It has always been my belief that every real and lasting conservation victory comes not from anger or a sense of loss but out of love for a place or a heritage, something powerful and positive. That kind of love is based in deep experience, and I wanted to make sure that Field and Stream readers are aware of a new (and free for viewing) movie made from one of my all-time favorite books, Illumination in the Flatwoods, by outdoorsman and wildlife biologist Joe Hutto. He grew up steeped in the turkey hunting traditions of the north Florida woods, and then, as a young man, embarked upon one of the most intense and unusual research projects ever undertaken.
In the first chapter of the book, he writes of a hunt taken when he was twelve-years-old, his first time alone in the pre-dawn springtime woods, of listening to the world as it awakens, and realizing that a lone gobbler is stalking and studying him. “I never saw that great bird on that cool spring morning, but he inadvertently shared something important with me, and I would ever be the same. A wild turkey had changed my life.” Indeed, it did. And that was just the very beginning.
The movie is called My Life as a Turkey, and it follows, very well, the narrative of the book — in the spring of 1991, Hutto and his wife were living on a sprawling north Florida quail-hunting plantation that bordered on the Apalachicola National Forest. Land managers were trying to increase the quail habitat on a few sections of second growth forest, running controlled burns and bushhogging the thickets. Hutto comes home one night to find a stainless steel dog bowl containing pine straw and a clutch of wild turkey eggs left on his front porch by one of the bushhog operators, who had saved them from the work site.
Hutto manages to hatch the eggs, and since he is the first creature that the little hatchlings see, they accept him as their mother, a process that biologists call “imprinting.” It is a word that fails utterly to describe the adventure that follows. “Had I known what was in store — the difficult nature of the study and the time I was about to invest — I would have been hard-pressed to justify such an intense involvement. But fortunately, I naively allowed myself to blunder into a two-year commitment that was at once exhausting, often overwhelming, enlightening, and one of the most inspiring and satisfying experiences of my life.”
The movie makes the perfect family film, as Hutto ( who narrates the film, while actor Jeff Palmer plays the role) leads the turkeys through the forests, and then, almost literally, becomes one of them. There are encounters with numerous poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, raptors and other predators. Overall, the movie accomplishes what the book does — it evokes the experience of life as lived by wild animals, life so closely and intensely observed that all distraction falls away. The turkey characters, Turkey Boy, Sweet Pea, Putt-Putt, and others become, not like old friends (Hutto is a biologist first and foremost), but like fellow inhabitants, with wisdom to offer and mysteries to suggest, questions and answers about themselves and about the world that we share.
I cannot recommend this movie highly enough, obviously.
It is also interesting to note that, since leaving the wild turkeys and flatwoods of north Florida for the mountains of Wyoming, Joe Hutto has conducted a similar research project by living closely with bighorn sheep, and is now engaged in following a herd of mule deer for a period of years. His writing and artwork — his latest book is called The Light In High Places: A Naturalist Looks at Wyoming Wilderness_–_Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Cowboys, and Other Rare Species — are among the best. He is that rare human being who travels the gap between the world of people and the world of wild animals, and then brings us news of his journey.