Monday, March 30, 2015

"Mainstreaming" Falconry?

Of course, the biggest thing is Helen in Vogue and pieces on her in the New Yorker and interviews with her on NPR. The FUNNIEST was the New York Review of Books using her to advertise their edition of T. H. White's The Goshawk ("the book that inspired Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk!"-- see it a few posts below). Not for nothing did Matt Mullenix suggest that we have stickers to put on certain of our books saying "This book features FALCONRY, the sport featured in Helen Macdonald's H is for hawk."

But falconry may already be getting into our collective unconscious. There was a car commercial during the winter that showed a guy flying a magnificent Ferrug. And now there's this:
Maybe it IS a "River Runs Through It" moment...

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Caroline Gordon

The minor great (is that contradictory?) southern writers are always being revived, sometimes by friends of mine; their agrarian roots make them more appealing to me than old Yankees generally. A person descended from  Alpine peasants and mercenary Celtic soldiers can remember misty maritime coasts with nostalgia, but be impatient with the old cultural hegemony of Puritans; what Betsy Huntington, product of rural squires up the Connecticut River, called "that Boston commercial money."

So an article pops up in the Catholic mag First Things celebrating Alan Tate. Well, OK, he did some good stuff (he was alleged to be...difficult, too-- if I weren't sober I'd be tempted to say "a dick"), but, OK.

But does anybody outside of academia read Tate? Whereas his wife...

She is not all that popular in feminist circles--as a Southerner and a Catholic convert, she is already odd. But her classic work, Aleck Maury, Sportsman is the tale of a "worthless" Classics prof who wastes his entire life hunting and fishing, while knowing he is doing something as important as anyone engaged in a so- called useful profession. NOBODY in the academy but oddballs like my friend Gerry gets that.

Maury is good enough to have a place as one of the hundred books in my Book of Books, A Sportsman's Library. But even I can't say anything as wild as Tom McGuane did back in the interesting book Rediscoveries, more than a decade back (I don't own a copy, just a xerox of the essay-- Google it!) He said: "... there are sections of this book which seem to me to have been dictated by God."

Is it the best sporting novel ever? Naah-- only in the top ten. But the stand- alone story about Maury, "The last day in the field", available in Old Red and other Stories, may just be the best story- with- bird- shooting ever; its most likely runners- up are McGuane's "Flight", and any of, say, five of Turgenev's reminisces...

And I have a treat. Caroline Gordon was a great friend of Father Anderson Bakewell SJ, scientist, hunter, explorer, drinker and teller of tales, and my Explorers Club patron. I didn't get the .416 Rigby when he died, but i got all the Gordon books, and their correspondence. I had forgotten that he had a Mannlicher Schoenauer, my own favorite rifle, as it was overshadowed by his Rigby .416 "Rifle for heavy Game" and his two Italian over and under rifles, but you see it mentioned here.

Letter below, cut for relevance; inscription in Old Red;  and Andy with his last feral hog (maybe HIS Last Day in the Field), using a Zoli over and under 8 X 57 JRS and custom loads with Barnes X ("my X- rated") bullets.

Watches and London Bests

If you read newspapers or magazines with "good" demographics, you might be bemused or puzzled by the totally irrational number of advertisements for wristwatches. Odder still, NONE give you any prices, perhaps because the sticker shock will be unbelievable if you are not already informed. Suffice to say simply-- five figures, getting to six pretty fast...

 In the seventies, any shooter who really wanted one might buy a second- hand London Best. A two or three thousand dollar fee was a matter of saving up. I was there, enthusiastically buying up many good guns from many countries, oblivious of what was lurking in the gun racks on a level just above what we bought. Before her death in'86, Betsy Huntington was known to mutter that if we had just bought a Purdey and a Boss in '75 we would have saved a hell of a lot of money. Which is true- but we would not have gotten an education...

London Bests are made by hand, still, the way they were in a pre- electronic and even in a barely industrial civilization; more like the way my blacksmithed snaplock Mongol muzzleloader carbine (younger than I am) was. They don't have to be; a few manufacturers, notably Italy's Fabbri and, allegedly at times London's H & H,  do all but the last hand-fitting by using precise and very expensive machines. But they lose the mystique thereby, the mystique that says all work must be by hand or the gun is not "custom" - frankly, nonsense.
The suspicions of this nature's own conservative is that this is decadent late capitalism, where value is so divorced from meaning that all is nothing but signifiers and you need a scorecard to tell the players, and a crib sheet before you buy ANYTHING.

