Images, various

I am even more pressed than usual. Though I will try to get some content up in the next two days, time is tight; in addition to my needing to rework my current two book proposals once more at the request of publishers– don’t ask!– we leave Wednesday for our first visit to Deep Springs, which I look forward to despite a bit of apprehension.  Parkinson’s does not make for comfortable travel, at least to a new place. So until I return a week from tomorrow, no promises re content…

Enough whining. I have accumulated a few pics lately that don’t rise to whole post or essay length, but which I like, so will offer a bit of a catch- all right here…


Centuries clash in this photo of a young berkutchi at the Cosmodrome, taken just after the fall of the Soviet Union, possibly by Oleg Belyalov who does not have email, and given to me in Brooklyn in the early 1990’s; recently disinterred from one of my nine ring- binders on matters Central Asian. It was a transparency, and I copied it by taping it to my south window and snapping with my point- and- shoot, so apologies for quality!

 A bobwhite hood ornament, snapped by John Wilson in Albuquerque. The car was almost as nice.

Alien armor? No, a “burgonet”, ca.1550,  HT David Zincavage. More info appreciated…

Giant bronze mosquito, courtesy of Rolf Magener. This may remain mysterious, as I intend a follow- up.

The prettiest shotguns are English. Period.Right click for more detail.

Mongolian kid’s drawing of Saker falcon nest box project for Falco.

Miss Chicken comes in for fall training.

Guns: Keepers and Projects

In any realistic sense I have “enough” guns but I like to keep things rolling, preferably without spending any (or at least any significant) money, in order to keep my brain stimulated. Besides I like looking at them, just like my art and even the spines of my books– seeing them in the rack is like browsing the spines in a bookcase, (so I suppose shooting is more or less equal to reading…?)

 I also like to keep niches filled, which in my case means mostly working hunting niches; to be able once in a while to give a friend a gun or a screaming deal, since I have often been the beneficiary of others; Karma if you will. I practice selling what I don’t need, and am always up for bartering– whaddaya got? Having bought sensibly in the past helps, though obviously, as Burnham’s 4th Law has it, “You can’t invest in retrospect.”

And you have to drop your preconceptions and buy quickly if the right thing comes along, which is how I got my little Remington Model 17 pump 20 bore (the only gauge it was ever made in). The Model 17 was designed by no less than John Moses Browning, and is a close ancestor to today’s still extant and traditionally American- built Ithaca Model 37, which comes in all gauges but 10.

This is the first time I have ever seen one for sale since I became aware of them many years ago– they are not common. It is slick and but for slightly faded blue seems all original, and athough it weighs only 5 1/2 pounds its long 28″ barrel means it does not poke but swings like a mini trap gun. I am glad I picked it up and can’t even think of a reason to get rid of it– it cost virtually nothing. And to any who wonder about a pump gun’s value– three people have offered to take it off my hands for significant $$, and every one already has an English gun…

Another project is this English hammer “short” ten,  a classic back- action sidelock  with rebounding locks and chambers of 3″ for the old (but available even in expensive bismuth) 2 7/8″ shell. It has a set of modern proof marks for Nitro powder from between the 50’s and the 80’s ( I know the decades but I am not going to get up to look!)   So even if you couldn’t see or measure the massive thick walls of fancy Damascus figure*, you would know that it is safe. It is a big gun but not a monster, a bit over 8 1/2 pounds, and well balanced. The trigger pulls are excellent, with rebounding locks; the barrels unmarked. It has good figured walnut, but  rather masked and darkened, so is up for at least a partial refinish.

Most interesting thing is that it is the first Nitro proof gun and maybe the first gun period I have seen with NEW Damascus tubes sleeved onto an old (different pattern) twist steel bloc. The pattern on these tubes is wonderfully intricate, but the browning on the barrels (like bluing for steel guns; no relation to the inventor)) is so dark I thought it was blue until I got it outdoors. I need to get some but not all of this off to show pattern better, but I want to retain the rich color. In the photos I have tweaked the color to bring up the pattern– if they were already like that I wouldn’t do a thing. Worth it to double or right click to see better…

