Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, May 07, 2009


I grew up in Emigration Canyon, Utah, which, 15 years earlier, had been a small, rural, working-class town with a distinctive culture. Fifteen years later and it would become a rich bedroom community that would all but extirpate that old culture. The community I knew seemed much closer to the former than the latter, but that could have been because I naturally gravitated towards those elements. One of those distinctive cultural peccadilloes was falconry, a practice that many local boys indulged in. More often than not, it was a passing fancy, but for a number of us, the rare privilege of developing close personal relationships with complex, wild predators led to insight and obsession that would shape the rest of our lives. None of us were quite like Steve Chindgren, though. His passion for falconry and his drive to excel in it reached an almost absurd level. By the time he was 20, he was hawking game more successfully than most, and 37 years later, it's probably safe to say that no person alive has taken more wild game with falcons.

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, writer Rachel Dickinson was trying to understand her falconer husband's own obsessions. She decided to contact a second falconer – a stranger – and study him as her own subject, get to know him, write about him, and hopefully, grow to understand falconry. She couldn't have picked a better subject when she called Steve, and this book is the result of her journey.

It's an odd experience to read a book about a good friend whom you've known all your life. Dickinson draws a portrait that's quite accurate, though. I spotted a few factual errors, but they're pretty insignificant ones. (For example, two long-dead Gyrfalcons, one gray and the other dark-phased, are both described as “white.”) A number of different routes were available to an author seeking to write a book about a complicated guy like Steve, and, although she touches a number different topics (his efforts at Sage Grouse conservation and raptor breeding, his feuds with the law, and how falconry has molded him philosophically), Dickinson seems mostly interested in how the sport has affected his life, both professional and, especially, familial, and how he and his wife and daughters have worked around it. My own preference would have put a tighter focus on Steve's philosophy, and the supreme paradox of his life, as I see it, how the Sage Grouse and their habitat, which mean so much to him, are threatened by the petroleum industry that makes it possible for him to hawk that wonderful country.

Not only does Dickinson render Chindgren in a fully recognizable way, but she does the same for the art of falconry. Towards the end of the book she wonders if she'll ever really understand the discipline that captured her husband so fully, but in her prose she displays that, on some level at least, she gets it.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 240 pages 8.3 x 5.7 x 0.9 inches 11.2 ounces


Anonymous Rachel Dickinson said...

Thanks so much for the kind words, Carel. As you can imagine trying to capture someone's life and passions on the page is trying, at best, but Steve was a fascinating and accomodating character.

Rachel Dickinson

5:25 AM  

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