Roderick L(angmere) Haig-Brown

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Alec Lucas

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[There] is no question that Haig-Brown aimed to make his animal biographies "authentic," to use his own term. He wished to be true to the facts and spirit of the natural world and to instill some appreciation of it in his readers. In this aim, his adult and children's books are one. He wanted "all people to see and understand more because there is both pleasure and fulfillment in seeing and understanding lives about them, whether they are the lives of trees and plants, or lives of animals or lives of fish." In such seeing and understanding lay, he believed, "the only hope of preserving the natural world." These aims motivated all Haig-Brown's animal stories, but Silver and Return to the River much more obviously than Panther, which works for the cause of conservation, if at all, almost wholly through the vivid presentation of a magnificent beast.

Haig-Brown is more at home in the animal biography than he ever was in the later boys' adventure stories and his fiction. In the first he avoids for the most part the difficulty he always had in creating living human characters. The Good Fisherman in Silver is largely peripheral to the story, however important he may be as a sensitive and reflective angler. Both he and the narrator of the story appear again, as it were, in Return to the River as Senator Evans and a biologist, Don Gunner. They enable Haig-Brown to drop the subjective first-person for the more objective (and "scientific") third person point of view and to present much of his natural history as dialogue rather than exposition. Yet they are essentially an animate frame of reference for the full-length biography of a magnificent Oregon salmon, Spring. The cougar hunter Milton in Panther, however, called for greater individuation than either Evans or Gunner. Milton shares the story and theme of the book with Ki-yu, representing man in nature's struggle to survive as civilization encroaches on the wilderness. Yet he fills his role simply by being a hunter; his struggle with nature is never psychological, and, as a flat character, he gives his creator much less trouble than the teenagers whom, in his boys' stories, Haig-Brown tries to depict dramatically and dialectically.

In Silver, Haig-Brown attempted to achieve three specific goals: to tell an interesting story, to keep to the truth about salmon and to instruct Master Dickie (to whom the narrator tells the story and Haig-Brown dedicates the book) in the ways of true sportsmanship…. To vitalize the facts of the life cycle of the salmon, he employs a variety of narrative techniques that children like and that range in this story from a short in medias res opening to a sharp climax and a brief and tranquil denouement, whose sadness reminds one of [Ernest Thompson] Seton's "Lobo" and "Redruff." He uses suspense effectively at times withholding or hinting, and at times providing curtain lines or curtain endings for his chapters. (pp. 21-2)

Here and there Haig-Brown dramatizes the action…. He creates little climaxes in which Silver is caught or nearly killed, working up to the great struggle … that concludes the book. Yet Silver is by no means an animal adventure story. The "conflict" of the plot centres largely on the annual cycle and life-death pattern in Silver's development. (p. 22)

As a result of [its] shifts and discrepancies, Silver comprises a strange melange of adults' and children's interests and attitudes. (p. 23)

With Silver , he perhaps simply wished to recreate a situation once his, when a devoted and learned father told him stories of...

(This entire section contains 4378 words.)

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fish and fishermen. [With it he] paid his last direct respects to his childhood and the humanized nature he had known then. After it he wrote under the influence of the new world wilderness…. [InSilver Haig-Brown] had tried to combine two views of nature—the English sentimental, romantic one and the Darwinian or realistic one (with a leavening of the old tradition of Walton and his followers)—and he seems to have thought it necessary to compensate for the latter by emphasizing the sentimental view, with the result that he axiomatically stressed the "cuteness" of his story.

As if again to compensate for the sentimentality of Silver, Haig-Brown with Panther came out firmly for the realistic animal story. In its objectivity it stands at the opposite pole to Silver and, in ways, even to Return to the River. It has none of the "cuteness" and anthropomorphism that he believed marred his first animal biography. That he did not write Panther "especially for children" is a fact significant not only in itself but also as an indication of his approach to his subject. He was free now to be "authentic," to let the facts speak for themselves. (pp. 23-4)

His research was that of naturalist and hunter rather than mammologist. Yet without the sophisticated methods of modern field work—tranquillizing bullets and electronic tracking—the book marks an important beginning in the study of the ecology and life history of the Pacific coast panther. (p. 24)

