A Mongolian Progression….

Most books by Roy Chapman Andrews are interesting, but inexpensive. In his day he was a popular writer, and even early titles like Whale Hunting with Gun and Camera (!) and Camps and Trails in China are not too hard to find.

Not so The New Conquest of Central Asia. As it is the record of ten years of American Museum of Natural History expeditions, a huge book with many contributors, its usual price tag of around $650 is easy to understand, but hard to pay!

So when I found a not too battered ex- lib with a library binding and only three of its more than 200 plates missing, for $200, I grabbed it, I have never been happier with a book! Despite the rough condition a (tape on maps, stamps,  and library binding), it is a battered, still- magnificent treasure trove of everything Mongolian,  scientific and, yes, Colonial, in  early Twentieth Century Asian history.

Our house name for it is The Big Book of Mongolia, and we keep it on the coffee table rather than the library, where we can dig into it randomly when we have a minute to spare, finding everything from buildings I have been in (Gandan Monastery) to landscapes we, like they, drove through,  despite the absence  of roads. One of our friends in Ulan bataar, Nyamdorj, always drovenhis Mercedes limo across the steppes, stopping for us to get out and push the car through what would be considered blue–ribbon trout streams in Montana. I must ask Jonathan Hanson if the first AMNH expedition is the first one that used cars extensively — they even had camels plants stashes of gas ahead of them! And, of course, I’ve touched the  fossils in the actual dinosaur’s nest in Ulaan Bataar’s museum, some of the first ones ever found.

The book’s typical condition:

Driving in he twenties; Wolf, Chapman’s dog, riding high
The frontispiece is one of the few remaining color plates,  but there were only 5, while there were hundreds of black and white illos . And I have always liked this map showing the relative sizes of the US and Mongolia, and even used a version in Eagle Dreams, but this one looked like it was situated too far South.
I was right.Here is the correct one, from Andrews’ On the Trail of Ancient Man:
 The title of the last book gives a hint of irony too.The expeditions found MANY fossils, including important mammals (Chapman was to write some of his best accounts of finding them in his children’s book, All About Strange Beasts of the Past, in 1956 — it was the first of his books that I read. He also found the most important dinosaur fossils of all time, in beds that are still giving up fascinating fossils; without them, we might not have found the affinities of dinosaurs to birds as fast as we have. But they were looking for human fossils, all the time, and they never found any! They were certain humans had originated in Asia.
Until I read The New Conquest, I never realized that they had a great human paleontologist on board: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, the aristocratic, Jesuit paleontologist who indeed found one of the most important and iconic hominin fossils, the so-called Peking Man, on Dragon Bone hill near Beijing. It is now considered one of the first and most important fossils of Homo erectus. Or at least the castings made from it are. 
Pere Teilhard was an enigmatic man. His theology is abstruse and incomprehensible to me, though Father Bakewell respected it. My favorite of his books is Letters From a Traveler, accounts of his various diggings and wanderings. His life was novelistic, and two good novels have been written about him and the fate of  Peking Man. What is known is that the fossils were put on an America controlled train to be shipped out of the way of the invading Japanese, and they have never been seen again. The first, by Stephen Becker, is called The Blue-eyed Shan. It is a part of his Chinese trilogy, one of the oddest concepts for good books I’ve ever seen. In each, a newly decommissioned Marine who was, like Becker, born in China, engages in a series of adventures. In the first, The Chinese Bandit, adventure is the point. The book can be summed up as marine goes to China, marine is attacked by Chinese bandits, marine becomes The Chinese bandit. The second, The Last Mandarin, is a comedy, but a dark one; a caper book. The third, and I think the most profound, The Blue Eyed Shan,  is a tragedy; the bones end up in possession of a wild mountain tribe in Burma after they kill the protagonists. All three would make good movies, albeit with different directors.
The other novel is probably more realistic. Nicole Mones, author of Lost in Translation, is a Sinophile and scholar who lives in China; another of her good novels is about Chinese  food and cooking. She knows a lot about de Hardin’s life in Beijing and his interesting relationships with intellectual women. 
All these books are worth reading. And you might be interested to know that Becker, a New Englander who used a wheelchair and lived on a sailboat (he was a friend of Bad Bob Jones) also wrote a very good novel about law and justice in early 20th century southern New Mexico called A Covenant with Death.

Found Book

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…

The Hounds

The book is done, at 44,000- plus words– I like it, very much, and hope not to have to rewrite it. As it is a very personal book it may seem quirky to some, but I hope the editors can use their judgment and let it stand, more or less as is, with its melancholy and occasional obsessiveness…

My first page has a frontispeiece, of mad Riss and silly Tavi and stout old Ghaddi dancing, and an epigram– THE epigram- from Federico Calboli, which somehow sets the mood for the whole book, for me. Other photos will simply have a separate folder, but I thought that the mysterious hounds, dancing in black and white, deserved a special place of their own. Let us see if I can reproduce the effect here…

Survived

Catherine and Jean Louis Lassez are back in the states, and Catherine is back at Muleshoe Ranch, after being right in the middle of the Himalayan earthquake. Much to be said, much of it serious and some harrowing, but the trip was not without its whimsical moments…

UPDATE: English bird and nature writer Conor Jameson, friend of the blog and author of Looking for the Goshawk, now available at English Amazon in pb, was over there for four weeks before the quake, working for the RSPB. He has written a guest post on their blog, suggesting ways to help and ending with these original thoughts, which I think both the Lassez and Libby, who has been going there even longer, would agree on:

