The Kurdish Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan are gathering in the southern Turkish province of Sanliurfa, south of the ancient city once known simply as Urfa, less than forty miles north of the border, looking south, and southeast, where a Kurdish Syrian town is besieged by an ancient enemy with a new face, one seen on social media everywhere these days. Nothing between Urfa and the border but irrigated wheat fields and a barbed wire fence… and south of that border, the black flags, black masks and headcloths of our latest fast- moving plague of wanderers and nomads, happy to exterminate anything that does not have its cultural DNA. Kurds who have retaken their towns report that the wandering “State” killed all their livestock and even birds….

Cat sent me a touching video of refugees with a  segment of a kid who had saved his pigeons, against the will of his father–who finally relented– and probably wisely. After all, the Taliban made killing domestic pigeons one of its sixteen commandments, along with banning shaving, music, sorcery, kites, and uncovered women. A week after they took over, they purged every rooftop pigeon loft in Kabul, virtually destroying the ancient local highflyer breed. Isis apparently thinks Al Qaeda and the Taliban are too moderate and compromising.

The video of the Kurdish refugees is here, and the kid comes in about at 1:40.

Urfa may be the most ancient city I have ever stayed in, allegedly 9000 years old, with three real Neolithic sites in it. You cannot dig for construction without finding a structure or artifact of interest to archaeologists. Among the legends is that it is the Biblical Ur of the Chaldees and the birthplace of Abraham (probably neither), and that it is the birthplace of Job. It apparently was where the Armenian alphabet was invented, though the Turks purged all the Armenians in the first two decades of the twentieth century; mentioning that genocide is still a  criminal offense there. Perhaps one reason for the Turkish unease with the Kurds, today’s dominant population locally,  is that they are honestly if horrifyingly uninhibited on that question; one quite civilized Kurd I know said he hated the Turks for not being grateful enough for the Kurds’ help in killing the Armenians! Though they are pretty rough on each other– Achmed would get in long shouting matches with his relatives, then turn to me with a smile and say “I am sorry– the Kurdish problem is not yet solved!”

 But it is a magical city, built on steep hills, with its skyline of churches repurposed as mosques (some have switched back and forth three times); its minarets, its hundreds of contending pigeon flocks every dawn and dusk, its pagan remnants. The sacred carp pool belongs to Jewish, Christian, and Moslem tradition; in all three, Nimrod tried to immolate Abraham in a gigantic pyre there, and God turned the fire into water, the
burning coals into fish. But it is an open secret that infertile women still take water and fish from it to change their luck. Urfa is a palimpsest of buried and not- so- buried civilizations.

Artsy effect unintentional, light rain on my lens
 I don’t know whether these photos will be sharp enough to show the pigeon flocks…

But it is a city of pigeons. There may be  sixty flocks in the evening sky above, all competing. They even had a cupboard loft in the entry of my favorite rooftop restaurant, to entertain me when I ate.

A city of birds and ruins, some even inhabited…

A city with bazaars that were built before Columbus, still bustling…

  Where you can buy anything from a rug to a hammer to an iron collar…

To a pigeon of course…

 It is worth re- visiting my hotel, to see that art photo of the Ur Pigeon of Urfa, wearing the pigeon jewelry that pigeons have in the Middle East for centuries..

Another, a Mssawad , a breed which I saw in Urfa, with jewelry, though this was taken by Sir Terence Clark in a village in Syria. I wonder if it still exists…

Because somewhere south of Urfa is a whirling void, the kind that has come like a storm out of the desert before, and  flattened many other “old civilizations put to the sword” …

A Familiar Place…

The road runs straight south from the ancient city of Sanliurfa in Turkey (actually “Urfa”– the title is a post- Ataturk designation) to a border, or, in our fraught times, perhaps, a BORDER, like our southern one.

 The land is almost flat, dry, but productive since the dam on the Euphrates, which drowned may old villages, allowed irrigated winter wheat to be grown. The drowned villages have been rebuilt. The people of the countryside are Kurds rather than Anatolians, with a leavening of Arabs near the border.