Panther is, however, more than matters of fact. As is also required of the animal biography, it is a work of fiction, and, in this example, one of considerable imaginative power. A living creature stalks through its pages. Haig-Brown is not trying to tell a story of heroic animal exploits, nor is he using animals as human archetypes…. The book is an animal biography, and Ki-yu is simply a great beast of instinct and primordial reason…. Typical of wild animal biographies, however, Ki-yu is the fittest of his kind, but not because … of human qualities, but because of his sheer animality…. As excessive anthropomorphism mars Silver as "science," so a marked anti-anthropomorphism mars Panther. The very realism of the protagonist tends to detract from his role. Purely animal, he consequently provides little with which the reader can identify. In trying to avoid humanizing Ki-yu, Haig-Brown has stripped him of much emotional impact.

Although Panther recounts Ki-yu's life history directly and chronologically, it is artistically patterned. Its setting balances farm and wilderness; its telling, narration and dramatic episodes; and its plot, hunted and hunter. It, however, avoids themes that are drawn from stories about people and that frequently characterize stories about people and animals…. He even concludes the biography as if to make an ironic comment on sentimental "fictional" plots of animal stories. (pp. 24-5)

On one hand the story is a simple one involving Ki-yu and Milton, a bounty hunter, worked out for the most part in terms of crises, hairbreadth yet plausible escapes and acts of derring-do…. Yet the sensationalism of these events is never sensationalism for its own sake, for Panther is more than an outdoors book of thrilling adventures. It has a theme of broad implications and tells a story rooted in the old conflict of man and nature.

If Ki-yu embodies the spirit of the animal world, Milton embodies that of man's, and the plot derives from Ki-yu's efforts to live between two worlds—one, nature's, red in tooth and claw, and the other, man's, forever encroaching on the wilderness…. Settler and cougar become involved automatically in the struggle to survive, and, in this way, Milton and Ki-yu are "kin." (p. 25)

Despite this central tension, Panther lacks overall dramatic effect. It tries to be two books in one, an animal biography and the life of a hunter. It lacks the focus that makes Seton's "Krag" so very effective. Despite the fact that hunting is an all-pervasive theme, the stories of Ki-yu and Milton often go their separate ways, except during the hunts and at the end when Ki-yu makes the settlement his stamping ground. In Panther, there are no heroes or villains, or perhaps better, the two protagonists are both heroes and villains caught up in a specific conflict that in the end neither wins. Haig-Brown's refusal to take sides, as he says, with either Ki-yu or Milton comes through almost as indifference. His emotions are scarcely ever involved. He never smiles or sheds a tear. Hence the emotions of the reader are scarcely ever involved. He is moved, however, by the deaths of Osa and her cubs, by the death of Ki-yu when his animal dignity rises to nobility, and by the faithful dogs who fight for their master's cause even unto death. In fact, the love Milton has for his dogs gives him a much-needed human touch and counteracts somewhat his callous killing of the mountain cougars….

Nature for Haig-Brown may be amoral but it is not monstrous, and in Panther he presents it impartially in Darwinian terms and lets the "message" of the book stand at that. By refusing to express sympathy for the victims in the struggle for survival, he avoids the kind of adulterated Darwinism that Seton so frequently indulges in. (p. 26)

A story, a study of natural history and Darwinism, Panther is also an outdoors book about a hunter and, like most of the genre, incongruous as it may seem, about predator-control. Haig-Brown puts all his nature writing in human context so that here he is not simply following a literary pattern but also considering an extant problem of the time. Although he never reduces Ki-yu to vermin, he apparently speaks as one with the bounty hunter in the dramatized episodes of the story. At least he never speaks against bounty hunting and he obviously tries to make Milton into a kind of folk hero, the successful backwoods hunter. (pp. 26-7)

Panther combines the objectivity of science with the heartlessness, if not cruelty, of the hunter. It never questions the morality or benefits of bounty hunting….

Criticized for all the cruelty and killing in Panther, Haig-Brown, despite a disclaimer against violence in children's books, justified his story on his usual grounds of authenticity…. Haig-Brown is dealing here, of course, with a problem common to many realistic stories of wild animals, but especially the animal biography and again especially when it is long and based on the life of a large predator.

