A complex alliance between human beings and birds of prey

Few introducing word

About twenty people stood where a gravel road ended at the gate to a cattle pasture, watching a female peregrine falcon pump her long, slender wings and sweep in wide, climbing circles above them. An early-March sunset silhouetted the low mountain ridges around Dillon, Montana, and lit up the falcon’s clay-orange breast each time she swung toward it. The peregrine’s spiraling flight lifted her higher and higher into the sky, until the only detail visible was the low sun flashing silver on the undersides of her wings.

The people watching were almost all members of the Montana Falconers Association, gathered for their annual spring meet. The meet had been organized by Brian Mutch, who works for the Peregrine Fund, the organization largely responsible for repopulating the United States with endangered peregrine falcons. Mutch had been charged with rehabilitating this particular bird after she was found wounded by a gunshot the previous fall.

As the falcon soared, the evening sky filled with the fluttering forms of ducks that wanted to land in a creek bottom across the field from the falconers or in the pasture itself, where a local rancher had left alfalfa for his cattle. The ducks had spotted the falcon from a great distance and were careful to fly above the raptor. Most ducks–in fact, most birds–can escape a falcon in a tail chase; falcons are most effective when they stoop down on prey. The peregrine ignored the flying ducks and circled in the sky–“waiting on”–watching the people on the ground.

Mutch had spotted five mallards feeding in a shallow swale in the field between the end of the road and the creek bottom. When the peregrine had climbed to about a thousand feet, Mutch and his brother, Dale, charged across the field, dodging befuddled cattle, whooping both to flush the ducks and to draw the falcon’s attention. The mallards shot into the air and fled in a tight sprint to the south.

High above, the falcon tilted earthward, rowed her wings to power her stoop, and then poured herself down through the sky. Wind ripped audibly through her feathers, and the small brass bells tied to her feet whistled. When the ducks saw the falcon free-falling toward them, the small flock split. A drake hesitated, unsure which pair to follow, and the prey had selected itself. The falcon slammed the duck with an impact that sounded like a baseball bat swatting a down pillow. Sinking her talons deep into the duck’s back, the peregrine rode her prey to the ground with little loss of velocity.

A strange oooohhh of awe rose from the falconers gathered at the end of the road, one that said they appreciated the kill but felt it a little, too. Mutch ran to where the two birds had come down, worried that the falcon had hit the ground too hard and might be injured. He found her perched atop the duck, stripping feathers and skin from his breast with twitching jerks of her sharp beak.

Mutch picked up both the duck and the falcon. Then, after ripping off one of the duck’s legs and holding it in front of the falcon until she began to eat, Mutch drew the rest of the duck away. Usually the falconer will reward his bird by allowing it to eat part of the warm carcass, often the head, and then supplement its meal with some frozen meat. Once the bird is separated from its kill, the falconer will bag the prey and take it home for supper. Brian Mutch dined on duck that night.

bird-migrate

Falconry, at heart, is about what birds do naturally. Perhaps the sport’s greatest attraction is its lifting of veils, so to speak, on the nature of killing and prey, and the perception it creates for the falconer that he is somehow one step closer to the workings of the raptor’s world. That the falcons, hawks, and eagles used in the sport are calm, poised killers that employ thrilling aerial abilities in slaying their victims adds to the fascination. Falconers become attached to their birds with a passion that nonfalconers simply can’t imagine. Two weeks after the Dillon meet Brian Mutch sat in a bar in Ovando, Montana, talking about the lengths he’d go to for his other bird, a captive-bred peregrine named June that he has had for nine years. “I’ve often wondered, if I got stuck in my truck somewhere, like in a snowstorm, how I could shave off pieces of my skin and keep her going,” Mutch said, with a chuckle that did not mean he was kidding. Many falconers have a fascination with birds of prey that runs too deep for them to understand fully. They speak of seeing falcons in their dreams and remember spending hours as children gazing at hawks on telephone poles. “It’s crazy,” said a falconer at the Dillon meet. “I hope I get over it someday.”

A falconer’s involvement with his bird is constantly reinforced by the amount of time they spend together. “Manning” a bird, or teaching it to hunt from the fist and return to a lure, requires daily interaction. Once the bird has been taught to accept its human hunting partner, maintaining it in effective flying condition demands constant attention.

Unlike dogs and horses, a wild-caught falcon is not submissive (although a captive-bred one might be somewhat so). Falconers do not physically intimidate their birds into compliance the way a dog trainer might. The falconer’s main tool is hunger. Falconry is based on convincing a bird that the falconer is its best meal ticket. This is not to say that falconers starve their birds; that would be counterproductive, because raptors must maintain their weight within a delicate range–a matter of a few ounces–in order to fly efficiently.

