Once or twice, like any person who buys and occasionally sells books, I have found a book on my shelves that I did not know I had.
But only once have I found a really valuable one that I had no recollection of buying, and still don’t. It happened about two “book culls” past, when I literally had books stacked two deep on some shelves. In the densely- packed Asia section, I saw the spine of this book:
It is Charles Vaurie’s Birds of the Himalayas. Now this is not an unnatural book for us to have: I have some other good regional ornithologies, and the Himalayas were Libby’s stomping grounds in her youthful Guiding days. She even had that slender pb bird guide published in Nepal in the seventies that many trekkers had back then– I think I threw it out in a fit of critical thinking, because the illos were so dreadful, every damn species sort of blue and black and crested and about the same size. Now I’d be likely to keep it, just for that reason.
But Vaurie was something else. First, it was a beautiful book, with plates of various Himalayan pheasants and such, including my favorite non- raptorial bird, the Satyr tragopan, But the book is better than that. Although it was published in 1972 it has the air and feel of something like Beebe’s Pheasants,Their Lives and Homes, published in 1926 in two volumes, or one of Meinerzhagen’s expensive productions. But it is not an arty or coffee table book , like some “collectors'” editions published today; it is a sort of Golden Age standard ornithology.
My interest grew as I looked through it. A page illustrating the mythical Garuda bird was marked by a hand- painted card of the creature, a much better illo…
And then I see the bookplate, of the former owner, and the letter, and I am even more amazed, for I know who both of them are. Despite their aristocratic European names, they, like Will Beebe and Roy Chapman Andrews, worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the institution that has done more to shape my view of the world than any other, from when I was reading Beebe and Andrews at the Ames Free Library in Easton or at Jeanne d’Arc Academy in Milton (which happened also to be the childhood mansion of another old influence and in that case a friend as well, Frances Hamerstrom, who was Aldo Leopld’s only female student and who started her relationship with me by damning me for writing Rage for Falcons , fearing my “tough Sportswriter’s style”- HER words, in the Auk no less, would end up with falcons being commercially exploited, and ended up drinking brandy with me and the cowboys in the Golden Spur, in a near- ghost town where, in 1914, her mentor gave a talk on conservation to a crowd bigger than the entire population of the town today.
That thread will wind through collecting specimens and the Peregrine Fund and widowhood the Congo pygmies and even the David Letterman show, but it is a western one mostly and not the one here, which leads to Asia and Father Anderson Bakewell and the Explorers Club; to Libby and three trips to Mongolia and Kazakhstan and three books so far; and who knows what else to come?
None of this would have happened without the AMNH, and Libby knows this so I assumed she, the seasoned Himlayan guide, had bought it for me.
But she had never seen it either…