Good essay

Barry Lopez in Granta. The first quote is so often the writer’s dilemma.

“As much as I believed I was fully present in the physical worlds I was
traveling through, I understood over time that I was not. More often I
was only thinking
about the place I was in. Initially awed by an event, the screech of a
gray fox in the night woods, say, or the surfacing of a large whale, I
too often moved straight to analysis. On occasion I would become so
wedded to my thoughts, to some cascade of ideas, that I actually lost
touch with the details that my body was still gathering from a place.”

“Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential,
both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to
derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic
dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense
of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world, patterns
that are ever present and discernible, and which incorporate the
observer, undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or
meaningless in it.”

(Courtesy of Carlos Martinez del Rio)

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.

Quote

On our rockstar Helen, by Jonathan Katz, an uncommon observation.

“… the writer Wilfred Sheed wrote once in the New Yorker that “every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Sheed wasn’t being nasty, he was being honest. I loved Macdonald’s talk and a I loved her book, but I died a little tonight.

“Even though I died a bit, looking at the crowd, reading those reviews, I also loved every second of it. Sheed is right,  I suppose, every writer winces a bit at a book as good as this one, but I loved being there much more than I didn’t. When a book and a writer  deserves every bit of the praise, it softens the blow.”

Also, as truthful if less painful:

“Macdonald talked about the need for animals in our lives, and  her worry that they are disappearing from the every day lives of people.”

Helen’s latest conquest is an excellent review by Caleb Crain in the New York Review of Books (no free link yet).

Helen Rockstar!

Randy Davis wrote me today to tell me about a signing for Tom McGuane’s new book– I will delay getting it until I can get an inscribed one in Denver. He was at the Strand with Tom Brokaw.

“My oldest son went to see/hear the McGuane – Brokaw show at  Strand  Books in Manhattan.  Late in the session there was the usual question about what are you reading now, McGuane answered  and I’m paraphrasing, a lovely book that I thought had no commercial prospects, but has proven otherwise: H for Hawk.”

Otherwise indeed! Two big time British literary awards for a personal memoir with falconry is unusual. But I am not sure anyone I ever knew has had as meteoric a rise as Pluvialis in the US…

Partisan? You bet! But consider: this past week she had TWO NYT rave reviews , one Wall Street Journal, one Atlantic, one “Daily Beast”, a long article about her with a photo in the New Yorker, and an NPR interview on Wednesday in which she quoted me– on my birthday! A fine present for my slightly scary 65th…

So in her honor, from her blog Fretmarks, a 2006 description of a Gos in the riparian forest on the Syrdarya in Uzbekistan. You may want to go out and get H is for Hawk when you finish.

“Just near here, I looked up and thought I saw a man standing in a tree.
That’s what my brain told me, momentarily. A man in a long overcoat
leaning slightly to one side.

“And then I saw it wasn’t a man, but a goshawk.

“Moments like this are very illuminating. I’d never thought before, much,
about the actual phenomenology of human-hawk resemblance, the one that
must have brought forth all those mythological hawk-human bonds I’ve
studied for so long.

“I looked at a hawk in a tree, but I saw a man. How curious.

“This goshawk must have been eighty feet away, so dark against the bright
morning sun, so I couldn’t see whether he was facing me or the river.
His short head and snaky neck craned: he was looking at me.

“I raised my binoculars to my eyes as slowly as I could, half-closing my
eyes so my lashes fringed the glare. There. There he was. The glare
wasn’t so bad. I could see his edges very clearly. The light was very
bright. But I could also faintly see the horizontal barring on his chest
feathers. This was an adult male goshawk, and he looked very different
from the ones at home. He reminded me of old photographs of goshawks
flown by falconers on the northwest frontier. Hell, he was
one of these goshawks. He had a dark, dark head with a flaring pale
eyebrow, and the bars on his chest were close-set and far from the hazy,
broken lines of European birds. Imagine tracing—with a ruler—each
horizontal line of a narrow-ruled notebook with a thick, dark-grey
felt-tip pen. That’s what his front looked like, through the glare. And
he was standing on a bare branch and making up his mind what I was,
exactly, and what he should do about it.

“Slowly, he unfolded his wings, as if putting on a coat, and then, rather
quietly and leisurely, he took to the air, one long leg and
loosely-clenched foot trailing as he went. I was astonished by how
long-winged he was, and how much he looked like a big — albeit
long-tailed — falcon. His shape was very different from the goshawks at
home. He was a migrant gos; he’d travelled down mountains and across the
plains to winter here.

“Happy Pluvialis! I wandered back to camp, had a snooze, compared bird
notes, smoked a cigarette and had a cup of coffee. Halimjan made soup
for lunch; there it was, bubbling in the cast-iron pot over the gas
flame and we were sitting around our red plastic table chewing on stale
bread waiting for the soup, and all our heads went up at once. A noise
like ripping, tearing hessian, like a European Jay, only with real
terror in it, was coming towards us right there
and we watched — and slow as syrup and fast as a blink all at once,
came the male gos trying his damnest to catch a magpie; they flashed
right through the trees in front of the table, and gos nearly had a foot
to the magpie before he saw us — five humans and a fire and a truck and
a Giant Red Table right below
him — ack! — wave off! wave off! — and the magpie dove downwards to the
fork of a branch, crouching like a man avoiding a blow, and the gos
spooled away through the trees. He looked like a coin falling through
water, flashing silver and grey. Some kind of metal. A very fierce one.
Potassium, Sodium, Goshawk.”