“We can also help, in the longer term, by considering a visit to the
country, when it is back on its feet. I hope if you do that you find
time to get a little bit off the beaten tourist track and visit projects
like ours, working with communities to sustain the sublime natural
environment of this brave, spirited country, embodied in the reputation
of its religious figures, mountain guides and Gurkha regiments which
have done so much for us. Nepal and its people hold a deserved place in
the world’s affections

Nepal Earthquake connection

The disaster in Nepal has taken a personal turn. Jean Louis and Catherine Lassez, long time  “semi- native” residents of the old Muleshoe Ranch fifteen miles out of Magdalena, Asia hands, Christmas hosts, originator of the barbecue for the Old Timer’s fiesta queen; artists, art collectors, keepers of as many dogs as us; above all dear friends, are among the yet un- accounted for in the Himalayan earthquake. (Scroll down).

This may mean nothing. They could have been on the road between Pokhara and Katmandu. They are resourceful, calm, experienced travelers, sometimes in  places even more remote, and communications there are terrible at the moment. But how can we, and their daughter Sara in LA, not worry?

This blog has long connections that only come to light  at certain times; one, for instance,  helped pay for Irbis’s leg operation. If anybody out there runs into our friends, let us know.

Last pic from Nepal this trip; Lassez 1968; J L with saddhus in Katmandu on  previous trip; all of us at Christmas; Lib & Catherine 2 Christmases ago;  various JL art parodies.

HAPPY UPDATE:  Just got word they are OK, just stranded, like everybody else, and better off than many; as I said, they are seasoned third world travelers.  They have braved “Myanmar”, and Lib reminds me they were in Indonesia when the big tsunami hit the area…

Photoblog: China, early 20th C.

A collage of sorts. Explain, improvise, interpret, or even deconstruct.

UPDATE. Everyone in comments had the idea. The elements: books on China by the American Museum’s Roy Chapman Andrews, “Indiana Jones”, before he ever got to “outer” Mongolia and its fossils, and his China host, missionary, ornithologist and big game hunter Harry Caldwell. Caldwell hunted almost entirely with Savage 99’s in .250 Savage (“250- 3000” for its hitherto unmatched velocity) and .22 Hi- Power, the obsolete cartridge shown here– he used the 250 on the local elk and shot many tigers, at least one a maneater, with it. Perhaps only the easy confidence of a man of God let him get away with that.

Other objects include Mongolian snuff bottles– snuff is still popular there, as it was back then, and a little animalier bronze of a tiger by Tiffany. Photo of me with eaglers including the late R Suleiman in Olgii on first Mongolia  trip, 1997.

Overland Traveller

My sometime neighbor for almost 20 years, Rolf Magener, is sort of a professional traveler (at least when he is not stopping at the apartment of a Swedish countess in Buenos Aires, where I just sent my copy); two years ago he was sailing across the South Pacific, and he sent me my treasured photo of Chini Bagh in Kashgar, but he touches down here periodically. He is now trying to make some money at it by publishing Overland Traveller (Brit spelling), an online travel mag with splendid photos and good advice. I contributed a piece on Malaria, mine and an update on the disease, in his initial issue; in his latest, on Asia and especially Central Asia, I had more fun riffing on the northern Silk Road…

(“… 

Still another time, we sat in a French restaurant in
UB, run by  an African woman
from Senegal who had married an American Peace Corps volunteer from
Philadelphia who took her to UB and then divorced her; she landed on her feet,
teaching African spices and French wine to young Mongolian girls. Passing in
the falling snow on the boulevard below, we counted: a herd of sheep, a camel
being led by an ancient granny, many Russian motorcycles with sidecars, many
Mercedes of various vintages; horsemen, Ladas, Chinese “jeeps”, a
Suburban with black windows (Mafia, they say). UB is a postmodern cyberpunk
city at the heart of Central Asia, with whole suburbs of gers, stretching as far as you can see, with
horses and guardian mastiffs chained and threatening, and television antennas
and motorcycles…”)

Rolf is German, younger than me, and grew up mostly in South Africa and Spain; the only property I know of that belongs to him is in our county, a few acres on the west side of the Magdalenas. But remember this book cover? I put it up as a tease last month.

Our Rolf is the namesake of the author, his uncle, who was one of the German climbers interned in northern India with Heinrich Harrer at the outset of WWII. They broke out and “one went NORTH”, to misquote the nursery rhyme– Harrer, to his seven years in Tibet, fame, and eventually a movie starring Brad Pitt; and one went EAST, Magener, to Burma. But I guess that to many Burma was not as romantic as Tibet. and nobody ever made a movie Still, a good book. Mine is signed by the younger Rolf.

Our editor at Muleshoe Ranch last Christmas

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My Favorite Recent Hominin Reconstruction

I suspect “WE”– call us Modern or in Europe Cro- Magnon– thought that our recently extinct  fellow “hominins'”,  to use the latest correct term–  looked odd, as we did to them,  even though we did mix genes.  Most reconstructions are so steeped in reflexive egalitarianism– wrong word, but I’m looking for a synonym for sappy “everything is beautiful”- ism– that all depictions look like that mythical Neandertal on the train mentioned so often in the fifties (TRAIN? Did we all live in New York or London??),  who just looked a bit uncomfortable in his Mad Men commuter suit. Which is why I do love these Denisovans, who would give any Modern kid proper nightmares; I suspect their (and our) western kin, the Neandertals, would have too…