Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Blood on My Hands reviewed in Traditional Bowhunter Magazine

David Tetzlaff wrote this review of Blood on My Hands.  It appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of Traditional Bowhunter Magazine and is reprinted with permission. 

Blood on My Hands
Gerard H. Cox

$23.00 Hardcover/$15.25 Paperback/$9.99 Kindle Edition

             Having shot his first big game animal well into his adult years, author Gerard Cox showed up late for the hunting party, but perhaps that makes this late bloomer better suited than some to offer a balanced body of work regarding our relationship with animals:
            As human beings in the world, we can avoid the extremes both of biblically-derived dominion, which treats all animals as means created for our own ends, and of Walt Disney-inspired sentimentality, which results in eating no creature that is cute.

            An acquaintance of this reviewer is employed by the Disney entertainment empire and she, not surprisingly, takes deep offense to any contrary inferences directed at the anthropomorphic themes of the Disney films. Yet much of society’s failure to grasp the basic processes of the natural world is certainly realized in certain overly sentimental movie making efforts. Such films often create a wide chasm between man and his place in nature. Embraced by the anti-hunter crowd, Disney’s Bambi is a mawkish example of man as the invader of peaceful nature as if nature is not in itself violent. Yet in other films, The Lion King for example, it is acceptable for large carnivores to kill to eat, but not for man. However, Cox wisely reminds the reader that man as hunter has for millennia been entwined within the ecosystem, not divorced from it.
However, as some cultures moved from hunter-gatherers to pastoralists a connection to the land and animals was lost. Man carved and tilled the land and no longer lived in communion with it. The blood on our hands no longer emanated from wild animals we hunted. Man cleared his hunting grounds in order to raise domestic animals thereby giving author Cox strong reason to state:
Pastoralists and agriculturists were no longer part of the land: they lived apart from it. They no longer were related to other animals.
Chapter Three of Blood on My Hands, “Putting Animals in Their Place” may, at first glance, give the reader a false perception—that animals are creatures to be demeaned, falling far down the rungs of a human engineered ladder of self-defined superiority. Au contraire, Cox’s actual intent is to put proponents of the animal rights agenda in their rightful place. He takes on Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights and Regan’s attempt to define those that can morally assume self-responsibility (moral agents) and those who cannot act on their own behalf (moral patients) who may be animal or human:
In attempting to give animals rights and thus make them more like us, Regan has paradoxically widened the gap between humans and other members of the animal kingdom.
Of course one of the leading arguments from animal rightists is the suffering that humans inflict upon animals, wild or domestic. Any ethical bowhunter who has ever wounded or lost an animal surely must have contemplated the result of an errant arrow. Yet is it society’s misdirected morals or our own conscience that seeks to harbor a deep measure of guilt in this instance? Or perhaps (with risk of exonerating the hunter from loosing a bad arrow) should we simply return to our historical place as just another predator?  Cox offers this sentiment:
But I find something over-righteous in dwelling on animals’ suffering: it smacks too much of a pornography of pain. In a state of nature, after all, predators kill with no regard for the suffering of their prey. Mother Nature is serenely unconcerned with sentience.
Author Cox is more than adept in his effort to place man squarely in his rightful place in the natural order of things, as predator or as potential prey. He reminds the reader that we are part of the natural drama, not masters of it. Cox astutely invokes Monster of God author David Quammen whose words serve as a firm reminder to those hunters who have shared the woods, here or abroad, with our large cats and bears: “….alpha predators have kept us acutely aware of our membership within the natural world. They’ve done it by reminding us that to them we are just another flavor of meat." Predator introductions have indeed stirred deep controversial feelings in the past twenty years, from Florida to Montana. Yet one cannot deny that wild is that much wilder knowing that the big carnivores are out there assuming their role as alpha predators. In recognition, and perhaps a profound dose of admiration, Cox states:
Our newly informed self-knowledge appropriately takes the form of humility before animals more awesome than we are.
Blood on My Hands encourages the reader to consider that perhaps we do not have to learn to hunt; instead we have to re-learn to hunt, a recovering of sorts of what is already stored deep in our DNA as hunter-gatherers. Cox goes as far to say that “hunting is a highly imaginative activity, one perhaps more intuitive than rational.” Humans do have an innate need to feel connected to nature. Hence the phrase by some photographers, “I hunt with my camera.” Not quite. The photographer is an observer. The hunter is a participant. Prior to his first true hunt, Cox spent the better part of three decades in the outdoors as a non-hunter and easily acknowledges that rather than being a participant he was “just another eco-tourist taking in the sights.”
Gerard Cox has certainly done his research for this volume. The book closes with extensive documentation of his footnotes, followed by a bibliography, and finally (which more hunting authors should do) an index.
            Two decades after Ted Kerasote’s groundbreaking Bloodties was published, Gerard Cox’s Blood on My Hands now comes along as another much needed read for the thinking man’s hunter as well as non-hunters, who in turn, must be made aware of man’s equitable place in the natural world. Cox leaves his reader’s with these hopeful words:
            Our planet is valuable beyond any meaningful calculation. We evolved here. The earth was not made for us; we were made for the earth. We have no other home.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Barsness's Big Book of Gun Gack

Full disclosure:  pre-publication, I helped John Barsness and Eileen Clarke proofread The Big Book of Gun Gack (RiflesandRecipes, 2015).  At that point the manuscript carried what became its subtitle, "The Hunter's Guide to Handloading Smokeless Rifle Cartridges."  As I later discovered when I Googled it, "Gack" has a rather startling range of meanings, but the subtitle is precise and illuminating:  this is a guide for hunters who wish to reload smokeless cartridges.  With the sole exception of the .303 British, all the cartridges covered here were first loaded with smokeless powder, so this book does not treat, say, the .38-55 or the .45-70.

Barsness discusses many, many rifle cartridges (I counted sixty, but I may have missed a couple).  The result is a big book indeed:  the size is 8.5 x 11" and it has 436 pages.  So, what does it offer that you can't find in a printed manual from one of the standard companies like Hornady or a recipe from an electronic source like LoadData?  Not only do these alternatives cover pistol cartridges, they offer even more loads.  I just checked LoadData, and it has 303,595 loads available.

What you get in The Big Book of Gun Gack is something entirely different.  Rather than being inclusive like LoadData, it is selective.  Rather than offering brief overviews of a cartridge together with fifteen powders, say, for each of five to eight bullet weights in a given caliber like the Hornady Handbook, The Big Book of Gun Gack evaluates the merits of each cartridge at some length.  Most reloading manuals have about a page's worth of background on a given cartridge.  Barsness typically has four to six pages (and remember, they're big pages).  His treatment of each cartridge concludes with a few loads that worked well in the rifles he used (the make of rifle, barrel length, and group size are always included).  It is indeed a guide for hunters.

The chief virtue of this book is that  it's written by John Barsness.  His skeptical intelligence is evident on virtually every page.  This is especially true in his treatment of reloading practices, techniques, and formulas.  His 4-to-1 Rule for Ackley Improved cases is here, plus rules for figuring out potential velocity when a given case is necked up or down and for figuring out velocity for different bullet weights in the same cartridge as well as how much powder will be required.  As for techniques, if you believe you are loading accurate ammunition, read Barsness's chapter, "Sizing Cases Straight."  I followed his suggestions in a test run of 7x57's and reduced run-out by 50%.  If you feel confident about reading signs of excessive pressure from external case measurements, read this book:  the life you save may be your own.

