What Farley Knew

The late Canadian author, environmentalist, self-promoter, and shit-disturber Farley Mowat was born on this day in 1921. Nearly ninety-two years later, on May 6 of 2014, he died. Between those dates Mowat led a legendary life. A polarizing personality, he was widely loved and yet frequently reviled.

Pinocchio MowatIt’s Mowat’s storytelling that will remain his greatest legacy, and drew his most vociferous criticism. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” was his mantra, and Mowat was duly dubbed “Hardly Know It” by many serious scientists, experts, and ordinary folk—especially Northerners—fed up with his penchant for myth-making. Saturday Night magazine depicted Farley Mowat as Pinocchio in a cover story that catalogued his errors, exaggerations and outright fibs.

For his part, Mowat claimed his wildly popular books—he sold 17 million of them, all over the world—brought much needed attention to serious causes: the starvation of the Ahalmuit (People of the Deer); the demonization of wolves (Never Cry Wolf); the plight of whales (A Whale for the Killing), seals and other marine life (Sea of Slaughter).

The factuality of Mowat’s work may often be sketchy, but his skill as a storyteller is undeniable. As Up Here noted in a reevaluation in 2009, (Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?) the North has been hard on its writers at the best of times, and Hardly Know It might well have been reviled for his unpopular stance even if he’d been a stickler for accuracy.

LiarOrSaint

Certainly, if history judges his books by their emotional substance, Farley Mowat’s legacy will be a favourable one. Sympathy for wild creatures was once considered sentimental. Criticism of British and Canadian patriarchal authority in the North was weak-kneed. And advocacy for the Inuit way of life was anything but common when Farley Mowat first put pen to paper.

These were ideas Mowat introduced, and stood by, early on in his career. All are clearly in evidence in his Top of the World Trilogy. This compendium of old explorer’s journals, spanning several centuries, edited with commentary by Mowat, is well worth re-reading now: it’s vintage Mowat, and yet, published in 1973, it was well ahead of its time.

Favouring overlooked, underdog explorers like Samuel Hearne, Francis McClintock, and Captain Thierry Mallet, Mowat’s selections and commentary subvert the typical hero narrative, heaping scorn on hapless colonizers of the North acting on orders from far away, including the otherwise iconic Sir John Franklin.

Such views are common, if not dominant today, even in the South. Would that be the case without Farley Mowat? Clearly his most egregious missteps and misstatements will not stand the test of time, nor should they. But on what would have been his ninety-fourth birthday, perhaps we can admit that on some subjects, at least, Farley Knew It after all.

Editor’s note: the late Farley Mowat travelled as a special guest aboard Adventure Canada expeditions in 1995 and 1997. Among his many contributions he taught us invaluable lessons about garnering cheap publicity.

For a definitive take on this issue, see Ken McGoogan‘s thorough and beautiful overview of Farley Mowat’s literary legacy from the National Post.

James Raffan: Circling the Midnight Sun

CirclingTheMidnightSunAuthor, paddler, and inveterate traveller James Raffan sets himself a daunting task in his latest book: to make his way around the Arctic Circle, by country, culture, and community. In a time when climate change threatens ways of life that have endured for generations, Raffan hopes his journey may highlight some of the ways northern peoples have been most affected by the changes wrought during the past century or so.

That makes it all sound simple. In fact, it’s anything but. What “Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic” reveals first is that a journey along the Arctic Circle, like the issues it explores, is complex, difficult, and often disheartening—though potentially rewarding. Raffan’s circumnavigation of the planet at 66.6 degrees North, which takes place piecemeal over the course of three years, spans the Arctic territories of Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. He travels by virtually every imaginable means, from sled and snowmobile to Adventure Canada’s own former expedition cruise vessel, the Sea Adventurer.

As Raffan makes his way along the ice roads and airways and (emerging) shipping lanes of the Arctic in a journey totalling more than 17,000 kilometres, a pattern begins to emerge: having cleared snarls of red tape and managed to put a first foot forward in the direction of his next (often terribly remote) destination, Raffan, white-knuckled, wide-eyed and keen, winds up in the car, tent, boat, shack, or sled of one generous host or fixer after another, whose insights he carefully and gratefully chronicles.

To Raffan’s own surprise, a similar story seems to arise in every place: for the indigenous peoples who live along the Arctic Circle, from the Sami to the Gwiich’in to the Inuit, climate change is far less a concern than the sweeping cultural changes that have preceded it. Everywhere he goes, the author finds savvy people whose most fervent wish is not to reverse global warming, nor to return to some ancient way of life. Rather, it is to “control their fate”—a key phrase. From Alaska to Siberia, this is the shared goal of the people of the north.

Amid the evocative-sounding names of people, places, languages and nations that make up his travelogue, Raffan introduces a bewildering array of advocacy groups, umbrella organizations, NGOs, territorial and tribal governments. Many (though certainly not all) of these are devoted to ensuring indigenous and northern voices are head amid the din of global politics and the rush to access Arctic resources. This is good news, in a way. Yet the mere necessity of their existence points to the scope of the changes facing people who until recently have been entirely dependent on the land and sea for their sustenance.

And so we meet a shaman with a cell phone, and a reindeer herder who sells Amway. We learn how control of resources may give Inuit Greenlanders a fighting chance at autonomy while the indigenous peoples of Siberia struggle to adapt to the collapse of communism, and Nunavut’s children face a future utterly unlike the one their southern compatriots may enjoy. We learn that while the Arctic comprises a mere six percent of the Earth’s surface, for the millions of people who live there, it is home. That home is changing—it has always been changing. Arctic people, we learn, are everywhere proud adapters. But the key to adaptation is a healthy, thriving, resilient culture: the very thing that is most at risk as climate change, resource extraction, new shipping lanes, communications technology and globalization leave the Arctic directly in the path of ‘progress’.

Raffan

The story of any journey is ultimately the story of change. For James Raffan, the change is a personal one: he quickly comes to understand that the imaginary line he follows is just that; roads and rivers, whales and caribou know nothing of lines of latitude. That’s part of what makes his journey interesting. More slowly, Raffan comes to a deeper understanding, personified by the ravens that appear wherever he goes. Symbolizing thought and memory in ancient Norse myth, they reveal to the author, and ultimately to the reader what is truly at stake in the Arctic. We have seen Thought wander, and the results are distressing. But what if we were to lose Memory? The results would be catastrophic. Memory is language. Language is culture. Culture is people. The people of the Arctic represent a critical element of the Earth’s own memory.

The lesson is there for the learning, and to learn it, we, like James Raffan, need to come full circle in the north.

 

Michael Crummey’s changing Newfoundland

MichaelCrummeyNoted author (and frequent AC staffer) Michael Crummey is a thoughtful, empathetic chronicler of the changing culture of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Like many passengers aboard our East Coast trips, Michael has been fascinated by the village of Francois (pronounced Fransway) on Newfoundland’s south coast, as well as other remote communities we visit.

Francois—whose population nearly triples when our ship pays a call— is one of a dwindling number of outports across the province.

Sweetland

Michael’s new book, Sweetland, is set in a fictional outport on the verge of resettlement.

Michael recently penned an article for the Globe and Mail, What it means to be a Newfoundlander is rapidly changing.

And in recent appearances on CTV’s Canada AM, and CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning, Michael mentions his connection to AC and the unique perspective our trips have provided on his native province.

Michael’s insights about the changing ways of life in Newfoundland and Labrador are a boon to our East Coast expeditions, and Sweetland promises to be a fascinating read.

Well done, Michael Crummey!

Michael Crummey will join our Newfoundland Circumnavigation, June 24 to July 4 2015.