Young Girls with Eagles, When Women Were Birds: Svidensky in Mongolia

Caters News photo of Ashol Pan by Asher Svidensky, used with permission

In the fall of 1998, Taukel Sultan, a member of the Mongolian Parliament, traveled 6,000 miles to visit Wyoming, Mongolia’s Sister Province.  When he arrived in Sundance, my daughter and I went to meet this exotic visitor. "Do you ride horses?” he asked her, his Mongolian interpreter at his side, a few town locals gathered around us.  Her dark eyes lit up.  “Ah,” he smiled, using both his hands to shake hers. “In my country, every year, we hold a horse race for the children!  Six-year-olds race bareback 35 kilometers! You should come see our horse races!” 

He turned his attention back to the small crowd and then suddenly turned back to Sarah.  “Do you drink milk?” he asked.  A little embarrassed, she grinned and nodded.  “Ah,” he smiled again, “our yaks have the fattest milk!  Like your beef cows, our yaks graze the open grasslands and uplands of the mountains.  We have wrestling matches and archery competitions, too!"  

Ashol Pan, cropped from above
Had I seen Asher Svidensky's astounding photos of the Kazakh eagle hunters back then, I surely would have asked him about the young girl Ashol Pan.

After Mr. Taukel left Sundance that day, Sarah and I drove back to the ranch.  Crusted snow covered the hills, lit by a cold blue sky.  A few hundred yards from the house, we saw a bald eagle perched on a small knoll close to the road. A larger, second eagle, probably the female, stood on a half-devoured deer carcass just beyond the knoll.  Crows mulled around, one venturing within a few feet of the carrion but none brave enough to snatch a morsel.  Later, I would hike to the knoll and find downy white breast feathers fluttering between bare ribs.

Sarah Mease photo by Kyla King
Like the women at the Festival of Naadaam in Mongolia, Sarah had learned to handle a bow when she enrolled in the University of Wyoming's 4-H Shooting Sports program.  After she took the Wyoming Hunter Safety Course, she hunted with her father and older brother.  And, like the Mongolian children, she sat a horse like she’d been born to it—which, actually ... she had been.  Years later, she would join a woman's ranch rodeo team in Oklahoma. 

Her brother, a skilled bow hunter, would marry a beautiful young woman who prides herself on clean kill shots and does her share of keeping their freezer stocked with wild game. 

She knows intimately the animals that gave their lives to nourish my soon-to-be-born grandchild.  I am grateful for the relationship that they all share with nature, and especially grateful that my grandchildren will grow up knowing what it is to sleep under the stars in a forest alive in the night - if they're lucky, they might feel the swoop of air from an owl's wing.

When I first saw Asher Svidensky’s photos of Ashol Pan, the young girl eagle hunter of Kazakh, I had just finished reading Terry Tempest William’s book When Women Were Birds.  In the book, Terry creates a mosaic of metaphors about relationships between women and birds, and about the cultural code of silence imposed on females.  Terry’s writing is always striking, but I was particularly struck by this:  "Can you be inside and outside at the same time?" she asks.  "I think this is where I live.  I think this is where most women live." 

Asher Svidensky photo, Caters News
Svidensky’s story about Ashol continues to mesmerize me.  She is the first female to learn this ancient Kazakh tradition.  Traditionally, it is the sons whom the fathers teach.  Svidensky’s photos capture the birth of a new, evolving tradition—and they capture relationship—Ashol’s relationship with the eagle, the relationship they both share with the layers of purple mountains and pink sky, with the jutting rocks and wide open steppes.  It is far more than a thin, leather tether that connects girl to bird. Here, again, is one of his incredible photos.

I hope you will read Svidensky's entire story "Eagle Hunters of Mongolia" and view all his breathtaking pictures. When I sent them to my daughter-in-law, she wrote back, "I have had eagles eat meat from my harvest before and we like to set the heart and liver aside for them."

That reminded me of something I learned from Svidensky's story.   After an eagle hunter has hunted with an eagle for eight years, in the spring time, "the hunter will take his eagle to the mountains, will lay a butchered sheep on one of the cliffs as a farewell present, and he will send his eagle away for the last time. That’s how the Kazakh eagle hunters make sure that the eagles go back to nature and have their own strong newborns, for the sake of future generations. That is the Kazakh tradition’s way of living in harmony with nature."

When Svidensky asked Ashol's father if he would continue teaching his daughter the ancient tradition of hunting with eagles, he said, "I wouldn't dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year, you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place."

Can we be both inside and outside at the same time?  I have no doubt that Ashol's interior life will be rich in ways that perhaps her mother, and grandmother could not have known.  I hope that someday, Ashol will write her story.  "I know this is where writers live," Terry tell us in When Women Were Birds. "Inside to write. Outside to glean."


Gail Storey said…
What a fascinating post, Page, rich with little known details of Mongolian eagle hunting and culture! I especially love hearing how the hunter releases his or her eagle to thrive back in nature and reproduce for future generations. Inspiring harmony!
Page Lambert said…
Gail, it's always a joy to see a comment from you. Thank you. I was very inspired by Asher's photographs. They're amazing!
What an interesting post, Page. I loved reading about the connection of women with birds and the link to the Svidensky photography.
Page Lambert said…
Hi Mona! I am so enthralled with young Ashol - and if you haven't read "When Women Were Birds," it's so "Terry Tempest Williams." Each lyrical line wise and beautifully crafted. Page

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