Monday, March 05, 2007

Book Review

The last Wolf Hawker
The Eagle Falconry of Friedrich Remmler

By Martin Hollinshead
The Fernhill Press, 2006
109 pages, hardcover, b&w photos
Order here

Falconers’ debts are hard to repay. We owe our mentors for their good example, and their mentors too, back as far as you can go. We begin to return these gifts by practicing competent falconry and teaching it to others. For those like Martin Hollinshead, for whom writing about falconry seems an equal pleasure to practicing it, another method of repayment is possible.

In The last Wolf Hawker, Hollinshead adds context and commentary to his own translation of writings by Friedrich Remmler, a German falconer born in the late 1880s and perhaps the first (Western) expert on hunting with golden eagles. Readers of Hollinshead’s previous books will note their detailed coverage and vivid photos of European eagle falconry. With this latest work, Hollinshead looks back and pays respect to one who helped bring this ancient practice into the modern era.

He begins:
"In English and American falconry literature, Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Remmler is a rather mysterious figure, mentioned in passing—usually to note his wolf hawking—then let go again, leaving the reader desperate for more. This was the Remmler of my early falconry when, with a dream of flying golden eagles, the exact where, when and how of his hawking was nothing but a series of question marks.”

Hollinshead’s search for answers might have ended there, but for a chance contact via Internet: an email from one of Remmler’s sons, Orvar, who shared numerous photos, bits of missing detail and memories of trips with his father in the field. From these sources and further research, Hollinshead built the most complete picture to date of the fascinating and influential Remmler.

The Last Wolf Hawker is primarily a biographical work, interwoven with passages from Remmler’s 1972 article Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben mit Adlern (Reminiscences from my Life with Eagles), published late in his life. Hollinshead adds much to the original text with his exhaustive research and years of personal experience flying golden eagles.

Although he could have, Hollinshead refrains from critiquing the sometimes strange and often amazing techniques of his subject. Remmler, in almost total isolation from other falconers, pioneered a system for training and hunting with eagles that he replicated successfully for decades and with dozens of birds. In this, Hollinshead respectfully lets Remmler speak for himself.

Unfortunately for students of eagle falconry, there is little direct instruction in Remmler’s writing. But his accounts of past hunts are full of detail and good prose, translated from the German with obvious care by Hollinshead. One account of a haunting island wolf hunt is particularly moving and memorable, but best left to owners of this book!

I’ll share a different passage, one showing a glimpse of falconry from another time and place than ours. Here Remmler recalls the end of a hunt in which an old military friend has managed to catch a fox with one of Remmler’s borrowed eagles. The fox appeared unexpectedly during a hunt for hare on property adjacent to land owned by Remmler’s brother:
“Soon my brother’s hounds arrived and were met enthusiastically by mine. They knew each other well due to the former sometimes coming to me on loan—a type of sharing that extended to many things and continued right up until my brother’s death.

“After the flask had done its rounds, I instructed one of the assistant falconers to blow the signal ‘Hunt Over’ and then, ‘It’s a fox.’ Against all expectations, from the far distance came a reply from my brother. Now I called for the signal ‘Assembly.’ This also informed my contact in the village of our intentions and twenty minutes later one of the sledges arrived laden with roast ptarmigan and hazel grouse, thermos flasks of hot coffee, and cognac. As a further report from my brother indicated they were quite close, we waited for his party to arrive before eating.”

Considering my own falconry, in which truck stop lunches are arranged via cell phone, Remmler’s world seems straight from a fairy tale—Herein wolves meet eagles in deep wintry woods and on ice-bound, Arctic islands. But it was real enough, and through this book, a world we can know again.

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