Home for Thanksgiving

By Rebecca K. O'Connor

I dreamt of places other than Southern California this Thanksgiving, wild places where I could hunt with my falcon. I had a whole week off to do as I please, a week to loose my peregrine falcon to the sky while the dog and I ran beneath him, pushing ducks off the water so that he might catch a meal. It’s the thing I love best, but there are not many places left for hunting here.

I wanted to go to Amoroso. I wanted to go to Amarillo. I wanted to go to New Mexico. Then I stood one morning on a reservoir in my desert near the Salton Sea, warming my hands. I imagined the snow to come on the jutting horizon and couldn’t bring myself to leave home.

California is cruel to me, but I forgive her everything in her rare kindnesses. I know our relationship is waning. She leaves me a little every year and I understand she’s going ultimately going to leave nothing more than memories– dreams of open spaces and the flash of wild wings. I know this, but I can’t let her go.

I can’t seem to stop myself from wandering the desert, even though it gets harder to find a place worth flying every year. I’m drawn to the sod farm, its reservoir steaming in the surprising desert chill, a quick chat with a farmer. Like me, he counts these days as stolen. The land is leased and other plots have already been sold for housing tracts.

I’m in awe of the sparking Salton Sea, a mirage of hope rising in the southern skyline of the Musashi’s field. The Mushashis have been farming this land for decades, a fertile place for artichokes and romaine, a place now more home than the Japanese land the family left. Finding me on their property on Thanksgiving, they insisted I couldn’t leave without a cup of coffee and a slice of pumpkin pie. We tried not to talk of the price of water, the cost of last week’s hard freeze.

And there’s Artesian Acres, a duck club that’s been quietly tucked near the accidental sea since before World War II. It’s gingerly tended by men in their eighties, a water garden in the desert. The gentlemen kindly share the land with me, hoping that a young writer might sway hearts toward the protection of their strange desert wetlands. I do adore the amazingly busy stillness on an off day in the Acres. The duck club is beautiful if only for the striking smatter of pintail ducks, the regal arc of their necks bending to read my intentions. It is a place where I sometimes stop just to hear the crack of a shot, the splash of an eager Labrador. I can’t allow the falcon to fly there on shooting days but I want to hear which ducks will be immortalized in careful handwriting, added to fifty years of records in the log book, a poem of named species, lines that already read like a eulogy.

These places I’ve made my own– paying in tears, sweat and blood. Hunting with a raptor is frightening, punctuated by a small peregrine’s near death experiences, illuminated by surprise successes and heartbreaking in its losses. In short it is life. And these places belong to me because I have lived on them.

These are places that I do not get to keep. None of us get to keep them, really, and I think our sad acceptance makes us kin –us farmers, hunters and philosophers. I guess for Thanksgiving this year, I just really wanted to be with my family.

I didn’t catch a single duck Thanksgiving week. Although Booth, my Brittany spaniel, found me a hawk-wounded coot, kindly bringing it to me and laying it at my feet while I searched the crowded sky of the duck club for my overwhelmed falcon. The coot was something for the larder and it was enough. It was enough to watch a good dog and a proven falcon work the land I love. I know I should leave. I know the love affair is ending, but I can’t seem to let go. California is home.

Rebecca K. O'Connor is the author of Lift, an acclaimed memoir published by Red Hen Press. She has also published essays in South Dakota Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Los Angeles Times Magazine, West, divide, and was a Pushcart Nominee for the 2008 Prize. Her novel, Falcon's Return was a Holt Medallion Finalist for best first novel and she has published numerous reference books on the natural world. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside.

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