Seven days after I celebrated 25 years of marriage, I fell for another man. It came out of the blue. Although my mother tended to fall in love every 10 years, a rocky rhythm of gypsy passions that was hard on her daughters and wearing for her husband, not me. I’ve been as faithful as a cypress in a swamp. I can honestly say it was love at first sight. There he was. On his front porch. Sitting in a rocking chair. Reading the newspaper. Right away, that’s three things I love: a porch, a rocker, a reading man. And as if that wasn’t enough, perched on his lap was a young turkey. A female, I reckon, about eight weeks old. A man who likes lap turkeys sets my heart going like a fat gold watch.
My new man is called Joe Hutto. As soft-spoken and tender-hearted as Forrest Gump, he’s crazy about turkeys. He spent 18 months living alone with 16 wild turkeys he raised from eggs that he incubated, patiently turning them each day and talking to them through their shell the way mothers talk to their babies in the womb. By the time they hatched, they recognised his voice and wobbled over to him as instinctively as a newborn seeks out its mother’s milk. As they nestled in the crook of his neck, they talked turkey baby-talk. Joe, one of Nature’s linguists, was fluent in no time. A distinguished biologist, Joe maintains that wild turkeys are as different from domestic turkeys as cats are from dogs.
I grew up in an era of wild-turkey panic. Local ornithologists were worried that the pure strain of the high-flying wild turkeys was vanishing because they’d begun to breed with sluggish farmyard birds. It was extinction by mis-cegenation and ornithologists were beside themselves as they watched the steady demise of these noble birds. Actually, you wonder how wild turkeys have survived 1,000 years. Joe never leaves his fuzzy poults alone during the day and soothes them in the evening with a turkeyish version of ‘Goodnight, Moon’.
Of course, sometimes he has to do something for himself, like make a cup of coffee, and, as the coffee was brewing, one of his babies was swallowed up by a 6ft rattlesnake. Two days later, sitting with his brood in the sunshine, he nodded off and a hawk swooped over and carried off another young turk. God knows Man has made a mess of the planet, but Nature on a southern-Florida wilderness reserve is worse than Vietnam.
I confess, there are several things going against my relationship with Joe. So far, we haven’t actually met. I encountered him on a Natural World Special on BBC Two last week. My Life as a Turkey was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on television. It’s only going to be available on iPlayer for another two months, and then I’ll never see him again.
Another drawback. I have domestic turkeys. I swear my 15 Norfolk Blacks are as alert and sensitive and curious and playful as their wild brethren. The fact that they haven’t flown off to the wilds of north Norfolk shows intelligence. They know that life is good in the apple orchard, but I fear that Joe would wince at the sight of a woman who sings Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You as she herds her turkeys into a foxproof old fruit cage each evening.
One more hiccup. Joe, austere and solitary, is a scientist who’s strayed into philosophy. What impresses him most about his wild birds is their ‘Zen-like ability to live in the present’. He says things like ‘We live in a future that never comes’ and ‘We betray the moment’. I’m a farmer whose philosophical leanings are more down to earth. For instance: be true to the one you’re with. I’ll always feel a little wistful when I think of Joe and his wild turkeys, but I’ll stay put. As Miss Parton puts it: ‘You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.’
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