November 2013 Review–Illumination in the Flatwoods: A Season with the Wild Turkey, by Joe Hutto

~by Michele Gregoire

These particular eggs that lie before me now represent something very important to me. Each harbors a mystery, something untamed and virtually unknown to us – an embodiment of wildness. They are the wild turkey.”

Joe Hutto, a contemporary Renaissance man, has written a book that is at once a scientific study of the wild turkey, while also and more profoundly, an investigation into the human heart and the depths of relationship that can occur with another wild species. The book was published in 1995 and is the detailed accounting of the author’s 1991 experiment in raising two clutches of wild turkeys, from incubation and imprinting to maturity. Hutto is a scientist, artist, musician, and writer whose poetic prose draws the reader into his world of discovery, almost moment by moment as experience becomes deep awareness of the complexity and intellect of the wild turkey. This book is primarily an exploration into the wonder of creation through the eyes of a scientist and the heart and mind of an artist and man of deep contemplation.

The story begins in the spring of 1991when Hutto becomes the recipient of two clutches of wild turkey eggs salvaged from nests that were about to be destroyed. He had wanted to do an imprinting experiment with the wild turkey and this opportunity presented itself so that he was able to incubate the eggs and be the ‘mother’ that each poult imprinted on upon hatching. He then raised them to maturity throughout the summer and fall. His field notes comprised the manuscript along with the attendant musings and wonder that he felt each moment with these spectacularly intelligent birds. He lived with these birds and for months the rhythm and activities of his days were that of the wild turkey. He spent every day and nearly every waking hour with the birds and truly loved them all. What resulted was a book of incredible insight and beauty, his words accompanied by the author’s drawings and photographs.

Perhaps the best way to review this book is to share some of Hutto’s revelations during his season with the wild turkey. But first, it’s important to know that this author has an inextricable draw to all living beings, from his earliest childhood. Indeed he was born with an innate love of animals and as he grew up he had a continuous succession of wild ‘pets’ living and sleeping with him. So it is only natural that this life-long love would continue to find expression in his adult life. His great respect and love for creation come through in every sentence and his strong character is pronounced in the very fiber of this text. For example, on encountering snakes, which were quite abundant during the summer of this experiment, he states, “As a matter of philosophy and respect, I never harm rattlesnakes…I have had many remarkably close run-ins with rattlesnakes and gratefully have never been harmed. I like to think it is because I have a good standing among the great serpents.”

His observations of the turkeys’ growth and development yielded many insights, as when they encountered a doe for the first time. After cautionary putts and then an approach by both the doe and the turkeys, they become indifferent and go back to the thicket where the author is. “I detected a distinct moment of recognition in the birds, as if a preexisting set of criteria defining the deer had suddenly been satisfied. With no apparent experience necessary, they identify this large creature as a benevolent neighbor.” Days later Hutto writes, while in the pen with the turkeys close around him preening and sleeping, “Every day the turkeys learn more about their environment and hone their survival skills. I try to perceive the minute details of their behavior and experience, but they are often too much for me. There is more going on with them every instant than I can possibly follow or comprehend. I am beginning to suspect that no matter how much time I spend with these birds, they will always remain a mystery to me.” He further observes that “Wild turkeys seem to have an aesthetic awareness of place and will want to spend time observing and just being in certain pleasing areas…As we approach a favorite spot, the turkeys will often run ahead, as if the place itself satisfied some need…I recognize in these places generally some subtle element that is attractive to me as well – a place to practice being.”

Hutto shares what he learns from this close association with the birds, and describes behaviors such as limbing, which consists of sitting and flying from limb to limb, periodically relaxing and preening, as recreation or precedent to a resting period during the day. Turkeys are also drawn to objects that are unusual or that contrast sharply with their surroundings, and they are particularly interested in old bones, intrigued by unusual shapes and textures. Feathers pique their curiosity, while old weathered, flat-sawn pine stumps are scrutinized yet naturally occurring stumps are not considered disturbing. He muses that “I have never kept better company or known more fulfilling companionship…We are driven by the same engine, and, in spite of our divergent morphology and intellectual approach, I find that in the most fundamental sense, our similarities are greater than our differences.”

The author made many discoveries during his life with the turkeys, observing that they are exuberant and have enormous enthusiasm for life, yet finds there is so much he does not understand. He realizes that in addition to extraordinary instinctive (genetic) understanding, wild turkeys have a remarkable ability to learn and never have to be shown anything a second time. He says they are ‘highly motivated students, and class is always in session.’ He observes their level of consciousness – their astonishing state of awareness as they contemplate and scrutinize – and finds that they seem to epitomize that word. The entire book is replete with Hutto’s observations and his thoughts as he creates relationship with these wonderful creatures, and it is a study in stunning prose. Just reading his words is pure pleasure, though he also writes of illness, predation and loss that is part of the web of life.

Re-reading this book was a particular joy and it was with much discriminative difficulty that I selected only a few quotes from the text to highlight in this review. Joe Hutto seems to have touched a place that few of us will ever come close to in this life, though I suspect St. Francis lived in that space between the species and near to what God surely had working in the Garden of Eden before the fall. Illumination in the Flatwoods will touch the heart and spirit of everyone who reads it, and I recommend this book with the greatest of fervor. You won’t be the same after spending a few hours with Joe Hutto and his season with the wild turkey, for this author has shown us ‘God in the moment’ on every page in his words and art.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

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