Columnist Rob Brown remembers his friend, Dionys deLeeuw

O come, sweet Sleep, come or I die for ever;

Come ere my last sleep comes, or come never.

-John Dowland (First Book of Airs.1597)

Rain had fallen in the valley bottom all night. It was not the kind that makes rivers roar. Yet the river was roaring over the boulders whose backs were baking in the sun the day before.

The transformation was welcome. The interstices between the larger rocks were now pools. I swung my fly through them. The first pocket yielded nothing. In the second, the line stopped. I tightened. What I thought was a rock turned into a fish – a handsome cutthroat trout that filled my landing net. That trout was all the rock garden yielded, but it was enough.

Below that, the river split. The salmon were everywhere, digging and dying. I called the dog. We moved on. The sun broke just before we reached the Skeena. I shed my rain jacket and vest, gave Oona her snack, took out my lunch and sat down on a large rock. As I opened my thermos bottle, I noticed a caterpillar slinking across a flat stone. It was a ginger hue, furry with long transparent hairs extending from most of its segmented body, and four upright tufts of black hair sticking out of its third, fifth, eighth, and tenth segments. It was beautiful in that grotesque way insects often are.

I thought of Dionys. Dionys deLeeuw has been my go-to guy when it comes to caterpillars and so many other things. When Marion Kozier wondered about the giant green caterpillars set on devouring her tomatoes, I called Dionys.

Do they have seven v-shaped lateral markings, five spots on their abdomen, and a horn on their back end? He asked.

Yes, I said.

Ah, he said, I know them well. That’s the five spotted hawkmoth, also known as the tomato hornworm. He then proceeded to tell me all about its life history, with that animated combination of boyish enthusiasm, awe, and wonder that came over him when spoke about the many things he loved, fascinated him, all of which he invariably knew a lot about. Dionys’ love of living was such that he burrowed into experiences. Thankfully, he had a wonderful talent of conveying them in a way that left images glowing in your brain.

That caterpillar reminded me that a lot of things had been reminding me of Dionys recently. The cutthroat that I’d released earlier had, as had the schools of pinks we’d just passed. Dionys knew so much about fish in general and cutthroat in particular. He spent much of his boyhood fishing the Cowichan River near Duncan. He did his Masters degree on the curious habit aquatic insects have of unhooking themselves from stream bottoms and drifting, exposed and vulnerable, then spent a significant chunk of his career as a fisheries biologist working on Haida Gwaii where he did a lot of important work with the sea run cutthroat trout and steelhead.

I looked up toward Kitselas Canyon then across at one of those cottonwood-dominated Skeena islands that Dionys captured so beautifully with his brush. I thought of the time I’d remembered Karen’s birthday on its eve. Frantic, I rushed around the corner to the deLeeuws’ and asked Dionys if he had a painting for sale.

No, he said, putting away some dinner plates, but I’ll make you one. As I watched, fascinated, he sat down at his easel and deftly proceeded to manipulate water and colour until it turned into a side channel of the Skeena complete with long cottonwood reflexions and a glow of light at its far end. The operation took him ten minutes.

Two days earlier Oona and I came across the unmistakeable imprint of a small grizzly in the soft dark mud next to Singlehurst Creek. It too reminded me of Dionys who, troubled by a bias in the fish and wildlife branch of the Ministry of Environment that tended to make the institution err on the side of sportsmen, as well as the plight of grizzly in this province, made a detailed study of moral philosophy and grizzly bear management in B.C.,  then wrote a number of papers on the subject of bear management. Despite the fact that he used his own paper, ink, word processor, and his own time, when he distributed his work to his colleagues for criticism, the papers were seized, and some nasty senior bureaucrats who were obviously in the thrall of trophy hunters, attempted to have him fired. Dionys survived the attack and recent studies have substantiated his findings.

On my way home from the river, the guitar music of Francisco Tarrega was on my CD player. The music of Tarrega was Dionys’ favourite. He played much of it beautifully. We talked about the classical guitar repertoire often. It was a joy to play duets with him.

The next day Mary phoned to tell us that Dionys had succumbed to the cancer that had been gnawing at his bones for the last two years. As an only child, I expected to be spared the loss of a sibling, but it feels for all the world that I’ve just lost my older brother.


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