Thursday, February 19, 2009


Falconers are fond of quoting the father of conservation, Aldo Leopold, when he says in his book A Sand County Almanac that, "All in all, falconry is the perfect hobby." And why shouldn't we? If such an iconic personality thought so highly of our sport then it must truly be the best thing going, right?

Indeed the words preceding the above sound bite certainly make a grand case for it:

"The most glamorous hobby I know of today is the revival of falconry. It has a few addicts in America and perhaps a dozen in England – a minority indeed. For two and a half cents one can buy and shoot a cartridge that will kill the heron whose capture by hawking required months or years of laborious training of both the hawk and the hawker. The cartridge, as a lethal agent, is a perfect product of industrial chemistry. One can write a formula for its lethal reaction. The hawk, as a lethal agent, is the perfect flower of that still utterly mysterious alchemy – evolution. No living man can, or possibly ever will, understand the instinct of predation that we share with our raptorial servant. No man-made machine can, or ever will, synthesize that perfect coordination of eye, muscle, and pinion as he stoops to his kill."

I came across these words just the other day as I was perusing yet another falconry website and was inspired to look up Leopold's words in my own copy of his book. The passage is found in a section called A Man's Leisure Time.

Here Leopold quotes Ariosto (I can only assume this is the Ariosto he refers to?) in saying,

"How miserable are the idle hours of the ignorant man"

Leopold continues,

"There are not many texts that I am able to accept as gospel truths, but this is one of them. I am willing to rise up and declare my belief that this text is literally true; true forward, true backward, true even before breakfast. The man who cannot enjoy his leisure is ignorant, though his degrees exhaust the alphabet, and the man who does enjoy his leisure is to some extent educated, though he has never seen the inside of a school.

I cannot easily imagine a greater fallacy than for one who has several hobbies to speak on the subject to those who may have none. For this implies prescription of avocation by one person for another, which is the antithesis of whatever virtue may inhere in having any at all. You do not annex a hobby, the hobby annexes you. To prescribe a hobby would be dangerously akin to prescribing a wife--with about the same probability of a happy outcome."

Try as I might to explain my passion for falconry to my wife, to instill in her that spark of excitement that I feel everytime I go out, she will never understand why I spend my free time "watching birds fly around". She will never be a falconer, to her it is a pointless activity.

Curiously it is exactly that quality (pointlessness) that raises falconry to such a high level in the eyes of Leopold! He says,

"What is a hobby anyway? Where is the line of demarcation between hobbies and ordinary normal pursuits? I have been unable to answer this question to my own satisfaction. At first blush I am tempted to conclude that a satisfactory hobby must be in large degree useless, inefficient, laborious, or irrelevant."

How many falconers quote Leopold as saying that falconry is the perfect hobby without knowing that what he means is that falconry perfectly fulfills the requirements of being useless, inefficient, laborious, and irrelevant!

Put that way falconry seems slightly less "perfect"! Nonetheless, I think I'll keep at it! :-P


Anonymous said...

That's too funny. Isn't it interesting how we pick and choose what we want to have meaning? As you show, when you look at the whole fabric, the small quote means something far different than it seems to mean.


Isaac said...


I thought it was pretty funny but Leopold still thought falconry was pretty neat. As a "hobby" falconry is perfect. But in the end it's still just a hobby. A useless, inefficent, laborious and irrelevant activity we use to entertain ourselves.

Pretty darn fun though! :-)

Jess, Dust, and Wyatt said...

This was so cool to read. You're so well writ. I find that my favorite hobbies seem useless to some people---and I just find their opinion uneducated...:) Like walking, for example, is my FAVORITE thing to do in leisure time. But even my sweetest husband thinks I'm nuts.

I love that you love falconry so much. I think it's totally cool.

Dustin said last night, "You know, I bet if Ike and I had been in the same grade, we would have been good friends." I agreed. Wish you were around more!

Doug said...

There are so few who understand the hobby-lifestyle of falconry. My wife is like yours, she appreciates it, but doesn't get it. I've decided that, that is why I blog. Someone out there has to get it.

Keep writing,
Doug's Harris' Hawk Blog

Brenda L. said...