Ultimately, a falconer doesn’t hunt a bird; the falcon recognizes and agrees to hunt with a consistent producer of prey. Every time a bird leaves the fist, it is free to migrate–to fly away forever. In the early days of falconry on this continent, a number of falconers incorporated that fact into their sport. Falcons, particularly peregrines, were trapped in the spring, manned, and flown throughout the fall and winter. When migratory urges began welling within the birds the following spring, they were released back into the wild. Although that practice still exists, over the past thirty years it has become less common.

Hunting with raptors has been practiced throughout the world for millennia, but in the United States the sport, for all intents and purposes, had its beginnings in the 1930s. Nowadays, hunting should be supported by modern devices to enhance the range of observation, such as binocular and rangefinders. Especially for bird hungting, using of rangefinders is indispensable (check Top Rangefinder for the best rangefinder reviews) Early American settlers had no time to train birds to fly after game, particularly when birds were far less effective than guns, traps, nets, and even dogs when it came to putting meat on the table.

bird-hunting

Another impediment to falconry in America was the settlers’ perceptions of the birds themselves. Falcons, hawks, and eagles, like bears, wolves, and foxes, were predators competing with settlers for prey, and they raided domestic stockyards and chicken coops. As such, they were to be killed on sight. Change in this attitude was a long time coming. Well into this century states paid bounties on raptors. As late as the 1960s it was illegal in some states to keep certain raptors captive but perfectly acceptable to kill them, as long as you left the carcass in the field. As the recovered peregrine that Mutch took to Dillon illustrates, raptors are still sometimes shot.

When Americans began to practice falconry, they adopted ancient training practices and language. In strict falconry jargon “falcon” refers only to a female peregrine falcon. A male peregrine, typically a third smaller than the female, is a “tiercel.” The female gyrfalcon is a “gyrfalcon,” while the male goes by “gerkin.” How a bird came into captivity further defines it. An “eyass” is a chick taken from a wild nest, or aerie, and raised in captivity. If the bird was taken just as it was beginning to stray from the nest but before it learned how to make extended flights, it is called a “brancher.” Birds caught in the wild when they are older than that are “passagers,” or “passage birds,” because they are generally taken during their first migration. If such a bird has reached its adult plumage, it is a “haggard.” Should its first molt occur in captivity, it is “intermewed.” Purists would claim that only someone who flies true falcons–peregrines, gyrfalcons, and other raptors of the genus falco–is worthy of the name “falconer,” and that those who fly hawks, eagles, and owls should be called “austringers,” although this bit of snobbery has fallen out of fashion among mainstream American falconers.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes kindled an interest in falconry with his 1920 National Geographic article “Falconry, The Sport of Kings,” and Colonel A. E. “Luff” Meredith, a career military aviator, is generally credited with bringing falconry to America. But it was the Craighead twins, Frank Jr. and John (now well known for their grizzly-bear research), who, beginning in the mid-1930s, did the most to spread popular interest in falconry. While still in high school the Craigheads met Meredith in Washington, D.C., where he talked to them about training wild raptors. At the time, the brothers had been shooting birds to satisfy an interest in taxidermy, but falconry captured their fancy. The Craigheads began working with Cooper’s hawks and quickly moved to peregrines, prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks–even owls and ospreys. In 1937, while attending Pennsylvania State University (where they flew their falcons on the university golf course), the brothers co- authored an article in National Geographic about falconry.

Five years later they published another piece in the magazine. Those two articles created a foundation for American interest in the sport. But the shaping of modern American falconry would take another thirty years, and its fortunes were intimately bound up with those of the peregrine falcon, which the pesticide DDT nearly brought to extinction.

Peregrine falcons began rapidly disappearing from this country in the 1950s, and DDT was not initially implicated. Indeed, falconers were blamed at least in part for the dwindling of the peregrine population. Prior to 1970 no effective captive-breeding programs existed, and most falcons used in falconry were taken from the wild. It was assumed that a vast black market existed for illegally trapped birds.

