IT IS with the greatest sadness that we received the news of the sudden passing away of David Lawley on 15 September 2005 at the age of 60. Shunpiking sends its deepest condolences to his family and his many friends and colleagues in Nova Scotia, throughout Canada, the United States and other countries. His selfless generosity, humanity, animated and candid conversation and wisdom touched many, as reflected by all those, including a large uniformed contingent of his fellow Parks Canada workers, who filled the St John Anglican Church in Ingonish on 21 September to overflowing.
Later that afternoon his family and friends gathered at La Bloc, once an historic Acadian fishing village located only a few miles from the western entrance to the Cape Breton Highlands Park, to say good bye to David, as his son Jonathan and friends scattered his ashes in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Forming a circle in the rain, many spoke, one after the other, expressing their heartfelt condolences and expressing words of tribute, speaking highly of the friend, the father, the companion, the naturalist and the man who took political stands.
David will be deeply missed and always be honoured as an ardent naturalist, a man of principle and humility, and for his defence of the natural environment, the land and the nation of his adopted country.
David was a cherished contributor to shunpiking magazine from its inception, regarding it as his own. He not only wrote but actively took this magazine into all circles in northern Cape Breton. We are reproducing the eulogy based on the comments delivered at his memorial by colleague and friend Tony Seed.
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‘Thanks for joining me, and remember, of all the things that visitors take away from Cape Breton, the magic found in the highlands, the people, and the forest remains. We all feel the magic but we can only breathe it in our lungs, then give it back. It remains for all of nature to share.’
– Quintessential David Lawley
[This essay (revised 12 October 2005) is based on an eulogy at the memorial for David Lawley, 21 September 2005, La Bloc, Cape Breton given by colleague and friend Tony Seed who, together with Mark Daye of this magazine, served as honourary pall bearers.*]
I AM UNABLE to speak of David Lawley otherwise than with the deepest emotion, affection and a joyous enthusiasm. David Lawley is, without question, the ultimate naturalist in Nova Scotia – a remarkable storyteller, author and writer. He was an interpreter with Parks Canada for almost 20 years in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and was the voice of the park, of its coast and of northern Cape Breton.
David indefatigably prepared and delivered hundreds of natural history slide shows, showing our national and provincial parks visitors the values of natural healthy environments. He was an accomplished eco-tourism planner. When the province of Nova Scotia brought travel writers north on FAM tours he was the man they more often than not they turned to. Jean Timmons, his colleague, underlines how he had a gift of being able to read his audience and completely engross them in his topic. He, more than any, made people aware of this land, its people and possibilities. The national park has lost a personality who more creatively than any other seemed to embody it.
That is why his works are authoritative guides, conscientiously written, and thus widely respected. Along with his two books, A Nature and Hiking Guide to Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail. and A Guide to Whale Watching in the Maritimes, over fifty of his articles were published in magazines and various news media about Nova Scotia’s natural wonders. He was co-founder and northern Cape Breton editor of shunpiking, Nova Scotia’s discovery magazine, and a longtime member of the board of the Nova Scotia Field Naturalists. He participated in a national think tank with Canadian Nature Federation members on the environment. David was a shunpiker, a contributing writer and editor of our publication since our first edition ten years ago. How did we first meet? Serendipity. Those of similar world outlook gravitate to one another, seek each other out, come what may. Back in December, 1995 he phoned our office in Halifax several times asking how to participate. I didn’t respond the first time, so – fortunately! – he persisted. Somehow the news of the appearance of shunpiking had permeated the small village of Grand Étang. He wrote to us that, “shunpiking has my kind of space” and “my way of seeing Nova Scotia ... I loved the cross-roads photo most of us can relate to.” (That wonderful photo from Bob Semple was of a young boy, pausing at the fork of a path.) He gave freely of his work, lived very modestly and was a man of simple habits. Even with regards to our info poster, Whales of the Atlantic, conceived by David in 1996, which became acclaimed as one of the three best in the world, he would not accept one single penny. “Put it into the magazine,” he would reply. Through him, Mark and I met so many of the best people of northern Cape Breton, many of whom are gathered here today to say good-bye to such a friend and ally.
