Quote

“In my rucksack I took Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia and Hemingway’s In Our Time. Six months later I came back with the bones of a book that, this time, did get published. While stringing its sentences together, I thought that telling stories was the only conceivable occupation for a superfluous person such as myself.”

Bruce Chatwin in 1983, on the genesis of In Patagonia.

Beebesaurus

I finally got my copy, Beebe’s copy, of his book Our Search  for a Wilderness, with his bookplate. The seller thought it was an iguana, but I knew it was a sketch of a possible “pre-Archaeopteryx” avian ancestor he had imagined. In 1910.

I think it was 2003 when they dug up Microraptor gui. The model is light- colored, but it has been discovered to be irridescent black. Mira!

I am painting my model black, and displaying it with the book…

Mislaid

ANOTHER review. I don’t do many for satirical novels, but this one is caviar, and unique. I have oxymoronically described it as vaguely like a kindly early Evelyn Waugh or a sane Edward St Aubyn, both manifestly impossible. Its tone and setting in contemporary Virginia remind me of photographer Sally Mann’s excellent recent memoir, Hold Still. Its plot is (consciously, according to the author) based on Shakespearian comedy, with a classically perfect ending. The author’s only previously published work evokes an uncommon Eurasian bird, The Wallcreeper.

Any description of the  plot sounds like pure farce: it begins when a mostly gay, upper- class southern English prof impregnates a (mostly lesbian, decidedly not rich) young woman and marries her. They have another child, a boy, and break up; fearing for the loss of her daughter, the woman runs and hides in plain sight in a rural corner of the county, squatting in an abandoned house. Here, she hits on the idea which will animate the entire farce; in order to keep and educate her daughter, she will claim and raise her as a rural, legally black child, even though both are blue eyed blondes.

Meanwhile, her brother is being raised to be, among other things, the only kindly frat boy I have ever encountered…

In between you get Native American dope dealers, squirrels, all the possible idiocies of identity politics, a fraternity that admires H P Lovecraft, and more pitch perfect observation of more classes of people than I have ever seen in a single novel, acute but sill somehow KIND.

Those who read as widely as I think my readers do may get a glimpse of how wide a net the author casts in this late scene, where the daughter is explaining to her father how she longs to go to Capri, though she is in college mainly because her (genius nerd actually black) boyfriend was such a prize they sort of comped her in too..

Lee, her father, has just told her he will send her anywhere.

“Anywhere at all?”…

“If it’s Disney and Epcot, summer is out of the question.”…

“Did you ever read Kaputt ?

Lee did not answer, so she went on. “It’s my favorite book. It’s a memoir of World War II by a guy named Curzio Malaparte. He starts out by visiting his friend Axel Munthe on the Isle of Capri, and he thinks his friend Axel is, like, dumb, for caring a lot about birds. But before that, he visits his other friend, King Bernadotte, whose hobby is embroidery.” She pronounced the names “Mallaparty”, “Monthy”, and “Burnadotty”, but Lee did not smile. “He’s the king of Sweden, but what he does all day is, embroider, like, napkins! And then Malaparte goes to the war. And he realizes that people are exactly like birds. They’re innocent bystanders that only an asshole would kill”– and here Karen developed fierce- looking tears in her eyes- “and embroidery is symbolic of the very best part about them. He goes all around the war, seeing beautiful people and animals suffer and die for no reason, but he never looks away. He writes it all down. And in the end he goes back to Capri to build himself this house…”

Her voice slowed as she saw his eyes, which had turned glassy, being squeezed shut. “Dad, why are you crying? Do you think he’s a fascist? Temple says he’s a fascist.”

She lowered her eyes to her empty plate. She saw that to a sophisticate like Lee, reading Malaparte was equal in puerility to eating scabs, and that she would soon be in New York, acquiring modish things to make herself less of a rube.

Lee said, “Don’t mind me. It’s just my life flashing before my eyes. You were raised under a rock, yet your life’s dream is to see the Villa Malaparte. And I realized I must have passed something down to you in my semen after all. The divine spark. It’s the first time in my llfe I ever felt like a man.”

Mislaid by Nell Zink.  A good bad pun, too….

