David Suzuki Talks about His Father’s Influence

To celebrate Father’s Day, we’ve pulled together an excerpt from Letters to My Grandchildren, where David Suzuki speaks passionately and personally about his relationship with his father, his influence, and how his father helped foster David’s interest in the environment.

I would tease Dad by calling him a “mutant,” since he was so different from the obedient child he was supposed to be. I was glad he was a mutant.

I owe a lot to my father for bringing me up with a strong sense that I must speak out and act on my beliefs. He warned me that if I wanted everyone to like me, I wouldn’t stand for anything because there would always be people who disagreed with me. He had contempt for people who wouldn’t speak up because they were afraid of the repercussions.

Dad was a most unusual man. I loved to listen to him tell stories of his childhood. He was the oldest child in a family of seven children and thus was expected to be the role model for his younger siblings. As with most immigrants, making money and having financial security were his parents’ driving principles. But Dad was a dreamer. He told me that when he was a boy, he found he could catch sticklebacks in a small net. I guess it was fun, so he kept catching more and more and stuffing them into a bottle. To his surprise, they all died. That was the first time he realized that fish needed enough water to live.

He also told me how he would watch wasps collecting balls of mud to make their nests. “You know, David,” he said, “I saw there was some kind of parasite on them that looked like a tiny lobster.” At the time, I was a professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), so I nodded politely and patronizingly. Later I discovered that indeed there are parasites of insects that do look like little crustaceans.

When Dad was five, his mother took him to Japan, intending to leave him there to be educated as a Japanese. He didn’t want to stay there, so he wouldn’t let her out of his sight. When she disappeared, he would start howling. His grandparents didn’t want this crybaby and made her take him back to Canada. But while he was in Japan, he watched how people processed nori (seaweed) by chopping the seaweed into small pieces, making those pieces into a slurry, and then passing a screen through the slurry so that the seaweed could be picked up in a thin sheet. He had amazing powers of observation and memory. He would also lie on the ground and actually watch bamboo shoots grow.

His father was a boatbuilder, and one time he took Dad on a boat to Gambier Island, in Howe Sound, not far from Vancouver. While my grandfather was doing business, Dad could play. Even though he was a boy, Dad was fascinated by the miniature arbutus trees with smooth red bark growing on rock like bonsai. So he carefully dug them out and filled a bucket with them to take home and plant. When his dad came down to the boat, he threw away the bucket full of plants without even asking what they were for. When Dad told me this, I could see it still hurt him that his father thought what he did was a waste of time.

On weekends, when we would go to my grandparents’ place, I often heard my grandfather chastising my father for “wasting time” by going camping or fishing instead of working and making money. I appreciated that Dad had not lived up to his father’s wish that he be a role model for his younger siblings. I would tease Dad by calling him a “mutant,” since he was so different from the obedient child he was supposed to be. I was glad he was a mutant.

He was naturally curious and would always get people to talk about themselves. Since we all love to talk about ourselves, they would think he was a terrific guy. And he was. But Dad had his shortcomings. He was very generous and would give anything if a person was interested—fishing gear, fish, vegetables, whatever—even though we were never wealthy, and I often felt he did it for show.

In hindsight, I realize his generosity established a network of people who were often just as generous in return. This is what makes the potlatch such a powerful cohesive force among west coast First Nations. But when Dad gave a person something but was not thanked or acknowledged fully, Dad never forgot and always held it against that person—a bad trait that I inherited. Still, I admire Dad’s generosity and try to emulate it in sharing my good fortune. It’s why Nana and I have tried to involve you all in gathering food for Christmas hampers that we deliver to the Salvation Army. We feel it’s important for you to know how fortunate you are and that the joy of Christmas is as much in sharing as it is in receiving.

You can purchase Letters to My Grandchildren from:
Amazon / Chapters-Indigo / Direct from Publisher / Find a Local Bookstore

Ebook also available:

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