Disclaimer: I “know” Rebecca. I’ve never met her through traditional means, only through the virtual world of the internet. But we’ve emailed each other about this and that and exchange links to our blogs and often comment on each other’s posts. However, I hope to have dinner with her some day, preferably sushi. And when we do meet, I intend to bring her a little something for Anakin, a bottle of Patron Tequila, a bag of limes, some kosher salt and the biggest bottle of Excedrin I can find.
I learned a lot reading the memoir “Lift,” by Rebecca K. O’Connor. The first thing I learned is that Rebecca is a liar. Yup. Major liar. It’s not just a “memoir” because it’s not that simple.
Okay, okay, it’s a memoir, but it delivers much,much more than that. If you open the book expecting it to read like an autobiography you will be mistaken. Nor does it really read like a typical memoir, highlighting only the high points of one’s life and excluding the crappy parts. Because Rebecca delivers more crappy parts in her life than you should reasonably expect. You aren’t going to get a glossy, sanitized version of Rebecca’s extraordinary life. Rebecca offers up the parts that were painful, pivotal, meaningful and unforgettable. Some of the passages made me wince. I see three stories here:
First is the story of Rebecca transforming herself into a Falconer through hard work, determination and many pre-dawn mornings. Despite the fact that it seems most Falconers are male and some clearly had an issue with her possessing ovaries, Rebecca persisted. She got a sponsor, a red-tailed hawk and got through two years of apprenticeship, finally ending up hunting with her Peregrine Falcon, Anakin.
The second is the back story: These are the interjected glimpses of her life as a little girl, living a fractured existence within her extended family. She lived with her parents, then just her Father and spent many years with her Grandparents. She was moved around so much I kind of lost track. All I could think was, “Good God!” I kept trying to visualize how I would have done under those circumstances. Throughout these passages, you can feel the raw, piercing honesty in the descriptions of her upbringing.
I have to hand it to her. It took a lot of guts and she must have had to conjure up a ton of courage to write the details of her life with such transparency. I mean, my life wasn’t exactly a bed of roses, but this was the life that made Rebecca triumph in a world that appears to have a tendency to dismiss women. If you know me. you know that this is something that pisses me off to no end. Naturally, it was expected that Rebecca had me completely enthralled when she wrote, “As far as I can see, this is the way of the world. Predator or prey. You choose.”
In Lift, Rebecca writes about the choices she made along the way. Some choices, she was happy with. Others were choices she had to make that were far more undesirable and made out of the necessity of survival.
One moment that stood out was when Rebecca writes about her relationship with a fellow falconer and shared details of about how she bent her life, her habits and held her tongue to keep the relationship intact. While I was reading this, I was thinking that if it were me, I would have told him to pack up his video camera, toss it into his gold Tacoma and drive far, far away.
I’ve handled a few raptors and I cannot explain the feeling of the weight of a hawk or a vulture on your glove. I came totally unglued. It made me swoon. So I understand to a degree how Rebecca feels about them.
Raptors don’t love you. If you’re lucky, and you are a very skilled handler and trainer, you can get them to trust you, respect you and accept you as a partner . What I didn’t know very much about was training a falcon to hunt.
Photo courtesy of Natural Encounters Inc.
This is the third story in Rebecca’s remarkable book. Falconry is a tricky business and not for the meek. Nature is tough, dirty and bloodthirsty. Rebecca isn’t shy about describing that either. But herein lies the difference between hunting with a falcon and any other form of death by design. On my first trip to Madrid, I had the opportunity to go to a bullfight. I sobbed. But I understood that Spain’s love affair with this spectacle is about the dance of the bullfighter. The bull is coincidental. There is no sport or art in the actual kill. I found it without soul. Without meaning. Without purpose. Personally, I found it to be a bloody circus. I can say that because I saw it first hand and have no intention of returning. What I didn’t like was that it was like watching a movie about the sinking of the Titanic. Nobody ever has to ask how it ends.
From what I’ve been able to gather, falconry is different. Falconry is teamwork, training, and skill. The one thing to remember is that falcons are built to behave this way; they need to eat and they would hunt on their own anyway. The falconer is merely the assistant, arranging the environment for the falcon to behave naturally, but adding the falconer into the equation to participate in the hunt as a partner. But Nature has its ways and Rebecca’s falcon, Anakin doesn’t always land his prey. The quarry he is after always has a shot at survival. It’s fair. It’s real. It’s how nature works.
In a bullfight, the bull doesn’t stand a chance.
I haven’t had much experience with raptors despite my admiration for them. Rebecca’s description of how she took young Anakin on and what they both learned in the process will leave you thinking about your relationships with your animals, the people in your life, and finally about life itself.
This third story is fascinating. Rebecca has woven a pretty dandy “Introduction to Falconry” manual within the pages of “Lift” as well. She describes falconry equipment, training techniques, housing, care, and even a recipe for preparing a duck she and Anakin hunted and later shared. There are terms I was unfamiliar with, and I would have liked a glossary in the back of the book, but Rebecca has thoughtfully provided one right here at her Falconry Blog, “Operation Delta Duck” to help you with those terms. Lift is a busy book with many stories neatly overlapping into one another. It’s like a Chef’s tasting menu and it also includes a bit on the history of falconry and the endangerment of the peregrine falcon.
Rebecca has a way with words that can encapsulate a truth everyone already knows. But she phrases it in such a way that it jumps off the page and rings in your ears:
“It’s dangerous to be bound to something that can break your heart.”
Perhaps what I learned most from this book was how true that is. And perhaps that is one of the greatest lessons Nature has to teach us.
May 3, 2010 at 7:47 am
Great review! I can’t wait to get this book from Amazon!
I love your blog!
May 3, 2010 at 7:53 am
Thanks Dana. You will love the book. But fasten your seat belt; it’s pretty raw. But you will finish it wanting more.
May 3, 2010 at 8:25 am
Fantastic review complimented by a fantastic book and 2 great icons in the Avian Community. Two thumbs up for Rebecca O’Connor and Lift. I’m buying my copy today.
May 4, 2010 at 6:35 am
Hi Patricia. Great job describing the book “Lift.”
As you might remember I am Vegan. The thought of reading a book about Falconry – getting a falcon to kill and shred poor innocent mice and bunny rabbits is not on my top ten list, as you might imagine.
However, your ability to enroll me in reading this book, is almost magic!
May 4, 2010 at 7:34 am
Fully aware you are a vegan, this is more about a partnership than the hunting. O’Connor doesn’t really dwell much on the kill itself; rather it is the training and artistry that are foremost in this book. You should probably read it for the training techniques she uses, more than anything. And please remember that these birds are built to eat meat. The mice and rabbits are “prey.” Nature provides the food chain from the bottom up. If these birds didn’t exist, we would be overrun with both. They are part of the balance of life. O’Connor is always respectful of her prey. When Anakin gets a duck, she always gives thanks and names the duck. She describes a mid-flight clean kill this way: “…the duck remains a piece of the sky and only its body careens to the earth.” So, is it gritty? Yes. Is it disrespectful or gory? No. It is the way of nature and understanding how it works is an integral part of this book. Rebecca explains it beautifully.