Turkey in the Straw
Joseph Bottum considers the turkeys
Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
They squabble, scrabble, and squawk. They peck at the last windfalls, out under the fruit trees, until they’re—I don’t know, drunk maybe on the hard cider of the apple mash or rendered hyperactive by some mad avian sugar rush, and then they strut through the yard, chests puffed out, spoiling for a fight. Lords of creation, proud as peacocks. Vain as blue jays. Stupid as chickens.
I can’t say why the wild turkeys claimed our yard this fall, out here in our South Dakota town. But once the temperature dropped, they came down from the forests of the Black Hills to camp beneath our leafless lilacs and browning cedars—killing the grass in a large circle on the north lawn. Maybe they thought the roots were tasty, or maybe they simply wanted a dust bath where they could lounge in the morning sun, nursing their hangovers and resting up for the day’s fights. Either way, I look out the window to see them most days: anywhere from five to a dozen turkeys, roosting in the yard.
Some afternoons a second group comes down the street to challenge them. This is prime real estate, apparently, in the dim reaches of the turkey mind. But the local flock—covey? brood? street gang?—soon drives the interlopers out. Along with any stray deer, neighborhood cat, or small child foolish enough to approach them.
That’s not what I wanted to talk about, however. I sat down to write today intending to use those turkeys as a metaphor: an elaborate figure for government, and the reelection of President Obama, and maybe the whole of political theory from Plato’s Republic to Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees.
But I just can’t do it. With stacks of unopened political mailings still on the kitchen counter (8 pro-Obama, 17 pro-Romney), I don’t have the heart. Or the mind. After months of seeing yard signs for the presidential campaign and our local congressional seat and even the county coroner’s office—after endless hours of polls and op-eds and debates—I can’t bring myself to work up the idea. Politics is dead to me. For at least another week.
Which leaves . . . where was I? Ah, yes, turkeys. Proud as peacocks. Stupid as chickens. God (runs an old line often ascribed to Otto von Bismarck) looks out for children, drunkards, and the United States of America. Turkeys, too, I imagine. If ever a species existed solely to undermine Darwin’s survival of the fittest, this is it. The nonextinction of anything so ungainly almost has to be proof of providence. Perhaps that’s why Benjamin Franklin once suggested the turkey, rather than the eagle, should be our national symbol.
Of course, he probably also had in mind the process of American elections. I mean, a symbol has to symbolize something. Anyway, I don’t remember wild turkeys hanging out on street corners when I was young. Giant commercial turkeys, sure: hard, 10- or 15-pound frozen things, like bowling balls with drumsticks, down at the grocery store before Thanksgiving. But not the wild ones half flying, half stumbling across the yard. Everyone we knew had ring-necked pheasants in the freezer, from either their own hunting or a neighbor’s. Ducks, some gamey Canadian geese, a haunch of venison. But hunted turkeys were rare to the point of exoticism.
Perhaps their return these days is due to the decline of local predators. Or the decline, anyway, of predatory instincts in the locals. My grandfather would have looked at them and thought “lunch.” Of course, he would also have listened to the sad sunrise moan of the mourning doves and wondered how they’d taste roasted in butter and served on toast. I’m not sure even the squirrels were safe, and I know the deer and rabbits were in danger.
But these days, I think hardly anyone would poach a turkey or a deer in town just to stock a larder. Not me, anyway—although the one time I tasted wild turkey at a friend’s house, it was awfully good: the game birds thinner but much more flavorful than domestic birds. Maybe it is all the fallen apples they eat.
The point, however, is that I’m not my grandfather. I lack that predator’s eye. I assume I can rely on civilization to fill the grocery stores. I can watch the deer claim the east yard and the turkeys the north, early in the mornings here at the end of autumn in a small mountain town, and not reach for my .22. There’s a political-theory metaphor there somewhere, maybe—but not today. Not till we’ve recovered from the election and burned all the political mailings in the Franklin stove against the winter chill.
Until then, I swear, I’m going to look out at the turkeys and just see turkeys.