Learning to Fly: Falconer Rusty Johnson tells his story

    On a brisk January afternoon, a man with the falcon is taking a 7-month-old hawk named Brisa Cielos – Spanish for heaven’s breeze – on a tour of the grounds of Mount Saint Alphonsus Monastery in the town of Esopus. Rusty Johnson has been training hawks here for 20 years and was recently invited by the priests to live on the property with his family.

    Perched on the banks of the Hudson, the Monastery offers a 400-acre playground for Brisa. As Johnson tells his story, the hawk caws in short, insistent rhythms from a tree branch high overhead. If he strays too far, she will fly closer to keep him within sight.

    The falconer’s ease and grace with his bird appears almost inate, but it represents hundreds of hours of trial and error. When he started, Johnson says, information for his work was not plentiful. He relied on instinct, training birds for months. There were days that felt like breakthrough days, but these were followed by days when it all vanished into the air above. “They would just sit up in a tree and stare at me and that’s the last I saw of them.”

    Brisa was a challenge initially. “When I first got her, she was a banshee,” he says. Many falconers train a bird by withholding food until they obey. Johnson prefers a strategy less punishing. Now, Brisa will almost always swoop down when he calls, with the odds close to 100 percent when he dangles a piece of raw chicken. But Johnson does not idealize the relationship; this is not the cuddly relationship between a boy and his dog. Still, he says, “She knows me, she trusts me, she’s bonded to me.”


Continental shift in thinking


    Although he sheepishly admits he sometimes engages listeners with tales of owls and pythons from lands he has not yet visited, Johnson has seen much more of the world than one might expect– especially for a young boy faced with a diagnosis of a learning disorder back in the 80s. In 1997, Johnson undertook several tours to other continents, including Africa – places like Johannesburg and the Kalahari Desert. The voyages not only enriched his lectures, but they provided a wealth of information for his first book, The Twilight of the Wild, which he self-published and sells at public appearances, as well as on his two Web sites.

    Venturing to other countries opened his eyes. As he began a tour of a shanty village in Zimbabwe, Johnson expected to feel pangs of pity for the indigenous people living under such modest conditions. But after spending time with them, he said, “I left feeling sorry for myself.” He was heading back to a country that had much material wealth, but little of the spirituality and strong community ties he has witnessed in Zimbabwe and other developing nations.

    A journey to the Peruvian part of the Amazon River in 2002 was also meant to augment Johnson’s education. But it did more; it completely transformed his life. “As soon as my boots hit the ground, I fell in love with this place,” he said.


Read here to learn more about Johnson’s travels.

Jay Blotcher’s only experience with pythons is watching Monty Python movies in the comfort of his home. He writes often for Hudson Valley Parent. See his cover story in this month’s Hudson Valley Life, our other publication.