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Monday October 8, 2012

Storyteller was a citizen of nature

Beloved novelist and journalist dedicated his life's work to his love for outdoors, ornithology

Special to The Globe and Mail

When Fred Bodsworth penned Last of the Curlews, his aim was to create a cautionary tale about the effects of mankind's careless destruction of the natural world. The book became an enduring young adult classic and since its publication in 1955, it has sold more than three million copies worldwide and has never been out of print.

Bodsworth's unsentimental but haunting account of the life cycle of the last pair of Eskimo curlew birds is as relevant to today's generation of young readers as it was to the Cold War generation. The book was made into a one-hour animated movie for television and became the first ABC Afterschool Special in 1972. The film won an Emmy for children's broadcasting.

The beloved Canadian author, naturalist, birder and journalist, died peacefully in his sleep in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 15, just shy of his 94th birthday.

Charles Frederick Bodsworth was one of two children born to Arthur and Viola Bodsworth in Port Burwell, Ont. on Oct. 11, 1918. Bodsworth always credited his deep and abiding connection with nature to the fortuitous place of his birth. Port Burwell sits on one of the busiest migratory routes in North America. Each fall and spring, thousands of species of birds and butterflies pass through Elgin County.

Bodsworth completed his elementary and secondary schooling in Port Burwell, but there was no money to send the promising young student to university. He went to work for several local papers as a peripatetic journalist during the Great Depression. When the Second World War started, he tried to enlist but was deemed unfit for duty because of a genetic condition. After stints with the London Free Press and the St. Thomas Times, he moved to Toronto in 1943 as a full-time reporter for the Toronto Star and the Star Weekly.

Bodsworth would often return to the Port Burwell area on bird hikes and on one of these hikes he met Margaret Banner. They married in 1944 and together they bought a house in Toronto's east end. The couple had three children: Barbara, Nancy and Neville.

By 1947, he was a staff writer and editor at Maclean's magazine, and in the early 1950s, the struggling young writer was working on what would become his most successful book.

In a 1983 interview with The Globe and Mail, Bodsworth explained the genesis of his novel Last of the Curlews.

"It was a report of two Eskimo Curlews on Galveston Bay in Texas that inspired me. What if they were the last pair on Earth? A great short-story idea."

The demise of the Eskimo curlew had often been compared with the extinction of the passenger pigeon. In the 1800s, both species were commercially hunted for their meat. The carnage was appalling and irreversible. The last authentic sighting of an Eskimo curlew in Canada was in 1963, so Bodsworth's book anticipated the extinction of this species by almost 10 years.

When Reader's Digest selected the book for its publication, the success of the novel was assured. By 1955, he was able to quit his job at Maclean's to write full time. Several more books followed:The Strange One (1959), The Atonement of Ashley Morden in 1964 (a book about the power of Christian redemption) and in 1967, The Sparrow's Fall.

His daughter Nancy remembers how hard-working her father was.

"Dad was a night owl and would work until three in the morning. Neighbours coming back from a night out would always see his light burning in the upstairs window." But summer holidays consisted of hiking, canoeing and camping trips in Algonquin Park and visits to the Royal Ontario Museum.

A lifelong learner, Bodsworth was an amateur scientist, but his keen observations in the field and his extensive knowledge of bird life earned him the respect of peers and scientific organizations alike.

Bodsworth was a long-serving member of the Brodie Club, a select group of naturalists and scientists who would meet in Toronto to pool information and thus enlarge on what was currently known about natural history. He was also a member of the Toronto Ornithological Club and the Ontario Field Ornithologists. During the 1960s, he was a sought-after leader of worldwide ornithology tours and a contributor to several important anthologies. From 1964 to 1967, he was president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature).

In 2003, Bodsworth was awarded the Matt Cohen award for lifetime achievement in writing.

He had his own ideas of what he hoped readers would learn from his books.

"Out of the blending of human and animal stories comes the theme that I hope is inherent in all my books: that man is an inescapable part of all nature, that its welfare is his welfare, that to survive, he cannot continue acting and regarding himself as a spectator looking on from somewhere outside."

Charles Frederick Bodsworth was predeceased by his wife Margaret. He leaves his children, Barbara, Nancy and Neville, and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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