Publishing his dictionary, Dr. Johnson declared, "In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed."  The Big Book of Gun Gack omits little, and much has been performed:  its breadth and depth are truly remarkable.  If you are a hunter who reloads or are even thinking you might reload, John Barsness's The Big Book of Gun Gack belongs on your book shelf.  I know I'm going to consult it often, and I'm confident that you will, too.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Fish Fingers Come From . . .What?

"Fish fingers" is of course the English term for what Americans call "fish sticks."  The diamond jubilee of the introduction of fish fingers into Great Britain has occasioned a number of off-beat stories in The Guardian and elsewhere.  Introduced in 1955 by Birds Eye, the nearly tasteless fish finger made from cod, pollack, or haddock beat out competing products made from stronger flavored fish like salmon or herring.  (And in the UK, "fish fingers" likewise triumphed over the name I would have preferred, "cod pieces.")  Children, of course, typically love fish fingers and retain a fondness for them.

Recent studies have demonstrated, however, that a significant percentage of primary school children in the UK are more than a little confused about what constitutes a fish finger.  In a study by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) of more than 27,500 children, 18% believed that fish fingers come from chicken.  Other findings from the BNF survey are that 10% of primary school children believe that tomatoes grow underground, while 29% believe that cheese comes from plants.

One would like to hope that enlightenment accompanies additional age, but a survey of 16-24 year-olds by the firm Rouse Honey points in another direction.  One in eight of these 16-24 year-olds think that bees have to be squeezed to produce honey.  One in seven--14%--believe that potatoes grow on trees.  And my favorite finding is that one in five--20%, that's twenty per cent-- of British young adults believe that fish fingers come from the fingers of fish!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Carl Akeley's In Brightest Africa

Thanks to Stephen Christopher Quinn's wonderfully illustrated book, The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, I became interested in Carl Akeley, the person who was primarily responsible for the idea of representing wild animals in lifelike poses in a meticulously replicated habitat, one based on a specific place, seaon, and time of day. 

I soon was happily immersed in Akeley's In Brightest Africa (Garden City, NY, 1920), an autobiographical account of his trips to Africa published four years before he died and dedicated to the memory of Theodore Roosevelt.  Born in 1864 in western New York State, Akeley had only three years of formal education, but he knew when he was sixteen that he wanted to be a taxidermist.

At that time, taxidermy was a catch as catch can business.  To learn how to mount animals, Akeley went to Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, where he discovered that taxidermy consisted of treating the skin of an animal, wiring the bones of the legs so it could stand up, and then stuffing the skin with straw until it could hold no more.  No attempt was made to replicate the musculature of the creature in question, let alone its bone structure.  If the stuffing was too thick in one area, they simply took a long needle and sewed through it.  "The profession I had chosen as the most satisfying and stimulating to a man's soul," Akeley laments, "turned out at that time to have very little science and no art at all."

So through a combination of self-study and getting tutored by others on his own time while he held down full-time jobs, Akeley learned anatomy and studied art, applying what he learned to taxidermy.  He was one of the first to make manikins, noting as an aside that though it seemed simple, the process had been more difficult than learning how to cast in bronze, something he continued to do for his sculptures the rest of his life.  He wanted to study animals in the field, the longer, the better.  And he soon realized that particular care had to be taken when collecting a specimen:  it wasn't enough just to skin the animal--careful measurements had to be taken, and then one had to correct those measurements to what they would be were the animal still alive with its muscles taut rather than limp. 

While working at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, he made his first trip to Africa in 1896 and his second in 1905.  In 1909, he went again for the American Museum of Natural History.  By his return in 1911, he had resolved to create a great African Hall in the museum.  He wanted it to memorialize Teddy Roosevelt, but it's now called the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

Akeley met Roosevelt several times, and one of the amusing incidents in this book is his meeting the president for the first time at a White House dinner in 1906.  Also present was a man from Alaska who had been describing the hunting there.  As they entered the dining room, Roosevelt remarked, "As soon as I am through with this job, I am going to Alaska for a good hunt."  But during the dinner, Roosevelt asked Akeley so many questions about Africa that Akeley never got to eat a bite.  At the end of dinner, Akeley relates, "the President turned to me and said: 'As soon as I am through with this job, I am gong to Africa.'

"'But,' interposed the hunter from the north, 'what is to become of Alaska?'

"'Alaska will have to wait,' Roosevelt replied with finality."  And thus came about Roosevelt's African expedition.  Back in Africa, on safari, Akeley did encounter Roosevelt, who shot a cow elephant for the group Akeley was planning for the American Museum of Natural History.  The two of them talked for three hours, and it was then, Akeley declares, that he learned to love Roosevelt because he'd come to realize "his sincerity, his integrity, and the bigness of the man."

In Brightest Africa contains much more than I can recount here:  he went mano a mano with a leopard and survived; charged by an elephant, he saved his life by grabbing a tusk with each hand and swinging between them.  He invented and manufactured a cement gun for spraying concrete as well as a "pancake" motion picture camera that proved useful for aerial photography in WW I.  He would do anything to obtain a suitable specimen for an exhibit, but he also grieved for the deaths that he caused.  Akeley led an expedition to collect mountain gorillas, and he was so impressed by their pacific nature--as opposed to the man-eating monsters of popular fiction--that he lobbied to establish a park to protect this species.   His efforts were successful:  in 1925, the year before Akeley died, King Albert I of Belgium established the first national park in Africa precisely for this reason.  Today, it known as Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Akeley is buried there.

Widely acknowledged as the father of taxidermy, Carl Akeley was much more, an extraordinary man at an extraordinary time--and a writer well worth reading.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

I'm shocked, SHOCKED!

I often buy remaindered books and DVD's from the catalogs issued by Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller.  The November 13, 2015, catalog describes a DVD as follows:

     CATHOUSE.  HBO's America Undercover takes you inside Nevada's hottest tourist attraction and behind the bedroom doors of Moonlite Bunny Ranch, where hidden cameras show it's not just sex--it's a profession!   Get a revealing view of a real-life brothel where your sexiest fantasies can come true . . . for the right price.

A profession?  Really?  I'm shocked, SHOCKED!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Atul Gawande's Being Mortal

The human condition is such that we all live with a contradiction.  Consider the Classical syllogism:  "All men are mortal.  I am a man.  Therefore, I am mortal."  When pressed, we reluctantly assent to its truth for our species, but nearly all of us refuse to believe it in our heart's core.  The eventuality of our own death is postponed, pushed off into the indeterminate future, far from now.  And even then, we fondly hope, a medical miracle may defeat death, if not forever, at least until we're really, really old.

