I have sometimes thought that it would be well if more notice were taken, on the vegetarian side, of the disparaging allusions to the humane diet that occur, here and there, not only in the current journalism, but in the works of well-known authors, which, being permanently before the public, may be presumed to influence a good many readers against our cause. The present article deals with a book of that sort, one which has been widely read and continues to be complacently ignored as some ephemeral attacks in the press.
“The Heart of the Ancient Wood,” by Charles G. D. Roberts,1 a distinguished Canadian writer, is the story of a girl, Miranda, who being brought up in a lonely cabin, became familiar with the wild animals of the adjacent forest, and especially with a she-bear named Kroof. Her father, an artist of dubious character, “had been a decrier of flesh-meat,” but was as inconsistent in his ethics of diet as in his other ethics; he had, however, “so far inflected his wife with his prejudice that neither she nor the child now touched meat, in any form.” Miranda had an instinctive aversion from it; but as for fish, she “had no sense of fellowship for these cold-blooded, clammy, unpleasant things”; on the contrary, “she had a fierce little delight in catching them.” She was very close to Nature; “and Nature laughs at consistency.”
From these remarks the reader will form his own opinion as to Mr. Roberts’s qualification for writing about vegetarianism. It seems to me that he lets the cat out of the bag rather too early in the book.
The tale of Miranda’s gradually growing friendship with the bear and other wild creatures is prettily told; but even if Nature laughs at consistency it is not pleasant to think of a child catching fish with a “fierce little delight,” nor easy to reconcile that girlish savagery with her deep regard for the denizens of the forest. As she grows older, her lover (for of course a lover had to appear) finds little favour at first because he is a hunter and trapper. “I don’t want to hate him,” she explains to her mother, “but what better is he than a butcher? Pah! I sometimes think I smell blood, the blood of the kind wood creatures, when he’s around.” The reader will see how the story is to work out.
The mother of the girl soon begins to fall ill, all owing to that prejudice against flesh-meat with which she had been infected by her ne’er-do-well husband; and Miranda’s youthful lover, seeing the cause of the woman’s ailment, decides that what she needs is “good, fresh, roast meat,” and accordingly brings her something “that’ll fresh, roast meet,” and accordingly brings her something “that’ll do ye more good than a bucketful of doctor’s medicine.” Of course! “The instant she smelled that savour, she knew that he was right. Steak, venison steak fried in butter, was what she required.” Thus, the prescription being repeated twice of thrice a week, she was restored to health, and became “her old strong self again.”
It seems a pity that Mr. Roberts spoiled what might have been a charming book, if his story of a girl’s sympathy with wild nature had been plainly and simply told, by mixing with it this controversial matter about the diet question; for no one who has really thought out that question, in all its bearings, could be impressed by this presentment of it. The discussions between Miranda and the enamoured hunter. Dave, are very cheap stuff indeed, in which she is represented as scarcely better than a simpleton. When, for example, he has been compelled to shoot a lynx who was attacking a deer, she first calls him “brute” for mercifully killing the two cubs which might otherwise have died of starvation, and then, on his explaining the reason of his action, exclaims: “Do you know, I never thought of that before.” Naturally he regards her as but “a silly child,” and proceeds quietly with his plans for converting her to the diet of “the good, fresh, roast meat.” The result is not explicitly stated, but we feel that he is on the road to success.
The end of the story is painful enough. The benevolent hunter, seeing a young bear at the edge of the wood, and thinking that “a bit of bear steak” will be just the thing for his future mother-in-law, fires with his usual precision, and finds that he has killed the cub of dear old Kroof, the bear to whom Miranda was devotedly attached. Kroof was quickly on the spot, and would have avenged her cub by putting an end to Dave, who had left his rifle lying under a tree, had not Miranda herself appeared, and realising that she now had to choose between Dave and Kroof, representing, as they seem intended to do, the human sympathies in conflict with those of the wild kindred, seized the gun and emptied both barrels into the bear. Thus over old Kroof’s body love is plighted; they decide to leave the cabin in the forest, and Dave himself vows that he will hunt and trap no more, but will get “a good job surveying lumber” in another district. A more morbid, distressing, and inconclusive conclusion could hardly have been reached, even from the artistic point of view; as a comment on vegetarianism the book is merely a bit of special pleading in the form of fiction. Mr. Roberts should have been content with this Ancient Wood and spared us the introduction of this Ancient Sophistry.
1 J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 6s.
Henry S. Salt
The Vegetarian News, Vol. 6 No. 64, April 1926, pp. 114-115