Nature is best seen through a window. Cars are nice, but televisions give a better view. The important thing is to keep a window, any window, between you and wilderness. This is my strictest maxim, a rule of comfort I put aside only once, years ago. I spend most of my life expressing shock when friends say they're going on a hike or planning to camp out.
It took two hours for Leon to convince me to accompany him on a short ride to the hills. I thought it would be safe. Leon was a good friend. Though he knew that particular day was my day to hit the mall and hang out with the girls, in the end, I still went with him. He said we'd have plenty of time and I could do both. Hah! I was ignorance personified.
Leon worked for a group of nuts who said they save peregrine falcons. He said they protect wild falcons from other nuts who shoot the birds and that his group "manipulates" falcon nests at the same time. I really liked Leon's brand new truck and had no problem riding in it, but what kind of folks drive around looking for nests to "manipulate" them?
He said they rappel down a cliff face when they spot a peregrine nest, take their eggs and replace them with fake eggs.
I was outraged. "Why?!" Leon said they had to, because their real eggs were too weak for peregrines to incubate, due to DDT. I have nothing against pesticides because I have lot against pests, but Leon talked about DDT with the passion of the obsessed. He said even the smaller males, who sometimes warm the eggs, often break the weak shells.
He showed me a short video of wild peregrines in flight. That VHS was made strictly for his group's members, but I had to admit peregrines were beautiful birds. Leon said the females were the bigger birds, with wingspans up to forty-one inches. He said when they dived for prey, mostly pigeons and other birds, they reached speeds over two-hundred miles an hour. And he said they mate for life. I was impressed. Mate for life? Great! And any bird that kills a few pigeons does the world a favor, in my opinion. There are far too many pigeons and not enough things eat them. They must taste terrible.
Anyway, once the peregrine nuts incubate fragile eggs, usually two, the handlers go to cliff face again and replace fake eggs with real chicks. That struck me as very strange. For one thing, Leon said wild nests are the biggest secret ever.
I'm just an average person and not supposed to know about them at all, but these people were literally in the nests, handling eggs and chicks. Who was to be trusted, them or me?
To find out, I went with Leon in his fancy truck. Nothing could hurt me in there. He brought huge binoculars and an impressive scope he used to watch the birds. They looked like good windows to me. I wore new jeans, a green blouse and new green flats, because Leon said I ought to "blend in" and I thought he meant with his new green truck.
It was a long ride, deep and high into the wilds. I played with the binoculars, using them backward and forward to make things look both large and very small. Then Leon parked the truck.
"Why are we stopping?" I said.
"We have to walk a little way up this country lane to see the nest," he said.
"What?" I was utterly dismayed.
I said, "There's a perfectly good view right here of trees and poison oak and stuff. Your birds will be along shortly. Why do we have to walk? No, Leon. No way."
"The birds are down this lane and I can't take my truck there."
"Your truck goes anywhere. You said so! I'm not getting out, Leon. Who do you think I am?"
"Oh, come on," he said. "The truck scares the falcons away. Don't you want to see them? It's just a short walk on a simple little country lane." And I believed him.
Leon took the binoculars and carried his precious scope with a tripod. I picked up my purse and was ready. I saw Leon's true self when I realized this country lane went uphill. After several yards advancing into wilderness, I knew I was definitely not walking. The lane turned into a steep, rocky path and I thought about going back to the truck. Leon strode ahead, wasting valuable air whistling. I followed him and hated him. My purse weighed a ton, and sharp fresh air settled alarmingly in my lungs. I wanted a cigarette. I had a stunning view of my shoes getting shredded and a lot of sharp rocks.
Leon finally stopped.
"Here we go downhill," he said. "Don't worry, Nance. There's nothing to it."
Leon was no longer my friend. I refused to say one word to him.
We went in the brush and I spoke a great deal to the gods. It was a nightmare of loose shale, rocks and snapping branches. We crawled under things and over others. I didn't see beauty there. It was woman against nature. It was war.
Leon stopped again on a steep hillside covered with trees, brush and shale.
"We're here!" he said. "Sit down. Get comfortable."
My feet already slid out from under me and I sat down very suddenly. My whole body continued to slide. I had to prop one foot against a tree and hang on with my toes just to stay in place. There wasn't one fun thing about it.
I reached for a cigarette, but Leon said I couldn't smoke. Fire hazard. I looked at him, hoping for a fatal hazard.
He looked at the sky and lowered his voice dramatically.
"I'll point out the nest to you," he said. "The falcons must be hunting. It's near twilight and they often hunt then. Just try to be still, will you? Quit fidgeting so much."
I sighed with more drama than Leon could imagine.
I watched him set up his scope and asked for the binoculars.
"Here," he said. "We have to keep our voices low or the birds won't come, okay?"
I sighed again and Leon pointed to a cliff face across a narrow canyon. I looked for a nest with the binoculars and saw nothing but rocks. TV is so much better at spotting things for you than the Leons of the world. The foot I used against the tree was beginning to cramp and I was ready to leave when Leon said, "There she is! Look up there."
Against the sunlight, I saw the silhouette of a large and beautiful bird flying very high. It had big, sharp wings and a streamlined tail. Leon said it was the female because it was larger than the male, males being the size of large crows.