They are contentious, argumentative, overwhelmingly hospitable (one thing they do is continually roll you cigarettes; once I had one behind each ear I HAD to smoke, but sweet Turkish tobacco is not that bad). They drink endless coffee and not very hidden “raki”, the anise- flavored local vodka. One reason they do not have all that much visible alcohol is not Islamic; booze in Turkey is a state project, which means the Kurds would have to  buy it from a government they do not love, but I ordered and drank it every night in our hotel.

That road runs into Syria about thirty miles south of the city. On the other side… well, go west 40 more miles or so, turn left, and you can watch the seige of Kobani.

The people in Urfa fly pigeons; Turkey is the most pigeon- fancying nation in the world. Urfa is the only city I have stayed in that has large art- photo portraits of pigeons, signed by the photographer, in the lobby of its most prestigious luxury hotel. This one is a Reehani dewlap, with the inked label saying “Urfa Guvercin”– simply “Urfa Pigeon”.

In the countryside, people hunt, with gun and tazi and hawk.

They have flock guardian dogs too, though it is best to get back in the car if they get too close. This one was already starting towards me.

It can be a lot like here. I have often teased people with this next one, asking what part of New Mexico it was taken in. Most think maybe Taos though some go for Rio Arriba county.

There will be more. Strange how knowing a place just a bit makes your perspective so vivid…

Train not in vain

The next posts will be on the last few fascinating if tiring days– Amtrak sleeper, a civilized way to ride; Kansas City, a good friend, some med workups, unique museums, BARBECUE; back to the Spur and water battle…

Here is my snug little sleeping box, just big enough for my stuff. Pretty good for sleeping but frustratingly one sided for viewing my beloved Great Plains, which of all wild or empty landscapes seem to provoke my dreams. Do you know James McMurtry’s “No More Buffalo”? Luckily the skylighted Lounge cars had big windows, comfortable chairs disposed variously, and a good selection of beer and spirits– a civilized way to ride.

My sleeping box– about what I needed and not an inch more. I think of certain Japanese hotels that hold their clients packed in like sardines; these travelling cells are nicer:

Understandable Error, Matt!

I don’t know about a banana (see Matt’s comments below) but most Americans would see a double rifle from England, with its barrels arranged side by side, as a shotgun. We have not quite NEVER built a double rifle here but I would be surprised if we had built over 100 in the last century. Everything from our hunting habits (long, open country shots) to the expense of “regulating” doubles, which like everything about them is done by hand, works against this. (The English and European demographic for hunters, restricted to expensive private land for the most part, skews much higher than ours; no US mag, however pretentious, could call, as a review in The Field recently did, an 18,000 pound gun “modestly priced”. And The Field isn’t even pretentious– just comfortably what it is.

Here is a “typical” VERY Best London side by side shotgun, perhaps my favorite, a Boss in 20 bore. As it could go for over $100,000 used I will never own one unless like one lucky writer I know I am given one as a present by an older man who is retiring it.

Another shotgun, a Churchill, rather stouter…

The next two are rifles but without seeing the iron sights how would you tell? The first is a classic Rigby with its distinctive “dipped” lock plates, in .470 Nitro (rather like the small shotgun but BIG rifle bore of .410, and just one actual caliber lower than Bond’s .500); the second, also by Rigby but made in California I think– very long story– is what is known in my circles as the Lion Porn gun, proving that money does not convey taste though it may buy craftsmanship…

Incidentally Ian Fleming’s brother Peter, who wrote books that are among the 25 I would take to the proverbial desert island, especially News From Tartary (you should also read his travel companion Ella Maillart’s Forbidden Journey; when have two such writers written two such delightfully different books about the same trip?)* shot a pair of Purdeys, rather like the Boss above, and a “.275 Rigby” bolt rifle like my friend Jonathan below. We are entering the realm of “affordable with effort” here, but I doubt I will ever own a double rifle that costs more than my house, truck,and last trip to Asia combined.

*Links still slow but both available on Amazon and other places.

Rifle quiz

Pure fun for scholars of guns and readers of travel and adventure tales: how many things can you find in common on these little carbines? Oh, I will add one invisible addition for the bolt:

The first question is for tecchies; the second for readers and travelers: how many books and writers and scientists and… whatever– can you list that mention or who used either?

Links, Pix, & Assorted Phenomena…

Lauren’s Aquiling is up and running again and, at least until her book on her year among the Kazakhs is out, the best place for exotic falconry and adventure tales…

There is some pretty funny and often grotesque animal photography up at Nature Wants to Eat You. HT Annie Davidson, who also sent this video of a walking octopus.

