Charles Maurice Detmold (1883-1908), Kestrel in flight, 1901. Watercolour. British Museum. Dept. of Prints and Drawings.
We, as mere humans, cannot see and feel as birds do as they navigate their habitats. Birds have immediate needs that relate directly to food availability, energy, water, and temperature, social contact, reproduction, predator detection, and shelter that are more complex than the features we perceive on their behalf as “nature.” Nevertheless, it is urgent for us to understand what bird species need from their surroundings as human intrusion, habitat loss, and climate change conspire to accelerate our need to make the best use of those habitats we can manage for the remaining populations of birds who survive. This is part of what makes Birds: The Art of Ornithology by Jonathan Elphick such a vital contribution to our historical knowledge.
A recent zoological conference in London featured a game of “Animal Studies Tic-Tac-Toe,” in which “David Attenborough” occupied a central square. Though the game was in jest, it is certainly true – and tellingly so that this is often the case even for those whose profession ostensibly involves the fauna of the wilderness – that for most people, the experience of nature is mediated by films such as those in the Life and Planet Earth series, augmented by precision editing, emotional cue music, and witty commentary.
Though not the overt intention of Birds: The Art of Ornithology, this book is a powerful reminder that connecting meaningfully with nature requires leaving the house, and that this experience is both transcendent and daunting. Birdwatching especially demands patience, silence, and solitude. Elphick conveys this foregrounding with subtlety, and describes the conditions faced by naturalists in the time before photography and video, who, tasked often only by their own passion – what John James Audubon characterized as “…nothing was left to me but my humble talents” – set out not only to observe birds but to record their activities and document their environments.
When I was little I was lucky to find my way very young to The Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. I read every single book (they appeared every other year or so from 1941 to 1983; the original book was made by into a stunning film of the same name) many times and like the Jim Kjelgaard dog books (Snow Dog, Big Red) I still read them once in a while. As a child I had Breyer horses and Barkies dogs and the scale of the models was compatible enough that I created an early kind of fan fiction diorama series in which the dogs from the Kjelgaard books met the horses from the Farley books.
Of the horses, I actually preferred The Island Stallion, Flame, and Black Minx, the Black’s (Shêtân) daughter. Also some of the “supporting” horse characters, particularly Wintertime and Sunraider. Of course Eclipse and the Piebald were fantastic villains. Unlike Kjelgaard, who told his stories from the perspective of the animals alone, Farley mixed the narratives voices between humans and horses mostly to good effect. Generally both these series of books are underrated and understudied; they are every bit as elegant and meaningful as Call of the Wild without the violence and free from the burden of having to explain the stereotypes of the time; so they remain free for children to enjoy today.
I was thinking about the Black Minx on and off for the past few weeks and even had a dream about the race with Eclipse that is the set piece of The Black Stallion’s Courage.
The Black Minx and Eclipse… Black Minx is the one horse whose speed potential we never really learn. Only “the boy”, Alec Ramsay, can inspire obedience in the headstrong filly. She was a poky frontrunner…she would get out in front of the other horses in every race, put lengths and lengths of distance between herself and the pack, and then…begin daydreaming until she wandered across the finish, albeit still the winner. She is also a bit romantic in other ways, falling in love with her colt rival Wintertime (who like Flame is a solid chestnut) and always wanting to play around with the other horses and guide ponies. Alec decides to “make” Black Minx more competitive by running her with Eclipse (who is dark bay), the wonder colt she bests in the Kentucky Derby but who rapidly thereafter matures into both a magnificent athlete and a terror, speedier (for a spell) even than the Black and cruel, toying with and breaking the spirits of his rivals.
But this plan backfires. The Black Minx bitterly resents having her dedication tested and the forced competition with Eclipse, whom she loathes. She never trusts Alec again. Moreover in these trials she is faster; Black Minx knows all along that even though Eclipse is very fast, she is too far ahead – all she has to do is hold her lead, which she does. Eclipse is bitter about Black Minx’s ease. Finally, in the Belmont Stakes, when all the horses (except the Black) race, Black Minx protests. Wintertime can’t keep the pace Black Minx and Eclipse set, so Black Minx simply slows down and keeps pace with Wintertime. Eclipse surges across the finish line breaking a track and world record. But as Alec races to Black Minx to make sure everything is OK, Eclipse realizes that Alec loved her best no matter what, win or lose. So for Alec and Eclipse, this is a sad story in terms of people-horse relations. For Black Minx, following her refusal to compete, she is retired, as is Wintertime, and they spend the rest of their days together. (In the very last books of the series, Wintertime and Black Minx have a daughter who is also unruly, Black Pepper.)
Tim Farley, Walter Farley’s son, maintains a Black Stallion Website that has a very fun forum, a lot of beautiful images of horses, naturally, stills and clips from the movies, and a real treasure – the vintage covers from the first editions of each of the books.
When I was packing up some “important papers,” I found amid them this Roz Chast cartoon I had ripped from The New Yorker (undoubtedly belonging to someone else) in 2004. I remember I could not stop laughing when I saw this cartoon the first time and it always makes me laugh whenever I run across it in moving stuff around, which is why I have kept it so long. It made me faintly faint-y when it surprised me this time, but then when I reread it I still thought it was too funny.
Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Briefwechsel : mit Briefen von und an Gabriele Münter und Maria Marc
…After several years of seeking this book and not being able to find it, or finding it and having it be a million Euros or something, I was surprised to locate it in a German used bookstore’s inventory and not too crazily dear. It came in a package from Frankfurt am Main with probably the most Luftpost and other sticker adornments ever in the history of mail. I liked the wrapping so much that I just left the book in it for like a month and kept admiring it. Finally I actually needed to look something up and I had this week to open it. I was beyond thrilled to see that it had a dust jacket with fantastic 1980s typography and an X-acto bladed cutout of the “Show Him the Picture!” photo. The pages aren’t highlighted or written in, but they are pretty beat up and smell like bourbon and tobacco; I am always happy to find someone has really been reading a book hard.
I have been reading, listening to Bayern 2, and conversing with my two patient friends auf Deutsch a bit more diligently and was very pleased to be able to just sit down and read the book without too much difficulty, a far different experience from when first I met it. There are a lot more references to August Macke than I remember, and to AM’s influence…FM was always agitating on AM’s behalf.
I see from looking in Worldcat that this is something of a rare book (rarer now that the Little Mermaid dragged the USF copy to the bottom of the ocean or something – way to stay classy). I wonder why Piper never issued another edition, because in addition to the text of the letters there are extensive notations about the context of the references in the letters, and, very helpfully, descriptions of what was on the obverses of the postcards FM sent that he didn’t make himself. Between the paint, the content, and the terrible writing and incomplete addresses, FM was a real terror to the kingdom’s postal service – they regularly sent his stuff back or just handed it back and refused to deal with it – and they must have been relieved to see just normal “art” postcards such as people send today.
The other text I came across when I was organizing some shelves of books was this: The Decipherment of Linear B. I have always been very fascinated with cuneiform and with the work of Michael Ventris. The author, John Chadwick, was a friend and colleague of Ventris and though this is a very staid account of the process of identification and transcription of the cuneiform characters as both compared with Phoenician and Egyptian and deductively derived, Chadwick mentions Ventris’ untimely death in the introduction. I snatched this book from the trash and am very glad to have it now.