Ethis Archibald Belaney undoubtedly had an adventurous heart: Born in Hastings in 1888, he escapes from a sad childhood in reveries from North America, wild nature and “Indians”. When he was seventeen, these fantasies became reality: The young man crossed over to Canada, joined an experienced trapper, became a skillful trapper and fur animal hunter. And creates a new identity: he is the son of an Apache mother and a Scottish father, he claims. His participation in the First World War leads him back to England and Europe. After his return to Canada, however, he finally rejects the modern living environment.
In view of the increasing economic development of the Canadian north and the associated destruction of nature, Belaney’s ecological awareness is awakening. He gives up fur animal hunting and becomes a conservationist, animal keeper – and writer: With autobiographical works such as “The Men of the Last Frontier” from 1931, “Gray Owl” – as the name under which he is known – finds a huge readership in Canada , England and the United States. Weakened by extensive lecture tours and years of alcoholism, he dies at the age of fifty.
On the day of his death, his true identity, which had been rumored for a long time, was revealed by the press. What follows is a collective shock, but it does not detract from Belaney’s recognition: “Of course, the value of his work is not endangered. His achievements as a writer and naturalist will survive ”- that is how“ The Ottawa Citizen ”reflected the public tenor at the time.
Let prose speak for itself
The now available translation of “The Men of the Last Frontier” provides very little information on all of these important backgrounds, which in many ways make one think of the role-playing games of a B. Traven, on an enclosed note. Christian Döring, the editor of the “Other Library”, wants to let the book speak for itself with his “passionate prose” rather than a vivid example of an early “Nature Writing”. In contrast, Belaney’s self-transformation into a representative of the “First Nation”, which could be discussed critically (keyword: cultural appropriation), comes up only casually: Gray Owl “adopted the culture and language of those who had adopted him” – much more information are not given to readers.
An explanatory commentary on Belaney’s “Indian Narration of Nature” (so the subtitle) is missing for another reason: The book is a historical testimony that requires critical classification. Gray Owl not only complains about the devastation of nature through industrialization, but also reckons with the modern living environment as a whole: In his view, the “city dweller” lives a completely alienated, a false life. In the forest, on the other hand, people learn to “enjoy … their life in a clean, extensive way”. That is the sound of modern anti-modernism. Something similar sounds in the exaggeration of the natural experience to the emphatic war experience: The man in the forest must become a “modern Spartan” and submit to a discipline “that is as strict as everything that is required of a soldier, because he must not allow that his feelings ever gain the upper hand ”. Yes, the “Paths in the Wilderness” are an extensive, again and again soaked in pathos, male imagination, the German-speaking readers sometimes Ernst Jüngers essay “Der Waldgang” (1951) may recall: Gray Owl more than once evokes the “harshness” of a “natural, healthy, almost original life”.