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Original Issue

Grey Owl: Mysterious Genius of Nature Lore

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.

The co-star of the film, Rawhide, was full-grown when Grey Owl found him. One of his hind feet had been frightfully torn by a trap. Every afternoon Grey Owl carried Rawhide to a pond where there was an abandoned beaver lodge and sat in a canoe while the animal paddled around, regaining the use of its legs. By the time it had done so it was friendly enough to climb into the canoe with him. Grey Owl had tamed a mature beaver, very likely an unprecedented feat. He didn't realize how exceptional it was until, as he put it, a Park Service official "told me there was nothing to parallel it anywhere."

Grey Owl was now given a Park Service assignment to start beaver colonies in areas where the animals had been exterminated. He selected a lake in Riding Mountain National Park, about 200 miles northwest of Winnipeg, for the trial. It may have been merely coincidence that he was again in remote wilderness just as his works increased in popularity and his name began to be known throughout Canada. In any event, he became a Canadian citizen. What he thought he had been before was never made clear. In his application he stated that his father was George McNeil, his mother Katherine, a woman of the Jicarilla Apache tribe, and his birthplace Hermosillo in Sonora, Mexico.

A huge beaver tank, built to his specifications, was placed in a baggage car, and Grey Owl rode in the car for nearly a week taking care of his two beaver in the tank. They traveled about 2,000 miles across Canada to Riding Mountain. There Rawhide and Jelly Roll built their lodge, and Jelly Roll gave birth to four kittens, but drought conditions threatened the entire project. The enlarged party thereupon continued its trek across Canada, leaving modern transportation behind at Waskesiu Lake in Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan, traveling 30 miles by water to Ajawaan Lake, and finally portaging everything, including the kittens, the last half mile.

A cabin was built at Grey Owl's direction, and it stood nearly in the center of the 2,300 square miles of wilderness in the park. It was unfloored at one end. There an enclosure like a big cupboard ran across it. This was to be the beavers' home until they built their own. A tunnel led from the cupboard arrangement to the lake, coming out under water at the seven-foot level, safely below any ice. Ordinarily, before a freeze-up, transplanted beaver grow wildly anxious at the lack of a good dam and a supply of aspens, and they rush about, become lost and act directly opposite to their normal good sense. So Grey Owl did not dare let his animals out, and they promptly started to chew the house down. He managed to get a telegram to Anahareo before the winter closed in—she was living with her parents on a reservation—calling for help, because it was plain that in the approaching winter it was going to be a struggle to keep a roof over his head. She arrived in time, and the two Indians and six beaver settled down to six months of unbroken frustration for all.

About a third of Grey Owl's superb last book, Tales of an Empty Cabin, consists of observation of the four beaver kittens that winter. They resembled a line of penguinlike waddling gnomes, hopping and shuffling along in short leaps as they followed their mother about. One always walked erect, staggering about like a decrepit old man. Another was always peering nearsightedly about him, as if he had misplaced his spectacles. One discovered that he could ride on the mother beaver's large, flat tail, and ceased trying to walk around the cabin, standing up and riding comfortably instead while hanging onto the fur. The others then tried it, but there wasn't room enough for all of them because their webbed feet were too big. So they pedaled along, one foot riding and the other marking time, like a child riding a scooter.

Spring came, the heady season for beaver because they can work all the time. Each budding aspen was a challenge to be chewed down, and they could gnaw through a three-inch tree in three minutes. There were trails to be graded, so the aspens could be hauled more easily to the pond. And the thawing earth could be laced with canals through which distant birches and aspens could be floated—and in which the beaver could swim and be safer from predators than they could when they pulled a tree over open ground. And dams could be built. One that Grey Owl found was 300 feet long, 12 feet high and eight feet through. The rising waters brought leaks in the dams that had to be fixed—the eternal promise of spring that meant days and nights of constant work. On the first good day Rawhide dashed to the lake and returned with about two quarts of soft gray mud he had scooped from the bottom. The beaver began to build a lodge over the inside-the-cabin opening of the tunnel to the lake. At this point cameramen from the National Park Service arrived. They took the roof off the cabin so they could have light to photograph the building of the lodge, and the beaver worked on, undisturbed. First they built a haystack-shaped pile of crisscrossed sticks, like a geodesic dome. They plastered on another layer of mud and stuck in more sticks. They trundled the mud into place when they reached the house, pushing it ahead of them, walking on their hind feet and using their forepaws to hold the mass together. Mud was everywhere. It was impossible to open or close the door without a shovel.

The beaver did not leave a central opening in the lodge for their living quarters. That would have been too easy. Instead they made a solid pile and then chewed out the sticks in the center to the size house they wanted. Within, each member of the family had his own space somehow permanently allotted. The inside was coated with mud that dried hard. The floor was covered with a fine, dry bedding made of fibers stripped from wood. But the greatest proof of their ingenuity was the location of the lodge they were building, accessible to the lake via the tunnel, strong enough in its own right to be stepped on by a moose and not break down, and surrounded by the four walls of Grey Owl's cabin for additional protection.

