The Last Hunt
Good dogs, bad dogs, and unimpressed falcons
I’ve been on sabbatical since Christmas to focus on long dismissed home projects, writing, art, and my falconry season. My hope is to come back to work inspired by time spent in wild places and invigorated by interpreting moments in nature through art. I also hope to complete working on my book proposal for my Field Guide to Awe manuscript with my agent. I don’t how retired people do it. I feel like I had more time when I was working, but then, I never was very good at balance.
All that to say, I’ve gotten a late start on getting my hawks and dogs in the field. This weekend was the first time I had the whole team out with me and it got me thinking about the teams I’ve cherished in the past. So, I thought I would share this essay about the endless awe we experience through our deep connections to individual animals both wild and domestic. If you have a copy of Far From Fearless or have listened to the book on Audible, you’ll be familiar with this piece, but it is one of my favorites. It’s a bit longer than you usually get from me, but I hope you enjoy it.
A sliver of the Salton Sea shimmered in the distance, its fluid false promise lit behind creosote and sand. Turning off the asphalt down a gritty farm road, I passed gridlines of artichoke plants spiking toward the sun. The Musashi Family’s silvery rows of giants with their hostile leaves should have been incongruous but were desert perfect. My favorite farm pond was tucked within, free of concrete and rooted with undisturbed cattails. It beckoned to wildlife and was also an oasis for Musashi grandchildren to hook stocked bass. This pond was a favorite stop for migrating waterfowl. Pausing with the pond in view, I raised my binoculars, disappointment rising at the sight of the glassy water. It seemed to be empty, but I kept looking.
I had been home for just a few months, returning after four years defeated by a soulless job, but excited to reclaim the places where Anakin, my peregrine falcon, had grown up. Yet, when I headed east, past Indio, into Coachella, Mecca, and Thermal, most of what I found was memories. Old haunts were now dry holes or construction sites, fenced off, but in limbo. I had never seen the desert as desolate, but maybe my memories had been too lush. They often are when they are shaped by longing.
One of my last hopes had been the Musashi’s artichoke field. I pulled in expecting to be disappointed, but it was one memory that held true. This was the place I remembered, only with more waterfowl.
Sometimes ducks hold tight and unblinking, tucked in at the edges. You have to keep looking until your eyes adjust to every possibility and even as my hope waned, I kept the binoculars pointed on the water. I had promised myself this was the last pond I would consider before I turned back for home and apologized to Anakin for not getting to hunt.
Then, I saw a set of faint ripples, a barely discernible disturbance that led to a ring-billed duck skirting the reeds, its orange eye a pin light shining in its shadowed black head. Small, diving ducks, they traveled in tight skittish flocks, easily startled into flight on powerful stocky wings. One was enough to attempt a hunt, but one usually meant several. And I knew that the longer I looked, the longer I gave them to notice something amiss. I backed up the truck and then quietly got out to prepare.
Urging Anakin onto my glove, I eased him out of the back of the truck. As I unfastened his equipment, I wondered what images would flash through his still inscrutable hawkish thoughts when he recognized a haunt of past successes. I imagined a fierce falcon’s heart doubling its beat and felt the deep thump of my own working to mirror my imagination. When I slipped off his hood, the falcon craned his head, surveying the landscape, recognition widening his eyes and snapping his head to quickly take in the details of all directions.
We had caught a ringbill here the day the youngest Mushashi brother first caught me trespassing on their property. The year after, we caught a gadwall on Thanksgiving and were invited to the farm for pumpkin pie. None of the brothers were here now. The farm was still. There was no equipment poised to work the sandy soil and no white trucks patrolling the fields. We were alone to make new memories on our return hunt.
Anakin lifted from my glove, his narrow wings cutting through the air as he made a wide arc away from the pond, rising to check the water for himself. I watched him climb, ringing up until he was high enough to drop from the sky and out fly any ducks that tried to burst from the safety of the haven they could dive beneath.
While he was getting in position, I popped open Booth’s crate, releasing the orange and white Brittany to join the hunt. He shook his quivering coat into place and his composure with it, the two of us tamping down our rising haste into a veneer of calm and focus. We were two professionals embarking on the seemingly endless walk from dressing room to stage.
We clung to our manufactured calm until we reached the edge of the pond. After a quick glimpse at Anakin’s position in the sky, I unclipped Booth’s leash and the show began in a burst of speed. Booth recognized this farm too, shooting for the hole in the fence on ballet legs that added grace to his furious speed.
I yelled encouragement, waving hands to help scare ducks off the water as Booth sprinted for a splash down and a furious dog paddle. Anakin hung in the sky, a tense silhouette high above, preparing for the plunge. The three of us were each committed to our parts and pushing toward a finale with an unknown conclusion.
Then three equally eager dogs materialized, closing in on Booth with snarling menace and the hunt unraveled. These were feral dogs and the choreography abruptly shifted to battle.
I panicked, screaming and clapping, trying to get the attention of the other three dogs, all thin, unkempt mutts, but each outweighing Booth. Then I heard barking to my left and as I turned, the barking lowered into a steady growl. The dog stood with the stiffness of coiling muscles, her coyote coat raising into a brush down her back. The bitch was even larger than the other three dogs, which were now circling the pond. Booth ignored them. Nothing was going to dissuade him from his one true job, flushing ducks from the pond. I, on the other hand, was cornered.
She bared her teeth at me, and my mind stuttered for options, but I was unarmed. I blustered at her, yelling, and snarling back, waving my hands. She gave three sharp barks and stepped forward. Shit. Shit. Shit. My best option was retreat and there was nowhere to go. These dogs had no collars, they answered no master and she had eyes that pooled with malevolent ferocity. I was nothing for her to fear. I had to get back in the truck somehow.
