series of horrific but comic misadventures:
Darl has gone to Jackson. They put him on the train, laughing, down the long car laughing, the heads turning like the heads of owls when he passed. “What are you laughing at?” I said.
“Yes yes yes yes yes.”
Two men put him on the train. They wore mismatched coats, bulging behind over their right hip pockets. Their necks were shaved to a hairline, as though the recent and simultaneous barbers had had a chalk-line like Cash’s. “Is it the pistols you’re laughing at?” I said. “Why do you laugh?” I said. “Is it because you hate the sound of laughing?”
They pulled two seats together so Darl could sit by the window to laugh. One of them sat beside him, the other sat on the seat facing him, riding backward. One of them had to ride backward because the state’s money has a face to each backside and a backside to each face, and they are riding on the state’s money which is incest. A nickel has a woman on one side and a buffalo on the other; two faces and no back. I dont know what that is. Darl had a little spy-glass he got in France at the war. In it it had a woman and a pig with two backs and no face. I know what that is. “Is that why you are laughing, Darl?”
“Yes yes yes yes yes yes.”
The wagon stands on the square, hitched, the mules motionless, the reins wrapped about the seat-spring, the back of the wagon toward the courthouse. It looks no different from a hundred other wagons there; Jewel standing beside it and looking up the street like any other man in town that day, yet there is something different, distinctive. There is about it that unmistakable air of definite and imminent departure that trains have, perhaps due to the fact that Dewey Dell and Vardaman on the seat and Cash on a pallet in the wagon bed are eating bananas from a paper bag. “Is that why you are laughing, Darl?”
Darl is our brother, our brother Darl. Our brother Darl in a cage in Jackson where, his grimed hands lying light in the quiet interstices, looking out he foams.
“Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.”
Faulkner, like Grey Owl, had his own writerly quirks, including his omission of the apostrophe in “don’t” and other contractions. Far more important: They were certainly cut from the same cloth (or moose hide, as the case may be) in their fondness for beautiful women and weakness for Demon Alcohol.
BACK, BREAST; BOSOM, FLANK, THIGH
Though he remained wed to former teenage flame Estelle Oldham from 1929 until his death, adopting and caring for her two children from her first marriage, “Pappy liked the ladies,” as his daughter Jill pithily observed.
Especially beautiful, much younger ladies. Something you can pull off if you’re a handsome, revered writer with a great head of hair, even if you’re soft-spoken and the shortest guy in the room.
“Having personally known five of the women Pappy loved,” Faulkner Wells writes, “I must say that he had great taste in women.” She continues:
Though none of them resembled one another physically — some were dark-haired, others blond — all were graceful, charming conversationalists, sophisticated, quick-witted, and well-read, with a subtle vulnerability that drew people to them. This description also fits Aunt Estelle, who was a consummate hostess, gourmet cook, master gardener, and lady of the house when she chose to be.
The difference was that his mistresses were ambitious, self-supporting, or independently wealthy, and working to establish themselves. Their self-reliance was clearly an attraction to Pappy. None would have swapped places with Aunt Estelle, or buried herself behind closed doors at Rowan Oak (Faulkner’s name for the Greek Revival house in Oxford, Mississippi, that he purchased in disrepair in 1930 and largely renovated himself).
None ever put demands on him, leaving him free to gallivant around the globe, martinis with Lauren Bacall, parties at St. Moritz with Howard Hawks, drinks at the Algonquin with Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett, brunch with Claudette Colbert, dove shoots with Clark Gable. He was a man of the world while Aunt Estelle was stuck in Oxford, Mississippi, waiting for him to come home to her …
Q. Did the affairs hurt Estelle, whom Faulkner Wells describes thus?
For most of her life Estelle was a victim of her own addictions: drugs and alcohol. She was a fragile woman, graceful but very thin with a tiny waist accented by her tightly belted, full-skirted dresses. Her legs looked barely strong enough to support her; she tottered on high heels; her arms seemed too weak to raise a cup of her beloved chicory coffee to her lips. She was a heavy smoker with nervous fingers and glittery eyes — pretty eyes distorted by the thick lens of her eyeglasses. Photographs of her remind me of Wallace Simpson: a woman very well turned out, chic, a little sad. Her credo was much like Simpson’s “You can never be too rich or too thin.”
A. Of course they did. But it was a different place. A different day. Faulkner Wells:
In 1957, Aunt Estelle felt her marriage had reached the breaking point. She wrote Saxe Cummins (Faulkner’s friend and editor at Random House): “I know, as you must, that Bill feels some kind of compulsion to be attached to some young woman at all times — it’s Bill. At long last I am sensible enough to concede him the right to do as he pleases, and without recrimination. It’s not that I don’t care — (I wish it were not so) — but all of a sudden (I) feel sorry for him — wish he could know without words between us, that it’s not very important after all —.” She offered Pappy a divorce that year. He did not accept her offer.
