Beginners Circle ~ In Praise of Apprenticeship

Beginners Circle ~ In Praise of Apprenticeship

by Bill Oakes

My falconry apprenticeship began in 1969 when I was still in high school. My first hawk was a brancher Redtail hawk. The man who was kind enough to help me told me to find several Redtail hawk nests. Even though he knew where there were scores of them, I had to go find my own. "They are easy to spot," he said. "Just look for a big stick nest in a tall tree; the nest will be as big as a car tire."

Sounded easy enough. Sort of like how easy it probably was to make your first bal-chatri trap from the explanation in a book. It took me six months to find that first nest. Today they are easy to find. Now, I can spot one on the far side of a hill, in a fog bank, a mile away, on a moonless night, at midnight. But back then before I had ever consciously noticed one, they were nowhere to be found. They were there all the time, of course. I just did not, yet, know how to look.

Why are these thoughts from my earliest days in falconry suddenly percolating to the top of this column? Well, just recently I became an apprentice once again. Just as it is not too late, at age 50 or 60, to become a falconer, so too I decided it was not too late for me to learn a martial art.

Apprentice falconer's seem to always be doing things wrong or with much difficulty or with great awkwardness. How steady were you the first time you held a freshly trapped passage hawk on your glove? Try learning a martial art at an advanced age. Talk about awkward! The whole experience is just so incredibly humbling, so mysterious, so perplexing. Just like when an apprentice falconer starts out.

For years I was embarrassed to tell people I had not been able to find a Redtail hawk's nest in the forests of northern Illinois, even after six months of dedicated searching. Now, they seem to be everywhere. Back then the very idea of being able to do such a thing probably was most of my problem. Me? Find a wild hawk's nest? Impossible. Therefore, not expecting to see them, I did not. Today, I shake my head at ever being able to learn how to perform a certain high kick well enough or complete the complex movements of a form with grace and speed and power. Yet, my recollections about my early days in falconry convince me that I can.

The secret to learning falconry, and a martial art, is your sponsor. A good sponsor is much more than the person who signs your permit form. A good sponsor, through his or her dedication to the welfare of your hawk, is likewise dedicated to you. A good sponsor knows that a bad falconer can destroy all the good a hundred falconers do. A good sponsor remembers what it was like when they were new and inexperienced and can communicate with you in terms you can understand and employ. A good sponsor becomes a mentor, a coach, a cheerleader, and a drill sergeant.

The greatest obstacle to learning falconry is your attitude. My martial arts instructor is a small man about 65 years old. I have a hundred pounds on him, easy. Yet, I would never challenge him. He could whip my ass without a second thought. He deserves my respect for his accomplishments, his prowess, and because of his willingness to teach me what he knows. What he tells me to do, I do. Same as when I was an apprentice. When my sponsor said something, I listened. I did not argue. I did not hide. I did not go out looking for a new, easier sponsor.

So, find and commit yourself to a good sponsor. Find one you can respect and then do as they instruct you to do. Apprenticeship is not about equality. You are the novice, the beginner, the trainee. Your sponsor is the master, the teacher, the coach. Ask your dumb questions, make your mistakes, give voice to your ignorance. It is the only way to learn. Falconry, like a martial art, is not something you can learn from a book. It is a skill which is best transmitted from person to person, day after day, generation to generation. So for today, be a good apprentice. Later, when you are accomplished in the sport, offer to be someone's sponsor. Tomorrow's falconers can only be as good as today's sponsors.

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