Book review: Antarctica: An Encyclopedia 2nd ed.

Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Let’s get the physical description out of the way first – Antarctica: An Encyclopedia is imposing. Two volumes, 1771 pages and about 300 pounds (that last may be an exaggeration). It is text only; no pictures, no illustrations, not even a map. Here’s a quick phonecam image for scale and to show the page format. I’m sure there are precise terms of art to describe the layout; I thought it might be easier to just show it, especially as I’m going to refer to the amount of topic coverage in a bit. The dollar bill is 6 inches long (equivalent to a legal trout in Maine – or it used to be).


Like another LibraryThing reviewer, I thought I’d attack the Encyclopedia by looking up a few topics.

Ernest Shackleton. The approx. one full column devoted to Shackleton is a precis of his life: birth, parents, expeditions, death. Three sentences are devoted to the transantarctic attempt, the last of which reads, “There followed the most amazing series of events (see the notes on the expedition, British Imperial Transantarctic Expedition) which make one revise one’s concepts about the limits of human endurance and determination, the physical and mental barriers imposed by the human species upon themselves.”  The BITE entry is 4 pages of chronology and description. Side note – folks interested in the BITE may wish to follow @otolythe‘s twitter Shackleton project at @EShackleton.

Mount Erebus. Approximately one column – location, history of height estimates, various ascents and a couple physical notes.

Operation Highjump. About a page and a half of who, what, when, and where. The most information I’ve yet encountered regarding this expedition – excellent.

Tucker Sno-cat (under Sno-cat). Just two sentences on this Antarctic icon *sad face*.

Make no mistake – this is a capital-R reference book. Paired with an appropriate atlas or gazetteer it would be an unbeatable far-south resource.

Bodios IRL

Off I went to the South Shore (I think that’s the correct region name) yesterday for a cookout. Not just any cookout, mind you, but a chance to meet Steve and Libby Bodio in the flesh; Steve and I have been corresponding, exchanging links, etc. for quite a few years. If you know anything  about the Bodios, you know to expect a diverse crowd, viz. a herpetologist who studied elephant seals before going into the building trades, someone who dropped out of law school to sell (fine) carpets (and fly falcons), etc. It was a great get together and more than a bit of a milestone for me – more on that in a moment.

 Steve -on the left- chuckling over an anecdote.


The back of Libby’s head (sorry – photojournalism wasn’t a priority and the one portraity picture I took is not great) and Eric, Steve’s last Massachusetts apprentice (many years ago).


Note in both photographs the object sticking out to Steve’s back pocket. There’s a story there; I’ll let Steve tell it, but in the meantime guess away as to it’s identity.

Steve hasn’t been east in many years, so there was a lot of year-totalling-up for him to do with old friends. I’m a newcomer – we’ve known each other on line for 5 years or so – not even the blink of an eye comparatively. That being said, I was thinking this morning about how long I’ve known about him… A Rage for Falcons was the first thing of his I remember reading. I may have read essays or reviews before finding A Rage (in Stroudwater Books when it was in the Pic ‘n Pay Plaza in Portsmouth, for you local old-timers) but the descriptions of falconry in A Rage left a mark and rekindled my desire to fly raptors. I went to the bookshelf and pulled the book, opened it and read ‘copyright 1984′. We’re talking 27 years.

Great conversation (Libby and I talked tazis and teckels – where else could one do that?), great beer (thanks, Throwback), and great hosts (THANKS!, Karen and George). What a day!