Shrewdunnit

Conor Mark Jameson, who might be familiar to readers of the blog from his involvment in getting the TH White memorial plaque up at the World Center at Boise, or for his excellent book Looking for the Goshawk, has a new title out: Shrewdunnit: The Nature Files.

Shrewdunnit is done in an old form, one currently neglected, perhaps as old- fashioned, in the US, and still done very well in England– a year’s observations, mostly of one place (although he is a thoroughly modern naturalist and also
goes abroad); a phenology, a record, a series of sketches light and
serious.

Such a book stands or falls by two things: how well the writer knows his chosen place, and how well he writes, how originally he he can see. Conor succeeds on both counts. Here he is on a Sparrowhawk who has just begun to “unwrap”– nice verb- his prey:

“This male hawk is little bigger than the blackbirds haranguing it; certainly leaner… Like David Beckham about to take a corner kick, to fire the ball into the goal with deadly accuracy, in front of jeering opposition fans, the hawk is inured to such abuse. This is what I do. This is what I do well. I don’t expect you to like me for it.”

In a smaller country, he is properly as excited by the presence of a stoat  or a “ghost” barn owl as I might be by a mountain lion; predators define a landscape. He looks for adders (he says “I have always revered snakes”) and wonders if they will ever find their way back to his neighborhood; I have never thought before about how hard it is for a snake to migrate once it has gone from a place, and who mourns venomous snakes? He listens closely enough to a cuckoo to hear the breaths between its call; I have done this with the nightjar called a whippoorwill back in my native New England, and his account brings back a naturalist’s memory.  He watches migrants, but doesn’t keep obsessive lists; a fault by some standards, but one I confess I share; there are more interesting observations to make. He describes a dinner with one of my favorite English nature writers, Mark Cocker, who  decants a dubious pile of egg cartons containing odd moths and worse in front of his students, saying “You’ve just got to go out and find some weirdness.” You sense that would be Conor’s perfect motto: he is always a serious naturalist, but never a solemn one.

He is, as a modern observer,  international enough in his interests and travels that he writes about the terrible vulture crisis in India, where the side effects of Diclofenac, an anti- inflammatory drug given to cattle, has brought several species to the brink of extinction. But, traveling, he can also have a light epiphany on the high alpine Italian ridges near where Otzi, “The Iceman” was found, realizing that a rolling flock of Alpine choughs floating overhead is watching him as much as he is watching them. His knowledge, earned and deep and local, is balanced by his quirky humor and quirky insights. In the title essay, his bad pun comes from realizing that the culprit who has been leaving dead goldfish by a neighbor’s pond is a water shrew, that delightful and little-seen mammal Konrad Lorenz wrote an essay on many years ago, still the only place most of us have encountered it.

Shrewdunnit is the kind of book you can keep at your bedside or bathroom, where you can dip into at will for new insights, facts, or natural entertainment. I hope that Jameson will write “heavier”  more serious books, but I hope he will also keep us up with this kind of work, and play, too. I will buy any book like this as long as he writes them.

New Coursing Book

To See Them Run: Great Plains Coyote Coursing, with text by Utah folklorist Eric Elaison, splendid photos by Scott Squire, and a long introductory essay by me, is finally out from the University Press of Mississipi… and about time! Our efforts have seen us, for about five years (more?) right through a couple of academic presses and out the other side, as Plains coyote coursing was seen as too retrograde for modern audiences, or, even sillier, presses demanded material on non- existent “Native American Coursing”. (A quote: “I was leading my greyhound and whippet. As I passed two Native Americans, my wife, who was following, saw them pointing at the dogs and saying ‘there goes dinner’.”

It is a really beautiful “Coffee Table Book” AND a thoughtful text– a great gift for hunters and students of dogs and the Old Ways, for Christmas or birthdays. I can truthfully say we are all proud of it as well as relieved that it is finally a book. I will add more photos later but wanted to get this post out. One complaint: Amazon will not let me list it under my name, on my page, although those who have introduced my books routinely list them on their Amazon pages. Perhaps a word to the publisher?

Got it!

The Mauser C96 “Broomhandle” automatic pistol– if anything I own is “iconic”, it is.

