It's late afternoon in this pretty, historic town east of Toronto, and the light is getting crepuscular in the sunroom of the clapboard house that Farley Mowat and his wife, Claire, have lived in for more than 30 years.
Time, in short, for a libation.
Farley - doesn't everyone call him that? - gets up from his chair by the window overlooking a backyard dotted with stone commemorative markers etched with single names like "Millie" and "Albert." There are six in total, one for each of the dogs that has lived and died with the Mowats during their time here. "Dog No. 7," as Claire Mowat calls Chester, the border-collie/black-Labrador mix sharing the sunroom, pads after his master to the kitchen.
Minutes later, Mowat, in corduroy trousers, a pea-green hunter's vest and hiking boots, returns, glass in hand. "I'm on a new kick that Claire's got me on," he informs his visitor. "It's vodka and white grape juice." Taking a sip, he sighs contentedly and chuckles. "I like to imagine I'm creating my own wine internally."
Vodka has long been a Mowat staple, in often surprising combinations. A quarter-century or so ago, his visitor saw him knock back three vodka and milks in quick succession in an Edmonton hotel lounge - a drink "only a cow would enjoy normally," he admits. Now that he's 87 (Claire's 75), Mowat limits himself to one alcoholic drink a day, usually consumed just before dinner, a couple of hours after he wakes from his afternoon nap. The one exception is, "if I have to go out anywhere. I'll have a drink or two to get my courage up to face the ravening multitudes."
There have been multitudes in Farley Mowat's life since 1952 when he published People of the Deer, both his first book and the first of what turned out to be many bestsellers. You know some of them - Never Cry Wolf, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, Westviking, And No Birds Sang, Lost in the Barrens. And if you don't, well … can you really call yourself a Canadian?
Mowat has a new book, his 43rd, in stores. Called Otherwise, it's like much of his oeuvre, autobiographical - in this instance, covering the years 1937 through 1948, from his Prairie childhood and his burgeoning interest in the natural world to enlistment in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, his fateful postwar field trip to the Arctic and the early days of his first marriage.
"There is no other subject that I know better than my own life," Mowat avers, so writing Otherwise was "a routine pleasure for me. … An organism needs a function. As a good student of animality, I know if you don't have that, you die. Writing is mine and as long as I can hit the keys and vaguely remember what word I need, I'll go on with it."
Mowat claims he wouldn't have been surprised had Otherwise been published to little or no attention. It's been a good six or seven years since he had a substantial presence on the bestseller lists so, "I had no expectations." Somehow, though, in the weeks leading up to Otherwise's publication, word started to circulate that it would be his last book. It's not something Mowat attested to, but regardless of how the story got started, it's had the effect of reigniting interest in things Mowat. "Maybe," he says with a laugh, "I'm filling a category that happens to be vacant at the moment - the literary icon. The old ones are all dead except me and the new ones aren't old enough yet to fill the role."
On this day at least, Mowat doesn't seem like he's likely to exit the planet any time soon. While he's become more troll-like over the years, and the famous beard has lost its bushiness and reddish hue - his countenance now is like that of a mischievous 19th-century Russian anarchist - his mind remains sharp, the humour nimble and combative, the sentences orderly. Hell, he and Claire still drive - a Honda CR-V that they've had for at least a decade.
Boyish-looking into his late 20s ("'Junior,' they called me"), Mowat first grew a shield of facial hair while traipsing about the Arctic, in part because "black flies and mosquitoes don't penetrate a beard. They stay outside.
"I took it off once, during my first marriage it was, wasn't it?" At this, he glances over at Claire, his second wife, for confirmation. The two first met in the late 1950s - an encounter recounted a couple of years ago in Bay of Spirits, with Claire described as being "as radiantly lovely as any Saxon goddess" - when Mowat was still married to the former Frances Thornhill.
"Don't ask me," Claire replies. "I wasn't in your first marriage. All I know is I've never seen you without it."
Unperturbed, Mowat continues: "Well, I think four or five years after I got back from the Arctic, I was persuaded by my first wife to shave. And I kept it off for a year. But, finally, I couldn't stand it and back she came."
Port Hope is where the Mowats "winter over." Their summer home is on Cape Breton Island, an 80-hectare spread near the village of River Bourgeois that they announced last year they'd be donating to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. "We like winter, the change in the seasons," Claire says. "I'd be unhappy if I had to be away from winter for a very long time."
"And I have no desire to go and sit around semi-naked in Florida," her husband snorts. "In Florida, you have to stare at each other's aging bodies whereas if you stay at home, you get to see each other's smiling faces. This is the best retirement home we've found, right here.
"We've done a lot of travelling," he adds, "but not so much any more. Claire doesn't like flying. I don't mind it. But the airports today! The treatment the human animal gets there is worse than the bovine animal gets at the stockyards, up to and including the moment of execution."