Book review: It’s All About the Bike

I’ve remarked before (and probably will again) on some of the underlying similarities between bicycles and shotguns. And yet there’s a huge corpus around firearms (yr humble’s correspondent’s collection here), but nothing comparable in size and scope on the bicycle side. Perhaps the gun’s 500 year head start is responsible, but my gut tells me something else is going on. Be that as it may, It’s All about the Bike is a welcome addition to the not-large-enough-by-half bike as object genre. Robert Penn’s book is the story of his dream bike; he wanted a bike that was just so – not the absolute best of everything, rather the absolute best for his purposes. The book leads us through the choices he made, component by component. Along the way he detours into history – his past and the bicycle’s past – to flesh out the hows and whys of his decisions. Take frame material for example:

Crucially, steel can be repaired anywhere in the world by a man with a blowtorch and a welding rod. I know this, because I bent a steel bike in northern India, when I was riding around the world. I was slipstreaming a tractor on the Grand Trunk Road near Amritsar.We were going downhill a lick when I road into a pothole the size of a hot tub. There was no time to react. I had what American mountain bikers call a ‘yard sale’. The bike, panniers, sunglasses, water bottles, tent, pump, map and I were strewn across the tarmac. [...] It took me an afternoon to find the best mechanic, or ‘top foreman’ as the locals called him, in Amritsar. Expertly, he removed the handlebars, the stem, the forks and the stressed headset from the head tube, while attendants handed him tools as a nurse attends a surgeon. Then he shoved a metal spike through the head tube and literally bashed the tubes straight again. It was terrifying to watch.

The frame requires a bit more attention on the remaining 7,500 miles, but gets him home. And:

In the alchemy of designing aircraft tubing, Reynolds stumbled on a manganese-molybdenum alloy that made wonderful bikes. In 1935, the company introduced ’531′ tubing. It was considered revolutionary. Even now, British [and American] cyclists of a certain age go misty eyed and look towards the horizon just at the mention of ’531′.

Five Three One


You get a taste in the quotes above both of the range of Mr. Penn’s inquiry and of his writing style. I found the book to be thoroughly enjoyable; style and subject both get an A. It’s a quick read – 198 pages of clear prose – and if you like bikes, highly recommended.

Two additional notes: 1) In spite of my pissing and moaning about the volume of bike lit, I recently bought a fantastic book of visual bike history (aka bike prØn). The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles is a survey of mostly-French mostly-randonneur bicycles from 1909 – 2003. Inspirational – especially as regards a: 2) Current project – I’m assembling a dream bike as well. I’ll post more in a month or so; I’ve built what I’m calling a voyageur bike on a touring frame – pictures/specifications/rationales to follow once the new ride is fully dialed in.

Partially cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Book review: Winged Obsession

Cross-posted to LibraryThing. N.b. – I’m reviewing an ARC – nitpicks may not apply to the final product.

I approached Jessica Speart’s Winged Obsession with a bit of trepidation; the last butterfly book I read (which covered some of the same territory) was a bust, to say the least. My initial impression was less than positive. Whatever good things there are to say about the book – and there are good things – Ms. Speart’s writing style is not among them. I don’t require end-to-end lyricism, but I felt as if I were reading something pitched at a supermarket checkout line level. Page 5:

He took it all in as he studied one booth after the next. He wasn’t there for the bugs, and though he got a kick out of seeing movie stars, they weren’t his prey du jour either. He glanced down at the photo in his hand. It was a legal resident-alien driver’s license gratis the California Department of Motor Vehicles. His prey was an Asian man who was a notorious bug collector. It was time to make the donuts and find his quarry.

My discomfort increased when, on page 74, she asserts that, “Operation Falcon exposed a Middle Eastern plot to smuggle endangered wild falcons from North America for the sport of sheiks and oil-rich falconers.” Um, no. I think it would be more accurate to say something like “Operation Falcon exposed the gullibility of USF&W as they were played like a cheap fiddle by a con man who entrapped just enough other folk to keep one step ahead of the game and it killed many wild falcons especially on the back end, when F&W was responsible for caring for confiscated birds.” I was a bit of a skeptic going in – the narrative is clearly ‘heroic law enforcement officer’ – errors like this deepened my skepticism; the phrase that leaps to minds is ‘drinking the (USF&W) kool-aid’.

With all that said, the last third of the book held me spellbound as Ed Newcomer, the USF&W agent, was running Yoshi Kojima to ground. Kojima is a very strange man, but is no dummy – an expert smuggler. Real tension gets built as Newcomer gets closer and closer… At the same time Newcomer is working the California roller pigeon case (Op. High Roller -most of my falconry friends will be familiar w/ the case already) and is having some marriage trouble. We get a wrap-up of the pigeon case, but there’s no resolution (that the reader is privy to) on the home front.