Atul Gawande's Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End (Metropolitan Books, 2014) goes a long way to blowing this fantasy out of the water.  Doctors are very skilled at performing operations to deal with specific problems.  But Gawande--a surgeon himself--points out that by recommending and performing these operations, doctors are being unwittingly cruel because their patients consent to them in the hope that they can continue to live longer--much longer.  The MD knows this is a stop-gap operation but doesn't want to depress the patient with that information.  The patient, meanwhile, is desperate to hold on to life, to do everything possible rather than "give up," and often doesn't want to disappoint the family.  Too often, this gap in communication remains unbridged.  The doctor does not admit that such surgery, even if successful, will only extend the patient's life a relatively short time--a few months--and may well make the patient's quality of life even worse.  The  patient, on the other hand, never divulges to the doctor that the additional span of life being hoped for is on the order of twenty years

Being Mortal casts a wide net, covering the historical reasons why hospitals became the place to die and how they have begun to be succeeded by hospices, which offer palliative care focused on a patient's quality of life.  What sets Being Mortal apart, however, is less its analysis of the medical practices involving the terminally ill than its empathetic exploration of what happens when individuals approach the end.  Among other things, this is a book about specific individuals, and Gawande makes every one of them memorable.  Gawande is refreshingly candid about how difficult it is to engage in straightforward, honest conversations with a dying person.  Although I don't believe he ever uses this term, Gawande argues for a collaborative model of care for the terminally ill. The doctor not only provides information on what can be done but also asks the patient about his or her preferences about how to live and how to die.  He argues that the family needs to be brought into this collaboration as well, both to become informed about the patient's wishes and to ensure that the doctor does not make all the decisions. 

The last part of Being Mortal deals with the death of Gawande's own terminally ill father, a surgeon himself (his mother is also a doctor) who eventually opts for hospice care.  By writing about his own family's experiences, he illuminates a better way of dealing with the limited time left to an individual and how this process in turn can help the family cope with that death when it comes.  Described this way, it may sound barren, even cold.  It is not.  Rather, it is a moving account that makes the reader empathize with the entire family. 

This is a heart-warming book, humane in the best sense of the word.  Atul Gawande's Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End deserves to be read by every adult in this country:  it is that good and that important. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Vickery's Advanced Gunsmithing: a Review

W. F. Vickery's Advanced Gunsmithing, which first appeared in the Samworth series of publications in 1940, has been reprinted this year by Skyhorse Publishing.  As the subtitle states, this is "A Manual of Instruction in the Manufacture, Alteration, and Repair of Firearms," and for once this is precisely what this book is about.  After a preliminary survey of shop equipment, Vickery explains "Barrel Changing and Its Adjustments," proceeds to "Chambering, Boring, and Reaming Tools," and then gives a clear account of "Rifling Tools and the Rifling of Barrels."  Actions and their alterations come next, then "Sights, Scopes, and Small Parts."  And so Vickery proceeds:  after rifles, shotguns; then rimfires; then pistols.  The following chapters discuss hand tool procedures, soldering and brazing, heat treatment, and bluing.  The last two chapters cover making cartridge dies and reloading tools.

I mentioned earlier that the subtitle is accurate.  So, too, the title:  this book covers advanced gunsmithing.  The beginner like me can learn from it, but not as much, I imagine, as the more experienced gunsmith will learn.  As in any craft, the more you know, the more you realize what you don't know.  Advanced Gunsmithing is valuable both for Vickery's broad coverage and for the insight he provides into methods of work current seventy-five years ago.  Like other Skyhorse paperback reprints, it is relatively inexpensive, so it should be a useful addition to any gunsmith's reference library.

Vickery is one of the clearest writers I have ever read, in no small part because he knows how to move from one aspect of a given task to the next.  It seems a bit odd, therefore, that this carefully arranged exposition has neither a table of contents nor an index.  I have never seen the original 1940 edition of Vickery's Advanced Gunsmithing or the limited edition published by Wolfe in 1988, so I don't know whether these omissions were present in the original or due to Skyhorse.  In any case, be advised:  it's a good idea as you read to make a running list on the end pages of the topics that interest you. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Savage 99 in .250/3000

Nearly twenty years ago, I tried to bargain for a consigned Savage 99 in a gun shop.  Its caliber was .250 Savage or, as it was originally named, .250/3000.  I liked its tang safety, but its 20" barrel felt a bit muzzle light to me.  What bothered me even more was its heavy trigger pull.  John Barsness's informative articles on Savage  99's* hadn't yet appeared, so I didn't know then how easy it was to adjust the trigger pull.  The price was $500, as I recall, and I didn't want to go over $450.  The consigner said no deal, and because of its muzzle light balance and its heavy trigger pull I wasn't especially disappointed.

Since then, I have read the two articles by Barsness as well as the book he recommended, John Murray's The Ninety-Nine, 3rd ed. (Westbury, NY, 1985).  As so often happens with firearms enthusiasts, the acquisition of a little learning soon leads to the acquisition of another gun.  Recently, when I came across another tang safety 99 in .250 Savage being auctioned on GunBroker, I decided the time had come to try this legendary rifle and caliber.  Its barrel was 22" long, and I hoped that additional length might solve the muzzle lightness. I won the auction for a bit less than twice what I had wanted to pay for the earlier one (pretty much what I'd expect, given inflation), and this time I was pleased.

Thanks to Murray's description, I could tell before bidding that this was a very late 99-A, made in Westfield, MA, not long before rising production costs forced Savage to drop the 99 from its line.  This one was a revival of the older 99-A, a saddle gun, but without the saddle ring.  It featured a tang safety, Electro-Cote coating instead of bluing, and unlike earlier 99's it was drilled and tapped at the factory for a scope. It retains the magazine rotor, but one made of stainless steel rather than the traditional brass.

Most important for my intended use of deer hunting, this reincarnation of the 99-A in .250 Savage has 1 in 10" rifling, so it should stabilize a 100 grain bullet.  Designer Charles Newton apparently had wanted this twist in the first place for a 100 grain bullet at about 2800 fps, but Savage wanted to exploit the 3,000 fps obtainable with an 87 grain bullet, so the publicity value of the first American rifle to achieve 3,000 fps outweighed any ballistic disadvantages from the slower twist and lighter bullet.  [For reloading the earlier 99's with a 1 in 14" twist, see the articles in Handloader by Barsness* and by Terry Wieland#.]

The rifle arrived, exactly as advertised.  I ran some dummy rounds through the action, tested the safety, tried the trigger--the pull was even heavier than the earlier one, I'd guess somewhere in the region of ten pounds!--passed the background check, and took it home.  Some Wipe-Out removed quite a bit of fouling from its barrel.  I took off the butt stock so I could lighten the trigger pull.  Taking a deep breath, I turned the bolt screw counter-clockwise.  It worked:  the trigger pull was lighter!  Thank you, John Barsness!  I lightened it some more.  We'll see if it holds there.  If it moves, I'll follow Barsness's suggestion  to keep it in place with a washer.

I then looked at the butt stock and fore end.  The latter had some factory plastic filling the gap between the action and the fore end.  Time is money, of course, so this probably was  a cost-cutting measure, taking less time than fitting the fore end to the action by hand.  I'm not keen on that plastic, but it is invisible.  What was visible was the outline of a snarling panther a previous owner had incised on the left side of the butt.  I'm not a fan of gunstock carving, but whoever had done this was quite a good artist.  I rather liked it, but you had to tilt the rifle to catch the light for all the lines to show up.  I knew I couldn't cut the lines any deeper without screwing it up, so with no small degree of reluctance I sanded the panther to oblivion.

