Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia

Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia


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Mongolia is a vast country located between Siberia and China, and little-known to outsiders. As Mongolia had long been under Soviet rule, it was inaccessible to Westerners. That was until 1990, when Stephen J. Bodio began planning his trip.

As a boy, Bodio was always fascinated with nature. When he saw an image in National Geographic of a Kazakh nomad, dressed in a long coat and wearing a fur hat, holding a huge eagle on his fist, his life was changed from then on. When Mongolia became independent in 1990, Bodio knew that his dream to see the eagle hunters from the picture in National Geographic so many years ago was soon to become a reality.

In Eagle Dreams, readers follow Bodio on his long-awaited trip to Mongolia, where he spent months with the people and birds of his dreams. He is finally able to visit the birth place of falconry and observe the traditions that have survived intact through the ages. Not only does he get to witness things most people will never be able to, but he’s also able to give life to his dreams and the people, landscapes, and animals of Mongolia that have become part of his soul.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629144795
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 02/17/2015
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,163,412
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Stephen J. Bodio is a renowned writer and naturalist. His articles have appeared in magazines such as Sports Afield and Smithsonian, and he is the author of several books, including Querencia and Aloft. He currently divides his time between New Mexico and Bozeman, Montana.

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I saw a picture once, in a book I have forgotten, in an old city neighborhood of three-decker wooden tenements I may never visit again. I heard stories there, and saw animals: real ones, images in books, and ones I made in my head from the words in the stories.

My parents made images then. My father was an artist turned civil engineer and draftsman; my mother, a commercial fashion artist. Now I make stories for a living, and live with other animals around me. Fur-hatted nomads, horsemen from shining mountains, gallop through my flickering brain at night, while great birds soar and dive overhead. Some are dreams, where they mix with animals and people from Africa, or New Mexico. Some are memories.

Another memory: My mother in the yellow light at the foot of my bed, on a sweltering midsummer night, reading to me from a pretty new edition of Kipling's Jungle Book: the first story, "Mowgli's Brothers." There's the baby, fleeing through a night no darker than the one outside my window; the terrifying presence of Sher Khan, looming in the cave's mouth; the green-eyed defending demon of Raksha, Mowgli's wolf foster-mother, backing him away. Surely I create these from later readings? But I still have the book, marked and stained by childhood meals, and the memories of those characters are as real to me as those of the black coal chute in the cellar, the smell of it burning blue coal in the stove, the popped paper caps of frozen milk bottles on the back stoop, the cries of the ragman ("Rags and Bones! Rags and Bones!") as he passed on the street with his horse-drawn wagon — all those fragments of another lost world.

That was in 1953, in Dorchester, a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston. In New Mexico nights, on the edge of sleep, the images still come to me, not in flashes nor in orderly narratives, but in sensory bursts like a kind of natural virtual reality. Do I pull them up out of the lightless well in my head, or create them out of still-tinier fragments because they are appropriate? Or did they build molecular structures in my developing brain, because they meant something important?

Words, images, animals. In 1953 I was already, improbably, fascinated by animals. They were so scarce I can remember each individual: a mouse that drowned in my bedside glass; a nest of sparrows that blew down from the eaves in a hurricane; my cousin's cat, Snoozy, who lived briefly upstairs and was run over by a car; the ragman's cart horse, which in 1953 still made the rounds every week.

It was probably no accident, given the neighborhood, that most of these were dead. More lively animals ran through the colorful magazines that my parents brought home. My parents told me I learned to read by matching the names of animals under the fold-out dioramas in Life to their owners: weasel, fox, deer, blue jay. I can recall, a little later, matching the head of a jaguar on the cover of some glossy color magazine to the word "sports" in the magazine's title, except that I, understandably, thought the word was "spots."

It was in a magazine that I first saw The Picture. No amount of mental searching can bring back the name of the particular magazine, nor could my parents recall it; they thought, I suspect, that most of my earliest memories are hallucinations, though I can still startle my mother by imitating the rag man, or by remembering that the landlord's name was Mr. Mahan.