Their marriage had withstood over thirty years of turbulence and erosion. Their last years together were tender. They shared a gentle respect for each other, a pleasure in being together, a tacit closeness that comes only from a lifetime of shared memories. It was a joy to be with them. I cannot imagine either of them being married to anyone else.
Understandably, daughter Jill was less forgiving of Faulkner’s affairs and her own fraught relationship with him.
Appearing in A Life on Paper, a 1978 television documentary about Faulkner narrated by Raymond Burr, Jill related an incident in which she tried to get her father to stop drinking during one of his binges, which typically accompanied the depression that set in after the completion of whatever he was working on.
Writes Faulkner Wells:
He turned on her and drunkenly blurted, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s child.” Then she casually remarked to the interviewer, “Pappy didn’t care about anybody!” I screamed at the TV set, at her as she sat in her garden in Charlottesville, as cool and unruffled as the pale green sleeveless summer dress she wore.
Then I thought about what she had said. Even though I never saw Pappy drunk, I didn’t have to. Because of my stepfather, I knew what it was like. Genius cannot alter the stench of an emaciated body drenched in alcohol and sweat, lying in days-old soiled underwear, entangled in stained bed linen, a voice hoarse and rasping, babbling incoherently, cursing the gods one moment and begging for whiskey the next. His alcoholism did not, however, mean that Pappy did not care about anybody. I know how much he loved Jill, his mother, and my father. He loved mankind — even the Snopeses (his name for a fictional family of scoundrels in a trilogy of novels: The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion).
Yet there is no doubt that Pappy’s fame eased the burden of his drinking. He could always count on somebody to pick up the pieces.
“Between Scotch and nothing, I’ll take Scotch,” Faulkner told mistress/writer Jean Stein in an unusually candid 1956 interview for Paris Review.
Despite frequently being in financial straits and notwithstanding his strained relationship with Jill, his only surviving child (the Faulkners never stopped grieving for their first daughter, Alabama, who lived only 10 days after her birth in 1931), he never stinted in providing for his extended family.
After his brother Dean, Faulkner Wells’s father, perished in a 1935 crash along with three young male passengers while piloting the Waco C cabin cruiser plane the author had given him the year before, William Faulkner became a loving surrogate father to his niece and was forever solicitous of her mother.
The great disgrace of Grey Owl’s life is that he left messy pieces and abandoned children all over the ground, despite the heroic efforts to counter his failings by publishers, editors, friends and the women who genuinely loved him.
Echoing a sentiment expressed by alcoholics the world over since time immemorial, Faulkner and Grey Owl used similar words to explain their addictions, which descended through the male line of both their families like a gene for self-destruction:
Faulkner: “When I have one martini I feel bigger, wiser, taller. When I have a second I feel superlative. After that there’s no holding me.”
Grey Owl: “I meet up with a group of parasites, take one or two drinks, & I am gone. I am rather a lonely guy, & it eats holes in me, & I go haywire.”
Enjoying the taste and effects of liquor, Faulkner started drinking at an early age. As an adult he had the advantage, during boozing bouts that could last a month and left him gravely ill, of drying out at Wright’s Sanatorium in Byhalia, Mississippi. As did Estelle, who never touched another drop after joining Alcoholics Anonymous in 1955.
SO MUCH INDIAN BLOOD IN HIS VEINS
Grey Owl was about 20 and living in Temagami in northeastern Ontario when he discovered alcohol while looking after a prospector’s camp — a job from which he and another feckless watchman were fired after consuming what he called “everything drinkable” during a week-long toot.
Over the remaining three decades of his life, “everything drinkable” during his legendary knife-throwing, axe-shaking, whooping and jabbering, tom-tom pounding, ersatz war-dancing episodes as a human distillery, included — along with a vertiginous parade of traditional spirits — his own foul-smelling moonshine, shoe polish, vanilla extract, whatever he could coax from the decanters of friends and acquaintances, and according to rumours, though biographer Donald Smith expresses skepticism, even turpentine.
In 1937, while in Ottawa to lobby Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the governor general (Lord Tweedsmuir, who instituted the Governor-General’s Literary Awards that year), and other key government officials to back a film he wanted to make about Ontario’s Mississagi River country (starring Grey Owl, of course, with a plan to have it travel “over the U.S.A., & all the British Empire, & me with it”), the effort was derailed by the proponent’s descent into an epic binge.
A wonderful opportunity to influence some important government people arose when Yosuf Karsh organized a dinner in Grey Owl’s honour. He invited him to his studio, which was close to the Plaza Hotel, also on Sparks Street, the main street of downtown Ottawa. Forty years later Karsh (who had taken his iconic photo of Grey Owl in a broad-brimmed hat a year before) recalled how he had furnished his studio with orange crates upholstered in monk’s cloth and arranged for a catered supper.