I figured this out a while ago, using knowledge to buy Best quality shotguns with slightly obscure names. Meanwhile Libby and I watched the watch phenomenon take off, especially in the weekend Wall Street Journal. So it is only fitting that a writer there finally gave me a clue to what was happening. On  March 12,  Michael Malone wrote about why the high- tech iWatch got such a lukewarm response:

 "...these products were prodigies of technological innovation. But their makers -- some of the smartest businessmen ever -- soon discovered that the watch business is not first about technology, but rather about exquisite design, cultural prestige and enduring value... to suggest, as Apple has, that today's owners will pass their watches down to their grandchildren as cherished family heirlooms is absurd. People pass down Rolexes and Patek Philippes precisely because they aren't subject to Moore's law; their hardware won't be obsolete in three years because it has been obsolete for a hundred."

The last patents applicable to London Bests were in the 1870's-- the Purdey- Beesley self opener, without my looking it up, was about 1874. I rest my case.

If you inherit one, keep it. If you don't, there are ways to shoot a Best without breaking the bank, by studying. I never had much more than a pot to piss in, and I have!

Below: Boss-- new cost over $100, 000; below, Frederic Scott ca. 1910, once mine, now Gerry's-- at least 99% as good, but approximately 3% of the cost-- still sound and shootable at 100.

Friday, March 27, 2015


"Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain the potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them."

Milton, Aeropagitica (HT Teddy Moritz)

Wanderers and Nomads

I keep coming back to the old Juluka song "Digging for some words" because of its uncanny evocation of the "wanderers and nomads" who erupt from time to time to menace and destroy the accumulated wisdom of more settled societies. They have come to the gates again and again, bearing different or no ideologies but finally, a lust for destruction. "They've locusts in their scabbards, they've deserts in their eyes." Yes. Some would say  this cinematic evocation of the destroyers, from David Lambkin's overlooked The Hanging Tree, is too romantic. Why do disaffected youth stream toward the Desert Plague if not for the romance of death? The raiders here are Somali Shifta pouring into a paleontological dig, but Wanderers and Nomads are always in the wings.

"They came down on us at dawn like a pack of wild dogs.
"There was no warning. The first I knew of the attack was the drumming of horses’ hooves that rose up from the ground…

"I ran out of my tent in a panic, still half asleep and looked to the east. There I saw a strange sight, half biblical, half the echo of an ancient dream of violence and pillage, all as if in slow motion.

"Pouring down on us from all sides out of a stony desert hills came a horde of Somali shifta. Some were mounted on camels, bridles chased with silver. Others rode wide-eyed Arab stallions, wet with sweat, their bits thick with foam. Others drove Land Cruisers, recoilless rifles mounted in the rear, heavy sandbagged Russian machine guns biting the air with a slow measured thudding.

"They seemed resurrected from all the ages of man. A nightmare dredged from the

 deepest levels of the spirit. There were footsoldiers wielding curved Ottoman swords with

 jeweled hilts that caught the low sun. Flowing robes and shining armour; rag-tag bits and

pieces of khaki and tattered flak-jackets, half-naked warriors with matted hair and

warpaint. A horseman wearing a suit of chain-mail shone godlike in the low sun.

Everywhere there were weapons: silver-inlaid jezails that coughed black-powder smoke,

old Lee-Enfield three-oh-threes, AK-47s, scimitars, stone clubs, spears bound about with

tufted fur, turbans, bronze helmets, braided locks of hair, wild eyes and pounding feet.

And in the halo of the morning sunlight I could almost hear a hymn: this was more

ancient than love, more trenchant than sex. There was a lascivious delight, almost

palpable, in the air. A lust for decreation and decay, all counterpointed by the clattering

 rattle of automatic rifle fire and the thump of exploding grenades."

Nostalgic Found Photo

Easy days-- Lily, Holland and Holland 16, bunny:

Gil's Turkey

My friend Gil Stacy is a naturalist- hunter, reader, game cook, and fine gun addict who lives in Georgia and hunts everything with zest and style. While like me not... quite a collector, he has things like a Fox or two, an uncommon ten magnum Ithaca, English boxlocks. He even likes FRENCH guns, putting himself into a very small minority with me. His current snipe gun-- he HAS a snipe gun, and I swear I will get out there to hunt snipe, and maybe Woodcock, before I die,  partially because he does, is a Manufrance Robust 16 bore.

