Hunting Eagles

If there is a common image of eagle falconry it is that of a fur- hatted Kazakh or Kyrgiz nomad on a short furry horse, hunting foxes or wolves; this has been reinforced by my own book, by the wonderful art of Vadim Gorbatov, and even by the BBC TV show referenced here a few weeks ago.

But like many good things, “eagling” has been invented several times, almost independently. In the twenties the legendary English setter breeder William Humphrey flew a female golden and is said to have taken over one hundred foxes in Wales with the help of his dogs, but he had no disciples. Freidrich Remmler flew eagles in Finland and Russia and even the US, but his only pupil was reclusive Dan McCarron (one of the best, who I hope will someday write a memoir), who knew him when he was a child. Also in the US, Charles Browning, fed up with eagles taking his gyrs, trained the legendary tiercel “Messiah” to hunt sage grouse from the soar.

Meanwhile, in England, Alan Gates accomplished the improbable feat of taking game with an eagle, breeding her, and then doing the same with her son. He was the first westerner recognized as a “berkutchi” by the Kazakhs.

(And for now, we will leave aside more exotic sorts like traditional Japanese eagling, or the kind from Africa, started perhaps by the late artist David Reid Henry and his crowned eagle and reaching its most baroque form in the “Brush War”, when Rhodesian troopers flew eagles at night from half- tracks while carrying automatic weapons). I believe one crowned may still be used in Zimbabwe for monkey control…

But in Germany and Austria after the war a real shared tradition grew up, one that spread to eastern Europe and now features some of the best flights that exist. In Hunting Eagle: The Development of German and Austrian Eagle Falconry, Martin Hollinshead chronicles the little- known (at least in the west) invention and spread of this demanding but incomparably exciting form of falconry, which is now so advanced it is hard to believe that most of its history is post- 1960!

If not quite “present at the creation” Hollinshead was on the scene soon after, has flown eagles over there, and knows the principal actors and innovators. As a long- time advocate and practicioner of quality hawking for ground game (see other books on his site), he understands the prejudices eagle austringers had to overcome. As recently as ten years ago, I was still being assured by people who had never seen an eagle fly that they were clumsy, lazy, vicious, and incapable of stylish flights — this despite the fact that I had seen such flights in Asia and America. Hollinshead’s meticulous and informed account should dispel such pernicious myths for good. Not only does he document how mysteries of training and breeding eagles were solved, the second more or less for the first time; he also chronicles the rise of the great eagle festival in Opocno in the Czech Republic. Good eagles, as many have seen in videos, can take roe deer with the style and dash that a goshawk brings to hares, but also are agile enough to fly that quarry as well.

Eagle falconry continues to evolve. For a new interview of our friend Lauren, not only the first female berkutchi but the first westerner to train as a Kazakh eagler, see this post at Rebecca O’Connor’s Operation Delta Duck. With new moves afoot to ban the use of eagles in falconry, let us hope the voices of such advocates as Dan McCarron, Al Gates, Martin Hollinshead and Lauren McGough are heard above the baying of the ignorant.

Lambing season

Despite snow and rain storms, our lambing season has gone really well this year. Our ewes give birth out in the sagebrush and are not penned or sheltered. It’s a natural way of doing things, and we hold off on lambing until mid-May so we’ve made it through the worst of the storms and the lambs can be born on green vegetation. We’re about half-through now. I maintain it’s easier to heat up a cold lamb than it is to cool down a hot lamb, so I prefer to lamb in cool weather. Lambs also grow better in cooler temperatures than when it’s hot.

This lamb was born this morning in the snow. Mama ewe is just getting started getting the babe clean and dry, turning it into a beautiful white lamb, rather than the orangish creature she gave birth to.

We only have one bum lamb so far. Buck here was a twin who got separated from his mother. I looked for him for a day, and figured a predator must have taken him. But Buck finally managed to find another ewe who had her own lamb and didn’t want another one. We picked him up and brought him to the house. He’s been staying outside, but here he is lounging on the couch after a warm bottle, herding dog pup Hud unable to resist giving him some attention.


Tom Russell has a new album coming this fall, called Mesabi after the Iron Range mining country of northern Minnesota (Hibbing, home of Bob, Dylan stands there). It’s one of the best yet from the man who might be America’s best songwriter storyteller.

