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.

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

Moroccan Hawk ID

Terence Clark has been in Morocco for the Festival of Traditional Hunting, where he photographed some hawks. Most were Peregrines of the migrant race that they call Shahin Bari, “Bari” meaning “of the sea”– probably the far- northern Falco peregrinus calidus, which may have flown from as far as Siberia.

But the young man on the right in the second pic has what Paul Domski rightly calls “an immature, a somewhat odd Accipiter”. At a quick drive by it looks like a Gos, but its skinny bottle shoulders and longish head and legs and even neck don’t look quite right even for a small male– and in relation to the Peregrine, it doesn’t look that small, nor are calidus small Peregrines. I thought to check the not- quite – Accipiters Melierax, the “Chanting goshawks”, one species of which does live in Morocco, but all add barred rather than pale bellies,

Surely this is something Q’s readership can solve. I know, it is probably just a Gos sitting funny. But Paul and I have seen and flown a lot of Gosses– he has at least two these days.

Right or double click to enlarge for detail– these are big.

Two old (or old- fashioned) naturalists, and new photo series

Two old farts in the bar courtyard. John Wilson is an old style bug catching (or photographing) “stamp collector” naturalist like me, an Ohioan who retired from an Audubon sanctuary there to a remote homestead in the Mags– somebody I can talk bugs, birds, and taxonomy with! Luckily he likes beer too. I am starting a local insect of the week photo with him though I expect as it gets colder it will become feeder bird or plant or…?

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, at 7000 feet in November:

Running Dogs

Herb Wells of Alpaugh CA takes the most amazing photos of coursing dogs I have ever seen- probably that anyone has.

A couple of sets here. The first three pics demonstrate the incredible and totally normal hyperextension and flexing of a running dog’s first joints (third is also one of out own breeding, Daniela’s Shunkar). This is also why you should not remove dewclaws.



Second batch: synchronized dogging. Is this common?!



Andrey’s Photos

Andrey Kovalenko, ornithologist, breeder of our Kyran, and ace photographer, has a new wildlife photo site. He travels all over Central Asia but I bet more of them are from his own Kazakhstan , with its incredibly varied landscape, than anywhere else. Here is an example, plus one of him with Kyran’s father Berkut and with Lib and fellow photographer Oleg Belyalov in the Tian Shan.


Flock Flight


I never tire of watching the great winter flocks of birds like starlings, moving with eerie grace like some superorganism, supposedly by obeying very simple rules. (Photo, sent anonymously a year or two ago, by Manuel Presti; thanks, PD!)

This is most obvious when birds are under attack.Bill Kessler sent this amazing YouTube filmed in the Netherlands of a flock being harassed by a sparrowhawk, which eventually splits the “organism” in half, making it fission like an amoeba.

Richard Barnes’ Animal Logic, a wonderful book of photographs which also features things like deconstructed museum dioramas and skulls (deconstructed in this case a Good Thing) has an excellent selection of photos of starlings flocking in Rome.

(Animal Logic also has an essay by the always quotable Jonathan Rosen which may show up in Commonplace Book soon).