I have wanted one for many years. I will add Arthur Wilderson’s excellent short essay when he sends it, but it was the gun of Churchill at Omdurman and Lawrence of Arabia; Walter “Karamojo” Bell supposedly shot down a German fighter with one in WWI; the great Indian ornithologist Salim Ali, referred to affectionately by his friend Meinertzgagen as”you treasonous little Wog”, had one, as well as a 20 bore Jeffery shotgun bought by his wife, a Mannlicher Schoenauer carbine like mine, and various bolt- action Mausers (and, unusually, Winchesters!)

Ali shooting swallow specimens in the 50’s with his Jefferey

Various versions, including the shorter barreled “Bolo” (for Bolshevik), were used by both sides up and down the Trans- Siberian Railway in the Russian Civil War, and Chinese bandits and government troops both favored them  in .45 ACP, to match their American Tommy guns, which led to the destruction of many in the Cultural Revolution of 1968, for possessing a “bourgeois caliber.” You can’t make it up..

They were also used by two favorite fictional protagonists, Charles Dennim in Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows, and Jane Doe in Michael Gruber’s Tropic of Night.

I was in Ron Peterson’s guns for other business when I beheld a clean Broomhandle on the table in front of my friend Mel Merritt, the manager.  I am afraid I behaved badly– I swooped down on the young customer, who was comparing one to a Luger, and said “THAT one is MINE!” Mel looked injured, saying only “I thought you already found one!”

Luckily the kid didn’t have any historical interest, and I ended up with it and all the bells & whistles– a holster/ shoulder stock made of walnut, a pigskin shoulder holster, a set of stripper clips– all for less than any I had seen on the Internet. It is a “Red Nine”, so called not because of any revolutionary associations but because of the big red “9” burned into its side to denote its caliber, the still- popular 9 mm Luger.

That is it on the right of course, beside my S & W  .38 and my Hi-Standard target and rabbit .22.

Everyone has been worried by my absence. I had a tough few weeks with the implant, but it IS a learning process, and my latest setting is the best yet. Unfortunately, I felt so good today that I cleaned out two year’s worth of detritus from the yard, leaving me utterly exhausted. This is all for tonight; I won’t even add links til later. But later this week: new book reviews, a new coursing book, more Beebe, Microraptor, Phillott on falconry; more and worse…

And here is Arthur:

“The Mauser C 96 was not the first automatic pistol, but it was basically the first that worked well.   Its predecessors were curiosities and toys.   It emerged in the last days of the  belle epoque; that last, glorious sunset of European civilization before the blood dimmed tide and mere anarchy were loosed.   As such, it was the sidearm of choice for the roguish heroes and heroic rogues of the era; Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence, and Chinese warlords all favored the type.   In that strange, bygone era officers were socially stratified gentry and bought their own weapons.   Very few nations officially adopted the Mauser pistol, but many of their armys’ officers bought them on their own initiative.

“I have spoken to a number of gunsmiths, industry officials and machinists about making reproductions of these things.   A century and change of advances in manufacturing, and these sorts of weapons would be thousands of dollars per piece.   The entire structure of economics, and the price of skilled machinists at the time was incomprehensibly different.

 “Men worked in satanic mills to make the steel billet that would be painstakingly whittled and hand-fitted to form these beautiful, utterly decadent weapons.   A modern combat handgun is completely soulless and utilitarian by comparison.   It is truly an artifact of Hesiod’s golden age.   It’s like a pair of marching boots with gold trim.   Putting that much personal effort, especially into a weapon as unimportant as a handgun, is unthinkable today.

“Our culture is a descendant of theirs, but in some ways it’s unrecognizable.   Wittgenstein said that if a lion could talk, we could not understand him.   Sometimes I think the same is true of the Edwardians.   Their children roamed with incomprehensible freedom.   They lived in cultures with incomprehensible levels of social stratification and thought it (generally) normal, just and natural.   Our science would have few secrets with which to shock them; Einstein’s General Relativity is a hundred years old now!   And yet their medicine barely worked…”

Italian Design

Italian gun design, like Spanish, has looked to England, albeit with more decorative engraving and gaudier wood. Now, things are changing, some radically, some more subtly.

For the radical, see Benelli’s re- imagining of the over and under. I cannot warm to this angular- lined gun, but you should not bet against Benelli. Years ago, it brought out autoloaders that cost more than any others but the obscure Cosmi, which I thought was an unlikely direction to follow. But when T. McGuane bought a Black eagle, followed by Pat and Carol Hemingway after they had their gun collection stolen, I knew that people were paying attention.

