Dust in the Desert

I listened to this piece on NPR this morning while driving in to work. It says we have a dust problem in arid areas of the western states because the biologically produced crusts on the soils there are being disturbed. Off-road vehicles and cattle-ranchers are blamed, “…dust storms are the result of tires and hooves.” The problem will get worse because we are heading into a drought period.

I would love to hear other people’s opinions on this but I was struck by the lack of historical perspective in the piece. Are there more cattle on the range today than there were megafauna on the range earlier in the Holocene? If these folks are concerned about dust now, can you imagine how they would have felt 10,000 years ago. Vast areas of the west are covered with loess deposits – wind deposited silt carried from the margins of retreating continental ice sheets – in some cases 100 ft thick. Can you imagine what those dust storms must have been like?

And there’s a typo as well – it’s the Mancos Shale. Do I sound cranky this morning?

A Contract Written in Blood

That used to be a figure of speech, but the LA Times tells us of a real one that is the center of a lawsuit in Orange County. It’s an IOU for $170,000 written in blood on a cocktail napkin. The dead-tree edition has a picture of it – sorry they didn’t post it on line.

Reading Leigh Fermor

I’m glad Steve posted on Patrick Leigh Fermor who he and Robert D. Kaplan introduced me to recently. Kaplan tells of a memorable luncheon he had with Sir PLF at the conclusion of his excellent book Mediterranean Winter. After reading “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” he is rapidly becoming one of my favorites, too.

In a burst of enthusiasm after reading the Lane profile, I ordered several more of Leigh Fermor’s books. The first to come, which I read over the weekend, was Three Letters from the Andes. By most accounts it is his worst book, though I found it entertaining. It tells the story of a trip he made to Peru in 1971 accompanying some friends who were expert climbers on their quest to scale a couple of Andean peaks. PLF is no climber and says his duties were to stay in base camp and “tend the primus stove.”

With the climbing portion of their trip done, PLF and his friends take a trip to Lake Titicaca. While there, they visit the Uru, a group of lake-dwelling Indians. The Uru live on acre-sized artificial islands that they make of woven reeds and straw that are anchored in shallow parts of the lake. PLF is particularly intrigued by the Uru, as one of his guidebooks says that “they claim to be subhuman.” Leigh Fermor immediately states, “This unique boast gains in substance when one meets them.”

PLF’s dry wit and pyrotechnic prose are on display as he describes Uru living conditions and objets d’art they offer for sale.

“Here the happy analphabetics live hugger-mugger among the waving reeds on an acrid and waterlogged humus of trodden straw and mud and fish-scales and droppings, rather like colonies of gannets. In exchange for boxes of matches and bread-rolls they offered us artless and unpretentious embroideries: rags of canvas on which pink, crimson and green golliwogs with their arms projecting like twigs had been unambitiously stitched in thick wool, as though by three-year-old Miros. I wish I’d bought one.”

“Particular Spaces”

Pluvialis has just posted a nothing less than brilliant piece that starts at the Oxford animal labs, roams through various “AR ” issue such as the invisibilty of slaughter and the “squeam” factor, and ends with a ringing phone. Her notion of the different spaces that our culture is beginning to make for animals and humans gets to the essence of everything I have been trying to say on the subject for months. Make sure you read the comments too.

Pluvialis needs to do a book of essays.

Another Hero..

.. of mine, anyway, is my friend Bill Wise. He is a writer, sportsman, hunter, and shooter, and a former surfer. He has flown in gliders, dived, and saied with Hobie Alter. He has shot more than a few whitetails,and he has drunk beer and eaten green chile at the famous Owl Bar in San Antonio New Mexico. He has driven to visit me in Maine and New Mexico. He has done all of this but surf since a surfing accident on August 10,1965, left him a quadruplegic with a bit of use of his arms. That was 41 years ago. And now, as you can see above, he has taken up shooting clays again.

Here are a couple of pics of his New Mexico visit back in ’87. We had told him years before about the “Honey Wagon” and when he saw it he ran it down in his wheelchair for a pic.

Yes, it does say “Your Shit is my Bread and Butter”.

