Saturday, October 11, 2014

Rest in Peace, Stephen Frank

I was saddened to hear about the death of legendary British falconer Stephen Frank (at right, above), who passed away last Saturday morning. Steve was one of the most interesting people I've met in a lifetime of falconry. He lived for decades in a battered old crofter's cottage on a lonely grouse moor in the Scottish Highlands, above the Dornoch Firth. He was one of a handful of British falconer who kept the sport alived in the years after the Second World War. Steve cut quite a figure in the field in his youth, always racing full speed over the moors like a wild stag, clad in sneakers and a bright-red sweater (which he hoped his falcon would key in on) as his falcon circled high above him. And he was constantly shouting encouragements to his falcon and his dog, his voice echoing across the moors. He was always a picture of vigor, exuberance, and boundless optimism. When I visited him a few years ago, we sat together drinking tea in front of his old cottage, basking in one of those rare Scottish days when the sun is shining. His old pointer, Handel, lay curled nearby on a battered easy chair with stuffing sticking out of torn seams in the tweed. We spoke endlessly about hawking and about bird dogs—which he loved as much as his falcons. The last time I saw him, he was already well into his 70s, and he'd had a hip replacement, but he was in no way ready to give up the sport he loved. He was training a new eyas tiercel Peregrine and a pointer pup. This was his answer to creeping old age and its accompanying infirmities. He will be greatly missed.

Early Falconry Art in Portugal

I saw an interesting Roman mosaic last week at an archaeological site in southern Portugal. It depicts a falconer on horseback carrying a raptor on his gauntleted fist. It's difficult to determine the exact species, but the bird's long, barred tail suggests that it might be a Eurasian Sparrowhawk or perhaps a Goshawk. The tail is far too long for a falcon. There's also another bird flying above him. As far as I know, no evidence exists that the Romans ever practiced falconry—although Pliny the Elder once wrote about seeing people in Thrace (what is now Bulgaria) flushing birds for their trained hawks to catch. The mosaic dates from the 5th or 6th century A.D. and is inset in the floor along with several other mosaic illustrations in an area where people would walk to a baptismal font. (This is an early Christian site.) Later, when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula, they built a village over the site. These mosaics had been buried for centuries. 

I also saw a falconry-related ceramic bowl in a small museum of Islamic art in Mertola, Portugal. It depicts a raptor grabbing the head of a gazelle as a dog attacks its body. Arab falconers used to train Saker falcons to chase gazelles, striking them repeatedly in the head, slowing them enough so their salukis could catch them. This piece is probably at least 1,000 years old.