Certainly there are now and were then bad falconers. In 1984 Operation Falcon, a major U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sting, nabbed a number of falconers for various felony violations. Operation Falcon proved to be a wildly controversial episode in the annals of falconry: it engendered bad feelings between falconers and law-enforcement agencies which persist to this day. The operation was fraught with mismanagement, falconers claim. For example, they say, the Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to violate the spirit of the laws it was purportedly trying to uphold by allowing agents to steal then-protected anatum peregrine eggs from a nest for use as bait. In court Operation Falcon lost de facto entrapment arguments, found almost all its felony charges reduced to misdemeanors, and failed to prove the existence of an organized black market.

The truth is that the falconers’ take of wild birds was probably biologically inconsequential. From 1965 to 1970 it became evident to biologists that the real villain was DDT. As it happens, falconers turned out to be largely responsible for the remarkable recovery of the peregrine falcon. In 1970 Tom Cade, a falconer and at the time a professor of biology at Cornell University, started the Peregrine Fund, which orchestrated what has been one of the more successful re-introductions to date of an endangered species in this country. Where others–including the Fish and Wildlife Service–had failed, Cade succeeded, largely because the birds he used for breeding stock were young birds donated by fellow falconers and were comfortable with captivity. The older birds used by the Fish and Wildlife Service would not breed.

national-geographic

“A lot of the information that led to the conclusion that a continental decline had occurred came from falconers who had been in the field, watching nests and keeping records,” Cade told me not long ago. “Falconers were also influential in captive-breeding and release techniques. Their biggest contribution to the Peregrine Fund was to donate birds–either lending or giving them–so that we could use them as breeding stock. About half of the birds we used came from falconers.”

In addition to saving the wild peregrine, the Peregrine Fund’s captive-breeding program ensured the availability of birds for falconers. Captive breeding–along with the advent of radio telemetry–has also influenced the sport in other ways.

Traditional training methods call for leaving birds hooded or in dark rooms for great lengths of time, to keep them calm. But the advent of captive-bred birds has led to new approaches. Chicks are often given the run of the house. This dispels their notion that every time they see a human being, they will be fed. It also deepens the bond between man and bird. Mutch’s peregrine June, which he raised from a chick, now believes that Mutch is her mate and will actively court him, sticking her beak in the dirt and raising her tail high while loudly sounding the kak-kak-kak of her mating call.

Radio telemetry has allowed falconers to keep their birds longer, further increasing opportunities for learning and decreasing pressure on wild populations by nearly eliminating the need for trapping new birds. Prior to telemetry, a falcon that pursued prey for miles before killing it–or giving up and roosting–would probably not be found again. But now a falconer can track his bird and lure it back to him. Telemetry has also changed the kinds of flights falconers will attempt with their birds, making possible the pursuit of challenging quarry like sage grouse and prairie chickens, which are likely to fly a long way off before a falcon can catch them.

The North American Falconers Association, founded in 1961, now claims 2,600 members (an additional 1,100 falconers are believed to operate independent of the organization). NAFA estimates that the number of participants has increased over the past decade by about 10 percent. “We’re growing at a very slow pace, which is what we want,” says the president of the organization, Ken Felix, a veterinarian from McKean, Pennsylvania.

Owing largely to NAFA, falconry is probably the most highly regulated wildlife-related sport in existence. “Falconry is hard to get into and it’s kind of designed that way,” Mutch says. “It’s designed to discriminate against people who aren’t totally committed to it. You get a lot of people who want a glamorous pet– who want to walk around with a falcon on their fist. Falcons are not pets.”

Felix points to a traditional stronghold of falconry, Great Britain, to illustrate what NAFA does not want to see happen in this country. “The trouble in England right now is, to be a falconer you only have to plunk down fifteen pounds for a license. As a result, the sport is deteriorating. Incompetent people are doing it. I’m not elitist, but I think the situation we have in the U.S. is appropriate. We are keeping the sport generally away from casually interested people. We now have regulations. They’re restrictive, but we want them restrictive. They’re not hardship. Anybody who wants to put forth the effort can do it.”

The effort is a serious undertaking. To become a master falconer in the United States a person must pass a hundred-question exam and then spend two years as an apprentice to a licensed sponsor and five years as a general falconer before applying for master falconer’s status. Each state regulates the kinds and number of birds a falconer may fly at each stage of his progression, and may inspect mews and breeding facilities randomly. NAFA has been instrumental in developing legislation to protect birds of prey, and is actively involved in raptor restoration and rehabilitation programs. NAFA publications keep falconers up to date on developing techniques in the care and training of raptors.

