I went scurrying into the corner where I store my books right now. Normally there is a quiet joy when I go to this chaos of books that I have collected over the years, but not today. This is one of the times I dread recently – and it seems to be happening more and more often – when I go from my computer where I type a few words about a passing of a literary icon to the my book shelves where their wondrous words which influenced me and my bruised psyche so many years ago. This time the shadow is great over me. A hardcover copy of Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang come off my shelf.
At the end of the first day of the northward trek I was directing a column of supply trucks off the main road into a stone-walled farmyard. The entrance gap was narrow and one large truck, making too sharp a turn, threatened to pin me to the wall with its front fender. As my mouth opened to scream at the driver, a rear wheel ran over a Teller mine.
A savage force crushed me back against the wall then slammed me forward against the truck with such ferocity that I lost consciousness. When dim awareness began to return, I knew beyond doubt that I was dead. I seemed to hear the distant but mighty roaring of the sea in some vast cave, but could see nothing except a shimmering, translucent haze in which I appeared to float weightlessly. There was no pain, and in fact I felt euphoric – like a disembodied spirit drifting in some otherworldly void. Intensely curious about this new state of being into which I had been so summarily dispatched, I allowed myself to drift toward the luminous edge of the haze . . .
. . . and staggered out of a pall of dust and smoke to fall full length over the body of a man whose head had been blown off.
Mowat was a frank writer. No nonsense and gruff was his writing style that impressed me most. His love of the environment was paramount in his books and through them many of them, many readers learned to care about the environment. Owls in the Family is one of the first books I remembered that engaged my love of literature. And Never Cry Wolf is – and always will be – a staple in Canadian literature. But it wasn’t until later on that I learned of Mowat’s war experiences. I recalled one or two war documentaries on cable television where he stated that war was the ultimate in human folly. And when I read about his experiences when I picked up a copy of And No Birds Sang I could see why.
The evidence of what had happened was all around. Behind a pumpkin-sized bush lay a ripped bush shirt and an unravelled shell dressing, both black with dried blood that nevertheless still drew a few flies. Scattered about like debris flung from the crash of an air liner were steel helmets, occasional rifles, split bandoliers out of which spilled clips of .303 whose brass casings and silvered bullets glittered jewel-like under the white-hot sun. There were bits and pieces of web equipment, a carton of 2-inch mortar bombs, fragments of clothing fluttering in a hot wind beside the shallow, blackened craters which shells had blown in the flint-hard ground, and scraps of paper everywhere. I puzzled over that. It looked almost as if some youthful and light-hearted paper chase had taken place. A blue airgraph letter form (s0 precious that only one was issued to each solder every week) crinkled underfoot. It was as blank as the mind of the dead man who had left it there.
Then I recalled Pat Amoore and I searching the German dead near Valguarnera, casually tossing aside the unwanted contents of dead men’s pockets and wallets – old letters, post cards, photographs. The Germans at Nissoria, searching the field after the fighting ended, had left us a similar legacy of torn and tattered memories to the winds of time.
Mowat’s style was one of a kind and, no doubt, can never be replaced. His influence was felt by many Canadians and certainly by many readers around the world. He will be missed.
I was staring down a vertiginous tunnel where all was black and bloody and the great wind of ultimate desolation howled and hungered. I was alone . . . relentlessly alone in a world I never knew . . . and no birds sang.
RIP Farley Mowat.