"What is a hobby anyway?"

A hobby is small species of falcon.

Sorry! I couldn't resist. But what you write is very interesting. I am hesitant to call illustration a hobby, for example, since it is something I am so passionate about and I do not think I could live without it. However, it could be considered a 'leisure' activity by some.

Although I am not a falconer, I can definitely recognize the passion that falconers have for what they do. I know, as an artist and one who loves birds of prey, the adoration you have for raptors. The term 'hobby' seems to diminish the importance somehow.

Isaac said...

Doug, Brenda,

I wrote that post partly as a venting exercise. Too many falconers and other "hobby-ists" take what they do too seriously.

While we are passionate about our leisure time, and like Leopold I pity the person who doesn't know how to spend their leisure time, in the end anything we do that isn't for survival is just a hobby.

Despite calling it a lifestyle, despite the passion, despite 'not being able to live with out it', in all reality if it came down to it, we could.

I just think that sometimes we need to remember that and not take ourselves too seriously. Leopold says that "becoming serious is a grevious fault".

When our passion for our chosen activity begins to convince us that the way we spend our leisure time is "the only way", that the way we do things is "correct", we need to step back and remember that these hobbies are ultimately useless, inefficient, laborious, and irrelevant.

Despite the passion, it's just a hobby.

Brenda L. said...


There's a true discussion to be had about exactly that, of "anything we do that isn't for survival is just a hobby." This is where we separate ourselves as 'human' from 'animal.'

The arts, for example, are truly irrelevant when it comes to the basis of survival (food, shelter). A good example of this is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. At the very bottom are the base needs of any living creature - food, air, sleep. Above that are things like security, family, and the higher levels include emotional and mental achievements - confidence, achievement, and then finally at the top, comes things like creativity and morals.

If we simply live without any 'hobbies,' then we're simply surviving, and not living. I could survive for the rest of my life in a cubicle making $X and hour, so I could buy food, pay rent on shelter, and have a bed to sleep in. But that wouldn't be 'living' for me. That wouldn't make life, as a human, worth anything. I think for those who paint, or hunt with raptors, or hike, or fish, that what they do as 'leisure' counts very strongly as an important part of living a worthwhile life.

Food and water will only enrich a human so far. Our complex minds crave much more than that.

Isaac said...

My apologies Brenda, I did not mean to insinuate that hobbies are not important. They certainly are.

My point is that because they are just a means to enrich our own personal lives, no one else should really care how you do it. You'd be upset if someone told you that you were painting a picture wrong, correct?

Unfortunately I've run in to a few falconers here in Colorado that are very vocal in what they feel is "right" falconry. They seem to think that the way they do it is the only "right" way.

It's a problem all too prevalent in the falconry world and I just wanted to remind people that as passionate as we are about our sport, its just a hobby and they really shouldn't care how I do it.

To each their own. A hobby is for your own personal enjoyment. Just because I hunt sparrows and starlings in urban settings as opposed to jackrabbits on the open plains doesn't make it "wrong".

Does that make sense? You'd probably have to be involved in falconry politics to really understand.

Brenda L. said...


I apologize - I misunderstood before, but I understand your point now, and I agree wholeheartedly. There is no one 'right' way to do certain things that people consider 'leisure,' such as art, or as you explain, falconry.

You asked, "You'd be upset if someone told you that you were painting a picture wrong, correct?" And you're absolutely right. Especially in the world of art, there is no 'right' or 'wrong' way to create art. There are a few 'rules' once you get into more commercial venues of art, but when it comes to 'art for arts sake,' or painting simply because you wish to create something, there is no 'wrong' way to create.

I'm sure there are parallels in falconry - there are certain 'rules,' such as flying weight, and size requirements for enclosures, but it doesn't sound as if there are absolutely strict guidelines you must follow or the entire thing will fall apart. I was in fact intrigued when I first heard about urban falconry. If another falconer prefers to hunt in rural fields, then let him. To each their own. But as long as it doesn't harm the birds, I don't see any reason to restrict what you do.

Of course, I have very little knowledge, as you said, about falconry politics, so I am merely expressing my opinion from observation.