Like every other 99 I've ever picked up, this 99-A had a short length of pull.  As early as 1918, Townsend Whelen pointed out in The American Rifle that Savage stocks were about a half inch too short to fit the average man, but apparently nobody at Savage ever saw reason to change.  (How tall was Arthur Savage, anyway?)  I'm six feet tall and have a 35" sleeve, so I decided to cut off the curvature of the butt and to install a 3/4" recoil pad, giving me the 13 3/4" length of pull I like.  I did want to duplicate the pitch of the butt, hoping that this would help keep the butt on my shoulder for a follow-up shot, so I used a sliding bevel to replicate the original angle.  Making sure to tape the underside of the butt to prevent it from splintering, I put the butt stock in a miter box and shimmed it until the saw blade followed the line I had marked with a China pencil.  Cutting it off was straightforward.

The lines of the butt stock looked a bit off to me, so I picked up a straight edge.  The line of the comb was straight, but the underline of the butt--the belly, as it's sometimes called--wasn't.  Not as pronounced as a fish belly, which has its own opulent Victorian charm, the curve just represented careless attention to detail.  A few minutes with a block plane took care of that problem.

The more I looked at the stock, however, the more I thought its proportions were out of whack.  The chief problem was that the flared cheeks behind the action (the portion in front of the wrist) came too far back.  As a result, the back edge of the cheek interfered with my trigger finger.  That the lines were dubbed over as a result of mass production didn't help the stock's appearance, either.

The solution seemed to lie in shortening and delineating the stock's panels.  I got out some French curves and found one that had the right scale for that portion of the stock.  I decided to have that section end farther forward, in line with the back of the trigger guard, and to echo both the trigger and the top of the wrist with a slightly downward curvature.

Here is a photo of the planned alteration.  The line with dashes indicates the way it left the factory; the solid line represents the curve I was going to follow in re-cutting these panels.

I also slimmed down the area right behind the receiver tang, removing as much as I could of the hump just visible in the photo above. 

Here's the butt stock after cutting the new panels, mounting the recoil pad, and refinishing.  The aniline dyes followed by alkanet oil have given the bland wood a richer tone:

These altered panel details probably wouldn't be noticed by anybody other than a Savage collector or another stocker, but to me they improve the flow of this rifle's lines.  The rear of the outward flaring portion is now far enough forward that it no longer interferes with my trigger finger.  I like the crispness of the newly defined panels, but if I were to start over again, I'd move them forward just a little more, perhaps making the curve line up with the trigger rather than the rear of the trigger guard.

Given that this later 99-A was factory drilled and tapped for a scope, I've mounted a Leupold VX-3 1.5-5x20mm in the pleasingly old-fashioned Weaver rings.  Scoped, it weighs one ounce over eight pounds.

Here's a photo of the entire rifle:

Now I've got to load some 100 grain bullets and sight it in.  I am hoping Dame Fortune lets me find a whitetail with it in Maine this fall.

*John Barsness, "Savage Model 99:  A User's Guide," Rifle 221 (Sept. 2005), 46ff; "Handloading Savage Cartridges," Handloader 238 (Dec. 2005) 84ff.

#Terry Wieland, "The Perfect .250-3000," Handloader 297 (August 2015), 32ff.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Lab Puppy's First Swim

Our Black Lab puppy Bête Noir is exuberant, perhaps even excessively so, in nearly every way except one:  she has shown no interest in swimming.  Thanks to our friend John Bailey and his two water-loving dogs, Keel and Buddy, Bête at nine months learned to wade in a pond, but she was emphatically not going to follow their example and swim.  She remained a wader, and not even a very deep-water wader at that.

Now, I don't want you to get the impression that I was concerned about this characteristic of hers.  I was completely reconciled to owning the only Lab in the entire US that didn't swim.  I told myself that it wasn't really that big a deal:  I could always shave, and then none of my friends would recognize me, any more than they did after I grew a beard.  So I was stoically prepared to have a non-swimming Lab.

Several days ago, just after Bête became nine months old, the two of us went out to Jennings Pond in Danby, NY, where there is a swimming beach marked off with guard ropes.  It was late enough that the life guard had gone home.  Given that Bête always wants to go where I go, I reasoned, I would wade around with her and at some point perhaps wade out to where she would have to swim. As we splashed around together, she gradually waded in deeper, to the point where she could just touch the fine gravel bottom. 

Then she decided it would be fun to bite the little buoys spaced every three feet or so to keep the swimming area's boundary lines afloat.  I did say that she's exuberant, right?  Starting about ankle deep, she lunged and bit the first one, in a foot or so of water.  She then lunged and bit the second one, in a foot and a half or so of water.  I hit the third one with my hand to give it some motion, and she lunged for it, mouth agape.  Surprise!  No bottom under her paws!  She look startled but not scared as she dog paddled forward and bit that buoy as well, then turned around and swam back to the bank.  A few minutes later, in she went again, and she appeared altogether comfortable swimming from then on.

I then tossed a dummy out where she could wade.  She brought it in and dropped it.  Good girl!  I tossed it a bit farther out, but still where she could wade.  She brought that back, and dropped it.  Good girl!  The third toss was into deeper water, but not far out.  She promptly waded in and then with no hesitation swam for it and brought it back.  Good girl!   Not wanting to press my luck, I stopped there.

Caroline said after I got home that I was beaming like a proud father!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Grilling Corn on the Cob: Simple Perfection

For those of us fortunate enough to live where sweet corn is grown, corn on the cob is one of the delights of summer.  But what is the best way to cook it?  The method I use has changed over the years.  I started out by bringing a large pot of water to the boil, adding the shucked corn, bringing it back to the boil, putting on the lid and turning off the heat.  Ten minutes later, it was ready to eat.  Slathered with butter and salt, it was delicious.

Friends of mine simply microwaved the corn:  two minutes for one ear; five minutes for two ears.  This method produces corn that is excellent, but somehow I don't find it as satisfying as the next method, grilling.

Grilling corn on the cob has the great advantage over boiling of not heating up the kitchen by bringing a large pot of water to 212 degrees and over microwaving of adding more flavor, but the process I followed was time-consuming.  First you pulled back the husks, removed the corn silk, replaced the husks, and then soaked it for twenty minutes or so.  I grilled the ears on low heat for about seven minutes, turned each ear 180 degrees, and grilled for another seven minutes.  The grilling added some flavor, and I no longer cared about adding butter.  The only drawback was that husking the grilled ears left flakes of charred husk scattered around.

Recently, I read somewhere--I am sorry I can't give credit either to the writer or to the magazine--about a variation on this grilling method.  The article said that it wasn't necessary to remove the corn silk or to soak in water.  I was skeptical about putting the ear directly on the grill, but I tried it.  This method does in fact work, and work well:  the outer leaves get charred, but the corn is delicious.  I should note that it cooks faster this way, so check it after five minutes or so to see if it's ready to turn over.

The article also claimed that it isn't necessary to shuck the ear.  Instead, after grilling, use a sharp knife to cut through the ear approximately at the bottom row or so of kernels (which of course are covered up by the husks).  Working from the sheared end, the article claimed, it's much easier to remove the husks and corn silk.  That also turns out to be correct.  There are no charred remnants that the breeze invariably blows into other food.

