Maurice R. “Monty” Montgomery, 1938- 2017: RIP

My friend Monty was always a slightly elusive presence, even in his autobiographical sketch in Amazon, written by himself:

“M. R. Montgomery, known to the various government record keepers as Maurice R. Montgomery Jr., and to all his acquaintances as Monty, was born in eastern Montana in 1938, raised partly in California, and now lives near Boston for reasons that he cannot quite explain. Over the past twenty-five years he has written for the Boston Globe on every subject except politics, a clean record he hopes to maintain until retirement. Other than fishing and a little bit of gunning, he has no obsessive hobbies, although he has been known to plant the occasional tomato and a manageable number of antique rose varieties, these for the pleasure of his wife, Florence.”

He was sort of the unknown best writer I knew. ALL of his books were good, but two in particular, Many Rivers to Cross, about native trout, and Saying Goodbye, about eastern Montana and fathers and sons, are absolute classics. Saying Goodbye is the best book on eastern Montana I know.

Monty could write about anything. Though I didn’t get to know him until the 90s, I first wrote to him for advice on bird dogs in 1970s — he replied with a column called “Find a Gentleman With a Bird Dog”. He also wrote columns I remember on rutabagas and November.

In the end I couldn’t even find his obit in the Globe. Monty was erudite, kind, and generous as well as an undervalued writer. He will be missed.

Here is a fine tribute by Corb Lund about their mutual country.

James Lee Mansell, RIP

James was Floyd Mansell’s oldest son, with the woodsman’s heritage and ability one might expect. Perhaps even in extra measure; he was one of the best woodsmen and elk and turkey hunters I ever knew in his youth. I believe he was also a Golden Gloves boxer, as many of Floyd’s kids and proteges were. But he had a problem. Before such things were diagnosed properly, at least in rural districts, he was utterly dyslexic and never did learn to read. It was no lack of intelligence or dedication; he spoke Spanish, “Burqueno”- accented English , and Navajo; people tended to think he was Spanish, but he was a quarter Navajo, a quarter Choctaw, a quarter Scots- Irish, and a quarter Lebanese; with his handsome vaguely Asian features he would have looked quite at home in Almaty or any of the Stans…

James worked hard, played hard, and walked more than anyone I knew (he once broke his back in an accident, and was walking three days later!), and he drank. It finally killed him. He was nothing if not realistic about it, and made jokes about it until his last days. I would ask him why he had done something uncharacteristically dumb, and he would look at me and say “Steve… I was drunk!” It reached its peak of heartbreak and hilarity when he insisted on narrating, in a loud voice, in the supermarket at 10 AM, how he had managed to get bitten two times by a big diamondback, which he normally could have controlled with ease, as he was a serious snake collector. In each stage of the narration — anaphylactic shock from the antivenin, and getting bit again when he released it; I would say “I know James, I know”. He kept on going “You know WHY?” I said “Yes, James” in a quiet voice. “PUTA, I was drunk!!”

He remained incorrigibly cheerful, even as his horizons narrowed. After being lost in the Gila Wilderness for three days,he stopped going on extended hunts. Breaking his back, though he walked through the pain, made it still harder than it was. He still came by almost daily, pointing out birds and other creatures he had seen on his walks. Toward the end, his wife Bernice was trying to get me to write about him, saying “You don’t know him — he’s Floyd Mansell’s son!” James, sitting at a table a few feet away, kept saying “Bernice, he’s my friend Steve. I saw him this morning! Leave him alone!”

He left behind an enormous amount of good will and love, many brothers and sisters, his mother Wanda, and a grieving wife, and a wonderful bunch of children and grandchildren, some of them already accomplished naturalists and outdoors people. Although he lived his life on the margins, he’ll be missed by many,including me.

James and grandchildren.

William “Gatz” Hjortsberg, 1941- 2017

Chris Waddington, my old editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and now a happier man in his belovcd New Orleans (even though Katrina flooded his house) emailed to tell me that our mutual friend Gatz Hjortsberg died at his home in Livingston after a “short illness” i.e. pancreatic cancer (it’s a bad one; it’s the one that took down Bob Jones after he survived prostate cancer.)

