Hunting

Some people hunt for survival, in which case they are part of a larger group of animals, fish and insects which do the same. If they didn’t hunt they would die. They may also be part of a larger picture, protecting the balance of a given ecosystem through the regulation of animal numbers. Then there are those who don’t need to hunt but do it anyway.

The fact that they dont have to do it is not in itself an argument against it: if we only did what we had to do we might not do very much.  We don’t have to sing, dance or drink alcohol. Come to that, we don’t have to breed. But we might question the motivation of those who kill living things for pleasure. One such person was Ivan Turgenev who, though he takes the joys of hunting for granted, occasionally tries to explain it for the benefit Hindus who feared reincarnation as a duck within range of his gun, not to mention pacific individuals like me.

Turgenev Hunting by Nikolai Dmitrjewitsch Dmitrjeff-Orenburgsky, dated 1879.

In the concluding sketch from a Hunter’s Notebook, Forest and Steppe, Turgenev writes:

Hunting with a gun and a dog is a delight in itself, für sich, as they used to say in the past. But let us suppose that you are not a born hunter, though you still love nature; in that case, you can hardly fail to envy the lot of your brother hunters . . . Pray listen a while.’

The ‘while’ turns out to be an evocation, several pages long, of getting out and about before dawn and spending the day amid nature. The following is a brief extract.

In the meantime dawn has burst into flame; stripes of gold have risen across the sky and wreaths of mist form in the ravines; to the loud singing of skylarks and the soughing of the wind before dawn the sun rises, silent and purple, above the horizon. Light floods over the world and your heart trembles within you like a bird. Everything is so fresh, gay and lovely! You can see for miles. Here a village glimmers beyond the woodland; there, farther away, is another village with a white church and then a hill with a birchwood; beyond it is the marsh to which you are driving… Step lively there, horses! Forward at a brisk trot!…’

Unfortunately for the logic of his case, he weakens it with a question to which he believes the answer is obvious or he wouldn’t be asking it in the first place.

‘Has anyone save a hunter ever experienced the delight of wandering through bushes at dawn?’

So according to Ivan Sergeyevich the only reason to wander through  bushes at dawn is to massacre wildlife, though it is perfectly obvious that no one needs a fowling piece to do this: a biologist might, or a bird-watcher or even, to lower the tone, someone in search of a discreet place to relieve himself.

Ivan reveals his hand most openly in the sketch Yermolay and the Miller’s Wife. In the following extract, note what ‘delights’ him as he bumps off his birds.

‘The ducks rose noisily, literally ‘exploding’ from the pond in fright at our sudden appearance in their domain and gunfire resounded in unison after them and it was a delight to see how the stumpy birds somersaulted in the air and splashed down heavily in the water. We didn’t of course retrieve all the shot duck. Some of the slightly injured ones dived, some of the dead ones fell in such thick ‘mayer’ that even the lynx-eyed Yermolay couldn’t spot them, but nevertheless by dinnertime our boat had become filled to the brim with our bag.’

Now it so happens that on one of his many excursions he was challenged by a man called Kasyan who knew exactly what his motivation was and confronted him with an opposing philosophy. The following extracts are from the wonderful story, Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands.

‘You shoot the birds of the air, eh?… And the wild animals of the forest?… Isn’t it sinful you are to be killing God’s own wee birds and spilling innocent blood? Why is it now that you should be killing that wee bird?’ he began, looking me directly in the face.

‘How do you mean: why? A landrail is a game bird. You can eat it.’

‘No, it wasn’t for that you were killing it, master. You won’t be eating it! You were killing it for your own pleasure.’

‘But surely you yourself are used to eating a goose or a chicken, for example, aren’t you?’

‘Such birds are ordained by God for man to eat, but a landrail – that’s a bird of the free air, a forest bird. And he’s not the only one; aren’t there many of them, every kind of beast of the forest and of the field, and river creature, and creature of the marsh and meadow and the heights and the depths – and a sin it is to be killing such a one, it should be let to live on the earth until its natural end… But for man there is another food laid down; another food and another drink; bread is God’s gift to man, and the waters from the heavens, and the tame creatures handed down from our fathers of old.’

Turgenev’s hunting companion, Yermolay, complained to him more than once about his habit of engaging ‘the lower orders’ in meaningful conversation. But Turgenev learned a great deal from these converstions and much of it found its way into the Hunter’s Notebook. In this case he gives an excellent account of the time he spends with Kasyan, in the course of which we discover that he has no adequate answer to the points Kasyan puts to him. This doesn’t concern him much, partly because he is secure in his own viewpoint, and partly because Kasyan is clearly an eccentric person whose thoughts, however well argued, may too easily be discounted for that reason. But I’m with Kasyan on this one.

