Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Conservation of the Wild Life of Canada" by G. Gordon Hewitt

I have previously mentioned how much I love reading books from the "Coles Canadiana Collection." These thick, meaty volumes are exact reprints of Canadian nonfiction books written before the 1930s, many of them journals, reports, and memoirs. Unabridged, they contain all the antiquated dullness and dried-out warts of the originals...just the way I like them.

I just finished reading C. Gordon Hewitt's "The Conservation of the Wild Life of Canada," a 1921 report which dared to state the obvious: "Hey folks, if we keep killing all these animals, we're going to RUN OUT of animals...and that could be BAD!"

It's impossible to evaluate this sort of book without taking into account the time it was published, but much of it sounds awfully current. Hewitt had a real love of wild life for its own sake but he recognized that he'd need to sell his policies in practical ways: preserve the birds so they can eat the insects which damage our crops; protect the elk so that the Native Americans will have something to eat; save the goats because they make our parks prettier; domesticate the muskox in order to breed hardier cattle.

Except for the muskox thing his ideas were pretty good. Animals such as muskox tend to die when you move them around.

Much of the book is a dry and repetitious accounting of the habits of wildlife and the terrain of conservation areas, and for that reason I found myself focusing on Hewitt's amusing quirks. I loved the way he always described bad animals as "noxious," and whenever an animal was described as "fur bearing" I found myself picturing an animal who could barely tolerate its own fur.

I particularly enjoyed his "elk/wapati" hang-up. Hewitt's sense of order was obviously offended by the incorrect application of the word "elk" to the Canadian animal, so he constantly described them as "elk, or wapati," as though he could train us dumb readers to use the proper word.

Sorry buddy, we still call them "elk." And "cattalo," his proposed word for a buffalo/cattle hybrid, never stuck either (I guess somebody figured that "beefalo" sounded less silly...ahem).

Also amusing was Hewitt's intense hatred of cats. Lest you think he was a lover of all creatures, Hewitt constantly exhorted people to exterminate the "alien" cats because of their "cruel" slaughter of birds. Likewise he hated "market hunters." Nobody knows his opinions about ALIEN FELINE market hunters, but I think we can guess.

The book contains many photographs of Canadian animals, most of them carefully posed in front of explicitly fake backdrops. At first I was baffled, thinking that a photographer had herded trained polar bears, moose, and elk (AKA wapati) into large studios and forced them to pose for pictures. This seemed like a lot of effort to go through. Eventually I realized that the pictures were of stuffed animals in MUSEUM exhibits. Aha.

I've learned a lot from this book. I now know that a cow will apparently run AWAY from storms, but that a muskox will stand bravely (or stupidly) and face inclement weather. I learned that the arrival of the railway impacted buffalo in more ways than just transporting hunters: it also broke up the herds and caused lots of forest fires. I learned that New Brunswick really sucked when it came to animal preservation in the 1920s. I also learned that I'm still childish enough to laugh at the following sentence:
It has been calculated that a pair of tits and the young they rear will consume about 170 pounds of insect food a year.
This is certainly not the best or most informative Coles Canadiana book, but it is a slice of undiluted zeal from a well-intentioned and very wise man who died too soon.


Anonymous said...

One of the joys of reading is of course to make "alive" by reading those writers who are likely to have beene forgotten, but do try this

(atleast upto chapter 6)




only undeservingly obscur

Anonymous said...

And "life on the Mississippi"? Just as good as I remembered it. And better. :)

Adam Thornton said...

We used to read Jack London in public school...his stories were good examples of interesting, somewhat moral, non-challenging short fiction that could be easily dissected in a classroom setting. I remember liking what we read ("To Build a Fire" comes to mind) and I keep meaning to actually pick up a collection.

Even though he wasn't Canadian I think he gets an honourary membership from teachers, since he wrote a lot about snow.

I would read your links but I insist on actual physical books...if I'm going to read on the computer it MUST be The New Yorker.

That said, if "The Kindle" (from Amazon) were available here in Canada, I'd probably buy it.

Anonymous said...

(Reading the newsweek article on Kindle): Wow, this is going to be huge. And all good. But the equivalent of 4 bicycles! :)

Lois said...

The reason "that the arrival of the railway broke up the herds" is because half the herd stood on one side of the tracks and the other half stood on the other side of the tracks and never the "train" should meet.
sorry....it's early..I haven't had enough sleep...

Adam Thornton said...

Lois, you gave me the first genuine laugh of the morning!

That really is a TERRIBLE joke.