As I said to Chris, our friendship was cordial, but not particularly close. Still, we were part of the same Montana scene and went to the same parties, where Michael Katakis would groan “Oh God, Gatz and Bodio are both here — nobody else will be able to get  in a word.” Probably true, and I think they’re all the better for it.  He was always known as “Gatz”, never Bill or William, apparently because of a youthful infatuation with the work of Scott Fitzgerald, especially The Great Gatsby. Besides, he wore all those cool hats.

He was utterly intrepid.He was one of Pat’s boys” at Sports Illustrated, and his first assignment was to ride a BULL.He did it, too.

Gatz was undervalued as a writer of books, perhaps because he was a writer of genre books in a  literary field. He followed his friend Tom McGuane to Livingston from grad school, because McGuane was the only writer he knew who fished. Among the schools he attended was Stanford, where like McGuane, he was a Stegner  Fellow; that is, someone whom Wallace Stegner abused. This was good company to be in; among the other people Stegner called bums, hippies, beatniks, and worthless were Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, and the lesser known but fascinating David Shetzline, who wrote one of the only two good novels I know of about  forest fires. Among Gatz’s books were the dark fantasy Alp and the darker sci- fi Gray Matters in the early years, and the Mexican thriller Manana recently. But his best knows was Falling Angel , which was made into a movie starring Mickey Rourke. He also wrote Nevermore where he wrote the following wonderful inscription in my copy:

He also wrote a puzzling biography of “Poor Old Richard” Brautigan, which took him about 14 years and was rejected by its first publisher. In the end it ran to 862 pages, any 100 of which were brilliant. I can’t help but think that Richard’s own words might apply: ” In this world, where there is only a little time to spend, I think I’ve spent enougth time on this butterfly.” *

No matter. Gatz Hjortsberg was a gentleman and a writer, and he will be missed.

*The quote about the butterfly is a close paraphrase. I’m not going to look it up at this hour!

Vern Dawson 1962- 2017 RIP

Vernon Dawson died this week, tragically youmg. He was a miner, a craftsman, a drinker, a gentleman, and a friend.  Perhaps his problem was the one mentioned long ago by Jimmy Buffett in “A Pirate Looks at Forty” (Forty!): “My occupational hazard bein’ / My occupation’s just not around.”  The days of the hard rock miner in Magdalena have passed…

His manners were impeccable. Libby remembers the first time she met him. H’e was sleeping in the alley, but woke as we passed. He took off his hat, saying to her, “Ma’am, I don’t believe we have met.” Then turning to me: “Hello Stephen. Have you written anything good lately?” He then laid his head on his jacket and went back to sleep.

He was meticulous about tools, and it pained him to see them neglected.Once a person who perhaps had more dollars than sense had a flood in his basement that covered his guns with mud. They were not fancy– a couple of Mosssbergs , a Remington .22, two sporterized SMLE’s- but were useful working guns hat had hitherto been well-maintained- and O was just going to leave them encased in mud.

“That aint right”, said Vern to me. Then  to O: “See that spool table over there? Pile em up on it, get Stephen a fiifth of vodka and me a  case of beer, and find us a hose, some paper towels, and some oil. We’ll put ’em right.”

We did, too. By the afternoon’s end, we were drunk, but he guns were in better shape than they had ever been in….                                             

Leonard Cohen 1934- 2017 RIP

I first saw Leonard Cohen play at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Joni Mitchell, in an orange striped mini-dress, led him out.He looked like a rabbinical student. He played ‘Suzanne’ as I remember, and I vowed to buy it as soon as it was out. I have bought virtually everything he has done. I am not one to complain about Bob Dylan’s getting the Nobel, but Cohen was the best we had. He was a Zen Buddhist Jew with Catholic tendencies, and virtually the only person in the music world I considered to be a wise man. Despite the darkness and mortality of much of his work, he was also very funny.

When Libby looked up that first performance, she said my memory was wrong. I thought that Joni had been wearing a horizontal striped mini-dress; it was diagonally striped.

Here is one of my favorites; also one of the world’s best bar songs, though it is a lot more than that…

George Graham RIP

My brother in law and dear friend, George Graham, died early today after a struggle with esophageal cancer. He was not quite 54, and I can’t get my head around it yet. Until a month or so ago he and Karen were pretty optimistic, and I always thought he would outlive me.

