It’s the summer of the bow

Posted by the Oakland Tribune July 5, 2012.

By Angela Hill, Oakland Tribune

Historians say the humble bow sprang up almost simultaneously in far-flung regions of our world during the Mesolithic era. The work of ancient outer-space aliens, no doubt?

And today history repeats itself. Archery, the practice of using the bow and arrow, is everywhere in an oddly coincidental, surely alien-produced fad, emerging nearly simultaneously in far-flung regions — of pop culture, this time, showing up even in such unlikely places as “The Bachelorette.”

What began earlier this year with can’t-miss Katniss in “The Hunger Games” quickly spread to Hawkeye felling creepy Chitauri dudes in “The Avengers,” then a spunky Scottish redhead rebelling in “Brave.”

The trend continues with archers in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and two new fall TV shows: “Arrow,” with a vigilante character who tries to right society’s wrongs with bow in hand, and J.J. Abrams’ “Revolution,” in which all the world’s power grids and electronic devices fail, rendering the bow and arrow triumphant once again as essential — and fashionable — weaponry.

And bows and arrows will be in the Summer Olympics as usual — archery has been contested in 14 Olympiads since 1900, though perhaps with all the current publicity, it won’t be relegated to midnight coverage on some obscure cable channel this time. (Fun fact: Khatuna Lorig, a four-time Olympian, team bronze medalist and 2012 hopeful, taught Jennifer Lawrence, aka Katniss, how to shoot.)

Even the world’s top-ranked recurve archer and Olympic favorite Brady Ellison hopes it will help.”With all the things that have come out this year (in the movies) — that’s putting a lot of spotlight on archery with the Olympics coming up,” he said in a recent interview. “For a sport that doesn’t have that, it will catch a break and hopefully be able to do something with it.”

The pull of the bow

When you think about it, archery’s draw is hardly surprising. Whether it’s used for recreational field sports or game hunting, for Cub Scout badges or Renaissance fairs, the bow is a graceful, artistic mechanism, one that’s curved and sleek and feels good in the hand. Maybe it’s the simple stick and string of a longbow, or the flex and tension of a recurve style, but it has a primal quality, a return to antiquity (unless of course you go high-tech with composite bows, scopes, stabilizers and cool little LED lights that help you find your arrows in the dark).

Archery — mainly the low-tech kind — has often inspired poetry. Kipling spoke of avoiding Cupid’s arrows, and Longfellow famously phrased, “I shot an arrow into the air, it fell to earth I know not where.”

Clearly, it landed in the hearts of toxophilites — aka archery devotees — who are tickled at the recent trajectory of the sport’s popularity.

“It’s so exciting that there’s so much interest,” said a practically giddy Ken Closser ´╗┐on a recent afternoon at the Redwood Bowmen club in the Oakland hills. The group just had more than 150 people up at its Western Roundup in June, and numerous new requests for membership have come in. A similar increase has been reported at clubs across the nation.

One reason archery’s so accessible, spanning ages and genders, is that it’s a sport of form, not strength. It’s about mental acuity and technique. And besides, mastering the bow and arrow just looks downright cool. If you do it right, drawing the bow makes you stand up straight and proud, head up, eyes focused, posture optimal. Of course it helps to have a seasoned instructor at your side, such as Greg Tobler at the Diablo Bowmen club in Clayton, offering gentle reminders of such techniques. “There are as many things to remember as in a golf swing,” he said.

No kidding, especially for the beginner. Feet lined up to the target? Elbow back? Keep it back. Right hand at your mouth.

“Place your forefinger at the corner of your mouth, like you’re hooking a bass,” Tobler explains. Draw the bowstring with your fingertips, then release — don’t pluck — just let it go. And it goes, all right. It’s a powerful feeling, shooting an arrow into the air — even when it misses the target and lands, oh who knows where.

The bow’s origins

Historians say it’s not clear if the bow was invented in one location and culture, then spread through trade or war — something they call “diffusion” — or if it perhaps developed independently around the globe in a process dubbed “convergent evolution,” says Jonathan Roth, a history professor at San Jose State University who is currently writing a chapter on the bow for a book about weapons in world history.

“The bow is a relatively simple tool by today’s standards, but in the context of the Mesolithic era (10,000 to 5,000 BCE in Europe), it was revolutionary,” he writes. Roth says the bow was, in essence, the first machine, because it “stored the elastic energy created by the archer.”

“It was the ultimate in technology,” Tobler adds. “It was the nuclear bomb of its day.”

Great archers populate many world mythologies, too. In Greek lore, there was Apollo and Cupid. Long before Katniss, Artemis (or Diana, her Roman counterpart) was the can’t-miss goddess of the hunt.

And of course, this past century has seen hundreds of Robin Hood iterations in books, movies and TV shows — some serious, some super silly and others just bad (sorry, Russell Crowe).

We haven’t begun to hear the last of archery yet. Don’t forget, the second installment of “Hunger Games” will be released in 2013, with another to follow.

And you know there will be archery in “The Hobbit” movie, out in December. What else do you think brings down Smaug, that nasty gold-hoarding dragon? A Taser?

Staff writer Elliott Almond contributed to this story.