Tom’s work is unique. It is not just that he is hard to categorize, though that is part of it– I have heard him described as a folksinger, a country singer, a cowboy singer and – the term he prefers – an “American composer.” I have even heard him called a “Neo-Beat”, though his work in that vein has more to do with the strangeness and delights and weirdness of a youth in Southern California, when you could still believe it was a Golden State.

No; I think that one of the unique things about Tom is that he keeps on growing, with a body of writing ripening like old whiskey in oak kegs. As Libby says, the songs on Mesabi could not have been written by a young man. Many are sad but none are cheaply sentimental – see “Farewell Never Never Land”, where child actor turned junkie Bobby Driscoll snarls at a young Tom Russell “like a dog with a bone.”

The album is a ramble through Tom’s life, from its roots in a surreal but still shining California, through dreams and movies, to his present querencia of El Paso and, standing just across a border at once as porous as a sieve and starkly real, its dark twin Juarez. Tom, resisting every fashion, moved to El Paso in 1997 to become the primo bard of our sometimes deadly and ever- fascinating borderlands. Outsiders will never get it, but it’s a writers country, with a vein of stories that will never be exhausted. (Warren Zevon on LA : “They say this place is evil- that ain’t why I stay…”)

A sampler:

The album begins with the song “Mesabi”, a rousing kick-off that manages to combine Dylan’s youth there and Tom’s in LA, and maybe those of all of us drawn to wandering and storytelling, who as Kipling wrote “… yearned beyond the skyline where the strange roads go down”; those who would sing with Tom “Please don’t let me do the work my father did!” Its landscape runs from the iron-cold borders of the north to the alluring ones of the south, the home in his youth of “La Bamba” and mythical dark- eyed maidens.

“Farewell Never Never Land”: I thought I wouldn’t like this one as I’ve never had a whole lot of use for Peter Pan. I was wrong. Some perceptive writing teacher – William Kittredge? – said that good writing must approach the edge of sentimentality without ever going over that edge. The song balances “straight on til morning” against the scornful unyielding pride of former child actor Bobby Driscoll; like so many of Tom’s songs its virtues are as literary as they are musical, except that you don’t find yourself singing short stories.

Same goes for his remarkable evocation of Sterling Hayden, a larger than life figure who would not fit into today’s Hollywood (there are a lot of these characters inhabiting Tom’s work). Hayden was a Gloucester fisherman on a sailing ship, then a Hollywood star. Then he threw it away: then he wrote a good book about that. His autobiographical book The Wanderer has always been a favorite of mine. Tom “digs him up again”* with a perfect portrait.

In “The Land Called Way Out There” Tom departs southern California with a song about the death of James Dean, a song about dread and the chill of mortality; a haunted ballad that will scare you into a cold sweat at 2AM. Or perhaps his actual farewell to California is in “Roll the Credits Johnny”, a romantic – in the best of senses – tribute to movies as they were, when they still meant something.

And so we arrive at the border. “God Created Bordertowns” is merry, a carnival song – but the carnival is El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and the dancers are grinning skeletons in fancy dress. “Good Night Juarez” is another song on the same imaginary soundtrack that also features the Anglo’s narcocorrida “Hills of Old Juarez” from 2001, which in retrospect saw the current plight of what some call Murder City better than any politician or analyst – the poet’s curse. And you don’t have to watch it on television – if you live in El Paso, you can look across the river from your top floor windows and watch it unfold. If you have a heart, “Good Night Juarez” should break it.

The album returns to serenity, as it should, with “Love Abides”, but not without a detour through the elegant but somehow ominous“Jai Alai”, about an aging pelota player. The bonus tracks are interesting too. “The Road to Nowhere”, from the newly released Monty Hellman movie of the same name, makes me want to see the movie. But the remarkable cover, with Lucinda Williams and Calexico, of Bob Dylan’s most haunting song “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”, made my hair stand on end. I never thought anything could beat the original, but this one does.

This album won’t be out until fall, when Tom will be touring. If you’d like to hear these ballads live, check out the schedule on his website and make sure you catch him when he comes to your town.

* Tom and I both like to plant quotes and references.So OK, scholars: what am I almost quoting here?