I don’t want to give the impression that the Hunter’s Notebook is all about hunting. It’s true subject matter is the natural world and the many different creatures (including people) who inhabit it – which he describes with a naturalist’s eye and attention to detail. (I could write a post in praise of his pen portraits, and might if I live long enough.)

For those dog lovers among you, I should point out that, in his opinion, and if you were thinking of getting one, Borzois are uncommonly stupid.

However all this may be Turgenev, a thoughtful man, concludes his final sketch, Forest and Steppe, with these kind words:

‘Farewell, my reader; I wish you lasting happiness and well-being.’

(All quotations are from the translation by Richard Freeborn.)

Author Bios

I have some trouble with these. They are usually in the third person, yet we know they have been written by the author. It feels a bit false to me, writing about yourself as if a third party is doing it,

Why is this a concern?  I’m putting the finishing touches to a crime novel and realized my previous bio wouldn’t do. I have drafted a new one in the first person. Can I get away with this, or is the word on the literary street that I should  convert to the third?

Just wondering.

________________________________________________________

I have traveled through Afghanistan, made bubble gum in Philadelphia and published poetry, some of it anthologized. Several years ago I turned to fiction, finding it a natural fit for a comic sense of life. I live with my wife in a old farmhouse gradually being surrounded by developers who take no account of the needs of wildlife. Since that includes me, I’ve turned to crime.

A blast from the past (continued)

I have been asked for some background to a recent post, A Blast From The Past. What was I doing in Afghanistan in the first place?

____________________________________________________________________

Although I am not a biologist I went on a biology expedition to Afghanistan as medical officer, which involved training before we left in setting broken legs with splints and injecting innocent oranges with water. All good fun, but what would have been more useful was learning how to deal with problems of the digestive system. To better earn my keep I supplemented the bandages and syringes with a small study of music in the Badakshan province, my equipment being ears, a tape recorder and manuscript paper.

Badakshan 2

Badakshan province is in the far north east of Afghanistan and much of it is mountainous, including part of the Hindu Kush. This is a photograph of the provincial capital, Faizabad.

Faizabad

To get to our destination we travelled overland in an ex-army K9 truck through Greece, Turkey and Iran, and took the same way back. Since I did not then have a camera all I have to offer are a few verbal snapshots supplemented with images from the web. I do not claim to be a latter-day Freya Stark.

Men with guns

We were rounded up by a unit of Turkish army and removed to a low building with small, glassless windows. We spent the night there, a soldier with a rifle at each window. They were worried we might be taken out by Kurds. We had seen quite a few, many on horseback, but they had always ignored us.

A café in Herat

A waiter had hung his pencil on the wall. Suddenly I noticed that the wall was swaying from side to side about the pencil, which remained pointing towards the floor. I thought I was losing it and took a little too long to hit the street. From memory, the earthquake was centred near Mashad in Iran.

A quiet game of chess

We sat on a rug under a tree. I used to play chess, and even defeated a reverend once in a competition, but this time my strategy was different. If the Afghan was better than I was, then I would lose and we would both be happy. If he was not a good player, I would have the difficult task of engineering a loss without making it obvious what I was doing. That way we would both be happy too. On no account would I use the en passant rule in case it was not known in these parts. I had no wish to be accused of cheating. The game took quite a while, during which I ate the occasional grape while some of my colleagues  resorted to deep draughts from a hookah.

Hookah 3

I find it amusing that the current craze for e-cigarettes uses vapour – exactly what the hookah has been doing in its various forms for some four hundred years.

 A game of volleyball

Challenged to a game of volleyball by the Afghan army, engineering a loss was not necessary. We didn’t stand a chance.

 Checking Shoes

We checked them every morning before putting them on to make sure they weren’t occupied by scorpions.

The baker

I still remember the grim look on the his face when, for the third night running, our lead biologist with his advanced technology failed to trap any of the rodents raiding his mill.

Losing a gear

When our truck lost its reverse gear a local mechanic managed to fix it. Our problem then was to avoid offending him – either by offering him too little or too much money. What local mechanics managed to do with limited tools was amazing. They were particularly good at keeping fire-arms in working order, a fact foreign invaders might have taken into account.

Ceremonial tea

On several occasions we were invited to join village elders in large tents, where we were offered tea and unleavened bread. We knew drinking the tea might be risky, but refusing to drink it more so.  The custom was to sit round the edges of the tent on carpets and rugs. We did what we could to communicate using hand gestures. All of the people we met on these occasions were men.

 An old man and a donkey

I met several old men in Afghanistan, but had to remind myself that these were the ones who had survived disease and ill health. Many had not.