NAFA’s concern with standards indicates an awareness that all responsible falconers have about their sport: despite falconry’s basis in natural acts, it is the hand of man from which the falcon flies. A falconer’s error can bring this home with gritty reality. The day before Mutch’s peregrine made its stoop at the ducks outside Dillon, a female gyrfalcon was killed while chasing sage grouse. The gyrfalcon had followed a grouse into cover and caught it in sagebrush. While she held the bird, trying to figure out how to extract and kill it, a golden eagle slammed the gyrfalcon from behind.

Jeff King, then a forty-year-old registered nurse and veterinary student, had trapped the immature gyrfalcon in the Palouse region of eastern Washington five months before. “A wild bird like this would probably not have allowed itself to be killed by another predator unless it had gotten pretty hungry,” King said weeks later, still upset by the incident. He was coming to terms with the notion that he had miscalculated, had made the falcon hungry enough to ignore her natural caution, and had cost the bird her life.

Even captive-bred raptors revert almost completely to instinct in the act of hunting: nobody trains peregrines to break the neck of their prey immediately after bringing it to the ground, yet they all do. Falconers simply couldn’t do much to improve a falcon’s efficiency in killing; the human being’s work is geared toward gaining acceptance from the bird and taking it into situations where it can act naturally. Each time he succeeds, a falconer edges closer to fully understanding those acts and what they mean.

Abstract: 

Hunting with birds of prey is an ancient sport, but it did not become popular in the US until the 1930s, and it is highly regulated. Falconers helped to repopulate falcons in the 1970s after the use of DDT made them an endangered species.

The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers

Introduction

Writers take to Louisiana like alligators to a bayou. I think it’s because Louisiana is our most exotic state (on the mainland, anyway). It has a French history, a Cajun culture, feudal politics and a landscape about three-fourths marsh. Louisiana doesn’t look or act like other states. I believe it was A.J. Liebling who wrote that the main difference was that Louisiana lacked a tradition of democracy. But as Marc Reisner shows us in Game Wars, nature too sets Louisiana apart. “It is, or was, the best habitat forwildlife in the entire world,” he writes. Living off the land is still not only possible but practical. Big-time poaching flourishes as well, and it’s the poachers and their pursuers, particularly a colorful, arrogant, profane and off-and-on successful federal undercover ‘agent Reisner calls “Dave Hall,” who are the subject of this free-Swinging book,

“Hall” is what he’s called here, but I hope that’s not his real name; Reisner doesn’t say. If it is his real name, I hope he’s made a midlife career switch to something like silk farming or telemarketing because this book is going to blow his cover and probably jeopardize his life. There is money enough in alligator hides and illegal game fish and other contraband wildlife products that murder is not uncommon. Hall, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement branch, spends his time conjuring up undercover schemes to nail the entrepreneurs who get obscenely rich trading in illicit wildlife.

Reisner’s book is both a page-turning narrative and an editorial on the decimation of nature by greed, but it’s mostly the former. Hall is an irresistible character. When we first meet him he is admiring a flock of geese and on his way to meet a Cajun outlaw known as “A. J.” whom he has converted into an undercover operative. Later he demands to know how many alligators the Cajun poached on his best night. The man reluctantly concedes that his record was 114, at an average length of five feet and an average take of $8 a foot. He became Hall’s ally after the mysterious deaths of several cohorts–possibly at the hands of competing poachers. Now, Hall says with a smile, here he is taking a notorious [ alligator poacher to lunch. “Former alligator poacher,” the man corrects him.

“I hope that’s true,” says Hall. Hall is happy in his work. He loves chasing bad guys, Wiring himself with a $5,000 tape recorder and wheedling incriminating conversation out of them. When the trade in illegal ivory boomed in the 1970s he volunteered to lead a sting aimed at nabbing the big-ticket traders in Alaska who deal in ivory from walrus tusks. Good ole boy Dave poses as a new-rich Texan in the oillease game who hankers to sell ivory to his friends. His customary cool erodes only when he finds himself at the mercy of an Alaskan version of Hell’s Angels known as the Brothers (but I’m not telling what happens).

At one point he submits to a strip search by an ivory dealer nicknamed “Sealskin Charlie” who has his doubts about ole Dave–who has already secondguessed Charlie and ditched his recorder in good time. The Alaska caper is the best reading in the book. I’ll never feel the same about the town of Nome after reading Reisner’s description (it looked like a “large container spill … the world capital of the International Quonset Hut style … the landscape was mildly undulating tundra, without trees to set the limits of sight”). A greater contrast with southern Louisiana is impossible to imagine.

  • The book includes one segment on gator poaching, one on the ivory trade, a third on a lucrative racket in the tasty fish known as sacalait or crappie and a fourth titled “Loss,” which chronicles the escalating disappearance of Louisiana’s freshwater marshes as a result of shortsighted dam building and oil company canals.

