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

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Strangely enough, last Friday (my birthday) saw the release of two books with particular personal significance for me. Painters of Utah's Canyons and Deserts was timed to coincide with the centennial celebration of Zions National Park in the state's southwest. The fact of its concurrence with the news of what seems to be the solution to the Everett Ruess mystery is purely serendipitous. Ruess, a California native, was an artist, printmaker, writer and vagabond who loved the Utah redrock, where he famously vanished nearly 75 years ago at the age of 20. Denny Belson, acting on a story his grandfather had told him, found a human crevice burial near Comb Ridge, on the Navajo Reservation, over 100 miles east of what was thought to be Ruess' last camp. Belson's grandfather, a Navajo, claimed to have witnessed the murder and robbery of a white man by two Utes in the '30s, and had returned to the site to bury the man. Only days ago, forensic analysis determined the remains to be Ruess'.

His story is one of the most compelling, but he is only one of dozens of great artists who've been inspired by the spectacular, rugged country of the Colorado Plateau. Two of the state's most respected art historians, Vern Swanson, PhD, director of the Springville Museum of Art, and Donna Poulton, PhD, associate curator at the University of Utah Museum of Fine Arts, have compiled this weighty volume with over 300 paintings, chronicling the artistic depiction of our state's canyon country. The unfortunate tradition with such histories is to begin the tale with the in-migration of white settlers, and this one is no exception. The earliest work dates to the period of the first Mormon pioneers' arrival. Still, the history detailed from that period on can only be described as comprehensive. The illustrations are well selected and reproduced. I was especially pleased with the several plates of my favorite Utah artist, Doug Snow, who merges abstract and representational painting more successfully than anyone else I know. The accompanying text is well researched and nicely written, except for the fact that my name isn't spelled exactly right, but this isn't the first book to have erred there.
Two upcoming events will celebrate this book: Tomorrow evening (May 7th) at 6:30, there will be a short lecture and a book signing at Williams Fine Art on 2nd East and South Temple, and on Friday, May 15th a small exhibition and book signing at Ken Sanders' Rare Books on 2nd East and Broadway.
Gibbs Smith Publisher 12.8 x 11 x 1.3 inches 304 pages 5.6 lbs.