Overall, I’d give this 2 1/2 stars – down from 3 because of the writing style and kool-aid quaffing.

Separately – because it’s not a fair knock on Ms. Speart’s work – I wish the book had veered a bit into some of the conservation issues it brushes up against. At one point, we see a facility that breeds endangered California butterflies; release areas are a huge issue, so the facility has oodles of dead adults they can’t do anything with. The question of what do you do with this kind of material is a big one with no good answer. In the US, the answer is nothing. In Europe – at least in the cases I’m familiar with – the answer may be different. When smuggled dart frogs are confiscated on their way into the EU, they are often later released to hobbyists. This puts frogs into the hands of folks who will hopefully breed them and may save them from being destroyed, but also allows ‘laundering’. In the US, it’s pretty clear, based on export permits, CITES paperwork, etc. what species were imported legally. It’s a lot fuzzier across the water – as soon as confiscated Dendrobates unobtaniatus are released, all instances of same already in country magically become offspring of the released one. The thorny issue of wildlife monetization pops up as well – one side says that by making wildlife valuable (esp to the locals), habitat will be preserved. The other side sees dollar value as a fast road to decimation – the best way to increase value is to make the item rare (the deBeers strategy). Finally, I would have loved some analysis of the hidden bad guy in the butterfly smuggling story – the Japanese government. Do they just not care? Have they been captured by the smugglers on this issue? Is there anything non-Japanese citizens can do?

“Our laws are very important, or Congress wouldn’t have saddled us with them. [...]“, retired FWS agent Terry Grosz sadly declared.

Wow. Naive/idealistic/crazy?


Charismatic megafauna – six legged variety

More often than seems reasonable/random, the internet zeitgeist throws a number of seemingly unrelated references to an interesting topic my way. Today’s theme was robots; a couple weeks ago it was butterflies. The title of the post comes from a tweet from @debcha, “I often describe dragonflies and butterflies as the ‘charismatic megafauna’ of the insect world…” This post will be light on Odonata; expect loads of Lepidoptera.

First up, a book I had high hopes for: The Dangerous World of Butterflies, The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists.  Short version – I was disappointed. I found the book to be superficial, not very well written and more than a little narcissistic. I don’t know appreciably more about butterflies or butterfly conservation issues than I did before I picked the book up – there didn’t seem to be a thread tying things together or even relating one vignette to another (I’m thinking of Sy Montgomery’s Birdology as a polar opposite). There were tangents that I would have liked to have seen pursued: Laufer touches on the internal mechanisms of metamorphosis and moves on quickly saying, in effect, “it’s an area scientists are still investigating.” Interview a few more scientists? Try to do some science writing? The writing itself is a bit of an issue. It’s published by Lyons Press – if this is the current incarnation of Nick Lyons’ operation, I’m saddened. “And in a box padded with wads of tissue paper for padding…” Ouch. “Item: ‘Take the Lunesta 7-Night Challenge,’ offers an advertisement for a sleeping pill. A floating butterfly illustrates the ad.” The Lunesta (hmm, what might the root word be?) mascot is a large green night-flying lepidopteran. I wouldn’t give Laufer (and the Lyons editors) so much grief but a couple pages earlier he dismisses the other fliers, “I was not seeking dragonflies or even moths. My target was butterflies.” The situation is made even worse by the “Item:” immediately preceding, which mentions -wait for it- a Luna Moth! Sorry. Thumbs down.


Next on the bookshelf, Klea McKenna’s The Butterfly Hunter. Klea’s father, Terrence, collected butterflies in Southeast Asia and South America in the late 60′s and early 70′s.  The few words and many beautiful images in this book do much to illuminate the desire and the remorse of the hunter. Highly recommended – and Terrence deserves a series of posts as well.