Reisner recounts all this in a goodhumored gonzo style laced with the occasional memorable image. One afternoon he is permitted to accompany Hall and another undercover agent as they cruise the Mississippi River with a duck poacher they’re out to snare. The poacher allows as how he’d kill a man if the money was right. “Most of us would,” he insists. “Tell me that ain’t so.” Dave Hall affably agrees. All Reisner could think about at that moment, however, was how he would have liked to take the poacher and “hold his head in duck dung until he had been asphyxiated.”

Donald Dale Jackson lives and writes in the wilds of Connecticut.

New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time

Is there life after 50? Gail Sheehy didn’t think so when she wrote Passages, her 1976 best-seller about the stages of adult life. Then 39, the American journalist ended her hugely influential book with the forties–“the deadline decade”–suggesting that middle age marked the beginning of a long, slow decline. “Like so many others of my generation, I couldn’t imagine life beyond 50,” Sheehy, now 57, admits in her latest book, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time (Random House, $29.95). “And I certainly couldn’t bring myself to consider it as a time of potential.” But that was nearly 20 years ago. “Since I wrote Passages, the whole shape of society has changed,” she writes. “People are taking longer to grow up and much longer to die.” In her new sequel to Passages–which sold nearly 10 million copies and was translated into more than 20 languages–Sheehy brings that new perspective to a look at life after 50. “Surprise!” she writes. “The second half of adult life is not the stagnant, depressing downward slide we have always assumed it to be.”

In the space of a generation, Sheehy contends, the old stereotype of middle age has become obsolete. “The middle years do not mean descent,” she writes in New Passages. “On the contrary, this is the stage of greatest well-being in the lives of most healthy people today.” Sheehy, a contributing political editor for Vanity Fair, arrived at this reassuring, if extremely optimistic, conclusion after interviewing more than 500 “pacesetters”–men and women aged 20 to 70, including Joni Mitchell and Gloria Steinem, who continued to enjoy personal and professional growth–and even rousing sex–in their later years. Offering more pop psychology than real proof, New Passages is an engaging mix of intimate, often amusing anecdotes on coping with the crises of age, with extensive census data and epidemiological surveys.

passage

The cornerstone of Sheehy’s theory is the simple fact that people are living longer. She cites studies that show that women can expect at least 32–and probably 40–years of productive living after they reach their 50th birthday, and that the average healthy man who reaches the age of 65 can expect to live until 81. “That amounts to a second adult lifetime,” writes Sheehy. “We now have a quantity and quality of adult life never seen before in civilization–and people don’t quite know what to do with it.”

Sheehy points the way–literally–with a revised “map of adult life.” In a full-color illustration in New Passages, the progress through adulthood is depicted like the settling of the American Wild West, with the Rockies appropriately positioned as a mid-route crisis. Her new map shows three stages: provisional adulthood (18 to 30), first adulthood (30 to 45) and second adulthood (45 to 85 and older). Since the mid-1970s, Sheehy explains, greater opportunities for women and new economic pressures have shifted the stages of adulthood by an entire decade. Adolescence now stretches into the “tryout twenties.” Sheehy maintains that, because of delayed marriage and childbirth, the transition to real adulthood now takes place at 30. And 50 marks Sheehy’s “brand-new passage” into middle age, renamed “The Age of Mastery.”

Passages-1

To reap the rewards of the “flaming fifties” and “harmonizing sixties,” however, Sheehy says that middle-agers must first pass through “middlescence”–the mid-life crisis. “To break into this most productive stage,” she writes, “one must accept losses of cherished strengths of young adulthood.” And that is easier for women than for men. Menopause, more difficult for females in the short term, acts as a signal to women to begin the adjustment to the “youth of their old age,” she told Maclean’s in an interview. But in men, the process is much more gradual. “Male menopause is not strictly a menopause,” says Sheehy, although hormonal and physiological changes do cause men to experience similar symptoms–lack of vitality, irritability and depression. “Men go on pretending that they are just as strong, just as athletic and that their sexual potency is the same as when they were 20. All of which eventually is going to be frustrating for them.” Many men, she says, are jolted out of young adulthood by accident or illness, the death of a loved one and, more frequently now, loss of a job. “Some circle in middlescence for a long time trying to hold it off,” says Sheehy.