The second movie, The Beaver Family—portraying all this activity—was even more enthusiastically received than the first. It was now impossible for Grey Owl to hold out against appeals to visit and lecture in England. What he had accomplished was the individualizing of wild animals, and while there were astounding false notes and flat passages in his work—astounding because the level was generally so high—they seemed appropriate and rather touching as the revelations of a self-taught Indian striving for the white man's poetic and emotional effect. All of Grey Owl's writing, if considered as a single work, was a bold and original creation. He had built a kind of lonely homespun epic in which the shattered survivors of two vanishing species, the Indian and the beaver, came together and made their peace.

Grey Owl had no scientific training and did not claim to make a scientific contribution, but there is little in today's standard works on the beaver that is not incorporated, in living terms, in Grey Owl's books. I remember reviewing Grey Owl's Tales of an Empty Cabin in 1936 and commenting on his remarkable powers of observation, his sincerity and humor and his peculiarly Indian quality of kinship with nature. He did not write about the deer being his brother, or the bear his cousin, but he wrote about them in the way that James Thurber wrote about his relatives in Columbus, Ohio. Grey Owl himself was disarmingly candid about his writing: "I fully realize that all this while I have been sauntering around on holy ground, improperly dressed and with my boots on."

When he applied for his passport to go to England, Grey Owl asked that it be made out in the name of McNeil. He explained that he had used the name of Belaney in his military service—he was pensioned because of his wounds—because he had been brought up by an aunt of that name. He arrived in England on the Empress of Britain, and was met by his publisher, Lovat Dickson. "I saw him sitting, bowed and dejected, in a corner of the lounge," Dickson wrote, "a hunted, frightened look on his face." Grey Owl had almost nothing to say when Dickson took him to rooms he had rented for him in London. The rooms were in an old-fashioned apartment with a large L-shaped recess in which there were many chairs of all shapes and sizes. It was 2 in the morning when they arrived. Dickson tried to make conversation, but Grey Owl merely stood by the fireplace, motionless and withdrawn. He was standing there when Dickson left.

When Dickson returned the next morning he was still standing there. "Haven't you been to bed, Grey Owl?" Dickson asked.

"No," the Indian replied. When Dickson tried to draw him out he said, "I cannot stay here. I shall die."

It was unclear to Dickson whether Grey Owl meant England or the room. Then his manner changed abruptly. He talked like an American gangster. "Have a chair, buddy," he said indicating the chair-filled alcove. "Have several."

His first lecture was in Southampton. The room was darkened, and Grey Owl stood behind the curtains in his Indian ceremonial garb. "The curtain rolled up and revealed a tall, lean figure," Dickson wrote. "There was a moment's silence, and then his voice, deep and vibrant with feeling, rang out: 'I am Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin, Grey Owl, a North American Indian. I come from far across the western ocean, from a land of illimitable forests, great lakes and rushing rivers.' "

The lecture was a personal triumph, as were those that followed. At a literary luncheon, where 90% of the audience were women, Grey Owl was mobbed in scenes that resembled the hysteria over Rudolph Valentino. He spoke to audiences of 2,000, and the talks, as Hugh Eayrs, his Canadian publisher said, "were so astonishingly successful there has been nothing quite like them." Another observer wrote: "Not since the visit of Mark Twain to these shores has a literary figure so captured the imagination of the British Isles." But Grey Owl was increasingly haggard as his triumph mounted. Dickson thought his agitation came because he longed for the wilderness. "Sometimes his nostalgia would reach the pitch of nervous hysteria," Dickson wrote, "and with his face racked with misery, his long hair wild about his shoulders, he would pace up and down the room."

On one occasion he abruptly left a large party given by a countess in London. Being honored as an Indian author had become unendurable. Leaving the party, Grey Owl rushed out into the night and, on a historic spree, spent $600 before morning. Literary records do not say on what, but observers were impressed by his determined extravagance.

Still, his second British lecture tour was even more successful than the first. Beginning at Grosvenor House in London on September 21, 1937, he made almost 100 appearances, taking only one day off before December 18, sometimes speaking to two audiences a day. Wearing his war bonnet of 42 eagle feathers, Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin enthralled feminine admirers in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, the Pump House in Bristol, and in Birmingham, Liverpool, York, Newcastle, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh and small provincial cities. He had grown notably touchy about his Indian background. In resonant tones he attributed his dedication to the cause of conservation to his Indian ancestry, thundering denunciations of the white man's cruelty to Indians and beavers with an eloquence that suggested he was bringing to the British Isles the first news of some paleface massacre of an isolated Indian garrison.

