SD Public Television premieres O’Brien’s A Falconer’s Memoir

SD Public Television premieres O'Brien's A Falconer's Memoir It's hard country, this grassland at the foot of Bear Butte, just north of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

There's enough rain to support a vast sea of grass. Some years, there's enough to support farming. And, for a while, that kept hope alive for the homesteaders whose fields once dotted this prairie. But eventually, most gave up and moved away � leaving the prairie to the cattle, the grasses, the wildlife � and Dan O'Brien and his falcons.

A Falconer's Memoir � a lyrical study of man, nature and peregrine falcons � premieres on South Dakota Public Television at 8 p.m. CT/7 MT Monday, May 22. The show debuts nationally on PBS, and encores on SDPTV, at 8 p.m. CT/7MT Thursday, May 25.

Once, peregrine falcons nested high on Bear Butte, feasting on songbirds, ducks and other fowl. But the side-effects of agricultural chemicals used in the 1950s and 1960s, especially DDT, left many peregrines unable to reproduce and caused the eggs that were produced to have such thin shells they broke.

Eventually, like the homesteaders, the peregrines were gone.

A Falconer's Memoir follows falconer, author and environmentalist O'Brien as he dares to dream:

* Of training a merciless predator to do his bidding;

* Of scratching out a living in a land that has defeated many;

* Of returning peregrine falcons to a spiritual landmark.

O'Brien is a world-class falconer, and A Falconer's Memoir begins with his efforts to train three young falcons at his ranch near Bear Butte. One of the birds escapes; another is destined for a program elsewhere. But one, named Thelma Louise, remains under O'Brien's control. Together, O'Brien and fellow falconer Erney Hersman prepare Thelma Louise for the hunt.

As A Falconer's Memoir travels across the high plains that surround Bear Butte, O'Brien takes time to look at the human past of the land.

O'Brien is a short-story writer, essayist, novelist and author of non-fiction books; a wildlife biologist; a rancher; and a world-renowned falconer.

Nature is the star of his books, both fiction and nonfiction, his essays, and, for that matter, his life. The thread of falcons, especially the peregrine, is a constant in the fabric of his existence.

This 50-something falconer from Ohio left his heart in the Bear Butte grasslands as a boy. He returned to South Dakota in the '70s, as a teacher at The University of South Dakota and a biologist for the State of South Dakota. He bought a ranch in the shadow of Bear Butte and joined efforts to save the peregrine from extinction in the Western United States.

He describes the bittersweet journey that evolved out of one of these efforts in a well-received nonfiction book: Rites of Autumn: A Falconer's Journey Across the American West.

He published his first fiction novel, Spirit of the Hills in 1986, and followed up the next year with Eminent Domain, a collection of short stories. They were followed by Rites of Autumn in 1988, In the Center of the Nation (fiction) in 1991, Brendan Prairie (fiction) in 1996, and Equinox: Life, Love, and Birds of Prey (nonfiction) in 1997. His articles and short stories have appeared in publications ranging from the New York Times to the Michigan Quarterly Review. He has written four screenplays, one for Steven Spielberg.

As a rancher, he's got his eye on the bottom line � he raises cattle � as well as the skies. He has replanted native grasses on his land, reconstructed a wetland and has started raising buffalo.

Now, he's busy in the world of video with A Falconer's Memoir, produced by H2O Productions, which he owns along with Sam Hurst, a former NBC News producer who also raises buffalo; and Bill Harlan, award winning columnist and writer whose byline appears often in the Rapid City Journal.

Support for the program comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through the Central Educational Network, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Norwest Bank, Pioneer Bank & Trust, Stan Adelstein, The Barry Foundation and Hugh Eaton.

Details about A Falconer's Memoir and related subjects may be found at the SDPB program Web site, and at the PBS site,, which goes online May 18.

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