The first incarnation is a full-page illustration. A man sits astride a pale gray horse. He is brown-skinned, squinting, with a fur hat on his head. He has a thin mustache and a spike of beard, and wears a coat of pale fur, almost white, marked with black rosettes, that resembles a rougher, grayer version of my mother's ocelot coat, the one she was given when she was the illustrator for a Newbury Street furrier. In retrospect, I am sure that it is made from snow leopard.

But even the splendid coat, even better than my mother's (along with the iridescent blue wing feathers of the ducks my father shot, two totems of almost fetishistic intensity when I was young), pales beside what the man carries. His arm, sheathed in heavy leather, resembles a tree trunk. On it stands a bird nearly as large as the man. It is black and gold, with a great curving hook of a beak, and it is looking at me.

I try and try to remember exactly what I asked as I stared at this wonderful picture. All I can remember is what my mother tells me, at least a bit accurately. The man is "a Russian." The bird is a golden eagle.

* * *

GIVEN THE TIMES AND THE PLACE — THE COLD WAR, CATHOLIC Boston — it's a small miracle that the word "Russian" did not make me push the image away rather than make it an icon that still haunts me. Instead, it became one of a small set of triggers, stimuli that pulled me away from the mainstream, made me live more familiarly in alien worlds than the one I was born in, pulled me toward strange journeys, poverty, hardship, and delight.

For the next ten, twenty, forty years, through various transmutations of national politics, opinions, interests, versions of myself, I would encounter The Picture. It was not always the same photo, of course; I never saw the original hunter in snow leopard again. It became a multitude, a horseback army of Asian nomads, scanned and printed on my brain over forty years, taken over a much longer span than that. Some were dim halftone plates in old travel books, now "de-accessioned," that once inhabited the vaults of the Ames Free Library in Easton, where we moved from Dorchester. One of the more recent, a three-by-five transparency, was handed to me by the woman who took it, a Russo-Hungarian entrepreneur who lived in a high-rise over Brighton Beach. There are dozens on my desk.

Their backgrounds may be blurred, or snow-white and featureless. If they are in color, the sky is often that vivid dark blue common to high-altitude dry plains from New Mexico to the Altai range. In Carruther's Beyond the Caspian, written in the twenties and thirties but published in 1948, there is a line of smudges, like a horizontal smoke signal, on the horizon. In Owen Lattimore's 1930 High Tartary, long, hard-edged sunset shadows stretch across the figures and into the distance. Behind the image of a boy with an eagle in Clara Szklarz's transparency squats the formerly Soviet space shuttle, piggybacked on an enormous jet. In a photo clipped from World Monitor, bare brown hills like those north of my house in New Mexico rise to frame the characters. In the scholarly Nomads of Eurasia, they are backed by a grove of very Russian birches. In two reproductions of a Kazakh calendar, sent to me from New Orleans and Russia, there is nothing but Xerox gray behind them. In a magical painting by the Russian-born Taos artist Leon Gaspard, who traveled the caravan routes for years, the nomad is transformed into "Prince Igor" in a robe decorated with blood-red poppies and pink roses. But his eagle, properly supported by the birchwood crutch called a baldach, wears what I would learn was a Kazakh hood.

Over a span of seventy-some years, however different the backgrounds, the character remains the same. He has brown skin turned to leather by the wind, Asian eyes slit against the glare; high cheekbones. He might have a thin mustache, or a chin beard. He looks a little like an American Indian, perhaps a Navajo. He is almost always wearing a round wolfskin hat, with flaps over his ears. He also wears a knee-length wool cloak, with or without a broad belt ornamented with silver, a heavy engraved silver ring on his finger like those made in the pueblos, tall boots trimmed with fur. There's a dagger in his belt, a rifle slung across his shoulder. He's mounted on a horse.

On his fist, always, stands the eagle. Usually her great brown eyes are covered by a helmet-shaped hood, an eyeless mask sometimes decorated with silver or crusts of gold braid. She always looks as big as he does. She (female eagles are invariably bigger than males) is as black as a hole in the night.