David was not a great writer in cosmopolitan literary terms. He was a great writer because he brought to life man’s interaction with the mysteries of nature in stories, both written and oral, and because he addressed himself to the people. He wrote sparsely, to the point, without verbosity and embellishment.
At a workshop for beginning writers at the South Shore Festival of Writers in 1997 I was asked ‘how does a writer become known?’ I replied that it depended on whom you were writing for, the market or your fellow Nova Scotian, and what you wanted to communicate; David Lawley, I said, had become one of the most widely known writers amongst Nova Scotians if not most well known in this province during the nineties because of that very criteria. From his earliest days of writing his stories were loved by the people with whom he worked and lived.
I wanted to briefly read a few excerpts from stories that he contributed to our magazine. In one, “Seals on the Move”, he describes watching from his perch on shore, right from the shelter of this very favourite spot of his, a pregnant mother seal give birth on the offshore pack ice. You get a feeling from his writing and stories that something living, wonderful and able to speak to you has entered your life. They are memorable, poignant passages. They make you laugh. Due to this rain I will pass. We will put post these on our website in a special section for all to read.
I last spoke with David two summers ago, vainly tried to find him a summer ago (he had moved from Grand Étang to somewhere in Margaree), and was deeply gratified to learn he and his beloved companion Marjorie visited 6211 North Street this last August. Sadly I was away. When we last talked, he was weaker in body, stronger in soul. For some reason he seemed to have stopped writing. I was at a loss. How to encourage him? But he was of good cheer. He obviously didn’t worry about himself but his solicitude was touching. During this discussion, on the future of our publication, its trials and tribulations and its direction, David said, “you needn’t change your policy though. Our original mandate says it all.” He then astonished me by quoting it verbatim, something I could not do:
“We call shunpiking a discovery magazine. Shunpiking is about discovery of our community – our natural, social and cultural environment – and about opening new windows on the mysteries and wonders of the universe.
“If that also involves writing about political and social relations (and it will), so be it. We’d also like to take the space and time to discover and share beauty we find around us, both natural and made.”
(From Volume One, Number Two, February/March, 1996)
This is the vision David embraced in his life and work which began to form the basis of our unity a decade ago this December. And then he repeated, “so be it.”
And if that involved taking political stands of principle against man’s inhumanity to man, to humanize the natural and social environment, “so be it.”
With that spirit I would like to reflect on and recollect some aspects of David’s life we cannot overlook.
The famous passage from Lord Byron’s autobiographical poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage , reproduced on the memorial card for David that we received from Elaine last night,
There is a pleasure in
the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on
the lonely shore,
There is society, where none
By the deep sea, and music
in its roar:
I love not man the less,
but Nature more.
does seem to reflect his outlook. How, living in this world two hundred years later, are we to understand and make sense of Byron’s thought?
David Lawley was a man who cut his own path.
But, like Byron, the tension between the seeming solace of Nature and the violence and exploitation of this society was reflected in the persona of David Lawley, his life and work. Lord Byron was a democrat who flung his scorn in the face of perfidious old Albion and its infamous kings, and spoke out in the House of Lords against really savage crimes against the English textile workers. He campaigned for the rights of the Irish. Then his pilgrimage. But in the end he turned from his seeming natural retreat and melancholy to become a revolutionary. The peoples of Greece and Albania erected statues for his selfless support for their independence struggles, which ultimately cost him his life in 1824.
David Lawley was a youth of the Sixties and personified the best spirit of that era. Son of a miner, a native of northern Idaho, near the British Columbia border, he came to Canada as a young man from the United States, where he had been drafted into the US Navy despite being a conscientious objector. He was terribly brutalized for his opposition to the US military and the war of plunder and aggression in Indo China. He was buried up to his neck and left overnight. Sent into the Cambodian jungles to prepare a botanical report for the monstrous US herbicide spraying program, he went AWOL, surviving on his own amongst the Cambodian people. On the eve of the Khmer Rouge takeover, he got a message out: “Hey, I’ve finished the report, get me out of here!” When he was finally returned to the United States he immediately crossed the border into Canada and, if you like, eventually “retreated” to nature, far from the rush and high tension, the anarchy and the waste. David spent the past twenty years of his life immersed in northern Cape Breton, becoming such an inspiring naturalist and raising his children.