We were utterly different people who shared a surprising number of interests: our deep love for Karen; a fascination for New England nature, especially in its maritime aspects, and all its inhabitants; great enjoyment in telling stories and drinking until all hours of the night; local lore and language; eating an enormous amount of delicacies unknown to westerners, like bluefish and fried clams with bellies– who is going to find me the good clam shacks now?

Though he didn’t know it, he had already inspired me to write about the returning alewife run he showed me last year. I always hoped he’d come out here again — he enjoyed shooting Winchester level action rifles, and patronizing the Golden Spur Bar, where the locals loved to make him talk to hear his accent: “Say your name, George”. He taught me that for all my airs I am “OFD” “Officially F****n”‘ Dawchesta”, born on Templeton Street just off “Dot (Dorchester) Ave”, on a site now obliterated by New Ashmont station. I left at four, but my private schools from five up and my pronunciation of the letter “r” notwithstanding, he made me say the one “r”- less thing he knew I would:

“What parish were you born in- don’t think about it, just SAY it!”

(ME) “Saint Maahk’s!”.Learned before four and never forgotten.

George: “SEE? Only people from New Orleans and Dawchesta know the answer to that question! You’re from Saint Maahk’s off Dot Ave– your as OFD as Maahk Wahlberg!”

I’ll have a lot more to say later. For now it is enough to say: he was a wonderful man, a great father, and the best husband my sister Karen could have had. We will all miss him.

Thank you, George, for being the friend that you were to a talkative cranky old man in the desert. We love you, and will miss you.

Alewife run

With Tom Russell and co at Passim in Harvard Square

It seems like just a week ago- celebrating my new book, which they got before I did (and notice they have the Gorbatov cover image on their wall)

Heinz Meng, 1925 – 2015: RIP

Heinz Meng in the 70s.

Dr Heinz Meng of New Paltz NewYork, a long -time professor of Zoology at the State University there and the man who first bred falcons in captivity in the US (Not in the WORLD as many news reports chauvinistically state; Renz Waller bred several in Germany before the war, and Ronald Stevens and young John Morris actually bred a  Saker- Peregrine hybrid clutch in Ireland in the sixties. But Waller and especially Stevens were gods of falconry, and Stevens had an entire huge estate in Ireland where he often let his  falcons range free, and pioneered training methods and attitudes in his modest little Observations on Modern Falconry that were to change the ways of everybody from Harry McElroy to me.

While Heinz was a modest professesor in a state college who bred Peale’s Pergirines in his backyard, making it look so easy that in a very  short time, his friends Tom Cade and Jim Weaver, driven by the DDT crisis and the disappearance of the anatum- race Peregrine from its eastern eyries, cranked up what became the a kind of falconry Manhattan Project in their quonset huts at Cornell. This in turn would lead to the Peregrine Fund being founded by the late Frank Bond, future Republican gubernatorial candidate of New Mexico : Jim Weaver, born in Illinois and now a rancher in eastern New Mexico; Bob Berry, then of Philadelphia’s Main Line and now of Wyoming, where he endowed the Berry Center for Biodiversity at U Wy Laramie, run by my friend Carlos Martinez del Rio, and Tom Cade, born dirt poor in there Depression in New Mexico’s Bootheel, professor at Cornell and the only poor man among them. For the next (approximately- I would have to look it up) twenty years, hack teams would receive their precious hatch of “Cornell chickens” (a derisory term coined by, I believe, the birding writer Pete Dunne– write to me, Pete!- and adapted with pride by those of us who worked the hack, including me) and nurse them to maturity, enduring everything from lightning storms to yellowjacket stings to rattlers to tourists to, even, slightly misinformed federal undercover  agents. My partner,  John Tobin, Vietnam vet, grad student, falconer, recently retired Massachusetts Game warden, and I survived all of the above, plus drunken races down the Mount Tom Alpine Slide, in which you would sometimes find trapped copperheads, which could flip into your lap…

All to be told, soon, and in the blog, but not here.What Heinz Meng did was deceptively simple: by his own knowledge and patience, he bred a threatened glamor species, a “charismatic” if not mega- faunal species that had captured the imagination of humans in many cultures for hundreds if not thousands of years. He was a scientist and so recorded his information in reproducible ways.The result was not just one revolution but several (think of the importance, and money, devoted to falcons in Arab cultures, for a hint; think of the blow to the egos of at least some traditional Arabs when they found the larger, braver “male” migrant falcons they were so proud of, that they had never seen nesting on their remote Central and Arctic Asian homes, were FEMALE!)

