A pang went through me as the sign hurtled by , stabbed into the roadside: Continental Divide. I was heading east, after coursing through the interstate veins of the western United States for more than a month. I’d traveled up the I-5 corridor and then veered in, passing from one flank to the next along the Columbia River gorge as I hummed Woody Guthrie all the way into Missoula. Roll on, Columbia, roll on… It was raptor country. Chris and Julie (along with a couple small kids and more than a few animals), were kind enough to put me up and put up with my comings-and-goings as I attended the Raptor Research Foundation annual conference, dedicated to John Craighead, of the Craighead brothers who forged a life and a name as naturalists of the highest order, writing about and studying everything from falconry to grizzlies to river ecosystems to widlflowers.
One evening’s program of the raptor conference was a showing of Life with an Indian Prince, and I walked through the broad quiet streets of Missoula to get to the theater. John Craighead was there. He is 92, his brother Frank now dead. He will go also, sooner – most likely – than the other 150 of us gathered in the Missoula Children’s Theater on Broadway to watch the film the Craighead brothers made in 1940-41.
K. S. Dharmakumarsinjhi, an Indian prince known to them as Bapu who had a great love for birds of prey, had read about the Craighead’s falconry and written to them, a letter that must have taken weeks for them to receive. The correspondence continued, the young men both inviting the other to come visit, until finally, surprisingly, the prince showed up in America. The Craighead brothers showed them life of a young man in America. There is mention of roller coasters and milkshakes and the mysteries of co-ed college dormitories. But also hunting and fishing and the sport – or art – that had brought them together, falconry.
In 1940, the Craigheads bordered a steamer in San Francisco and set sail for India to return the visit. The film we watched is the virtually uncut footage from the trip. The three men are in their prime, strapping sexy outdoor men enjoying adventure and the privileged life of a prince, although that entitlement would come to an end seven years later as India gained its independence from Brits and Indian royalty alike.
I watch the images pass in front of me, wrestle with the incongruity of Indian custom — a stork is left in peace as the raptors are flown on their hunt, while later a massive Asiatic lion is gunned down. The royal shot was a poor one, but two staff quickly made up for the miss and then emphatically patted him on the back in congratulations. The narrator informed us that there were only 200 of these lions left.
I left the theater as people gathered around John, small and leaning over at the table they’ve set up for him, deaf to the actions around him despite the large hearing aid. They come to have their books signed, their photos taken, capturing this person who has done so much for the natural world, often amidst controversy, through a combination of passion and power. If I had more time I would write more about the magic of getting older, of the unfolding of a life and then the return to something slower and more dreamlike, where the memories of our lives play out in an untold drama within our heads. But right now, the sun is setting and I seem to be running out of time. Somehow, that seems appropriate.