A Life in the Bush: lessons from my father.
Viking, Penguin 1999
First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
By: Kerry Riley
Perhaps it was the result of Roy MacGregor’s observation and analysis of so many other father/son relationships, in his Governor General award nominated, The Home Team: Fathers, Sons and Hockey, that got him thinking about his relationship with his own father Duncan MacGregor. Perhaps not. In any case, and for whatever reason, the end result, A Life in the Bush: lessons from my father, is a splendid book.
Duncan MacGregor, the father in question, was born in Eganville, in 1907, at the tail-end of the Ontario lumber industry’s heyday. By his own admission, he led an uneventful life – having quit school and gone, as a teenager, to work for his brother-in-law, the Ottawa Valley lumber baron J.S.L. McRae, in the Algonquin bush and never really left it. While the working conditions at the time made it common for men to leave their families and live on-site at the lumber mills or camps for long periods, most found this an onerous necessity. For Duncan, however, it coalesced happily with his own preferences. Long after transportation and technological improvements made boarding-in unnecessary, he continued to do so-–in the end the only logger to live on the mill site.
It seems that Duncan MacGregor remains a significant mystery to his son. The book opens with the author’s admission that he “has no idea how or where to begin this story,” and ends with a further admission that he “can explain none of it.” The elder man was, indeed, a walking contradiction, a living, breathing oxymoron. A gregarious “people-person,” adored by children, Duncan could start up a conversation with anyone, yet he spent, by choice, the majority of his life in a reclusive, solitary existence. Duncan was always “there” for his family, but “there” happened to be miles into Algonquin Park. An indifferent student, he was, nonetheless, a voracious reader, and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of world geography, history, and a big chunk of its literature. He had, as his son explains, “a curious sprawling mind that captured almost everything that ever passed through it” and “contained no filter, no pretension, no care whatsoever for the class and intellectual breaches that might separate, say, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, from Ellery Queen.”
Emotionally a man of few words, he got a lot of mileage out of a single syllable – “tsk.” Repeated seven times, “tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk,” it usually expressed dismay, disapproval, contempt or bewilderment — the equivalent of a “What can I say?” shake of the head. Very occasionally, with a slightly modified inflection, it signaled wonderment. It was, one senses, a sound that his son came to dread.
Besides books, fishing, baseball and hockey, were “the old man’s” major obsessions, providing ample opportunity in the book, for wonderful riffs on all three. Duncan was a gifted fisherman who managed to adapt fly-fishing to the narrow, bush-shrouded rivers of Algonquin, and could “sound” an unfamiliar lake with nothing but his trout line. A father-son trip to Cooperstown, gives him a chance to air his views on some of baseballs greats, and to recite, from memory, “Casey At the Bat,” – one of several lengthy ballads he could produce on demand. His photographic recollection of baseball and hockey statistics was a source of continuing exasperation for his sports-writer son, who possessed none of his gifts of memory.
Regret is perhaps too strong a word for the emotional undertone which colours MacGregor’s exploration of his father’s life, but one can’t help but feel that, as a child, he took his father’s absence personally, chewing over the paradox of a loving, yet absent parent. The fatherly “lessons” he is most acutely aware of seem to be the ones he feels he has mastered most poorly, perhaps disappointing Duncan in the process. “Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk tsk,” is, I’m sure, all Duncan would have to say about that!
Beyond Duncan’s own peculiar psychological makeup, there are more concrete mysteries as well – the single red rose found on his grave a year after his death, and the strange, and inexplicable gathering of wildlife along the route the family took through Algonquin Park, on the day of his burial. It was, as Roy MacGregor notes, “quite a turn out.”
While this book represents a very individual response to the “uneventful life,” of one particular man, Roy MacGregor has, perhaps unintentionally, achieved something quite extraordinary – has, for the first time in my experience, successfully rendered a distinct Ontario bush archetype who rings true to those (like me) whose family stories are filled with such characters — the one who lurks, half-in, half-out of the subconscious of anyone whose roots spread very far into Ontario, and certainly Haliburton soil. The solitary, gentle but essentially inscrutable nature, the self-sufficiency and lack of pretension, the quick mind and keen curiosity about the world (but often little formal education) the deep respect for the written word, the humour, and unexpected talents, coupled with a stubborn physical endurance, preternatural ease in the wilderness, and an affinity for animals – I’ve known Duncan all my life. He is a perfect amalgam of the grandfathers, great-grandfathers, great uncles and friends, who inhabit our family mythology of pioneering in Ontario — the particular collection of traits (amongst many possible ones) we’ve spent our lives trying to emulate, and echoes of which, transplanted into a different time, place and social circumstances, we see in our parents and even, perhaps, ourselves. Painted against a backdrop of familiar places and shared experiences (e.g. the brush of polio and tuberculosis, the depression, the war) it’s our story. On this basis, I’m going to dance out to the end of a very long limb and declare that this book will increase in importance with time, and may one day be recognized as the beginning of a genuine Ontario bush mythology.
Duncan, his son remembers, admired “People who had something to say that was worth remembering.” He would have admired this book, and its author.