The Hawk You Need

DreadDragonHeaderLast 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.





Our Symphony of Grief


I grew up in Southern California with a swimming pool in my backyard and an hour from the beach. When I was a kid, I was certain that everything you needed to learn about the world could be taken from the water.

So as a teenager and a woman in my early twenties, I took every opportunity I could to make it to the beach. I had body-surfed the Pacific for years and the ultimate surfing was at The Wedge. Twenty years ago, this place was word-of-mouth among surfers. Today, according to the Internet, it’s well known. There is a rock jetty at The Wedge that makes for singular waves–but they are also notoriously unpredictable.

Most days when I arrived at The Wedge, I watched an ambulance drive away a surfer. As I tugged on my winter wetsuit, I would shake my head. That was never going to be me, but I could see what had happened to “them”. Not me. Them. The best and most thrilling waves were in this place and I was a strong and fearless swimmer.

I have a crystalline memory of the day The Wedge schooled me about life. The waves were maybe six feet and predictably formed. I slipped into the curls, convinced that I was one with the heart’s blood of the world.

Then the waves shifted.

With no warning, I was swimming into a twelve-foot wave, torn between diving or trying to ride it. I went with it and found myself tossed on the crest, staring below. There was nothing but a shallow sweep of water across sand and I was about to meet it.

I hit the floor and didn’t know how to swim up. For the first time in my life, I didn’t know sky from salt water. And when the wave caught up with me, I rolled, sand abrading my cheeks and I begged to get to a place where I could breathe. Spun and disoriented, I imagined my goodbyes and then somehow fought my way accidentally to the surface.

I stumbled through the surf, back to my towel, and then stared unbelieving at the ocean. I stripped off my winter wetsuit next to my Pontiac Sunbird, drove away, and never body-surfed again.

The Wedge had betrayed me.

But looking back now I know that’s not quite right. The Wedge was inevitable. She is the ocean. The Wedge taught me everything I needed to know about grief.

I lost Elsa, my Cooper’s hawk on Wednesday. She was killed after eight months of a hard won relationship. I know that falconry is cruel, because nature is cruel. If you choose to be a falconer, you choose to eschew the laws of civilized life. I chose to be at the whim of destruction. I chose to have to face my grief.

But none of us want to face our grief. It is the ocean of life.

At first I did what we all do. I attended to the busy work of death. I found a favorite t-shirt and wrapped her small body carefully inside. I removed empty perches and bath pans and crates, not wanting to face a blank expanse in unexpected moments. I made phone calls and texted and kept talking so I could convince everyone else that I was just fine.

I pretended like there wasn’t a 12-foot wave coming, because one wants to grieve. But when the phone calls were over and there was nothing left to do, I folded into myself and couldn’t come uncurled.

Elsa was a blow, but that wasn’t why I didn’t want to face my grief. I’ve come to learn that grief is cumulative. Our life’s losses are a symphony that we conduct, every performance more rich and beautiful when we have to pick up the baton.

I own this requiem. It is the grandparents who raised me. It is my first dog. It’s my dear friend Andy. It is Morris, Needle, Bentley, Elsa, friends who have moved and broken relationships. Every little loss is in the swell of 100 instruments.

Grief is the thing that we fear the most. We want so badly to bury our grief with our dead, but our losses are as loud as the life in our blood. Our dead never stop talking. You can choose to ignore their voices, but then you have to shut out the living as well.

And if you ask me, this is far too much to lose. My symphony is not an easy listen, but god damn it’s beautiful.

I promised myself when I started these letters that I would be vulnerable and honest about failure. I told myself that I would be honest about when I got knocked down. I’m knocked down. Not because of a hawk, but because she was mine, a metaphor and a story that is over now.  But I’m going to get back up because all stories end.

My loss is small compared to some, if not most. But we all grieve the same and in this, our losses make us equal.

And how can we stand strong for those we love if we cannot believe that what we feel is what others feel? We are all of us travelling on the waves of our cumulative grief.