“Among the guests were Duncan Campbell Scott, former deputy superintendent general of the Department of Indian Affairs, a group of writers and some journalists, and some cabinet ministers. At the appointed hour they all turned up, in high expectation and hearty appetite — all, that is, except Grey Owl.”
The embarrassed photographer raced over to the Plaza to find him. He did. In Karsh’s words, “when I arrived at his hotel he was raising a drunken row in the bar, and I decided to leave him there.”
Parks Branch officials were disgusted by Grey Owl’s sprees — most of the local wardens and rangers had had run-ins with him — and records indicate that they seriously considered sacking him from his sinecure at Ajawaan Lake as “caretaker of park animals” at an annual salary of $1,320.
Aside from the value of the publicity generated by worldwide distribution of Grey Owl’s books, magazine articles and films, what seems to have preserved his job, ironically, was that hoary chestnut about Indians not being able to handle the white man’s firewater.
Here’s an excerpt from a 1937 letter written by parks commissioner J.B. Harkin to an assistant deputy minister in the ministry of the interior:
I am sorry to hear that Grey Owl has been indulging too freely in liquor. As a matter of fact, with so much Indian blood in his veins I suppose it is inevitable that from time to time he will break out in this connection. We ourselves are quite annoyed. Sometimes we feel it would be just as well if we did wash our hands of him, though I do feel there is still quite a field for additional publicity for us in connection with him.
In January of 1938, when his drinking — exacerbated by the fear of exposure since many people by now knew of his origins (the editor of the North Bay Nugget newspaper, who approved of Grey Owl’s environmentalism, had been sitting on a sensational scoop for three years) — was off the charts, Grey Owl found himself in New York as part of an ill-fated, poorly planned American tour.
Grey Owl and Yvonne Perrier, whom he had married in Montreal the previous November under the fictitious name of “Archie McNeil,” were in the Big Apple when Time magazine ran an article claiming that he had been “married twice legally, five times according to Indian custom.”
In the wake of that partial exposé, renowned Scribner’s editor Max Perkins, with whom Grey Owl had enjoyed a warm correspondence, refused to see him and skipped his lecture. The Beaver Lodge fantasy world was beginning to sink into the mire.
I HAD BEEN MARRIED TO A GHOST
In fact, Time had it slightly wrong. Serial bigamist Grey Owl had complicated relationships with at least five women — four Indigenous, one English — that produced at least four children, none of whom he supported to any appreciable extent. Near as I can figure it:
Wife #1 was Angele Egwuna, an Ojibwe woman who was a kitchen helper at the Temagami Inn when he met her as a chore-boy in 1908. They had daughters Agnes and Flora. Grey Owl and Egwuna never divorced, though when he married Yvonne Perrier, he pretended that the marriage wasn’t legal. It was.
Next up was Marie Girard, a Métis girlfriend with whom he had a son, John, in 1915. Girard died of TB after giving birth and the boy was raised by Edith Langevin, a kindly Cree woman in Biscotasing, Ont., before ending up at the Chapleau Indian School as John Jero. Jero, the spitting image of his father, disappeared from the village in 1933 after setting off to “ride the rails” and seems to have served in the Second World War.
In 1935, Grey Owl magnanimously reimbursed Langevin for looking after John during his childhood and school vacations by giving her 50 pounds of flour, 10 pounds of lard, 25 pounds of sugar and two to three pounds of tea. As Smith writes: “He had absolutely no idea of the real expense of raising a child and did not want to know.”
Grey Owl’s second legally recognized wife was Ivy Holmes, an English friend from his childhood who, by February 1917 when they married, had already travelled throughout much of Europe as a member of a professional dance and acting troupe.
At 26, she had no idea that the seemingly genuine man she knew only as Archie Belaney, who was convalescing at the Canadian Military Hospital in Hastings after being shot in the foot while serving as a sniper with Canada’s 13th Battalion at the Bluff at Ypres, had been masquerading as a halfbreed. He somehow neglected to mention that he was already married and a father. Details, details.
When Grey Owl sailed back to Canada the following September, the plan the new Mrs. Belaney had bought into was that she would join him in northern Ontario once English wives were allowed to accompany their husbands back to Canada (at that point in the war, this was forbidden).
She never saw dear Archie again and was shattered to receive a letter from him, after a year of mutually devoted correspondence, revealing that he was already married. After obtaining details of Grey Owl’s marriage to Egwuna from Temagami’s justice of the peace, Holmes filed for divorce on the grounds of bigamy.
After having his second daughter with Egwuna in 1925 (Agnes was 14 years older than Flora), Grey Owl disappeared from all their lives forever that fall. The explanation is simple. A few months before, the now 36-year-old guide had fallen for a spirited 19-year-old waitress at Camp Wabikon on Lake Temagami.
Gertrude Bernard, a beautiful Algonquin and Mohawk woman whose grandparents had lost their Indian status decades earlier when they fled oppression and poverty on their home reserve in Oka (yes, that Oka, just west of Montreal), was as attracted to him as he was to her.
