Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Cherkassov at last!
After several years, I am happy to announce the publication of A.A.Cherkassov's 1865 Notes of an East Siberian Hunter, translated by zoologist, eminent cynologist, and "dog in law" Vladimir Beregovoy of Virginia, with a little help from me. It is available as a large format, good- quality print on demand paperback of 439 pages, for [To come shortly-- around $20 I think], from Vladimir at his address:
1507 Mountain Valley Road,
Buchanan, Virginia 24066
(The shipping is about $6.00 (book rate) within the US.)
UPDATE: V doesn't have any yet but here is a link to order directly from the publisher. You can always send it to him to sign!
It is a unique book, and I should quote at length from my even longer foreword. The editing and captions could be better, and if Vladimir makes some money, will be. But the text is worth every penny.
"The book itself is remarkable. Cherkassov’s biographer Felix Shtilmark says it resides on the imaginary “golden shelf” with those of such masters as S.T. Aksakov, who wrote not only novels but books on wildfowling and fishing, and Ivan Turgenev, whose Hunter’s Notes is as good as, if more obscure than, such classics as Fathers and Sons. All these have been translated into English, but until now, Cherkassov has not. Yet his is a book any modern naturalist or hunter will find fascinating; it will also be of value to any historian or scientist who reads with care. Notes is encyclopedic, including technical information on guns and traps, observations of animal behavior that are still fresh today, and even, perhaps, bits of fiction and legend. ; if , in the course of all his years, Cherkassov encountered or observed anything that he did not include in this book, I would be surprised.
"It is also, according to Felix Shtilmark and my friend Vladimir Beregovoy, a treasure trove of archaic Siberian dialect and expression. I cannot judge this, but I can testify that while Shtilmark’s intro and the occasional footnote read as modern English, Cherkassov’s personal voice is that of a garrulous old backwoodsman, full of fire and prone to digression. The educated scholar within him notices everything with a keen predator’s eye; Cherkassov apparently observed many zoological phenomena for the first time. (Shtilmark cites among other things the breeding period of hoofed mammals, the mating habits of capercaillie, and the natural history of Siberian bears). But the voice rambling on in the foreground remains that of a shrewd but somewhat superstitious old countryman, above all that of a “passionate hunter”, a phrase that occurs again and again.
"It is important for the American reader to realize that Cherkassov lived not just in another century, in another country, and on another continent, but in another world than ours. It is possible and sometimes informative to see the ethnically- Russian free Siberian hunter, the “promishlennik”, as the equivalent of a North American sourdough or Rocky Mountain fur trapper, but their situations were quite different. America’s western frontiers opened after the American Revolution ended and were closed after Manifest Destiny, the railroad, and the Indian Wars, only about a century later. Whereas the first Cossack trappers started to explore east of the Urals as early as the late 1600s, and much of the immense Siberian forest is still roadless today. While there have always been a scattering of free trappers, smallholders, and remnant Native tribal peoples living a free hunter’s life there, it is well to remember that Nerchinsk, Cherkassov’s first Siberian post, was to quote Shtilmark “…known mainly as a place of exile and penal servitude”.
"It was a magnificent and beautiful but harsh environment, containing dark taiga and deciduous forest, with isolated mountain ranges and bogs and dry steppe and permafrost, where hunting and trapping and logging were all pursued with enthusiasm and no thought for conservation. That modern concept did not even exist. Despite Cherkassov’s obvious intelligence and sensitivity, he never quite “gets” this principle. While he laments the disappearance of game again and again, he doesn’t make the connection that seems obvious to us today. He bemoans the diminution of herds, the absence of entire species from where he hunted them when he was young. Then, for instance, he will say in his chapter about capercaillies (the largest species of grouse, now considered the trophy of a lifetime in some western European countries), “…I would repeat once more that spring hunting at the singing sites is very productive [emphasis mine], delivers great pleasure to a true hunter, and is very interesting to a nature lover.”
"Cherkassov’s promishlenniks and natives were both subsistence hunters who pursued various game animals summer, fall, winter, and spring, in rutting season and in breeding season and in their dens. Some-- never tender- hearted Cherkassov himself – show a cheerful, almost heartless lack of empathy that borders on cruelty, with their elaborate traps and occasional gruesome practices. I mean this less as a condemnation than as an anthropological observation. These men lived hard, poor lives as predators among predators, ultimately as innocent and fascinating as their prey. But a few practices can make a reader who is not used to country matters flinch.
