Last year, on December 21st, I stood in my backyard staring at my empty weathering yard.
A weathering yard, for those not familiar with falconry is a safe and enclosed area where you put your hawk or falcon during the day. They sun, bathe, relax, and think whatever strange thoughts flit through a raptor’s mind. And at my house, you can stand at the kitchen window, stare into the yard at the contented hawks and try to imagine how to daydream like a creature with wings. It is my favorite reverie.
Except that my yard had been empty for a good long while, long enough that my young Brittany had decide to dig a detonated mine field’s worth of holes in it. The yard was a disaster.
In the spring, my favorite hunting partner of ten years, a peregrine named Anakin had been accidentally released while he was on loan to a breeding project. He was so fat that he had no desire to seek out humans for food. He had no telemetry on and therefore there was no way to track him. He had no reason to do anything but convert to being a wild raptor. I’m sure he is still out there now, living the second half of his life feral and fierce. It’s a happy thought. But I wished I could see it. I missed him. I still do.
The haunted disaster of a weathering yard was only half of my emptiness though. I was still trying to get back on my feet from a serious six month relationship that had ended late summer. It was over when another woman was kind enough to inform me that I was actually the second girlfriend (well, maybe even a third of fourth girlfriend). My boyfriend and I had been planning on moving in together. I had been in love with his two boys. I had been friends with his ex-wife. And none of it had been real.
(I know. I know. Me and relationships. You’re just going to have to give me points for persistently continuing to play the lottery. I might win someday, but not if I don’t play. It’s only a dollar a ticket, after all…)
This relationship had been over for months, but the ex wouldn’t stop texting me and trying to get me back. And the other girlfriend wouldn’t stop texting to make sure I knew he wanted her back too. So I kept remembering what I had lost. I kept looking at my empty yard.
I had been trying to fill myself back up for four months with zero luck. I got work done when I could and then spent the rest of my time curled up on the couch trying not to hurt. It all seemed pointless. Birds fly away. People lie. Where do you even start again?
Looking at the yard that morning, I still didn’t know, but the sun felt good on my back and so I rifled through the garage and my found my shovel. I thought I would try to fill just one of the dog-dug holes. Just one hole and then I could go back inside and curl up on the couch again.
The first hole wasn’t hard to fill. So I filled another. Then another. And two hours later, there were no holes left. I had smoothed out the yard and it was ready to be seeded for grass.
So I went to Home Depot and got Bermuda grass seed. Since I was there already, I picked up some hardware cloth and rebar. And since I had done that, I ran into Walmart and bought a spool of monofilament fishing line. Then when the seed was spread across the yard, I sat upright on the couch and started to make a trap for a hawk.
I read how to make a bal chatri trap when I was just a kid, but I had never made one before. It’s an old falconry standard for catching first-year hawks, which are young enough to be amenable about forging a relationship with people. However, a BC is not something you can just buy at the store. Mostly, you have to borrow one from a friend or make your own.
A BC is constructed from hardware cloth with an inner chamber to safely tuck the bait, usually some wary rodent, and then an outer layer that is covered with slip knots made of monofilament. It is weighted so that a hawk cannot carry it away and balanced so that you can toss it from a car window. If you make it right it, it works like this: hawk see mouse, hawk tries to grab mouse, which turns out to be inaccessible, hawk catches feet in the slip knots, falconer has new hawk.
There is no standard design. There is no right way to build one. You just have to commit and make your own trap.
Hardware cloth is an unforgiving medium. It takes determination to bend it into shape. It requires forethought to imagine its final shape and a willingness to adjust your expectations and then rethink your plan when it refuses to shape into your imaginings. And no matter how close you nip the edges of your creation with wire cutters, what remains will find a way to tear at your skin. You will bleed.
When you get past the challenge of metal, then next you meet nylon. The monofilament is hard on your fingers. Your skin dries and cracks while you carefully tie dozens of slip knots. Your fingers ache and burn. It is all rather tedious and punishing work.
In the end though, making a trap to catch a hawk is a long meditation on hope. It is an exercise in desire.
So in the last hour of the shortest day of the year, I found myself exhausted and a bit bloodied, but staring at an unexpected day’s long effort that left me with only one last step, to find a hawk, win its trust and fill the yard again.
Now a year later there are two hawks in the yard, dozens of grand adventures, hundreds of stories, and twelve very very full months. I’m never curled on the couch unless I’m exhausted from running beneath the shadow of a hawk and across the chaparral. I’m full up.
My mom loves the story and reminds me of it often when I forget that it’s the first little step that get us to the most amazing things. That’s all we really have to do. You don’t need a direction or a plan to fix your world. You just need to pick up the shovel and start.
When I’m frustrated or feeling broken, she says to me with annoyingly appropriate frequency, “Okay, but all you really gotta do is go fill ONE hole.”