New Passages is flooded with optimism about the vigorous and productive years after 50–perhaps reflecting Sheehy’s own existence. Married to prominent magazine journalist and publisher Clay Felker for 10 years, the mother of two children who are writers, the author radiates vigor, confidence and material success. She notes that “reasonably good health” and a decent income are prerequisites for middle-age fulfilment. “The income level needs to be, in American dollars, somewhere above $30,000 a year. Beneath that, it’s more likely that you will spend your time just getting by.”

While Sheehy claims to be open to the possibilities of middle age, in her book she continually applies restrictive labels to the stages of adulthood–the 30s are “turbulent,” the 40s are “flourishing” and, later on, the 70s are “sage” while the 80s are–surprise–“uninhibited.” Still, Sheehy’s timing is impeccable. Baby boomers, who are reaching middle age and clinging to their youth, appear to be grasping at her hopeful message–New Passages is topping best-seller lists throughout North America. “When the boomers hit their 50s,” predicts Sheehy, “it will become the sexy thing to be–there will be an adult revolution.”

 

=> Next: Unmasking Mexico: The Photography of Graciela Iturbide

Unmasking Mexico: The Photography of Graciela Iturbide

Susan Tenaglia, currently based in Westport, Connecticut, is an arts writer, critic, and historian.

For Iturbide, photography has been a passage to the mystery of daily life in her native Mexico. Her images capturing the iconography of Mexican Indians have become the standard in the field.

An old woman sits in a corner, staring into space. In the background, a boy stares through a barred window. The image is several photographs in one. The contradictions are blatant; the girl’s fate seems sealed in the vacant stare of the old woman.

Iturbide is considered one of the finest practitioners of black-and- white photography in the world today. Her prints are etchings of exquisite tonal beauty, texture, and detail. Order and balance exist in all of her work, though the classical structure in her frames is often broken by the smallest detail. In Crocodile (1995), a crocodile is used as a prop in an artist’s studio. We can’t help being fascinated by the way it is tied to a ladder, its dark body abandoned against a whitewashed wall. A large moth in the upper left upsets the eye, drawing us to the corner and creating a sinister, foreboding mood.

Over the last twenty-five years, her pictures have captured the poetry and magic inherent in Mexico’s daily life and annual rituals. They reveal the surreal in the ordinary, the mystery in the mundane, the ancient in the modern. Above all, Iturbide allows us to see the signs and rituals of precolonial civilizations enduring throughout Mexico. In doing so, she has created art that can be called essentially Mexican.

Much of her work depicts the rural communities of Mexico. She is well known for her 1979 photograph Mujer angel (Angel woman), which depicts a Seri woman with windblown hair and traditional long skirt taking flight up a craggy desert path in Sonoma, a boom box in her hand. Nuestra Se- ora de las Iguanas (1979), the image of a Juchitan woman wearing a headdress of live lizards, has become an icon of Latin American culture. Whether it’s a bride in a death mask or the slaughter of livestock in a rural marketplace, Iturbide seeks to wipe away stereotypes of Mexican villagers arrayed in colorful dress selling their wares. Instead, her intimate portraits reveal the ambiguity and complexity of a vibrant society straddling an ancient world and a modern one.

Mujer-angel-(Angel-woman)

Iturbide began her photographic career late in life. Born in 1942 to a well-off family residing in Mexico City, she experienced a relatively sheltered upbringing. Educated by nuns in a boarding school, she was groomed for the sole purpose of getting married and having children. During this time, she had little contact with the native population of Mexico. In 1969 she was married with three children when she decided to join the National University of Mexico’s Film School, known as Centro de Estudios Cinematograficos.

Studying film opened up a new world for her culturally and politically. The late sixties was a time of social unrest in Mexico. At university, Iturbide experienced the effects of the government’s repression of the 1968 student uprising. She was mainly interested in scriptwriting and turned to photography only after meeting the great Latin American photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Photography as an art form was little known in Mexico, and Bravo’s class was almost empty. She became his assistant and began to accompany him on photographic expeditions to the rural towns surrounding Mexico City.

Bravo imparted to her his deep knowledge of Mexico’s native culture. He introduced Iturbide to the country’s finest painters and writers. While working with him, she gained a new perspective on the world and how to watch it. She absorbed his interest in portraying the daily life of the Mexican people. Rather than attempting to make obvious social commentaries, Bravo let his pictures of individuals in their natural setting speak for themselves. His work was full of contradiction and questions that forced the viewer to engage in the task of interpreting and relearning.

