To Be Human

Publication forthcoming in 2019 Mews News

By Matthew Vercant

It is 10:12 am and the woods are still. Snow is in the air and on the ground, drifting slowly uphill onto the nearby crest, circling round tree trunks and into hollows. It forms a smooth, unbroken sheet; trackless, stepless, shattered only by the occasional pock mark of heavier clumps falling from the branches above. It has no language, no signature, and when the sun comes from behind the clouds, it will leave no trace of its ever having been here. It is a cold day, nothing is stirring, no game; only hawk and human stir the trees and undergrowth. The wind itself, moving in the leafless limbs high above, is barely a whisper. The blanket is broken only by a few drops of blood, falling from my wool jacket sleeve, falling from my ear, my jaw and my head.

Kali, my first-year red tail, just mistook me for an appropriate perch, and is mantling eagerly over her lure. I dropped the lure only an instant ago, a gentle attempt to get her to release my head from her grasp. I feel my ear, which feels hot where it is torn, and touching it causes the blood to flow more freely. I reach around to my game bag, where I keep the first aid kit intended for my hawk. I pull out the styptic powder packets kept inside and break the end off one, shoving it awkwardly against the hole in my ear, I squeeze. I am not supposed to squeeze; it explicitly ignores the directions on the package. I am sure this violates some warranty. Perhaps my own. What the instructions do not tell you is that blowing artificial clotting agent into an open wound hurts. It’s not a 10 on a pain scale, more like a 3, but it jabs me again.

I withdraw my hand. The end of the tube is clotted shut in a combination of my blood and artificial clotting agent. I stuff it into the trash bag I carry and check on Kali; she is still eating. She looks up at me. She has no regret for the error that injured me. She will not bind to my head like this again. This is not because she hurt me, or cares, but because I will not fly her this light and hungry again, and I will never forget that this hawk has learned which zipper on my game bag contains the lure and tidbits. She has taught me today. Anyone hawking with us will be warned about zippers, but that zipper in particular. Her eagerness is a direct result of my miscommunicating, by sound, what I intended.

Today it is my blood on the snow; yesterday it was a gray squirrel. Tomorrow it may be Kali’s. This is the discipline we are engaged in, for she is a first-year red tail, and I am a second-year falconer’s apprentice. We each will learn from each other, sometimes by mistake, often with one of us bleeding. As the start of my second year’s season taught me, some days it is enough to be injured, cold and bleeding, but alive. 

*          *          *

My second year began with death. My first hawk, Shae, died 12 days off the trap to West Nile Virus. She was asymptomatic, and only by necropsies was a diagnosis made. I have tried, but I cannot describe to you, even now, months later, the scene in the mews when I found her without coming to tears. I have held my dogs as they were put down, felt their limbs go limp and soft; I have slaughtered chickens and plucked them all day, living in the stink of the process; killed and gutted small game in the woods on a warm fall day, and held a wild fox when its shattered limbs necessitated euthanasia with a rehabber I worked with. Nothing has broken me like finding her there, in the pre-dawn darkness, dead on the floor of the chamber. To carry her still-warm body into the light outside, to clip her anklets off and set her free; I had not thought a bond could be forged so deeply and so quickly to an animal so wild as a hawk.

Her death was nearly the end of me as a falconer. I had sworn when I began that if a hawk died “on my watch” it was over for me. This is not a judgement on anyone else; I have not the comfort with death my more experienced peers may. I still believe, on some level, that I control whether death slips away with the creatures in my care. I knows this is false, I know that this is the illusion of control.

I am, perhaps, supposed to tell you now, having confessed to at least two negative lessons, what I have learned from my experiences. The state of New York demands that, to advance to General, I describe my time as an apprentice falconer. Explain yourself.

I do not think I can do more than tell about hunts, about flights that ended in kills, or not as the case may be. I can describe how to wrap a hawk’s feet, how to cope its talons, how to set and monitor a trap safely; but what I cannot explain to New York or to anyone, is why I am a falconer. I cannot tell you a reason that I am still doing this. I can describe the pain of losing a hawk. I can tell you the joy of seeing a hawk set free – and for me there was real victory in a young hawk flying free again! Having learned and lived! There is joy in that. But to explain easily why, why do this. Why seek to learn and improve within a discipline where the proper execution of my skills requires the risking of the life of the animal in my care; that is not as simple a task. Why place myself in the path of feeling Shae’s demise again?

More than questions of technique, which had occupied most of my time in my first year, questions like “why do this?” occupied my mind after Shae’s death. When I meet first year falconers and pre-apprentices throughout this season, I tried to be very up front about the time commitment. The risks. The emotional and financial investments. That there was no way to know but to do. In one such conversation I described the veterinary bills my first hawk had run up slamming herself into trees and from squirrel bites to a pre-apprentice, Crystal. She said, “and yet you came back for more.” I laughed. “Perhaps I’m not that bright,” I told her. I hoped that I could say why I had returned to falconry by the end of the year. 

