Peter Rhodes on the connection between a bogus 'Red Indian,' a crusade to save the forests and the life passion of David Attenborough

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes.

David Attenborough, fan of Grey Owl
David Attenborough, fan of Grey Owl

At 95, Sir David Attenborough is as busy as ever, hosting the BBC series The Green Planet and programmes including The Mammoth Graveyard and Wonder of Song. But what first sparked his fascination for nature? Part of the answer involves a bizarre deception.

Grey Owl was a Native American trapper in the 1930s who claimed an Apache father and Scottish mother. From the frozen forests of Canada, he penned newspaper columns on the wildlife around him and his growing fear that white men, with their explosives and chainsaws, would destroy the wilderness. He became a sensation, publishing books and making a series of sell-out speaking tours in Canada and England.

In 1998 I interviewed Richard Attenborough, fresh from directing his biopic Grey Owl, starring Pierce Brosnan. Attenborough told me how in 1936 he, then 13, and his 10-year-old brother David witnessed one of Grey Owl's lectures in Leicester. It had a magical effect on them. It was one of the influences that would later turn David Attenborough into the world's best known television naturalist.

The irony, as Lord Attenborough recalled with a rich roar of laughter, was that Grey Owl was a spoof. The “Red Indian” was a fraud called Archie. Born in Hastings, Archibald Belaney had personal problems and alcohol issues and took himself off to the Canadian outback where he learned backwoods skills and reinvented himself as Grey Owl, a member of the First Nation. It was a deception but a harmless one. Archie, who died in 1938, told lies but he also told a great truth about mankind's exploitation of nature. In 1997, nearly 60 years after Grey Owl was posthumously debunked by a Canadian newspaper, the council in Hastings unveiled a plaque in his honour at the house where he was born.

My Christmas reading included a copy of Grey Owl's 1936 book, The Men of the Last Frontier. Even allowing for hindsight, it's hard to understand how he fooled the world. He writes like the grammar-school Englishman he was, rejoicing in England's “solemn, cloistered naves in vast, venerable cathedrals” and quoting a verse from Byron. But for all his bogus background Grey Owl stirred something in the young mind of David Attenborough 85 years ago and the rest, as they say, is history. Or at least, natural history.

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