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On the Things You Can’t Learn from Books: My Experience at West Coast Falconry

I haven’t done much writing lately.

As my regular blog readers know, I’ve been working on my Big Fat Fantasy Series (with little concrete to show for it) for longer than I’d like to admit. When I read this quote from Pat Rothfuss’s interview with Locus, it definitely resonated with my experience:

“People talk about the trunk novel, writing 10 novels before the 11th or 12th gets published. For me it was just the one book. I worked on this one book for the same amount of time that other writers worked on 11. (In my head I always think of it as ‘‘The Book,’’ like it’s the Platonic form of the book.) So really, I sort of wrote 11 books too – it was just 11 serious different drafts of this same story, constantly refining it.

What I’ve been doing the last few weeks (in between dealing with bouts of nasty Uber-Cold and far too many Real World logistics) doesn’t even count as drafting:  I’m still in outline mode, trying to lighten the burden on my Future Self by figuring out where my story is going before I write myself into too many corners. I’ve spent most of the last 2 months scowling at my third trilogy, which was always the most loosely plotted portion of the story and which is stubbornly refusing to resolve itself into a nice tight arc the way the other two did. I’ve dreamed on more than one occasion of throwing the whole thing in a drawer and letting it simmer for a while. I’ve thought of printing out Elizabeth Bear’s refreshingly honest take on artistic burnout  and tacking it up on my wall. I’ve wondered if any of these books is ever going to see the light of day, or if I should throw in the towel and run off to become a lumberjack.

And it was deep in that mindset, two weeks ago, that I packed a bag for the weekend and drove up into Yolo County, northern California’s agricultural heartland, to a place called West Coast Falconry.

While the substance of my novels’ arc has shifted and changed in a hundred different ways over the years I’ve been working on it, one thing has stayed resolutely the same: my protagonist’s heart and soul are wrapped up with raptors. So I’ve got half a dozen falconry and raptor biology books on my research shelf, and I started working at a local wildlife rehab facility last year in part because it gave me regular opportunities to interact with raptor patients. But for years now, I’ve known that all the text and pictures in the world, and even learning how to safely restrain an injured hawk for an exam (which I’ve now done a few times), wouldn’t give me the kind of detail I needed to make my book work. I needed to see birds that were comfortable around people, and talk with people who spent their days with birds.

West Coast Falconry, run by master falconers Kate Marden and Jana Barkley, bills itself as a way for the general public to learn about raptors and the ancient sport of falconry. I first met Kate and Jana in 2012 when I went to their site for a “Falconry Experience” — the chance to watch their falcons chase the lure, and to call a Harris hawk to my arm. I walked away exhilarated, with pages of notes — but then, bit by bit, the days and the years slipped by. I got caught up in the minutiae of plot and character, of word choice and world-building, not to mention real life, and I felt my story growing stale. I needed an infusion of inspiration.

And so, after hemming and hawing about it for months, I signed up for the three-day Falconry Apprentice Seminar. This course is designed to prepare would-be falconers for taking the California apprenticeship exam, and covers everything from state regulations for obtaining and keeping raptors to building a mews (hawk enclosure), interactions with game wardens and the Department of Fish & Wildlife, trapping and training a wild bird, what to feed your bird (and how to butcher said food), and hunting etiquette. On the final day, we gathered early in the morning, with two Harris hawks, and went hunting rabbits.

While I’d spoken with Jana (a fellow author!) before signing up and gotten her reassurance that I would be welcome in the course, I knew that I wasn’t the target audience, and during the opening ice-breaker, I felt awkward. While the other students spoke confidently about wanting to hunt with a red-tail or a peregrine or an owl, or peppered the facilitators with logistical questions about  building a mews in the suburbs, the best explanation I could come up with for my presence at the table was “…so, I’m writing a book. Not a book I can tell you the plot of, really — not a book that’s close to done — but really, I promise, someday, maybe, there will be a book.”

My nagging sense of imposter-hood lasted for about an hour, as we reviewed the bureaucratic process for becoming an apprentice falconer. But once we got past paperwork and into the meat of the lectures, my doubts disappeared.