The bird wheeled and called out. It sounded like "kak-kak-kak" to me and it didn't sound happy. I couldn't track it with the binoculars so I just watched her as she turned round and round on the air in that horrible place. She called out again, obviously a distress call announcing two stupid humans in her canyon.
I hissed at Leon, "You fiend," but he'd heard me say many things already and paid no attention.
He looked through the scope at the cliff face.
"Come here, Nance," he said. "Take a look through the scope. You want to see the chicks?"
He made it sound like I just had to walk to a couch. Hah. I inched over on the shale, ruining my jeans, grabbing at bushes and whatever else would keep me from sliding all the way down the hill. The mother peregrine called again.
"Leon, you idiot," I said and the idiot grinned when I was finally in position to look through the scope. The nest was clearly visible through that window.
"God, this is great!" I said and heard Leon chuckle. The nest was high in a cleft in the rocks, and Leon told me to look for a piece of white fur. That was supposedly a chick. I was glad to see it, but a person can only look at a scrap of white fur for so long. It wasn't like looking at fine mink coats or something. I refused to leave the scope, but I worried about the billion red ants I saw by my feet.
"Help?" I whispered. Leon took a can from his multi-pocketed pants and sprayed my feet and half my legs with terrible stinky gunk. I guessed I'd asked for it.
The female peregrine disappeared and I watched tiny white fur not move. I studied rocks.
It seemed like hours later when Leon hissed, "Here they are! Look, look, it's both of them! That's the male bird, the one with the kill. Look, Nancy, look! They might do a hand-off!"
He was so happy. I stopped staring through the scope and stared at the sky.
Sure enough, there were two peregrines now, one smaller than the other and holding something disgustingly bloody.
The birds seemed to play together.
They talked peregrine talk and flew up and dropped down in very nice symmetry. It was like a dance.
Then the smaller bird took the bloody mess to the nest.
"The scope!" Leon said. I held it with both hands so he couldn't take it away. It was my window.
That was a high point among lows. The dad peregrine appeared there, a lovely blur of dark feathers with light sprinkles and an opposite design on his chest. He dropped the dead thing in the nest and flew away.
The white fur became two chicks, stretching funny, half-naked wings. They ate gobs of icky stuff, sometimes playing tug of war with it. They had yellowish beaks like noses too big for them and black dots for eyes.
Though their diet was revolting, it was as good as a TV show, only no one knocked them out or measured them with awful instruments. I was pleased. Suddenly it was almost worth the trouble.
I asked Leon what a hand-off was.
"They often do it when they're courting," he said. "One bird will stoop for a kill and they'll share it in mid-air. Falcons are always happier when they're flying. They eat that way. They see a target, get above it, dive and bam, it's a meal!"
"What a hideous description," I said. So like a boy to get react that way.
"You're seeing something very few people see," Leon said. "Peregrines are on the federal endangered species list. DDT got outlawed, but we think folks still use it. We hope our work will change that, get more breeding pairs in the wild. We'll work until peregrines are fully protected forever. Aren't you glad you're here?"
I nearly was. The scope was the best window I'd ever looked through. The chicks were cute in an ugly sort of way. Their parents were gone, yet I could almost still see that beautiful mate-for-life flight and how they played together.
But the sun was low now and I really didn't want to walk that "country lane" in the dark.
"Shouldn't we go back to the truck?" I asked Leon.
He said, "You think? Maybe. But I wish I could stay for the whole hundred-day breeding season, every day. I come here a lot, but I want to see George and Natalie fly all the time. Especially Natalie. What a stunning bird!"
I looked at him. "George and Natalie?"
"The breeders, the parents." Leon even blushed and shrugged. "I named em. I like em."
"Did you name the chicks?"
"Naw, not yet. It's hard 'cause sometimes only one learns to fly. Both try, though."
I looked at the cliff and thought both chicks better make it. It was personal.
Leon looked too relaxed to recall the long hike ahead to reach his truck.
"Leon," I said. "What's in that little red cooler in your truck?"
"Oh yeah!" Leon got up. I knew that would work. "The beer!"
"Let's go, Nancy," he said. "Yeah yeah, I'll carry everything again. No! I will not carry your purse."
We hiked to the truck under extremely dangerous conditions. I hated every step and twisted an ankle, too. Leon had to let me lean on his free arm and listen to me grumble until I had to save my breath. How could I go shopping like this?
It was all Natalie's fault.
At least I like beer and once we saw his new Ford again, I fell in love with that green machine. I had my cigarette and beer inside it while Leon hung around outside, watching the evening sky and slamming two beers in the time it took me to drink one. Then he made us sit there while stars came out, waiting for his alcohol level to drop.
"Hey, I can drive you know," I said, but apparently he named his truck too, and wouldn't let me drive "Frankie Ford."
"Who's Frankie?" I asked.
"My truck!" he said, and looked at me like I was insane. What a grouch.
I was the one who missed out on my weekly trip to the mall.
Sometime later I recalled this nightmare and sort-of-maybe heaven combo when I read that peregrine falcons were no longer on the federal endangered species list. Many breeding pairs left eggs in shelters on the roofs of fifty-floor buildings and under the highest bridges around.
Then the article said their nests in the wild were so remote they're hard to find and hard to monitor, so there remains worry about those. It made me glad. I hoped they stayed hard to find.
Don't ask me where any nest in the wild is. I certainly don't know and I don't go to wilderness, not again.
Natalie taught me that the hard way. Rocky heights were hers and would never be mine.