Illumination in the Flatwoods

THE BOOK: Since we moved to our new home almost a year ago, I have developed an interest in the behavior of wild turkeys. We’ve named our property “Turkey HIll” because of the frequent visitation by a gang of turkeys that forage in our neighborhood. I’ve done some research online and found a bit of very clinical information about the birds: like the names of the different types of vocalizations they make, their home range (generally 370 to 1360 acres), and that turkeys will “rubberneck” when they’ve spotted you, by stretching up their necks and staring at you. But I wanted to know what people who’ve studied turkey behavior up close had to say. I couldn’t have found a better book than this one!

Joe Hutto is a naturalist whose story of raising turkeys was depicted on a show in the PBS series, “Nature.” He has also used the method of “imprinting” to study mule deer as documented in his book, Touching the Wild. In this book, he almost becomes a turkey as he develops a great fondness for his “gang.” His story begins when a neighbor left a bowl of turkey eggs on his front steps. Hutto had to scramble to borrow an incubator from another neighbor to quickly get the eggs warm. He had no idea how old the eggs were so he had to guestimate when certain behaviors on his part should stop, so that hatching could proceed. Joe spent a lot of time with the eggs, talking to them and making turkey sounds so that they would, hopefully recognize him when they hatched. After they hatched, he, literally lived with them, letting them climb all over him, rest in his cupped hands, and later, roost and forage with them. The tone of the book is reverential, as Hutto communes with his natural surroundings in the Flatwoods of the northern part of Florida near the Apalachicola National Forest. The only criticism of the book I have is that Hutto is fond of poisonous snakes. Snakes! If there is one thing in the universe I hate, it’s snakes. Consequently, I took no notes about the rattlers and coral snakes, etc. that get frequent mention in these pages. But I wrote lots of notes about the turkeys. They have strong opinions about color. They loved Joe’s blue shirt, but tried to peck a brown one off him. There is humor here, too: “The old anthropocentric notion that human beings somehow are distinctly removed from the rest of the animal kingdom was a poorly conceived vessel that will no longer float.”

The title of the book comes from a Joseph Campbell quote, “Illumination is the recognition of the radiance of one eternity through all things.” It saddened me to learn that I’m never going to experience illumiation because you have to release yourself completely from desiring the goods of this world and fearing their loss. I like my stuff too much! I think the closest I can get to illumination happened a couple of days ago when I observed a (redtailed ) hawk soaring high above me at the end of the day when then light is exceptionally luminous. Every time he flew toward me, the sun lit up his chest and made him glow like a god, and left me with a twinge in my chest that made my heart grow lighter and brought a tear to my eye.

THE BEAUTY: Baby anything is beautiful. But these turkey poults intuitively know stuff about being a turkey at a very young age, and they’re SO VERY CUTE!

THE FOOD: Joe Hutto foraged with the birds every day, and found that his food distracted them to a degree that interfered with their eating, so he learned to eat what they were eating- except for the insects: the beetles, grasshoppers and larvae. So Joe ate the berries that the turkeys ate and brought the occasional apple with him that didn’t distract the “gang.” The turkeys especially liked gallberries. When I googled gallberries, somehow I wound up at the website of Classic City Bee Company in Athens, Georgia where they package gallberry honey. It is delicious, and as a fan of the wildflower honey that my neighbor sells (tastes like flowers!), I consider myself something of a honey connoisseur. The gallberry honey doesn’t go into my daily smoothies, no, no. This honey is savored on a spoon, directly from the jar. It is really something something special.

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