Al Purdy and Roderick Haig-Brown:
I want to catch some kind of Haig-Brown essence with
the halo slightly askew. Al Purdy
(The Banff Centre School of Fine Arts: Purdy letter to
Haig-Brown: July 30 1974)
Al Purdy was one of Canada’s most prolific poets and writers, but when his many published books are listed, Cougar Hunter: A Memoir of Roderick Haig-Brown, is often omitted. Cougar Hunter has a controversial history, and the fact that many of the few missives printed were destroyed means that the book is a rare one, indeed. Robert Cave, in his exceptional book on Haig-Brown, Roderick Haig-Brown: A Descriptive Bibliography (2000), rightly so, suggests there is a “Byzantine-like atmosphere that continues to envelop Cougar Hunter” (p.300).
Indeed, it is this Byzantine-like atmosphere that pervades the publication of Cougar Hunter that makes it a collector’s item of sorts---the thin book published in 1992 sells for about $300:00 for those who are interested in owning a copy—in this gem of a Purdy classic, much is learned about Roderick Haig-Brown and Al Purdy.
Al Purdy met the legendary West Coast conservationist, Roderick Haig-Brown, in 1974, at the equally mythical Strathcona Lodge on Vancouver Island. Purdy was at the Lodge to do an essay on “Jack Jackovitch, painter, ex-football player, fishing guide and high school teacher”-Weekend Magazine was going to publish the article---Purdy was 56 at the time (and an established Canadian poet) and Haig-Brown was 66 years of age. Strathcona Lodge was a meeting/training place for a new and emerging generation of conservationists and preservationists. The Lodge was run by Jim/Myrna Boulding, and the Bouldings had consciously built the Lodge to be an educational centre for ecological awareness and wilderness thinking. Roderick Haig-Brown was, in many ways, the elder of the emerging post-WW II conservationist heritage (and a much respected writer), and Jim/Myrna Boulding and Strathcona Lodge were carrying the Haig-Brown vision a step further. Haig-Brown had a history of logging, prizefighting, trapping, bounty hunter, farmer, author and magistrate---such a complex and varied history quite appealed to Purdy---there were some significant affinities between Purdy and Haig-Brown in the way they had lived in their 20s-30s.
There is a definite and defined line and lineage, a passing of the ecological torch from Roderick/Ann Haig-Brown to Jim/Myrna Boulding at Strathcona Lodge to Marlene Smith-Schalkwijk. Marlene has told such a tale well in “Changing of the Guards or The Birth of the Friends of Strathcona Park”. The more in depth read and history of Strathcona Lodge has been evocatively told in Myrna Boulding’s Survival Strathcona Style (2009) and the final couple of chapters in Rob Wood’s
Towards the Unknown Mountains: An Autobiography from the Canadian Wilderness Frontier (1991). When Al Purdy met Roderick Haig-Brown at Strathcona Lodge in 1974, he encountered, unbeknownst to him, Roderick in his last few years and the waxing years of Jim/Myrna Boulding and Strathcona Lodge—Purdy could not have appeared at a more opportune time or season--all the main actors and actresses in the ecological ethos were still active and in the thick of the battle for Strathcona Park. Cougar Hunter: A Memoir of Roderick Haig-Brown shuttles the reader back and forth in Haig-Brown’s life and writings and offers the attentive a fine tapestry from which to ponder the significance of Haig-Brown’s literary and ecological contributions to both Canada and beyond.
The 1st section of Cougar Hunter is called “Death of a Friend”, and in this entrée to the book, Purdy discussed his initial meeting with Haig-Brown at Strathcona Lodge, then a dinner at the Haig-Brown home in Campbell River with “Jungle Jim”/Myrna Boulding and the Jackovitch couple. The dinner with Roderick-Anne Haig-Brown yet further piqued
Purdy’s interest, and he met with Roderick for “two consecutive afternoons”. Purdy was so taken by Haig-Brown, he knew an article was in the offing, and he had this to say about the afternoon meetings.
We sat beneath towering walls of books and drank H-B’s
booze, good stuff too. And I made notes, a lot of notes. We
got along well, and I was acquiring a friend without really
being aware of the process.
And again, Purdy had this to say about Haig-Brown:
In the beginning I had a feeling of slight unease with him,
perhaps because of the propaganda Jack and Jungle Jim had
pumped into me.