Paradoxically some of this criticism derives from Haig-Brown's strengths as an author. The chapter on Milton's night alone with his dogs in the woods, a splendid vignette, clearly discloses his ability to write realistic description…. (p. 28)

When, however, Haig-Brown presents action in the same vivid manner, he catches it so dramatically that he seems consequently, as some critics argue, to emphasize violence…. There are no fewer than five fights [between animals] and seven hunting scenes described in detail in the book. As a result, some critics have attacked it for its repetitiveness as well as its violence. Yet in all the episodes involved (which one critic likes for their cumulative effect), Haig-Brown tries to solve the problem of repetition of scene, if not the sameness of violence. Ki-yu plays different tricks to elude his pursuers; he fights different adversaries for different reasons—a bear for food, a rival for a mate, a pack of wolves for life itself. Both flaws—if flaws—however, have a common source in the nature of the genre. Panther, even aside from the hunting scenes, again simply demonstrates the violence and repetition that must be part of a full-length realistic biography of a large predatory animal. (p. 29)

Unquestionably Return to the River was an off-shoot of his work on The Western Angler. It contains much the same natural history under the guise of fiction. In using this approach he had several aims. He wished to tell the story of a species in terms of an individual, the common aim of the animal biography, and so reduce his canvas to manageable size. He wished also "to straighten the records about salmon." Most of all, however, he wanted to create a general interest in salmon ichthyology and ecology, and to discuss the problem of electric power dams that were strangling the salmon rivers….

[Whereas] Panther is admirable, Return to the River is both admirable and likeable. Moreover, with its vast setting, it provides an attraction lacking in Panther. The child, unconcerned with theories of migration and problems of fish management, can travel in imagination with Spring, the fishy "heroine," along great rivers, through forests and farmlands and cities to wander in the mysterious deeps of the ocean, led on by a story full of entertaining events.

For all the grandeur of the setting, however, Haig-Brown does not indulge in picturesque word-painting or the impressionism of the romantic. Neither is he Thoreauvian nor Wordsworthian. He feels for his world without trying to draw it into a poetic vision. For one thing, he is not trying to drive his reader out into some vague abstract world but to make him stand in awe, specifically of Spring and her world, and Haig-Brown has the vision and skill to achieve this aim. The description of the river that opens the book skilfully moves from a dynamic prose to a more static form, a precise expository prose, to depict the spawning bed. Again, the almost rhythmical linking of verbs ending in "ing" and those in the past tense, in the description of Canyon Pool, which Spring will leave and to which she will return, catches superbly the life and death struggle there, and also reinforces the controlling image of the book.

Time, as the long ago, like the spaciousness of the setting, adds an important dimension to the book, for its historical perspective gives it depth and feeling. (p. 30)

In a neat contrast Haig-Brown brings the past into sharp focus in the present. Senator Evans, remembering his youth, speaks as Old America warning the New of the dangers to its natural resources if it continues to act on values that had effected "the rape of America."…

The nature of the material in Return to the River allowed Haig-Brown greater scope in one way than Panther had; yet it posed the old problems of the realistic animal biography, the sameness of chronological pattern, the similarity of event (escaping one predator being much like escaping another, climbing one fish ladder being much like climbing another), and writing fiction that would hold attention without falsifying natural history. With Spring he faced an even greater challenge than normal with the characteristic flatness of the protagonist's character. No salmon could have the "personality" of Ki-yu, nor could its story, since Haig-Brown refused to invent episodes, have the same dramatic possibilities as the cougar's with its terrestrial setting, its exciting scenes of violence, and its cast of hunters and farmers. Spring was an Everysalmon; Ki-yu was himself alone. Return to the River demanded of its author a different approach.

For one thing Haig-Brown emphasizes science more. He sets out the life history of the salmon (often in scientific terminology) in great detail. (p. 31)

If less openly didactic than Silver, Return to the River is far more subjective than Panther. Through Senator Evans, Haig-Brown adds an emotional element to his natural history, and he himself occasionally indulges openly in the pathetic fallacy, impressionistic biology, or anthropomorphism, call it what you will…. The humanizing of animal behaviour here strikes a happy balance between that of Silver and Panther. The author perhaps reads into Spring's behaviour more than is scientifically justified, but not more than what, lacking contradictory evidence, seems a valid interpretation and a sincere tribute to a vital and splendid creature. Return to the River combines something of the old sentimental tradition of his first book with the realistic tradition of Panther and so has a quite different tone and imaginative thrust from the latter book. Return to the River is of course more mellow anyway because the nature of its protagonist precludes ferocity and gore, and it is more mellow, too, since it concerns itself more with conservation, but it differs most from Panther in that it reveals that Haig-Brown has got the feel of the grandeur of North America and has combined it with attitudes rooted in the imaginative sympathies of his childhood and youth.