Over the years, Mowat's writings have been decried by some non-Farleyites as exercises in exaggeration and, in some instances, untruths. The most serious assault occurred in mid-1996 when the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine published a lengthy cover story by Montreal journalist John Goddard (now with the Toronto Star) debunking Mowat's early Arctic exploits. The article was illustrated, notoriously, with a photo manipulated to show Mowat sporting a Pinocchio-sized proboscis.
"That cut to the quick," Mowat confessed recently in an interview with CBC Radio's Michael Enright. But the author - who likes to call himself "an emotionalist, subjective, not an intellectual, not even particularly rational" - never mounted much of a counteroffensive then and he's not keen to do so now. Nevertheless, he remains unapologetic about his oeuvre - let's not forget he called his very first book "a semi-novel" - and unchastened by those he calls "the fact addicts."
"I have no impulse, no desire to rewrite anything I've written. Except," he says, learning forward in his chair, "except where it is badly written. And there is a lot of that. Which is one of the few reasons I don't read much of my own work again. Because I don't want to be overwhelmed by the artisan's need to make it right. But as far as content is concerned, I have no regrets. Well, I have some. Mainly about not kicking the people who run this world harder in the ass!"
He pauses, then laughs. "Of course, there are also moments of reward. Every time I read a paper and see a little story about how Conrad Black is enjoying his incarceration in Florida, well, it gives me a certain degree of pleasure." It was Black, after all, who, as publisher of Saturday Night from 1987 through 2001, would have okayed the Goddard article.
In fact, 12 years after the Saturday Night takedown, Mowat seems as incorrigible as ever. During that Enright interview, he underlined his refusal to forsake the Underwood manual typewriter he's used, two-finger style, for decades by saying he has a sign pinned to his front door in Port Hope reading, "No Jehovah's Witnesses or computers."
This sign, however, is not in evidence during this visit and when Mowat is informed of this, he eyes his dog with mock severity. "Chester! Did you take down that sign?" Chester's ears twitch but he stares back unblinking. Turning to the visitor, Mowat shrugs: "He seems to take them down as soon as I put them up."
Another self-deprecating laugh follows, whereupon Mowat repeats one of his governing maxims. " 'Never let the facts interfere with the truth.' That applies to practically everything in my life, including signs on a door."
One thing these days that Mowat does admit to "feeling guilty about" is his mother, Helen. "I hear her voice," he says. Which perhaps isn't too surprising since she is buried in a churchyard just a block or so south of the Mowats' house. In fact, the house, built around 1845, belonged to Mowat's mother before she sold it to her only son and moved into a seniors residence. Mowat explains that his father, Angus, a Vimy Ridge veteran, novelist and chief inspector of Ontario's public libraries from 1937 until 1960, "was always putting my mother down. He called her 'poor dear Helen' - 'PDH' was his condescending shorthand - and I always took his side," even for a time after he left PDH "for this other, horrible woman [a fellow librarian, in fact] who turned out to be a real dragon, a devourer.
"I didn't do very well by my mother. I've never been derogatory to her in any way. But she's always taken second place to my father in my parental memories. Now I'm trying to make amends. … My attention is much more focused on her than it used to be."
(Interestingly, throughout Otherwise Mowat refers to his parents mostly by their first names, hardly ever "Mom" or "Dad." This is the result, Mowat explains, of "familial procedure. … It was only after I graduated high school - up until that point it was 'Mom' and 'Dad' - that Angus made one of his speeches, 'Well, now you're a grown-up man. You may call me Angus, you may call your mother Helen.' That's the kind of guy he was.")
An environmentalist and an ecologist decades before these terms were common currency, Mowat feels no real honour in being a pioneer or having sounded the alarm about humankind's impact on "the others," the non-human species celebrated in Otherwise. "My behaviour is pre-eminently natural," he asserts, "or at least I hope it is." In matters of belief, he's agnostic: If there is a grand purpose to existence, "it is beyond my capacity to grasp, so why worry about that? What I am concerned with, and always have been, is the justice of our behaviour. Do we behave reasonably well as a species? Or are we perhaps one of the mistaken evolutionary branches?"
He inclines to the latter opinion - a view he started to entertain seriously after witnessing the carnage of the Second World War during combat experience in Italy. At that point, "I rejected giving my allegiance to man." Now, going into what he likes to call "preachy" mode, Mowat declares, "I think we as a species have run our course. … We've had our time and, yes, look around, we've done amazing things. But it's all over but the shouting." And, it seems, the odd grape juice and vodka on a wintry afternoon or an early morning stroll around Port Hope with Chester.
"We're too goddamned smart for our own good. All it means is that we'll probably eliminate ourselves that much more quickly." Still, he admits, "as long as life continues, I continue."
Claire Mowat doesn't share her husband's gloom, at least not today. "We're not gonna disappear any time soon. … Things come back," she observes. "It's just like the spruce budworm. They go in cycles, you see. They go through a forest and decimate it, and then they burn themselves out or something, and come back 60 years later. …"
Mowat perks up at this. "Human beings are like spruce budworms! Yes: too smart for their own good, too successful and then the species dies off. A very good analogy, my love," he says, chuckling, "very apt!"