Iturbide loved the solitary aspect of photography as well as the opportunity it gave her to travel. While her mentor’s work inspired her, she was careful to develop her own style. Bravo was a modernist and saw his work as an expression of himself as an artist. For him, each photograph stood on its own as an artistic piece. Iturbide viewed her work as a means of social interaction and was more interested in the photo-essay. From the beginning, she saw her art as a way to discover the country from which she was excluded as a child. Photography was an act of complicity between herself and the subject, a process of exploring but also of self-discovery. “I went out to discover the other side of everyday life to which I never had access: the theatricality, the rituals, everything I loved,” she says. Iturbide viewed her photographic study as a way to explore her own cultural and political identity as a modern Mexican.

She was also a Mexican woman and had access to the secret world of women, children, and the elderly. “For me, as a woman, it’s been so easy to approach other cultures and also to have good communication with the local women in the places where I am working,” she says. As her work developed, Iturbide avoided the rushed approach typical of photo shoots. Instead, she’d arrive in a town and live among the people for months, introducing herself as a photographer who was interested in their traditions and lifestyles. Her work emerged from blurring the boundaries between herself as an outsider and the natives of a specific region. Friendship became an essential element of her photographic process. The resulting work, unique and intimate moments in the life of native communities throughout Mexico, was based on personal acquaintance and intercultural collaboration.

elsa-medina-the-migrant

In 1970, Iturbide’s six-year-old daughter died in an accident. Photography became a form of therapy, and Iturbide threw herself into her work and travels. That her work portrays numerous angelitos, Mexican children dressed as angels at carnivals and religious festivals, is a testimony to her grief.

Iturbide began making trips to villages in the rural areas of Mexico and Central America. In Panama, she documented Gen. Omar Torrijos’ attempt to develop a left-wing government. Over time, she focused her camera more and more on the Indians of Mexico. In 1978, she and several other Mexican photographers were commissioned by the National Indigenous Institute of Mexico to produce a book about specific Indian communities. The resulting books are considered the first photo-essays by photographers ever produced in Mexico. The books sparked new interest in Mexico’s ethnographic photography and its role in documenting the country’s various indigenous communities. Iturbide created Those Who Live in Sand, an intimate portrait of the Seri people, a group of fishermen who are considered the last nomadic tribe of North America. She asked anthropologist Luis Barjau to write the accompanying essay.

For Those Who Live in Sand, Iturbide traveled to Punta Chueca in the Baja Pennisula, Sonora, and the Zapotec towns in Oaxaca. Though the emptiness and low horizons of the desert landscape proved a challenge, she utilized the background to create a meditation on the simplicity of the Seri lifestyle. Iturbide portrays the Seri as dignified, majestic figures rising against the barrenness that surrounds them and conveys their ambivalence toward the sedentary life forced upon them by the advent of capitalism.

The breakthrough moment in her career came in 1979 when famous Mexican painter Francesco Toledo asked her to do a series of photographs of his hometown, Juchitan, in Oaxaca. Toledo and his wife, Elisa Ram’rez, had turned the Casa de Cultura into a model cultural center. The institute promoted Zapotec culture through lectures, educational programs, and artistic presentations. Iturbide began a long-term relationship with the people of Juchitan, sharing their life for almost a decade and recording their world with her camera. She eventually donated much of her work on the town to the Casa de Cultura.

The early 1980s were a time of social and political turmoil in that area. The leftist pro-indigenous movement fought the official party for control of the region. The growth of activism during this time eventually led to the Zapotec rebellion of 1994.

Neverthless, the resulting photo-essay Juchitan of Women, was not a political documentary about the struggles of its people. Iturbide focused on the town’s everyday life, documenting the powerful role its women play as healers, political leaders, and merchants. She accompanied them to markets, social events, and religious ceremonies. A strong friendship grew from this daily contact, and the photographs born from this collaborative effort depict events that few outsiders have witnessed.

El Rapto (1986) was the first time the practice of abducting a bride was photographed. According to the region’s tradition, if a couple fears that the bride’s family will not approve of the marriage, her fiance kidnaps her, takes her to his family’s home, and proceeds to deflower her with his fingers. Many couples carry sacks of chicken blood to fake the loss of virginity, proof of the bride’s purity. Iturbide depicts how the bride is later exhibited on the bed, adorned with red flowers and confetti and wearing a red bandage to symbolize her new condition.

For the photograph titled Do-a Guadalupe, Iturbide had asked an acquaintance to pose nude. She decided, instead, to depict the moment they were preparing for the nude shoot, when Do-a Guadalupe’s small son appeared and stood in surprise at the sight of his mother blindfolded. The image ended up showing Guadalupe, her son, and their dog. Iturbide’s photographs of Magnolia, a male cross-dresser, are tender portrayals of bisexuality, which is an intricate and accepted part of Juchitan culture.

