If I could roll back the years
Back when I was young and limber
Loose as ashes in the wind
I had no irons in the fire…
— Ian Tyson, 50 Years Ago
The Great Quarantine has not altered my activities much, with the exception of shutting down music gigs, which I miss acutely. I’ve been playing pretty regularly, but only on the couch. Writing a bit and working some stuff up.
My other regular activities involve being outdoors by myself or with just a select outfit, and that hasn’t changed at all. Went out to The Pit on Wednesday for my traditional workout — kettlebell complexes, karate kata and shooting. Hit it hard. The supply chain interruptions due to the pandemic have rendered the clay pigeon as extinct on the shelves of my local BiMart as passenger pigeons, and I’m being judicious in my expenditure on ammo, all of which skews the sessions toward a heavier workout load — which is grand.
After a solid session I took a break to sit down and do a little scribbling in the journal. You know what happened next. Some bastard nailed a hardwood plank from my ass to my shoulderblades, then wrapped me in green rawhide and staked me out on the prairie for three days.
I wasn’t hurting, exactly. I was just as locked up as I’ve ever been.
There were still targets left unbroken, and I never leave a pigeon alive, cuz that ain’t right. So I took a knee to get after a target set at 70 paces (this being with my beloved CZ .22 rifle). Not sure what I was thinking there. Getting down into a kneeling position made the Tin Man look as limber as a 15-year-old Olympic gymnast, and the curse words flowed like dialogue from Deadwood. I heard the voice of Father Time, mocking me:
“You’ve got some serious old man shit going on here, dude!”
But, by Crom, I made my shots. I staggered upright with an assist from the rifle, and a little walking worked out the stiffness… sort of. I rolled on home to clean the guns and rewatch the first episode of Season 4 of The Last Kingdom.
And Father Time can just fuck right off.
The scouts have been scouring the territory assiduously and have come back with vital intel. Dave Wrolson turned up sign on the Santa Fe Trail, a smoke signal from the well-known Apache Wars scholar Doug Hocking:
In the 1840s and 50s, the Jicarilla Apache were the terror of the Santa Fe Trail and the Rio Arriba. They repeatedly clashed with the cavalry and raided wagon trains, and there was badblood between the band and the Army after the Battle of San Pasqual, when they were on opposite sides during the Mexican American War. In 1854, as traffic was on the increase along the historic trade route, the Jicarilla soundly defeated the 1st United States Dragoons in the Battle of Cieneguilla.
Cieneguilla was the worst defeat of the US Army in the West up to that time, and it was just one of the first major battles between the US Army and Apache forces during the Ute Wars. According to one version of events, the 60 dragoons, under the direction of a Lt. Davidson, had engaged in an unauthorized attack on theJicarilla while they were out on patrol. Others claimed that the Jicarilla either ambushed the Army or taunted them into attack. Kit Carson, who was agent for the Jicarilla, would defend Davidson’s actions—and after this fight, he served as a scout against the Jicarilla.
Much like the Sioux defeat of Custer at Little Big Horn, the Jicarilla’s victory over the Army led to retribution and disaster. The Jicarilla were defeated and faded from memory before the Civil War. These are the events that brought them to ruin.
The Jicarilla Apache operated in a transition zone that included the southwestern Great Plains and the deserts and mountains of what became New Mexico. They were buffalo hunters, but also relatively settled farmers and gatherers. Their great confrontation with the Americans also falls into a kind of historical transition zone between the eras of the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade and the traditional post-Civil War era of the “Wild West.” The 1840s-’50s is a fascinating period, but it is consistently neglected.
Wrolson, the Breaker of Book Budgets, has struck again…
Paul McNamee, our ranging captain out east, discovered a new National Geographic “limited run series” that is going to be mandatory Frontier Partisans viewing when it hits on May 25. Barkskins is squarely in the “Oh, HELL YES!” category.
I made note of the Annie Proulx novel when it was published in 2016, but didn’t take the plunge. Maybe that needs to be remedied. This is Frontier Partisans Continuity & Persistence in action…
In the late 17th century two young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures. But Duquet runs away, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business.
Annie Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.
Throat-slitting, lies and land-grabs…
Speaking of New France… I recently caught another quality doco on Amazon Prime. Battlefield Quebec explores the decisive battle on the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759, which sealed the doom of New France.
It’s ironic that the ultimate Frontier Partisan war was decided by a classic 18th Century European linear battle, with dressed ranks exchanging fire on an open plain.
The film — rightly, in my estimation — debunks the portrayal of British General James Wolfe as a tubercular, suicidal man who got lucky. Wolfe was audacious, but the operation that put his force at the walls of Quebec — to the utter astonishment of its defenders — was scientifically planned and, despite errors, generally well-executed. The disciplined fire of the British Regulars won the day.
French General Montcalm is — again accurately in my estimation — portrayed as a mediocre, unimaginative commander at best. I have a bias, of course, but I agree with the great Frontier Partisan warrior Charles Langlade that, had Montcalm turned loose his partisans against Wolfe, the French might have been able to stave off defeat. Montcalm despised his Indian allies and squandered the advantages of asymmetrical warfare in favor of European tactics that cost him the battle and his life.
