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

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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. *
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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.

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From there, off to the Athenæum book sale.

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

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More images from Ehon mushi erami here.

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They’re the reason for the season!

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. *

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

Thinking About the MacGuffin

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“In our time — which is a rather stupid time — hunting is not considered a serious matter.” *

This is the picture that planted the seed:

The figurine is described at Super Punch as a Falconer Predator. My first reaction was excitement – what would a Predator fly? How big (Haast’s Eagle size maybe)? I pretty quickly segued into thinking about Predators as hunters – especially with an eye towards fair chase – after all, the movies have been telling us since version 1 that Predators are hunting.

Before I embarrass myself further, a couple points. First, and most important, I realize the Predator is essentially a MacGuffin – horror/thriller subsp.: the nameless, implacable threat element. The alien is there to serve the story; it’s not reasonable to expect a consistent Predator backstory or even consistent behavior from movie to movie. Second, I doubt any of the writers thought very deeply about hunting. My guess is that the original pitch was more like, “It’s The Most Dangerous Game! With an alien! And Arnold and Jesse ‘The Body”! And a mini-gun!” Thus the die was cast – man-hunting became the central narrative element. In spite of these caveats, I just couldn’t leave it be – the more I thought about it, the more interested I became in figuring out what the action really revealed.

So – by way of inquiry, I netflixed Predator, Predator 2, Alien Vs. Predator, went to see Predators in the theater and re-read my copy of Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting. Aliens Vs. Predator – Requiem has yet to be viewed – the Design Student tells me it’s the worst of the lot – I may choose to remain blissfully ignorant. Things I noticed:

  • Predators are gamehogs. They are supposed to be trophy hunting, but their definition of trophy is pretty inclusive. The first Predator kills two squads (minus one) worth of special forces types, the second kills oodles of drug dealers, a couple cops and most of Gary Busey’s X-Files contingent. AvP throws the whole ‘being armed makes you a target’ thing over the side – being in the wrong place at the wrong time (I’m thinking the whalers in 1904, especially) make you trophy quality.
  • Not that there’s any shortage of human game, but the Predator’s approach reminds me a bit of the popular image of late-period buffalo hunters. At least the buffalo hunters took tongues and/or humps for the market – one wonders how big the Predator’s skull room needs to be.
  • Preserve hunting is A-OK with the Predators. The pyramid in AvP is closer to a lasertag playground than anything else I can think of. The preserve in Predators is a lot larger, but the way the humans are stocked is guaranteed to disorient them.

The overwhelming feeling that I had watching the movies was that what I was seeing wasn’t hunting. Way too much general slaughter, WAY too much hand to hand combat and a weird confusion of military fighting, honor fighting/dueling and the chase.

I thought about it for a while before I dropped back to my copy of Meditations on Hunting, knowing that Ortega y Gasset thinks hard about what hunting is and isn’t. On page 47 of my edition I found a paragraph that clarified things immensely:

If the hunted is also, on the same occasion, a hunter, this is not hunting: it is combat, a fight in which both parties have the same intention and similar behavior. Fighting is a reciprocal action. The gladiator in the arena did not hunt the panther that had been let out of the cage; he fought with it, because neither found himself in a natural situation. In the course of hunting a fight may occur, as in the case of the wild boar which, when cornered, turns and attacks the hunter; but this fight has only incidental significance within the hunt, and whatever grave consequences may result, it is only an anecdote embroidered on the main tapestry of hunting. If the hunted animal were normally to fight with man, so that the relationship between the two consisted in this fight, we would have a completely different phenomenon. For this reason, bullfighting is not hunting. Neither does the man hunt the bull, nor does the bull, upon attacking, do so with hunting intentions.” *

Bingo! Predators are gladiators/bullfighters. Human skulls are like bull’s ears. Which leads to an obvious question. Every ‘exhibition’  fight I can think of is done for an audience. Are the Predators instrumented and cam-ed for an audience back home? There’s a backstory that could provide some consistency – Hollywood big-wigs, I’ll be waiting for your call.

[other notes]

Slight spoiler – there was no falconer in Predators. I don’t know if it got cut, or if I’m supposed to accept an autonomous reconnaissance drone that happens to mount to a Predator’s shoulder weapon rack as falconry – it ain’t.

One of the key plot points in AvP is nutty. I’m supposed to accept that the Predators leave all their weapons stashed in lasertag pyramid between ‘hunts’? What, they have draconian gun laws back home? (And we’ll ignore all the evidence to the contrary from the first two flicks.)

In the future, Lance Henricksen will be ubiquitous.

Two Books: Birds

Two books came off my nightstand and hit the to-be-shelved pile – both great reads – that are united by their subject matter and [full disclosure] because the authors are friends of mine.