* If you are of the dwindling minority who think Damascus is inherently unsafe, step away from this box and read the 6 part series by Sherman Bell in Double Gun Journal between Summer 2005 and Winter 2009, called “Finding Out for Myself” (there were other experiments under the same title but those years covered the relevant issues), in which he and an engineering – minded team of friends, “Mythbusters” for the classic gun set, attempted for several years the task of making a Damascus barrel explode– this using repeated PROOF loads, too long for the chambers, on pre- wrecked or at least battered– some were loose, some held together by copper wire– American waterfowl double guns. And failed, period, stop. Not one, not one, even expanded. Now add modern English proof for Nitro in any gun so marked…

I think the consensus was that guns that did so blew up because someone had inadvertently dropped a twenty bore shell in ahead of the 12– which condition could and did blow up both Damascus and steel barrels.

A Little Picture Blogging…

I avoid clipping or least posting photos and art when not being blog- productive, but that doesn’t mean good things cease to arrive. Anastasia Ealy sent this symbolic painting of Central Asia’s ancient trio of non- human partners, one with roots in the Deep Past all the way from nearly Manchuria west to Europe and the near East.

(Remember this photo below, from Tamgaly? The backstory contains perhaps the only book- length yarn I can spin without recourse to libraries…)

This piece of art, found by Sari Mantila, combines the beauty of the saluki with the slight creepiness I can’t help but feel at most surrealism.

Paleo Art comes of age…

Which doesn’t mean gets dull and predictable. On the contrary, the abundance of “new” fossils  has given birth to a generation of artistic and scientific iconoclasts whose bold new vision is far more rooted in the past than any older generation’s was. The inimitable polymath and prodigiously productive blogger Darren Naish, a serious anatomist, was raised on the same romantic classical dinos as I was; it is hard not to admire the old lizard- tailed reptiles as art, and their artists as virtuoso painters. But, as he says in the intro to All Yesterdays, an entertaining mixture of paleontology and art that could be a manifesto for the clear- eyed new breed of artist- scientists, “Rudolph F. Zallinger’s animals– most famously depicted in the Zallinger mural at Yale’s Peabody Museum– were clearly done with only a superficial reference to the skeletons of the species concerned.” The great Charles Knight knew better, but he “…gave dinosaurs small, slender muscles that did not match their bones (dinosaurs actually seem to have had enormous, more bird- like muscles) and frequently drew dinosaurs freehand- style, again with what looks like poor attention to the proportions and nuances of the actual skeletons.”

The old paradigm was overthrown in the seventies, when I was younger than Darren is now, by Ostrom at Yale and the flamboyant Robert Bakker out in the Badlands, and by John McLoughlin’s first brilliant attempts to illustrate the dinos as, well, birds. But neither Bakker’s description of Tyrannosaurus as a “Roadrunner from Hell”,  nor McLoughlin’s deadly genetically reconstructed Imperial pets in his his 1983 novel The Helix and the Sword , the Deinonychids Moscow and Washington, penetrated pop consciousness; Jurassic Park’s big “Velociraptors” (not really), sisters of the Emperor’s killers, were as reptilian as lizards, which made as much sense as having naked chickens or eagles walking around. Raptor types actually had feathers more like a goshawk’s than a kiwi’s, never mind scales– we have found the feather insertions for big asymmetrical quills in their arms.

Bakker with dinosaur

McLoughlin self- portrait with “social hybrid of man and wolf” (his phrase)

Researchers and artists like Greg Paul and Luis Rey have since blown the old paradigm to hell with their properly birdy angular anatomy; Rey in particular adds wild primary colors and patterns, not because he knows what color they were but because both birds and for that matter lizards tend to use pattern and color in their rituals; the few fossils that show Mesozoic feather patterns indicate he is leaning in the right direction.

There are three new books that exemplify the new tradition. All Yesterdays is at once the most explicitly theoretical and “in your face”, but also the most whimsical; Pterosaurs , by Mark Witton (who also has an excellent blog) is a genuine monograph by a expert, using the same rigorous standards, showing us what is known to date about creatures most people would assume were from another planet than ours, contemporary with not only dinosaurs but perfectly recognizable birds; A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and other Winged Dinosaurs by Matthew Martiniuk is the first book I know that simply poses various theropods and other later animals as though they were birds as to body carriage, how they hold their arms or wings– something I see with relief and consider overdue– and puts them in “Bird Guide” format.