I have a clear memory of one in particular. We were making our way along a path about two feet wide. The path was half way up a ravine, raging water below and high cliff above. Stepping aside for someone coming the other way was dangerous, and this particular old gent was not only coming the other way but had a donkey with him. He produced a bag of dried mulberries from his flowing sleeve and offered us some. Very civil of him, I thought at the time, as I tried to take a few without plunging into the torrent below. He hit us with the usual greeting, which we returned. As I remember it, this was ‘burubachai’, but I recently found out I had mis-remembered some Serbian I used to know, so maybe I have this wrong too.

Music

Most of the music I heard took the form of songs accompanied by small stringed instruments. The songs were strophic, and a given song sometimes had quite a few verses. I was told by a passing group of US anthropologists that the subject matter was usually patriotic. Add this to the local ability to make and repair weapons and Afghanistan is a place only an idiot would think of invading.

I recorded quite a few of these songs, but the recordings were taken back to the UK when I was in hospital in Belgrade and I have not been reunited with them since. Something else I learned was that women had music of their own, but always played it in their own homes. Not being a woman myself, there was no possibility of eavesdropping on this music, let alone recording it.

Note 1

The present Kurdish problem has been caused by the arrogance of diplomats during the First World War, who thought it was alright to draw invisible lines in the sand and deny the Kurds a homeland of their own, splitting them up between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria – a problem which persists to this day.  Check out Sir Mark Sykes, Monsieur  François Georges-Picot and their secret agreement of 1916.

Note 2

Readers of a musical tendency might like to know that the songs I recorded were in the mixolydian mode. This mode is not far removed from our major diatonic major scale except that the seventh degree is flattened. So if the major scale was C major, then instead of a B natural we have a B flat (Bb). Thinking in terms of chords, Vaughan Williams might use this Bb as part of a G minor chord, whereas Carl Nielsen would surely have used it as part of a Bb major chord. Isn’t life fun?

A blast from the past

It is sometimes said that truth is stranger than fiction and sometimes it can be. Many years ago I was trapped in the infectious diseases hospital in Belgrade. The diagnosis was infective hepatitis: so far as I know, the classification into A, B, C, D and E types was not then made. Nonetheless, the docs could tell you a thing or two about your bilirubin count. Symptoms of the disease included those you would associate with jaundice (yellow corneas etc), an inability to keep food down, and an intolerable itching of the feet.

I contracted the disease in Afghanistan, probably due to drinking tea. There were times when refusing it would not have been a good idea if you wanted to live longer. Where did the water come from? Not always from the best possible place. On the way home I couldn’t keep going further than Belgrade and knocked on the hospital door.

After three days spent on a drip I began to eat, though only a little at first. And then the diet began. Breakfast consisted of a piece of steak and a saucer of honey. Lunch tended to be based on chicken – chicken broth being common. A fat-free diet and strictly no alcohol. Since the staff had complete control over what you ate, you kept to it.

Visitors were not allowed, though this didn’t seem to apply to the two-year-old gypsy boy who began to rock violently in his cot when his supply of cigarettes ran out. Every now and again he was visited by his mother and several siblings, one of whom always passed him a fresh supply of the noxious weed. Medical attention, in his case, was making sure he didn’t set fire to his bedding by mistake and keeping him on the diet.

Every morning we were zapped over the ward loudspeakers with a children’s radio programme – I can still remember the little tune it began with  – though there was only one child in the ward and he paid it no attention. Maybe, like me, he spoke no Serbian.

When I got a bit better I was allowed to join some of the patients and staff of an evening at the long trestle table in the corridor outside, where much was discussed and remarkably strong coffee served up. Not knowing Serbian, I listened and drank the coffee. They also let me type up my notes there, which was very civil of them given how noisy the typewriter was.

It turned out that one of the patients had a private room off the corridor. It was very small but private nonetheless. His name was Savo and he was the only one I could converse with well because we both spoke German. He described himself as a businessman and told me that though he was able to make quite a lot of money, this came with risks attached. To let me see how true this was he showed me his bullet wounds, of which he was just a little proud. He was also proud of his wife and not all businessmen can say that. (Well they can, but it may not be true.)

Savo and Wife

Then came the time to leave. An official from the embassy collected me by car. As he drove down a one-way street the wrong way he explained that he had a wife and children. He was sure I would understand. I was slow on the uptake here, but finally caught up with the man. This was his way of saying that he couldn’t risk taking me to his house in case I infected his family. Did he really think the doctors would have signed me out if I was a danger to the public? Apparently he did. And now for the bit that’s stranger than fiction. If you put it in a novel you would be accused of going over the top.

I was to catch a train to Paris the next day so where was I to spend the night? Not in his house, plainly. I ended up in an embassy outbuilding, where I wrapped myself in some surplus carpet, bedded down on the floor and was wakened by field telephone the following morning. Field telephone! You couldn’t make it up, but I didn’t have to.