Return to the River is more unified than Panther with its introductory chapters on Blackstreak, Ki-yu's father, and its two protagonists and divided narrative. In Return to the River, the story centres on the salmon and has an overall "plot" in as much as Senator Evans, early in the book, marks the fingerling Spring and so sets up a book-length question—will she return and in view of the tremendous odds against a double recapture by the right people, will he recapture her? Moreover, if Senator Evans and Don Gunner are, like Milton in Panther, often absent from long stretches of the book, their absence is far less significant, for they are essentially observers, not participants, in the story. Even if Milton is seen as symbolizing the threat of civilization to the natural world, the divided narrative reduces greatly, if it does not deny altogether, his effectiveness as a unifying force in the story. Again, even though Haig-Brown, for the sake of variety, but mainly for the chance to discuss fish management in different areas, breaks the conclusion of Return to the River into accounts of Sachem, Chinook, the tagged salmon, and Spring, he does not harm the unity of the narrative in any serious way. All go through the same general experiences. All are salmon, and the reader does not identify so strongly with any one of them as to preclude the four fish, in large part, having a common identity.

Spring lives in two worlds. On one hand there are nets, dams, and pollution, as if all mankind, not one lone hunter, stood against her. Unlike Ki-yu, however, she does have protectors among these enemies, a fact that helps differentiate the tone of Return to the River from Panther. On the other hand there are nature's predators…. Each has a part in a drama governed largely by "the laws of hunger," which sets animal against animal and in which Spring is both hunted and huntress. Haig-Brown makes more of her in the former role, however, since it adds variety and some suspense to the story. (pp. 31-3)

For all of Spring's brushes with death in Return to the River, suspense does not become significant in itself, except perhaps in the remarkable descriptions of a heron fishing, an Indian boy waiting for Sachem, and one or two short episodes involving net or hook. The reader knows that Spring, for the sake of science and the story, bears a charmed life and will live out her days….

[The] interludes involving Gunner and Evans seem text-bookish. Their opening discussion on migration reads like a debate, and only with the trollers, Red Gifkin and Charlie Wilson, does the conversation seem natural. They are not burdened with a mission. They are cut from the same cloth as Milton, the kind of men Haig-Brown met and liked when he was a hunter and fisherman. By contrast Evans … and Gunner never appear experiential or real; their raison d'être centres on the thematic and didactic.

Senator Evans looks much like an atonement for Milton (and the author of Panther)…. Remembering the days of his youth when the salmon abounded, he introduces a feeling of nostalgia and remorse that gives the cause of salmon conservation an emotional basis. It fits the story and gives it emotional depth, too, that he, now an old man, at the conclusion should watch Spring in her spawning—on her life-giving death-bed—which he "felt in his heart" was the last natural spawning of the chinooks that belonged to his river. Like the salmon runs, his way of seeing nature faces the danger of being lost in a nation dedicated to industrial and commercial exploitation in the name of Progress, to science and to biologists like Don Gunner, Evans' foil…. (p. 33)

For Haig-Brown, these scientists are only half the problem. He has a place for the Senator Evanses, also, for he has Don Gunner say to Evans when speaking of a salmon pool, "You may not be able to name all the whys and wherefores, but you understand without that. You feel it."… His central point, however, as regards the Evanses, is that they are the people who must motivate and direct the work on salmon. (p. 34)

Senator Evans and Don Gunner could fit easily into Haig-Brown's juvenile fiction. Kindly and wiser older men and resourceful young men are central to it. Evans and Gunner, like the protagonists of the boys' books, have little moral or psychological complexity. Their motivations and reactions are direct responses to things and circumstances rather than to matters of their own personalities. They are as much sounding boards and propagandists as they are human beings. Had they been otherwise, they might easily have drawn attention away from the true subject of the book.