 Meng’s simple brilliant act of husbandry was to give the east back a relatively common Peregrine, if not precisely the one it started with; start entire industries, up to and including  Robo- Falcons; extended to virtually every falconer’s bird, including a new one, the Harris’s hawk, possibly the most popular hawk in the world today*, and a rediscovered one, the “Alethe”, better known as the Aplomado; make modern falconry possible (most European countries, unlike the States, do not allow any wild “take” at all);  employ semi- unemployable types such as me and Helen Macdonald, at least on occasion, and give us stories to tell; and generate a truly amazing amount of myth and counter myth. And it all started in Heinz Meng’s garage.

I only met Heinz once. Although most reports of his first successful breeding give the dates as 1971 or 1972, I am for various external reasons sure that the date was 1970, when my friend Mark, a long time falconer who met me that year, and Mike Conca, my oldest friend, who still lives in the hills of western Massachusetts, went to a very off-the-radar “meet” in central New York. Heinz was there with a young and very vocal Peale’s falcon (the choice of that difficult sub-species makes his breeding more remarkable). Others present included that old bandit Victor Hardaswick, then a young bandit; then and forever he resembled a rather sinister version of Seinfeld’s George. He was to become a celebrated breeder of falcons himself, and then the only breeder of Siberian goshawks in the U.S., but then he was a bandido from Bridgeport, as well as a second generation fighting cock fancier, the son of a great pouter pigeon breeder. His friend Fran Lynch, another bandit, was there, and a biologist who would later have an extremely savage Golden eagle, which nearly caught me, confiscated and sent to Martha’s Vineyard, where it would live out its life in the household of Vineyard falconer Gus Ben-David, who is best known for flying Great horned owls (THAT falconer was alleged to have consorted with “escorts” at falconers’ conventions, one of whom supposedly answered the phone in a motel with the news that “Bill can’t come to the phone right now — he’s tied up.”) In addition to the legal birds there, there were the first two “blonde” beach peregrines I’d ever seen up close, who were sitting on blocks on the lawn. Mark said “I’d sure like to have some lawn ornaments like that”. Their owners too are long dead, so I’m not worried about repercussions.

Later they were flown successfully at bagged pheasants. They were two weeks out of the trap; that’s how tame the Arctic birds are. I coveted them fiercely, and have still never flown one now that they are legal.

Later, Heinz flew his bird, and he would not come down. Victor killed a pigeon and threw it in the air to see if he would return. He didn’t. He vanished behind the trees, still calling, and I don’t think he ever came back. He might have been taken by a horned owl, an all too common end for birds left out overnight, especially in the days before electronic transmitters. It appalls, and on some level, blackly amuses me, to think that I saw one of the very first clutch of falcons bred in the United States fly away.

Autre temps, autre moeurs. Here’s to you, Heinz, for starting a whole new world.

Dr. Meng more recently, with a Peale’s

*Leaving ultra- traditonalists like England’s Roger Upton to grump that they went very well with pit bulls and tattoos!

I’ll be back!

The Blog Party will be at Reid’s in Parker, CO, east of Denver, the weekend of June 11. Regular blogging will then resume. I couldn’t have quit if I wanted to with all the response!

Health continues iffy: PD under control at the moment, but apparently a bad case of spinal stenosis is next on my plate. Meanwhile, in one of those ironies that life hands us, I have found an excellent affordable Purdey.

One thing I must note in this quick reference: the death of Herb Wells, greatest coursing photographer who ever lived, in his eighties, in Alpaugh CA. If Dan  Belkin was responsible for founding that odd colony, Herb kept it alive, and was its soul. Here are just a few images to remember…

The last 3 are a sequence; the hare flips, and runs away

Saluki Lahav’s greatest catch, in front of three GOOD greyhounds

“The most sensitive hare portraits I know are done by an old saluki man in southern California– just shots of peaceful jacks.” Me, in an old blog post here…

Herb

RIP: Merle Haggard,1937- 2016

 We are losing a lot of the great ones….

