Sunday, March 29, 2009

Getting Away. . .

A few weeks ago I set off on a short trip across the west. I tend to get somewhat claustrophobic in Oklahoma. Norman in particular is cramped, crowded with trees and clustered buildings. It was a relief to be in the desert, in sage brush country, amid mountains and open spaces.

Despite the snow that has recently swept across the country, that week was pristine, still and almost warm. New Mexico and Wyoming were two of my stops, and in both Steve and Dan’s house, contented raptors were sitting, slightly fluffed and preening, on living-room screen perches. What a welcome scene! It was easy to melt into their mindset - and loose my mundane frets and worries.

Dan's passage eagle, hard-muscled and near fly-weight, was particularly serene, peeping gently when I went to feel his keel and pick him up. I was taken back to the small adobe-esque house of a Kazakh falconer I had visited, who had similarly trapped a two or three year old berkut. At night, she would sit silently inside on her squat wooden perch - just as this eagle Eli did. While Yntan had fox skins hanging in the room, Dan had photos of his eagles on fox. Suffering the end of season blues, I enjoyed listening to Dan's stories of soaring eagles along Wyoming ridgesides and calling in predators across the desolate landscape. Friedrich Remmler's (a German eagle falconer born in the late 1880s, known for taking wolf) old equipment was propped against the wall - I couldn't help but picture the old female eagles that had stood atop them, and wonder at what game had stained the well-worn hawking bag.

A visit to Steve and Libby's is always a joy. Ever since I wrote Steve an old-fashioned letter, years ago, the Bodios have offered continual help, advice and encouragement. Magdalena is such a splendidly unique place, that it is easy to get lost in thought, or lost in a good conversation. Little things have changed, for example now I am old enough to order a drink at the Golden Spur - but the same things still fascinate me. On the winding road there, I always pass a swath of mountains that look strikingly familiar - as if they'd been plucked right out of barren Bayan-Olgii and grafted into the landscape. Although Francis Hammerstrom, an eaglewoman whose books I devoured, died when I was just 12 - I love knowing that she has sat at that same table in Casa Q as I, enjoyed the same game dishes and engaged in the same talk of flying golden eagles. Even where I stay the night, the "cranky house" of a typically-traveling musician, there are more stories than I'll ever realize.

For those who are familiar with Casa Q - I found endless entertainment from the "puppy channel". I would love to see such a dog run with an eagle here in the states. Tazis would be invaluable in keeping the oft-freezing jacks moving through the sage.

Here are Jhengiz, Shunkar, Kyra and Irbis indulging in puppy antics with their mother, Lashyn.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Finding Inspiration

Over winter break I took a condensed class entitled “History of Jazz”. Primarily, it was to fulfill a lacking course requirement, but I’ve also always been peripherally interested in (and very ignorant of) the subject matter. While researching for a paper on Kind of Blue, I found an NPR podcast on the famous Miles Davis album. The podcast opened with a jazz musician describing his reaction to the music, when he first heard it as a budding artist in 1959,

"My ears popped when my roommate played it for me. I was 17 years old, and it made me want to quit college right then.”

He wasn’t alone, Kind of Blue remains the best selling jazz record of all time. But that kind of feeling, immediately I thought – I know that.

I was on a windswept, snow-pocketed steep hillside (perhaps ‘mountainside’ would be more appropriate) in Glenshee, at the head of the highlands a few hours drive north of Edinburgh. Over a dozen falconers were scattered down the hill, several with golden eagles hovering near the top waiting for a slip. Two brothers, whom I had just met, had taken me to this field meet. Although each had an accomplished eagle with an impressive head count, I was nervous for them. I didn’t know what to expect. At that time, I had hardly seen any eagles flown in the UK. The landscape seemed too dramatic, the distances too far. I fretted over whether we’d be able to orchestrate this.

Soon the call went up – a hare was on the move below. It was Neil’s slip. Unfortunately the news didn’t travel well up the line. Due to the unevenness of the mountain, the hare was hidden from the sight of those trudging above at the hilltop. By the time the hood was off and the eagle in the air – the hare had vanished. But this eagle had gained his wings waiting-on. He soon swept over the mountain and found lift. Pumping into the wind, with tail adjusting wildly, his figure dwindled as he sailed out of sight over a neighboring mountain. I held my breath. I had been told to expect this. Just like a wide-ranging falcon, the eagle was kicking out to gain height and would be back. The minutes ticked by. I fidgeted. And then, just like that, there he was. The small silhouette was working his way back downwind towards our crowd, roughly 700 or 800 feet up and above the mountain.

Suddenly another hare appeared, skipping down the adjacent hill, into the valley and out in front of the line. The eagle was still many hundred yards behind us - but instantly became compact and angled - pumping hard several times and leaving the rest to momentum. He skimmed down the vast mountainside, wings half-folded and wind propelling him further. Despite the distant start, all at once I heard the wind screaming through his feathers as he rushed past me in the shallow stoop. At the end of the flight (the total ground covered I daren't guess) the eagle overtook the sprinting blue. There were no final jinks, the golden simply swept in from the side and cut the hare off it's uphill path, the flight one long unbroken, amazingly swift stoop.

That was my moment. I couldn't sleep that night. I couldn't sleep for days afterward. I was 19 years old and I wanted to quit college right then.