She described their first meeting in her 1972 Canadian bestseller, Devil in Deerskins: My Life with Grey Owl:
There he stood, tall, straight, and handsome, gazing wistfully across the lake in the direction from which he had come. As he stood there with his paddle in his hand, his attitude seemed to express such yearning and loneliness that my heart quite went out to him. … What really set my imagination afire was his long hair and wide-brimmed hat. … In my imagination, this man looked like the ever so thrilling hero of my youth, Jesse James, that mad, dashing and romantic Robin Hood of America.
If you caught Richard Attenborough’s slow-moving 1999 biopic Grey Owl, starring an earnest but miscast Pierce Brosnan in the title role, you might remember Quebec Algonquin actor Annie Galipeau’s turn as Anahareo (the Iroquois-sounding name Grey Owl had bestowed upon Bernard). If you didn’t see the movie, which bombed at the box office and grossed only $633,000 US after costing $30 million to make, you’re certainly not alone. It helped put Largo Entertainment — the company that had financed such films as Point Break, The Super and Malcolm X — into bankruptcy and out of business.
Along with beavers Jelly Roll and Rawhide and the stunning scenery of the Canadian wilderness, the real Anahareo is Grey Owl’s co-star in several documentaries financed by the Parks Board as “a living argument for conservation.”
Anahareo went on after his death to become a well-known writer and animal-rights activist in her own right. It was she who persuaded the impoverished woodsman to transition from trapping fur-bearing animals, particularly the endangered beaver population, to advocating for their conservation and more humane trapping methods. As Grey Owl writes in Pilgrims of the Wild:
The sight of frozen twisted forms contorted in shapes of agony, and the spectacle of despairful beasts being knocked senseless with an axe handle, and hung up in a noose to choke out any remaining spark of of life while the set was being made ready for a fresh victim, moved her to deep compassion.
Though pronounced husband and wife in a 1926 ceremony by a First Nations chief near Lac-Simon, Québec, where they toiled at a fire tower that summer, Grey Owl and Anahareo were never married in any legal sense recognized by Canadian authorities. Nor were they particularly compatible. Their relationship — which produced daughter Dawn four years before their final split in 1936 — was even more turbulent than the Faulkners’.
Dawn was placed with Ettie Winters, an Englishwoman in Prince Albert. Anahereo — who couldn’t bear her irritable partner’s morgue-like need for solitude and silence while he was writing — spent long periods away, putting the the bush skills he had taught her to work as a prospector, dogsled runner and mining camp caretaker.
The Indian princess image of Anahereo presented in the park documentaries and Pilgrims of the Wild, where Grey Owl described her as a woman who could “swing an axe as well as she could pick up a lip-stick,” was a huge hit in England — but as bogus as the rest of his act.
“For once,” Smith concludes, “Archie had met his match. She would not nurse him or take care of him like the other women had.”
After the blowout fight that precipitated their final break, Grey Owl tried to marry Olga Pavlova of Regina, a professional singer and Simpson’s store clerk in her mid-twenties. She was already married (as, of course, was he) and decidedly less enthusiastic about the idea.
When that one one fizzled out, he moved on to Yvonne Perrier, an attractive young woman he’d met in Ottawa. He persuaded her to quit her job as an assistant at a doctor’s office and marry him under that fake name of Archibald McNeil.
Perrier’s main job on his triumphant final tour of England, where she was presented to the Royal Family as his “secretary” because they, like all enthusiasts, were enthralled with the Anahareo romantic fantasy, was to try to keep him sober.
Being a one-woman tour manager/chief cook and bottle washer on the subsequent North American tour proved so onerous a task that Perrier wound up being hospitalized herself for exhaustion on their return to Prince Albert, just before Grey Owl’s fatal bout of pneumonia.
Immediately upon his death, Grey Owl’s grand deception was revealed. The North Bay Nugget ran the story it had been suppressing, quoting first wife Angele (Egwuna) Belaney as saying: “No matter what they say, Grey Owl was my husband and the father of my daughter, Agnes.”
Britt Jessup’s article, which editor Ed Bunyan had discreetly filed away in support of Grey Owl’s conservationist message, continued: “Grey Owl, Mrs. Belaney claims, is not an Indian but a full-blooded white man, probably of English descent, who settled in Temagami in the early days of the district.”
It was a shot heard round the world.
A reporter from the Brighton Evening Argus tracked down Grey Owl’s aunts, who reluctantly confirmed that he was their nephew, and unearthed a copy of his English wedding certificate. Under the banner “Extra Special,” the paper published a scoop headlined: “GREY OWL WAS NOT A RED INDIAN — HE WAS A SUSSEX MAN!”
As Anahereo tells it in Devil in Deerskins, this came as a hurtful shock to her: “When, finally, I was convinced that Archie was English, I had the awful feeling for all those years I had been married to a ghost, that the man who now lay buried at Ajawaan was someone I had never known, and that Archie had never really existed.”
