Andrea Ashbaugh
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Andrea Ashbaugh

How many San Diegans live outside the bubble, on the edge of the wild world?

You’d be surprised.

My buddy Fitz camped out for the longest time in a cave in the cliffs above Black’s Beach. He wasn’t alone. Some guy with a PhD lived in the cave across the gully.

Clay, another friend, made a home for himself in a space between the rocks that form Coronado’s seawall behind Center Beach. “Most beautiful view to wake up to you can imagine,” he said. One morning, there was President Bill Clinton jogging with some Navy SEALs. I don’t think Clay got a chance to say hello.

Then there was Tom, an ex-Vietnam medic with too many nightmares to be stuck indoors. He gave up a large apartment in Spring Valley — at $2100 per month — to set up on a little island in the middle of the San Diego River, not far below Old Town, along with his old lady and a couple of herons he’d rescued as chicks, one blue, the other white. Any sound of approaching footfalls and they’d be aloft, squawking, warning Tom to skedaddle or hunker down till the intruders passed.

Then there’s Laura Stansell, whom I met one night on a South Park Walkabout. She described how a realtor friend had urged her to tear down her big rambling house, which straddles one of the area’s canyons. He explained how she could build an apartment or condo complex in its place and maximize the value of her property.

Laura looked at it differently. “I wouldn’t develop the canyon,” she said. “I love it as it is. For instance, I was sitting in the hot tub on the deck one night, and I heard crackling. A coyote walked by, about 20 feet away. We stared at each other for the longest moment. Foxes, eagles, owls — I’ve always felt it’s like living on a farm in the middle of the city, in South Park.”

A surprising number of San Diegans do choose to live and work at that interface. Here are five people who have done a deal with the wilderness gods. They’re either trying to have their suburban cake and eat it, too, or they have more guts than you or me, enough to plant their lives where that other world lays down its gauntlet. Right outside the front door.

∗ ∗ ∗

A murder of crows is making a racket a few hundred yards away.

I check my watch. It’s 7:39 in the morning. “If I had a cast of hawks, instead of just Aidan, I’d be less worried,” says Andrea Ashbaugh. A cast of hawks is a pair. A murder of crows is a flock. “And that’s a heck of a murder of crows. They’re already upset. Seeing a hawk could make them really cranky. They might attack one. Two, they’d think twice.”

This is a rumple-clouded, still-darkish, spritzing morning — the “nautical twilight,” Andrea calls it — down near the Tijuana River sloughs, where Sunset Avenue meets Saturn Boulevard, east of Imperial Beach.

Suzie’s Farm, the organic operation here, has fields cracked open by arteries of the river delta. The wanderings of these little tributaries are plainly seen through an overgrowth of trees and brambles. If Brer Rabbit had a briar patch down here, this is what it would look like.

Andrea Ashbaugh’s Harris’s hawk, Aidan, wears a hood to help him stay calm before and after a hunting session.

It’s also where Andrea and Aidan, her Harris’s hawk, plus Gossip, her Jack Russell terrier, and Sunny, her whippet, are headed now.

Andrea is one of the few genuine hunter-gatherers in San Diego County. “I live in Clairemont Mesa, in a ’60s subdivision, as suburban as you can get,” she says. “But Aidan is my escape, and my meal ticket. I haven’t bought meat in a store for three years. Aidan catches it for me.”

Meaning, I guess, that what she has been eating is an awful lot of rabbit pie. “The farm allows me to hunt their fields. In return, Aidan (the name means “rascal” in Gaelic) catches rabbits, and makes other rabbits chary about returning to those exposed baby lettuce patches for a nibble. It helps Suzie’s to stay organic and still harvest a good crop. “We’re only hunting on Suzie’s lands, not the sloughs themselves, which are protected.”

Andrea knows her subject. She graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in zoology, volunteered with the Chula Vista Nature Center. Her day job is with the San Diego Humane Society.

She reaches in to the Coroplast box with her gauntlet-protected hand and hauls out one scarily big bird. He’s gray, with rusty-red wing feathers and a yellow stripe across his hooked beak. And long, white-tipped tail feathers. Oh, and fearsome yellow talons. Andrea’s wearing one of those brown gamekeeper’s jackets with big pockets into which she might stuff dead animals and birds.

We head out across the muddy field toward the tree line, where the wild things live. “You have to learn a bunch of medieval terms to do this,” Andrea says. “The designs for the equipment — tethers, knots, styles of construction — all come from the 1500s.”

People, she says, have been falconing for maybe 4000 years. “The Babylonians have etchings. We have words like ‘tercel’ — like the Toyota; it means the male falcon — and ‘jerkin,’ ‘hoodwinked,’ ‘mews.’ All are falconing terms. Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew uses classic falconing methods.”

“The Arabs and the Japanese were considered among the premiere falconers,” Andrea says. “The English fly their birds differently, although Elizabeth the First did it essentially like us. So what we’re doing has really ancient connections.”

The most shocking moment comes when she throws this big bird in the air, no strings attached. Aidan spreads his wings. He wafts up to sit on top of a nearby power pole.

“Oh, yes, he’s free to go anytime,” Andrea says. “The in-joke is that there are two sorts of falconers: those who have lost their bird, and those who haven’t lost their bird…yet. The thing is, you’ve got to handle your bird, fly him, exercise him, groom him constantly, or he’ll become wild again. I recognize that I’m sharing my life with a wild critter. When I apprenticed, I had to get a permit to take a bird from the wild, and then that’s what I did. Went looking for a wild, red-tailed hawk. I found a juvenile in quite an urban area. Had to tempt him down, capture him, train him, fly him, and then — and here’s the thing — I released him back to the wild after two years, even though I wasn’t required to. I thought it was best for both of us. But that was hard. He was a fantastic hunter. He caught rabbits, pheasants, ducks. I taught him more than his mama would have. For a start, 75 percent of hatchlings die. And most parents only teach their young to catch rats and mice. There are about 4500 falconers like me in the U.S. We teach our juveniles to make more noble catches. Rabbits, pheasants. We give them the confidence to catch a wider variety of prey. If he migrates up to Sacramento for the summertime, as they often do, there are lots of pheasants, and with my training, he’s familiar with them. That’s good for survival. They need all their chances.”

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