Update: it occurs that I should add a note on Tom’s art book Blue Horse/Red Desert: The Art of Tom Russell, coming in the fall from Bangtail Press. I have already sent some thoughts on the subject to them:

I have a lot of art on my walls, from Giorgio di Chirico to Russ Chatham to folk paintings by Mongolian nomads. But lately one that hangs right here by my desk catches my and everyone else’s eye; a little oil of a crazy spangled border rooster, the Gallo de Cielo himself, by songwriter and artist Tom Russell.

Style? I suspect Picasso and other great faux- naif Euro tricksters were in his head first, but I see affinities everywhere in the west and especially in our southwestern “querencia”: all things New Mexican and Mexican, Border and Desert: santos, retablos, El Dia de los Muertos and La Virgen de Guadalupe; Colima pottery dogs and Plains Indian paintings, stories and songs on hides and tipis.

And the subjects are pure Tom Russell, out of his unique songbook: not just the mestizo border but also cowboys and Indians and dancing skeletons with sixguns; horses and dogs and roosters and flowers; and, further off in geography and time but still a part of Tom’s world, boxers and beats and bluesmen and old rock and rollers, the fifties that formed us– his is a wild wide world. Buy this book for a window into it…

Gun News

New grips from Herrett’s for my odd (unique?) but useful little S & W .22. I have put Herrett stocks on all my DA revolvers for years– I recommend them without reservation.

The other? Well, I have cut my “collection” radically to what I can really use. But– well, here is what i wrote to my friend Daniel in California who might possibly also be addicted to Good Stuff:

“I did something– not DUMB, but faintly embarrassing– I somewhat impulsively acquired– NOT “bought”, my excuse– another shotgun-!

“What happened: I had a large amount of non- cash credit at Ron’s from getting rid of my “collection”, too much to get back in cash by far. It wasn’t burning a hole in my pocket, but as Lib helpfully reminded me its cash value was shrinking.

“I was reading over a lot of vintage stuff for the project. Deep in Elmer Keith I casually remarked:”You know, if I could find a classic US double in 16/ 28′, say 6 1/2 or almost 7 pounds– a “Keith- Askins” rather than a 26″ “O’Connor”– it would be cool to get it for sit- down dove and the rare duck– at least if we didn’t have to pay– maybe even open it up for steel– barrels would be thick…” Just musing. Dear enabling Lib said, “well, if Ron got one in”. Still fantasizing I said, “Parkers and Foxes are too expensive, LC’s too iffy, Lefevers too old. Now IF he ever got a 16 Ithaca NID…”

“Understand, though I was looking at photos in Elmer’s ’49 (?) book I hadn’t seen one in a decade…

“SO I walk in last Sat on our way to SF and there is, of course, a plain Field Grade NID 16 with 28” barrels.

“It was (not badly) refinished which cut price but not offensive to me. All functional, good trigger pulls, safety built up to use with gloves and NON auto– both pluses. It is a “57 Chevy” (actually made in 1936) to [any car geeks out there?] the Manufrance’s Citroen “Traction Avant” or the Sidley’s– ??– MG TC, but that is OK. It CRIES for a vintage Chevy- esque red rubber recoil “Ithaca sunburst” recoil pad which I have already ordered. It weighs the desired six and a half, has a pistol grip, and is SCARILY tightly choked as it is marked and EK liked– some must come out or I will pulverize anything under 40 yards!

“No excuse at all for more unless I lose one of these– unlikely!”

Daniel kindly reassured me:

“Incredible story about the Ithaca 16 – no mere coincidence that, or addict’s relapse, “someone” was looking out for you (although I did like the description “dear enabling Lib”). Thank goodness I don’t have a place like Ron’s to pass by on my way into the city…”

Any rate, here it is:

On deck: dog pix (mine and relatives); River Monsters; a preview of new Tom Russell stuff, an interview with Lauren, and probably more, bigger, better & worse…

Stealth of the Chicken Hunter

Just before Christmas last year, I lost my best girlfriend to breast cancer. I’m thankful that although Sheri’s no longer physically present in my life, her spirit endures, and that wild woman’s genes are coursing through the veins of her granddaughter, Kylie. A few days ago, Kylie’s mother looked out the window to catch Kylie outside, sneaking up on the chickens, with bow and arrow, ready to let ‘er rip! This image gives me great joy – she’s making her grandma proud.

