Farley Mowat’s Owls in the Family was the first book Karsten Heuer read, and although he was only in Grade 2 at the time, the story changed his life.
Like Mowat, who died on May 6 at age 92, Heuer would go on to become an accomplished writer, as well as wildlife biologist. But Heuer’s relationship with the man who was one of Canada’s best-known authors and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society changed dramatically when he sent Mowat a manuscript of Being Caribou, his book about the plight of the Porcupine caribou herd. Two weeks later, Heuer received a typewritten letter from Mowat, which not only praised the book, but also invited Heuer, his wife Leanne Allison and their two-and-a-half-year-old son Zev to visit Mowat in Nova Scotia.
Five months and 5,000 kilometres — travelled by canoe, sailboat and train — later, a journey captured in Allison’s 2009 documentary Finding Farley, Heuer and family finally met Mowat at his Cape Breton farmhouse.
What was it like to meet him?
I’ll never forget it. We were rowing to shore from the sailboat, and there was Farley and his wife Claire, standing on the shore down the hill from their summer home. When we hugged, I was shocked that he was actually a living, breathing person. There was nothing different about him, other than his veracity, spirit and passion.
Was he what you expected?
He was a little bit shy. The bravado in his public persona — the rum-drinking brash man — was a facade. I think he preferred to be alone and work through his thoughts. I mean, here’s one of Canada’s most successful writers, and yet he meets us on the shore in a ratty old rain jacket and drives us up to his clapboard farmhouse with its peeling paint in his 20-year-old Ford Ranger. The chair in his writing studio was held together with duct tape, his footstool was an old milk crate and his writing desk was an old door on a sawhorse. He was just like one of us. I think the difference was he refused to let norms dictate what he did, and he was constantly pushing boundaries — not just for himself, but also for society at large.
What about the accusations that some of his work is as much fiction as fact?
Farley clearly understood our history as a storytelling species, that stories are how we’ve transmitted knowledge for eons and that they stick in our memory and move us towards action. Sometimes he took a license to stitch a narrative together, but he did that as an artist, a craftsperson, not as somebody trying to cut corners. But he was attacked for it, and I think that stung him a little. I understand why he did it. If you look at the outcome, the greater truth that came out of that work, you can tell he wrote very strategically and deliberately towards the larger objectives he was trying to achieve.
What did he achieve? What should he be remembered for?
Farley deserves to be remembered as somebody who didn’t accept societal norms and who was willing to stick his neck out for the things that moved him — the voiceless creatures, or as he called them “the others.” He’s somebody who changed the direction of history, and actually steered public perception on a number of things that wouldn’t have otherwise been flagged for many decades. For example, it was Farley who changed the public’s idea of wolves as bloodthirsty killers to an integral component of the ecosystem.
What would he want his memorial to be like?
I don’t think Farley would want us to dwell on him. He’d want us to carry on his crusade and to think about the voiceless. He’d want us to show restraint and make room on this planet for the other life that we share it with, rather than just thinking about ourselves.