Pilgrimage

I’ll be travelling next week and part of the following one to Kingman, Arizona, to meet this guy, Harry McElroy, who has been a hero of mine for
almost 30 years. 

Harry has taught and inspired at least two generations of
falconers through his articles and books (4 titles and counting) and his willingness to
engage in detailed correspondence with anyone who cares to reach him. 

I spoke with Harry first in the early nineties by telephone, before I had email or anyone had a Facebook page or chat room to occupy.  Having to speak up above his scant hearing, I nervously described the troubles I was having with an imprinted Cooper’s hawk.  Harry listened, and I think chuckled in parts (or maybe just cleared his throat), and then gently suggested several things I might do to improve my husbandry and hunting success with the hawk. 

Through following years, as electronic communications became easier and finally ubiquitous, Harry helped with several other of my bird projects from the comfort of his den. He shared stories of his daily hunting—on horseback with Aplomado falcons, or with goshawks from the back of a mule—and many photos of the striking desert country he lives in and loves much.

When I wrote my own books, Harry read them and helped make them better.  He recommended them, too, which goes a long way in our tiny market.  A couple years ago he started sharing pieces of his latest book and shocked me with a request that I write the foreword.  To accept was an act of stupendous hubris on my part, but I did so and counted one of greatest coups of my career: My name and words in a book by Harry McElroy.

The other was Steve Bodio’s name and words in a book of mine. 

I’ll be posting pictures and stories from the trip, here and on my Facebook page.  I’ll be promoting my books (tactfully I hope); so buy one or several and help me turn this pricey junket into a business trip.

Before I get on the road, let me please nod with respect to our many adventurers who read and write at the Querencia blog.  It is not a grand journey to reach Kingman, Arizona, on the world’s best roads and with a credit card and hot coffee along for company.  But it is in the spirit of adventure and of pilgrimage that I will travel, and in that spirit hope to make a trip to remember.   

Just found this while looking for pictures of Harry to post.  It’s a short passage from Wendell Berry with a very McElroy vibe (reposted from an earlier blog):

“Above the hacienda, the drizzle turned
to snow, whitening the ground. We passed a herd of twenty-five horses being
driven up to pasture by two horsemen in ponchos, looking cold with the snow
melting on their hats and shoulders. They were riding very smooth-gaited horses. Everywhere I
saw them, the Andean horses were small, but extremely tough, capable of carying a grown man at a
gallop over the mountainsides.”

(Image from American Falconry Magazine online)

Hot Links

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the discovery of a trove of artifacts from the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg.

I really enjoyed this article on the development of dendrochronology and bristlecone pines the oldest living things on the planet.

A team of Turkish, Australian, and New Zealand archaeologists has just completed its third field season of a survey of the World War I Gallipoli Battlefield.

In California, most elementary school curriculums include reading a famous children’s novel Island of the Blue Dolphins. It is based on the true story of a young Indian woman who was stranded on San Nicolas Island off the California coast, and who lived there alone for 18 years. The real woman, Juana Maria, lived at the Santa Barbara Mission after her rescue and is buried in the cemetery there. I’ve seen the commemorative plaque placed there about her. San Nicolas Island is a Navy facility now, and after many years of searching, Navy archaeologists believe they have found the cave where Juana Maria lived.

Archaeologists excavating at a rockshelter in South Africa have discovered microliths, rather sophisticated stone artifacts made from heat-treated material, at the surprisingly old age of 71,000 BP.

“Carrier” Pigeons and Pigeon Paraphernalia

So- called Carrier, ie messenger pigeons (sophisticated bird folks know they are Racing Homers, not the heavily wattled show bird of that name) have been in the news a lot lately.

Reid sent this article about a lost WW II messenger from the legendary Code and cryptography center Bletchley Park discovered in an English chimney; Tim Gallagher sent still another version. The “Weekend” Wall Street Journal reports on the French debate about maintaining a flock for disaster relief (I had thought the Swiss were the only recent European bird “employers”). Perhaps the fact that the Chinese fleet is large and expanding might give us a clue to their continuing relevance..

