Sunday, April 23, 2006

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Self-portrait in green
BRIAN BRETT
David Suzuki:
The Autobiography
By David Suzuki
GreyStone, 404 pages, $34.95
(image placeholder)(image placeholder)Back in the seventies, that fabulous showboat, Kenneth Rexroth, the bigger-than-life American poet, once told me that honest autobiography ends at the age of 30. The events that forge a person generally occur before then. Afterward, it's just "log rolling." Typically of Rexroth, there was much wisdom in that statement, and a little bit of bull.
The same applies to David Suzuki's new self-titled book, with the subtitle The Autobiography. Also larger than life, this legendary environmentalist has never been satisfied with a minimal, careful approach to life. Perhaps that's why he's written a second autobiography (the first, Metamorphosis, was published in 1987). Both versions clearly illustrate Rexroth's mantra, from Wordsworth, that "the child is father of the man."
The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed an innocent little boy into the burning young man who became a cutting-edge researcher in genetics, a TV star, author or co-author of 40 books and the most quoted environmentalist in Canada. After the bombing, he was interned in the Slocan Valley. Though his father tried to shield him, that's where Suzuki first encountered the racism of both whites and the Japanese community.
One of the best features of The Autobiography is Suzuki's disarming candour. Like a man determined to stay late at a party, he will suddenly blurt out surprising facts, revealing his struggles against his own racism and sexism and the workaholic tendencies that destroyed his first marriage. But more important than the admissions of his failings are the revelations of an active mind that won't accept the status quo.
The naive child of those terrible days eventually leaped far beyond being a mere victim, thanks to the influence of his witty, sociable father, who never followed the pack, and could still find beauty while exiled to an internment camp near the Singing Forest, now partially preserved as Valhalla Wilderness Park. It was there that Suzuki's father introduced him to a lifelong love of fishing and the wilderness, leading directly to his passion for ecology. And so Suzuki's troubled yet magical early years led to an equally amazing career.
Sometimes charmingly naive, sometimes revealing an enormous ego, sometimes brutally honest, sometimes lyric in its encounters with nature and people, The Autobiography is a strange, fascinating book, a celebration of gorgeousness amid adversity. The opening pages compress his childhood (better told in Metamorphoses) and lean toward too much name-dropping of childhood friends and, later, renowned people who promoted his career. Then the book finds its direction. It's clunkily written at times, and repetitive. That's inevitable for a man who's written 40 books, hosted a TV show, created a famous ecological foundation and is constantly jetting from one ecological cause to the next, while stopping off to spend a little quality time with everyone from Kaiapo chiefs to the Dalai Lama.
Nevertheless, though The Autobiography might not be literature, it remains a fine read. Suzuki's greatest flaws make for his greatest successes. His ability to bring ideas to people on TV, in live appearances and in books has made him a living legend -- voted one of the 10 most important Canadians on a recent CBC poll. But this talent for simplifying information into palatable sound bites can lead to simplistic pronouncements about complex ecologies and cultures, and that's why some environmentalists and scientists roll their eyes at the mention of his name.
He is also a canny publicity hog. Though blessed with an ability to turn the spotlight on his family or friends at times, he incessantly reminds the reader his TV show is called The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. He claims he only named his environmental think-tank, the David Suzuki Foundation, after himself because the brand recognition of his name made it easier to promote. His name is such a successful branding exercise that even the Bay Street gang must envy his public-relations talent.
In an odd way, Suzuki reminds me of Pierre Trudeau, a man the cameras loved and who loved them back just as enthusiastically. In a later passage, Suzuki talks of his beloved cabin near Heriot Island, and discusses how much richer its landscape must have been 50 years earlier. As with most of his environmental ruminations, he's correct. I was there 40 years ago, when it was still rich. The whispering fins of the northern coho run were so noisy they'd wake me in the grey hour. The plentiful giant ling cods were often stranded in the tidal pools. We dug clams from the beach below our tent. The oyster beds were so thick we couldn't land our wooden dory, fearing they'd rip the planks.
It's mostly gone now -- an ocean becoming a desert. Around the world, the coral is dying, the hurricanes and cyclones are gathering, the permafrost melting, the great fertile prairie soils turning to salt. Beginning with various small attempts to preserve endangered species and habitats, the still-growing environmental movement now faces an endangered planet.
We are quickly discovering Suzuki has not been an alarmist about global warming, as his detractors have claimed. He has been right. And he has a few good solutions, too. Toward the end of The Autobiography, he meditates on his age and eventual death. Narrated with candid and simple language, this is a sad, honest passage, tragic and beautiful. But it's hard to imagine a world without David Suzuki during its most dangerous era.