*          *          *

I thought my second year might be a year of revelations. Perhaps of secret techniques, by a dark robed cabal of old people, yet unrevealed. Of secrets I had not yet discovered in falconry texts. Perhaps of self-knowledge, of explanation; can I do this? Should I do this? Why do this? Would I still want to do it in a second season?

So, in the summer I read, and I cleaned the mews, and refurbished it. I gutted the walls and reinsulated parts. I redid some of the lights. I tried braiding jesses. I studied making hoods but failed to finish one. I built, rigged, and abandoned a goshawk trap as too dangerous for the birds it might ensnare. I walked the ridges and hills I thought I might trap on. I drove the back-country roads in high summer and examined farmers’ fields for red-tails, watching the tree line for the tell-tale white flash of a breast, or the glint of red from a tail. I learned where the hawks hid in their nests, and I monitored two nests, keeping their locations secret from everyone whom might creep too close for a look and disturb them. I learned the movement of cottontails in the brush and burrow, and watched as gray squirrels nested, fed and eventually as their young made their way to the base of the tree, playing and chasing.

One morning I saw a red squirrel taken square off with one of the red-tails on my farm’s pasture trees. High in the great black walnut the red tail took a perch, having missed the squirrel moments before. There it settled, between the red and her nest, and they looked at one another, separated by only a few feet of gravity and bark. Then the squirrel moved, turned and made the leap for the nearby tree branches, missed and was briefly airborne. It was all the red tail needed. They reached the ground simultaneously; perhaps colliding a few inches above it, where the tall grass obscured my vision. There was no sound.

The next day I walked the pasture line alone in the evening. The sun was setting over the hills around our property, painting the clouds purple and red. Near the tree where the squirrel had lived her last seconds was an old farm well, long ago capped. Nearby, the black walnut, grown up through a tractor tire. And there, seated on the tire, eating a black walnut, was a red squirrel. He a quarter the size of the one I had seen the day before. He clutched the nut, hard won by his bravery at leaving the nest. I supposed this might be one of his first forays to the ground; his nose was blunted and not fully developed, and he stared at me without changing his posture. He chewed his nut and I walked toward him, barely changing my pace. When I was merely a step away, I stopped, unbelieving that he had not moved, and knelt in the grass. His small black eyes met mine, and for an instant I could hear and feel nothing else. Then his tail began to twitch. Infinitesimally at first, then faster, and faster, a warning rhythm somehow engrained in him, though he could have been out of the nest no more than a few days. He dropped his prize and scaled the walnut tree to about knee height. There he let out the smallest, experimental chirp. Determining me to be a threat, he warned me off his nest. Then he circled the tree once and was gone.

*          *          *

If there is any great moral for me to discover in falconry, perhaps it is this; to be a falconer is to feel the most human I have ever felt. I felt it the first moment a hawk sat on my glove, a quickening in my pulse. When she first looked at me, and there passed a spark of understanding between us. I knew the instant I saw a hawk on a trap I had set, that there was no turning back. The whisper of wind pushing back on my cheek at the first successful flight to the glove was irrevocable. And the moment, at free flight, where each hawk decides to stay and take the easy meal, to become a falconry bird. At that moment, each time, I am becoming again, and again, and again, a falconer.

When I released my first hawk, Gale, I thought perhaps that is it. Perhaps I will not want to take another. This discipline is tremendous effort. Every morning, every day. Put the hawk first. Don’t leave a difficult raptor too soon; be sure it isn’t you failing. Fail anyway. Learn from the error. Talk to other falconers. Learn from their errors. Do it wrong again. A lifestyle some call it, a madness others say, a sport some colloquially have it. Maybe I will begin to see it as a truly mad sport, I thought, as my first season wound down. I had released my first hawk, perhaps I would feel nothing in the fall. And then trapping season began again, and I was there, each moment etched in my memory forever. Trucks and cards of falconers and equipment, eating lunch on the road and swapping stories. Bringing friends and family and pre-apprentices along to help set traps. The sprint from the truck to the BC on a country roadside, sun high overhead.

I am not always the best at understanding other people; I do not always see how they will respond to things I say or do until it happens. Sometimes this leads me to insult them, mistakenly, or perhaps become confused about what they mean, or anger them by mistake, or not see that how I approach a subject is perhaps too intense, too mad, even to explain to myself. Sometimes I joke I have no species recognition with my own kind.

Falconry is no exception to these personality flaws.But when I am in the woods, all the pain of a hawk dying, the confusion socially, the sharpness of an ear pierced in 20-degree weather, the pressures of work, the press of modern living, all that gets pressurized down to the knife-point of the hawk’s flight. Her flights cut through the nonsense. At those moments, I get the sense that there is something, barely visible, more felt than seen or understood, a truth moving with the wind; what it is to be human. And then as soon as I’ve had that feeling, the feeling of knowing, it is gone. Knowledge vanishes into the leaves as easily as a cottontail in briars. I am left holding a hawk on the glove, with the sense that the answer is still there, watching me in the weeds. Holding still. Waiting for me to return and ask the right question.

2 thoughts on “To Be Human”

  1. I have just read all of your Falconry articles and appreciate your views as an Apprentice. I can’t wait to get started.

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