“Jump off the cliff first then grow the wings.”
I quote an actor, sailor and explorer here, from his autobiography:
(On the road, Summertime, 1977)
“I have long been both dismayed and astonished by the disparity that exists between the world known in the dreams of youth and the world we find ourselves faced with…..They never taught wandering in any school I attended….Or that of writing a book. It’s all so mysterious and~~yes~~enchanting….the free-swinging, far-rolling time when, however rough the going you have the feeling: “Fuck it! I wouldn’t swap places with anyone else for anything on this earth.”
…Sterling Hayden. From his book: Wanderer
He was one sort of big game hunter. The quarry? Robust life itself.
About hunting and hunters of animals? I don’t know your opinion of hunting animals of course. I find that I have apparently mixed pro and con in me, which I’m not sure I knew before writing this.
For instance, up until the age of ten I thought it fine to have a raccoon cap, though I surely did not literally (nor mentally) make the bloody pass from kill-and-skin to look like Davy Crockett when I wanted one to show me off in town or playground. Likewise it did not register in me that in order to get a handsome fringed buckskin shirt like Buffalo Bob (Howdy Doody’s best friend) or a suede frock like Princess SummerFallWinterSpring I’d have to bring down and skin a buck, shear off meat and bone, and sew the garment up.
Around that time my mother owned a fox stole in which two tails met somehow at the back and two fox heads met across her breasts. A furrier’s sewed-in metal jaw allowed for attaching one to the other. On some part. I’m not sure about the protocol. Such pathetically displayed foxes were certainly big middle class chic of the 1940’s and ’50’s. I don’t remember any moral repulsion in me, though I thought it vulgar and sad. I did not covet it. I did not pet it. I did not secretly try it on.
I was around nine years old being instructed on how to traverse the rapids of the Mississippi River in a canoe on an exciting voyage of two weeks. Alongside the mighty river on our second night out I watched fascinated (with the other five children) as our counsellor (by campfire) identified, ordered us safe distance from, then caught a deadly Cottonmouth snake who’d set up camp before we had. She brilliantly trapped it behind its jaws with a forked stick (which she grabbed out of thin air a second after spotting the Cottonmouth) killed it with one swift sure knife swipe (drawn from her hip sheath), instructed us Missouri younguns about the placement of its organs, how to clean it, and before we reached home she wore it, having sewn it around her leather belt. I found it bloody marvelous. Thrilling.
I have eaten wild game caught and prepared by friends. I have not once (yet) in my life had to depend on hunting wild animals in order to eat in order to live. Though I’ve had some barren pantry stretches where I wish I’d known how to make that work.
I can catch little to medium fish, even large Atlantic Bluefish. And more common crab, catfish and trout. But I am not a true skilled hunter. Nor would I trust my survival skills in discovering the edible among a mushroom cluster beneath the mighty Sequoia, or coming face to face with the delightful fruit of an unfamiliar berry patch and being wise. Not even if distracted by ephemeral fields of seductive wildflowers.
So I am somewhat surprised that for the past few months I’ve grown fascinated by a group of people whose lives in the early part of the last century seem to have crossed brief or long, who learned the ways of desolate places, did depend on wild caught game, part for sustenance or earning a living or part for pleasure of the kill. In fact a number of them made a living out of leading expeditions through savage and spectacular landscapes for the restive wealthy. Every one of them interested in seeing how they might react if threatened with a horrible demise, yet surviving. Hunting as a way to test reflex and endurance and the heart’s strength.
I’m suspending judgement for the moment. It seems to me if I go gathering a reflection of those various lives, they had developed an emotional dependence on feral experiences; on lives lifted slightly off the ground; on nights uncommonly wet or cold or days deep or high or dawn that came at them hot or dry and bloody.
Hemingway was there too, though peripheral to this particular lot. Most all of them wrote books that were, driven by empirical experience, hard to resist.
These were European, royalty:
ANTOINE de SAINT EXUPERY ~~of a centuries-old French family. A bad student and school drop-out, he became an explorer-pilot extraordinaire adored by his country and then the world; he wrote marvelous books about being in the cockpit of the early aeroplane, spanning a clouded night sky across the dangerous Pyrenees then over endless Sahara to the civilized lights of Casablanca or Paris in honored mail-runs. French pilots, whose plane engines frequently dropped out of their planes and fell to earth, and (if they survived the landing, and if tracked by Bedouin) were captured and kept as slaves. Saint Exupery wrote about a child who lived on a far off planet with a petulant rose, sheep and volcanos (Le Petit Prince). At the age of 44 Saint Exupery was blindsided by fog-enshrouded White Cliffs of Dover on a wartime spy mission. He crashed then dropped into the sea, undiscovered until 2012.
BERYL MARKHAM was two or three years old when her British father, C.B. Clutterbuck, who loved all animals, moved his family to Kenya to expand his career to Africa and set up stables to breed, train and race horses. Beryl’s mother went back to civilization less than a year later without her child. The father stayed and got famous, taught Beryl well about tame and wild things; the native children were her jungle companions, she learned to hunt with a spear, was gored by a lion, trained and raced horses, and led a life of the most stunning independence imaginable. The six foot tall, glamorous athletic blue eyed blond fell in love with airplanes and set unique flying records and wrote one fabulous book about her doings which is poetically beautiful and stirring to the core.