From the emotional, we move to the practical. Way back at the beginning of the Lepidopteran info storm, @debcha twote a link to Mechanisms of structural colour in the Morpho butterfly. I remember reading a bit about Morpho color a long time ago in The Splendor of Iridescence, but it was a long time ago and retention is an issue. The linked article is technical, but interesting nevertheless.  There’s a cool interplay between structure and underlying color going on in a Morpho‘s wing – makes me want to watch some flutter about.

A side note – I think this xkcd applies pretty well to me (and @debcha thinks it might accurately characterize her as well).


And I’ll close out this already overlong post (tl;dr) with some amazing work. I’ve seen some of Paul Schmookler’s butterfly and full-dress Atlantic salmon fly pieces in person and they are stunning.

“An extraordinary display of butterfly and fly by Paul Schmookler, thought by many who have viewed this gifted American artist’s work to be the king of the ‘extreme’ full-dressed salmon fly. Measuring 17 1/2″ x 13″ overall, the gold painted wood frame houses two sunken mounts, the upper with an actual vibrant green/black Trogonoptera brookiana butterfly, a species native to Malaysia, and the lower, a striking 3 1/8″ salmon fly with corresponding colors. The remarkable fly is an original creation of Schmookler’s, tied for the consignor’s collection. In excellent condition throughout, signed on the bottom right. A rare opportunity to own an example of Schmookler’s genius with feather and thread, as this master tyer’s work seldom comes to auction.”



And one more fly – not butterfly-linked, but I can’t resist.

William Gibson as a Nature Writer


(h) those that are included in this classification*

I twote recently that I’d had a bit of semi-dreamtime inspiration: William Gibson is a nature writer. I think a case can be made for it and friends are curious about what the heck I’m yammering about, so here goes.

I’ve said it before – I’m not wild about the natural/human distinction. Yes, it’s obvious and oftentimes useful but it also facilitates a lot of delusional and destructive behavior. Allow me to repost a population/time graph:


If we convince ourselves that we’re different, not ‘natural’, that the rules that apply to every other critter on the planet don’t apply to us (because we’re the crown of creation) we can ignore the obvious population dynamic conclusions suggested by the graph (crash). Our ‘us and them’ outlook gets in the way less dramatically as well – Pollan’s The Botany of Desire does a great job looking at domesticated plants from a plant’s eye, co-evolutionary standpoint. It’s not solely about us.

That being said, there do seem to be some things that make us different from our nearest relatives (posting on blogs could be one). E. O. Wilson suggests in The Superorganism that there are 3 entities one must keep an eye on when examining the evolution of social insects – the gene, the individual and the hive/nest/mound/superorganism. If you buy in to the notion of culture as an area where selection can occur (as in meme, etc.), one could build a similar triplet for H. sapien. Regardless – the fact that we can externalize and transmit information so well is one big adaptation that’s made us so (so far) successful. [aside] Looked at from this perspective, the made world – from Toyota to Tolstoy – is a natural phenomenon. Yes, we and our stuff are changing planetary systems, but that’s happened before – that exempts us neither from other natural processes nor from being a natural process ourselves.

All of the above is a perhaps overlong argument for being pretty relaxed about the  natural world/made world distinction. Given that, Gibson as nature writer becomes a lot easier to accept. I’m using ‘nature writer’ here as a pretty inclusive category – one who write stories, as Norman Maclean said, with trees in them – tales where the exterior world is noticed and plays a part; where the environment is included in an important rather than peripheral way.

I’d recommended Spook Country to a friend and she responded that it felt like there was a lot of ‘stuff’ in it – I think she may have used the phrase product placement. “Hmm”, said I; though I’d noticed the presence of the world of things in both (at that point) of the Bigend books, it had never jumped out at me. I’d accepted the world as described by Gibson – because of my made/natural suspicion? Because the things he described tended to be interesting and in some consumerkulturny way, charismatic? Dunno. I read his latest – Zero History – last week (rippin’ tale, BTW) and had T’s comment floating in the back of my mind when I opened the book. The second paragraph:

Pearlescent silver, this one [taxi]. Glyphed in Prussian Blue, advertising something German, banking services or business software; a smoother simulacrum of its black ancestors, its faux-leather upholstery a shade of orthopedic fawn.