I like the mechanical inventiveness- I am less than pleased with the angularity…

Which is not the problem with the Mark Newsom- designed, limited edition Beretta 486, a $25,000 gun that may be the ultimate refinement of the round action. Newsom had not designed a gun before; as far as I know he didn’t even shoot. This one is odd, but I see no reason it wouldn’t work..

Still, if your taste is more traditional, how about their “Parrallelo”? This one reminds me of the unsuccessful but mourned Ruger round action a few years ago. Maybe Beretta’s slightly higher price, around $5000, will allow it to find a permanent niche.

My own preference is a little 28 bore, the least expensive (though hardly cheap) of these new guns. The F.A.I.R. Iside looks not unlike the Beretta, but its innovative boxlock action is forged in one piece, with integral tangs, which may be what brings its price down to an almost affordable $3000.

Beebe

Will Beebe, naturalist, writer, inventor, New York socialite, jungle and ocean explorer, is a man whose like it would be hard to have today. But without his example, I don’t know if I would be the person I am. Tom McGuane also cites him as a childhood inspiration, not for writing (I think he slights him a bit here), but for adventure. He wrote his first book in 1905, a rather 19th century affair called Two Bird Lovers in Mexico, and wrote his last stuff for the Geographic in the early sixties. He was a friend to Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote the intro to (I believe) his second book, early, and to Father Anderson Bakewell much later, invented the Bathysphere and exploration of the abyss, shot flying fish with a 28 bore Parker, and married beautiful women…

I have intended to write on Beebe for a while, as I have a nice little collection of “Beeebeana”, but I was prompted by my correspondent, Kirk, one of the serious polymaths himself– geneticist, MD, gourmand, elk hunter, scholar of Icelandic history, sea trout fiend, student of esoteric lore (he is the only acquaintance of mine who has attended the Naropa Institute Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where he among other things read Conrad with William Burroughs!) Kirk, in a discussion of Kipling, asked me if I knew of the “Kiplingite” Beebe (who actually met Kipling when he was living in Vermont). When I replied that I did, and shared my modest collection, Kirk responded with the following:

“Since the first page I “self-identified” as a scientist.
A tiny sphere dangling deep in the dark with
a shaft of light on bizarre never-before-seen creatures.
My wife gave me Gould’s biography (out of print) this summer after hearing
her interviewed on NPR, and probably tiring of me
rave about William Beebe for 40 years (almost
from the day we met) i.e., why I do what I do.
What a combination – absolute scientific rigor,
wild bravery, aplomb everywhere (back of beyond to Vanity Fair),
work hard, party hard, a true advocate for women in
science (one of the first), smashing technical and popular writer,
bon vivant with no care for possessions or
wealth other than that needed for more science, genial
mentor to so many of the best of the best.”

Sing it, Kirk! Here are some things…

His first book:

A favorite, Pheasant Jungles — a signed copy. It was a VERY different time– read the caption (double click to enlarge)…

Books then were decorative- here are the endpapers of  Jungle Days  and The Arcturus Adventure. Both were published by Putnam, nature and adventure being mainstream in those days…

One of his most wonderful books is Pheasants, Their Lives and Homes – two volumes covering every species, in its natural home! Beebe, just after WWl and working for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was given the kind of assignment that usually doesn’t exist even in fiction– to travel to Asia and collect and observe every species, paid for by the wealthy patron Colonel Kuser. The resulting volumes also used the great nature artists of the time– Knight, George Lodge, Fuertes. There is nothing else like them.

 


 This is only the beginning, early, land based. His dives in the Bathysphere, his ocean stuff comes later. His bio, by Carol Grant Gould, and the bathysphere book, Descent, by Brad Matsen, are absolutely  worth reading. His social life was amusing too- he knew father B,  who collected snakes for the Museum, and who used to keep a copy of the Social Register beside his Alpine Journal and his cocked and locked Colt Commander (“What good is an unloaded gun?” he would always say), in front of a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in his Santa Fe casita. I have joked that the American Museum , the Social Register, and the Explorers Club used to draw on the same crowd in the Thirties, and it is more true than not. To be continued…

Ahh, one more, from Beebe’s own Bathysphere book, Half Mile Down