Hunting the Tiger—Book Review

Christopher S. Stewart, Hunting the Tiger: The Fast Life and Violent Death of the Balkans’ Most Dangerous Man.   Thomas Dunne Books, 2008.

Stewart’s work is an investigation of a country in the throes of a moral crisis, via the career of the gangster and warlord Arkan. The book is gripping and readable, and Stewart has dug deep into the history of the man. The activities of Arkan in one of the centuries most brutal conflicts are not something that can simply be pulled from the historical archives or newspapers. Stewart invested substantial time (and no doubt money)in interviewing people close the “the Commander.” One of the strengths of Hunting the Tiger is allowing the reader to glimpse the difficulties (and apparent dangers) of interviewing and sifting through the “legends” and hyperbole. Stewart does this in an open, but not boastful, manner, and gives the reader a glimpse at his own increasing obsession sparked by a personal brush with the horror and easy violence of the conflict.

One of the strengths of Stewart’s journalistic but thorough approach is a writing style that deals with ambiguities and uncertainties while maintaining an interesting narrative approach. Historical writing is often full of qualifiers, competing hypothesis and passive sentences; this is not a bad thing, but it does reduce the flow of historical writing. Stewart skillfully and consistently reveals when he is dealing with half-truths, conjectures and educated guesses, but does so in seamless manner that informs but does not waylay the reader. The work has a depth that would have allowed it to be a footnoted tome, but Stewart thankfully has done something else with the work.

Throughout the work, Stewart struggles with a question well worth struggling with: how do a region and so many people slip so quickly and deeply into evil? While Stewart is fully aware of the historical tropes of repressed ethnic aggression and overly-developed senses of historical destiny, his work carries the weight of looking at this at the topic at a more individual level: “It wasn’t that the entire population was evil. It was just that evil had gotten so deep into the core of the city that there was nothing to do but to be evil yourself. . . .” Out of context, the quote (pg. 205) may seem simplistic, especially if you are unfamiliar with the Balkans of the 1990s. Read the book–Stewart makes the case. We residents of the 21st century know about war atrocities, and we know about genocide, but fortunately most of us have no experience and limited understanding of those places and periods where morality seems to have simply disappeared.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Mouthless Dead

Charles Sorley, a student and avid cross country runner, enlisted in the British Army at the age of 20, willing to do his part in World War I.  He wrote When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead a bit before or perhaps during the Battle of Loos.  Sorley was shot in the head by a sniper three weeks into the battle, and the poem was found in his gear.  We will never know how great a poet he would have become, as someone tossed his life into a muddy hole, along with 75,000 other men in a pointless battle that gained no territory and achieved no goals.  Sorley’s cold sonnet is a prescient rebuke of the militant sentimentality that led his country to send him to his death long after it was obvious the battle was a pointless slaughter.

MOUTHLESS DEAD
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go, say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember, for you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, `They are dead’. Then add thereto
`Yet many a better one has died before’.
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew
Great death has made all his for evermore.

File:Charles Hamilton Sorley (For Remembrance) cropped and retouched.jpg

(John Kipling also died at Loos. John was an 18 year old whose eyesight kept him from enlisting. His war-enthusiastic father Rudyard used his influence to get him into the Irish Guards, so that he could be killed in the first and last military action he saw.  John was sent to Loos with reinforcements and was blinded and fatally wounded as he arrived at the battle.  I cannot imagine the burden the son of Kipling carried with him into battle, nor what he thought as he died in agony before even reaching the battles his father so loved.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Always Choose the Jungle

Review of Christopher S. Stewart, Jungleland, Harper Collins 2013

Jungleland is a fast-paced adventure into the deep jungle of Honduras.  The book recounts a journalist’s quest to retrace the path of a mysterious explorer and finally reveal the truth of the lost city of ‘Ciudad Blanca.’   The clarity and pacing of the book will move you along quickly.  You will not want to put it down, nor do you have to, as it is not overly long. Jungleland, however, is something more than it appears at first glance.  Stewart, a writer and editor at the Wall Street Journal, has packed a remarkable amount of good content into a tight package, and combined introspection and history to ask questions about how we see ourselves, others, and the unknown. 

