Roderick L(angmere) Haig-Brown

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W. J. Keith

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Although I would not wish to imply that Haig-Brown is anything but Canadian in his mature writings, it is important to lay some emphasis on his connections with the essentially English rural tradition….

One gets the impression when reading through Haig-Brown's work that he has been particularly conscious of a responsibility to justify his change of allegiance by a thorough mastery of all the historical, zoological and sociological aspects of the province in which he lives. (p. 9)

The image of exploration and discovery may be seen as a unifying thread that links his numerous writings. In his historical books for schoolchildren—Captain of the Discovery (1956), The Farthest Shores (1960) and Fur and Gold (1962)—he has brought to life the exploits of the men who first explored both the coast and the interior (Bering, the Spaniards, Vancouver, Mackenzie, Fraser, Thompson, etc.) and in the last-named the administrators and politicians (notably James Douglas) who consolidated the achievements of the explorers and initiated the subsequent development of British Columbia. In Silver and Return to the River (1941), at first sight books of a very different kind, a comparable interest is to be found, though this time the discovery is scientific; Haig-Brown is fascinated not only with the life-cycle of the salmon but with the efforts of dedicated human beings (the unnamed "Good Fisherman" in the first, Senator Evans and Don Gunner in the second) to discover and reveal the complex secrets of natural processes. In his juvenile adventure stories—especially Starbuck Valley Winter and The Whale People (1962)—the boy-heroes embark upon personal voyages of discovery, venturing into new places and proving themselves in new accomplishments. Haig-Brown's own role as fact-finder and sympathetic interpreter is less dramatic but no less real; he communicates to his readers a sense of intellectual discovery through painstaking research and a lifetime of practical experience.

His favourite subject is, of course, fishing, and he has written on virtually every aspect of it …; he is at his best in the more personal mode, in such books as the four accounts of the fisherman's year divided according to the seasons, and books of essays on fishing subjects like A River Never Sleeps…. [The] seal on his intellectual ownership of his adopted province was set by his writing of The Living Land (1961)—a veritable anatomy of British Columbia…. (p. 10)

A detailed literary examination of Haig-Brown's writing soon reveals the existence of two marked—and, at first sight, opposed—attitudes recurring regularly in his work. The first, one of the features that probably derives from the English rural tradition, is an ever-riding concern for truth and accuracy. (p. 12)

Yet against this earnest preoccupation with unadorned fact is a balancing acknowledgement of the sense of elevating wonder to be derived from a knowledge of wild things…. Ultimately, however, these two attitudes are by no means incompatible. Haig-Brown is impressed by the realization that truth is itself wonderful. This is, indeed, one of the paradoxical (and pleasing) results of recent scientific discoveries in ichthyology. "In my own lifetime," he writes, "many questions about salmon have been answered, many mysteries have been revealed. But every answer, every revelation serves only to make these graceful forms lying over the gravels at the headwaters of a mountain stream a more affecting miracle." Haig-Brown finds the same principle at work in all branches of natural knowledge; it is not too much to say that the prime impulse in his work is to reveal this miracle of the living fact.

Fact and the interpretation of fact: these not only make up the content of Haig-Brown's writings but...

(This entire section contains 1555 words.)

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also define their form….Return to the River is a narrative of natural history, a demonstration of ichthyological research, a conservationist tract and a celebration of the natural process all in one.

In an earlier book, Pool and Rapid (1932), Haig-Brown employs imaginative means to convey a comprehensive truth beyond the scope of statistics or prosaic description…. [It] is hardly fiction in the accepted sense. It is best described, I think, as imaginative history—history which recognizes myth as a legitimate part of the psychological, tradition-sanctioned truth of its subject, and admits created but representative figures … as elements within a contrived but essentially accurate account of an extended historical process…. [As] a whole the book well illustrates his attempt to reconcile the needlessly opposed perspectives of scientific fact and literary creation.