The gutsy Dane, adventuress and writer KAREN BLIXEN also led me into delicious far off places. I’ve loved my hitchhike on her magic forays to the fantastic (nom de plume Isak Denisen): the spartan human kindness of Babette’s Feast; the expansive Out of Africa; the curious Seven Gothic Tales. As well as her fascinating husband, lovers, movies, articles, and through casual reference to her fellows on similar trails in the three or four decades from 1900 next on. She wed an amiable royal cousin Baron Bror von Blixen for his title and her chance for an extraordinary life. They were in their early 20’s when they moved to Africa on her money to explore, to hunt, to farm. Along with sharing the most rare sort of life in unequaled landscapes under endlessly clarion skies, providing themselves an opportunity otherwise impossible in rigid Scandinavian society, and a chance for Karen’s ingenuity and courage to bloom large, Bror soon abandoned her (and their farm) for big game, lengthy safaris, short wars, and other women. He also infected Karen with syphilis, gotten from his casual romps with native Kenyan women. The Baroness never recovered in full from the toxic, devastating cure of the venereal disease, though she never stopped loving or admiring Bror. Indeed, though the alliance was unexpectedly costly she swore she never regretted it. She outlived him by 17 years; he tragically died at 60 from a car accident in Sweden~1946; she said she missed him til the day she died.
DENYS FINCH HATTON ~~the swashbuckling son of an Earl; his mother~~daughter of the Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Codrington. He was schooled at Eton and Oxford, Captain of Cricket Eleven, President of the Music Society. In 1910 Finch Hatton traveled to South Africa where, on the west side of the Great Rift Valley he bought acreage–then gave it up to a partner to manage. Denys Finch Hatton went hunting. In Kenya he was close friends to European royalty including the Honorable Berkely Cole, aristocrat, brother-in-law to Baron Delamere who ran the Kenyan white colony. Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen fell in love. After she separated from Bror, Finch-Hatton moved in with her on the coffee plantation she’d built and continued to work for its success. Denys took the Baroness on her first flight. He also taught neighboring Beryl Markham to fly a plane, brought her along on his safaris, and shared her love of Africa. Karen Blixen returned to Denmark. Markham eventually flew herd-spotting flights for Bror Blixen’s safaris; they had become close and admired each other’s unique skills with wildlife, shooting, safari organizing, and flying.
I’ve read their own words, biographies about them, their autobiographical notes on each other. I invite you to drink at this deep remarkable well of human experience. It will boost your imagination, your spirit, and your courage as it has mine. I’m not sure the order of introduction matters; leap in anywhere.
It’s BROR VON BLIXEN’s autobiography, African Hunter, that I’m reading now and that after already liking him a whole lot as portrayed in the movie Out of Africa by Klaus Maria Brandauer I confess to adoring the fellow again, only 100 pages into his book. Von Blixen came from a royal shooting and hunting culture in Sweden, thought of as a birthright, and a means of testing the mind’s cunning, physical skill, and durability. He prefered at least a stand-off. The animals obviously were not armed with guns. But the bullets fired (or misfired) did not always hit a mortal target yet wild prey were armed indeed with claw and tooth and athletic endurance. Baron Bror von Blixen never freed himself of severe malaria gotten from Africa, the bouts lasting his whole life never killed him. He reportedly withstood sickness and injury with an enviable constitution. Markham reported that Blixen dropped in place on the safari trail one day from malaria, unable to get back on his feet for 24 hours of convulsive fever after which he stood up and continued on his mission. He had numerous close calls with death brought on by furied elephants, vicious buffalo, violent boar, hippo, rhino, and self-respecting lions. Bror was generally loved and admired by men and women for his wit, deep friendships, good heart, and lust for adventure at any expense. Bror Blixen fell head over heels in love with Africa. He had come from a wealthy, titled family but turned from them and at 25 years old, headed (with Karen and on her money) into the dark continent to use the shooting skills, bravado, and determination cultivated by the aristocratic Swedes who had born and raised him. The irony of his death, a man who lived so dangerously stopped by an automobile in town, stunned his friends.
In 1928 the Prince of Wales first found Bror and Karen in Arusha en route to Nairobi, and ordered up a lion hunt. They developed a friendship and a common new interest in photographic and movie safaris. Bror later said getting a wild beast to come nose to nose with a camera you were holding was no less heroic than standing your ground with a gun.
Through their own writing you will not fail to see that side of any of these characters as blood-thirsty; self-involved; even sadistic. But you also need your imagination picturing the life which is a hard translate into our present day 21st Century, cosmopolitan world. They killed lions and elephants when possible, leaving the younger, lighter-weight tusked elephants and rhinos (under 100 lbs) for a later day. There were menacing man-eating lions near villages, happily hunted down and killed to stop the human slaughter, in one case over 60 residents. There was skinning the bounty to send off as trophies to delighted and grateful European nobility. And the especially handsome monetary reward of feeding the Asian aphrodisiac market for horn and tusk. They organized horseback hunting, men racing in full gallop across the Serengeti, across rocky plains after buffalo and lion (animals good in spurts but not endurance) and the speed, the roughly cratered ground, the salt sweat and saliva burst up from their horses as they hung tightly with their thighs and arms, being swatted by the odors of the trapped prey, and becoming the conquerors, hunting for murder and finding it and feeling lively from it.