I know from these and other things that he is a man of taste and necessary obsessions, and one who would never cook either of those incredible birds for a half hour in the oven. I put mine in a very hot one for no more than ten minutes after setting them up, with or without "trail"-- I know some otherwise sensible folks who accept all our other traditional food madness, but won't go that last inch, so if we have a good harvest we cook them with AND without, though If I am the cook I will insist on leaving the heads on, just because...

 Guy Valdene once saw one of those recipes that get published in newspapers and local hunters' cookbooks, the ones where you get Jello recipes and the like, that recommended breading and deep-frying woodcock and then cooking them in two cans of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup for hours. His furious and correct response was : "As this negates the very motive for killing the birds in the first place, why not take it a step further and poach the woodcock overnight in equal parts of catsup, pabulum, and Pepto-Bismol?"

But I digress (!) I wanted to put up Gil's first gobbler of the year, with one of his highly modified 1- shot .410s, with which he has made more than a few immediate kills (custom chokes, custom loads, knowledge of the terrain, calling ability, and the patience to wait until they get close-- don't try it unless you have all those factors).
Gobbler, Turkish Yildiz folding .410, and a caller made from a  turtle shell. We will have more to say about that, as Gil has just sent me a package of the "ingredients"... (WE? sorry-- I am neither a king nor Elmer Keith. "I"!)

Where Did Everyone Go?

It's not unusual for us to see raptors buzzing the deck with a resultant mad scramble of birds on the feeders heading to cover. We don't usually get to see the hawk or falcon, just the scattering prey. I don't know much about the raptors' success rate, but there is currently a pile of feathers on the ground just east of the deck that is evidence of the murder of a Eurasian Collared Dove.

But we've never seen one land to look around like this Sharp-shinned Hawk did last month. Maybe just casing the joint.

Paradigm Shift!

It's happening  NOW. Tim Gallagher just sent me this image from a comics website: feathered tyrannosaurid attacking Roman legionnaires!

More Helen Rockstar

New York Review of Books Press is now using the H is for Hawk connection in ads for its edition of The Goshawk.

Helen sent us the schedule for her April American book tour. As she told us, it's rather coastal. If she's going to be near you, go see her.

4/7 Tuesday            Boston                          Harvard Bookstore
4/8 Wednesday    New York                      Greenlight Bookstore
4/10 Friday           Manchester Center, VT    Northshire Bookstore
4/11 Saturday       Saratoga Springs, NY     Northshire Bookstore
4/12 Sunday         Rhinebeck, NY               Oblong Bookstore
4/14 Tuesday       San Francisco                Rakestraw Books (lunch)
4/14 Tuesday       San Francisco                Green Apple (7 PM)
4/15 Wednesday  Point Reyes, CA            Point Reyes Books

4/16 Thursday       Seattle                          Third Place Books

Thursday, March 26, 2015


...The kind of covers you may buy a book to get.

Despite my limited space I have a few. One book below was bought for its cover and illos, the Ibex story; one excellent series, published by Putnam's in Boston in the  early years of the last century, is made up of good natural history books, but I started collecting them only after I bought three separately, and realized that the volumes I nostalgically remembered from my childhood days at the Ames Free Library in Easton, Mass. all had gilt images embossed on their covers.

As you can easily see, they were not limited to fancy or small press books-- popular subjects like big game hunting, children's books, light natural history, and fishing all were decorated with gilt- embosssed figures.  Look at Abel Chapman's Savage Sudan, which I bought for fifty cents in Magdalena (go to abeBooks for more realistic prices), which has a golden warthog; The Tribes on my Frontier, "EHA's" accounts of birds and beasts who were human commensals in Colonial India, and doubtless still are today (those little things are what Kipling called "muskrats" in "Rikki Tikki Tavi", a kind of smelly house shrew), and the Ibex in a slightly sub- Seton but beautifully illustrated biography of that animal. The Rod in India, which I got from the late Datus Proper in Bozeman and which contains one of my favorite chapter titles anywhere, the nearly self- parodic "Circumventing the Mahseer", also has one of my favorite cover emblems, said mahseer hanging from a tree.

