Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mike Tomkies: Death of a Naturalist

I was sorry to learn of the death of nature writer and wilderness man, Mike Tomkies last week. I first came across this fascinating man when I read his classic Alone in the Wilderness. A tale best re-countered in the publisher’s blurb.....

"This is the story of a man who achieved what thousands only dream of. He shed the pressures of urban life as an international journalist and exchanged it for solitude, self-sufficiency and new purpose. He emigrated to Canada, found a plot of rock, trees and cliffs in a remote part of the British Columbian coastline, and moved in with typewriter, tent and the barest necessities to build his dream cabin.

How he eventually built his log cabin, learned to live off the sea, adjusted to and worked with the hardest taskmaster of all - Nature - fought loneliness and was inevitably drawn to greater understanding of his remote wilderness and its wild creatures, is an inspiring story. His adventures with nesting bald eagles, a cheeky raccoon, grizzlies, a lame seagull, killer whales and other creatures, are as informative as they are enthralling. Three extraordinary characters enhanced his experiences: Ed Louette, a skilled backwoods carpenter; Pappy Tihoni, a Scots-Indian who guided him on his most dangerous but fulfilling expedition into the mountains and wild dog Booto, who scratched at his cabin door with wagging tail when loneliness threatened to overwhelm.
This book is as compelling and perhaps even more relevant today with the world's great wilderness areas continuing to disappear.’
 (Alone in the wilderness-Whittles Publishing)

Alexandra Bastedo
The fascinating aspect of the story was the fact that Mike Tomkies fell by accident into this role as a champion of the wild. Previously he had been the archetypal metropolitan playboy. The celebrity journalist who chinked glasses with Hollywood icons and shared beds with glamorous actresses. This was someone who turned up at the Oscars ceremony in a beat up pick up truck and was mistaken for Warren Beatty, then in line for an Oscar for Bonnie & Clyde. Prompting Bob Hope to comment in his speech...'I see Warren Beatty is keeping in character for the ceremony’!

A former soldier before he became a celebrity journalist,it is said that Tomkies Canadian wilderness experience was prompted by his separation from glamorous actress Alexandra Bastedo and his desire to escape from the emotional turmoil. When I first read ‘Alone in the Wilderness’ I initially didn’t warm to the man. Comments made regarding the UK political climate and trade unions marked his out as someone of reactionary politics. I imagined this ex Coldstream Guardsman was probably a fellow traveller with the likes of Ranulph Twisteton Fiennes in the right wing libertarian Freedom Association.

However, despite political differences, further reading of the Tomkies oeuvre revealed a man who was totally sincere in his love of wildlife and the conservation of the natural environment. Of his many books, it was his Scottish tales of wilderness life described in ‘A Last Wild Place’ and ‘Between Earth and Paradise’ that really set the seal on my huge respect and admiration for a man who when it came to environmentalism, walked the walk and didn’t just talk the talk.

Reading these books recently it struck me that there was something of a contradiction in the manner of his wilderness life and his practicality, or rather his lack of practicality. Here was someone who could live an off grid life in a remote croft without mains services yet within the text of his books there were many descriptions of him going about his wilderness life which suggested he retained an urban impracticality and often appeared to make unnecessary hard work for himself. Nevertheless, for years he survived in the wild and funded his chosen life through his increasingly popular nature books.

A self taught photographer and film-maker, Tomkies went to great lengths lugging equipment into difficult to access locations and would often camp out for days in his hide,trying to get 'the money shot' of a sea eagle or a Monarch of the Glen. As with some of his writing work, many of his films and photographs were often more perfunctory than polished and finely honed. Produced to 'turn a buck' rather than inspire critical acclaim. Nevertheless, whatever the quality-and there certainly was quality aplenty in much of his work- one has to admire his gritty determination and resilience in producing material which whetted the public's growing appetite for ecological media.

Ironically for the wilderness man, after his Canadian, Scottish and Spanish peregrinations he ended up living in the fat south of England in prosperous Sussex. Far from the Atlantic gales and deprivations encountered when living the life of a crofter on the Scottish west coast. Mike Tomkies died after collapsing on a nature reserve aged 88 . It was, I guess, the only way he would have wanted to go. Certainly his remarkable life reads like a work of fiction. A quite surreal double life as the Hollywood hack who evolved into nature writer, is by any definition, beyond extraordinary.

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