It’s there for sure, no good pretending otherwise. There are other ways they could have felt life. I am not of that time or world, and excuse my slipping off it’s previously important cause to me now, because it is incidental to what draws me to them. I no longer care about the hunting. The more I read I also find them honorable and compassionate. And I need more of the other stuff of them. There were explorers like Thor Heyerdahl who did not seek to draw blood and I loved him first.
What draws me to them is this: I read each one’s story with their inclusion of bristling, chilling, dangerous discomfort. Tracking through unforgiving jungles past herds and packs of man-killers. Getting lost with no saving equipment or supplies. Making an airplane runway by hand out of dense thorny thicket in the hope of being spotted, found and saved. Crash landing their primitive planes on savage turf and only oneself to rely on, then finding a way to safety with a broken, bloodied body, and disoriented mind. Lost at sea and having only hope on which to ride safe to shore, which is somewhere, that way, maybe. Of weeks unending spent under roughest circumstances, without bathing, enough food, or water. Or out for weeks, then camping with companions, killing and staging animals for bait, preparing and eating rough cooked meat, and the jungle life altogether.
Well, read and picture it because you will not see it exactly spelled out on biographical pages, or often see an actor or actress spotted with blood, rarely looking anything less than laundered, starched and pressed. But these are the men and women who would skin a lion in the wild places, spot where they were shot to ground. Or would uproot the tusks from newly dead flesh with knife and chisel out of massive still hot-with-life creatures weighing thousands of pounds just shot between the eyes or in ear or into mouth. They got not just dusty but bloodied, the kind of detail of this particular breed of persons we might get to know more with the full picture. Karen Blixen I am guessing was a tough, imaginative, violent little broad more than the tidy, plucky cream-puff she has been played and Africa brought out the savage waiting in her, released it. I want to know her better, that aspect of her for what it might teach me. I did not think I knew her, nor any of them, not real knowing. Unless you imagine all the particulars of a life you can’t.
Or unless you live it too, in some way.
Nonetheless, it is a fascinating period seldom celebrated so much as it may deserve. I believe these lives were overshadowed by near biblical events, the dreadful horrors of WWI (1914-1918), the Russian Revolution of 1918, the Stock Market Crash (1929) and the Depression (1929-1939). History so carefully recorded disaster, not superficially or falsely, but through all that sordid angst and despair and death we fail to cast equal light on the swift and stunning growth of mankind’s freedom as the roads and skies were opened wide and conquered, lives of striking adventures were lived and written up by men and women. This makes me curious. And I suspect along with seeing the gore we need to see, to cherish, to honor, to cleave to, and search out the excitement of being alive.
The stupendous birth of flight was 112 years ago~1903~Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Thank you Wilbur and Orville Wright for your perseverance and sacrifice. You both nearly died trying to be airborne as others similarly experimenting did die. You gave the substance to human dreams of flight since the dawn of time.
Then there is also this:
Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Night Flight ~ 1932,
Beryl Markham: West With the Night ~ 1934
Baroness Karen von Blixen: Out of Africa ~ 1937
Baron Bror von Blixen: African Hunter ~ 1938
Antoine de Saint-Exupery: Wind, Sand and Stars ~ 1939
Consuelo de Saint-Exupery: The Tale of the Rose ~ c.1940’s (An autobiography of their life together, by the wife of Antoinne; posthumously published in 2000; it was discovered 2 decades after her 1979 death; written in the ’40’s and hidden away by her.)
For good measure (both of which you must read):
Jack London: Valley of the Moon ~ 1913
and half a century later:
Sterling Hayden: Wanderer ~ 1963
There are of course so many more. The Europeans were typically aristocrats, the Americans were not. And such a defining and oft forgotten boon to human beings is that America was uniquely, singularly, originally to the human condition and experience….classless. It’s what’s meant by American exceptionalism. It still exists despite detracting arguments to the contrary. It cannot be said or examined or celebrated enough. You do not need credentials to become anything under the sun. Europeans, indeed all other cultures on the planet were restricted by birthplace, heredity, education, accents….all unflexible. We didn’t like it and we sailed west.
But this interesting mix, it so pleases me to discover and re-discover these unusual women and men who took off into places brightly lit and dark as pitch to better understand themselves, the times and places and planet they live on, and have~~at the very least~~one hell of a romp in the process.
On a numberless page in the start of Wanderer, American actor Sterling Hayden dedicates his book to his wife. He writes:
To Catherine Devine Hayden
Who had the heart
To join with me
Into the Abyss
Where books like this are written
Thanks, Sterling Hayden. And those who came before you and after and the breadcrumbs you all left along the path
for the rest of us. Yum.