Tim Gallagher, who recently completed a book on his harrowing expedition to the heart of the Narcotraficante strongholds of the Sierra Madre in search of the (almost?) extinct Imperial woodpecker, wrote the short version here, and added a link to the only videos of this largest of all woodpeckers…

Dr Joseph Rock explored the remotest parts of central Asia and southwestern China for the National Geographic in the twenties and thirties. Teddy Roosevelt’s big- game hunting sons thought Minya Konka in “his” territory near the border of Szechuan and Tibet– he wrote about in in 1930– was higher than Everest. A couple more Americans laid siege to it in 1935 (they were also hunters, armed with a Springfield .30- 06 and two “heavy” SMLE’s) and found it was formidable but not quite that high. Yvon Chouinard, Al Read, Kim Schmitz, Rick Ridgeway, and Harry Frishman (Peculiar’s biological dad) made another attempt on it in 1980, not long before Harry was killed in a climb in his “backyard” Tetons, but they ran into disaster. Bruce Chatwin allegedly caught the legendary “bat fungus” that did in his AIDS- compromised body in a cave in the vicinity, which is also home to the Naxi people and their still- living goshawk falconry. (Chatwin also put Rock’s book, and Emperor Frederic II’s falconry text de Arte Venandi cum Avibus, into his posthumous story “The Estate of Maximilian Tod”).

Obviously there is a book there, and eventually I hope to go, with Lib and Peculiar. Meanwhile I suspect the greatest single source of useful material is at the Arnold Arboretum near Boston, where Rock’s archives reside, full of treasures like this photo:

(“Horned Rifles” too!)


Writer Tom McIntyre has been in Argentina, not just shooting doves but hunting birds behind pointing dogs and fishing. What caught my attention (and what he, an informed naturalist- hunter, knows well) was the unique identity of some of his quarry.

Europeans often name local species after familiar things, but folk taxonomy is unreliable. South Americans think of this fish, called a”dorado”* for its golden color, as a trout:

As a careful perusal of everything from its fins to the shape of its jaws suggests, it is not! It is a characin, an entirely New- World family. Other members include piranhas, the vegetarian fish of the Amazon basin, and the neon tetras in your tropical aquarium. And Tom caught his on live eels, a bait hat might intimidate the cannibal taimen of Mongolia (Tom’s is not huge for the species).

An even more interesting misnomer is the Argentinian name for this bird:”perdiz”; partridge.

Ecologically it does rather resemble a partridge, but evolutionarily it is ancient, more like a little flying rhea or ostrich! Tinamous– there are several species– are small, flying ratites (the ONLY flying ratites), part of the old southern “Gondwanaland” radiation that includes all of the above plus cassowaries, emus, extinct moas, and kiwis. Like the last they lay enormous eggs, but tinamou eggs resemble porcelain art objects in polished greens and blues.

They don’t act like ostriches though. Tom:

“Kick in the ass to hunt. Used a very good German shorthair who literally snaked through the grass as they ran a mile before flushing. Limit is eight and we filled two one day, in about three miles of jogging. Great fun. FYI, perdiz run like chukar (on flat ground), fly harder, faster, and lower than quail, and are the best game bird I have ever eaten.” (Tom may have eaten more species of game bird than anyone I know).

For now I will postpone the subject of the amazing pestiferous parakeets…

Look for an update on Tom’s upcoming article on his Argentine experience.

*The word dorado is apparently now also the preferred (PC?) term for the tropical salt water game fish known in my youth as the dolphin, apparently to distinguish it from the mammal.