On the afternoon of December 10, 1937, before his Geographical Association speech scheduled for the Polytechnic Theatre that evening, Grey Owl was summoned to Buckingham Palace. He was invited—commanded, it seems, is the correct term—to give his talk and show his films to the royal family, consisting of the two little princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, their grandmother, Queen Mary, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the Earl and Countess of Strathmore. Because of fears that his wilderness manners would create embarrassment, Grey Owl was hurriedly drilled in court etiquette, particularly that he must always address the King as "sir." His instructors need not have worried. In the presence of royalty Grey Owl was relaxed, charming, natural and picturesque. He showed his films for the 45 minutes allotted to him, and asked if he had said enough.

"No, no, go on," said the King.

"We can't get enough of it," added Queen Mary.

In all, Grey Owl held the family spellbound for four hours. Later he was honored when the King and Queen remained behind to chat with him after the others left. Grey Owl forgot his lessons in deportment in this informal atmosphere. He stuck out his hand when he said goodby.

"Goodby, my friend, and good luck," said the King, shaking hands with him. "You have given us a wonderful afternoon."

"Goodby, my brother," said Grey Owl.

About this time, questions were beginning to be asked about Grey Owl. How had it happened that an Indian who grew up in the northern wilds and painfully wrote out in longhand his first quaint account of his life with his little beaver brothers should have mailed the manuscript to Country Life magazine in London? What was the story that, in moods of reverie—or merely when he was careless—Grey Owl sat at the piano and played Chopin? What was there to the mysterious report that he, or somebody who looked exactly like him, had played the drums in a jazz band in a Lake Superior summer resort? And finally, would any Indian use some of the phrases that Grey Owl used? Was it common Ojibway practice, for example, to speak of a crooner, as Grey Owl did, as "some gigolo with corrugated hair singing You've Got Me Crying Again?

Returning to Toronto, Grey Owl made a final triumphant address at Massey House and vanished into the woods again. Before he left he told reporters that lecturing was killing him and that he would be dead in a month if he continued. A telephone line was connected to his old cabin and park headquarters, and over it, on the night of April 12, 1938, about a month after his prediction to the reporters, Grey Owl called to say he was ill. By the time rangers reached the cabin he was dying. The cause of his death was listed as pneumonia, and he was buried on a knoll overlooking Lake Ajawaan in Prince Albert Park, where he had started his beaver colonies.

Almost immediately newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic—apparently as a result of several independent investigations—reported that Grey Owl was no Indian. Bit by bit, he was disclosed to have been an Englishman named Archibald Belaney, born in Hastings, who attended Hastings Grammar School. During the war he married his childhood sweetheart, a Hastings girl. Two aunts, the Misses Carrie and Ada Belaney, in whose home at 36 St. James Road, Hastings, he had grown up, admitted they had seen Grey Owl during his English tour and that he was unquestionably the missing nephew who had left for Canada at the age of 17. Lovat Dickson found Grey Owl's mother. She was a quiet, blue-eyed woman—certainly no Apache. There was much more, including a number of marriages without intervening divorces. Grey Owl had certainly had several brushes with the law, and his widow told a confused story about a charge of attempted murder that had been held over him.

The ensuing excitement over ' "the biggest literary hoax of modern times" (or ' "one of the greatest masquerades in literary history," as the London Times termed it) stirred scientists, publishing circles and Grey Owl's readers over the world. Though no one attacked the validity of his work, Grey Owl's books swiftly vanished and are still out of print. A few devoted admirers tried for a time—vainly, of course—to find proof of his Indian ancestry. The films, which had been remade with sound tracks, were stored in the library of the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal.

Whatever else was questionable about Grey Owl, one fact was plain. He wanted his life to begin when his work in conservation began. He wrote about lying all night in the rushes by the lake, watching the fog billow away as the light strengthened, studying a muskrat, a deer, a kingfisher, and then, as daylight came, drawing a bead on a beaver swimming directly toward him, watching it approach to within 15 feet and then suddenly throwing down his gun in a revulsion at killing anything. At the noise the beaver sank out of sight, the deer vanished and he was suddenly aware of a wild woodland chorus: a robin singing with a sound like the running of water, three deep golden notes from some unknown songster, the refrain of a bird that he called the Canada bird, "a haunting melody that ceases in full flight, the remainder of the song tantalisingly left unsung." He was as thrilled as a sleepwalker awakening from a nightmare into a woodland paradise. So his mystical feeling of kinship with nature and of the abiding value of life, human and animal, was not false, and he became an Indian, not from a desire to perpetrate a fraud but to signalize a break forever with a past that meant nothing to him.


An unknown Indian in 1930, Grey Owl is shown (opposite) at start of puzzling career that led from Canadian wilds to Buckingham Palace.


As elusive as her husband Grey Owl, Anahareo helped raise, tame and transport beaver families to a remote wilderness area for new colonies.