The first celebrity conservationist

Grey Owl

Grey Owl

This weekend Sussex will resound to the sound of fireworks, something that would have delighted the young Archibald Stansfield Belaney.

While a schoolboy in Hastings in the Edwardian era, Archie taught himself how to make gunpowder. The end result of his hobby was to bring the boom of explosives echoing around the usually sedate streets of his home town and frustration to the police who couldn’t catch him with incriminating match in hand.

One would of thought a career in munitions beckoned for Archie. But no, fate had a very different future in store; a future as “Grey Owl”, a Native American who would come to be recognized as a pioneer of conservation and a passionate champion for Mother Nature and the ways of the wild.

Archibald was born in September 1888, the son of a Scotsman, George Belaney. His mother was a Hasting’s girl, Kittie, who is thought to have been a child bride, perhaps as young as 13. Belaney senior was evidently a bit of a bounder and a spendthrift. Responsibility for Archibald’s upbringing was largely taken on by his grandmother Julia and two maiden aunts.

Given these inauspicious beginnings, small wonder Archie grew up rather a loner even though his guardians seemed to have been kindly and indulgent souls. Very early on he displayed an abiding affinity for the natural world. He was also very much drawn to tales of the American Indians and how they sought to live their lives in harmony with nature. Archie began spending more and more time outside of Hastings, roving around the countryside in all weathers. By contrast, when he wasn’t outdoors, he would be making gunpowder.

Archie left Hastings Grammar School when he was 16, an undistinguished pupil of whom one teacher observed that it had been a pity he had not been tested on the two subjects at which he excelled, namely nature and animals. He got a job with a timber merchant but found the work tedious and dull. He told anyone who would listen that he really wanted to go to Canada and experience life as a fur trapper.

Finally, boredom drove him to a rather extreme measure; he planted a gunpowder package in the chimney of his workshop. The resulting explosion caused extensive damage but fortunately no injuries. Archie was dismissed. Maybe that’s what he wanted to happen. Whatever, it wasn’t long before he won the reluctant agreement of his family and, at the age of 17 years, set off for Canada.

Archie’s first appointment with the wilderness must have been a brief one for in 1915 he joined the Canadian Black Watch and accompanied them to France as a sniper. In January 1916 a German bullet struck his wrist and in April he was shot through the foot. Gangrene cost him a toe and he was invalided home to England. Back in Hastings, he married Connie Holmes, a girl he’d known in childhood. The marriage didn’t last and Archie returned to Canada in September 1917, his army career over due to his damaged foot.

Archie returned to the Canadian wilderness just as the harsh winter set in. Snow blindness laid him low but he was rescued by an Indian elder called The One Who Stands First. For the next four years the elder schooled Archie in the skills of forest survival, trapping and canoeing. At some time Archie adopted the name Grey Owl. He also took a Mohawk woman called Anahareo as his bride.

On one occasion, Grey Owl trapped a mother beaver. He left her kittens in the beaver lodge to surely die but Anahareo convinced him to take the babies home. It was a cathartic moment for Archie; he gave up trapping and instead began warning of how unchecked logging and over-trapping would destroy the wilderness and wipe out the beaver.

These dangers were the subject of Grey Owl’s well-received first book - “The Men of the Last Frontier”. It made no mention of Archie or his Hastings boyhood. Instead it stated: "The author is a half-breed Indian, whose name has recently become known throughout the English-speaking world. His father was a Scot, his mother an Apache Indian of New Mexico, and he was born somewhere near the Rio Grande forty odd years ago."

More best-selling Grey Owl books followed. In 1935 he made a tour of Britain that included an appearance at the White Rock Pavilion to press the case for conservation. By now he was habitually dressed in the full fig of a Canadian Indian. Archie’s two aunts were in the packed audience. Grey Owl made another appearance in Hastings in 1937.

Less than a year later he died from pneumonia. After his death, his aunts confirmed that Grey Owl was in fact their nephew, Archibald Stansfield Belaney. The revelation came as a shock to his estranged wife, Anahareo. Some critics labeled Grey Owl as little more than a fraud but today he is honoured as a true pioneer of the green movement. His message - that we all belong to nature but nature does not belong to us - endures.

Clive Webb, Professor of American History at Sussex University, wrote this of Grey Owl: "From youth he wanted to be a Native American. There's a real singular sense of vision and purpose about him. He's not simply setting the context for the environmental movement that will emerge later in the 20th Century, but he's really one of the first and foremost voices. He is the first celebrity conservationist."