The second edition of Patterson's Man Eaters of Tsavo has a splendid but unexplained sabertooth; John Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard and the keeper of the "Treasure House" museum in Kim, has a rather more understandable elephant.
Sometimes the bindings, if accurate, convey coded info-- the open double gun from Bogardus shows a breechloader, so it cannot have been published much earlier than 1875; some have more interesting images on their spines than on their covers; sometimes the covers have no figure, merely border designs,  but are still attractive; sometimes the images are more dramatic or cluttered than would be thought seemly today. Look at that smoke coming out of Roosevelt's gun, or the feathers drifting down after the Peregrine's strike on Michell's Art and Practice of Hawking. Though none are as startling as the PAPER dust jacket of  my copy of The Peregrine's Saga.  Despite Williamson's Fascist politics, I think its cheerful ferocity owes more to the fact that the artist, Tunnicliffe, watched plenty of Peregrines!

 And my favorite? Though the English often made better and definitely did more, the best I know is this buck, for American Henry van Dyke's Still Hunting, handsome and virtually 3- D.

New Addition

Connie and I had been threatening to get back into the horse business for some time. Recently we bought a three year-old Warmblood/Holsteiner mare. Above you can see a girl and her horse.

Her official name is South Beach GES, but we've given her the barn name of Sophie. Buckskin Warmbloods are not common. She is a big girl at 16.4 hands, and as Warmbloods are late bloomers she is still growing.

Sophie is currently in California where our daughter Lauren has her in training. Here you can see Lauren taking Sophie over a jump. Sophie will eventually come here once we get facilities in shape for her. She'll probably be ready to start competing in some horse shows this fall.

In other important equestrian news, granddaughter Bella got another blue ribbon in a lead-line class at the big horse show in Thermal, California.

Residues and Residues

It has become increasingly common in archaeology to test the working edges of excavated artifacts for the presence of blood or protein residue. In some cases we can determine the species of animal was impaled or cut by the tool. Several years ago I posted about the Mahaffy Cache, a cache of Clovis tools discovered by a landscaping project in near-by Boulder. Analysis of blood residue from some of the tools showed they had been used on Pleistocene camels and horses. I recently saw a paper presented at the Colorado Council of Professional Archaeologists annual meeting, where projectile points excavated from a high-altitude site in western Colorado proved to have protein residue from bighorn sheep.

Good archaeologists don't wash or handle excavated tools anymore.

I recently came across this article about a research program at Cambridge University to identify another sort of residue on projectile points - poison residue. The use of poison arrows for example is well known from history and ethnology, but it doesn't appear that anyone has systematically looked for it on artifacts. Dr. Valentina Borgia of Cambridge is working with forensic chemists to come up with techniques to identify poison residue on artifacts. The ancient Chinese crossbow bolts pictured above are involved with her testing program.


Homo erectus Shell Engraving

Earlier in the week in that post on Neanderthal jewelry I indulged myself in a little rant on how important discoveries can be made while reanalyzing collections from old excavations. I'd forgotten another recent example.

The Trinil site on the island of Java in Indonesia, was excavated in the early 1890s by Eugene Dubois. The site is best known in world archaeology as the discovery site of the first Homo erectus skeletal remains. The collection from this excavation resides at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. When Dubois was working, Java was part of the Dutch East Indies.

A marine biologist recently decided to re-examine the mussel shell in the collection due to his interest in an extinct species represented there known as Pseudodon vondembuschiansus trinilinsis. While photographing some specimens he noticed what appear to be zig-zag patterns that had been scratched on the exterior of one of the shells. You may need to click on the photo above and enlarge it to see the scratches clearly.

In addition, one shell had a retouched edge that indicated its use as a tool. A number of shells showed holes gouged in them near where the muscle attachment was located to pry the shells open.

Dating of sediment on the shells places them between 540, 000 and 430, 000 years old. Analysis shows they come from the same stratum that contained the Homo erectus remains.  This makes one shell the only known example of artistic expression by Homo erectus and the other the oldest known shell tool.

They sat on the museum shelves for nearly 120 years, waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


No one has ever explained this close evolutionary convergence to me; even Jonathan Kingdon thought they looked less alike than they do.

Nearctic Meadow "lark": an icterid ((New Word blackbird), common here and a lovely singer; and African Longclaw, also a bird of savannahs. But HOW? I am sure we will someday figure it out, but I don't have a clue...

The images alternate, starting with a longclaw. And no, they are NOT related- cats and dogs...