Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

The Lure of the Wild*


 

In the make-up of most normal human beings there is something always ready to respond to the call of the wilderness. Civilization, with all those characteristics which are a product of it, is but a veneer which has been slowly and laboriously applied upon the foundations of the primitive. Where the foundations are sound, it is good for soul and body alike to be kept mindful of them, to get back to them from time to time and be reassured as to their substance and their truth.

When we are overwrought by the strains and stresses of to-day’s high-pressure life, the call of the wilderness comes to us with compelling insistence. The call is sounded on many notes, and carries a persuasion varied to invite as many divergent tastes and temperaments. For some it is an invitation to the old, fierce thrills of the chase, of the hunting and slaying of our furred and feathered kindred,—an invitation of persistent urgency, reminding us that we are still close to the days when we had to hunt and kill for our daily food. The healthy and virile, if somewhat savage, instincts which leap to the urge are still potent in our blood. For others the invitation sings of rod and reel, of the gay fly dropped expertly in the tail of the rapid or beside the whirling foam-cluster on the amber pool, of the swirl and the strike, of the breathless, uncertain contest of deft wrist and delicate tackle against the swift rushes of the flashing quarry. To yet others the call is to unspoiled solitudes of sea or plain, forest or mountain, or unnamed, lonely lakes, of wild rivers flooding away to the unknown. And to many, many others, less adventurous in their dreams, the voice whispers chiefly to escape to green spaces and quiet waters and woodland scented airs. Their craving is

‘Mid task and toil a space
To dream on Nature’s face.

and they remember longingly that

Leisure in the sun and air
Makes the spirit strong and fair.

But whatever form the invitation may take for him whose heart is open to it, the call is always, in essence, the same. It is the summons to us to turn back a little while, for soul and body’s health, to the primitive, the simple, the unpretentious, the unbetraying.

North, south, east or west, I doubt if there be any corner of the kind old mothering earth where Nature calls us back to her with such varied persuasions, or so abundantly fulfils for all the promise of her lures, as in the vast half-continent of Canada. Here swarm the wild kindreds of fur, feather and fin. Here are spacious solitudes awaiting all who crave them. Here are yet nameless lakes and streams to be explored. Here is every kind of sublimity, every kind of beauty (save that of the tropics), that untamed Nature can offer to the eyes of her lovers. Here is adventure to satisfy the most avidly restless spirit; and here all the refreshment and renewal that the most intimately lovely of landscapes, the most tonic of breezes, the most blossomy of meadows and clearly sparkling of skies can offer for the healing of tired nerves.

For my own part,—and I feel that I need make no apology for introducing the personal note,—being a child of the woodland country and the little, homely farms, I have always been keenly alive to the lure of the wild, and to all its various invitations I have responded ardently. Of them all there is but one which has lost its attraction for me. Hunting to kill has for me no longer any zest. To trail, to outwit, to ambush the wary dwellers of the wilderness,—to match my woodcraft against theirs and expose their furtive tactics,—yes, that will never lose it thrill. But, that done, the killing becomes so easy,—and so unneighbourly! And alive they are so much more beautiful, so infinitely more interesting! And the look in the eyes of a mortally wounded deer may sometimes damp one’s triumph. To my mind the field-glass or the camera is a more exciting weapon than the rifle or the shotgun, and may yield results of a more lasting value. Let me confess, however, that my attitude of sympathy and fellowship towards the wild creatures has its limitations. With unabashed inconsistency I remain an enthusiastic fisherman. When a fresh-run salmon or a lusty trout has taken my "Silver Doctor" or my "Parmachene Belle," I have no difficulty in forgetting that the joy of the sport is all on one side. The warm-blooded folk of hide and fur and feather I acknowledge as my kin. But it is hard to feel comradely towards a fish.

Always, these Canadian wilds of mine, whose spirit is native to my blood,—whether in their softest and most enchanting beauty or in their bleakest austerity, whether in their storm and turbulence or in their most withdrawn and mystic quietudes,—always, their call to me comes clear and compelling. Naturally, my response to the call takes many forms; but of them all the one which gives me the most deep and lasting satisfaction consists in the sympathetic study of the life that peoples the wilderness.

To me it seems not enough to approach this fascinating study with merely the curious eyes of the naturalist. To really know the wild creatures something more is necessary than to note their forms and colours, their seasons and their habits, their food, their tracks, their dwellings and their matings. All these points, of course, are the first essentials. They are the fundamental facts on which further study must be based; and lack of exact, painstaking observation may vitiate all one’s conclusions. But having got one’s facts right,— and enough of them to generalize from safely,—the exciting adventure lies in the effort to "get under the skins," so to speak, of these shy and elusive beings, to discern their motives, to uncover and chart their simple mental processes, to learn to differentiate between those of their actions which are the results of blind, inherited instinct, and those which spring from something definitely akin to reason; for I am absolutely convinced that, within their widely varied yet strictly set limitations, the more advance of the furred and feathered folk do reason. In other words, there is a psychology of the creatures lower in the scale of creation than ourselves. It is so profoundly different from human psychology, however, that to forget the difference is to go hopelessly astray in one’s deductions. To investigate that psychology, and to interpret it, is one of the most fascinating of enterprises for the Nature lover. To be successful in it demands a sensitive understanding and an unwearying patience, but the reward is worth all the effort. Moreover even if, through lack of skill or special aptitude in the beginning, the measurable results should seem but small, it should be remembered that the effort itself is its own ample reward. In schooling ourselves to the attitude of our humbler kindred, so as to look at the perilous adventures of life through their eyes,—which is the only way we can come really to know them,—we cannot but enlarge our capacity for the understanding of our fellow men, and grow in a gentleness which will add grace and serenity to our days.

 


"The Lure of the Wild," Chistian Science Monitor 16 April 1926, 1c; "Introductory," Eyes of the Wilderdess (Toronto: Macmillan, 1033), 1-6 [back]