So I guess what I want to say is that even if I haven’t heard it, even if you don’t want to share, your symphony is a masterpiece. Loss is for the living and it is born on unpredictable waves. We are all of us surfing The Wedge. The ocean is cruel, but it’s beautiful music. Embrace the waves.


Surely You Can Get Back Down



A couple of weeks ago I found myself staring off a bluff straight down into my favorite phobia.

Dread, my red-tailed hawk came into my home late last January with beat up feathers, wild as the wind, and a nasty temperament. He saw my value pretty quickly though, and we were hunting together within a month. We have an agreement. I provided better opportunities to hunt, water when he was thirsty, a warm safe place to sleep, food when hunts went badly, and therefore he would let me tag along while I set him loose to do hawk things.

Logically, I know he has the better deal. However, I know that I get fresh air, exercise, mental challenges, and that I get to see and experience things that most people don’t even consider. Philosophically, I have a much better deal. Dread makes me a better person.  And so when we are in the field, I am completely in, no matter what. After all, I might catch a quick glimpse of something akin to magic.

Which leads to why I ended up in a precarious place with no good options on how to get down.

Dread was high up on a bluff, watching below as I tried to scare up a cottontail and potentially, his meal for the next several days. Our communication is limited to hand signals, a few agreed upon words, and a lot of trust, but we understand each other as best as two rather incongruous minds can manage. However, I know I’m not the boss of him. So when he suddenly disappeared, I realized that he had stumbled upon an agreed upon exception.

Anything involving food is an agreed up on exception.

I got out my receiver and verified via the transmitter on his tail that his was still not far from where I’d last seen him, but most likely out of sight above the rise and surely with food.

Now I had a job.

He’s in my care and therefore I needed to get to wherever he was as quickly as possible. I am his first line of defense against another more aggressive red-tailed hawk, a coyote, or anything else that might damage him and take his meal.

I didn’t even look at how steep the climb was, I just used my hands, dug in my toes and made my way up. I found him with the biggest wood rat I had ever seen. Despite my haste it was mostly eaten, but it as also fairly won. So I hopped him onto the glove with it, and let him finish, knowing our outing was over. He was too sated and pleased to continue with any more hunting.

It wasn’t the ending I wanted. I don’t enjoy killing things, but larger game is a bigger bounty and hawks need food. It would have been more ideal to have a bigger reward. It would have been more exciting to have seen the hunt. All the same, the hawk didn’t care. He was happy. I was happy for him. This was a good morning. Until looked down.

Climbing up is a lot less daunting than the realization that you somehow have to safely descend with a hawk hooded and balanced on your glove.

Let me expound on this a bit. Steep inclines take my breath away. Maybe it’s that I fell down a flight of concrete stairs when I was three years old. (No, really, I still remember it.) Or maybe it’s that I’ve watched Wesley and Princess Buttercup roll and bump down that endless hill one too many times. Whatever it is, climbing down.  No. Just no.

I shuddered and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t going to climb down that bluff.

Then I opened my eyes and looked at the view.

This wasn’t where I imagined my morning would take me. It wasn’t the hunt I was hoping for, but down below me there was a beautiful stretch of native California, swirled into motion by flocks of mourning doves and set against a winter blue sky. I stood above a Sunday morning world that was mostly still sleeping and probably not even dreaming of things this beautiful.

You got up here, didn’t you? Surely you can get down.

Standing with this gorgeous hawk sitting comfortably if not blissfully, on my glove, I remembered his first begrudging step to my glove, his first free flight. I recalled his first successful hunt. I remembered our many failed outings and our gradual friendship. I thought about the fear and hope and magic that is involved in befriending a wild hawk that would catch its own meal and happily return to your glove.

I thought about the journey up this hill. That journey was surely worth every slow and precarious step I was going to have to make to get us safely back down.

It was definitely worth it. It was worth the slow embarrassing slide on my butt and the thorns in my palm. It was worth it just like the autumn relationship that broke my heart. The finished novel on my desk that didn’t wrap up into the beautiful poetic package I wanted it to. It was worth it — just like life.

So when you accidentally climb up that precarious place representing your most revered fears, don’t forget to pause and remember how freaking awesome the climb was that got you there. You’ll get back down just fine.