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More than mere lip service to Canada’s First Environmental Poet

HE IS ONCE AGAIN ONE OF THE GREAT unsung Canadian Literary Heroes, yet in his time Robert William Service was a successful lyricist, an award winning novelist and a poet who made over $100,000 off his first published collection, in 1905. In 2014, that would be the equivalent of about $ 2.5-million. How many poets can you name who have earned 2.5 million dollars, on their first book? I got to the same number. Zero.

Because he was successful, and because he wrote poems that rhyme and scanned and told a story, he was not considered a literate, or even a literary poet.

Later in his career he took off to live in Paris, (the real one, not the one in Ontario). An even wealthier man by now – subsequent books had sold just as well – he did not write ensconced, with his tortured angst driving him on, in an unheated garrett high in the Mont Martre – as real artists were supposed to do. No, he booked into the finest hotel, sat at a Louis XIV desk, drank jeroboams of champagne and lived well enough that James Whitcomb Riley, so successful a man that the ‘living the life of Riley’ was coined to describe him, was rumoured to mutter that it should have been called the ‘living the life of Service’, and was prevented from such only by its ambiguity.

While I am jealous, that is not my story today. I have a theory that Robert Service was also an environmentalist. He wrote of preserving a way of life that he loved, he mourned change and he brought these tales to the masses to try to preserve the opinion he had seen and that he wished would survive for his own children to see. It didn’t, but then again it never does.

Service also wrote of violent times and violent men. His heroes did not suffer fools gladly and I wonder what he’d have made of the modern cult of protesting. I think he’d have seen it for what it was, what his fellow poet, William Shakespeare once called, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

I’d also like to think that if he was writing today, he’d have done something like this.


There’s been talk for quite a time, some insane and some sublime, about what we need to do to save the planet. The environmental activists (and luddite-like recidivists), will say it’s far too late and that we cannot. It is true no other animal’s so silly, so irrational, that they ruin and abuse the place they live. Homo Sapiens are different; callous thoughtless, mostly ignorant. If we don’t slow down then something’s gotta’ give.

Yet annoying Greenpeace dissidents, though so fractious and so dissonant, will only protest where they are protected. They will not go to Riyadh, which is really rather sad, as the Arabs do not like the disaffected. And if you want to vex a Saudi, go and shout at them, be rowdy, they will punish you uniquely – bring a bandage. Because their laws are very brutal, and your protestations futile You may return sans hand and foot, or proud appendage.

But a Greenpeace person hopping after disciplinary chopping Is not half the schadenfreude that we’d wish for, on a B-List entertainer, ecological complainer, like a Redford, Cuddy, Hannah, Young or more. While their attitudes are painful and their arrogance disdainful to the people that they say they’re trying to work for. They’ll depart in private jets full of joy with no regrets; and the locals? They’re in the same state as before.

What I’d really like to see, (this is mean, but it’s just me), Is to make more use of Hollywood B-listers. As their careers begin to plummet from their self-perceiving summit, we should lock them all away lest they bestir back to their self-deceiving attitudes and environmental platitudes; conversational yet conservational fools. Keep them stored until they die, pick them up from where they lie, Then cremate them all as useful fossil fuels.

Pictures: The cabin of Robert Service in Dawson, Yukon and “The Bard of the Yukon”, Robert W. Service, circa 1905.


Kevin has been writing for YMM since the first issue. Many of his articles have been pseudonymous, hidden behind the tags Keyano writer or YMM staff. Kevin has been a columnist for many years, working for some of the leading newspapers of the world, including the New York Times and the Devon Dispatch.