Last year in the build up to Christmas I decided to take a break from my annual revisiting of one of Dickens’ novels (in my mind Charles Dickens and the Christmas season are inextricably linked) to explore a book I had come across purely by accident. I was very glad that I did.
Joe Hutto is a biologist and animal behaviourist who, in 1995, was given a gift of a brood of wild turkey eggs from a nearby farmer who had accidentally killed the mother and destroyed their nest while ploughing his land. Hutto incubated the clutch using a light bulb for heat, and as the turkey chicks hatched, he made sure he was the first thing they saw, meaning they imprinted on him, believing he was their mother. So began a two year project in which he was with the turkeys every day from dawn until dusk, seven days a week.
Hutto wrote a book about his experiences which is called Illumination in the Flatwoods, and it caused such a sensation when it came out that PBS, the US public broadcasting network, made a documentary about it, entitled My Life as a Turkey. It is through that doc that I came across Mr Hutto and his work – I arrived home from a gig this time last year, switched on the TV (everyone else was in bed) meaning to watch something for half an hour before turning in, and found myself riveted to this amazing story.
What floored me about Hutto’s experience was that he found the turkey, a bird we all assume is remarkably stupid, to be in fact a deeply thoughtful, incredibly social and profoundly intelligent creature. It is born with a vast innate knowledge of food sources, predators and other risks, and is powerfully curious about everything. Turkeys also, it seems, have a complex vocabulary of calls, signs and body-language that Hutto was able to learn. He admits there was a lot of communication he failed to grasp, but still he was able to pick up conversational turkey during his time with the birds.
As tends to happen in experiments like this one, time took its toll and the birds gradually drifted away from him and his ranch in the Florida Flatwoods as they became adults – turkeys are territorial and mature birds do not share territory. He was finally left with one male, whom he felt saw him as a brother, but even this relationship became untenable when Turkeyboy (as Hutto named the animal) started to see him as a rival for territory and became dangerously aggressive. Poor Joe was heartbroken when, after a particularly aggressive mauling, he had to drive his beloved Turkeyboy away.
He never saw him again.
I sat up until 2.00am to watch the documentary, and the next day ordered the book. Hutto is not just a beautiful writer, he is also a wildlife artist and photographer of great skill, and the book is full of pencil sketches and images of the world he and these birds shared. I was worried I might have bought an academic text book, but this wasn’t the case at all. Illumination in the Flatwoods is full of drama and character – the turkey chicks are constantly at risk from the rattlesnakes and hawks that share the property with Hutto and his new family, and the world the birds reveal to him as they lead him into the surrounding wilderness is full of mystery and wonder.
This was one of those books I looked forward to sitting down with, and I was thinking about it and pondering the ideas it explores in between reading sessions.
So this year, rather than reach for Our Mutual Friend (which is next on my list of Dickens to be re-read) I decided to try another of Joe Hutto’s books. This one is called Touching the Wild, and is the story of a seven-year engagement he had with a herd of mule deer who lived near a ranch he and his wife Leslie bought in rural Wyoming.
In some ways, I would say that I’m enjoying this book even more than the previous title, because while I am familiar with turkeys as a domesticated bird, I have no knowledge or experience with the wild variety. I have, though, had quite a few encounter with deer – I walk my dogs in several areas where there is an obvious presence of red deer – I’ve been able to get close to them a number of times, but when I say close, I mean I’ve caught glimpses like the one in the photo below (which I did not take, by the way, but it’s a pretty good indication of the type of sightings most people get of deer outside of the Phoenix Park).
I am in no way oblivious to the fact that most Irish people are virtually unaware that we have an animal of the scale and majesty of the red deer living in our midst. So shy and skittish are they, it is possible to walk within yards of one and be completely unaware that it is there.
That Hutto managed to become accepted into a herd and be permitted to travel with them is nothing short of a miracle, and speaks to the skills he has and his gentle nature.
This book is full of his poetic prose, his musings on the relationship we have with other species, and the violence, danger and drama these animals experience on a daily basis. In preparation for my upcoming recording session of my own non-fiction title, I got the audiobook, which is narrated with great warmth and skill by Daniel May. I have a couple of long car journeys coming up this week, and they shall pass blissfully as I follow Joe Hutto and his herd into the gorgeous Rocky Mountains.
If you’re looking for something a bit different this Christmas and if you have even a passing interest in nature or wildlife, you could do far worse.