Review of 'Illumination in the Flatwoods' | Science | Smithsonian
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Review of 'Illumination in the Flatwoods'

Review of 'Illumination in the Flatwoods'

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Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto
Lyons & Burford

To Joe Hutto, a wildlife artist from Florida, it seemed an intriguing opportunity, a chance to imprint and raise a few wild turkeys from eggs that had been exposed by tractors mowing over their grassy habitat. It eventually became something far different, a full-time job as the single parent of not a few, but more than 20, young turkeys through the difficult and dangerous first year of their lives. More than that, the opportunity became for Hutto a transforming and profound experience, one that demanded setting everything else aside for however long it took, a chance encounter that was for both him and the turkeys "love at first sight."

Hutto made sure that he was indeed the first sight each chick saw when it hatched, thus "imprinting" him as parent and protector. It happened with their eyes: "He raises his shaking wet head and looks me square in the eyes. In that brief moment I see a sudden and unmistakable flash of recognition." And thus he's hooked, off on an extraordinarily consuming journey of feeding and communicating (he seemed to talk turkey naturally), learning and exploring and growing.

The poults swarm around him, fall asleep in his lap; they want to touch and be touched. They let him know what he can wear (no red or purple, and they didn't much care for his beige shirt, either) and what he can eat in their presence (nothing besides apples). For Hutto the rewards are the rewards of parenthood — respect, attention, unquestioning love, pride in their development and accomplishments. When he sees them each morning "a small cheer goes up from the crowd" — in turkey talk, of course.

Hutto describes their daily walks as they explore together their Florida Panhandle home turf. The dangers in their habitat are not so much from man, for a change, but nature — predators and disease. Hutto builds a pen out of small-mesh wire, but it doesn't protect them from a rat snake that slithers through one afternoon to kill one, or from a weasel that takes three in a nocturnal raid. Red-shouldered hawks are a constant menace, and the young turkeys show an intense interest in anything in the sky, even taking note of planes a mile overhead. Rattlesnakes and copperheads live in the neighborhood; the turkeys instinctively give them the deference and space they deserve.

The author's odyssey evolves from a story of a man and his birds, of "me" and "them," to something more like a family tale, a story of "us." Hutto laments, in the low-key field-note style he maintains through most of Illumination in the Flatwoods, his inability to fly. "I consider my flightless condition to be inconvenient," he writes with the faintest hint of well-concealed humor, "and an overall handicap in this study."

You get the feeling that if he could fly he wouldn't do anything showy, just continue to cruise along with the flock and make the occasional note. Turkey and parent traverse their patch of Florida flatwoods at what he calls "wild turkey speed." This he defines as "that speed beyond which an organism becomes stupid on a scale proportional to the relative increase." Turkeys move at a pace that maximizes awareness while minimizing effort. "A wild turkey always proceeds as if he were in the perfect place at the perfect time."

Not a bad way to be, all things considered, and Hutto concludes: "I have never kept better company or known more fulfilling companionship. Our communication, although somewhat abstract, is completely satisfying, and our interests are identical: plants, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, the odd bone, interesting artifacts."

He is at pains to defend turkeys against those who would slander their intelligence or character. Crows, for example, are forever being trotted out as the Mensa members of avian society, but Hutto gives the nod for smarts to wild turkeys — more complex socially, more curious, possessing a more complicated vocabulary. He also rejects the traditional libel that turkeys drown because they're too lunk-headed to lower their heads and come out of the rain. They in fact have a "rain posture," he explains — head up and body down, to minimize the exposed surface.

Inevitably, of course, Papa Hutto has to let go; it turns out to be harder than he ever imagined. By this time he's become about as close to being a turkey in human skin as nature permits — "I haven't started eating grasshoppers yet, but the smooth green ones, I notice, are beginning to look very attractive." The day comes when they decide against returning to the pen: soon they're not following him anymore, and he feels an old, strangely familiar sorrow — "some closed place deep within, where I must have stored ancient disappointments and betrayals, has been knocked ajar." Here was the empty nest at its most literal, leaving Hutto the parent simultaneously proud and desolate. He probably felt something similar when he finished this fine book.

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