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Grey Owl: Mysterious Genius of Nature Lore
Robert Cantwell
April 08, 1963
Early in the winter of 1929 an Indian living in the wilderness of eastern Quebec made his way into town on snowshoes—a distance of 40 miles—and mailed an 8,000-word manuscript to Country Life magazine in London. He was a tall, thin, soft-spoken and light-footed individual with coal-black hair, which he wore Indian-fashion in two stringy braids behind his ears. He was known as Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin—which in the Ojibway language means Sleepless, or the Insomniac, or even the Sleepwalker; its literal meaning is "he who travels by night." In the manuscript that he mailed to Country Life he translated his name as Grey Owl, and by this name he soon became internationally famous.
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April 08, 1963

Grey Owl: Mysterious Genius Of Nature Lore

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Early in the winter of 1929 an Indian living in the wilderness of eastern Quebec made his way into town on snowshoes—a distance of 40 miles—and mailed an 8,000-word manuscript to Country Life magazine in London. He was a tall, thin, soft-spoken and light-footed individual with coal-black hair, which he wore Indian-fashion in two stringy braids behind his ears. He was known as Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin—which in the Ojibway language means Sleepless, or the Insomniac, or even the Sleepwalker; its literal meaning is "he who travels by night." In the manuscript that he mailed to Country Life he translated his name as Grey Owl, and by this name he soon became internationally famous.

The magazine bought the article, mailed Grey Owl a check and asked for more. Grey Owl paid his debt to the storekeeper in Cabano, who had advanced him $120 for a winter's trap-line supplies. He bought a yellow fountain pen, some ink, a lot of paper, a Kodak camera for his wife, Anahareo, and snow-shoed back to his cabin, presently emerging with another article, which Country Life also purchased.

Both articles brought exceptional reader response and soon Grey Owl's first book, The Men of the Last Frontier, appeared. A second, Pilgrims of the Wild, was quickly brought out by another publisher, and it sold 50,000 copies at the rate of 800 a week. While it was still going strong, a third work, The Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People, was serialized in The Illustrated London News and then also published as a book. It sold at the rate of 1,000 copies a week. These were remarkable figures for books on two counts: Grey Owl's were nature books, which rarely approach bestseller status, and they were selling in the early 1930s, when the worldwide depression was at its worst. Two years after his first effort at creative writing, Grey Owl had two bestsellers going in England, plus an earlier almost-bestseller that was still selling, and presently his Canadian publisher had $61,000 credited to Grey Owl's account in royalties. Readers clamored for more of his writing, and literary circles on both sides of the Atlantic were enchanted with his style and eager to learn more about this remarkable Indian.

Grey Owl's reaction to success was to head for the woods. Probably no author in the history of literature ever showed such a marked distaste for publicity, parties, interviews, flattery and the other rewards that go with writing bestsellers, as did Grey Owl at that time. His wife left him at the first intimation of his coming triumph, and though they later came back together, she was usually away, looking after some property or visiting her parents in their ancestral tepee—at any rate, beyond the reach of interviewers. His publishers let it be known that Grey Owl was the son of a Scotsman and an Indian woman, that he had been raised among the Ojibways and was a member of that tribe, that he had served as a sniper in World War I, was twice wounded and had since been a trapper, forest ranger and guide.

What started Grey Owl on his way to popular favor was a short section near the end of The Men of the Last Frontier dealing with beavers. The Ojibway word for beaver is Ahmik, pronounced like the slang term for an Irishman, a Mick, and Grey Owl included in his book his recollections of two beaver kittens he had raised, called McGuiness and McGinty. The mother beaver had been killed, and Grey Owl took the kits into his cabin. Grey Owl wrote of his beavers with such understanding and studious detail that his work amounted to a revolutionary approach in this field of scientific observation. Both the methods of observation and the style of writing have been copied widely, and fruitfully, since.

His kits, Grey Owl wrote, remembering his experiences in France, "resemble somewhat an army tank, being built on much the same lines and progressing in a similar manner." But it was their industry that impressed him: they worked all the time. They grew a little faster than he noticed; coming home after a brief absence, he found they had chewed all the legs off the tables and chairs for sheer joy of living. Then they heaped stovewood, moccasins, blankets and dishes around the window, plainly trying to get the cabin in shape for the next winter. In the mission school, or wherever it was that Grey Owl learned to read—he said an aunt had insisted on it—the prose models were evidently Addison and Emerson and the Sears Roebuck catalogue, for Grey Owl had mastered a stately style. "Soft weather, having an exhilarating effect on these animals," he speculated, as he surveyed the damage, "accounted for the delirious attack on my humble fixtures."

When Grey Owl's back was turned, McGuiness and McGinty raced down to the lake 40 feet away and returned with loads of mud which they carefully spread over the floor. If there was any exceptional activity around the cabin, they thought it was work and tried to join in, pushing and pulling things and "hopping and capering about like little round gnomes." At 6 months they could chew through a six-inch log in a few minutes.

In the wild, beaver kittens are generally born in the spring, five to the litter, and remain the first summer with the mother at the dam; the father and the young born the preceding year spend the summer wandering around, traveling downstream, sometimes as far as 20 miles. In the fall they reassemble to strengthen the dam, put the lodge in shape and collect birch and aspen logs into a raft, to be sunk below the ice for a winter food supply. McGuiness and McGinty were plainly nettled at Grey Owl's improvidence; at every opportunity they dashed out and returned with armloads of sticks, branches or even good-sized trees, and if they decided to chew down the log wall of the cabin, as they sometimes did, they were tidy about it, invariably heaping the chips and shavings on one side out of the way.

When these activities palled, they wrestled. Or it may have been a dance. They stood on their hind feet, supported by their tails, and locked their forearms in neck and underarm holds, appearing equally prepared to waltz or to struggle. In this position they slowly strained and pushed against each other, one finally giving way and walking rapidly backward; the other, walking forward, kept in step with him. But now the one walking backward would suddenly catch the other off balance, perhaps by using his tail for leverage, and the spirited walk would commence in the opposite direction. Beavers have a wide range of sounds, chattering and mumbling to themselves as they work and, as they danced or wrestled or whatever it was, they grumbled and complained constantly when things were going against them. "Their performance resembles a violently aggressive fox trot as closely as it does anything else," said Grey Owl. His description of beavers at work and play moved The New Republic to call him "a compound of Ernest Thompson Seton and St. Francis of Assisi." "Grey Owl," said The New York Times , "is no stuffed Indian. He is real and honest. His book should outlast its season and many another." The London Times reported: "It is difficult to recall any record of the great Northwest so brilliantly and lovingly handled. What haunts the memory are unforgettable vignettes...of the Indian, a shadow among shadows...and above all, the charm and pathos of the beaver."

In their second year McGuiness and McGinty disappeared—nothing to do around here—but Grey Owl was given two other beaver kittens by an Indian prospector. The male died, but the female grew into a rotund, haughty creature called variously the Boss, the Queen, the Lady of the Lake, the Tub and, finally, Jelly Roll, by which name she became known as one of the most prominent screen stars of the time. With Grey Owl and another beaver called Rawhide, she appeared in a series of nature films produced by the National Park Service of Canada, which the Service described as "the most remarkable motion pictures ever produced of this enterprising little animal." The first movie, The Beaver People, was released to nationwide acclaim, and Grey Owl was officially credited with having started public interest in the conservation of the beaver.

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