IT’S A BARNUM AND BAILEY WORLD
Other First Nations people more steeped in Indigenous traditions and languages than Anahereo, who had grown up as a “townie” in Mattawa, Ont., had never been blinded by the blue-eyed showman’s darkened skin and dyed hair.
The Cree leader who most impressed me during my stint as the native affairs reporter for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix during the 1980s was John Tootoosis, a grand-nephew of Chief Poundmaker, whose band had routed attacking Canadian troops during the North-West Rebellion of 1885. (In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerated Poundmaker — who died shortly after being convicted of treason and imprisoned — during an apology to the Poundmaker Cree Nation west of North Battleford, Sask.)
In 1936, Tootoosis had been chosen by Cree bands in central Saskatchewan and Alberta to travel to Ottawa to present resolutions calling for better schools on reserves, recognition of the right to worship in traditional ways and a relaxation of the dictatorial rule of the Department of Indian Affairs.
Having no idea where he was after stepping off the train and choosing a small café at random, Tootoosis encountered Grey Owl by a miraculous coincidence inside the café — recognizing him as the “beaver man” he had read so much about back home — and found himself being embraced as a brother. Grey Owl invited him to stay at his room in the Plaza Hotel and used his influence to arrange meetings for the young emissary with officials in the Indian Department.
In 1982’s John Tootoosis: A Biography of a Cree Leader by Norma Sluman, he describes how he realized Grey Owl couldn’t have lived with the Ojibwa for 20 years as claimed after hearing him imitate the sounds of the language, without articulating words, while beating a small drum and singing.
Also in 1936, Stan Cuthand, a Grade 12 student who would go on to an influential career as an Anglican priest, government official, educator and promoter of the Cree language, attended a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the signing of Treaty Six at Fort Carlton, 90 kilometres north of Saskatoon. He was there when Grey Owl participated in a dance ceremony organized for Lord Tweedsmuir.
“It was at this dance that people recognized Grey Owl as not having the genre and ethos of an Indian,” Cuthand wrote in a 1988 letter to Smith. “He looked awkward and out of place as he danced with the rest.”
Smith’s surmise: “Grey Owl, the victim now of total self-delusion, apparently believed that his boyhood Hastings dance steps fooled the Plains Indians.”
They didn’t, of course, but Tootoosis and Cuthand — who lived to be 99 and 97, respectively — both said Indigenous people stayed mum because they realized Grey Owl was an effective advocate for their side.
As a result of his extensive contacts with First Nations and Métis cultures, the English immigrant was decades ahead of most settlers in realizing how despicably the federal and provincial governments had acted in their continuing attempts to assimilate and eradicate the First Peoples of this land. An observation from The Men of the Last Frontier:
Under the white man’s scheme of existence the Indian is asked to forget his language, his simple conception of the Great Spirit, and his few remaining customs, which if it were demanded of the Hindus, the Boers, the Irish or the French-Canadians, would without doubt cause a rebellion.
It’s easy to dismiss Archie Belaney — with his hokey, oratorical lecture greetings (“How Kola! I am Grey Owl. I come from Opeepaesoway); his stereotypically sculpted, aquiline, cigar-store Indian poses; his beaded moccasins and buckskins; his braids blackened by notox (the only hair dye available at the time); his anachronistic wampum belt, feathered headdresses and sheath knife — many of which were procured at stores in London — as a clownish parody.
Some see him as a pernicious prototype of the cultural appropriation exploited in recent years by the likes of novelist Joseph Boyden and a whole string of university profs falsely claiming Indigenous ethnicity.
But there are some important differences.
For one thing, Archie Belaney revelled in his false identity in a racial climate where fairer skinned people with Indigenous ancestry who could pass for white generally did. There weren’t many perceived advantages to being Indian or Métis. This was part of Grey Owl’s appeal and lent his whole pantomime credibility.
Further, as an editorial in the Winnipeg Tribune noted after Grey Owl’s exposure as a fraud:
BARNUM maintained that the public not only can be fooled but likes to be fooled. A great chuckle has gone right across Canada at the suggestion that the national leg has been well and truly pulled.
The chances are that Archie Belaney could not have done nearly such effective work for conservation of wild life under his own name. It is an odd commentary, but true enough, that many people will not listen to such truths except when uttered by exotic personalities.
Verne Clemence, a sagacious former Star Phoenix colleague, summed it up nicely in his 2004 book, Saskatchewan’s Own: People Who Made a Difference:
Biographers would come to describe his life as a “difficult puzzle,” not necessarily because they couldn’t accurately trace his movements — in truth he didn’t really seem to try that hard to conceal his origins — but because they could never understand his motivation. It was entirely in keeping with the aura of mystery that surrounded the Grey Owl image that, even after his deception became public knowledge, there appeared to be little change in the popularity of his message, or his life story. Grey Owl made conservation of Canada’s natural areas and wildlife a respectable, mainstream cause, in Canada and abroad. Along the way, he also became a high-profile advocate for the country’s indigenous people.