I’d be quite satisfied with a similar description applied to a startled woodchuck bolting for its hole as our natural-world-only protagonist walks across a farmer’s corn field. And that’s the thing – Gibson’s Bigend books are set in cities, in the world of made things, ideas and human generated external info flows. He describes the environment his characters are embedded in with the care any good author who writes books with trees and multilevel parking garages in them would.

© LTI Limited reproduced with permission. Fairway and TX shape is a registered design. Fairway™, TX™, the LTI device, the LTI logo and the London Taxis International logo are all trademarks of LTI Limited.


I’m not sure it’s coincidental that the title of the first book – Pattern Recognition – evokes one of my favorite ‘in the woods’ phenomena – something that I’ve heard called native vision. Native vision is the trained pattern recognition that allows a local to pick a whitetailed deer out of the jumbled shapes of the fall woods, where someone who didn’t know that kind of woods wouldn’t see a dang thing.

I may write more on the topic – or I may hear back that this is all BS and I should stop before I embarrass myself further – but I wanted to toss this out sooner rather than later. Comments more than welcome…


[aside] One of the concerns Ray Kurzweil brings up in The Age of Spiritual Machines is that there seems to be room for one species in a given niche. He speculates that self-awareness may define a niche – so what happens to us when we create intelligent AIs? [Skynet, that's what.] It’s of interest to me that there are MANY species of social insect – clearly superorganism is not a niche – why would we jump to the conclusion that self-awareness and externalizing info was one as well?

Two Russian book links

Via @bibliodyssey, Semën Ul’ianovich Remezov’s Khorograficheskaya Kniga.

By the mid-17th century, Russian development in Siberia extended all the way to the Pacific, but from the seat of Russian power in Moscow, there was still little known about the area. By all reports there were at that time no maps of Siberia in Russia and so, seeking to collect knowledge and understanding of their extended interests in the area, late in the 1600s, the Siberian Court Office of Moscow ordered the production of a number standardized settlement maps. Cities and towns were to be represented and notes made on surrounding features of the land, particularly their situation on rivers and the native settlements within certain proximities.

Throughout Siberia, land-surveyors and draftsmen were recruited to do work on this massive project, but one notable man in Tobol’sk, Semën Ul’ianovich (alternately, Semyon Ul’yanovich) Remezov, would emerge as the primary cartographer of the region, creating, by the estimate of historian James R. Akerman, some 80 percent of the surviving Siberian maps of his century. Akerman’s biographical sketch of Remezov tells a compelling story: a low-level government administrator who brought creative energy to his census registry work, compiling ethnographic data in the depths of Siberia, a “restless” intellect who contributed much to his city of Tobol’sk, and an artist who would capture a dynamic sense of Siberia on page after page of beautifully rendered maps. *

Siberia, especially in it’s less than accurate usage meaning ‘all that stuff east of the Urals’, is HUGE, my knowledge of the geography of the are is limited and my ability to read Cyrillic script and/or Russian is nonexistent. As a result, this atlas is for me like a dispatch from another planet – Borges and Tolkien do some mapping.


I’m wondering if this could be the maritime province – Primorsky Krai? Great Wall at the bottom, Korea to the east, and the Amur and Ussuri watershed center. If so, that’d be an Amur Leopard gamboling about in the upper left.


Via the consistently great Five Books, Robert Chandler on Tales of Soviet Russia.

The Soviet writer he [Vasily Grossman] was closest to was Andrey Platonov and the stories do have quite a Platonov-like quality to them. There is one about a dog, just called ‘The Dog’, and it’s quite close to reality. There were several mongrel dogs that were sent up into space on the early sputniks and this is a story about the first dog to be sent up into space and to come back alive to earth.

Laika? No. She died, didn’t she?