Got diverted down an interesting sidetrail thanks to a mini-documentary on the mad, bad Baron Roman Federovich von Ungern-Sternberg. There’s an intriguing-looking tome just out on the Sino-Russian borderlands:
The Sino-Russian border, once the world’s longest land border, has received scant attention in histories about the margins of empires. Beyond the Steppe Frontier rectifies this by exploring the demarcation’s remarkable transformation—from a vaguely marked frontier in the seventeenth century to its twentieth-century incarnation as a tightly patrolled barrier girded by watchtowers, barbed wire, and border guards. Through the perspectives of locals, including railroad employees, herdsmen, and smugglers from both sides, Sören Urbansky explores the daily life of communities and their entanglements with transnational and global flows of people, commodities, and ideas. Urbansky challenges top-down interpretations by stressing the significance of the local population in supporting, and undermining, border making.
Because Russian, Chinese, and native worlds are intricately interwoven, national separations largely remained invisible at the border between the two largest Eurasian empires. This overlapping and mingling came to an end only when the border gained geopolitical significance during the twentieth century. Relying on a wealth of sources culled from little-known archives from across Eurasia, Urbansky demonstrates how states succeeded in suppressing traditional borderland cultures by cutting kin, cultural, economic, and religious connections across the state perimeter, through laws, physical force, deportation, reeducation, forced assimilation, and propaganda.
Beyond the Steppe Frontier sheds critical new light on a pivotal geographical periphery and expands our understanding of how borders are determined.
I find it refreshing to delve into strange frontiers of which I know little. Exploration and discovery is enjoyable for its own sake — and I tend to come back to my usual stomping grounds with a fresh framework for viewing my home turf.
Somehow I missed the 2014 release of The Baron’s Cloak: A History of the Russian Empire in War and Revolution. William Sunderland traces the arc of the Mad Baron’s sanguinary career as a means of exploring the convulsion of the Great War and the Russian Revolution through the lens of borderlands history. I have to follow this trail…
Tracking Ungern’s movements, he transits through the Empire’s multinational borderlands, where the country bumped up against three other doomed empires, the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Qing, and where the violence unleashed by war, revolution, and imperial collapse was particularly vicious. In compulsively readable prose that draws on wide-ranging research in multiple languages, Sunderland recreates Ungern’s far-flung life and uses it to tell a compelling and original tale of imperial success and failure in a momentous time.Sunderland visited the many sites that shaped Ungern’s experience, from Austria and Estonia to Mongolia and China, and these travels help give the book its arresting geographical feel.
In the early chapters, where direct evidence of Ungern’s activities is sparse, he evokes peoples and places as Ungern would have experienced them, carefully tracing the accumulation of influences that ultimately came together to propel the better documented, more notorious phase of his careerRecurring throughout Sunderland’s magisterial account is a specific artifact: the Baron’s cloak, an essential part of the cross-cultural uniform Ungern chose for himself by the time of his Mongolian campaign: an orangey-gold Mongolian kaftan embroidered in the Khalkha fashion yet outfitted with tsarist-style epaulettes on the shoulders.
Like his cloak, Ungern was an imperial product. He lived across the Russian Empire, combined its contrasting cultures, fought its wars, and was molded by its greatest institutions and most volatile frontiers. By the time of his trial and execution mere months before the decree that created the USSR, he had become a profoundly contradictory figure, reflecting both the empire’s potential as a multinational society and its ultimately irresolvable limitations.
I downloaded a sample and it reads beautifully…
Photographer, artist and hard-living adventurer Peter Beard has gone up the trail. His book The End of the Game had a powerful impact on me…
The Guardian has the best obit:
The American writer Bob Colacello once described the young Peter Beard, who has died aged 82, as “half-Tarzan, half-Byron,” neatly encapsulating the larger-than-life charisma of an artist whose reputation for adventure and excess often overshadowed his creative talent. As a 2007 Vanity Fair profile put it: “Whether he’s at a New York nightclub or deep in the African wilderness, world-famous photographer and artist Peter Beard is surrounded by drugs, debts, and beautiful women.”
He was a man of often dramatic extremes: a leading character in an adventure of his own making. He saw Africa as the ultimate escape as well as a kind of vocation.
Most of the time… Beard lived at the Hog Ranch, a property comprising large tents on the edge of the Ngong Hills in Kenya. His next-door neighbour was Karen Blixen, the Danish author whose account of her life in Kenya was turned into the acclaimed Hollywood film Out of Africa. In the above-mentioned Vanity Fair profile, the journalist described Beard, then 69, emerging from his tent at Hog Ranch trailed by four or five Ethiopian women, all of whom had shared his bed.
In Kenya, his freewheeling lifestyle meant he often courted tragedy. He swam in crocodile-infested rivers and, on more than one occasion, witnessed the death of someone who did not make it out of the water. In 1996, while photographing near the Tanzanian border, Beard was charged by an elephant, impaled and trampled. On his way to hospital in Nairobi, he almost died of his internal injuries. By then, his reputation for recklessness was such that few of his African acquaintances were surprised by his brush with death.
In many ways, Beard belonged to an older, more aristocratic world, with his film star looks and playboy lifestyle buoyed by inherited wealth and fuelled by a devil-may-care attitude that was often reckless in the extreme. His humanity was revealed in the work he made; his hybrid images a reflection of a restless creative imagination and a deep commitment to the cause of reversing an impending African ecological catastrophe. In this, he was undeniably far-sighted. One doubts whether the art world – or the Kenyan wildlife community – will see his like again.