Monday, September 21, 2009

In Season: a Louisiana Falconer's Journal by Matt Mullenix

The top shelf above my desk holds a couple dozen books by authors who might be classified, broadly, as nature writers. More precisely, these are writers who have written beautifully about wildlife and wild places, people, and cultures. Lopez, Chatwin, Abbey , Bowden – lofty company. A bunch of excellent writers, folks whose work I admire, whose talent I envy, can’t quite make it to this shelf. While most of these top shelf books are well-known and a few have been canonized, some are tragically under-read, mostly because their small publishers can’t afford to promote them, and, on the surface, they seem to be about subjects many people would consider arcane.
For example, between books written by a certain gun nut and bibliophile known to fly gos hawks and run fast dogs in the vicinity of Magdalena, New Mexico, and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, you’ll find a thin volume about hunting with a Harris hawk in southeastern Louisiana.

Or I should say that In Season: A Louisiana Falconer’s Journal by Matt Mullenix is only in the broadest sense about hawking in Louisiana. Consider this early passage in which Matt and his three year-old twin daughters, Maggie and Briana, approach a backyard trap containing a live house sparrow that will be fed to Charlie, a Harris hawk:

“You catch a sparrow, Daddy?”

Yes, well. Look at that.

The sparrow fluttered wildly from one side of the cube to the other at our approach. West Nile Virus is rampant here, and about 10 percent of the sparrows I catch are dull, thin, and variably disoriented. No medical diagnosis, but suggestive and ominous. This one seemed quite fit.

“I want to be nice, please.”

“Me too – be nice!”

We have been through this before, albeit obliquely: Charlie has to eat; Charlie eats small birds; ergo, Daddy keeps sparrows in the freezer for Charlie’s dinner. Chicken is a bird and we all like chicken, don’t we? These are Charlie’s little chickens!

But now I was going to kill a sparrow in front of my lambs…There was panic, then guilt. This was becoming a long walk to the corner of the house.

“You going to get him, Daddy?”

Yep. Daddy is going to get him.

Matt describes the young male sparrow in his fist, “shedding heat and heartbeats into my palm,” and, with his back turned to his girls, quickly breaking its neck and hoping it wouldn’t bleed much.

He takes the still warm bird to his daughters.

“Oh! He sleepin’?”

No. He’s dead, honey.

“I be nice.”

Maggie pet the still-warm sparrow, pulling back a small gray feather with her finger. She stared at this. Briana asked to hold the sparrow. I hesitated, feeling its blood now wet between my fingers, but let her have it anyway. She said an amazing thing: “Can we feed Charlie?”

I read this one night after supper and knew that I would be up late.

As the title says, In Season is organized as a journal of a single hunting season beginning mid-August and running through February. There are fine descriptions of hunts, of course, the serious hawker’s nearly obsessive tracking of his bird’s weight, and monthly tallies of game taken. In general, I dislike score keeping, but in this case, I sense that Matt is simply giving Charlie credit and charting his trials and progress much as hunting dog nuts recall coveys pointed and game treed.

More importantly In Season tells the story of a young man’s efforts to responsibly weave his hunting into his everyday life and to be at home in his chosen place, the prairies, woods , and sloughs around Baton Rouge. With restrained, precise prose, Matt describes his struggle to balance sport, work, and family responsibility. He wants his daughters to understand and appreciate his passion and believes that the connections between falconer, hawk, land, and prey can teach important lessions, whether or not the girls ever take up falconry. He knows that his wife, Shelly, can never truly understand, yet she supports his passion and does her best to help him find time to hunt.

On my hunting nights we have show-and-tell. Daddy at the window, wet and full of seeds. The girls push their faces against the glass and want to see what Charlie caught. If there’s something left, I show them. I turn it in my hands in the light from the kitchen; point out wings and the feet and the place where Charlie ate its head.

“Oh, he ate that? That’s funny!” says Maggie

I wonder that it might be.

Shelly watches. She’s trying to be neutral, happy for the girls to ask about the birds – happy there’s a pane of glass between us.

As hunting, with the modern emphasis on destinations and equipment and the “experience of a lifetime,” becomes just another form of high-end recreation, it’s encouraging to read about a man and his hawk heading out to small fields close to home. Matt’s descriptions of his barebones, ready-to-go-at-a-moment’s notice approach made me take a look at my own hunting style to see if I couldn’t simplify and keep things a little closer to home. I haven’t quite whittled my gear down to rotting, second-hand sneakers and mud and seed-encrusted jeans, but I’m making progress. Having hunted with Matt, I can now say, with some relief, that he does resort to rubber boots on cold, wet February days.

Then there’s his friendship with Ida, a brave elderly woman who loves birds in general, hawks in particular, and riding around with Matt. I won’t spoil this part of the story with an excerpt.

I count In Season among the best outdoor/nature books I’ve read. As a regular reader of the blog Querencia, I’ve long known that Matt Mullenix is a fine writer, but I wasn’t quite prepared for In Season.

But now you are prepared. Read In Season. Trust me; you don’t have know anything about falconry. If you care about country, wild things, home, family, and friends, you’ll understand Matt Mullenix perfectly.


mdmnm said...

Great review of a really good book!

Matt Mullenix said...

To Henry: my thanks!

stevea said...

(Wow, Matt, it's hard to believe that 6 years have passed since that season!)

It's a great book, Henry, and Matt is a one-of-a-kind falconer. I have learned much from him and look forward to learning more.

I have similar views about about score-keeping in general, but only outside of falconry. Numbers are really all we have to understand how our hawks are. They can't talk to us and only show anything about their condition when things have become dire.

We can only know how they are by numbers - weight, kills, hunts, and environmental aspects that affect their performance. Subtle relationships exist amongst all of them.

Matt's numbers are impressive on the surface, even more so when you know what makes them happen. And he presents them not to tout his own ability, as considerable as it is, but as a reflection of his hawk's potentail and needs. In doing so, he also tells us how well he meets those needs.

I encourage my apprentices and friends in the sport to read it.

Charlie's got some white around his face now, but he's getting ready for another go at it.

Matt Mullenix said...

Steve thanks for those nice comments! Henry: Steve is in your neck of the woods and is at Charlie's helm now.

Eliezer M. Morgan said...

Geez, I’m playing major catch up here.

Excellent review on an excellent book!

“But now you are prepared. Read In Season. Trust me; you don’t have know anything about falconry. If you care about country, wild things, home, family, and friends, you’ll understand Matt Mullenix perfectly.”

I wish I had written that!!