David did not live apart from society but participated in it. He had a sense of social responsibility. He took stands on issues affecting the interests and well-being of our social and natural environment. Year after year he personally took every edition of shunpiking all the way around the Cabot Trail as far as Baddeck, from three to seven hundred copies depending on the season, and enthusiastically encouraged numerous others amongst his acquaintances to contribute or illustrate. He took a stand for the truth, against obfuscation. He brought us little known materials on the social history of the Irish in Englishtown and of the highland Gaels. Though on contract with Parks Canada, he educated shunpiking’s editorial staff as to the issues involving the mining of Jim Campbell’s Barrens in 1996 which he firmly opposed. You may recall that powerful, well-organized interests, including the former head of the Prime Minister’s Office of Brian Mulroney, were involved who had collected the savings of many in Chéticamp to finance this scheme. We defeated them. So be it.
Nature is neither pristine nor full of divine harmony. David took part in the process of consultative meetings held throughout Nova Scotia on special protected areas as a specialist and criticized its findings. He came down to Halifax to speak in the Red Room at Province House, called for equality in representation and genuine dialogue and, in his own words, as he spelled out in his speaking notes which I have on my computer, “countered misinformation that crown lands would be lost.” That is why he found it essential that we publish a special supplement, Last Call for Public Lands (May 2000, with the Ecology Action Centre), against the degradation of the environment through industrial clearcutting by a handful of American, Swedish and Canadian multinationals.
He defended the land and he defended the nation. There he was vigorously demonstrating in Chéticamp in September, 2000 against the ‘visit’ of the then fisheries and oceans minister for the Chrétien Liberals – together with the Mi’kmaq First Nations, coastal residents and environmentalists against the sell-out to US oil and gas exploration and seismic testing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. That battle we lost. So be it. David had no illusions that behind the ‘democracy’ of the parliament stood powerful vested interests who respect neither the rule of law nor of nature. After we published the Dossier on Palestine in 2002, he warned me to watch our back; because of such a work, an attack against us could come from any quarter.
His naturalist writing was also complemented by articles, though few in number, about artists of northern Cape Breton who characteristically expressed folk motifs of the people in their work, unsung and unknown artists whose work did not coincide with the fashions of the metropolitan centre.
As Mark Daye – his neighbour for many years on Creighton Street in Halifax’s Inner City – so eloquently expresses, David had a genuine quality, a human gift, of generously giving his knowledge and insight unsparingly to whoever who would receive it. David always made you feel as you were the most important person in the room and that what you had to say was not merely important but the most important. It didn’t matter from what walk or life, prince or pauper, Mark recollects, he never introduced David to anyone who didn’t shake his hand twice. ‘They would shake his hand, and step away, then come back and shake it again, saying ‘I want to shake this man’s hand again’.”
He drew you closer with a smile, a twinkle or even a new grimace. Some of his stories about wildlife express man’s tender love and affection and his whimsical ability to delight children. But I would add he did not suffer the self-contemplating philistines gladly.
In general I would say “he loved man not less”: he was for transforming this old world and renewing it, to a new life. This demands the work of man, not nature.
Beauty, wrote Maxim Gorky, is something man creates from the depth of his soul. Nature is not something intrinsically beautiful nor benign. Think of that article David wrote of the terrible Suete winds which coursed down on the people of Chéticamp and Grand Étang. There is great humour there but it was David who found it and Neal Livingston who then filmed it. Nature is unfeeling, without remorse. That same mother seal, David went on to write, just three weeks later casts its young pup away to sink or swim on its own. Oppressed peoples came to this seemingly desolate shore, called Un’ama’ki by the Mi’kmaq, and convinced themselves that it was fair. They even called it “god’s country.” And so David worked to cut trails and paths through the masses of the highlands and spoke and wrote to bring man to its valleys and heights. The highlands becomes more beautiful, grand and understandable after reading the works of this great naturalist. Those who otherwise hold the highlands in awe speak of David with a special love and regard.
