This book by Grey Owl was originally published in London by Country Life (1931) but has been reissued many times since, by other publishers. Initially titled The Vanishing Wilderness, but changed by the publisher, it describes the beauty and grandeur of the north Canadian lands that Grey Owl believed would soon be destroyed by the rush of civilization. He argues poetically for saving the forests, the animals, and even the native Indian peoples for the future. This plea made him one of Canada's first conservationists and resonated with many people who read the book or heard him speak.
Do not expect a single plot when you begin to read this book. Instead, it is composed of ten chapters, each separate, each describing some aspect of Grey Owl's Canada with almost meditative detail and peacefulness. The front and back inside covers of the edition I read (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1932) were illustrated with Grey Owls pencil sketches, and many black and white photographic plates were also inserted into the main text.
The first few chapters, "The Vanguard," "The Land of Shadows," "The Trail," discuss the life of the frontier man, the fur trapper and hunter, including the many hazards faced. Chapter three, "The Trail," ends with this evocative description:
Canoes gliding between palisades of rock. Teepees, smoke-dyed, on a smooth point amongst the red pines; inscrutable faces peering out. Two wooden crosses at a rapids. Dim trails. Tug of the tump line again: always. Old tea pails, worn snowshoes, hanging on limbs, their work is well done; throw them not down on the ground. Little fires by darkling streams. Slow wind of evening hovering in the tree tops, passing on to nowhere. Gay, caparisoned clouds moving in review, under the setting sun. Fading day. Pictures forming and fading in glowing embers. Voices in the running waters, calling, calling. The lone cry of a loon from an unseen lake. Peace, contentment. This is the Trail.
The next chapter, "The Still-Hunt
," paints a picture of the thrills and difficulties of stalking moose
, including some of the author's experiences as a hunting guide to wealthy, mostly incompetent, city folk. Chapter five, "On Being Lost," is one of the best parts as it describes in great detail the horrors associated with
losing one's way in the woods. The most beautiful section of the book is chapter six, "The Fall of the Leaf," which dwells on the heavenliness of autumn in the wild northlands:
The air was filled with the low sound of falling leaves, as they made their hesitant way to earth, adding little by little to a variegated carpet already ankle deep. And as they came spinning, floating, and spiralling down like golden snowflakes, the sound of their continuous, subdued, rustling transformed the stately forest into a shadowed whispering gallery, in which it seemed as though the ancient trees would tell in muted accents the age-old secrets of days gone by, did one but have the ears to understand.
In the seventh chapter, "The Tale of the Beaver People
," Grey Owl finally writes about his favorite subject, the preservation of the beaver
. As a former trapper and killer of beaver, he knew very well how the population had been decimated over the years, and as an adopted member of the Ojibway
Nation, he also understood the importance of the sacred beaver to the Indians.
The final chapters of the book include "The Altar of Mammon" (about the carelessness that starts many forest fires which destroy the ancient trees as well as the birds and animals; also the greed of the timber companies), "The House of McGinnis" (about the beaver kittens McGinty and McGinnis that lived in Grey Owl's house), and "The Trail of Two Sunsets" (about the ending of the Indian way of life as it is overcome and pushed out by the encroaching white civilization).
A person can hardly read this book without weeping for the lost beauty that Grey Owl describes. If he was already seeing his land emptied and destroyed so long ago, imagine the state it is in now. He does not want all newcomers to go back to the Old World, but he does ask that some of the land be put aside and some of the inhabitants be allowed to live there, unmolested.