I have always fooled around with messenger pigeons and believe they are useful. The late great Grand Canyon guide Wesley Smith used to use them to carry film out of the Grand in the 70’s and so discovered the resident Peregrine population before the ornithologists (“Takes three birds– one for the falcon, one for the tiercel, and a good one for the film!”) I also collect pigeon paraphernalia and tools from all over the world. Here are, first, a bunch of message containers, both WW II US and modern Swiss high tech versions with Red Cross markings given to me by (excellent) filmmaker Jim Jenner (Google him), including a “backpack” for heavier loads; some Indonesian tail whistles, and a melodious Chinese gourd flute beside a flute- bearing stuffed bird from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Finally, some bangles as worn by birds in Turkey and Arab countries and a flying dewlap by Sir Terence Clark, wearing earrings.

I continue to insist, with Darwin and David Quammen (see “Superdove on 46th Street”), that even “street” pigeons are among our most interesting commensals…

Excuses for Missing Work

I THINK I got this from the WSJ last week but all I have is a clipping…

Dog was having a nervous breakdown

My dead grandmother was being exhumed.

Toe was stuck in toilet

Upset by watching Hunger Games

Sick from reading too much

Hair turned orange while trying to dye it another color

My sobriety cutoff wouldn’t let me start my car.

Friend’s Adventures, Urban and Rural

Patrick Porter’s survival kit for Sandy, in Natick, MA:

Cole Brooks, Malcolm’s* son, takes his first elk in Montana:

“… kid drew a lottery cow elk tag for this week. Second day out at 3 in the afternoon we hiked up the side of a ridge where we’d spotted cows the evening before. I walked around a stand of trees and right into several dozen animals–maybe 50 total?–squinting into the sun behind my back. I hustled Cole into position, and with a downed tree as a rest he knocked this one down with my BRNO 7×57. 215 yards, and thank God for all that shooting practice the last six years. We spent all yesterday quartering and packing her out (including head and hide), about a mile to the truck, in wet, muddy, miserable weather…but we’ve got meat! Like I said to Cole at the end of it, we earned these ingredients…”

Strange to think I have lived in both environments…

* Malcolm has a book coming soon– watch for it in this space and others…

Links: Good and Bad News for Falcons

The tundra subspecies and other high- latitude migrating Peregrines are in very good shape.

Peregrines are one of those capital- C “Charismatic” species who always get press (whether the label “endangered”, once attached in the popular collective mind, will ever be removed is matter for a long essay). Meanwhile, the obscure and beautiful little Amur falcon, like its sister species the Sooty, may be genuinely endangered because (A) it has a very long strange migration route, and B) therefore, one of the migration’s concentration points supports an unsustainable and grotesque slaughter for no real reason at all (I am a supporter of sustainable traditional use, but this massacre sounds more like the unconscionable “tradition” of shooting everything that moves in Malta than any kind of aboriginal custom). The video is not for the faint of heart…

Gun Books for Boys, Parents, and Girls…

Silvio Calabi and his team released the amazing Gun Book for Boys a couple of weeks ago. I opened it with interest; Silvio has been a fine editor and writer (last year’s Hemingway’s Guns, reviewed here, is a favorite) and good correspondent for years, and he was the somewhat unlikely advisor who recommended I take up yoga after I got PD– not what you might expect of a Newton- raised coastal Maine- based shooting writer who loves double shotguns as much as I do.

I expected good but was nevertheless amazed at its breadth, depth, and good sense. It was the best primer I have ever seen. I wrote to him : “The Gun Book for Boys is the best gun book for beginners ever, whether for boys, girls, or adults. Even those who think with reason that they already know enough about guns will benefit from its organization and idiosyncratic detail not to mention its unfailing good sense– I have written 1 1/2 gun books myself and countless articles and still enjoyed leafing through the pages… Libby swears it puts what she knows in context, historical and other, and she has been exposed to guns all her life. You may quote me!’