If you don’t have a renewed and deepened appreciation of birds after reading Sy Montomery’s Birdology,you’ve either been thinking pretty hard about birds already or are as numb as a post. We see birds every day and often take them for granted – Sy does an amazing job explaining why we shouldn’t – birds are different. Someone who might get excited about seeing a snake will look at a starling without really seeing it; looking through a starling is less likely after reading Sy’s book. Each chapter in Birdology emphasizes one aspect of difference – Birds Are Dinosaurs (cassowaries)/Are Made of Air (hummingbirds)/etc. I’ve been looking at birds with purpose for over forty years (I attended a  lecture by Roger Tory Peterson when I was 10 – a birdwatcher already) but after reading this, I’ll never see them quite the same way again.

There are – believe it or not – more than a few falconry memoirs out there. It’s a tough genre – giants of the sport have written of their experiences, some authors have mixed how-tos with anecdotes and there are, of course, the one-damned-thing-after-another stories. In my reader-side experience, one of the most interesting and productive approaches is to use one’s falconry practice as a candle shining back on the author. Rebecca K. O’Connor takes this approach in Lift, and as far as I’m concerned, does a fantastic job of it. I’m deliberately not going to give much away – if you’re at all interested, you ought to read her words – but Rebecca knits together a narrative of her first season flying her first peregrine (properly, her first tiercel), who she was at that point in her life and vignettes from her (eventful? interesting? read betw the lines here, people) childhood. She doesn’t take the easy way out – Lift confronts some difficult situations and, to her credit – and to the book’s benefit – the childhood stories illuminate but don’t always obviously reinforce what’s happening in the falconry narrative.

Two good books – read ’em.

The Harvard Herbarium

First, let me acknowledge peacay as undisputed champion of Internet cool-stuff-finding. Today’s Butterfly Album post is a multi-dimensional winner. First, there are the images. I’m particularly partial to a painting containing what I think is a Giant Water Bug:

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Then there’s the intriguing info on where the insects were collected:

The only other information known is that the butterflies and insects were collected from the Aralia (spikenard) and related Tetrapanax papyrifera (pith paper tree) plant species.

Followed by a link to the Harvard Herbarium for more info on the pith paper tree. The Herbarium rates a big marker pin on my mental map – it’s close, houses the Blaschka’s glass plant models and – most important for me – was the base of operations for Richard Evans Schultes (prev. posts here and here). I’ve wandered around the Herbarium website before, but today – thanks to peacay – I kicked around the Botany Library On-Line Exhibits (not sure I’ve ever happened upon this part of the site before). There’s a nice series on book covers/bindings:

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a section on the ‘other’ Amanita (phalloides)

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and then there’s this, from the Economic Botany Clipping File:

Dr. Schultes teaching in the Nash Lecture Hall

Painting by Hannah Barrett, November 1994

The caption in the tiles says, “Richard Evans Schultes, Director Emeritus, demonstrating the blowgun in the Nash Lecture Hall, the Botanical Museum, Harvard University, 15 November 1994.” Ethnobotanical explorer in lab coat? Check. Blowgun, darts and quiver? Check. Little potted cactus ($100 says Lophophora williamsii)? Check. More interesting details that I’ll leave for you, the reader? Check. I’m curious as to what molecule is diagrammed on the chalkboard…

One last picture to end the post – from the book Beata Ruris Otia Fungis Danicis Impensa. Enjoy!

Edward Quin’s Historical Atlas

Maps are metaphors.

An

Historical Atlas

In A Series Of Maps

Of The World As Known At Different Periods;

Constructed Upon An Uniform Scale, And

Coloured According To The Political Changes Of Each Period

Eden

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The Empire of Cyrus the Great

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At the time of the Death of Constantine.

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The Empire of Kublai Khan

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I love the David Rumsey Map Collection – this find is via a tweet from @bibliodyssey. Any map series that references the Massegetae and Sogdiana is a good one.

Now, THAT was a good day

Wow – that was fun. Up early to run dogs and then off to the southwestern corner of NH, where the cacti and mesas frolic (or not). First stop was at Callahan & Co. Booksellers to sell some dupe/no longer needed sporting books. Hard to imagine, but I came out of Mr. Callahan’s barn upside down (I spent more than he paid me).

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From there to the Toadstool in Peterborough to see the Noted Nature Writer do a talk and book signing event. I got there early, so first I had some pie for breakfast:

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And did a little looking around:

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The talk was wonderful – from there the posse went to Deering where I helped put new bracelets on a gos, much hawking was talked and I met more interesting people. Back home, another dog run – they’re all fast asleep now – and that’s it for me!