                                                                                            
UPDATE: a great tribute from Wisconsin’s Kirk Hogan, MD, scientist, patent lawyer (!) elk hunter, gourmand, and neo- beat, whose letters often read like poems…

Great “Kern River”.
My top pick:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aILGaYsv_bc
Didn’t even make the list of Merle’s top 35!
A day hasn’t gone by for decades I’m not singing 2-3.
No one, not Johnny Cash, not even Hank W., could write,
play, sing, immerse in and master American music like him.
Beloved by Garcia and Parsons.
Tanya Tucker said it best:
A simple man with an immense genius.
Listened to Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong
… always within arm’s reach.One time in a bar in Livingston In February on break from Crow
to hear Christopher Parkening . . .   
Sad for us, not sad for him.
He and Harrison were beyond deserving of rest.

Charles Schwartz RIP

Bruce Haak emailed me last night that my old friend Charles Schwartz had died, from a fast-acting brain tumor. I hadn’t even known he was sick.

Charlie was a great falconer, and a perfectionist. He ended up flying passage Gyrfalcons and Sage grouse, in the high deserts of Idaho; this high-end grouse hawking is still one of the most amazing and demanding forms of falconry.

I first met Charlie with Betsy, on our long tour of the West that ended up with our moving to Magdalena; but not before we had swung up through Idaho and Nevada. Later, he worked for the Gulf Sheiks breeding falcons for seven years. They paid very well, and they gave him a grubstake for life, but he came back screaming “No more Insh’Allah!!” *

He visited Magdalena soon after his return and brought the first two Barbary falcons I had ever seen with him, tiny compared to their Peregrine near- relatives but elegant and wedge- shaped, almost triangular,  with the colors of iron and rust (I believe they were haggards trapped on migration). We took one out in the grassy valley between the San Mateos and the Magdalenas where she mounted up to an astonishing height.

Later we visited Floyd Mansell, my natural history and hunting mentor in Magdalena. Charlie vehemently denounced Floyd’s cockfighting. Finally, Floyd took us out to his backyard, and armed two roosters with “sparring muffs”; basically, little boxing gloves that fit over their spurs. We put the roosters down as if for a fight, drawing a line in the dirt with our bootheels, and let the cocks see each other over our arms. Finally we put them on the ground, and they began to display at each other standing broadside to make themselves look bigger and fluffing up their necks. When they started to grapple, we picked them up. Charlie was apparently astonished because the behavior was so obviously hard-wired. “That’s ANIMAL BEHAVIOR!”

Charlie attended the first Wildbranch Writing Workshop, when Annie Proulx, the founder, was still there. We “old folks” (two of us in our 40s and two in our 50s)  retreated into our own little group in the summer evenings — Annie, Charlie, me and the late J. B. Stearns (a Vermont writer who resembled a huge Santa Claus and was directly descended from one of the Green Mountain Boys, who never achieved the status he deserved), would ride around in JB’s ’62 Cadillac convertible, drinking beer and singing doo-wop songs. We had a lot of fun, but in the workshop Charlie brought his obsessive perfectionism toward everything to the fore. He wrote for a week on a story about a falconer trying to train Merlins who was so obsessive in his pursuit of perfection that he would barely let his bird fly. An advisor in the story tried to get the guy to lighten up, and eventually succeeded. Charlie seemed blind to the fact that the metaphor in the story extended into his life. He polished the story all week long and absolutely refused to send it out for appraisal, ever, saying it was crap compared the work of other writers he admired.

I think the last time I actually saw Charlie was at the Sun Valley Library writer’s event, which Libby catered for. We never did see each other that often but we  kept in touch, and we were always happy to share strong opinions. He will be missed by all of us, and especially by his long-time wife, Marty Brown.

If I hear any more anecdotes of Charlie, I’ll put them in here.

* For a glimpse of the cultural baggage that drove Charlie crazy, see veterinarian  David Remple’s Footprints on the Toilet Seat. Been there…