In the Owl. I have aged worse than he, I fear:


Prairie Mary found this nice paragraph in Cook’s Illustrated:

“Home is an overused term but still a powerful idea….The concept of home even applies to horses. In Argentina, gauchos refer to the region where a horse is born as the querencia. (Querer means “to love.”) In the days before fences, a horse would always try to return to its querencia because it was home, the place a horse knew by the quality of light in the early morning, the taste of the grass, and the look of the hills — all things that a horse never forgets.”


The other New Yorker profile is on the man who, if my arm were twisted, I might claim as my favorite writer of the 20th century. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s life reads like slightly improbable fiction. In his teens he walked from Holland to Istanbul, eventually reulting in two of the best travel books ever written, A Time of Gifts and my personal favorite of all his works, Between the Woods and the Water. In WW II, he lived in caves with the Cretan partisans for several years and captured a German general.(They would quote Horatian odes to each other in Latin). He then traveled with his wife Joan through the Caribbean and eventually settled in Greece, where he built the house where he lives today, occasionally generating one of his perfect books, masterpieces of erudition, wit, adventure and elegance. At 91, if a pic Reid sent me is good, he looks not much older than I do! (Actually, he is only 89 in the photo).

The New Yorker piece, by Anthony Lane, is perfect. Lane knows and understands the old pirate, and is– properly I think– a bit in awe. He is a perfect match– what other New Yorker writer would say this?(Of one of PLF’s Greek friends):

“Psychoundakis celebrated by going outside and firing a German rifle which he had purloined a half century before. That is my idea of a book launch”.

Another good piece on Leigh- Fermor can be found here.

And for Lane, see also his review of the Da Vinci code– same issue as Meinertzhagen– which was so funny I almost choked on the ice in my drink. “A dead Frenchman is found laid out on the floor of the Louvre. His final act was to carve a number of bloody markings in his own flesh, indicating, to the expert eye, that he was preparing to roll in fresh herbs and sear himself in olive oil for three minutes on each side”. The female lead is “a dab hand at reversing down Paris streets in a car the size of a pissoir”. And: “We get a flashback to the council in question, and I must say, though I have recited the Nicene Creed throughout my adult life, I never realized that it was originally formulated in the middle of a Beastie Boys concert”.

Heroes and Villains

I let my sub lapse for two weeks and the New Yorker publishes articles on two of the most fascinating characters of the 20th century– Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

I’ll take “M” first. As an excellent bio by Mark Cocker has it, he was a “soldier, scientist, and spy”. For some reason he is little known today despite his flamboyance. A good movie features a trick he played on the Turks in WW I, when he allowed a cache of deceptive documents to be stolen, but I can’t remember its name correctly! ( I keep coming up with “The Light Horse” but it’s wrong– can anyone help?)

He was a complex character who discovered one of the last large mammals (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni, the African giant forest hog), fought in wars large and small, collected hundreds of birds, intrigued in public and private life, and wrote four fascinating books based on his diaries as well as several books of ornithology. The last are splendidly- illustrated as well, sometimes eccentric in opinion, and like the diaries bring ridiculous prices today .I am lucky enough to have acquired two ornithologies and two diaries long ago. Maybe the current controversies will convince someone to re- publish at least the diaries.

The New Yorker article concentrates on the indubitable fact that he stole many of his bird study skins, a practice that has played hell with correctly establishing the ranges of many bird species in the Indian subcontinent. The author, John Seabrook, interviewed Pamela Rasmussen, co- author of the magisterial new Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, who was involved in the nightmarish task of having to sort out which specimens were “good” and which ones stolen or hoaxed. Seabrook also accuses M of having murdered his second wife, a theory apparently espoused by the guy who made the movie “Death Wish”, who is writing a book about it.

Two friends wrote for my opinion, knowing that I am a bit of an amateur historian of Meinertzhagen and other adventurer- scholars. The following is mostly composed of my replies to them. The first part was written before I saw the article.

“As to hoaxing: Meinertzhagen did some, but most of it seemed to be in the nature of pranks, not self – aggrandizement. He had a very strange and dark and superior sense of humor, as can be ascertained by even a casual reading of any of his diaries (I have most of them, picked up thank God years ago before they became expensive).