Caroline eats it as is with no seasoning; I add only some ground pepper.   Either way, corn grilled this way is simple perfection.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Restoring an 1887 Scott Shotgun Stock

Having successfully browned the Damascus barrels of this 1887 Scott hammer gun (see my previous post), it's now time to restore its stock.  To say this, however, is immediately to raise the question of what "restore" means.  These days, it is often understood to mean "make like new again."  In the antique furniture trade in the 1920's and '30's, all traces of age were removed to make the piece look brand new.  This process was known in the antiques trade as "skinning," and its widespread practice eventually made pieces that still retained their original finish much scarcer and therefore more valuable.  To me, over-restoration is as wrong-headed as a lovely woman in her later years resorting to Botox to replicate her youthful appearance.  As John Donne declared almost three hundred years ago, "Neither Spring nor Summer Beauty hath such grace / As I have seen in one Autumnal face."  The aim of restoration should not be to make an old gun look new again, but to bring back the grace of its autumnal beauty.

This particular hammer gun has decent walnut and some engraving, but it left its Birmingham factory in 1887 as one of the "plain" guns offered by W. & C. Scott and Sun (the Scott 1872 catalog shows a similar model but with the earlier, higher hammers).  In contrast to today, engraving was relatively inexpensive in the 1880's.  It probably never was stored in a trunk case, which would have protected its finish, and it was used hard.  Compared to the interior wood of the fore end that's protected by the barrels, the color of the wood has faded, much as if it had been bleached by the sun.  Its original checkering survives only in a few place, having been replaced by much coarser lines outlined by deep grooves.  The border grooves remain, but the gun has been used so hard that even the second set of checkered lines is worn away.

In these circumstances, what sort of restoration is possible?   I am going to remove what remains of an earlier refinishing.   (How do I know it's not original?  No original finish would show brush marks!)  I'll do as little as possible to make it look well cared for:  gently remove the sloppy finish with stripper and steel wool (which, unlike sandpaper, doesn't destroy the patina), apply some coats of alkanet oil, then a sealer coat of spar varnish, and follow that with some coats of TruOil.  Finally, I'll dull the finish slightly and top coat with alkanet oil, slowly replicating a London (or, for this gun, a Birmingham) oil finish.

What to do about restoring the checkering is a problem.  Removing the second checkering's grooved borders would remove far too much wood in the wrist--and that is already perilously slim.  It is thus impractical to attempt to get back to its original look.  Is some checkering better than none, even if it is from a later, crude refurbishing?  Or is it better to leave the wood alone and have its "checkered history" (forgive me) evident?  Food for thought.

Ideally, I first would separate metal action and trigger guard and plate from the wooden stock before working on the wood, but someone earlier buggered up the action screw so badly that I can't budge it and don't want to take the risk of making things worse.  I'm just going to have to be very, very careful finishing the wood around the fences.

Here's a shot of the butt and the horn-tipped fore end after stripping off the old finish:

I managed to raise one dent and lessen the depth of another by applying a steam iron to a damp rag held against the wood.

It then was time to rub in alkanet oil.  Three coats later, with several days between each coat, the wood has regained some color and its figure is more pronounced:

Next came a coat of spar varnish, rubbed down with 0000 steel wool.  The satin spar varnish was followed by sanding in TruOil:  I applied two coats of TruOil and then a third sanded in with 400 grit paper moistened with more TruOil.  After the sanded-in coat dried, I rubbed that down with 0000 steel wool, burned off the steel wool particles over a gas range, and then applied two more coats of TruOil, sanding in the third.  I did this a total of three times.  I then applied a coat of TruOil and rubbed it down with auto rubbing compound.  Another coat of alkanet oil followed, again rubbed down with the auto rubbing compound.

The old saying about applying an oil finish goes, Rub in linseed oil once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for year, and once a year forever.  The spar varnish and TruOil have accelerated this process, so I'll just rub in alkanet oil once a month for a year.  The stock now has partially but not completely filled pores.  The wood no longer looks ravaged, but relatively well cared for.

This Scott shotgun has had a hard life, but with its barrels browned (and then rubbed back) and with its wood refinished, it looks now as if it has aged with some degree of grace:


Friday, May 29, 2015

Browning Damascus Barrels

Let me say at the outset that I'm writing as a novice about browning Damascus shotgun barrels.  I've previously browned exactly one barrel, a Getz octagonal barrel for my .50 Pennsylvania long rifle, and of course that was a new barrel, not an antique one, and it was steel, not the twisted combination of iron and steel that defines Damascus.  So why, you may be thinking, should I write about doing this for the first time? Simply because I'm going to record both what I do wrong as well as what I do right--that way, I may save some others from replicating my mistakes.

There is a lot of information on the web about Damascus barrels, everything from how they were made to identifying types of Damascus construction to how to refinish them.  I had managed to compile a sizable folder of this information, but then a virus struck my computer and I lost it all. But I had already decided not to make my own browning formula, so I simply ordered Laurel Mountain Forge's Barrel Brown and Degreaser.  Their instructions on the web are critical, especially their caution against rubbing the surface with multiple coats:  that can cause a metallic copper colored film to form, which impedes the browning process.  This particular Barrel Brown offers the advantage that the surface to be browned does not have to be entirely free of oil, as the formula cuts through that.  Several sources on the web noted, however, that for Damascus barrels at least the initial application of this solution should be diluted 50% with distilled water.

Another useful source for browning is Oscar Gaddy's A Rust Blue Primer (the steps one follows for a rust blue are the same as for browning--up until boiling the barrels, which turns the red Ferric Oxide to the blue-black Ferric Ferrous Oxide, better known as a rust blue).

Like many aspects of gunsmithing, the process is relatively simple.  Doing it well is another matter. That's where experience counts, and experience may be considered as the ability to have learned from your mistakes--and no small part of that is knowing how to correct the mistakes you've made.

Here are my Scott's barrels in a "Before" shot:  the browning has pretty much disappeared.

The first step was to remove what little remained of the old finish and get a relatively smooth surface.  I started with 220 grit on a sanding block and followed Gaddy's suggestion to stop polishing with 320 grit.

Next came degreasing.  Even though Laurel Mountain Forge claims that this step is not necessary, I decided to do it anyway.  I had bought at a hardware store some rubber stoppers to plug the barrels, but they fell out all too easily.  I returned to the store and bought some corks.  These were not a great fit, either, but I sanded them down until they stayed in place.  After putting on vinyl gloves (check to make sure they don't have powder on the outside), I first flooded the barrels with Formula 409 and then rinsed it off with hot water.  When that had dried, I rubbed the barrels down with a cotton pad moistened with rubbing alcohol.

Two things I learned from degreasing are that you have to figure out 1) how to support the barrels while you apply the solution, and 2) how to support them during the time they rust.  I suspended the barrels from a parachute cord slip-knotted to the underlug and looped on a nail in the garage (there's more humidity outside).

I cut Laurel Mountain Forge's Brown 50-50 with distilled water.  Wearing vinyl gloves, I applied the solution with the 1" foam brushes Gaddy recommends.  Using a foam brush didn't work for me:  I couldn't control the amount of solution I was applying.  I quickly learned that to avoid runs I had to apply the solution horizontally, not vertically.  Try to cover evenly, overlapping as little as possible.

