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).