"... there are two kinds of delights in Cherkassov’s Notes. The first consists of his endless “facts”, his mixture of everything from instructions on how to shoot firearms originally designed in the 17th Century and keep them working (he calls such weapons “primitive” in 1865 though I saw the same type used in Mongolia in the 1990’s) to the sex habits of carnivores. These things were as fresh to the young administrator from Russia’s European west as they are to us, and his enthusiasm for learning them is contagious. As an example, he tells you how local tribesmen cook Mongolian marmot or “tarbagan” “They clean the animal of hairs and entrails and, very skillfully, remove all the bones and fill the ugly- looking corpse with hot rocks. They quickly close the opening by sewing it up, and roll the whole thing on the grass until it is ready.” Unlikely? I can testify that I have eaten marmot cooked by that method in Mongolia in the late 1990’s!
"The other delights in Notes of an Eastern Siberian Hunter are his narrative and poetic set pieces, some with the feel of tales passed around the campfire among friends, some as lyrical as any in Russian literature. [Here] He tells of a tiger (“babr”) that befriends an Orochon tribesman who frees him from a trap as though it happened yesterday. “The exhausted babr fell heavily onto the moist ground; he lay for a long time, moaning like a human. Then he came to his senses and called the Orochon again, but this time in a much nicer tone than he had before. The Orochon did not hesitate and quickly came to the babr who tried by all his means to express his gratitude, licked the Orochon’s hands and feet, bowed to the ground (I do not know how he could do that), walked away, and brought firewood. The Orochon started a fire. The babr brought a roe deer for him. They had breakfast together. From then on the babr lived with the Orochon and helped him by bringing him game...”
[A terrifying fire on the steppes] "Fire, driven by wind like a wall, spreads over the steppe with incredible speed on the flat surface, burning down all the remaining yellow grass, small steppe shrubs, reeds and everything that can burn, turning it all into ashes and raising the remaining ashes into the air in a vortex which together with clouds of white smoke is lost in the darkness of wide open space. The all-devouring flame may be so strong and moves with such a speed that herds of horses and sheep, caught by surprise, cannot run away from the flame and are scorched…The stars in the skies become paler and stop flickering. Suddenly, you see that the fire weakens; in some places it has died and in some places it is still crawling through the dry tops of grass; finally, it dies everywhere with only some single sparks still running in the dry grass. The surroundings become dark; behind the swirling smoke stars appear in the skies, looking down on the charred steppe after the fire. You may think: why has the fire suddenly stopped and died? It is not difficult to understand: the fire came to a creek, could not cross it, and died. But now, look, the wind has started to blow and a barely-glowing ember on some stem leaped to another one, onto the third one; or the wind has thrown a smoldering horse apple, and the fire has again reached dry vegetation, reviving the flame, which again becomes a wide sea and runs further on the wide steppe. The noise and crackling resumes and stars in the skies become dimmer and the crimson flame is again reflected on the dark skies, lighting the surroundings.”
Notes from an East Siberian Hunter is something unique for the English speaking reader, for hunters, naturalists, black powder shooters and anthropologists, historians and Russophiles. Constant commenter Lane Batot, who read the ms, adds a few thoughts below; then, I will leave you with Cherkassov's own send- off.
Lane: "AWRIGHT! I hope I can afford a copy! SPLENDID cover! I still can't afford Vladimir's primitive dogs book-last I looked on Amazon, it was "only" $189.00!!!!! Although nobody knows who I am, SOMEBODY should mention(in a promotion blurb) that naturalists as well as hunters will find much valuable and fascinating information in it--this will help sell more copies to a wider audience(as hunters as a cultural group are becoming rarer and rarer, as you well know!) But heck, that cover alone will sell a bunch of copies, I'd think!..."
Alexander Alexandrovich adds:
Hunters! Read the truth I wrote:
I hope you find I told it well.
Ask not what I do not know.
I told you all I have to tell.
And here is VB with his old laika Alik