Saturday, February 02, 2013

My Life as a Turkey

I neglected to post about the wonderful movie showing today at 1pm at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, entitled My Life as a Turkey. I had not wanted to mention this endearing depiction of wild turkey life during the holiday season, lest it complicate enjoyment of festive dinners, after which the post became deeply buried in the "Draft" folder. If you miss today's viewing, it can be watched online here:

The film traces Joe Hutto’s remarkable experiences during the year he raised wild turkey hatchlings to adulthood.

Here are some thoughts on the movie:

As in films shown last year at the film festival--The Whale, Dolphin Boy and Buck--the recurrent theme in this movie is qualities the turkeys have that point to gaps in our own awareness and feelings. We learn not only about the animals but something new about ourselves as well. What Joe discovers, as he raises the birds and takes them on walks to forage in the oak savannas of Florida, is that they are born with a complete knowledge of the forest--what to eat, which snakes to avoid and which will do no harm. The birds help him to see the forest differently. Suddenly, whether because the birds are more perceptive or because wildlife views Joe as less of a threat when he is with a flock of turkeys, he starts noticing many snakes in a woods where he had thought they were rare. (There is no negative connotation given to snakes in the movie. In fact, the birds tend to play games with them, staying just beyond their reach.) The turkeys find each change in the woods to be a matter for serious discussion, whether it be a newly fallen branch or a cut stump with its unnaturally flat top.

Joe realizes after many months with the turkeys that they live every day fully, unlike people, who can have a tendency to dwell in the past or invest in what might be in the future, and thus miss the present. The faith a turkey must have, that the world it inhabits will dependably provide for all of its needs, is one of its necessary limitations, but also a source of joy that for people is much more difficult to experience. The movie explores the boundaries of wildness and tameness, the depths to which people can connect with another species but also the barriers. Joe essentially learns to "talk turkey", which turns out to be a very complex language with many subtle inflections that carry distinct meanings.

I've heard that Hutto's book is even better than the film. From an online interview, here's part of his answer to a question about turkey intelligence:

What are the top 3 surprises in your studies?

Top three surprises? Getting the eggs of course was the biggest surprise but at the top of the list would be the overwhelming complexity of these creatures that I encountered. I was already somewhat of a casual authority on these birds– but I found so many interesting surprises. In particular, an extraordinary intelligence characterized by true problem solving reason, and a consciousness that was undeniable, at all times conspicuous, and for me, humbling. 

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