The one for all naturalists with a sense of humor is All Yesterdays; after Darren declares that “this book is firmly grounded in a skeptical, rigorous, evidence- led effort to study and depict anatomy: the approach promoted by Paul, Anton, and the like…”,  he reminds us that things like fat and feathers and integument, “manes, ruffs, , thick furry coats…”; not to mention behavior, can all affect appearance. Then he hands over the reins to artists John Conway and C.N. Kosemen and lets them run.

Every one of these reconstructions is original; some look rather like dinosaurs, some like odd little mammals (see the fluffy little Leaellynasaura, with its lemur tail held upright in a snowstorm); some are fairly conventional but doing unfamiliar things; one is fat, two invisible, and the Elasmosauruses in neck-swinging contests look more like sea worms in a colony than the Loch Ness monster. Perhaps my favorite is their reconstruction of the Therizinosaurus, the first depiction of this ridiculous beast that has made any sense to me at all: an upright, long-tongued avian giant sloth with kiwi feathers*, browsing high branches with a prehensile tongue.

The last chapter is hilarious: reconstructions of present-day animals by future paleontologists. The cat resembles a carnivorous iguanoid with mammalian teeth and staring eyes; swans and hornbills are reptilian and slick like yesterday’s dinosaurs; the elephant has immense tusks but no trunk, the python legs, and the baboon is venomous. The most ridiculous, though no more so than some of today’s versions, is a manatee that looks like a vegetarian lion, imaginatively reconstituted from a single bone, standing in its mountain meadow.

Pterosaurs is a serious scientific monograph illustrated by the author, with a thing on the cover that looks like an alien aircraft racing through a Martian sky.

 I am not qualified to judge it, only to read it in awe; I have read all the modern books on these flying creatures, and this is far and away the best. I do believe these are the oddest vertebrates ever to live on earth. They ranged from the size of a tiny songbird to the span at least of a large aircraft, and were astonishingly successful. The science is rigorous, the speculation intelligent, and the illustrations, though Witton is not a great artist, are breath-taking. Either you like this kind of thing or you don’t. But I’ll most likely keep this book until I die. Look at the examples here for a clue.

The last book is is striking in part because it is so familiar; the main difference between it and any bird guide you use is that a lot of these birds are scaled with a human figure, because some of them are pretty big. I have been looking for bland, placid silhouettes of things like Deinonychus and Velociraptor ever since John McLaughlin asked me (almost a dinosaurian eon ago) why the hell every carnivore in prehistory is shown with mouth agape, roaring. And why don’t artists see how bird-like the hand structure of raptorial dinosaurs is? I don’t mean to use the word “bland” as a criticism; what I mean is normal, unexcited. I expect if you were watching these creatures through binoculars and they didn’t know you were there, they would look just like this.

Second from the top is that notorious fowl, Deinonychus herself

*Here is an almost believable version that is more courting pigeon than sloth.

Lesotho – the kingdom in the sky

Jim and I have just returned from a fantastic trip to Lesotho and South Africa. While we enjoyed our journey into the heart of traditional Zululand in South Africa (a future post), our arrival in the high alpine mountains of Lesotho was the discovery of Shangri-La.

The Kingdom of Lesotho is an independent nation entirely surrounded by South Africa, and is regarded as the highest country on earth, with its lowest point about 4,600 feet above sea level. We entered via the eastern route, crawling in four-low up rocky Sani Pass (formerly a footpath used by the San), at an elevation of 9,429 feet – the highest mountain road in Southern Africa, and home to the highest pub in Africa, where we stopped in for a hot lunch on a crisp and windy winter day (in late July, with spring just around the corner in early September). Most visitors that go in via Sani Pass stop at the pub for a photo and go back to South Africa, but they miss the beauty to be found just beyond, in the highlands.

We soon encountered men and boys walking with herds of cattle, sheep, and Angora goats, or riding hardy Basotho ponies, or leading their burros packed with 100-pound bags of maize. There are few vehicles in this mountain environment, but there are burro trails criss-crossing the rural countryside, and with access so limited, most items moving into and across this region are loaded on a burro’s back. Most people we encountered were accompanied by dogs (more on that later).

