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Back to the Bush

I have a friend called Billy, who has the Bush Mania. By
trade he is a doctor, but I do not think that he needs
to sleep out of doors. In ordinary things his mind appears
sound. Over the tops I of his gold-rimmed spectacles, as
he bends forward to speak to you, there gleams nothing
but amiability and kindliness. Like all the rest of us
he is, or was until he forgot it all, an extremely
well-educated man.

I am aware of no criminal strain in his blood. Yet Billy
is in reality hopelessly unbalanced. He has the Mania of
the Open Woods.

Worse than that, he is haunted with the desire to drag
his friends with him into the depths of the Bush.

Whenever we meet he starts to talk about it.

Not long ago I met him in the club.

"I wish," he said, "you'd let me take you clear away up
the Gatineau."

"Yes, I wish I would, I don't think," I murmured to
myself, but I humoured him and said:

"How do we go, Billy, in a motor-car or by train?"

"No, we paddle."

"And is it up-stream all the way?"

"Oh, yes," Billy said enthusiastically.

"And how many days do we paddle all day to get up?"

"Six."

"Couldn't we do it in less?"

"Yes," Billy answered, feeling that I was entering into
the spirit of the thing, "if we start each morning just
before daylight and paddle hard till moonlight, we could
do it in five days and a half."

"Glorious! and are there portages?"

"Lots of them."

"And at each of these do I carry two hundred pounds of
stuff up a hill on my back?"

"Yes."

"And will there be a guide, a genuine, dirty-looking
Indian guide?"

"Yes."

"And can I sleep next to him?"

"Oh, yes, if you want to."

"And when we get to the top, what is there?"

"Well, we go over the height of land."

"Oh, we do, do we? And is the height of land all rock
and about three hundred yards up-hill? And do I carry a
barrel of flour up it? And does it roll down and crush
me on the other side? Look here, Billy, this trip is a
great thing, but it is too luxurious for me. If you will
have me paddled up the river in a large iron canoe with
an awning, carried over the portages in a sedan-chair,
taken across the height of land in a palanquin or a
howdah, and lowered down the other side in a derrick,
I'll go. Short of that, the thing would be too fattening."

Billy was discouraged and left me. But he has since
returned repeatedly to the attack.

He offers to take me to the head-waters of the Batiscan.
I am content at the foot.

He wants us to go to the sources of the Attahwapiscat.
I don't.

He says I ought to see the grand chutes of the Kewakasis.
Why should I?

I have made Billy a counter-proposition that we strike
through the Adirondacks (in the train) to New York, from
there portage to Atlantic City, then to Washington,
carrying our own grub (in the dining-car), camp there a
few days (at the Willard), and then back, I to return by
train and Billy on foot with the outfit.

The thing is still unsettled.

Billy, of course, is only one of thousands that have got
this mania. And the autumn is the time when it rages at
its worst.

Every day there move northward trains, packed full of
lawyers, bankers, and brokers, headed for the bush. They
are dressed up to look like pirates. They wear slouch
hats, flannel shirts, and leather breeches with belts.
They could afford much better clothes than these, but
they won't use them. I don't know where they get these
clothes. I think the railroad lends them out. They have
guns between their knees and big knives at their hips.
They smoke the worst tobacco they can find, and they
carry ten gallons of alcohol per man in the baggage car.

In the intervals of telling lies to one another they read
the railroad pamphlets about hunting. This kind of
literature is deliberately and fiendishly contrived to
infuriate their mania. I know all about these pamphlets
because I write them. I once, for instance, wrote up,
from imagination, a little place called Dog Lake at the
end of a branch line. The place had failed as a settlement,
and the railroad had decided to turn it into a hunting
resort. I did the turning. I think I did it rather well,
rechristening the lake and stocking the place with suitable
varieties of game. The pamphlet ran like this.

"The limpid waters of Lake Owatawetness (the name,
according to the old Indian legends of the place, signifies,
The Mirror of the Almighty) abound with every known
variety of fish. Near to its surface, so close that the
angler may reach out his hand and stroke them, schools
of pike, pickerel, mackerel, doggerel, and chickerel
jostle one another in the water. They rise instantaneously
to the bait and swim gratefully ashore holding it in
their mouths. In the middle depth of the waters of the
lake, the sardine, the lobster, the kippered herring,
the anchovy and other tinned varieties of fish disport
themselves with evident gratification, while even lower
in the pellucid depths the dog-fish, the hog-fish, the
log-fish, and the sword-fish whirl about in never-ending
circles.