“Chas says he is accused in the article of shooting his second wife, VERY doubtful. To me it looks like she killed herself and they tried to say it was an accident. I have not seen the article but if he shot a wife I’d think it would have been his first who he hated for years rather than his second whom he was devoted to!

“His enemies were legion even before PC. He was a Zionist when the Brit Foreign Office was Arabist (still is) and a champion of Israel who was called “The Jew” behind his back. He liked war. He — actually I think humorously– treated the great Indian ornithologist Salim Ali like a “wog” (Ali, a sane man who considered M. a friend, found it funnier than not in his autobiography). When he was sent to Germany by Churchill to see if he could get any Jews out, he was ushered into the presence of Hitler, whom everybody “heiled”. Meinertzhagen clicked his heels, saluted, and snapped “Heil Meinertzhagen!” When first introduced to T E Lawrence, who became a friend– Lawrence was wearing spotless Bedouin robes– he was alleged to have asked “Whose little dancing- girl are you?” (His own diary says he only asked “Boy or girl?)

“He was a spy and a warrior. In Seven Pillars Lawrence wrote of him: “He was logical, an idealist of the deepest and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent, laughing, masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) in some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob- kerri”.

“Not a New Yorker kind of guy..

“One more. In his eighties he was seated next to a woman who did not approve of shooting. “Colonel Meinertzhagen, I suppose you are still shooting those poor little birds– boom, boom!”

“He fixed her with a steely eye. “No, madam. Boom.” “

Now, post- reading:

“Since then I have read the NYRKR thing and think I could have done a better job (!) For one thing the guy has no context for Victorian ornithology. He has not done his homework, either. I doubt he has read rather than skimmed the good bio, Cocker’s– the others are one solely concerned with his military career and one utterly idiotic one by Peter Hathaway Capstick– ’nuff said. Nor M’s Diaries– I have two of the four volumes.

“For example, he insinuates that M shot his (beloved) 2nd wife for money. But any perusal of his background would show that he was fabulously rich in his own right– family money– and that he was never in need of any kind. (Never mind that he endured a marriage to a wife he detested for years without shooting her!) But there are little annoyances too– as when he insinuates that M invented the cane gun– an extremely common naturalist’s tool from Victorian times to WW II– to poach.

“It also slights his enormous contributions to ornithology. Rasmussen, in the Ripley guide, doesn’t at all. She is exasperated, but makes it clear that he gave as much as he concealed. She says so a lot more clearly than Seabrook does.

“The hoaxing and stealing is stark raving nuts of course. I think he had a real case of collector’s mania and obsession, like some of those well- documented rare book freaks, and the opportunity to indulge it. Seabrook leaves out Rasmussen’s interesting observation in the Ripley guide that M. tended to “improve” specimens he considered poorly prepared– a purely esthetic touch, and pretty damn weird!”

The New Yorker piece does make one serious point.”If fraud was pandemic, it might damage the collection at a time when some scientists were beginning to debate the value of keeping large collections.In the same way that card catalogues in libraries were disposed of once their contents were digitally rendered so, perhaps, could specimens be removed form museums, once they had been digitally sampled and photographed— freeing up valuable space for revenue generating attaractions like planetariums“.

And for what, exactly, would the “revenue” be generated?

For more on digital vs. “real” see Matt’s recent post. Or go to the Pitt- Rivers Museum.

I don’t have much to add but for a note for gun nuts. Double Gun Journal for Summer 2000 had a piece on his bird- collecting gun. It is a Holland and Holland Royal sidelock in 28 bore. What’s more, it is made up like a miniature big- game double rifle, with the long upper tang extending to the comb of the stock, and was originally made for “ball and shot”, with rifled chokes! Unfortunately it has since been bored smooth, but still, if I had an extra 50 or $60,000 around I’d be pestering the current owner…

Next, “Paddy” Leigh Fermor…

Update: The movie is Lighthorsemen (yes, spelled that odd way). Thanks to Jonathan.