Which brings us back to William Faulkner. Remember him?
COUNT NO ’COUNT
You might suppose that a Nobel and double-Pulitzer winner, rightfully regarded as one of the great American men of letters, would be above dressing up and parading around in a costume in a dissimulating, somewhat pathetic effort to attract attention and respect.
You’d be wrong.
In 1918, hoping to prove himself equal in war to his brother Jack, who was serving with the U.S. Marine Corps, Faulkner left Oxford (the hometown model for Jefferson in his novels) to join the Royal Air Force in Canada (the RCAF would be spawned six years later by the Canadian Air Force, which was formed in 1920).
Faulkner Wells speculates that “he may have chosen the RAF because of its glamour, or perhaps he figured the RAF would be less likely to reject him on account of his short stature. He claimed to be five foot eight. (I think five foot five was closer.)
Faulkner reported for RAF duty in Toronto that July but the war ended before he completed RAF flight training. He failed to receive a commission or pilot’s wings.
That didn’t prevent Faulkner from parading around Oxford, his niece writes, “in his RAF uniform with silver RAF wings, a swagger stick, and a trim little moustache.” The silver wings, it turns out, had been purchased in a Toronto pawnshop.
William had fun dressing up and teasing townsmen who had ridiculed his literary ambitions and aloof manner. He sometimes walked with a cane and claimed to have a silver plate in his head implanted by surgeons after his plane was shot down in France. Other times, he sported a natty British bowler, spats, and a walking stick. The wags called him “Count No ’Count.”
For one usually given to self-aggrandizing exaggeration, Grey Owl, who had experienced the worst of trench warfare at Ypres and killed several German soldiers, was uncharacteristically low key about his Great War service. This is from Pilgrims of the Wild:
I had been one of those unusual people, so seldom met with in stories, who was not an officer, did not attract the attention of higher command, entered the army as a private and left it as one. I had come back to the woods with my efficiency much impaired, and my outlook on things generally had been in no way improved by the job of sniper that I had held, and the sole educational effect (of) the war had been to convince me of the utter futility of civilization.
Like Grey Owl — like pretty much any dead white man who ever wrote about anyone who wasn’t a dead white man — Faulkner has of course been accused of cultural appropriation.
To me, that seems an accusation more justly levelled at William Styron, who covered Faulkner’s funeral for Life magazine in 1962 and was his heir as the next great white male voice of Southern fiction.
Despite stirring defences by such leading Black writers of the time as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Styron was roundly criticized for appropriating the voice of a controversial 19th-century slave revolt leader in the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. And indeed, Styron’s inclusion of a fictional passage in which Turner fantasizes about raping a white woman plays footsie with hysterical racist rationales for lynching.
Faulkner’s stories, it is true — like those of any Southern writer from the first half of the 20th century — make frequent use of the “n” word. How could they not? He has a character in Absalom, Absalom! speak of a “band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed,” meaning any current untenured English professor would have to think long and hard about whether to risk his or her career by including such a classic on a syllabus.
It’s also true that as a master of shifting perspectives in which different characters provide different versions of the story, Faulkner illuminates the absurdity and tragedy of racism by putting some of his most cogent stream-of-consciousness thinking — albeit with an imperfect white ear for antebellum and Jim Crow-era Black English — into the minds of such African American or mixed race characters as Dilsey Gibson, matriarch of the servant family in The Sound and The Fury, Charles Bon in Absalom, Absalom!, Joe Christmas in Light in August and half-Black, half-Indigenous Sam Fathers in Go Down, Moses.
As an illustration of the rabid racial hatred that continues to roil the American polity, Absalom, Absalom! character Henry Sutpen is willing to accept the marriage of Charles Bon, his half-brother, to their sister until finding out that the suitor is partly Black. At that point, the prospective heir to patriarch Thomas Sutpen’s fortune decides to murder Bon and become a fugitive to maintain the family honour.
Incest, yes. Miscegenation, no. Sheer lunacy.
At its deepest level, the story can be read as a synecdoche for Southern history and the collapse of the shameful Old Order.
If that’s cultural appropriation, then Baldwin — who is rumoured to have dared Styron to write Nat Turner’s story from inside the character’s head — was wrong, I suppose, when he declared, in Styron’s defence: “No one can tell a writer what he can or cannot write.”
Ellison was wrong, I suppose, when he declared Faulkner “the greatest artist the South has produced. … Indeed, through his many novels and short stories, Faulkner fights out the moral problem which was repressed after the nineteenth century.”
In a racially torn country where “there are very fine people on both sides” — where, as Faulkner’s mother once explained to his niece, all men are created equal “with the exceptions of nigrahs, foreigners, Catholics, and Jews” — William Faulkner’s observation that being against integration in the South is like living in Alaska and being against snow continues to resound.