"Nor is Lake Owatawetness merely an Angler's Paradise.
Vast forests of primeval pine slope to the very shores
of the lake, to which descend great droves of bears--brown,
green, and bear-coloured--while as the shades of evening
fall, the air is loud with the lowing of moose, cariboo,
antelope, cantelope, musk-oxes, musk-rats, and other
graminivorous mammalia of the forest. These enormous
quadrumana generally move off about 10.30 p.m., from
which hour until 11.45 p.m. the whole shore is reserved
for bison and buffalo.

"After midnight hunters who so desire it can be chased
through the woods, for any distance and at any speed they
select, by jaguars, panthers, cougars, tigers, and jackals
whose ferocity is reputed to be such that they will tear
the breeches off a man with their teeth in their eagerness
to sink their fangs in his palpitating flesh. Hunters,
attention! Do not miss such attractions as these!"

I have seen men--quiet, reputable, well-shaved men--
reading that pamphlet of mine in the rotundas of hotels,
with their eyes blazing with excitement. I think it is
the jaguar attraction that hits them the hardest, because
I notice them rub themselves sympathetically with their
hands while they read.

Of course, you can imagine the effect of this sort of
literature on the brains of men fresh from their offices,
and dressed out as pirates.

They just go crazy and stay crazy.

Just watch them when they get into the bush.

Notice that well-to-do stockbroker crawling about on his
stomach in the underbrush, with his spectacles shining
like gig-lamps. What is he doing? He is after a cariboo
that isn't there. He is "stalking" it. With his stomach.
Of course, away down in his heart he knows that the
cariboo isn't there and never was; but that man read my
pamphlet and went crazy. He can't help it: he's GOT to
stalk something. Mark him as he crawls along; see him
crawl through a thimbleberry bush (very quietly so that
the cariboo won't hear the noise of the prickles going
into him), then through a bee's nest, gently and slowly,
so that the cariboo will not take fright when the bees
are stinging him. Sheer woodcraft! Yes, mark him. Mark
him any way you like. Go up behind him and paint a blue
cross on the seat of his pants as he crawls. He'll never
notice. He thinks he's a hunting dog. Yet this is the
man who laughs at his little son of ten for crawling
round under the dining-room table with a mat over his
shoulders, and pretending to be a bear.

Now see these other men in camp.

Someone has told them--I think I first started the idea
in my pamphlet--that the thing is to sleep on a pile of
hemlock branches. I think I told them to listen to the
wind sowing (you know the word I mean), sowing and crooning
in the giant pines. So there they are upside-down, doubled
up on a couch of green spikes that would have killed St.
Sebastian. They stare up at the sky with blood-shot,
restless eyes, waiting for the crooning to begin. And
there isn't a sow in sight.

Here is another man, ragged and with a six days' growth
of beard, frying a piece of bacon on a stick over a little
fire. Now what does he think he is? The CHEF of the
Waldorf Astoria? Yes, he does, and what's more he thinks
that that miserable bit of bacon, cut with a tobacco
knife from a chunk of meat that lay six days in the rain,
is fit to eat. What's more, he'll eat it. So will the
rest. They're all crazy together.

There's another man, the Lord help him who thinks he has
the "knack" of being a carpenter. He is hammering up
shelves to a tree. Till the shelves fall down he thinks
he is a wizard. Yet this is the same man who swore at
his wife for asking him to put up a shelf in the back
kitchen. "How the blazes," he asked, "could he nail the
damn thing up? Did she think he was a plumber?"

After all, never mind.

Provided they are happy up there, let them stay.

Personally, I wouldn't mind if they didn't come back and
lie about it. They get back to the city dead fagged for
want of sleep, sogged with alcohol, bitten brown by the
bush-flies, trampled on by the moose and chased through
the brush by bears and skunks--and they have the nerve
to say that they like it.

Sometimes I think they do.

Men are only animals anyway. They like to get out into
the woods and growl round at night and feel something
bite them.

Only why haven't they the imagination to be able to do
the same thing with less fuss? Why not take their coats
and collars off in the office and crawl round on the
floor and growl at one another. It would be just as good.

Stephen Leacock