Saturday, April 29, 2006

storm to desert

After all these jokes about California's secret shift northward into Oregon, suddenly the spigot got turned off. It's springy near San Francisco, and summery in Modesto where we went hawking, around 80. I couldn't manage to stay out there very long. I don't handle upward temperature shifts well, and the coolness at home exacerbated the contrast.

Even though Harris hawks are native to southern deserts, they align themselves as needed to their environment. They do fine as long as it's over 15 degrees Fahrenheit. P used to live in the Sacramento area, so he's more accustomed to heat, but after living with me three years, even he was a little surprised. After about six flights he had his mouth open. He had some fabulous flights, but he kept losing them under the brush. The bunnies were dashing from bush to bush – about 25-foot runs, long enough to get him going after them, but too short to catch up before they hit cover.

There was a nice breeze going, but every time I paused, the sun burned into my scalp and inside my shirt felt like a jungle. I lasted just under an hour. The headache crept up and clamped down on my temples. P had had about fifteen or so flushes without a catch, and was starting to play stubborn accipiter again.

So we went home, air conditioner blowing over sprayed-down falconer and sprayed-down hawk. If I do this several times in the next couple weeks I'll get used to the Central Valley heat. But the first time every spring is always a rough one.

On a more pleasing note, P had a damn good flight going for a rooster pheasant the other day. I heard it crowing but because the sound was bouncing off a building, I thought it was 80 feet further north than it was (they're out of season now). P passed over the pheasant, curved away, and tried to surprise it with a quick turn-back. If I had enough wit I would have noticed the difference in the flight, that he was going after a pheasant and not a jackrabbit. If I had enough wit I would have run forward to distract the pheasant. But as I've said before, I have to work to be a decent falconer; for me it's not an intuitive skill. I was standing around admiring the wing-work, and suddenly the rooster was crapping and cackling his panic, and my poor old bird is on the ground.

But I'm always glad when he goes after birds (he also went after a hen mallard a few weeks ago, but she fought like a tornado.) He's always been more feather-oriented than fur-oriented and I never want him to stop thinking of them as valid quarry.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

microfiction: the secret of my strength

Death visited me when I was fifteen. She came to my house. She had kind eyes, and hung over my shoulder whispering words into my ear, gentle, comforting. There was really no need to remind me how beautiful she was. When it became evident that I was too afraid of her to listen, she sat at the kitchen table, sipping the iced tea I'd made, flexing one wing slowly. She'd bumped it on something, she explained. Then she set the glass on the table and left.

When I was twenty-eight, I learned that my wife of four years had found someone wealthier, sexier, and more upwardly mobile than me. Impossible, but true, I joked. After one of the many late days at work that had let my wife carry on her affair, death rode home with me. She had the same kind eyes, but looked haggard. It's what you're drinking that makes me look this way, she said. I don't like it either, I told her, but it grows scar tissue on the brain, so it's healthy. Cynthie was all I ever wanted, this is the only way I know how to forget her. Death's lips would curve up a bit at the corners then, and she would drop her eyes modestly. It's unlike her to be modest, but it makes her surprisingly pretty.

For ten months she sat beside me in the car as we crossed the bridge. Everyone does seventy minimum there. A twitch of the wheel could do it. We both knew it, and I held my chin high, not looking at her for six miles, concentrating on the acrid aftertaste of scotch. A few times, she rested her hand on my leg, and I traced my damp fingertip on the back of her hand, felt the tendon and bone under her skin. It was nice. The twists and turns along the backroads to my house are more hazardous, but I could do those in my sleep. According to Cynthie, I had done, several times.

Then I started seeing a counselor, a brusque, powerful woman a little older than me. I liked the way she could argue without raising her voice, knew when to negotiate and when to stand firm with me. She, my lawyer, and a good friend helped keep my feet on the ground, and I no longer spotted death hitching a ride at the toll booths.

Now my doctor says I'll see her in four months. To quote Moore, "You know that kind of cancer that eventually gets better? Well, that's ain't the kind I've got." But I don't fear her any more. How could I be afraid of such an longtime friend? After I spend some time seeing places I've always wanted to see, I may be calling on her, the secret of my strength.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

damnfools Humane Society

Given my age, general laziness, and troublesome knee, I've been thinking about getting a dog. It's a tough decision since the dog-to-be is guaranteed to receive plenty of punctures from a certain Harris hawk. The introductions will need the delicacy level usually reserved for North Korean disarmament.

However, wherever the dog comes from, it's not coming from the Humane Society. A couple years ago I was flying a passage red-tailed hawk: passage meaning it was caught wild, old enough to be hunting on its own, and wary of anything larger than it. Its idea of prey was mice and rats. The knee was just starting to be an occasional bother, and a flushing dog sounded appealing.

I went down to the HS and had a look. Like Goldilocks, I found dogs too big, too small, too old, too messed-up. But there was a nice, slightly hyper terrier, two years old, who seemed suitable. He'd need some work to calm his spates of hyper-ness, turn it into flushing energy. I filled out the form and one of the reps came out to talk with me.

And I made a big mistake. I told him the truth: I had a red-tailed hawk and would be training the dog to hunt with it. He gave me the dirty eyeball, and after some hemming, told me that the hawk would try to catch the dog and injure it, so he couldn't, "in good conscience," let me adopt.

This young man, who knew not one stitch about falconry, knew no facts about hawks, had probably never seen a hawk closer than 20 yards and had almost certainly never seen a redtail hunt – this utter ignoramus was telling me, with 12 years of falconry under my belt, that he knew more about hawks than I do.

I should have known better. The Humane Society wants mushy people who will lavish attention on the little people in fur coats, their four-legged babies. They shudder to think dogs might have a use beyond this. The idea of "working dog" is a horror akin to children slaving in 12 hour shifts to make Pakistani carpets. They want owners who are satisfied with a dog who will sit, heel and shake.

So, advice to falconers wanting to do the right thing by adopting – LIE. Lie through your teeth! Wear suburbanite clothes, shave well, and drive your clean family sedan without the falconry or hunting stickers. Assess the prospective dogs and choose carefully, since many have neuroses from their previous owners, and will need work to overcome. Fit your profile to match the HS's assessment and requirements. Don't mention any other animals unless the assessment says the dog needs another dog companion. Don't mention kids unless the dog likes kids.

If you do all that and get the dog, you'll be giving the HS a kick in the ass for me.