A Kazakh Sport's Lasting Allure
by Stephen J. Bodio
This is a very striking and unusual book, sufficiently so that I imagine the people responsible for awarding it a Dewey Decimal number, in order to properly shelve it in libraries, must have engaged in some head-scratching. Is Eagle Dreams sport, travel, or zoology? You will have to make up your own mind. I have put it among my travel books, along with Paul Theroux, Eric Newby and Robert Byron; and I believe that those distinguished persons would welcome Stephen Bodio into their company as an equal. He writes as they did, of strange things in remote places, described in a plain, unaffected style, spiced with humor, recondite knowledge, and the fatalism of the seasoned traveler. Towards the peoples he encounters the author is sympathetic without ever being sentimental, and there is a hint of melancholy as he shows us, inching upwards in the distance, the waters of modernity that will eventually engulf a way of life that has persisted for millennia.
Stephen Bodio is a fiftyish American of Boston-Italian origins, now living in rural New Mexico, supporting himself as best he can by writing while he pursues various outdoor hobbies. One of those hobbies is falconry — that is, the hunting of small animals with trained birds of prey. Bodio had long known that the Kazakh peoples of remote Central Asia carry this sport to its natural limit, using eagles for hunting. A full-grown eagle can take a lamb or even a wolf, but the preferred prey among Kazakhs is the fox. In February 1998, having finally persuaded a magazine editor to pay his fare, Bodio went to Mongolia to meet the Kazakh hunters and their eagles. He hoped to actually witness an eagle catching a fox. This was not vouchsafed to him on that first trip, but two years later he returned, and this time he was luckier. He saw the kill, and describes it here in a single taut paragraph. Then he permits himself one uncharacteristic but very well-justified burst of lyricism.
I felt liberated: not to go home and write this, but to relax and enjoy — the air, the cold, the company, the gold braid on Manai's bag; sun on snow; the breath of the horses; Bayaan Olgii, Mongolia; life; the ongoing hunt. I was, in that moment, certain in a way I could not yet express that my eagle dreams had brought me to where I wanted to be.
I had better say that this is not a book you will enjoy if you have any qualms about hunting. Still less should you think of buying it if you are a vegetarian. The Kazakhs of far Mongolia must be the most carnivorous people on earth. Mongolians in general, the author tells us, "barely know what vegetables are. One of the most sophisticated ones I met told me that they all 'tasted like dirt' to him." (My kids would love this place.) Their entire diet consists of animal products, washed down with tea and vodka, in cheerful indifference to the proscriptions of their principal religions, Buddhism and Islam. Outside a remote Kazakh village, Bodio has a sudden dark insight:
As I started back, I realized with a mix of amusement and mild horror that the stones I had been stumbling over weren't stones at all; they were bones. Camel bones, horse skulls, unidentifiable bits of teeth, sheep and goat bones … I was beginning to think of all of Central Asia as an immense ossuary, a charnel house of bones, from the great dinosaurian skeletons in the Gobi, to the tiny bones of foundling lambs under my feet. History, human artifacts, cobbles, bulbuls, graves, and camel skulls all fit together to form a pavement where the hard inhabitants walked, staying fat on rocks until they became stones themselves. No wonder the air was full of crows and ravens and magpies, eaters of the dead.
Like all the best travel writers, Bodio breathes life into the mere tedious business of getting from one place to another. We learn, for example, that carry-on luggage on MIAT, the Mongolian state airline, extends to frozen sheep and five-gallon containers of gasoline. Such, at any rate, was the case on his 1998 visit. Two years later, modernization had made great forward leaps. Ulaan Bataar, the capital city, now boasted chic restaurants packed with citizens nattering into cell phones; though the "striding women and smiling men in U.B." still compared favorably with the scurrying pallid yuppies of Beijing. By now, three years further on, the Mongolian capital is probably indistinguishable from Denver.
The heart of the book, though, is among the nomads of the western mountains and their magnificent hunting birds. "I wanted to see Kazakh falconry when it was still a way of life," says the author, "not something 'performed' for rich tourists." He goes on to write approvingly of the way the Kazakhs have incorporated modernity — jeeps, synthetic jesses — into their lifestyle, and ends his narrative with the hope that their carnivorous, unruly, nomadic culture will survive the pressures of global culture.
They don't need our rules — yet. In a crowded world of increasingly enforced conformity, I hope I will always be able to return to a land of horses, mountains, endless skies, and eagle dreams.
It is a hope that any reader of this book will share, but perhaps without much conviction. The sons and daughters of these weather-beaten eaglers will probably opt to become doctors, lawyers, and computer programmers. Eagle Dreams concludes with a poem written by the author's stepson, another traveler and enthusiast for the Kazakhs. The poem is not at all bad, as such things go. It is written in the alliterative style of Old English epic. Reading it, I found it hard to avoid the thought that the eagle hunters of Mongolia will, a generation or so from now, be as comprehensively extinct as my Anglo-Saxon forebears. Well, thanks to Stephen Bodio, we shall at least have an intimate, engrossing account of their lives and their sport.