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"My Life As a Turkey": "It Does No Harm to the Romance of the Sunset to Know a Little Bit about It"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | November 28, 2012 | Comments ()


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When I first moved east of the Rockies, I just about had an aneurysm over the wild turkeys wandering around my apartment complex. I took pictures of them playing with the squirrels. I posted them on Facebook. And every person I excitedly told about my turkeys responded with the same indifference. Apparently wild turkeys were about as common as chipmunks in the eastern half of the country, and not worth the excitement I invested in them.

And then a few years later in a seemingly unrelated development, I stumbled upon the fact that PBS's website has several hundred episodes of "Nature" and "Nova" available for free streaming, so long as you have a red, white, and blue IP address. I almost sent an extra check to the IRS out of sheer appreciation that my tax dollars are making hours of Neil deGrasse Tyson's sonorous voice available on demand. The man's a national treasure, I think we're all in agreement there.

The only thing that could keep me from trolling that vast archive for more Tyson was an episode of "Nature" called "My Life As a Turkey." Viewing of such a title was mandatory, but I was not prepared for just how fantastic of a story it would be. I expected it to be of passing interest, a glance into the world of an animal I knew little about, and was instead blindsided by a story of such bitter-sweetness as to make you want nothing more than to disappear into the woods for a year.

Joe Hutto took in a clutch of a couple dozen wild turkey eggs, incubated them, and then raised the birds until adulthood after they imprinted on him as their mother. The story is not so much a vehicle for teaching you all about the wild turkeys, so much as forcing an acknowledgement that there is an invisible world that we are not privy to. Or rather, that there are infinite invisible worlds overlaid with our familiar one, that we never see because we are not gifted with the appropriate frame of reference. That's not to say that it is magical, or some superior frame, but simply that it is not our frame, anymore than Hutto's turkeys can see the world the way that we do. I recall an anecdote of Isaac Newton from Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, in which Newton inserts metal rods into his eye sockets in order to squeeze his eyeballs in order to understand how the eyes themselves dictate how we see the world.

There's a danger in science of anthropomorphizing that which we study, of projecting our own perspective upon the very things that we are trying to understand. It's particularly pronounced in biological studies, a very real rift between those who would live with the chimps and those who would watch them through telescopic lenses. It's an argument that never can be dismissed entirely because both sides are right in their own ways.

Those who argue for the distant lenses of noninterference are correct in their macroscopic riffing on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: measurement affects that which we measure. And so they set up their cameras in hidden blinds and upon distant hillocks in order to not taint that which they measure. But such a perspective is not sufficient to understanding, but only to seeing.

It is only through interaction, through experience, that we can shift our frame of reference, that we can even understand such a shift is necessary. By entering the hidden world, we necessarily alter it. We are strangers in a strange land, casting our old frames upon the new. But it is only by experiencing those frames that we can understand them, however imperfectly.

We need the distant studies, the antiseptic remove from our subjects, in order to get objectivity. But without also taking the chances inherent in the subjectivity of experience, we cannot see the poetry that animates life. Distance gives us the necessary grammar but experience gives us the melody behind the words.

The full documentary is embedded below (the first part anyway, though it automatically continues if you watch it through).

Watch My Life as a Turkey on PBS. See more from Nature.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Whitney Richardson

    Turkeys are everywhere in the west too (at least in Northern CA where I live). The main problem is that they seem to have no fear of people/cars and a big Tom will routinely stand in the middle of the street and stare down my car when I'm trying to get somewhere...It is nice to watch the flocks wandering the hills though.

  • BWeaves

    Sweet.

  • SBrown

    We have turkeys on our farm and they are surprisingly endearing. Enormous pains in the ass, but surprisingly endearing.

  • ,

    I've stumbled on this doc twice and been fascinated both times. A recent doc on IIRC "Nature" about ducks is amazing too.

    My dad once shouted to me to come see something in the back yard. There were two young rabbits playing chicken. Seriously. They would run full speed at each other and at the last instant one would hop over the other, and then they'd circle around and do it again. It 's still one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. I have no idea how they knew which one was going to jump, so it didn't end up a rabbit train wreck.

    And just tonight I read that astronomers have found a supergiant black hole with the mass of about 17 billion suns.

    Nature is not only fucking stranger than we imagine, it's fucking stranger than we CAN imagine.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    This is the best thing I've seen all month, I was crying like a ninny when the first chick hatched and imprinted. Wow. Thank you so much for posting this and I'm thrilled to know that there are free shows to watch on their site..

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    You made me get fucking teary eyed over wild turkeys. WILD TURKEYS. You've romanced the un-romanceable.

  • Slash

    Aw, those little turkeys are kinda cute. In an ugly-cute kinda way.

  • NateMan

    Wild turkeys are intelligent creatures, to be sure. Wily in their survival, and able to play; my family's watched them walk up a snowy hillside, slide back down it, and do it again as though for fun. There's much more personality to many species than we've seen or acknowledged.

    Not that it's going to stop me from hunting them because, let's admit, they're also delicious.

  • Meg

    So true, so many people have the "turkey's are so stupid they'll drown them selves by looking up at the rain" kind of mentality which is silly. Turkeys, like chickens actually have pretty complex social structures.

    The same can be said for a lot of farm animals actually, like you're bacon is probably smarter than your dog. Like a lot smarter. And has just as many personality quirks, and likes to be pet and have it's back scratched. They also make friends and form cliques and bully the other pigs. I know it sounds bizarre but the social hierarchies of farm animals is actually super interesting! Not that I'm a vegan or anything, the exact opposite in fact, I'm turning into the kind of southerner where even all the potentially vegetarian beans and vegis I cook have to have a ham hock or some salted fatback in there somewhere or I consider it a waste of good food.

  • Purpleburner

    I lived with a roommate that had a pet pig that we kept in the backyard. Sometimes he would get bored and ram my back door until it was downright scary. I would have to open it up and yell at him while being petrified that this 200 lb annoyed creature was going to take it out on me. He also found ways into the house to drink out of the toilet, leaving mud on the seat. Mud on a toilet seat doesn't look like mud, I'll have you know.

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