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Farley Mowat, 89, in his Port Hope, Ont. home on Oct. 13, 2010. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Farley Mowat, 89, in his Port Hope, Ont. home on Oct. 13, 2010. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

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The gospel according to Farley Mowat Add to ...

The body is worn and its lifelong beard thin, but 89-year-old Farley Mowat's Voice of Doom still thunders with authority, setting his old dog to bark at every impassioned crescendo - of which there are many. The end is nigh, he declares with gusto, and Chester for one agrees.

"If I could believe for one fraction of a second there was any hope for us as a species, that we could determine a course of action for the future that would allow us to live in some kind of harmony with the rest of animate creation, I would be a very happy man," Mowat declaims. "But I have not been able to find that ray of hope."

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Human extinction is a "certainty," the internationally famous writer and pioneering Canadian environmentalist says, and he raises his glass - vodka, with a splash of cranberry juice - at the prospect.

"It's our greed, our avarice, our desire for self-gratification, which seems to be absolutely limitless," he continues. "It seems to me only limited by the unavailability of subject matter that can be destroyed for our gratification." A biological drive to overmaster and destroy, the end game at hand.

And he has the chutzpah to call himself an optimist. "My optimism is in the hope - it's not a hope, it's a certainty - the certainty that Homo sapiens will cease to be before very long, before he can destroy the world we live in, and life will carry on," he says.

"We're only a fraction in the huge mathematical calculation that's life. We're nothing, we're just poof." He spits. "Our departure will mean absolutely nothing to the continuity and the ongoing hopes and possibilities for life."

O happy day.

"Before I go any farther on this one," he says, his rheumy eyes suddenly sharp and clear blue in the afternoon light that streams into the back room of his cozy cottage in Port Hope, Ont., "I have to tell you I'm the last in a long line of preachers."

But readers who sample Mowat's latest book, Eastern Passage - his last book, the author insists - will find little evidence of such stentorian figures. Rambling and graceful, Eastern Passage looks back on a large life with a sweetness that belies its sometimes troubling content - from memories of the author's service in the Second World War to the continuing controversy over the truth of the many stories he has served up over the years.

Slightly sheepish, Mowat attributes the often elegiac tone of Eastern Passage to "the insidious effects" of nostalgia. "As I get older and less tolerant of what the human species is doing to itself and to the world it lives in, and as I become more pessimistic about this, nostalgia seems to swell up in my bosom," he says, mocking the sentiment while acknowledging its appeal.

Filling a gap in Mowat's autobiography, Eastern Passage documents the author's return from war and his first attempts at writing while he and his first wife built a rough home for themselves in the sand hills north of Toronto. It describes his first visits to the Far North and the human encounters that enabled him to recover from the trauma of combat.

"I was fed up to the teeth with my own kind after the war was over," he says. "We were bloody butchers - desperate butchers, and the things we did to each other, to ourselves and to the world around us were so atrocious that nobody except a few great poets have ever been able to even indicate them." Homo sapiens was "the most despicable creature ever contrived."

"That's too heavy for me," Mowat says, interrupting himself in mid-tirade. "I'm going to go get a drink."

Learning the ways of aboriginal people and becoming their advocate got him into trouble, he recalls, returning to the fray - the still-ongoing controversies over the factual basis of his two most influential books, People of the Deer and Never Cry Wolf - but it helped restore his faith in humankind.

"Myself and perhaps a dozen other soulmates had concluded we were being too pessimistic, and there was hope for Homo sapiens, and we really busted out asses to do something about it." Memories of the days when "we thought we saw a rift in the darkness" became the raison d'être of Eastern Passage, according to Mowat.

"It was our interest and our concern for the future of life on earth, as simple as that," he says. "It's a huge statement, but a simple concept."

But the rift was an illusion and the atrocities piled up. He has no desire to revisit the North today. "It's grisly," he says. "They are being pushed, pulled, perverted into accepting our ways of living." The result is a kind of gulag. "And who wants to go look at that? I don't. I literally can't bear it."

Thirty books on, Mowat uncovers yet another atrocity in Eastern Passage, the little-known story of a distressed U.S. bomber jettisoning a uranium-packed "Fat Man" nuclear bomb over the St. Lawrence River in 1950, creating an earth-shaking explosion and "a mass poisoning of life in the river which may or may not still be continuing."

In the book, Mowat drops that bomb expertly into an otherwise seamlessly sweet yarn about a cruise he took on the same river at about the same time with his father, Angus, skipper of a sturdy North Sea double-ended ketch. "A redningskoite," he remembers, pronouncing the Norwegian with flair. "Oh, she was a hulking, great, black bitch, as Angus my father used to call her in a loving way. She would put to sea when all the other little white wings were screaming madly for harbour."

Nostalgia trumps bombs. But that's the end of it.

"This is it," Mowat says. "This is definitely it." The last book. All of his eight-or-so old Underwood manual typewriters are "decrepit," he says. "Every one has got something wrong with it." And he can't write on anything else. Writing "has become a real labour for me now," he says, "a physical labour." He's done with it.

But not with life. "I have transmogrified into a professional house painter!" Mowat declares triumphantly, describing a happy summer just passed on a ladder up against an old wooden house in Cape Breton. "Anybody who wants to talk with me, communicate with me or associate with me had better be interested in painting houses."

But only Down East, breathing fresh salt air, far from the industrial wasteland where he overwinters, in his father's house. "I'm not going to paint any houses here," he says indignantly. "The corruption! The corruption in the air, on the land, in business administration! The corruption! You're wasting your time painting a house up here. Forget it!"

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