The length of time it takes to rust obviously varies with the temperature and the humidity.  In Ithaca, NY, during a rainy week near the end of May, I began by checking on the rusting after three hours or so.  Laurel Mountain Forge suggests not letting the rusting process go past 24 hours, or pitting may develop.

Card off (that is, rub lightly) the barrels under running water with degreased steel wool (I prefer Lee Valley's extra-fine steel wool, as it comes already degreased).  My first attempt turned out gray, not rust brown, and rather streaky.  You can't have made a mistake, I thought to myself, so I took a deep breadth and kept on trying.  I dried the barrels:  using hot water makes this faster.  I discarded the foam brush and substituted a cotton sterile dressing, folding it into a pad.  Again, I took long horizontal strokes the length of the barrel.  Being careful not to touch the wet barrels, I suspended them to rust for five hours.  More applications, rusting, and carding followed, and a light brown color began to emerge.  Re-applications made the brown deeper in color and more even.

Here's how the barrels looked after seven applications:

Following Laurel Mountain Forge's suggested procedures, I carded the barrels and then neutralized the surfaces with baking soda dissolved in hot water.  I rinsed that off with more hot water and allowed the barrels to air dry.

Next came oiling.  I heated the barrels over a gas stove until they were uncomfortably hot to hold and rubbed in a coat of motor oil (10W-40 is what I happened to have on hand). After 12 hours, I wiped off the motor oil with a clean cloth and applied a sparing coat of CLP BreakFree inside and out.  Here's how they came out:

I really liked the richness of this brown, but it rather obscures the Damascus pattern.  You have to look hard to see it.  Etching the barrels would bring out the contrast between the iron and the steel, but I couldn't decide whether I wanted to do that.

The next day, after re-assembling the gun, I decided that the barrels looked too good, too new.  They needed to lose some of that rich luster.  I first tried rubbing them with extra-fine steel wool--it didn't make that much of a difference.  I then thought of auto polishing compound, which is less abrasive than auto rubbing compound.  I applied the polishing compound on the underside where it wouldn't show if it turned out to be a terrible idea.  I liked its effect, so I polished away.

Here's a view of the polished barrels.  Only one barrel and the rib are in focus, but you can see that the contrast between the iron and the steel has been markedly improved by the auto polishing compound:

My last step consisted of warming the barrels with a heat gun and then applying two thin coats of Renaissance Wax, buffing each coat.  The barrels now have a low luster.

In my view, the barrels now look right for the effect I want:  not a shotgun that looks as if it  had just left the Scott factory yesterday, but one made in 1887 that's been used pretty hard but been cared for.  Here's a shot of the barrels and part of the action.  Rather than one element standing out, they all seem to go together:

Useful Sources
David Baker, "The Blueing or Blacking of Gun Barrels," in Desmond Mills and Mike Barnes, Amateur Gunsmithing (Boydell Press, 1986).

John Bivins, "Metal Finishes for the Custom Gunsmith," in Gunsmithing Tips & Projects (Wolfe Publishing, 1989).

William R. Brockway, Recreating the Double Barrel Muzzle-Loading Shotgun (George Shumway, 1984).


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Remodeling a BRNO Mauser, Part 8: Putting It All Together

In my previous posts, I have concentrated on the various elements of remodeling this 7x57 Mauser: reworking the stock, say, or bedding the action.  Now, everything is about to come together, and I am hopng, as I always do at the end of one of these projects, that the whole magically will become more than the sum of its parts. For me, at least, this final assembly typically involves some pesky last minute adjustments before the magic can happen.  In this case, I had to remove some stray AcraGlas to make the bottom metal fit properly again.  

I'm planning to shoot the BRNO first with iron sights, partly because I like the look of a rifle uncluttered with a scope, partly because the rifle will weigh at least three quarters of a pound less than it would with a scope, and partly to see whether my aging eyesight can manage one minute of whitetail deer.  What this means in practical terms is whether I can still keep all my shots at 50 yards on an eight-inch paper plate--offhand.  

Although the BRNO lacked a front sight when I bought it, it did come drilled and tapped for a Lyman 48.  Fortunately, the RS model Lyman 48 I already owned fit this Mauser 98 perfectly, so that's what I'll try.  If I no longer see well enough for iron sights, I can always take off the peep sight and mount a scope, making use of the BRNO's tapped holes for Weaver bases.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, despite my amputating the Monte Carlo comb, the comb is still high enough that I can use a low-mounted scope.

Here's a shot of the altered pistol grip, the receiver with the Lyman 48, the checkering, and the shortened fore end with a barrel band.  The magazine release is just visible, and as I said in an earlier post I've swapped the two-stage military trigger for a Timney I already had on hand.

The finishing touch, so to speak, wasn't a matter of seeing so much as a matter of feeling.  After assembling the rifle and holding it muzzle down in my right hand, I noticed that the edges of this Lyman peep were digging uncomfortably into my hand.  Looking more closely, I saw that the edges had been chamfered, but only minimally.  Following a suggestion by E. C. Crossman in The Book of the Springfield (1931), I picked up a needle file and in a few minutes had softened the edges of the sides and the adjustment knobs.  Some cold blue made it look new again.  It's surprising how much difference a little detail like this can make.

Looking back to the beginning of this project, here's the BRNO as I bought it, complete with a Monte Carlo comb, a bulky, closed pistol grip, and an extended, angular fore end (the odd bump on the bridge is a Weaver scope base):

And here's where we've ended up: a new front sight, set back a tad in the English style, and a Lyman 48; a barrel band for a sling; a slightly truncated fore end to balance the 21 1/2" length of the barrel; and a more open pistol grip together with a much altered butt stock, a recut cheek piece, and a new recoil pad.  And now the much slimmer stock is checkered:

Assembled with iron sights, the rifle weighs 7 1/4 pounds. 

This BRNO 7x57 now fits me.  It balances just the way I like, very slightly muzzle heavy.  Unloaded, its balance point is five inches in front of the trigger.  It feels lively in my hands.  Almost as important, it is very close to my Platonic ideal of a bolt action sporter, an elegant and altogether personal rifle.  Its styling is conservative:  I like to think that Bell or Corbett would have approved of this 7x57.  I'm looking forward to practicing with it and then taking it afield.  In the meantime, I am deriving pleasure from just holding it in my hands and dreaming big dreams!


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Remodeling a BRNO Mauser, Part 7: Checkering

This post has been longer in getting up than I anticipated.  Put the delay down to the holidays and a tough winter combined with taking on a new Lab puppy.  But now I can return to the BRNO 7x57 sporter and  suggest some ways to make checkering its stock easier and less error-prone.  This post could be entitled "An Ode to Blue Tape," using the BRNO as an example.

Remember the old quip:  "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"  The answer of course is, "Practice, practice, practice!"  How do you avoid the most common error in checkering: over-runs, those pesky little cuts that extend just beyond the border that's supposed to contain them?  Practice checkering!  After you've checkered a dozen or so stocks, you almost certainly will have gained much more control of the checkering tool.  While you're gaining control in the interim, however, and perhaps even afterwards, the solution to avoiding over-runs is Scotch Blue Painter's Tape.  I use the 0.94 inch x 60 yard size.