Beyond all these characters is the river itself which, without being personified, is a living presence in the book. Haig-Brown loved rivers and had already written a story of one in Pool and Rapid …, and in Return to the River he has actually written another, for Spring is the embodiment of the spirit of the river…. [In] the end the river, in a magnificent gesture of defiance, rises like a champion and sweeps away the rack that keeps the salmon from their home waters. It would be easy to follow this line of thought too far and see it as a comment on nature's ultimate power over man and so on, or as a revelation of a wish fulfillment deriving from Haig-Brown's youthful attitudes to nature or from his fundamental dislike of the commercial world. Whatever its purpose or origin, however, it is more than a deus ex machina to supply the story with as happy an ending as possible, given the fact that Spring and all the others returning with her must die.

Return to the River does not … centre on Darwinism…. [The author's] concern over Spring is for a species in an environment that modern entrepreneurial man has refashioned, and not a concern over the killing of individual animals by hunter and fisherman. Haig-Brown's vision here has a different and broader orientation. (pp. 34-5)

Return to the River supposedly demonstrates the need to recognize, not fundamentally to deny, the view of Senator Evans. Without his way of seeing, there was the danger (as the Grand Coulee dam revealed) that technology would concern itself with fisheries vis-a-vis hydro-electric power development only if the value of the first allegedly surpassed the second. Like Senator Evans, Haig-Brown is caught in a dilemma. He, too, leans to the "sentimental" view of nature and yet believes that the one chance salmon have rests with science and engineering. So both author and Evans look with favour on the Bonneville dam. There is the suggestion also that they appreciate the whole programme of damming the rivers inasmuch as it made the "Fisheries guys" wise to all "them haywire" dams and ditches that do the "real harm." Certainly both are impressed by the ingenious way in which salmon are trapped and trucked to their spawning streams, for all these developments hold out hope for the future of the salmon runs. Yet though Evans (and the author) make little of the real difficulties of hydrologic coordination and fish management (the dangers of fish having the "bends" below the dams, of reservoir or so-called lake silting, and of temperature and chemical changes in the waters) the senator (and probably the author) is unsatisfied. The uncertainty enters to the detriment of the book because it superimposes the story of Senator Evans on the life history of Spring, for whatever the flood means as fiction, it takes almost all the emotional force of the argument for conservation away from science and technology, if it does not actually put them in a bad light. Haig-Brown's heart and head are not at one here. As Panther lacks focus since the author seems never quite decided whether his subject is Ki-yu or Milton, though the conflict between them is often direct and centre stage, so there is an ambivalence in Return to the River. Here Evans and Spring stand against a special manifestation of civilization so that according to the plot the balance favours nature and the old-time values of an old naturalist, though the gist and logic of the argument for conservation in the book would seem to tip it the other way. (pp. 35-6)

On [one] level Return to the River has not dated, for beyond all the matters of fiction, characters, and conservation, it treats with impressive sensitivity the miracle of migration, "the far journey and faithful return," which constitutes the lives of salmon and in which Spring concretizes the dynamic force of nature. The story is more than a dramatized presentation of a natural wonder, however. Its roots are deep in the life of man, for it reflects aspects of his own world, the struggle for freedom against great odds, the questing spirit and the odyssean search for home. By juxtaposing the natural and the human, Return to the River puts each in a light that is common to both and that reveals the dangers of the alienation of man from nature.

Haig-Brown wants so much to be an affirmer. If all is "cycles within cycles, freshness and decay," all is also, he writes, "constant change, death and new life." In his animal biographies, this wish seems to put him on all sides at once: as hunter and nature lover, as scientist and sentimentalist, and as one who reveres the spirit of free enterprise, but laments what economic man has done and is doing to America. His ambivalence may derive from his English background. Panther, which is truly North American, seems in part to have been an experiment, since Return to the River, with its sentimentality and its interest in the rights of animals in a man-centred world, turns back some distance to the English tradition. Here Haig-Brown differs from his peers [Charles G. D.] Roberts and Seton and gives the Canadian animal biography a new direction in that he openly makes his concern for the species and its environment integral to his theme and art. (pp. 36-7)

Alec Lucas, "Haig-Brown's Animal Biographies," in Canadian Children's Literature: A Journal of Criticism and Review (Box 335, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1H6K5), No. 11, 1978, pp. 21-38.


Mary Kirton


Janet Arnett