Three Against the Wilderness by Eric Collier – February WWOBC Review

“Early the next morning I stepped outside the door, listening. Last night the roar of water rushing through the breach was so loud…but now all was quiet and still…Carefully I followed the irrigation ditch up to its source and stepped out onto the dam…And where yesterday there had been a miniature canal scarring the fill, now there was a dark, tamped surface of shiny mud…Thus had a single pair of beavers, in a single night, shut off a head of water that man only with heavy earthmoving equipment could have shut off. ” – Eric Collier, Three Against the Wilderness.

I have heard rumours – and they are just rumours at this point – that this novel was once upon a time, part of school curriculums up here in Canada.

First published in the late 1950s, (my own paperback copy, which I found in a second-hand shop, is from 1991) this is a largely-autobiographical tale of a man and his family as they homestead in the Chilcotin wilderness of northern British Columbia for about 25 years starting in the 1920s. [SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW]

It is a book that has had a profound impact on many people, with its depiction of how much a small number of people can do to make positive change on devastated habitat. Yes, besides being a true tale of homesteading in the wilderness, this is also a tale of restoring balance to an ecosystem – when the Collier family first arrives on the creek they build upon, it is a drying out sorry sight – with beavers and other smaller fur-bearing animals mostly trapped out and locally extinct, and the ranchers lower down suffering from drought.  Eric Collier, intending to earn a living by trapping, also vowed to restore beavers to the area, understanding that they are a keystone species and that their dams have a powerful impact upon watersheds. If they restore beaver dams, then valuable fur-bearing animals (besides beavers themselves) will return, and he will be able to trap. This is largely a success.

Here we have the first likely “problem” for this book’s inclusion in curriculum today – the Colliers’ value animals not only as part of the natural world, but also, as fur they can sell. They seek to destroy animals which reduce their abilities to trap – namely coyotes – (which are still doing fine as a species and tend to bounce back quickly from man’s efforts of eradication) and, more troubling – wolves.

One chapter is a story in which Eric Collier chases down a particular wolf he holds responsible for destroying many animals, including those in his traps. His decision to use poisoned bait (which he does, to his credit, recognize as indiscriminate) in attempts to reduce the coyote/wolf population, is awkward to support, and the final demise of the particular wolf in the chase is quite sad for this modern (admittedly city-raised) reader. 

Personally, I support hunting and trapping conducted with respect, care and under scientific management. (I do not support trophy hunting.) But I imagine that the very idea of reading a book which frequently and sometimes somewhat triumphantly depicts the killing of animals is anathema to some.

Other “problems” that arise when thinking about this book as possible curriculum fodder today – the casual misogyny occasionally voiced and the paternalistic, racist approach to First Nations. Because this book was published more then fifty years after The Virginian, some of the social attitudes, language and “humour” is perhaps even more unsettling here then in the older book.  However, it could also give rise to many discussions about social attitudes which flourished within the lifetimes of our grandparents – and what widely held social attitudes today will be considered very déclassé by our grandchildren.

Eric Collier, his wife Lilian, and their son Veasy, seem to have accomplished a great deal in terms of wetland rehabilitation, and one of the questions I could envision a teacher posing to a class today is this – can we recognize that Eric Collier’s restoration efforts were heroic, and recognize the many positive influences his book has had on readers over the years (I have encountered commentary indicating that some individuals chose environmentalist, and self-sufficiency life-paths after reading this book,) or do some of his apparent social attitudes negate the good that he did?

Also – what would a book covering the same time period from his wife’s point of view have looked like? There is not a lot about the many tasks and chores that Lillian Collier must have undertaken, although there is one particular story late in the book, when she saves her son one night during an illness after the horse team goes through pond ice…

There are many exciting stories told within this book.

Besides being a reminder that trapper/hunters have valuable skills and knowledge to provide to the environmentalist community, and that they are not necessarily enemies of conservation, this book is a reminder that “the western frontier” was still quite present less then a hundred years ago in Canada (and certain parts of the USA) – and in fact frontier still exists, it has just gone northerly.

Many of the episodic chapters are quite thrilling as more or less stand-alone stories. It is not very often, for example, that I have read a description of chasing coyotes down on horseback, through winter forest, and while I might feel that it is “not actually really cool” to be doing that, that does not change the vicarious thrill projected through the writing.

There are also episodes which don’t involve killing anything, but many do. This was the way this family earned cash to pay for the necessities they couldn’t find in the marsh wilderness they restored. They killed things. If you’re not going to be able to handle that, you’re not going to want to read this book at all.

The story-telling style of this book, is, not surprisingly, more modern then The Virginian’s – although it does use some slightly archaic-feeling words and turns of phrase. It also has less humour, a more modern, faster pace, and partially as a result I read through it faster than the previous entry to the Western Wednesday Online Book Club.

According to Veasy Collier, in an interview available online conducted in 2006, a number of the ‘true’ stories within the book were embellished and made use of literary licence. For example, (this will be relevant if you’ve read the book) Veasy stated that he had never seen a live wolf.  He also indicated that the timing of some events in the book were mixed about a bit. This is the only book that Eric Collier wrote, Veasy indicated that by the time he had finished writing it his father was seriously ill. Eric Collier died in 1966. Lilian in 1992, and Veasy in 2012.

I am quite happy that I came across this book and enjoyed reading it, speeding through it over three days. Let me know your thoughts if you are so inclined. Also, if you know if this book was ever included in a public school curriculum, let me know too!

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