The friendship between Roderick Haig-Brown and Al Purdy did grow and deepen. The conversations became more relaxed and informal, the content and insights more informed and a delight to read.
“The Death of a Friend” comes to a close with Purdy’s comments on Haig-Brown and the obvious horn butting and tensions between J.H. Bloedel (of infamous Island logging fame) and Haig-Brown. Bloedel, upon meeting Haig-Brown said, ‘I hear you’re the worst troublemaker on Vancouver Island’. Cougar Hunter begins with “Death of a Friend”, and Purdy, in a sensitive and tender way, recounts his friendship with Haig-Brown in this essay after Haigh-Brown’s unexpected death in 1976.
The 2nd part of Cougar Hunter covers the ongoing correspondence between Purdy and Haigh-Brown that began in July 18 1974 (when Purdy contacted Haigh-Brown from Ameliasburgh) and ended, April 29 1976 (21 letters later), with a letter from Rod (Roderick) to Purdy from Campbell River. The 21 letters between Al and Rod are worth many a reread. Each letter, for different reasons, walks the curious into the lives of Purdy and Haig-Brown and the richness of the Canadian literary tradition. The friendship is enriched by the letters and both men tell much about their ongoing lives. Some of the early letters tend to be more preoccupied with Purdy getting the facts of Haig-Brown’s life accurate for his article, but, essay done, broader themes emerge in the correspondence. The exchange of letters between 1974-1976, obviously, antedated “The Death of a Friend” article, but both complement one another nicely.
The initial reason that Purdy was keen on meeting Haig-Brown in 1974 was Haig-Brown’s fascinating life journey---Purdy sensed a good story in the making. The 3rd part of the book, “Cougar Hunter”, is the essay that Purdy wrote about Haig-Brown----the article is a hasty biography of Haig-Brown that lights but does not land long on some of the high points of Haig-Brown’s full life. “Cougar Hunter” tells much more about Haig-Brown than does “Death of a Friend”, but both articles need to be read together---some duplication but fresh perspectives in both beauties. The fact that “Cougar Hunter” was the first biography of sorts of Haig-Brown makes it a keeper of sorts---Anthony Roberton`s Above Tide: Reflections on Roderick Haig-Brown (1984), Bennet Metcalfe’s The Life of Roderick Langmere Haig-Brown: A Man of Some Importance (1985) and Valerie Haig-Brown`s Deep Currents: Roderick and Ann Haig-Brown (1997) did not come until much later.
Cougar Hunter comes to a fitting and apt close with a poem by Purdy about Haig-Brown: “Dear Judge”. I have read the poem many times and I’m always taken by the final few lines—quite a tribute to the friendship between Rod and Al.
From where I am now
that place on the other side of the world
and the first stage of friendship is all
that remains of Haig-Brown for me
a few letters
memory of a grin
some beer with him at Campbell River…
Dear Judge Dear Sir Dear Rod H-B
that is not enough
There are many fine photographs of Haig-Brown in Cougar Hunter that illuminate the landscape of Haig-Brown’s life---obviously, with a title like Cougar Hunter, the reality of cougars (and “Cougar” Smith) factor large in the book. “Cougar Hunter” was published in a variety of places,
including No Other Country (1977) by Purdy and served as the “Introduction” to From the World of Roderick Haig-Brown: Woods and River Tales (1980).
There is a definite need to bring to the fore again Cougar Hunter: A Memoir of Roderick Haig-Brown---the exquisite blending of “Death of a Friend”, “Correspondence”, “Cougar Hunter” and “Dear Judge” makes this book a must have keeper for those with an interest and commitment to the Canadian literary tradition, Roderick Haig-Brown and Al Purdy----our understanding of Canadian literature, Rod and Al will be weaker, thinner and leaner without Cougar Hunter front and centre in our literary quest for a literature for and of the Canadian people.
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Thanks for letting me post this, Ron. And thanks, Anna, for your help with the tech stuff ; )
peace & poetry power!
Chris ... & Chase Wrfffffffffffffffffffffff!
p.s. when my friend Morley & I were building the shaman shack at ZenRiver Gardens 8 years ago, a cougar crossed highway #7 right in front of my car. It was early dusk, & we got a very clear look at her for several seconds. Gorgeous creature!!!
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