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Life among the green trees of Canada

In 1936, in the first weeks of the Spanish Civil War, fourteen-year-old Ronald Rodriguez Lawrence, a boy of English-Spanish parentage, helped lead a squad of Loyalist troops through the sewers of Barcelona. They emerged out of a manhole cover near the statue of Columbus that stands close to the Barcelona waterfront. A gunfight ensued with invading Fascist troops, supporters of General Francisco Franco who was about to overthrow the country’s Republican government. Lawrence “killed a man with a bullet that went into his head and knocked his helmet off.” He would later write of “a cruel, evil war that laid the groundwork for World War II thanks to the stupidity of French and British politicians who at that time preferred fascism to what they thought would be Marxist communism if the Republic should defeat the rightists.”

In a long and productive life Ron Lawrence fought in two wars, worked as a journalist across Canada, authored thirty books, and fathered two children. I became a friend when we worked together at the Toronto Telegram. Ron went on to become the outstanding Canadian nature writer of the 20th century, not as well-known as Farley Mowat, or that other charlatan of the wilderness, Grey Owl (Archie Belaney), but assuredly the most faithful recorder of life and death among the denizens of our forests and streams.

Ron Lawrence died in 2003, sadly from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. My rich memories of times spent with Ron were reawakened when Sharon, his widow, re-published several of his works as e-books on Amazon. I downloaded The Ghost Walker, his tale of a winter spent in British Columbia’s Selkirk mountains, tracking a mountain lion. It can be ordered here.

Lawrence Bok  Ron’s meditations on trekking into the Goldstream River valley, building a shack from the remnants of a mine works, enduring blizzards and accidents while collecting fresh evidence on the life of the elusive cougar, make for rewarding reading for anyone who appreciates and wishes to know more of the  life of our Canadian wilderness.

The book reminded me of so many aspects of Ron’s life that I went looking for his autobiography, The Green Trees Beyond, which I found here (on Abe Books).

Ron had told me the essential facts of his life — his birth at sea in 1921 aboard a British vessel returning from South Africa, his birth registry by his Spanish  mother, the fact he’d been a young soldier in the Spanish loyalist Army and had later been in World War II, and some of his adventures as a homesteader in northwestern Ontario.

In common with most veterans, Ron never spoke of his wartime experiences. I had to read The Green Trees Beyond to find out that he’d escaped over the Pyrenees into France at the end of the Spanish Civil War and going to England, had joined the British Army at the outbreak of World War II.

Ron was part of the British Expeditionary Force that narrowly escaped entrapment at Dunkirk. “I took to the water and managed to reach a rescue vessel. It turned out to be a seagoing barge that had once carried coal. More and more men came aboard, filling the hold. Would we get the hell out of there in one piece?”

Ron fell asleep, and awoke as the barge docked in Dover. His next sea voyage came when his tank regiment was convoyed to Alexandria in Egypt. Months of tank fighting in the desert led to the defeat of General Rommel’s Afrika Corps. Ron landed on the beach in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The next day, his unit liberated Bayeux, the town where General de Gaulle made his first speech on his return to France as leader of the Free French. I wish I’d known of Ron’s connection with Bayeux  when I visited there while researching my book on de Gaulle, The Paris Game.

The experience of death in wartime came early to Ron. When he lost his schoolmate Gallorte in that first action in Barcelona, an older man told him, “You will see many dead … but you must learn not to grieve. There’s no room for grief in war. Be angry instead, but never allow anger to become rage. Your anger must be cold, like steel.”

In his memoir, Ron tells us that it took an animal, a badly abused, part-wolf dog, Yukon, to teach him love. I don’t think he was ever really comfortable among his own species, notwithstanding the fact that he gained loyal friends and enjoyed, to my personal knowledge, happy years with two women — his second wife Joan who died in his arms, and Sharon, his last and perhaps most satisfying relationship.

Having witnessed the depredations of mankind first hand, who would not prefer the company of creatures of nature who kill only from necessity — the need to survive — and never from lust, greed, or hate?

The title of Ron’s memoir, The Green Trees Beyond is a metaphor for the Canadian wilderness. He writes of throwing his last symbols of British life, his black umbrella and his homburg, into the ocean as the liner that brought him across the Atlantic reached Newfoundland waters. Entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he is mesmerized by “the serried ranks of spruces that marched along with the boat on both banks of the spectacular waterway.'” He knows he will never be entirely free of his war demons, but that he will be able to “subjugate them by immersing myself, not symbolically but in fact, in the reality of the green trees beyond.”

At a time when our environment needs protection more than it ever did,  I hope the re-publication of Ron Lawrence’s books will open the doorway for a new generation to  the life that still endures among the green trees of Canada.