On the last day with her juvenile, after two years together, Andrea cut his jesses (the leather tethers on his ankles) off. She says, “He caught a rabbit, looked at me with his hackles up. I knew he’d probably be okay. I let him go. But I think I’ve seen him in the same general area [where I caught him], ten years later. That makes me feel good.”
Why doesn’t Aidan just fly away, back to the wild, right now?
“He’s come to see me and the dogs as his partners in hunting. I mean, with the dogs’ help, this one-and-a-half pound bird has caught an 11-pound white-tailed jackrabbit. These birds realize that we’re giving them the chance and the locations to hunt food. Even if we take away what he catches, he gets some of it.”
Why does she do it?
“It’s a way of getting back into nature. I’m one who believes, if you’re going to eat, eat something that died for you, for your true needs. The way rabbits cry, I still find that awful. Hawks are never nice. They’ll eat a rabbit to death. Every animal wants to live, feels pain. I try to get to the rabbit as fast as I can and break its neck.”
She says the Suzie’s Farm rabbits she catches these days are bigger and healthier than when she started.
Could it be that by keeping them in check and killing some of them, the rabbits that are left have more to eat? Andrea won’t claim that.
In any case, rabbit scores aren’t her bottom line. She just loves living this way. But why, with all the work and walking and caring and worrying? Clearly, it’s not only for food — or to help out Suzie’s Farm — that she gets up at the crack of dawn every day. She has a fascination with these raptors, with the idea of recreating an ancient partnership with a remarkable species of hunters. “Have you ever heard the humming sound of the feathers of a peregrine falcon as it dives at 200 miles per hour, hurtling down from 1500 feet on a prey?” she asks. “Just before the explosion of pigeon feathers, there’s a whip-crack! as it flares its wings and feet right before impact. He’s actually breaking the sound barrier. These are astounding birds.”
Wow. Could this be true? Andrea points out that the crack of a bullwhip is similarly a small sonic boom: the end of the whip moves faster than the speed of sound. The falcon is certainly the fastest animal on Earth, even before he thrusts out his talons and wings to stop his power dive.
As we’re talking, and walking through the mud — probably talking too much; we’ve seen only one bobtail disappearing — Gossip and Sunny race ahead toward the tree line, the murder of crows makes a racket, darkening the sky, and Aidan has again landed, unfazed, this time on a treetop from which he can see where we’re going next.
Andrea is as grateful to be able to do this as the farm is to set Aidan hunting on 40 of their 70 acres. “Access to wild land in San Diego is shrinking at an astonishing rate,” Andrea says. “Now. The trick is to find an area where the rabbits don’t recognize us.”
∗ ∗ ∗
How can a farm on the edge of town embrace the wild creatures that want to wolf down its crops and animals?
By not getting too hung up on them. That’s what Ellie Sherman says. She’s Suzie’s Farm’s first employee, now one of its managers. Ellie embraces both the wild and its creatures as allies, not threats.
The strategy seems to work. This farm is taking off, one of the flagships of the locovore movement.
“We started with one acre in 2009,” she says. “Now, three years later, we farm 70 acres. Restaurant demand for local organic food has exploded.”
We walk with Homer, her Italian spinoni dog, alongside rows of radishes, baby greens, arugula, collard greens, and kale. We’re munching on red frill, a kind of Asian green, like mazuna, that Ellie casually plucked as she passed. I’d never heard of either of them, but Ellie says it’s okay to eat these greens straight from the plant because they’re organically grown.
Why isn’t she worried about living next to the wild lands, what with all the predators and bugs nature could unleash?
“We believe life begets life,” Ellie says. “We don’t want a fortress farm. We should worry less and farm more.” She hopes to go one step further, to actually reach out to the wild things across the river and welcome them in.
“We plan to invite a lot of these creatures. We’re trying to create what we call a ‘bug superhighway,’ so we’ll plant flowers all the way through our fields, from here to the wild lands. It’s a way to make a safe place for the type of insects we want, for them to come right out of the tree line in the river valley and into the field. We’re thinking ladybugs, predatory wasps, and beetles, because they eat other bugs. Some wasps lay their eggs inside a caterpillar, and when their eggs hatch, the baby wasps eat the caterpillar. And some wasps lay their eggs inside of the eggs of agricultural pests, including caterpillars. So the baby wasps that emerge actually feed on the host eggs. We order them from a beneficial-insect company right now, and put them in our fields, but we hope that we provide enough forage for them to keep reproducing and stay here. They’re so small, they’re hard to keep track of. But we’ve seen that the caterpillar populations have been much more under control this year than they were before we started.”
And the ladybugs? “We’ve never had to import them. They just come and help us control our aphid populations. They go crazy. You’ll see them all over.”