Laika died. That was the very first dog. This is the fictionalised successor to Laika and it’s very unexpected. I showed it to a poet friend called Elizabeth Cook and her immediate comment was that it was really shamanistic! It would never have occurred to me but actually it’s a valid comment. The heroes of the story are the female dog and the scientist in charge of the laboratory, a really hard-headed, unsentimental scientist who, to everyone’s amazement, gets quite besotted by this animal, and he has visions of her going out into space and for the first time the cosmos will penetrate the eyes of a living being. And somehow he will look into her eyes when she’s back on earth and will see the cosmos. It’s very warm and tender and funny, and there’s a certain irony to these mystical ideas, but some seriousness to them as well. Quite a lot of them are about animals.

The Tiger follow-up

My little narrative of how John Vaillant ended up at RiverRun centered on my experience – a less Ptolemaic version might have emphasized the key roles play by Steve Bodio and his review of the Tiger and by Michele at RiverRun. It’s easy to be the pivot when there are folks like these jamming on the lever arms. Noted in passing – Michele is on NH Magazine’s 2010 ‘It List’ in recognition of the central role she plays in making Portsmouth the hoppin’ place it is. And another shout-out to @westchesterdead and @apatheticalto – many fulcrums make for a smooth Rube Goldberg of connections.

Support your local independent bookstore. Really. Browse. Hang out. Buy. Tell the booksellers, “You have the best job – you can just sit around and read all day.” – they’ll love it. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone and unless you support your local, it may disappear. I’m making some changes to the way I link out to books from D0aMNH to be a touch more indie-friendly.

Support big cat conservation. Apex predators are critical – when they’re removed, the ecosystem changes, often radically and never for the better if one values diversity. The easiest way to pitch in is by contributing to organizations that are fighting poachers:

  • The Phoenix Project via Global Giving – along with Amur Tiger protection, the Phoenix Project is also trying to save the last 30 Amur Leopards left in the wild. This is where I chose to contribute.
  • The Phoenix Project via Wildlife Alliance (select the fund in the ‘you can support’ dropdown).
  • Panthera is involved with conservation effort for all big cats – Tigers, Snow Leopards, Jaguars, you name it. Quick quiz – what’s the 3rd largest big cat? They live in the Americas.
  • A more extensive list of worthy organizations (John Vaillant’s picks) can be found here.

There are so many things to work on in our own lives – reducing the amount of fossil fuels we use, figuring out what’s going on with the food we eat, staying involved with local community issues – but once a big predator is gone, that’s it. A thread of, for lack of a better phrase, predator knowledge is broken. Tiger cubs stay with their mother for a couple years, learning the ins and outs of the particular landscape they’re in.  That understanding goes back tens of thousands of years, passed from mother to cubs; there ain’t no magicing it back if it disappears. A few bucks now buys some time and a few bucks – a tank of gas, a new set of batteries, tires for the truck – make a big difference in anti-poaching efforts.

Via Adelle’s FB Gallery (thanks, G).

The Tiger

Author John Vaillant was in town last night on a book tour in support of his latest: The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. It was a good evening out (understatement). John, Sy Montgomery, Liz Thomas and I met before the event and had some dinner – much tiger conservation strategizing (in the ‘what can writers do’ sense) was done, contacts were exchanged, etc. Fascinating stuff – I was mostly a fly on the wall, but not completely.

John, Sy, yr humble corr., Liz


Then it was off to RiverRun for the main event. I’d already read The Tiger – regardless, I found John’s reading to be riveting and, in the case of the first passage, where Markov meets the tiger for the last time, hair raising. I wasn’t alone – you could have heard a pin drop whenever John had the floor.

The book itself… Before I quote some reviews, my short version -> read it. Soonest.

Steve Bodio:

It is better than good– my favorite book of the year so far, and a likely classic in my rare favorite genre, that which documents (to use a book title) “the edge of the wild”, that interface where humans and “nature” are not artificially separated but in conflict or cooperation, acting on each other. *

Liberty Hardy:

…no other non-fiction book has gotten me so wound up in the last five years as John Vaillant’s The Tiger. It is a phenomenal book! I read it back in March and then had to wait *five* whole months before I could start selling it. But that didn’t stop me from talking about it to everyone in a ten-mile radius. I talked about it so much that it was driving my coworkers crazy. *

Sy Montgomery:

…those who truly know the tiger realize that it also possesses an invisible but equally lethal weapon: a brilliant and calculating mind. One hunter tells the author: “The tiger is strong, powerful and fair. You have to respect him. You think he doesn’t understand the language, but he understands everything. He can read a person’s mind.”