Haig-Brown seems to have been drawn towards fiction (though, under the circumstances, imaginative narrative might be a more suitable term) by the opportunity it provides for genuinely creative presentation. It is not altogether surprising, however, that his novels are most memorable for their informative, nonfiction qualities. This is as true, I believe, of his juvenile fiction as of his adult novels. Thus Starbuck Valley Winter derives its interest from the account of trapping in a remote valley, the dangers of such a life under tough conditions, the sheer struggle for survival; these are far more compelling than the rather perfunctory plot-mystery centred upon the sinister figure of a rival trapper. Similarly, in Timber, the recreation of life in the logging-camps, the techniques and even the terminology of logging (which Haig-Brown reproduces exactly, together with a useful glossary), hold the attention more readily than the inconclusive love-triangle or the excessively didactic (and now outmoded) discussion of trade-unionism. The background proves more absorbing than the events played out against it.

His most important novel is unquestionably On the Highest Hill (1949). Though it shares some of the weaknesses of Timber—a rather rambling narrative, an uneasy compound of elements that do not belong integrally together—its interest lies in its hero, Colin Ensley, whose compulsion towards a wilderness not yet discovered and spoiled by mankind provides the central focus of the book. It is a novel half-way towards allegory. (pp. 12-14)

On the Highest Hill records the withdrawal of a solitary; Colin's love of wilderness develops into acute misanthropy…. Ultimately, in a climax which offers an inadequate resolution of the tensions that have been building up in the plot, Colin turns to violence to defend his supposed right to isolation and dies a fugitive on the mountain to which he has retreated….

In his neurotic escapism, Colin stands in marked contrast to Haig-Brown's own clear-sighted, balanced response to the often depressing tensions inherent in modern living. Part of the unease I detect in the novel stems from a difficulty in reconciling his apparently sympathetic presentation of his hero with the superiority of his own views as manifest in his writings as a whole. (p. 15)

Like so many writers on the natural world, [Haig-Brown] has effectively explored the indeterminate area between fiction and non-fiction. But his best work, I have no doubt, is to be found in his essays and discursive prose. Here he is most at his ease. An adequate structure is provided by the natural divisions of the seasons or, often enough, can be imposed by the terms of his own interests and personality. (One of the most satisfying of his books, A River Never Sleeps, combines unity of subject—fish-lore—with month-by-month seasonal presentation, and buttresses the artistic structure by juxtaposing biographical experiences in England with those in North America.) An open form allows him to combine practical advice with anecdotes, reminiscences, didactic argument, evocative description. As familiar essayist, he claims the right to roam as his fancy inclines, and although in Measure of the Year, properly considered among his best collections, he demonstrates his versatility by studiously avoiding any direct discussion of angling, for the most part we are rarely far from the river-bank.

Roderick Haig-Brown has strong claims to be considered the North American "Compleat Angler." This continent has, doubtless, produced more expert fishermen, but none who can rival him in his comprehensive grasp of all that makes up the experience of angling or can convey a quintessential impression of its manifold attractions. Fishing, we might say, is where he starts from. For him, as for Izaak Walton, it is a multi-faceted activity, and the satisfactions to be derived from it include appreciation of the beauty of his surroundings, recognition of the numerous species of wild life around him, sheer joy in a challenge that combines skill and judgment with strength and physical exertion, the warm companionship of friends, and (recalling Walton's definition, "the contemplative man's recreation") "the flowing ease of thought that comes upon me as I fish."… [The] words that tend to recur in his angling books are "pleasure," "beauty" and (especially) "observation." (pp. 15-16)

In Fisherman's Summer he makes an important distinction between "a parent stream" ("the river of growth, the scene of boyhood endeavors, successes and failures") and "a home river," to which the adult fisherman comes and brings experience and skill to be applied and tested. The former, for Haig-Brown, was the Dorset Frome, but his "home river" is the Campbell, and he shares with the reader a loving exploration of every inch of it. The child, in Wordsworthian phrase, is father of the man in a very real sense. The whole structure of A River Never Sleeps depends upon this relation…. (p. 17)

One might say that his prose shares its qualities with the rivers he loves—lucid, briskly and smoothly flowing, containing abundant life. (p. 18)

W. J. Keith, "Roderick Haig-Brown" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 71, Winter, 1976, pp. 7-20.

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