On translating Russian

In my Sportsman’s Library, usually called “The Book of books” around here, I wrote about Mikhail Prishvin’s Nature’s Diary, and the problem of translation:

“There is also an interesting book by Prishvin, published by Pantheon 1952, called The Lake and the Woods, a handsome volume illustrated by woodcuts. A close read reveals it is the same book, but by a different translator and, more remarkably, with hardly any two words the same! I have helped translate another hunting book from the Russian, and know that the languages are different enough that some paraphrase is inevitable, but this edges into funny. Having no Russian edition, I can’t tell which seems the better. The new one reads more smoothly and the old is prettier. I am happy to have both.”

The first Prishvin I read was published by Penguin in 1987 and translated by L. Navrozov. Here is a passage:

“I always felt ashamed when I came to my senses after the madness of a chase as I slung a wretched limp hare over my shoulder, but this queen of the woods was no anti-climax to a hunt even when dead, and Solovei would have gone worrying the carcass if I had let him.

“The shadows had already deepened into twilight.”

And then The Lake and the Woods (published by Pantheon in 1951, and translated by W. L. Goodman):

“I am always ashamed to come to myself after a mad chase, when there is nothing to hang over my shoulder except a miserable, puny hare. But this beauty we had caught and killed was worth the hunting, and if Solovya had had his way, he would have gone on for more.

“Thus it was we met the twilight in the forest.”

Recently I was examining a small book, a collection of Prishvin called The Black Arab (publisher Hutchinson International Authors, 1947; the translator was David Magarshack, who did many translations of Russian literature), which I had picked up long enough ago that I no longer remembered  what was in it. I saw a chapter, a long one, called “Nature’s  Calendar” and had a sudden suspicion, but as its sections (of course) showed no familiar names, it took a while to coordinate it. Sure enough:

“After recovering from the mad passions of the chase, I usually feel ashamed, even while I am swinging the limp body of a hare over my back. But even in death that beautiful fox did not rob me of the taste for hunting and, had I permitted it, Solovey wold have gone on for a long time pulling the dead fox about.

“So we were benighted in the woods.”

Please notice that even the dog’s NAME is different!

Pluvi wins a big one

Helen Macdonald has just won the Samuel Johnson Prize, a VERY big deal. Nice to see prizes go to someone whose writing eminently deserves it, especially when her choice of subject is so quirky, even controversial, as falconry.

It may say something about literary England– or nature loving England– that they would give a prize to a poet’s book about “blood sport”. Of course it helps that Helen may be the best and most vivid writer in England of her generation, even with peers and friends like Rob Macfarlane and Olivia Laing (who you should also read). And no, THIS time I am not going to quote her at length– do yourself a favor and buy her book, NOW.

Magdalena story, relevant: Joel Becktell came over at the end of a summer day last year and I had this photo of Helen under a photomural of a young Sheikh Zayed, a pic taken I believe in the late forties by Thesiger, up on the big screen of my computer. Do remember, though Joel is one of the world’s leading cellists and as sophisticated as me or thee, this is still a remote dirt road town where you may visit on horseback. The screen door opens into the room where I work, my back to it. I called “Come on in!” over my shoulder, and he did, holding a six- pack. Looked at the screen, and said with interest : “Who’s that chick with Zayed?”

I prefer this one with a Lammergeier myself:

But as Mary Ann Maddy said to me at the post office this morning: “… and she’s better looking than you, too!”

Charles Bowden, R.I.P.

“… But I don’t think so”, as he wrote of his old friend Edward Abbey in my favorite of all of his works, Desierto, the closest thing he ever wrote to a nature book. The inscribed flyleaf (double or right click to enlarge) beneath his terrifying later Murder City, is in that book; he had read my old novel manuscript, and was impatient that nobody would publish it… this would be in the nineties. But publishers’ tastes were not as robust as Chuck’s.

If we had lived closer we might have been closer friends, though both of us, he even more than I, needed solitude as well as gregariousness. We talked, but had not seen each other face to face in  a decade or more. As it was, we were admirers and advocates for each other’s work who enjoyed drinking and furious talk and shared tastes in landscape and writing and firearms and even in women. He had an attitude that could be ironic but never cheap. The first time I met him he had a Deadhead skeleton sticker with a rose in its teeth on the left end of his pickup bumper and a sticker that read “Ted Kennedy’s car killed more people than my gun” on the other.

(Re his partisanship, a letter dated 27 Sept 2000 : “I press Querencia on perfect strangers. I am a missionary at heart.”)

Another taste from another old letter: “I bought something the Italians call a superautomatic which grinds the beans, tamps them down, shoots one or two shots through them, and then tamps down the grounds– yes, I am lazy… soon, the process should be as swift as jabbing a needle into my arm… And like your  weaponry it is something I can ill afford but apparently there is nothing to be done about it.”

He ventured into places where armed police and even the Mexican army stayed out, blew the lid off the most brutal yet ignored crimes, interviewed 17 year old assassins and serenely corrupt politicians, wrote essays about the innocence and deadly beauty of rattlers and mountain lions. I always feared that he would be hunted down by the cartels, but hoped he would go on one of his long walkabouts in the desert that refreshed his soul, at about 93. Instead he apparently died in his sleep yesterday at 69 in his Las Cruces home. Weirdly, I had begun his last book, Some of the Dead are Still Breathing,  just the day before, and intended to write to him, rather than write his obituary, tonight.

Update: his friend Jack Dykinga does a much better, and darkly hilarious, version here. HT to Jonathan Hanson.