Of course, there are those who say a tiger doesn’t have a mind, much less one that can read ours. But Vaillant’s book teaches a lesson that humankind desperately needs to remember: When you murder a tiger, you not only kill a strong and beautiful beast, you extinguish a passionate soul. *


After the signing (and chop marking – v. cool) finished up and a phone call from New Mexico was taken (see below) John and I headed out for more conversation, food and drink. Steller’s Sea Eagles were mentioned, the scale of the landscape in British Columbia was discussed and a good time was had (by all? I sure had fun).

A note on how all this came to be:

  • Many months ago @missliberty tweeted about how much she enjoyed The Tiger. It registered, but not as a ‘do something now’ item – it would be quite a while before I’d be able to get my hands on a copy.
  • Steve Bodio emailed me in early August raving about the book; I turned around and tweeted his recommendation.
  • The next thing I know, twitter friends in West Chester, Pennsylvania twote back “We know John – we’re excited about the book too!”
  • Someone must have given John a heads-up – I received a nice email from him thanking me for passing on Steve’s recommendation.
  • RiverRun loves The Tiger; I’m emailing with the author – what to do? I connect John and RiverRun’s events coordinator. I also let Sy know that a reading might be happening – I think she made a phone call or two.
  • Presto – RiverRun gets included on John’s east coast swing. WIN.

RiverRun often livestreams author events – last night was no exception. I asked Tom (the owner) for a favor yesterday – he emailed the stream’s address to Steve. When the event started, John thanked the folks that had made the night happen, including Steve, and as he did he gestured at the webcam. I had no idea whether Steve had gotten the email or if he’d tuned in but I thought, “If he’s watching, that had to have been a bit of a mind-blower.” When the signing was almost over, the shop’s phone rang – call for John Vaillant. Yep – it was Steve, checking in after watching from a ways away. I spoke with Steve as well. Tigers, tragopans and Pheasant Jungles!

I should no longer be surprised by the power of the internet to connect folks, but I continue to be gobsmacked on a regular basis.

Colobus Day Weekend

Some highlights from the long weekend:

A front-long (its opposite is back-long) bike sighted at the Farmer’s Market Saturday morning.


From there, off to the Athenæum book sale.


Two words that cause my heart to race (even if there’s a little staining) – tipped in.


More images from Ehon mushi erami here.


They’re the reason for the season!


Most of the rest of the long weekend was spent outside.


Three expeditionary books.

The last three books I’ve read have all featured exploration as a thematic element. In the order I read them – and coincidentally, in reverse chronological order – most recent expeditions first:

James Tabor’s Blind Descent is the story of two series of attempts to find the deepest cave on the planet. American Bill Stone explores supercave systems in Mexico; Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk does the same in Georgia (or what used to be Georgia – Abkhazia). I enjoyed Blind Descent – amazingly difficult caving makes for a good story. It’s comforting, for me at least, to know that there still are blank spots on the map; places that one can walk to (with difficulty) and be the first person there – ever. Shades of some of the polar explorers. A quibble – it feels like the book wants to be a profile of Bill Stone – driven, difficult genius – but can’t go all the way. Instead it pays a lot of attention to Stone, then throws in Klimchouk for contrast and because he actually found the deepest cave, and does a decent job painting, with a broad brush, the logistics of supercaving.