I then added; “…between us; strategically, was “boys” the best decision re title? As a word only,and I am utterly anti- pc, I would have preferred ‘kids’…”

He must have laughed, because “strategically” he was ‘way ahead of me. He responded: “Your comment about ‘Boys’ Book is spot- on; however this A) causes mild controversy, which is good, and B) opens the door for… The Gun Book for Girls.. which will follow The Gun Book For Parents.” D’oh!

I now have my Parents which is even more practically useful, if perhaps not as full of historical nuggets, and can’t wait to see Girls; the books have no repetetive filler at all, but are original from the ground up. Ten stars.

I should add that grandson Eli already has his copy (though more of an age to taste it than digest) as do my Graham nephews and their parents, and I would not be at all surprised to see remarks from Peculiar or sister Karen incoming…

Art, Science, Insect Hunting, and Nabokov

John Wilson’s butterfly photos remind me of one of the great neglected stories of 20th century intellectual life; that Vladimir Nabokov was not just a writer and teacher but a great taxonomist, this despite being denigrated as a dilettante in his time.

Joseph Conrad is legitimately revered for becoming a great English novelist in his second language but the prickly and egotistical Nabokov is not always grated the same status. Yet he wrote as well in English as he did in Russian (and French) and will be remembered for everything from Lolita (one of the three great fifties “Road” books– search earlier posts) to, at a minimum, the poignantly funny Pnin, the pioneeringly PoMo but accessible Pale Fire, The Gift (first written in Russian, with butterflies, unlike the others) and the autobiographical Speak, Memory. His sometimes perverse but minutely analytical lectures on writers Russian and not are IMAO priceless for other writers and students of literature. Not bad for a repeatedly exiled refugee…

He also collected and studied butterflies all his life. His studies of the widespread little “Blues”, which he carried on at Harvard, were often dismissed during his lifetime. Using traditional taxonomic methods of close observation and measurement (he was particularly fascinated by the “lock and key” variations in butterfly genitalia*), he developed a theory suggesting that the Blues came over the Bering Straits to Alaska from Asia and spread south to the Andes, branching and diversifying as they went.

He was right, as recent DNA studies have shown. And here is a more “literary” treatment.

Two good books cover the whole background, though both came out before his vindication: Nabokov’s Blues, which tells of his years of study, and the omnibus Nabokov’s Butterflies.

And here are a couple of local blues from John Wilson, who started the ball rolling… the western pygmy blue, Brephidium exile, and the Acmon blue, Plebejus acmon

*This is not as unusual as one might think. A few summers ago I had a contract to collect hundreds of micro bees at the Sevilleta refuge and mount each one with extracted but attached genitalia displayed. I think it is safe to add this was BEFORE Parkinson’s! Got many geek points for discussing such at parties with my boss, the lovely Karen (Wetherill) Wright, below in two guises after sample bee box and me as bee wrangler….

Upland season

Reader and friend Kirk Hogan from Wisconsin evokes the essence of a northern upland season in a few terse sentences…

14 – hours hunted in 2 days (losing light)

8 – small Brittanies, 3 probably from Herve’s original lines


43 – flushes per 5 minute rule (5 minutes between flushes, so probably not re-flushes of the same bird)

28 – fiery points (an amazing number of points in a year one – year off cycle lows, with next peak predicted 2019 – 2020)

14 – birds shot at (towards)

10 – Hail Mary’s (prayers in thick balsam fir trees)

3 – to eat (butter, salt, pepper, a little calva, wild rice)

1- shameful shot (too early on a bird that could count to two, and then flew around in the open for a while)

1- shameful non-shot (gloved thumb slide over safety on rare easy one)

2 – maledictions (including math whiz grouse)

3 – pounds gone

7 – elk from remnant herd re-introduced in early 80s to bright hopes for future hunt now wolf chow

1 – wolf track, scat, and ADD Brittany, probably beaver hunting, cleared out of cover

0 – newly damaged joints

6 – ibuprofen lunch

The weather is dicey, the days short, the sport, company and aesthetics unlike anything.

Also see Shooting in Brittany for the dogs and food.