PLF 2: Letters from Geoffrey Household

Sadly, I never corresponded with Patrick Leigh Fermor, but I did for many years with the adventurous old “suspense” story writer Geoffrey Household (as so many perceptive critics wrote, he was so much more than that, including a naturalist, a regionalist, and a chronicler of the same old lost Europe that Leigh Fermor also celebrated). Some of his best works are still or at least recently in print, though they were written from the thirties into the eighties: Rogue Male, in which an English big game hunter with a secret stalks a Hitler figure until he becomes the prey; 1965’s Dance of the Dwarfs, a cryptozoological novel with several twists; and the one I read first, 1960’s Watcher in the Shadows, still another tale of being stalked. Household’s knowledge of nature and animals gave him an intuition and sympathy for prey that many writers of such novels lacked.*

I will write about Geoffrey’s own work, but that must wait. Suffice to say that in the winter of 86-87, having been recently widowed, I wrote to him asking if he had known PLF, whose Woods & Water I had just finished. I figured with his background– among other things, he had lived in Bucharest and Greece for many years before the war, and been in British Intelligence– he might have. I just wanted to do something new– walk across Europe, perhaps?

Geoffrey wrote back with enthusiasm; we had written to each other for some time, and I think he was worried for me. Of course, he HAD known “Paddy” during the war.

(I’ll follow each letter with a blown- up text of the relevant part, as the handwriting of an 87- year- old- man can be as bad as that of a 61- year old with Parkinson’s– click twice and they are more legible than the originals!)

He apparently thought the matter over, then, perhaps forgetting his previous note, wrote what may have been his last letter to me in the fall before his death the next year at 88. His handwriting had deteriorated, but he could still command a phrase.

Desperados indeed. As David Pryce- Jones said this morning: “Could there be men like that again? In these thin days I doubt it…”

*Geoffrey’s short story collections are not “suspense” and are much harder to find but worth the effort. Start with Sabres on the Sand or The Europe that Was.

UPDATE: In the introductory essay to the NYTBR ed of Rogue Male, linked above (click on “See Inside”), Virginia Nelson writes “…One can’t help but wondering if his path crossed that of the notable English picaro Patrick Leigh Fermor…”

UPDATE 2: The wonderful Patrick Leigh Fermor blog is now on our blogroll (right). More to come I’m sure…

Patrick Leigh Fermor 1915- 2011 RIP

Too burnt on obit- writing to write a proper tribute to one of my (and Betsy Huntington’s; she left me all my early first editions; and Q’s) favorite writers and examples of a life well- lived. But readers and nomads everywhere should observe a silent moment: Patrick Leigh Fermor has died at 96 in England. He had recently returned from the island off Crete he had called home for many years, perhaps to be reunited at last with his late wife Joan. We must all hope that he finally completed his third book about his youthful walk, between the wars, from the Hook of Holland to “Constantinople”; the second volume,Between the Woods and the Water, may be my favorite travel book ever. I eagerly await Artemis Cooper’s biography next year…

Good obits in the Telegraph, at England’s Channel 4, and at The Guardian. More to come I’m sure…

Will attempt something later; for now here is an older post by me and here is one by Reid.

UPDATE: more good obits and memories: Max Hastings in the Daily mail; his biographer-to- be, Artemis Cooper, with a photo of his first love, Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene– be still my heart!

Let’s lift a glass to one who never hesitated– see Cooper’s opening tale– to do so himself.

And a last note from another Guardian article, for those who are holding their breath about the existence or fate of the “Third Volume”:

“Readers are still awaiting the promised third leg of Leigh Fermor’s trip, despite the author’s repeated promises to “pull my socks up and get on with it” and his 2007 declaration that he was learning to type so that he could complete it more quickly.

“Cooper, who visited him at his Greek home earlier this year, said that the writer had been working on corrections to a finished text. “A early draft of the third volume has existed for some time, and will be published in due course,” she said.’

Far Away and Long Ago: Family with Megafauna

Just for fun: a shelf in the library has accumulated a bunch of photos with this theme, dating from the thirties (Betsy Huntington) to just eleven years ago (me). Here are a few.

First, Betsy, at four, with her mother, at the Pyramids:

Second, Libby on an elephant, in the early seventies, at TIGERtops (see below) in Nepal; looking for tigers, of course.

Me in Zimbabwe in ’97, just before it all went to hell, with an orphaned rhino. God, I look like Redmond O’Hanlon— Anglos in the tropics, fat and sweat and curly hair, oh my. (The head ranger there, when I asked him why he was successful, answered with great gusto and a big grin “because I kill so many poachers”. Tough neighborhood).

Finally (horses are technically megafauna) a more familiar strange road: Bayaan Olgii 2000, second Mongolian “expedition”, chasin’ eagles near Ulaan Hus with Bolatbek’s relatives.