David had a broad outlook and lucid mind, a thirst for knowledge and science. He read books and he read widely. He refused to accept conventional dogma. Once during March Break, 1997 my most recent son, Nick, and I arrived at his home in Grand Étang in the lee of the mountains for an overnight visit. The door was always unlocked and we walked right in. I can still see the sparse furnishings and kid’s toys all asunder over the floor. There was David and his friend Gervais at the kitchen table poring over in the evening twilight the most recent edition. I thought the two park wardens would be looking at Scott Cunningham’s own story about traversing the wintry highlands. But, no, they were discussing the Black History Supplement and an old poster for an auction that we had reproduced from the mid-1700s.
Gervais declared, and I will never forget these words, “You know, I have lived in Nova Scotia all my life, except for a stint in the oil fields. I went to school here, I am a product of its education system. And I never knew until tonight that black people were bought and sold as slaves in Nova Scotia.”
“And if I didn’t know that, what else don’t I know?”
It was, to me, a profound question. It expresses a deep thirst for knowledge; one who is griped by that humbling realization, that unfathomable question, can never be held back from discovering the real truths and workings of this society: “and if I didn’t know that, what else don’t I know?” Our discussion that night around that kitchen table – I don’t know that we every sat down – was so animated as we moved from one question to the next, and, for someone involved in publishing, moving. It illustrated how Nova Scotians very much appreciate receiving enlightened material and do not like being kept in a state of ignorance by the liberals.
David did curse man’s inhumanity to man and was disheartened by it, he was sceptical, but I know you found in him a sincere love for mankind, for all peoples of the world. Since the Sixties he empathized with their struggles for justice, peace and liberation, from South Asia to the Middle East and joined our own journey in defence of Palestine. What I especially liked about David is that for many years I did not even know that he was originally from the USA; unlike too many others who came to Canada, he never flashed his ‘birthright’ in your face like some swagger stick from ‘down South’. He bore with him the shame of imperialist America. He had ‘retreated’ but not from a sincere internationalist spirit.
We discussed politics on rare though specific occasion. Here is my recollection of one Christmas in 1999. Out of the blue David phoned to discuss our fifth anniversary edition. He mentioned the natural history features, the Christmas-on-an-island stories, the expose of DFO tactics against the Mi’kmaq and small fishermen following the Marshall Decision, the cover photo of the ice fishermen ... “Yep, already distributed, all around the Trail. It’s out there, people are already picking it up in Chéticamp...”
David is not a man to beat around the bush! Finally he brought up to the editorial on the new millennium, ‘Entering the 21st Century’, the reason for his call. All the negative problems our society and humanity faced. A future that is up for grabs. How to break with the past, with the 19th century political setup and values?
“That’s some powerful writing,” he declared. Initially I was taken aback. I suppose neither of us ever really thought of ourselves as writers. He was surprisingly emphatic about the perspective of the article. Our work together as a collective, setting our own agenda, in the face of all the doomsayers and naysayers, reflects what is possible in this world. It creates life, enthusiasm, gets one thinking and gives us a sense of direction and vision.
His daughter Kharissama recently wrote to me, “I always knew David was great – but he always said that he was just a nobody – as he listened to a bird in the forest and would tell me what kind it was, it’s life cycle, and all about it’s habitat just by it’s song.”
“We are a collective of such nobodies,” I wrote back.
Our cycle of life is a world of little and unassuming nobodies, and out of such insignificant nobodies, out of the likes of us, emerging as the creators and masters of our own sovereign destiny, will come a contribution to society and its progress that will not die. You will know it just by its song.
Some years ago my parents and my brother had the opportunity to meet David in Ingonish where he was taking care of Johnathan and Anna. As we drove away, my father said, “your friend is a man at peace with the world” – a comment I had never heard him make about anyone else before.
We, at shunpiking, mourn his demise deeply. We sincerely hope that his friends, family and the northern Cape Bretoners together ensure that his memory remains alive. We too should memorialize our comrades, write our songs and build our statues of our own, be in stone or wood or through living forms such as lectures and festivals, and defend the land and environment of his adopted country. That is David’s legacy.
The sea is roiling. It is raining. The northern sky is shedding tears at the passing of our friend.
Thank you all, thank you Dave.
Tony Seed with Mark Daye
Halifax, Nova Scotia
5 October 2005
Revised 12 October 2005
*Edited and revised for publication
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