Stone on caving and on his next project:


The Last of His Kind is a biography of Brad Washburn. When I thought of Mr. Washburn, it was as a photographer, cartographer and the Big Cheese (ret.) at Boston’s Museum of Science. I knew he’d done a lot of mountaineering when he was younger; I did not realize what a key figure he was in early Western Canada/Alaska climbing and exploration. This excellent bio fixed that. It did leave me curious about Washburn’s relationship with Charlie Houston. The two of them fell out during a 1933 attempt on Mount Crillon; they never climbed together again and though they remained friends it comes across in this book as an odd and strained friendship. If you’re interested in mountaineering, photography or a really interesting life, you’ll enjoy this one.


Both of the aforementioned books use a narrative device that I’ve gotten a little tired of. The author starts the book with an especially interesting/scary/pivotal period then, in chapter 2, drops back and starts at the beginning. Sooner or later you end up back at the time period referenced in ch.1 and there’s this dislocation as the author says in effect, ‘and then, as we’ve already seen, x happens. Press on.’  Ouch – or maybe it’s just me.


The Tsangpo/Brahmaputra River rises near Mount Kailas (along with the Indus and a major tributary of the Ganges – axis mundi, anyone?) and flows west across southern Tibet before looping – and I mean looping – south through the Himalayas in the deepest gorge on the planet. Because of the vertical relief the plant diversity in and around the Tsangpo Gorge is incredible – bamboo and Bulbophyllum orchids down low, an alpine environment up high and rhododendrons everywhere. In 1924-25 noted plant collector Frank Kingdon Ward and the 5th Earl Cawdor explored some of the Tsangpo Gorge and parts of Tibet to the gorge’s northwest.  Frank Kingdon Ward’s Riddle Of The Tsangpo Gorges river reprints K W’s original text with additional supplemental material. The Kingdon Ward story is prefaced by a brief history of exploration in the area, peppered throughout by great photography and finishes up with an overview of conservation efforts in the area. If you like plants (I do) and rivers (I do) and big mountains (yep) this book is a delight. I just wonder if there are mahseer in the river – that would make the area heaven on earth – even with the leeches.


Photo album from the British Mission to Tibet, 1903-04

The causes of the war are obscure, and it seems to have been provoked primarily by rumours circulating amongst the Calcutta-based British administration (Delhi not being the capital until 1911) that the Chinese government, (who nominally ruled Tibet), were planning to give it to the Russians, thus providing Russia with a direct route to British India and breaking the chain of semi-independent, mountainous buffer-states which separated India from the Russian Empire to the north. These rumours were confirmed seemingly by the facts of Russian exploration of Tibet. Russian explorer Gombojab Tsybikov was the first photographer of Lhasa, residing in it during 1900—1901 with the aid of the thirteenth Dalai Lama‘s Russian courtier Agvan Dorjiyev.

In view of the rumours, the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, during 1903 sent a request to the governments of China and Tibet for negotiations to be held at Khampa Dzong, a tiny Tibetan village north of Sikkim to establish trade agreements. The Chinese were willing, and ordered the thirteenth Dalai Lama to attend. However, the Dalai Lama refused, and also refused to provide transport to enable the amban (the Chinese official based in Lhasa), You Tai, to attend. Curzon concluded that China did not have any power or authority to compel the Tibetan government, and gained approval from London to send a military expedition, commanded by Colonel Francis Younghusband, to Khampa Dzong. *

I heard about today’s auction on the radio this morning (no info on the NPR web site yet). The obvious fact that the album might as well be on another planet as regards my acquisition does not stop me from lusting after it.

An album of important photographs taken during the controversial British Mission to Tibet in 1903-04 is for sale at Bonhams Travel and Exploration, India and Beyond sale in London on 5 October (£10,000-15,000). The album can be traced to a member of the Mission – Lieut. William Pyt Bennett – and is believed to be the first with such a provenance to appear at auction.

The photographer was John Claude White, a Political Officer in the Indian state of Sikkim, and joint leader of the expedition with Major Francis Younghusband. Officially the mission’s purpose was to settle a border dispute between Sikkim and Tibet but it turned into a full scale invasion with the aim of establishing a strong British presence and, crucially, thwarting Russian ambitions in the area. *




I have another Tibetan post in the pipeline (hint – 1924-25, rhododendrons and primulas) – stay tuned.