Between what we learned in the classroom and what we saw in the field, I walked away with enough material to turn into 8 single-spaced pages of notes when I got home Sunday evening. A lot of it was straight-up prepared material from the curriculum, like these tips:

  • Birds captured from the wild as first-year adults (“passage” birds) are often more pleasant to be around than those hand-raised by people, because they know that they’re birds and will not try to attack their handler for food as they would their parents.
  • The best way to check your bird’s condition is to palpate its breastbone (the keel); although raptors don’t enjoy being touched, the bird can be trained to tolerate this handling, including recognizing the word “keel” as a cue for what’s about to happen.
  • Most of the killing that happens on a hunt will be done by the falconer, not the bird; the bird’s initial attack rarely kills the game animal, and so part of the falconer’s responsibility is to make sure the game is dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible.

As you can see from these examples, the class was pretty comprehensive; in addition to the written material, we learned what it feels like when a bird lands on your glove, got some first-hand experience with operant conditioning, and gutted Coturnix quail as preparation for the hawks’ morning meal. And yet, I think the most valuable things I learned were nothing to do with the prepared curriculum at all.

Over the course of the weekend, I spent two twelve-hour days and a six-hour morning with five falconers. And as I watched them interact with their birds and listened to their stories, I felt my basic background assumptions shifting. Here are some of the myths that were dispelled for me without anyone’s having to say a word:

  • That one can be a “part-time” falconer. If my protagonist keeps a raptor and treats it well, that means he’s taking it hunting for hours at a stretch, at least every few days. I drove away from West Coast Falconry this time pondering which key scenes in my outlines could feasibly take place in a rabbit field.
  • That the glove and gauntlet worn by falconers are only necessary to avoid being “footed” (grabbed) by an angry bird — in a setting with mystical/magical ties between human and animal, the hawk would “just know” to sit lightly. After watching an excited hawk bouncing around on her falconer’s arm, with one foot slipping off the glove onto bare skin, I realized that even an innocent touch is painful. (Also, a hawk would never sit on someone’s shoulder like a parrot — the wingspan’s too large and the bird’s too flighty — and so when it travels on your person, it’s on your fist. Which makes your footprint in a crowd considerably wider).
  • That a hawk could sleep with humans in any old room without needing special accommodations for perching (more complicated than you’d think because for the vast majority of its life, a raptor’s weight is on its feet; wild raptors spend an average of 20 minutes in the air each day, and never lie down unless they’re very ill), casting (undigestable parts of its meal, vomited up some hours after eating) or its mutes (waste, which a hawk typically shoots 4-6 feet away from its body; falcons are more considerate in this regard, muting straight down, but still have the other problems).
  • That a falconer’s bird, sleeping safe in its mews every night, will live to a ripe old age: we heard several stories that made it clear these birds’ lives are far more dangerous than those of your average tame animal. In addition to mundane dangers like disease, they face threats from the game they hunt, the wild predators whose territories they cross, and the environment they race through in pursuit of their quarry. Finally, with the exception of one species, raptors aren’t social: a falconer with multiple birds must consider them all potential threats to one another.
  • That every hunt is successful. We flushed more than half a dozen rabbits in our two hours in the field, with two experienced hawks, and only caught one.
  • That anyone could successfully figure out how to train and handle one of these birds without mentorship, mystical advantages or no.

I walked away from my weekend of falconry with a far better understanding of the commitment — in time, money, love, and tears — this lifestyle requires of those who seek it, especially in any world not inclined to give its people the liberty of days at a time to go hawking. I knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that falconry isn’t a passion I have room for in my daily life, now or probably ever. But I also knew that to write the book I want to write, I will have to take steps to bring more falconers and trained birds into my days. So in the week since, I’ve taken the first steps in that direction and I plan to continue doing so.

Because while I’d never be one to dismiss the power of research (I was too long a student to do that), there are some things a book can’t teach you.

DSC03797

The author with Seabhag (she-VAK), a female Harris Hawk, at West Coast Falconry in 2012.

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