* * *

IN MY CHILDHOOD, I HAD NO MENTOR TO TEACH ME ABOUT birds or far places. But I had the next best thing: old books. In the fifties, the town of Easton was graced with an unusual public library. The Ames family, shovel manufacturers turned to squires by money and time, had commissioned the architect H. H. Richardson to build them a groined neo-medieval vault, and filled it with a treasure trove of books. That library bent my life for good.

By 1959, I read well enough to be allowed up into the dim stacks of the adult section, where all the really good stuff was. It was there that I first read Darwin, a nineteenth-century edition of The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication with its feather-perfect Victorian steel engravings of pigeons. I sampled William Beebe, who traveled to the Galapagos and the Himalayas and descended to the depths of the ocean in his bathysphere, and who wrote of the wilds of Burma where, collecting pheasants, he met and photographed, "The shooter of poisoned arrows," laconically adding under the caption: "From the hillside just behind, he shot at us for three nights. The evening following this photograph, I shot and killed him. See page 127."

It was there I found The Picture for my first conscious time. In another travel book, Douglas Carruther's Beyond the Caspian, is a slightly blurred black-and-white photo of a horseman. On his fist stands — "perches" is far too small, almost effete, a word — the same great black eagle. Her amazingly small head is turned toward the man's face, but hooded. A loop or thong, incongruously like an antenna, sprouts from its crown. Beneath the photo, a simple inscription, "Berkut or Kush."

The text, the first I had read on the eagles, was amazing.

"... The quarry consists mostly of foxes, gazelle, wolves, and in earlier days, the Saiga antelope. Some authorities, Levchine for instance, declare that if a wolf is too strong, and goes off with the eagle still hanging on to it, the eagle is able to hold it with one foot and anchor itself with the other, until the wolf exhausts itself in the struggle! ... eagles are [also] used at wild boar hunts." Carruthers — no sensationalist, but a sober British geographer and naturalist — goes on for several pages that combine observation and scholarly quibbles about what race the Kirghiz hunting eagle might be.

I never forgot that book. Ten years ago, I bought it — a small blue volume, about eight-by-five inches, with its title embossed in gold. It was published in 1949, about expeditions made mostly in the first two decades of the century. I open it and inhale; its old-book smell is as evocative of dreams of far places as Proust's madeleine was of his past. When I was a child, I assumed I would go everywhere.

* * *

THOSE OF US WHO BECOME TRAVELERS SEEM TO LOCK INTO certain images early, the way young birds imprint on an image that becomes "mother." I love, theoretically, rain forests and jungles — their smells, intricacy, hallucinatory biodiversity, their birds and bugs. But something about bleak plains and sculpted rocks, Himalayan crags, slant-eyed horsemen in fur hats, turned in my developing brain the way a key does in a lock. As I progressed through grade school I read books of adventure and travel from all over the world, but the images that stayed with me were the ones from Roy Chapman Andrews, Peter Fleming, and the Kim of Kipling, from adventure novels by Talbot Mundy, kid's books about Chingiz Khan, photos of Afghanistan, tales of fossil digs in the Gobi Desert. I wanted to travel on horse and camel-back, under cold dry mountains that stood above endless vistas of blue and red, through valleys full of enigmatic stuff — old tombs and crumbling buildings, unreadable texts on canyon walls, stone monuments older than our civilization holding hints of meaning for those learned enough to decipher them. I wanted to see hairy beasts of burden, hunt wild sheep, roam amidst nomads, camels, and goats.

Such influences shape you in ways you may not understand until long after the path is taken, the choice made. Certainly they led me into falconry, a pursuit so odd in my ethnic and suburban background that, though it became a focus of my life at about eleven, I did not find a mentor for ten years, despite writing letters to anyone who seemed to have the remotest connection with the sport. I trapped my first hawk at thirteen. I have been at it ever since.