More recently, Iturbide spent time in the highlands of Oaxaca documenting the slaughter of animals in the marketplaces of villages for her photo-essay In the Name of the Father (1993). Aware of the mix between postcolonial Catholic traditions and Indian sacrificial rituals, she focused on the slaughtered lambs, at times overexposing their bodies to emphasize their purity in death.

Now Iturbide is on to other projects, which, being a very private person, she will not discuss. In the late 1990s she traveled to India to expand her fieldwork. Noting the similarities between the two countries, she focused on capturing a theme she had already developed in Mexico, namely, the fascinating ways that postcolonial cultures retain old traditions and embrace new ones to form hybrid societies that defy Western concepts. “I am very interested in India, its philosophy, its culture, and its people,” insists the artist, noting that “there is a parallelism between Mexico and India which to me is very personal.” If anyone is able to capture the subtle connections between the two cultures, it should be Iturbide, with her gift for finding art in the everyday.

Graciela Iturbide has won numerous awards, including the Eugene Smith Award for her photography in Juchitan and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation. She is working on a book about her photography that will be published in Spain.

Tenaglia, Susan

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Little Scarlet

A white teacher in an entirely white art history seminar class, I was recently struck by students’ inability to imagine life in any North American cultural setting other than their own white middle-class version. Being a fan of Walter Mosley and just having read his Little Scarlet, I assigned the book in a similar course, believing that its atmospheric mise en scene, its provocative and unflinching presentation of race relations, its caustic and fearless main character, Easy Rawlins, along with its pace and suspense, would serve as a tantalizing hook for my non literarily oriented students.

It could compel while undermining stereotypes, pique awareness of white privilege, and make evident the terrible price of race based self hatred. Moreover, the character Easy Rawlins is an incisive metaphor for black experience during the 1960’s as well as for us now since the novel’s events raise issues still germane today.

history-seminar

At the center of Little Scarlet is an unlicensed detective protagonist in an exclusively black Los Angeles milieu, during the six days of the Watts riots of 1965. Being unlicensed serves as a metaphor for Easy’s anti establishment posture, his perception, confirmed by his experience, of white authority around him as racist and corrupt. In agreeing to help the city’s police solve the murder of a black woman, on the quiet (since her aunt claims the murderer was white, an accusation, true or not, that could further ignite violence), Easy discovers a series of unsolved murders of black women that white police have not deemed important enough to look into. Black women, to them, are expendable, a heinous fact that shapes the rest of the novel, as does the perpetual racial friction from Easy’s natural, but unwelcome assumption that he is equal to the white men with whom he interacts and is a professional with high standards.

Students identified easily with Easy as smart, tough, generous to those in need, empathic and ethical despite his criminal record that makes him a romantic “outlaw.” They accepted, with some level of shock, Mosley’s manipulation of the color white against a black centered milieu, white as “lifeless” and “colorless,” pale in comparison with the resonance of the range of blacks on the color spectrum. In response they discussed the long standing and derogatory white cultural associations with the color black.

On the other hand, students wrestled with Easy’s friendship with and dependence on two men, one (Mouse) unpredictable and dangerous, even to Easy at times, the other (Jackson Blue), who dealt in stolen goods but was attempting to go legally straight, albeit by devious methods. The question arose regarding who, in the realm of the possible, could serve as a black unlicensed detective’s muscle when back up is required. Most students approved of the situational, reality based ethics necessary for both Easy’s survival in a white world and his compassionate service to his community. A few students were less flexible, unforgiving of Easy, who to them appeared ethically flawed.

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The pathos in the powerful climax of Little Scarlet moved everyone, in light of both black struggles for equity and the universality of the book’s theme, acceptance of self. The string of murders of black women was the tragic result of a black man’s equally brutal emotional rejection by his mother, who for decades had passed as white and did not want to be racially defined by her black child. Her race based self hatred led him to murder black women drawn to white men, as his mother had been drawn to a white husband and to deception. By the end of the semester, Easy Rawlins had a new set of fans, ready to follow him through any challenges that came his way, understanding the profound injustice of white authorities’ criminalizing him for simply being a black man, and more willing to see the world through a black man’s eyes.

Mary Ball Howkins

Rhode Island College

Howkins, Mary Ball

Read more: A complex alliance between human beings and birds of prey