Jungleland is about men who look for ‘lost cities,’ some of whom get close, and then decide to never go back. The book alternates, chapter-by-chapter, between Stewart’s journey into the Honduran jungle, and that of Theodore Morde, a WWII spy and adventurer.  That, however, is a narrative structure that houses Stewart’s gaze upon more complex and subtle issues.   The structure is deliberate and effective, and creates a dual-story line that locks the readers attention as effectively as a thriller.  Stewart uses  three men, Morde, himself, and Christopher Begley (the archaeologist who led Stewart through the jungle) to examine the thoughts, motives and fears of reasonably normal people who decide to look for lost cities. The travelers themselves are a foil for the Honduran men they encounter who live in a seemingly continuous jungle traverse.

image

Stewart is not a wordy or encyclopedic writer, and he credits his reader with a general understanding of the rainforest and an ability to draw meaning from the prose and detail.  This is a welcome change from the trend of adventure books (especially those set in the rainforest) to be exhaustive encyclopedias of ecology and history.  Stewart is not given to filler, and he writes with a terseness derived, perhaps, from his years as a journalist.  Regardless, he embraces the idea that reading about an expedition need not be an expedition, something many readers will appreciate.   Stewart (with a wonderful spaceman image from Begley) makes it pretty clear:  travel overland in the rainforest is walking, and walking gets boring.  Graciously, the reader is spared lengthy botanical asides or overarching historical musings.  When the journey yielded nothing to report, nothing was reported.  Stewart’s strength is in recording the details that build his story and drive his inquiry.   When Stewart shares his musings about jaguars attacking his hammock from below, he sums up a thought all foreign hammock-swingers have thought, but also succinctly shares his sense of helpless immersion.  Stewart’s comments and descriptions drip with verisimilitude.  When he mentions buying machetes and taking them to be sharpened, in his terse fashion he reveals a mundane reality of the machete-wielding world—they are not sold pre-sharpened.

Stewart’s ability to understand and embrace the vagaries of archaeology and history elevate Jungleland above a book about self-discovery.  Stewart dug into the history of Theodore Morde, and answered some questions about just what he was doing in Honduras.  The investigation of Morde is an essential part of the book, and Stewart’s research addresses the more interesting questions about the man without becomingly side-tracked by vague clues about the location of a lost city.    Likewise, Stewart digests the archaeological realities of the region and with the help of Begley quickly see how these are a part of the vision of Morde and others.  Stewart weaves these elements into the narrative so well, that to say more here would reveal to much.  Be assured that Stewart (and Begley) give the reader some solid answers and some thought-provoking interpretation.

It took me awhile to put my finger on what is unique about Jungleland.  The pacing of the book and dual plot lines read akin to fiction, but there is more affinity than just structure.  Stewart’s writing and meaning is in the imagery and meticulously chosen details.  His perspicuity opens the door for readers, but there is no handholding or shoving.  Stewart’s image of a  flip-flop wearing young girl appearing out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere, carrying a child and a battered chicken, speaks many truths about poverty, hardship, and the sliding scale of normalcy.  The reader is offered no essay on socioeconomics, and no moralizing.   Stewart leaves the unanswerable questions unanswered, while encapsulating his meaning in precise descriptions.  Jungleland is a work that is worth with care, for the pictures and meaning imbedded in the details.  These details are balanced, however, with a fast pace that makes the book a quick read.

Stewart’s refuses to be exhaustive and obvious in his writing   Similarly, he does not deliver a hyperbolic adventure and treasure hunt.   The work includes a painfully honest account of a city boy going to the jungle.  His fear of snakes leads him to some questionable fashion choices.  Irrational concerns push into his thoughts, and depression is always lurking, like a jaguar, waiting for a moment of weakness.   When a comrade is hurt, Stewart reveals that he was partly glad, as that might mean the ordeal was over.  These unusually honest moments will be cringe-worthy and familiar to other travelers who read the work, including Stewart’s conflicting desires to quest but also be home when his family needs him.  Humor, however, pervades the book, and it is in part the dark humor of adventurers, where cars are destroyed without a backward glance, and threats of raccoons and jaguars have to be treated as equal.

