Monday, July 23, 2007

Beyond Flights of Fancy

A repost from 2006 of this blog.

In his book Stormy Nights and Frosty Mornings,
Paul Dooley writes of going to his first field meet with a hawking club.

He had never been to such an event before and was rather apprehensive as there were a couple of 'names' present who always talked a good game. Later he learned that some of these people, particularly one of the organizers of the meet, had never flown a bird free!

When it came time to actually hunt, nobody in this hawking club wanted to fly their own winged charge at fur or feather -- it was deemed to be "too windy" by some, while another said his bird was an ounce or two over weight and another said his bird "wasn't ready yet". It was Paul -- a novice -- who flew his bird and scored on first flight.

Paul writes: "It was quite an eye opener for me that day. The problem with field meetings for these fake falconers was that there was nowhere to hide. Some of them used to turn up without their birds just to watch. Nothing wrong with that, but why pretend that you hunt a bird when you clearly don't?"

Why pretend indeed! Yet people DO, don't they? And it's not just in the world of hawking.

I mention this paragraph, in part to highlight Paul's book, but also to note that we have the same kind of people in the terrier world, and they exist in other arenas too.

In The Survival of the Bark Canoe author John McPhee writes of Henri Vaillancourt, a maker of traditional Indian birch-bark canoes. For years Vaillancourt had been building canoes based on a mixture of book learning, theory, and pure fantasy. It was only when he asked Vaillancourt to go on a canoeing trip with him that McPhee learned an eye-opening truth: Vaillancourt had never actually paddled his own creations for any distance far from home.

His canoes were beautiful to look at, but the crafts themselves represented design choices unburdened by actual field experience. In the end, McPhee's book is not really about birch bark canoes -- it's about the collision between theory and practical knowledge.

Is it much different in the terrier world?

Not from what I can see. Some people have spent years on Internet bulletin boards, but have never actually dug five feet to a critter. They still do not own a decent shovel, and still do not know what to do with a squalling raccoon at the stop-end of a dirt pipe. Their theory of terrier work is entirely unburdened by field experience. When questions are asked, they do not pay close attention to the answers since it's all romantic abstraction. The purpose of a question is not to solicit an informed answer, but to extend idle chatter. Just as Paul Dooley's fake fliers show up at a hawking meets with birds that have never left a creance, so these fake diggers show up at terrier trials and enter their "one and done" dogs in the working terrier ring.

I was reminded of this collision between reality and fantasy while reading Matt Mullenix's excellent book, In Season, A Louisiana Falconer's Journal.

Matt is not a fantasy flyer. His book is about the reality of hawking -- keeping his bird at the right weight, finding a bit of pasture that has not been mowed flat, painting a cracked talon with Crazy Glue and nail hardener, and balancing the competing interests of job, hawk, children and wife. Every flight is not a glorious thing ending in a brace of rabbits; sometimes it's a soaking rain and a footed sparrow or worse -- mere indifference from a hawk a little too heavy to focus.

With a sense of confession, Matt explains that though his Harris Hawk nails its fair share of swamp rabbits and doves, there are also lot of cotton rats. They are, for better or worse, a primary quarry in his part of the country.

I get it. It's easy to love a rat if you hawk -- just like it's easy to love bluegill and sunfish if you fly fish. Field action of any type beats fantasy and theory seven days of the week.

Matt writes of the rising tension of a group hunt, when there may be too many birds flying, and as a consequence problems can rise up and spin out of control quickly. The same thing occurs with terriers. A solo man and his dog are under no pressure, but put more than three or four dogs in the field at once, and things can move too quickly for the human to avoid real trouble. It only takes one train wreck to ruin a day.

I do not hawk, but I understand Matt because he is actually hunting and his concerns mirror mine even though we hunt different animals on different game in different parts of the country. Matt talks about a hawk's leg turning blue after a run-in with a tree and the calculated risk that two hawks, diving for the same swamp rabbit, will accidentally grip on to each other as well as the rabbit. Is their a digger that does not understand this problem? I have felt the same rising arpeggio of concern, never mind that it is played on a different stage in a slightly different key.

In a small part of the book Matt writes of a man who "has no time for falconry." In two weeks this novice had flown his young bird only once, and then when the bird was over-matched. When Matt points out that it's pretty hard to work a hawk on a weekend-only basis, the novice replies, "but that's the time I have."

Matt does not comment. He does not need to.

What the hawker wants is interesting, but it's not really part of the equation, is it? There are some things that are required in hawking, and time with the bird is clearly one of them. Mullenix does not have time for falconry either, but it does not matter; he steals the time from family and job, from sleep and rest. He feels guilty about the theft (an honest man would), but he steals it anyway. It is what you have to do if you are serious.

With hawks, it's either all the way in or all the way out.

The dog world is a bit easier, and perhaps for that reason we are surrounded by more fakes, novices, romantics and bored housewives than the people in the world of hawking. I do not know. Perhaps I am wrong. Paul Dooley suggests falconry has its share of preening pretenders too.

All I know for sure is that the hawkers are a pretty literate and interesting lot. A tip of the hat to them, and a recommendation for this book.

I close on a slightly troubling note. In the UK, some of the mounted fox hunts are attempting to exploit a loophole in the law that allows riders and packs of hounds to hunt fox with large raptors. The result is that dozens of mounted fox hunts have gone out to purchase Golden Eagles and Eagle-Owls.

This is insanity on stilts. There is no tradition of hunting fox with golden eagles and owls in the UK. Exmoor is not Kazakhstan or Mongolia, no matter how loose the immigration laws get.

Add a novice hawker to the mix, along with a rioting pack of hounds, a couple of dozen spooked horses, a large dog fox, and a few overhead power lines and roads, and you clearly have winged disaster waiting to happen. Already, I have a report that two Golden Eagles have died from the sheer stupidity of it all.

And yet, perhaps God does have a sense of humor. There may yet be a punch line to this joke.

It turns out that after being extirpated from the UK for more than 100 years, once-native Eagle Owls have mysteriously begun to show up and breed in the wild.

I have little doubt these are captive birds that have escaped and hacked themselves back into prosperity on a diet of pigeon, starling and rabbit.


Mother Nature may yet bat last, and if the stupid anti-fox hunting law is repealed (as I believe it must and will be), then a fair number of captive Golden Eagles and Eagle-Owls may be yet be hacked back to the wild.

What a glorious day that will be!


gabboon said...

Is this a rerun? Would be too creepy if I dreamed this.

PBurns said...

Yes, a re-run. Too much stuff going on to write something new, but maybe tomorrow if I can figure out how to get stuff out of my camera and into the new computer. I reposted this as it mentions 3 good books in a single post.


gabboon said...

well worth re-running.