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…

Cryptic Cats

I always like finding new species, and am fascinated by “cryptic” ones that look just like others but have different DNA. (Are there really SEVEN Red Crossbills?) Not every species is really one, and if you obsess on the subject it will drive you mad. I like to argue and define, but my not quite tongue- in- cheek assertion that Northern Goshawks are not one circumpolar but two species, while the Gyr and Saker are one, is an example of a debatable case I know something about.

I know nothing about cats, but as a curious naturalist I was interested in this account of a new species of Leopardus found in Brazil, not least because last time I looked at cats the only one close to it was the Margay, Leopardus (then Felis) weidi.

The pictures made  L. tigrinus and L. guttulus look like color phases, but the evidence of long separation seemed clear. More than that was nagging at me. In the 60’s and early 70’s, before I knew her, Betsy Huntington had achieved the rare feat of breeding margays in her house in Cambridge, where they mostly roamed free. (She demonstrated her methods to a horrified Roger Caras on live TV–“I just waited until the female was in heat and stuck them together like this. It wasn’t hard– they liked each other!”)

But her two cats looked less alike than the new species and the “tigrina” Remember, these are old photos, but…

And here are a couple of the stripier one leaping and perched up where they did, and of an indubitable margay. The one with the more striking markings also has a rather different head (and I do not think he is an ocelot, as there are also photos of an ocelot– bigger, bulkier, and different– in her album to compare– last pic).

I don’t know if  we can ever do other than speculate– I think everyone involved in the project is long dead, and the only two who remember its existence are me and Annie Davidson. Annie?