Stewart deliberately contrasts himself to the fascinating Chris Begley, who is calm, competent and even nonchalant  in situations far from ordinary.   Stewart’s departure from the canonical traveler-overcoming-all-odds cliché is a strength of the book.  In a world overflowing with ego-stroking, the lack of self-adulation and acceptance of mundane realities makes this work stand out.  Stewart tells the truth of jungle travel—everyone gets blisters, no one escapes problems of hunger and water.  For Stewart, these are not issues to ignore, but neither are they issues to dwell upon.  There are no heroes, just individuals who manage to keep walking.   This is a fairly harsh realism, and some readers will be horrified by this deviation from the formula.  A man from the city who does not like to camp dared to accomplish such a trip.  The cult is not destroyed, however.  There is a hero, it’s just not Stewart (or Morde).

If I have one main concern, it is that Stewart sells himself short, and I think by doing so, he makes the journey seem a little too simple and himself a little too naïve.  The areas Stewart visited are very remote.  An inspection of his route on Google Earth quickly reveals that Stewart went much deeper into the bush than many similar trekkers tracing the routes of famous explorers.  Cable channels are filled with faux-adventurers who rarely venture a few hundred yards off the beaten path, and someone who actually goes deep is worthy of note.  The ‘bad guys’ Stewart encounters in Jungleland are probably not the first ‘bad guys’ he has encountered, nor are the guns likely the first he has seen.  As the book is exploring the psyche of explorers, I felt a little deprived, wanting to know how Stewart’s earlier experiences played into this desire for a new quest.   Stewart does not seem inclined to show those cards however, and it probably is not fair to praise an author for terseness while demanding more.  The publisher, however, may wish to include a foreward in subsequent editions.   I loved the ‘extensive’ biographical detail on the dust jacket:  “He lives with his family in Brooklyn.”

(The title of this post are the last words of the book).

(You can see some photos from the trip here:  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.244309235698575.56501.237068053089360&type=3)

**********************************************

As a point of context, I know a bit about ‘Ciudad Blanca.’  In the late 1990s I did some satellite remote sensing in the area, and started an ill-considered project I quickly abandoned.    (I’m embarrassed, but you can see it here on the Internet Archive: http://ow.ly/h0GV7).   I had a website up for awhile, and things turned crazy pretty quickly.  A lost adventurer called me on a satellite phone from a ridge above the Rio Platano.  A helicopter had dropped him off separate from his gear, and with topographic maps spread on my floor in Minnesota, I navigated him to the closest village.  That same winter, a group hunting for ‘Ciudad Blanca’ kept trying to hack into my computer system, no doubt thinking I had found something important.  I went to Tegucigalpa to seek permits to ground-truth the satellite work, and spoke to some individuals who had traveled through the area, including some who insisted the area was full of ex-contras who would kill me on-sight.  After that visit and a brief helpful phone chat with Christopher Begley, who graciously gave me a candid account of the very real security issues, I decided the fieldwork would be too expensive and time-consuming to demonstrate that geological anomalies in the Honduran rainforest can be seen from space.   Reading Jungleland, however, make me think I might still go there one day. . . .

As a disclaimer, I note that I communicated with Stewart briefly via email when I learned he was writing the book.  I found this out while idly searching for Theodore Morde on the internet, and I eagerly awaited learning more about the intriguing man.  I bought my own copy, however, and no one asked me to do a review. 

************************************

One note from Richard—my father kept this book on the shelf of books behind glass, near the Thurber.  I read it a dozen time.  One would think, what with me being an archaeologist and historian,  I would have thought to talk to him about it before he died. . . .

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Garage with Attached House

[I’ve found that blog entries remain unwritten because I can’t stand sitting at the computer anymore.  So I’m going analog on occasion.  This also will help with my execrable handwriting.  If anyone is actually reading this 1)hey, thanks for reading and 2)sorry.]

