Last year, not too much earlier in the year than now, I was miserable. It’s a long story, but it’s one that’s often told—it involves love-gone-to-lies followed by a long extrication. It’s pretty standard, really.
The important thing is that I wanted to be happy. So I asked myself when exactly when was the last time that was brilliantly happy— a time that it shone through every memory. The answer was this: My first year as an apprentice falconer.
So I decided that to save myself, I would go back to my beginnings, that 20 years later I would trap a young red-tailed hawk and remember what it was like to be completely in the moment. The problem was that I picked the worst possible year to do this.
California was deep in a drought and even the red-tailed hawks, our most numerous raptors, were barely making it. When I was a kid all you had to do was throw down a trap pretty much anywhere in the open and you would have a willing participant. Last year, it took ten days before I even spotted a young red-tailed hawk.
I trapped the first passage red-tail I saw and immediately fretted about how subdued and willing it was. Hawks tame fast… like within a couple of days fast, but they are generally concerned about their change of venue for at least a minute. This hawk seemed far too happy to be in my hands.
I named him Needle, because he was a tiny little sword of a hawk. I fed him what he would eat, treated him for every disease we had treatments for and watched him fail because that wasn’t enough. I consulted with veterinarians. I did everything I could. But I didn’t trap him soon enough to save him and he died a week later.
I sat on my porch steps staring at a quarter moon, the hawk that was supposed my new beginning wrapped in a favorite t-shirt and dead in my arms. And I cried. Not for Needle, exactly. He had a good ending compared to the possibilities of the wild, but mainly I cried because despite my humanity and my resources, I couldn’t save him. If I couldn’t save a hawk, then how could I save myself?
It was then in the middle of tears that I heard a voice as clear as bell, so loud that it made me jump. The voice said calmly and not without compassion, “Grieve tomorrow. Then after that, go trapping. You’ll have a hawk within an hour. It won’t be the hawk you want, but it will be the hawk you need.”
I’m a writer. I hear voices in my head all time. It’s annoying, but not unusual. However, there have only been a couple of times in my life when I heard such an unexpected and clarion voice. I suppose it could have been the falconry gods. Who the hell knows? It also could have just been my subconscious burbling up with a shout in an effort to save me. I just knew that I had no choice but to listen.
So two days later, as instructed, I drove back out with my trap and in forty minutes I spotted Dread. He was on my trap and in my hands ten minutes later. He too was a little hawk. His tail feathers were broken and his primary feathers ragged. And he had the worst attitude of any young red-tailed hawk I’ve ever met. I was slightly terrified of him the minute he came off the trap. But I knew he wasn’t hawk I wanted, just the hawk I needed.
Our first season was brilliant in its way. I’ve never had a bird before that was so untrusting, but so willing to see my value. He was a drought hawk and had no faith in anything but a meal. I created easy meals and therefore he tolerated me. He trained fast, but not any with real trust. I was a means to survival, but in no way a friend.
So that season I learned how to face my fears. I mean… he scared me. And I learned how to accept that loss was inevitable, because he was never bound to me. And I learned that unwrapping a six-foot pissed-off gopher snake from a determined drought hawk was no small task. –Because I had to do it twice at the end of the season. Thanks, Dread. I’m over the snake thing now…
And this year, he taught me more. He came out of the moult, which is a summer vacation with all the food he could eat, a different bird. He had less food issues, more fondness for me, but the same badass attitude. And I learned that there is greater success in a hard-earned relationship than in one where you get everything up front.
But it wasn’t always rainbows and I made mistakes with him, mistakes he forgave. So I learned that even though I am unfortunately not perfect, there is always the potential for forgiveness and forward motion.
And learned to return this lesson when Dread killed Elsa, my Cooper’s hawk.
I had raised Elsa from a fuzzy awkward baby and she was much a harder project than Dread. I watched her learn to fly and hunt in my yard. I watched all 400 grams of her terrorize my 30 pound dogs. I shaped her into a huntress and she was entirely my responsibility.
Elsa woke me up in every morning at dawn, demanding the servitude I had promised. She was a constant puzzle that dominated my spare thoughts and my weekends. She was beautiful and fierce and a reflection of everything I poured into her.
Then one day in January, a year after I trapped Dread, I stared at the weathering yard where my two hawks were perched and wondered if Dread could somehow pull his perch out of the ground, drag the weight of it around the barrier between them and kill her.
I’m a supreme over-thinker. So, I dismissed this, because after 20 years of being a falconer (half of that as professional bird trainer hovering over yards full of hawks that might do damage to one another) I’d never seen anything like that happen.
Then later that day, I heard a songbird make an alarm call that put me on edge. So I jumped up to look out my kitchen window and I saw it happen. I saw exactly what I had imagined. And it happened too fast for me to stop it.
I pulled Dread off of Elsa and brought her inside. I wrapped her in a favorite t-shirt and then stood shaking in my laundry room, uncertain what to do. I stood there for a long while, but heard no voices.
Then I took a deep breath, gently set her down and grabbed some food to feed Dread.
I knew I was standing right at the ledge of despair and I knew that there wasn’t much time before I plummeted over. But I also knew that the fall was mine and mine alone.
Dread was a hawk. He didn’t know. He wasn’t the hawk I wanted. He was the hawk I needed.
After I buried Elsa and cried for a few days, I thought about releasing Dread and ending my season. I thought about quitting falconry all together. I thought about what it is that we need.
And this is what I realized…we don’t really know what we need.
And I don’t think you ever get the hawk you want.
I wanted a gigantic female red-tailed hawk, sweet and malleable, a bird that would make me look like a kickass falconer who no one could disrespect. I wanted a white-picket fence and pristine house on a sprawling piece of property. I wanted a book that was a runaway best seller. I wanted… everything.
Thing is though, I don’t think we ever get the hawk we want.
What difference does the hawk make, really? What difference does it make when all that’s really worth a damn is what you find and what keep from what you’re given? I don’t know whose voice that was in my head and I don’t know what it really meant. I just know that any hawk would have been the hawk I needed. All I had to do was embrace every moment, even the hardest most cruel moments and make them count.
That my friends, will always be the hawk I need.