And looking back, what on earth led me to New Mexico twenty years ago? It too has the mountains, plains, vistas, dry air, ruins, horsemen, and petroglyphs, though I considered my arrival there more of an accident than a plan. I found something else in New Mexico that I had yearned for in my dreams, something that barely existed in New England: an unsentimental intimacy with, and a life lived among, animals; not a sentimental animal rights view of them, nor a reduction of them to utilitarian automatons, but a kind of familiarity with them that acknowledged that they were not humans but that they were persons, whether part of the family, servants, friends, or enemies.

Some reporters think that Spanish and Moslem cultures are cruel to animals, or that they see them as ends. The late Italian mountaineer and cross-cultural explorer Fosco Maraini said that in what he calls "prophetic" cultures like Islam, "... animals are excluded in participation in the cosmic drama. ... They are living creatures, nothing more." I can only speak for the people I have known, but high-desert people were the first I ever met who accepted animals unselfconsciously into the community as important actors and participants. If you read the novels of Central Asia's greatest modern writer, the Kirghiz Chingiz Aitmatov, you will find that his horses and wolves (and Christ, and Pilate) are just as real and developed characters as his members of the Russian Mafia, or his human protagonists. It is a way of life that northern Europeans are steadily leaving behind.

I wanted this intimacy, and have sought it out in places and people, from backcountry New England trappers, field zoologists, pigeon flyers, falconers, horsemen, dog trainers, cowboys, Indians, and whoever else would teach me and talk to me. I looked for it in books, too, especially old ones. It seemed to me that in Central Asia there was much to be learned, from falconers, sure, but also from Buddhists and Sufis and breeders of ancient lines of horses and dogs, of Akhal-Tekes, Tazis, and Taighans. But finally, you can get lost in all the books and all the dusty branching byways of history. You realize that you will have to go yourself, to do, else the whole picture becomes a mere tangle in the neurons in your head.

* * *

THE BIRDS, AND EVEN THE DEEP TRAIL OUR RELATIONS WITH them has worn in human culture — the falconry "meme" — are as real as rock. Eagles have been connected to humans for a long time. Roger Tory Peterson said that man emerged from the mists of prehistory "with a peregrine perched on his fist ...," romantic and at least half true. Falconry is older than our civilization. The sweet elegant little peregrine is a toy for developed cultures, but the first falconers were practical. Such tribes as the Bedouin or the Kazakhs praise and prize their birds, but scorn prey that is neither edible nor commercial. Eagles, with a greater need for food than small falcons, with life spans of thirty and forty years, must have paid their way. The oldest falconry cultures, the ones that seem to descend unbroken from the time when horses were tamed, are eagle cultures. It would make more metaphoric sense to speak of mankind, riding out of the steppes of Central Asia with an eagle perched before him in the saddle.

The eagle known to most old societies was the golden eagle, "the" eagle, aetus, the aquila of the Romans, the "damn black Mexican eagle" of border sheepmen. Golden eagles, at least those of some races, are among the three or four largest predatory birds in the world, and perhaps the most biologically successful. They live clear across North America, from Labrador to Mexico, in Siberia, across Asia and Europe, and down into the mountains of Morocco. Close relations inhabit South Africa and Australia. They are the bird of prey with the closest relations to humans — antagonistic and utilitarian, mythical and real, even theological — for uncounted thousands of years. Golden eagles are actors in Pueblo Indian rituals; their tail feathers are sacred to the Plains tribes. The ancient Romans, who gave the name Aquila to the species and later to the genus, used them as battle standards and war animals that could attack the heads of their enemies. They were reserved for emperors in European falconry, and are still used to hunt wolves in Central Asia and deer in eastern Europe. They have been poisoned by Scottish sheepherders, accused of stealing babies, and hunted from single-engine airplanes in Texas as recently as the early sixties. Contrary to the assertions of some of their more sentimental defenders, they are capable of taking antelope and deer in the wild, and, at least once, have been proven to kill calves.


Excerpted from "Eagle Dreams"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Stephen J. Bodio.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Part 1: Dream,
Part 2: The Dream Made Real,
Part 3: Return,
Appendix I: Tour Addresses,
Appendix II: Bibliography,
Appendix III: A Note on Conservation,
Appendix IV: Berkut,

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