Sunday, August 07, 2016


Early on in my adventure into blogging, I wrote something about the condors that were once on the prairie and in the Midwest.  I had swallowed whole the book called "Freckles" by Gene Stratton-Porter, a red-headed female ornithologist and photographer of the Limberlost, a swampy forest of hardwoods in Indiana.  Many girls know “A Girl of the Limberlost” which is about a girl with a poverty-hardened mother whose helper is a thinly disguised version of Stratton-Porter.  Fewer know “Freckles” which became a movie starring Audie Murphy.  After seeing it, I sent him a fan letter and received a nice note and photo in return.  But the star of “Freckles” was really a condor, who dropped a feather on the boy. 

There are articles about the Plains Indians’ relationship to condors, which included a dance imitating them.  But I had to go looking for those articles.  “Freckles” was one of my grandmother’s books.  When I was growing up, the bookshelves were salted with books from earlier generations, including my father’s books about explorers and natural history writers.  In addition, I was devoted to Isak Dinesen’s books.  

So when my post about condors attracted the interest of writers on Stephen Bodio’s Querencia  (, that contact has meant I’ve kept up with his blog ever since.  Several fascinating people post there, including Cat Urbigkit, a sheep rancher and a natural history writer/photographer who knows antelope and wolves, and raises big guard dogs.  A good sample at

Traditional hunting trio

Steve himself was passingly a Montana writer in the Bozeman cadre before going on south to Magdalena, NM.  He’s a connected guy through Saluki dogs, eagles and hawks, fine guns, Eurasia and a first marriage to Betsy Huntington (who died of cancer) and a second marriage to Libby, a strong partner.  He is female-friendly without being icky, but he’s also an exemplar of manliness, which he has centered in Eurasia, one of the most horseback macho warrior territories on the planet.  Born in Boston, he came to natural history through the great museums that resulted from the exploits of men now often demonized -- both those who went out across the country like Teddy Roosevelt and those who financed expeditions sometimes preposterous and often deadly.

Peter Matthiessen

Bodio says:

I ate it all, indiscriminately, as I did that of a generation nearer my own; Peter Mattthiessen, and the playboy turned edgy artist and conservationist Peter Beard were obviously cut from the same cloth. It says something about my naivete that I never even thought of the fact that, as Betsy Huntington put it with mild exasperation, "All those people were richer than GOD".  I thought everybody had adventures and wrote about them, so I found ways, and did. Later I was inducted as a fellow into the Explorers Club, a sort of unofficial annex across the street. Bakewell was recruited as a member of the crew of the first circumpolar flight in the bar of the EC! Before the war, adventurers seemed to belong to the Social Register, the AMNH, and the Club. Kirk recently sent me some xeroxed pages about Carter Burden's Komodo Dragon expedition in the 20's (I have the book- isn't he the grandfather of the editor of Vanity Fair?), from a book called "All About Scientific Expeditions", and seeing that it also had Beebe  et al, I asked if it should better be called "All About Scientific Expeditions by New York socialites”?. . .

It was really a meritocracy, though, and you didn't have to be rich, a New Yorker, or even an American to belong.

But it sure did help to have money.  Might not save your life — it didn’t keep Rockefeller from being cannibalized.  The transcendent end of the scale was Richard Halliburton swimming nude in the reflecting pool of the Taj Mahal by moonlight.  By today, people have walked across Africa with a GPS in their pocket and David Quammen, a Bozeman guy, is part of the new natural history urgent exploration pursuing the deadly passengers on mosquitoes that “Spillover” on us, as deadly as tigers. Like HIV.

So here’s the swerve.  Having followed all the Brit 19th century explorations of Empire, I didn’t exactly walk in their footsteps but instead, parallel, came to Blackfeet country, where the earliest aristocratic and filthy-rich Europeans came up the Mississippi/Missouri to the high prairie.  At the time I didn’t know that history.  It gradually emerged and almost continued as a virtual pattern.  The Sixties with Bob Scriver was focussed on the life a hundred years earlier, which meant that every day was a century milestone of adventure.  Natural history museums were also a strong shared tie, both the big institutional ones and the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, now dispersed.

This background prepared me for a decade-long writing friendship with Tim Barrus, at the end of years of intercontinental airplane travel by the gay community.  I heard about the inclusive relationships with all races and economic levels from bare survival to elegant hotels.  Atypical sexual orientations, rapidly surfacing to identified viability, turned out to be a kind of passport, an access to many other people outside the white male corporate hegemony.  Incredibly, sexwork gave trapdoor access to its underbelly.  (Women have always known that.)

What’s remarkable about T. is that he kept his attention always on neglected, abused, and traumatized children, mostly boys.  Because boys soon become men, this has resulted in a webwork of relationships and strategies, sometimes political but mainly focused on survival.  They are not made “normal,” but are inspired to help each other on their own terms, more humanities than science.  Now it’s not the airplane but the internet that is a way to explore.  

When I thought about boys huddled in cardboard boxes behind dumpsters in alleys, I thought about tough guys like Mattheissen surviving through the Tibetan mountain nights with strange foods and lurking pye dogs, in partnership with George Schaller, that redoubtable field biologist.  I thought that boys on the edge of civilization were as interesting as snow leopards, which are also maimed — at least the ones in zoos because they are caught by the foot.  Snow leopards cannot be taught to tell their stories, but boys can — even the ones who have been sexually abused, beaten up, dependent on drugs.  

Boys cannot and should not be kept behind bars, which is the solution our culture has for both leopards and troublesome kids.  It’s only another level of abuse.  I spent five years thinking about street animals when I worked animal control, but now I’ve spent ten years thinking about street boys.  When I saw some of their crazier vids, I thought of Peter Beard’s famous photo of himself jammed into a dead crocodile.

Peter Beard in a Crocodile

Only now am I becoming hopeful because of the new understanding that all life is connected, in process, interpenetrating, interdependent, and both constituting and exploiting the environment.  I live on the high prairie against the Rockies and never forget it, never let poetry lift my feet out of the grass, but now I want to know about my thinking instrument: my body as a recording organism up against the environment.  I watch the sky for falling condor feathers.  Or falling stars.

All that political thrashing we’re enduring is the death of another Empire, rather more various than the British one now jammed into the jaws of Brexit.  It’s a paper empire that lives on fungible exchanges through the Internet. I think it is doomed, but I don’t know what comes afterwards.  I’m interested in survival and therefore I turn to the “Smash Street Boys,” “Show Me Your Life,” and “Real Stories Gallery.”  I want to know how they make it through the night.

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