The first Basuto stockman we stopped to visit with along the narrow road as part of his herd of 900 cattle crossed in front of us spoke excellent English, and had a pack of assorted dogs eager for his attention. We soon learned that while his larger dogs serve as livestock guardians, he was doing some active crossbreeding to run jackals for fun. With our first encounter being with a man of sporting nature, we knew we had entered a place we would treasure.

The Basuto people who live in this rural region of Lesotho raise livestock and have a subsistence agricultural lifestyle. They are self-sufficient, and the environment is pristine, with no garbage or broken glass to be seen. They live in thatch-roofed, rock- or manure-blocked huts with thick walls providing excellent insulation. A family compound may have several of these huts for extended family members, with rock corrals at the center, where livestock and hay can be safely contained. Their dirt-packed yards are manicured to perfection by women using bundled brush as brooms.

Common everyday attire includes the traditional wool blanket. Different patterns, colors and style of wearing provide some symbolism, with women wearing certain colors, tied at the waist in a certain way, to indicate whether they are single or married. More elaborate or higher-quality blankets indicate higher status or wealth. Many Basuto people raise Merino-type fine-wooled sheep in this alpine zone, with communal shearing sheds busy processing herds in September. Some of the wool is sent to South Africa for processing, and returns to village stores as wool weft blankets.

A few signs of modernity are evident throughout both Lesotho and South Africa’s Zululand. While these countries skipped landlines (and most don’t have computers), most people have cell phones. (There are more cell phones subscribers in Africa than in the United States or the European Union, according to the World Bank.) Nielson reports that South Africa ranks fifth in the world for mobile data usage – while the United States ranks seventh. More people in South Africa have cell phones than have access to electricity, or clean water, or indoor toilets. Cell phones have become a lifeline in many ways, including linking people to clinics and doctors as these populations struggle with high levels of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. I should note that while I’ve seen the high statics for these diseases, of course we never saw visibly sick people. What we did see were hundreds of women walking for miles with their babies on their backs for vaccination days at rural clinics. Availability of these clinics is transmitted via text message, as are TB results and other critical information, as well as school and public bus schedules. (Buses, as well as “taxi cars” are four-wheel drive vans.)

Enclosed pit toilets are making their way into the rural areas of both Lesotho and South Africa – these are new innovations in these areas, and are constructed as community projects, promoted by government and NGO programming. We also saw community wells being installed, especially in the hills of Zululand. South Africa President Jacob Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal has especially benefited.

Lesotho’s rugged, kidney-bruising Sani Pass Top road is currently being blasted and widened to allow better access to the eastern portion of the country. The steepest, narrowest part of the road is being widened also, but you still can’t get more than one vehicle around the corners at a time and I don’t see that improving in the near future. Water runs down cracks in the rocks year-round, so drainage culverts are being installed. A major Chinese construction firm is doing the work on a 26-mile segment of the road, with the goal of providing a better link from South Africa to the Lesotho village of Mokhotlong. But some wonder whether there may be plans for future mining or water development driving this major investment in an isolated region. Portions of the road have been improved to be as large as a major mining haul road, so these concerns may not be far-fetched.

Lahav RIP

Daniela Imre’s Lahav, one of the greatest dogs I have ever known, is dead at 15. He was her constant companion, a coursing champion, a hunter, a defender and guardian. He distrusted most male humans and would threaten them for their presumption if they got near Daniela. She called him the Munchkin: I, “The Muncher of Kin.” He was huge for a saluki and he delivered a credible threat if he wanted to, though he was the most lovable of dogs to friends

He was sometimes a clown. I was one of the exceptions to his  dislike of males, as was John Burchard (probably less any personal virtues, and more like our smelling of saluki and talking their language), and when they lived here I would often walk up the dirt road to Daniela’s house. He would hear me from hundreds of yards away, and start yodeling the distinctive Salukoid greeting– I guess he knew the sound of my steps. I knew my role was to howl back until I reached his fence. What the neighbors thought is not recorded.

In his old age he was sire to other splendid dogs, like (with our Lashyn) Daniela’s Shunkar and John’s Jengiz. I am sure that if more exist Daniela will let us know. Meanwhile our condolences to her. Here is a small portfolio, including Herb Wells’ famous  shot of him diving in front of (good) greyhounds to snatch up a hare.

With his son, Shunkar

Old and still beautiful