Available at any hardware store, this painter's tape has many uses for checkering.  I use a template cut out of aluminum foil to scribe in the borders on the pistol grip for a checkering panel. How do I hold down the template as I scribe?  Scotch blue painter's tape.

A strip of Scotch blue painter's tape laid carefully along the stock will give you a straight line to follow with a scribe or cutter (if you have difficulty following its thin edge, add another strip on top of it).  A strip can extend a line along a compound curve like a pistol grip.  By tearing off small sections and layering them tangent to a line, you can even tape a compound curve, as on this pistol grip.

So, when checkering, how do we avoid over-running a border?  All together, now:  Scotch blue painter's tape.

How do I make one side of checkering begin and end at the same point of the stock as the other side?  Run a piece of tape from one side to the other, checking it to make sure the curvature of, say, the grip doesn't throw it off. 

How do I know my points will end up aligned?  I simply put a strip of tape where I want the points to go:  I checker to the edge of the tape, and no farther.  This photo shows the grip after I've completed the first set of cuts.  The curled piece of tape visible on the right is from lining up the points on the other side:
As some of us have learned the hard way, tape on a gunstock can lift the finish off when it is removed.  3M says this tape is safe for finishes "up to" fourteen days, but I don't like pushing my luck.  I've kept it in place for a week, with no problems on removal.  If I haven't finished checkering the stock in a week, I re-tape.

As the proverb has it, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  If you resent the time taken to tape a curved panel (or re-tape it after a week), take a  moment to consider how much time it takes to fix a mistake:  scraping out the cut, sanding it with several grades of sandpaper, re-staining, refinishing--a number of days, in short, by the time it can pass inspection.  Wouldn't taping the panel in the first place have been preferable to spending all this time and effort?

Here's a shot of the checkered grip "in the white":
If you look closely at the middle point, you can see where I overran the border and had to scrape out and sand the cut.  This will disappear after dyeing when I apply a coat of TruOil thinned by 50% with mineral spirits.

The checkering on the fore end wraps around.  Given the relatively short fore end (14 1/4" from the trigger to the tip) to have the 21 1/2" barrel look in proportion, I decided to terminate the front end not with points but with an English-styled square border that affords more checkering for my forward hand's fingers.
I then dyed the checkering with the dye mix I'd saved for this purpose (see Part 6), applied a coat of alkanet oil to the checkering and then a thinned coat of TruOil, brushing it in with a toothbrush, and carefully wiped up any overflow.  The stock is now finished, literally speaking.  The remodeled stock without pad weighs 25 ounces, or one pound nine ounces.  Even with its minimal length of fore end and no fore end tip, this is unusually light for walnut. 

After letting the TruOil dry overnight, I screwed on the sling stud and recoil pad, which brings its weight to just under two pounds.

As a parting note, I've checkered something on the order of two dozen stocks.  As I admitted above, I still make mistakes.  To checker, you need to exercise patience.  You need to take your time.  And the way to minimize mistakes is straightforward:  Use 3M's Scotch blue painter's tape!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Stippling a Gun Stock

Faithful readers may remember my series of posts in July, 2013, about putting together a Scout or a Woods rifle, as I preferred to call it.  Following the suggestions of Jeff Cooper in To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth (Gunsite Press, 1988) and of Finn Aagaard in Selected Works (Wolfe Publishing, 2007), I took a DWM 1908 Mauser action with a commercial stainless barrel in 7x57mm, asked Fred Cornell (Custom Shooting Accessories, 570 888-9236) to turn down the barrel and shorten it to 20", and then fitted it to a Boyds laminated stock.   I trimmed Boyds' generous stock dimensions down and used aniline dyes to darken it.  I then epoxied on a XS Systems sleeve and mounted a Leupold Scout 2.5x28 scope just ahead of the magazine. 

The result was a handy rifle indeed.  Including the scope and a new recoil pad, it weighs seven and one half pounds.  If some malign fate confined me to only one rifle, the legendary reliability of the Mauser action, the versatile range of bullet weights available in 7mm, and the quick handling qualities of this Scout rifle would almost certainly make me choose this one.

One problem remained:  while hunting with it, the oil-finished stock felt a bit slippery in my hands.  I'd read that the glue in laminated stocks quickly dulls checkering cutters (carbide cutters might have worked, but I didn't have any:  they're expensive), so checkering was not an option.  What to do to get a non-slip surface?

Following a tip I'd picked up from a chat room on the web, I first tried truckbed paint.  This black paint is formulated to be non-skid, and that sounded like just what I needed.  Fortunately, I decided to test it on a junked stock.  It turns out that truckbed paint is indeed less slippery than regular paint, but it drips, runs, and sags when sprayed on the smoothly curving surfaces of a gun stock (see below):

So truckbed paint was out.  I then read about using an electric woodburning tool to create a non-slip surface on pistol grips.  Off I went to a hobby store and purchased a Weller Woodburning and Hobby Kit.  Once again, I decided on a test run.  It did work, after a fashion (see below):
It's not that easy to get your dots in a row for a border--and you also need a lot of them to fill a given space.  Checkering involves a lot of repetition, but this technique is really boring.  To my eye, it doesn't look that great, either.
I then thought of commercial Mauser sporting rifles I had seen:  many of them had the metal of the receiver ring stippled, presumably to cut down glare.  I wondered, are there stippling tools for wood as well as for metal?  There are indeed, and Brownell's carries them.  I ordered the Medium size (16 per inch) and the Fine (20 per inch) stippling punches.  I preferred the Medium size, so I tried to get the hang of stippling on another discarded stock.  Guess what?  Brownell's instructions are much to the point: practicing first does lead to a better result.
What I discovered, however, is that the stippling looks much better when set off by incised lines, just like a checkering pattern.  Given that the punches themselves are about 1/4" in diameter, the borders can't end in the V's traditional to checkering.  I decided simply to round off the panels, the one exception being the bottom of the grip panels, where I followed the typical line parallel to the grip cap.  Several sizes of washers gave me the arcs I wanted to end the panels close to the receiver and on the fore end.
After cutting those border lines, stippling was straightforward.  Just as I do when checkering, I taped all around the borders to prevent an overrun.  If you want to try stippling, I suggest you use light blows with the hammer.  Keep turning the punch so the dots form a random pattern.  If it looks a bit sparse, just do it some more until it looks filled up.  In other words, your eye will tell you when it's right. 
The stippling punches created just enough texture to keep my hands from slipping.  Here's the end result after re-staining and finishing the stippling:


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk

Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014) is an extraordinary book, one that seamlessly fuses a number of themes.  It is a memoir about grieving for her father, dead from a heart attack while working as a photojournalist.  It is a book about raising and relating to another member of the animal kingdom, a hawk.  And it also compares and contrasts her experiences to those of T. H. White, who in addition to The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone wrote The Goshawk, a searing account of how not to train a hawk.

Holding these disparate themes together is a framework derived from the quest in medieval romance.  H is for Hawk concerns Helen Macdonald's quest for her rightful place in the world, a version of self-knowledge.  Because she is overwhelmed by her grief from her father's unexpected death, she decides to rear and train a goshawk.  Quests typically involve journeys into another world, one fraught with perils and ordeals.  The hero confronts death and then returns, much changed, to the journey's point of origin.