Writes Faulkner Wells, who was thrilled to learn that her uncle was the secret financial backer of her mid-1950s clique at the University of Mississippi that satirized on-campus white supremacists in a series of newsletters stealthily distributed to dorms, frats and sororities:
Pappy, Wese (her mother), and I formed a moderate minority in our family of ardent segregationists and racists. One aunt was fond of saying, “I just don’t understand why anyone would want to go anywhere that they weren’t invited, much less wanted. That’s like crashing the party. You just don’t.”
In an interview with a local paper, another aunt was quoted (accurately, I believe) as saying, “I’m a bigot and I’m proud of it.” The Faulkner men, with the exception of Pappy, heartily endorsed this sentiment, using the “n” word, sneering at racist jokes, and openly advocating violence to defend the “Southern Way of Life.”
Faulkner’s works are an invaluable window on the evolution of the Southern Way of Life that continues to play out with every new pronouncement from modern Snopeses like Lindsey Graham and Ron DeSantis.
Grey Owl’s books, though a hundred floors below in the Tower of Literary Merit, offer a similarly sane perspective on long-buried issues with which we in the North are beginning to grapple: a reconciliation with the people whose land we occupy and a reversal of the unsustainable pioneer ethos that Grey Owl was warning about almost a century ago:
Too many regard the wilderness as only a place of wild animals and wilder men, and cluttered with a growth that must somehow be got rid of. Yet it is, to those who know its ways, a living, breathing reality, and has a soul that may be understood, and it may yet occur to some, that part of the duty of those who destroy it for the general good is to preserve at least a memory of it and its inhabitants, and what they stood for.
It’s neither here nor there, but I’d have to give the northerner the nod as being better at fiction. Faulkner was a master story teller, but Grey Owl was a fabulist whose whole adult life was somewhere between a fairy tale and a morality play.
SOMETHING BOLD AND TRAGICAL AND AUSTERE
So back to 1981 and my trek into Beaver Lodge.
“Give me a good canoe, a pair of Jibway shoes, my beaver, my family and ten thousand square miles of wilderness and I am happy,” Grey Owl had written half a century before.
That recipe for happiness might not do the trick for everyone. But on this fine June day, I find my spirit swaying through stands of trembling aspen. Balsam poplar. Paper birch. Balsam fir. White spruce. Black spruce. Tamarack. Jack pine.
Wild roses and the ubiquitous white flower of bunch berries blossom on all sides. Blue fairy bells. Goldthread. Twin flower. Cranberry. Ostrich fern. Challice flower. Sarsaparilla. Bishop’s cap.
Through the branches, shafts of light. Yellow slashes of mote-palpitant sunlight.
The conifers date back at least 280 million years. The lichens and the mosses that carpet the ground to this day are still older. The striped, multi-layered horsetails, 350 million years old and counting, towered over the dinosaurs 150 million years ago. Now here at the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, they barely reach my knees.
When I reach the cabin, I get a sense of what it must feel like to visit Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Frost’s cabin at Bread Loaf, maybe. Wordsworth’s Lake District. Someday, God willing, Rowan Oak (now a museum) and the Faulkner family plot at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Oxford.
Beaver Lodge isn’t like Thoreau’s reconstructed cabin, though. The roof and the crumbling lower parts were reconstructed in 1974, but the upper portion is as Grey Owl last saw it. His pole bed is still here, next to the rusty old wood stove he used to heat the place through the dead of winter. Lord, it must get cold in here when the wind blows in January. The only insulation is sphagnum moss.
A bench, a working table, a rusty pail, some long-neck bottles on a makeshift cupboard — concrete tales from an empty cabin.
A hill behind the main cabin leads to a reconstruction of the secondary cottage briefly occupied by Anahareo and baby Dawn. Then Grey Owl’s simple grave.
More holes have been dug since my visit. Anahereo was laid to rest here after her death in 1986, a day before her 80th birthday. Dawn, 51 when she passed in 1984, beat her mother to the site by a couple of years.
After I wrote a piece about my visit to Beaver Lodge for the Star Phoenix, Dawn, by then a Kamloops-based novelist who campaigned tirelessly for environmental causes and to keep her father’s works in print, sent me a lovely thank you letter. I accidentally trashed it while cleaning out my desk at the paper when I left.
But I do remember thinking two things while standing at the foot of Grey Owl’s grave in the meditative silence at the heart of Prince Albert National Park.
One was Anahareo’s terse verdict: “He was an Indian, as I was.”
Does it matter that other people accuse Grey Owl of cultural appropriation? Not so much.
My other thought concerned a vague memory of Faulkner’s 1931 parable “Carcassonne,” a story about a man who tries to cheat death.
A dozen years before being injured in a wicked fall from his horse and soon suffering a fatal heart attack at Wright’s Sanitarium in Byhalia (his preferred drying-out spot) on July 6, 1962, Faulkner had chosen Carcassonne to end his magnificent collection of 42 stories.
