For someone who often longs to fit in and be left alone, I sure have a strange way of showing it.
It all started in the overgrown fields of Inkster, Mich., in the 1970s. Summers of organized butterfly hunts with friends led to a lifelong passion for critters and a love of the great outdoors.
That turned into a career and hobbies that make me a little different from what many people think of as your typical black woman. My undergraduate degree is in fisheries and wildlife. I’m a former fisheries biologist, certified scuba diver, keeper and breeder of tropical fish, manufacturer of an organic plant food made from fish-hatchery wastes called Fish it and, oh yeah, a master falconer. Falconry—using trained birds of prey to hunt small game—is often called the sport of kings. But while few of its enthusiasts these days are royalty, my race and gender, nonetheless, make me stand out among them.
I blame my mother and father equally for my embrace of this unusual pastime. My father is a lifelong hunter, fly fisherman and taxidermist. I didn’t stand a chance. While most girls were playing with dolls, I was catching turtles on Ford’s Dam in Ypsilanti, Mich. My mother was a stay-at-home phenom, who made taking care of a home and raising two children (including one with severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) look easy.
Yup, I’m a product of the much-applauded nuclear family—we even had the dog. Mom never wasted a chance to teach me life lessons on being a free thinker and living a life by the standards I set. As a result, I’ve been cursed with individuality, leading to many side-eyes from blacks and whites alike and a more-than-occasional, “Where are you from?”
I was a 24-year-old fisheries biologist working for the state of Florida when falconry entered the picture. A biologist in the next office had an American kestrel, the smallest of the falcons. After asking a million questions, I learned she was a master falconer, meaning she climbed through the ranks in falconry from apprentice to general to master class. It was a conversation that changed my life.
Over the next few months, I would read everything I could about falconry and eventually attended a meet. I tagged along with falconers who manned a variety of birds from red-tailed hawks to Harris hawks to goshawks. Nine months later, I’d passed the required state exam, had been inspected by Florida’s game and fish authorities, and waited, not so patiently, for trapping season to arrive so I could get my first bird. On that day, my sponsor (falconry mentor) and I placed a trap near some railroad tracks, and within 20 minutes, I looked into the eyes I would never forget. He was 940 grams of pure defiance and I named him Nietzsche.
Three weeks later, I walked through a cow pasture with my sponsor when Nietzsche bolted off my gloved hand and killed a marsh rabbit. It would be the first of many victories in a not-so-long, yet memorable relationship. Nietzsche died at 7 years of age from West Nile virus.
Over the years, the demands of a new career in mortgage underwriting and disappointments at public falconry events (most likely fueled by lack of diversity) would take away my love of falconry. At the very first meet with Nietzsche, I was stared at, whispered about and finally denied the opportunity to fly him in the field. I tried attending another event after moving to another state, with the same outcome. As a result, my second bird, Zen, which I owned for 14 years, would never see the hunting success or bond and partnership I had with Nietzsche.
It’s possible my struggle to connect with him had something to do with the fact that I was somewhat embarrassed about my hobby and hadn’t fully embraced it. I was prone to depressive episodes, often avoiding people for days at a time. It became difficult to get out of bed, let alone take my bird out hunting. There were even several years where I didn’t admit to being a falconer, which made me more self-conscious about being seen with Zen. I had become disillusioned by comments making sweeping generalizations about what black women do and don’t do—as if we’re all the same.