What Macdonald does, however, is go off in the wrong direction, thereby inverting and reshaping the romance tradition.  Rather than setting out on a quest for something, be it the Golden Fleece or self-knowledge, Macdonald escapes from something:  To distract herself from grieving for her father, Macdonald retreats from the ordinary world of people and disciplines herself to enter the world of her goshawk, sardonically named Mabel (from amabilis) because she is anything but amiable.  But the world of hawking is not only a matter of predator and prey in the here and now.  No small part of its appeal is that it offers a mode of relating to a past that extends back through the Middle Ages and beyond, back into the realm of mythology and the ancient Egyptians' worship of Horus (a deity Macdonald actually prayed to as a child).

Macdonald succeeds in entering Mabel's world by becoming a non-entity, invisible, and thus ignored by her hawk.  (T. H. White correctly saw this process as an ordeal, and he failed at it.)  Macdonald becomes exquisitely sensitive to every nuance of Mabel's expressions, seemingly proving that she could become like Mabel, "solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life."  What she didn't realize at the time was that "turning into a hawk" also involved loss, the loss of her own humanity and therefore her relationships to the human community.

Undistracted by quotidian life--she has no job, no friends, no children, no home--Macdonald is free to focus on Mabel.  One outcome I found delightful:  she has to discard the contemporary view that goshawks are sulky and murderous when Mabel and she engage in a game of catch with scrunched-up balls of paper.  When Macdonald tosses the paper ball to Mabel, Mabel catches it with her beak and tosses it back with a flick of her head.

Hunting with Mabel, however, takes Macdonald to the very edge of being human and then past that place.  That way madness lies, and indeed she comes perilously close.  She could always tell a hawk from a handsaw, she comments, but sometimes she was struck by how similar they were.  She is scared of people. Suffering from anxiety and depression, she drifts into states where she isn't certain who she was or what she was.  Far from her worth being proved by the ordeal of her quest, she is falling apart.

It might be argued that Macdonald loses control over her material as she struggles to convey her path back to becoming human.  Granted, no dramatic revelation starts her in another direction.  But I would suggest that this lack of drama, this rather messy, tentative turn indicates instead that Macdonald is reshaping romance conventions.  Far from a neat resolution of her ordeal, her conversion imitates life as we live it:  uncertain, non-linear, proceeding by fits and starts.

Mabel also helps, albeit unknowingly, by teaching her about death.  Every time Mabel kills an animal, that act pulls Macdonald back from her hawk-like mode into being human.  As a human, she begins to feel accountable for these deaths.  Mortality becomes real to Macdonald in ratio to her accepting responsibility for hawking with Mabel.

Another element in her conversion is attending her father's memorial service.  She is intensely moved by how many people had come and how much they cared for him.  She feels a sense of community at the memorial service, and that in turn leads her to a major realization:  she had taken the wrong path.  The wild would not, could not heal her hurt.  She couldn't become a hawk; she couldn't fly though a rent in the sky, as she'd dreamed, and bring her father back.  She needed instead to be in touch with people: "Human hands are for holding other hands.  Human arms are for holding other people close."

The passing of time transmutes her grief for her father into love.  She reestablishes human relationships.  At the same time, she continues hunting with Mabel, but with a difference.  Now, she begins to depart from accepted practice by letting Mabel fly free.  The loss of control scares her, but both of them begin learning the landscape, creating maps of magical places where they had earlier found game, places "glowing with memory and meaning."  And, wonderfully, their two maps coincide.

Grieving for the death of a beloved father; what it's like not to be a human; the relations between our species and another; the ordeal of becoming who you really are; and the emerging of love that passeth all understanding--all of these themes cohere in Helen Macdonald's brilliant reshaping of the medieval quest, H is for Hawk .


Monday, March 2, 2015

First-Rate Writing: Hutto's Illumination in the Flatwoods

Joe Hutto's Illumination in the Flatwoods:  A Season Living Among the Wild Turkey was published in 1995 and in a second paper edition by Lyons Press in 2006. Almost on a whim, Hutto saved some wild turkey eggs from being destroyed by mowing operations in Florida.  He got ahold of an incubator, marked them and turned them, and when the chicks hatched, he imprinted them on himself.  The chicks thought he was a turkey, and he in turn did everything he could to enter their world (which, among other demands, involved being sleep deprived for two years).  Hutto writes not only with insight but with love and wonder, and the result is a moving appreciation of a species entirely different from us, the wild turkey.

Hutto is more than an observer of their lives, he is a participant.  Among many other things, these turkeys teach Hutto how to live in the present by teaching him about "wild turkey speed and wild turkey time."

     Wild turkey speed is that speed beyond which an organism becomes stupid on a scale proportional to the relative increase.  In other words, stupidity is directly proportional to the square of one's velocity.  For this reason it is very difficult for me to travel at wild turkey speed.  Every day is a new lesson in this discipline.  Wild turkey speed allows one to utilize consciousness and sensory awareness to minimize one's expenditure of energy.  A wild turkey always proceeds as if he were in the perfect place at the perfect time.  All his needs may be satisfied here in this moment.  These opportunities are merely waiting to be recognized--a constant condition of sustenance through inquiry and discovery.  I find that it is difficult for me to avoid being goal oriented in our outings, betraying the moment for some abstraction up ahead.  An absurd and ironic result of this is that the rattlesnake, which serves as a perfect metaphor, is peacefully waiting to be understood and instead winds up underfoot.  There is no profit in this, and these wild turkeys constantly remind me to do better.  Their experience, which I believe to be vastly richer than my own, affords them an awareness and evolutionary maturity that is far superior.  I have made this natural world my devoted life's work, but they remind me that I am a clumsy pilgrim in a realm that can never truly be my own.

     Wild turkey time is more difficult to explain.  It seems to have something to do with a resolution of the time it takes for a grasshopper to fly and land, and the time it takes to get from the Cretaceous to the Holocene.  Wild turkeys exist on a vast continuum like continents and mountain ranges but only in this moment like the wind on your face.  And, as any turkey hunter knows, they exist only as a probability, a tendency to occur in a certain place at a certain time.  They behave at once like a particle and like a wave, and even a physicist would call them unpredictable.  A wild turkey suddenly is there like a gnat in your eye or he is an apparition that gives you occasion to doubt your senses.  In either case, he can be very hard to get to know.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

First-Rate Writing: Aldo Leopold

Several passages from Leopold's A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (Oxford Univ. Press, 1949) have become widely known:  the one calling for a land ethic, for example, and the one about watching the fierce green fire go out in the eyes of the wolf he had shot when controlling predation.  But the passage that resonates most for me involves the "quality" of cranes (quality here carrying its Latinate meaning of what sort of thing something is) from "Marshland Elegy" in Sketches Here and There.  Not only do we begin to appreciate the quality of cranes in this wonderfully modulated passage, but we come to mourn their absence.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.  The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.

This much, though, can be said:  our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history.  His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene.  The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills.  When we hear his call we hear no mere bird.  We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.  He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.

And so they live and have their being--these cranes--not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time.  Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock.  Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction.  Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.  The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes.  Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.