July 6 was the birthday of Col. William Falkner, the hot-headed and violent, erudite and published great-grandfather whom his namesake idolized and utilized as the model for such aristocratic characters as Colonel John Satoris and Major de Spain. Collected Stories of William Faulkner would win the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1951. (The younger William added the “u” to “Falkner” to ensure that readers would pronounce the name, if not as Mississippians would, with nonetheless as little dialectical interference as possible.)
Late-career awards and laurels marked a remarkable renaissance for a prose poet who had been slipping into obscurity before critic Malcolm Cowley — who had similarly sparked a revival of interest in Hemingway in 1944 with his edit of The Portable Hemingway — persuaded Viking to publish a Portable Faulkner in 1948.
As a Wikipedia article on Cowley states:
By the 1930s, (Faulkner) was working as a Hollywood screenwriter and in danger of seeing his works go out of print. Cowley again argued for a dramatic revaluation of Faulkner's position in American letters, enlisting him as an honorary member of the Lost Generation. Robert Penn Warren called The Portable Faulkner the “great watershed” moment for Faulkner’s reputation, and many scholars view Cowley’s essay as having resuscitated Faulkner’s career.
Faulkner’s take: “I owe Malcolm Cowley the kind of debt no man could ever repay.”
As do we all.
William Faulkner turned 125 on Sunday, Sept. 25, two days after I hit the Publish button on this blah blah blog post. My take: In Carcassonne, his surrogate prophesies a grand fate he and Grey Owl both ultimately realized:
I want to perform something bold and tragical and austere he repeated, shaping the soundless words in the pattering silence me on a buckskin pony with eyes like blue electricity and a mane like tangled fire, galloping up the hill and right off into the high heaven of the world. Still galloping, the horse soars outward; still galloping, it thunders up the long blue hill of heaven, its tossing mane in golden swirls like fire.
Steed and rider thunder on, thunder punily diminishing: a dying star upon the immensity of darkness and of silence within which, steadfast, fading, deepbreasted and grave of flank, muses the dark and tragic figure of the Earth, his mother.
POSTSCRIPT: That Prince Albert National Park exists at all is partly due to a quirk of Canadian politics. After narrowly losing his York North seat to a Conservative in the 1925 general federal election, Prime Minister Mackenzie King won a byelection the following February in what was then a safe Liberal seat in Prince Albert. Later that year, he was re-elected in the riding in a general election, trouncing the Conservative candidate, a brash young lawyer named John George Diefenbaker. It was the only time in Canadian history in which two men to serve as prime minister have faced off as candidates in the same riding.
Fulfilling an election promise, King was instrumental in the 1927 creation of the park, aka PANP, to which Grey Owl was moved as a publicity stunt in 1931 by Parks Branch authorities after his six-month stay at Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. The goal was to make PANP better known by having a rising celebrity live there, so parks officials built Beaver Lodge to Grey Owl’s specifications.
Grey Owl didn’t talk about it much — in fact, I never heard anyone talk about this while growing up and falling in love with the park (all my changes, as they say, were there) — but Indigenous peoples who traditionally lived on the land were forcibly removed by federal officials and the RCMP upon its establishment, with possessions and cabins destroyed.
King met Grey Owl several times and was a fan, the drinking notwithstanding. So was Dief the Chief, whose final electoral campaign I covered as a young reporter in 1979 (in the general election that made Joe Clark prime minister for all of nine months).
Diefenbaker, 83 when he died two months after being handily re-elected that year, had visited Grey Owl at his cabin in the park in the mid-1930s. In memoirs published 40 years later, he described the prose of the man in buckskins as “clothed in masterly English and filled with an imagery that only a lover of nature could possibly possess.”
Diefenbaker, an egomaniac who, as the terrific Canadian folk music ensemble Stringband had observed in their song Dief will be the Chief Again, exalted in such puffed-up titles as “Chief Walking Buffalo to the people of the Sioux, honorary Chief Eagle to the Cree,” seemed to believe that he was God’s gift to native people. Grey Owl wasn’t the only one deluded about his ability to pull the wool over the eyes of First Peoples.
My favourite moment during the ’79 campaign happened when the former PM, doddering and stone-cold deaf but still a charismatic giant of Canadian history, spotted and lurched toward a tall, braided, First Nations man in a fringed leather jacket during a walkabout on Central Avenue, Prince Albert’s main drag. Honestly, the guy would have made a far more cinematically appealing Grey Owl than Brosnan.
“We’ve had enough of your fucking bullshit,” the man promptly told the Chief, who had been anticipating a warm reception and couldn’t hear the insult. Diefenbaker extended his hand and politely asked the man to repeat himself.
His request was granted, several decibels louder, as the former PM, still blithely oblivious and pleased to be meeting an admirer, was abruptly steered away by his outraged handlers.
Archie Belaney’s message in a nutshell. And maybe not so far from Faulkner’s.