Elisha Tripp, 1974- 2011

Eli Tripp, one of Jackson’s two closest high school friends and a constant presence in our lives during the Bozeman years, died this week of complications of Cystic Fibrosis. He was 37 and fought himself and his disease to remarkably good health for years. CF is still a killer though.

His obit in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle gives a hint of his unique personality and interests.

“Elisha Stetson Tripp passed away Tuesday, May 10, 2011, at his home in Bozeman due to complications from cystic fibrosis. Eli was born in St. Johnsbury, Vt., on Dec. 21, 1974, to Patricia Stetson and Nathaniel Tripp.

“In 1982, Eli moved to Big Timber where he attended Big Timber Grade School and The Bridge School, graduating from Headwaters Academy in Bozeman.

“Eli loved all things outdoors. He thoroughly enjoyed growing up between the Big Timber ranch and the Vermont farm. Exploring, hiking, fishing and hunting were some of his early passions. Springtime would find him with his new hatchlings of goslings, ducklings or chicks, trailing behind him. He especially relished summers, canoeing and camping with his father and his brother, Sam.

“In addition to taking courses at NYU Film School and MSU, Eli was a student of life, backpacking in Europe and the Arizona desert. He filmed, painted, sculpted and chronicled the many challenges of his life through epic poetry. He had a voracious taste for film, literature and a passion for science. He loved opera, riding his motorcycle, dancing, singing, working his bird dogs, gardening and cooking. But most of all he loved spending hours playing with his kids and teaching them all he knew. Huge bonfires, star gazing, rock hunting, studying animal tracks, playing pirates.

“Eli loved to help others. He trained as an EMT, worked in search and rescue, volunteered on the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Posse and was a lieutenant in the Sweet Grass County Sheriff’s Auxiliary. He was an expert shot, a trained sniper for law enforcement, and a founder/partner in Templar Tactical, a Bozeman-based manufacturer of high-quality firearms.

“Eli was a mentor, inspiration and hero to the cystic fibrosis community. He was always on the cutting edge of research with his friend and long-time doctor, Frank Accurso, of Denver Children’s Hospital. Eli was relentless in his CF treatments and self-care. He beat the odds. Despite obstacles that would stop most others, Eli lived each day to the fullest, with memorable humor and few complaints.”

Libby said that in their teens Jack, Eli, and Chris “were a combination of the Three Musketeers and the Three Stooges”. I remember them hunting and camping out and blowing up toy soldiers, grilling Cornish hens and “eating them like dogs”, and catapulting a roadkill gopher in a plastic bag into the trees of a hostile neighbor. I remember Eli’s annoyance when the Crow shaman who cut all of our hair could not figure out how to dye his hair “chrome”. I remember his utter delight at– fourteen?– when he asked me why I kept handguns and I said simply “To shoot bad people with”. He was hip and green but always a fan of the Second Amendment. He was never the slightest bit conventional. I still treasure a predator skull of dubious legality he found on the family ranch and gave us for a wedding present.

His life became difficult but he never gave up. Jack and Chris up in Washington were planning a trip out to see him when his time ran out. We will miss him, but Eli always knew how to live, perhaps in part because he never doubted he would die.

Andrey’s Photos

Andrey Kovalenko, ornithologist, breeder of our Kyran, and ace photographer, has a new wildlife photo site. He travels all over Central Asia but I bet more of them are from his own Kazakhstan , with its incredibly varied landscape, than anywhere else. Here is an example, plus one of him with Kyran’s father Berkut and with Lib and fellow photographer Oleg Belyalov in the Tian Shan.

Commonplace Book

Another good quote: Samuel Johnson from Boswell’s Life:

“Questioning is not the mode of conversation among gentlemen. It is assuming a superiority, and it is particularly wrong to question a man concerning himself. There may be parts of his former life he may not wish to be made known to other persons, or even brought to his own recollection.”

This HAS to be the ultimate source of Patrick O’Brian’s Diana Maturin’s ” I do not find Question and Answer a Liberal form of conversation…”

Sent by commenter “rob’s uncle” on just that subject– emphasis his.