So began a slow two-step. I took one step forward in an aggressive lunatic rage I hoped was outrageous enough to conceal my terror, and then two steps backward, closer to my truck. All I seemed to be doing was confusing her, but her curiosity with this strange dance kept her from keeping time with me. Gradually, the distance between us grew. She was smart though, and tired of this game. She bared her teeth once more and lowered her head to charge.
I shot a glance over my shoulder, weighing my options and then sprinted for the truck. I didn’t pause to gauge how close she was but knocked her sidelong with the door as I threw it open and leaped inside. She scrabbled at the barrier between us, barking manically. I hit the lock button, suddenly overwhelmed with giggles.
What was she going to do? Open the door? She wasn’t Cujo.
She gave me one more pointed bark, turned her tail to me, and without a glance back, trotted away to check on the rest of her pack at the pond.
I took a deep a breath, quelling my hysterical giggling, then I peered through my windshield. Anakin was still in the sky and I didn’t see a duck on the pond. However, Booth was still swimming, and he was fighting his way through a stand of reeds in the middle of the water, barking his intentions. That could only mean there was a coot buried in the thicket of half-submerged safety.
If he managed to flush that coot, Anakin would knock it to the ground before the clumsy waterfowl made it 20 feet from the pond. Coots were easy unfortunate prey. This wasn’t a fair fight offering a magnificent flight between two worthy adversaries. The real problem though, was that if the falcon caught it, then the dogs would have him too. Booth and I at least stood a chance to get out alive.
If I sped away from the pond and the distracted dogs, I could pull out the lure and get Anakin down a safe distance away - if I could get there before Booth flushed the coot. If I did that though, Booth would be on his own against the dogs and now that evil bitch had joined the chorus on the shore. Falcon or dog first?
I turned the key in the ignition, rolled down the window and searched for the falcon’s silhouette in the unrelenting blue. I couldn’t find him.
“Sorry, man,” I called and hit the accelerator. Then, kicking up a choking haze of dust, I hit the brakes at the opening in the fence and began yelling for Booth. His orange head turned in my direction and he snapped out of the fog he had been in, registering the threatening perimeter.
“Come on! You can make it!” I yelled, cracking open the driver’s side door. At least, I thought he could make it. He was fast and he’d been running and swimming all season. He could make it.
He swam to the side of the pond closest to me, swiveled his head considering the position of the dogs, and then bounded from the water and into a sprint. The pack were after him in two beats.
“Come on, Booth! Run! Run!” They were nose to his heels at the fence as Booth slipped through, barely slowing. The dog behind him halted, struggling through the chain link, corking the hole for a moment, and then forcing the pack to move through in a single stream.
“Come on! Come on!” Booth poured on the speed, an orange and white blur of legs barreling in my direction and not slowing for the leap. He bounced off my lap and into the passenger seat with wet and muddy slap as I slammed the door.
“Dude,” I said. “Dude!” Booth just smiled, his tongue hanging out of the side of his jaw. “Seriously, man? We were almost dog food.” I sighed and shook my head. “Let’s go get the falcon.”
I peered through the windshield but still couldn’t see Anakin in the air. He had most likely peeled off when Booth was out of the pond. He knew there were no ducks without Booth.
I pulled onto the asphalt scanning the telephone poles for the falcon, but they were all empty. I kept looking a half mile up the road. He was nowhere I could see. So, I flipped a U-turn and pulled over to get out the receiver.
It had been a while since I’d had to use it, but if there was ever a reason to fly off, that had certainly been one. I twisted the dial of the receiver on and then up to its highest setting, a persistent beep immediately blaring from the speaker even though I didn’t have the antennae open.
“Wow. It’s like he’s right here,” I said to Booth. Then my heart sank. “Oh, shit. You don’t think his transmitter fell off in the back of the truck, do you?” Booth didn’t have an answer for me, but I didn’t want one anyway. A missing falcon with no transmitter seemed an inevitable way to cap off this disaster. I turned off the receiver and then furrowed my brow. “Do you hear that?” I asked. There was a scratching sound on the roof of the cab. Then a click click click.
Booth tilted his head looking out the windshield and I caught a flutter of feathers out of the corner of eye. I turned my body to look over the steering wheel and found myself eye to eye with a peregrine falcon, glaring at me through the farm-dusted glass.
We locked eyes for a few moments, exchanging shock and irritation. We were a long-tested couple, ten years into our relationship, blaming each other for our most recent disaster, but relieved to be eye-to-eye. In that stare there was a reckoning though. Who we were and where we belonged had irrevocably changed.
I knew at the end of that hunt that this time together was over. There is so much in this world that feels like it will last forever, but it can’t.
Six months later, Anakin was accidentally released from a breeding project where he was on loan. He took to the endless sky and I truly believe my friend has spent the last seven years blissfully wild. He knew our time was over.
Three years later, Booth’s old bones ached too much to carry him into the field and when his organs were too tired to support his body, I said goodbye to him as well. He was ready and I wasn’t, but like Anakin, he had been saying his goodbyes for some time.
I think perhaps this is the true art of falconry, the trick of embracing seasons that inevitably come to a close and are never repeated, even when the season lasts a decade.
This was the last hunt, but one of the best stories I tell myself. It has adventure, feats of bravery, friendship, and love. Is it possible that some of our best stories are in the ending?
In a year when so much feels like it’s ending, I hope so. I want to think the most brilliant art imaginable is going to come out of the upheaval of the past few years. I can’t wait to hear your stories.
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