Easing my hooded peregrine onto his perch in the back of the truck, I pretend I don't see the man approaching from the east. He is moving with an intent that makes my palms sweat, despite my focus on tying the falcon's leash, despite the cool morning air. I am on farmland without permission, and the man's brisk chin-up-shoulders-back walk tells me the reservoir from which my falcon had just caught a lesser scaup is his. The duck in my vest and the protruding chest of the well-fed peregrine are evidence that we have ignored the sign that says, "No Hunting or Fishing." I am about to be kicked off my favorite field.
The man isn't smiling as he approaches. He holds up a hand when I start to apologize. "I'm Mark Draper," he says. "I lease this land." I stutter to interrupt, but he hushes me again. "I'm not going to kick you off. The guys tell me that you've been flying your bird here for three years. I just wanted to introduce myself."
"I would shake your hand, but . . ." I hold up my hands, smiling. They must look a bit like farmer's hands, imbued with earth and a touch of blood, a little too soiled for handshakes. "Thank you, Mr. Draper. There are so few places that are open enough to fly my falcon, and I love this place."
We stand for a moment to admire it, a simple sod farm in Thermal, southeast of Indio and close enough to the Salton Sea that the breeze leaves the taste of saline on your lips. There's desert to the north, and date palms to the south and
west. I sometimes stop to watch the sun rise in a rose glow through the short palms, while the Gambel's quail scuttle from their breakfast of fallen dates to the safety of the scrub. I savor the hour it takes me to get to this reservoir that irrigates the sod, because the best part of the morning is discovering what species of which waterfowl happen to be migrating through, passing to and from the Salton Sea. There is no reason for me to tell Mark Draper that this is paradise.
I live an hour away in Banning, but drive to the fringes of the Salton Sea to fly my peregrine during the falconry season, the cool months of October through February. I've been a falconer for 10 years and have watched the vast vineyards of Ontario shrink to nothing or give birth to concrete structures from their sandy soil. The flats in Hemet and Temecula have given way to suburbia as well. And the field near my house where I trained my falcon last year is now a Wal-Mart Supercenter Store. Coachella Valley is my wilderness, the only place left with enough open space to satiate the peregrine's tremendous appetite for unadulterated horizon. I just don't know how much longer the landscape will last, or where the ducks we hunt will stop for food when it's gone.
Three years ago a friend of mine took me up in his Beechcraft from the airport in Thermal. My falcon was 6 months old and stubbornly flying off on a daily basis to hunt the farmlands without me. I would track his transmitter and find him 10 miles away on a pole, hungry but still scanning the sky. I wondered what he saw that was inspiring enough to power his wings until he was too exhausted to look for a red-headed girl waving from the ground below. I imagined that the possibilities of the landscape and its bounty were buzzing in his head, too much to take in to decide where to hunt. I don't care for the bump and roar of small planes, but I had to see the falcon's view for myself.
It was astounding, this tremendous expanse of green checkerboard agriculture garishly stretching through the subdued hues of the desert. Every color change was marked by a blue pond tucked in a corner or hidden in the center of a plot of artichokes, stretch of cilantro, carrot patch or table-grape vineyard. I'd seen only a tiny portion from the ground on the days that I followed the waxing and waning signal, the bread-crumb beeps that indicated the falcon's path. From the sky I finally understood his winged excursions. I could see from above why the larks liven this land with their flashes of yellow breast, why the mallards stop to dip their heads in the sparkling water, and why the jackrabbits venture through the budding vineyards. I didn't want to come down, but like the falcon I had to land eventually.
These days my falcon rarely indulges in capricious flights across the farmland, and I'm grateful but concerned. I don't want to imagine the changing aerial view--or the implications. I don't want to wonder where the waterfowl will go when ponds become swimming pools. I would rather pretend that Mark Draper's sod farm will remain our sanctuary.
Next to the pond, Draper peers at the falcon and the Brittany puppy in the back of my truck. I explain that this is the peregrine's third season and the puppy's first. The dog swims to encourage the ducks' flight off the water, and sometimes the peregrine catches one. I tell Mark that I have to follow the falconer permit regulations, carry a duck stamp and the same license as any hunter with a shotgun. I roll my eyes in case he doesn't realize how ridiculous that is. The falcon can catch only one duck at a time, and once he has eaten his fill I take the rest home. I freeze what's left for his summer meals, when the season is over and the waterfowl have abandoned the heat of the desert for cool northern climates.
I promise Draper that I will always clean up, never walk on the sod when there's a hard frost and stay out of the farm laborers' way. He waves his hand at me, dismissing my worries. "You're welcome here. Enjoy it while it lasts."
I wish I didn't know what he meant. But he suspects that the family that owns the land he's leasing may have sold a large plot a few blocks over. The falcon and I have lost four Coachella Valley ponds in the last year. They became three housing tracts and a golf course. I know that many farmers in Thermal own their land, and that property values are rising. It won't be long until the acreage is sold to make way for more homes. Farming in California is expensive and depends on the vagaries of weather. Even those who own the land they farm would be crazy not to sell and move to where farming is more affordable.
I don't want to lose the land where my falcon flies, but I have to admit that I would buy a house in Thermal. I have to admit that as much fist-shaking as I have done at the Wal-Mart down the street, I'll shop there. It's convenient. It's close. I like progress. I love California. I just don't know where my falcon is going to hunt 10 years from now.