 

garage with attached house_Page_1

garage with attached house_Page_2

Why build the above, when the below is for sale?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Golden Eagle at Fort Abercrombie, North Dakota–1868

W.H. Gardner, the U.S. Army Assistant Surgeon at Fort Abercrombie (ND) recorded some basic observations about wildlife in the area on 15 December 1868.  He noted that Golden Eagles were common, and Bald Eagles were seen only infrequently.  He also recorded this interesting story:

‘This Bird the Golden Eagle seems to be capable of some degree of domestication.  There is one here which has been a pet in the Hospital of the Post for some time.  He was taken in as a ‘patient’ with a gunshot fracture of the leg; with quietude and a splint applied to keep the ends of the bine in opposition, he has made a good recovery and can now bear considerable weight on the injured limb.  He seems quite attached to the person who feeds him and shows no fear of person passing about.”

Gardner also wrote: “Our Indian Scouts inform us that westward from here forty miles at the Coteau des Prairies. . .  [can be found] our common American marsupial—the Opossum with pouch well developed.”

Golden Eagles and Opossum are not common denizens of the area today.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Coming Soon to a Theatre near You: Closing Forever

Article by Steven Haack.  Road Notes: Society for Commercial Archeology News, Fall 2012, Vol. 20, No. 3

sre theater_Page_1

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

No Tears for The General

Langdon Sully’s No Tears for the General (American West Publishing, 1975) is a whitewashed panegyric written by Sully’s [white] grandson. Sully is the smartest, the fastest, the strongest, the bravest, the most noble. . . . The praise is so continuous and so strong, it makes the work almost unbearable. While this is the only biography of Alfred Sully written, it is deeply flawed.

Here is a glaring example of how the record has been cleansed of things apparently Langdon didn’t like: In 1863 (or so), Sully had a relationship (maybe a marriage) with a Yankton woman. They had a daughter, Mary. Mary became the wife of Philip Deloria. Their daughter was Ella Deloria, an extremely important Native scholar, linguist, and author. Ella Deloria is the aunt of Vine Deloria, author of “Custer Died for Your Sins.” Mary and Alfred went their separate ways (I don’t know who left whom) and he married a white woman in 1866.

Langdon does include a clue to this marriage, on pg. 243 (note 13). “Alfred’s second wife, Sophia, was aware of the relationships between soldiers and Indians of the Sioux tribes on the frontier. She refused to let her husband hang the pictures of the Indian girls in her house.” The painting referenced is a depiction of buffalo skins being tanned. Sully says of the two girls in the painting “one near the horse is called Pen-han-lota, or Red Crane, the other Ke-me-mem-bar, or Butterfly.” I do not know the name of the Mary Sully’s mother. Perhaps she one of these women?

While at Ft. Randall, charges were filed by the regional Indian Agent against Sully for “abusing Indians.” While the documentation for the accusations is in the Alfred Sully papers at Yale used by Langdon Sully for research, this is also omitted from the book.

All authors have to pick and choose which details to include and which to omit. A major thesis of the book, however, is that Sully knew the Native Americans better than any white man, and that he was sympathetic to their plight. Arguing that while omitting such details is misleading, at best. Use the book for its primary sources; be very wary of interpretations and portraits.

My point is not that Sully needs to be condemned. He was a complicated and interesting man, and this work does him scant justice. He married a Mexican woman in 1850; she and Sully’s son died in childbirth. He led the massacre at Whitestone Hill. He married and had a child with a Yankton woman. He was accused of ‘abusing Indians.’ He painted romantic pictures of Native American lifestyles. He left his Yankton wife behind and started a new family. How does one person do such seemingly opposite things?

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

A 1932 Back-of-the-Envelope Guide to Roofs

From architect John Jager .  Image courtesy the Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota.

 

image

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

The Hall of Waters

An Art Deco Celebration of Healing Mineral Waters

image

The Hall of Waters, inspired by the natural springs of the town, was to be a world-class attraction for those seeking healing mineral waters from around the world. Fountains, sunrooms, mineral and swimming pools, and a water bar were provided for those making the pilgrimage.

View The Photos Here

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

An American Foursquare House with Cupola. Crary, ND

crary_foursquare_sketch

 

IMG_0064

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off