Saturday, February 21, 2009
Falconry is a highly personalized sport. We each tend to identify elements that excite us, be it the otherworldly agility of a sparrowhawk, the wraith-like stoops of a peregrine or the supremely reckless crashes of a red-tail, to cultivate and refine. For me, falconry is flying golden eagles on open moorland after the enigmatic mountain hare. It continually causes me that ache in my bones and wonderful knots in my stomach. Whether from the fist or waiting-on, whether the hare flushes from your feet or is first spotted loping hundreds of yards away in the far distance, flying eagles in that windswept and beautiful place is endlessly variable. I could be confined to those hills for a lifetime, and the flights would never loose their surprise and magic. After a year of doing such things in Scotland, I now make an annual pilgrimage to the moors to continue this facet of falconry that I’ve come to love over all else.
In January, I found myself knee-deep in heather, with a hooded eagle atop my fist. It was my slip. Below walked another falconer with a male golden eagle. Further down in the valley was another friend and his enthused sprocker, which was excitedly darting amidst the heather in search of hares. The wind howled. For the time being the sun was aloft in a blue sky. Ominous clouds rolled on the horizon. As I pushed higher on the hill, to gain a sufficient height advantage in the dramatic terrain, I reached a monument. On the crest of this particular hill was a stone marking the death of a young Australian pilot. Atop a cracked stone stood a simple marker engraved with a cross. Twisted metal littered the heather around the stone. Larger pieces, clearly recognizable as aircraft parts, lay at its base. We had passed this stone many times, but I was suddenly strongly reminded of the nameless graves in western Mongolia; clay-colored rocks piled high on the utterly flat steppe. This Royal Australian Air Force pilot had been hardly older than me. Anthony Dominica Cyril La Gruta was but 23 years old when his aircraft plummeted into the ground. It gave me pause as I stopped and watched the ground below for hares.
According the Air Crash Sites Scotland website:
On 29 August 1941, the pilot, Flt Sgt A.D.C. La Gruta, was sent out to conduct a series of 'homing tests' in a Defiant aircraft. It is thought he lost control of the aircraft whilst flying in cloud. The exact reason he lost control remains unclear. The aircraft struck the ground at high speed in a very steep dive. The bulk of the aircraft ended up buried nearly 5m (16ft) underground. The MoD decided the aircraft and pilot could not be recovered.
This day I was tense, like a coiled spring in anticipation of the slip. The eagle shifted in wind, shaking his tail and rubbing his hooded head against the sun-bleached feathers of his shoulder. I recalled a female eagle, with an eagleowl plume on her back and a braceless hood, shifting similarly as a Kazakh friend explained the purpose of the gravesites to me in the empty Bayan-Olgii province. In a place of extremes, where there is either mountain or steppe, any man-made structure was eminently noticeable. The memorials were nameless, but powerful in their antiquity and isolation. It was a curious thought, that these long-dead soldiers, left in lonely lands, were now visited only by such peculiar people as eagle falconers.
Soon that flash of white fur appeared, cascading across the hillside, stark against the thick red heather. I removed the hood; immediately the eagle pushed off the glove in pursuit. With the wind at his back, a downhill course and deep rowing wingbeats, he soon attained fantastic speed. The hare made a wide turn, with the intention of heading uphill. The golden eagle banked around, still pumping hard. A hundred yards passed in what felt like the span of a few blinks. As he closed in the eagle tucked back his wings and quickly folded. Eagle and hare collided, tumbling end over end before coming to a rest. I sprinted downhill to his side, exhausted far too soon and smiling far too big. My friend with the sprocker, to whom this eagle belonged, came walking over. We crowded round as the eagle was fed the vitals and the hare tucked away in a bag around my shoulder. The eagle was soon hooded and back atop my fist. He bent to feak on my arm. It was now the other eagle falconer’s turn. Grey clouds had begun to encroach and the occasional snowflake hurled down. I was both contended and electrically alive. Those simple memorials may only be seen by quiet hunters, but they certainly give one pause.