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Turkey Hunting

IMG_6063I am trying to be very quiet, and very still. It's not that hard to be still--to let the edges of your consciousness and physical being bleed into your surroundings, so that the tiny, infinitesimal movements the body makes are no different than the bending of the grass, the flickering of a bird wing, the rustle of tree limbs in the wind. But to be very still is another matter entirely, to not just blend in, but become transparent in the landscape--to be one of these striated blocks of cooled magma, the thick ridged bark on a tree--that is the stillness I am seeking. The golden hour has already progressed to the thick amber light that signals the coming of twilight, the gossamer threads of early sunset have deepened into bold lines, by the time we start heading into the timber. We hem and haw for a minute before going--the porch is wide and inviting, the beer cold and crackers salty, and besides, the dogs have been running wild all day, so if there is a turkey on the ranch he'll be extra spooky--but in the end, it's difficult to resist the rise of blood that is the call of the wild. While we're debating, the hobbler gobbler knuckle drags his way across the lower field and up over the deer saddle (so named because this particular dip in the ridge line is the perfect spot for mighty bucks to pose for us while we sit on the porch, their branching antlers backlit by the sun as if they were growing down from the trees, tangled in with the limbs rather than up from the forest floor--they wait for us to notice and once a hush has fallen while we pay our respects they bounce off to some secret place, which of course, is not for us to know).

I do not want to shoot the hobbler gobbler and I say so. It isn't really that he has a name, although you'd  catch me a liar if I said that wasn't part of it, but more that I am rooting for this old turkey underdog, who has beat the odds of survival despite a genetic deformity that should have doomed him at hatch. I care about my prey, it's true. I want a fair fight. Nature has no reason, no conscience, but this defines our humanity--we do not kill the too young, the mothers, or the deformed. A cougar cannot care, because he hunts for survival, and he'll take the weakest link. But I am well-fed and healthy, a good strong girl, I'm not scrapping to live through another winter. I have the luxury of mercy.

It has been cool all day, the sky turbulent and threatening to storm in various shades of blue and steel gray. Only in the last hour or so has the sun won out, the clouds retreating to the very edge of the horizon. While we hike up the ridgeline--or maybe it's when we're on the road--Uncle Jay shows me his impressive array of calls, hidden deep in the many pockets of his vest, like a collector (or a watch salesman) they keep coming out. He names each, explains its use. The Tom Coffin, the cedar box, a call that sounds like a woodpecker. Any noise, really--he says to my confusion--will rile them up, so you can hear where they are.

Uncle Jay is leading us, this is his domain. Normally we both trail after my Dad--I am his daughter and have been taking his directions my whole life, my Uncle is his younger brother, and I have a feeling he's been taking his directions his whole life too. But where my Dad is intuitive for the long-legged four hoofed beasts, my Uncle knows the skies, his kinship lies with those that take to wing. I wonder with which I’ll have an aptitude for, but really I want both, and all—plants, rocks, trees, birds and beasts, I want a name for each thing.

Three enormous juniper trees sit fat and gluttonous, surveying the valley, when we reach the top of the ridgeline. The balsam root is blooming, yellow heads nodding lazily in the breeze, riots of color dotting the hillside. White blond cheat grass ripples down to meet the highway, the faded black tar curving around the ridges and ranches all the way out to Hood, over the John Day and the Deschutes and beyond. Today is quiet, mostly--there's some activity on the Johnson's across the road, a herd of cows move in slow undulations of black dots across the vibrant green of the newly-planted field, decked out in spring splendor. And us in the middle of it all, the three of us, watching, waiting.

I try and stay still, and quiet, but I’m finding it hard to suppress the soft exhalations of air that accompany the expansion and depression of my chest, and I’m finding it hard to also suppress the questions that keep occurring to me as we sit and listen. My Dad has stretched out to our left, napping, my Uncle to my right, his head cocked, straining for sound. Once, out pheasant hunting, he showed me a Harrier twirling like an acrobat through the sky, snapping at a rooster who made the mistake of taking to the air. The other weekend, when we spotted the owl, he tells us for certain that it’s a Barn owl, has to be. A sparrow hawk has been haunting the lower field, or so we discover earlier in the day when my Dad points him out to us and my Uncle identifies it. Now, while we sit with legs flung out in front of us, he says, “Do you hear that bird that’s saying cheeseburger? Black-capped chickadee.” I tell him about the legislation I just read about that’s trying to increase sage grouse habitat in Oregon—but I thought you could hunt grouse?—he clarifies the difference between ruffed, spruce and sage grouse, and which lives where.

Turkey, he tells me—I remember from last year—have sharper eyesight than most, based on movement. Hence my current practice of stillness. My Dad and Uncle, they’ve been watching the turkey for a while on the ranch, have figured out some of their patterns. They have a runway here, he says, I’m pretty sure, pointing to the break in the trees we’re looking at. They take off from here and glide across the valley to the other side, a turkey super highway. I try to picture it, the big bird beasts floating down from the sky.

Alright, he says, after my limbs have stiffened and the shadows have lengthened to swallow the whole field in front of us, cows now nearly invisible in the dark. Let’s go try one other spot.

We move, still quiet although now I am acutely aware of every twig snap and brush crunch my boot makes. The context has changed for every minute sound—earlier in the day I paid no mind to the chorus of noise I create and am a part of, now it is consuming my awareness. When we hear the first gobble—that perpetually surprised eruption—it strikes so loudly in my sensitive ears that I too, am startled. We each three freeze, try and pinpoint where it is. Very slowly, my Uncle moves to pull the cedar box out of his vest and begins mimicking the creaky scratch of a hen’s call.

The tom gobbles again, faint enough that we think he is probably on the other side of the highway. We relax a little, now that we’re sure he isn’t right behind us—he won’t cross the road, my Uncle says with a snort. Not now. The air is cooling with the onset of true dark, the skies quieting from the raucous cacophony of other birds. Out there some big puffed up male is still gobbling though we’ve put away our calls, a breath or two between each.

When it comes, the shot explodes without warning through the air, all stillness shattered. Waves of sound echo in deep reverberation across the valley while all the creatures hold their breath–a new kind of stillness settles over creation while we wait, all our instincts roaring, and when nothing follows, we let out a collective sigh.

That Tom, whoever he was—I hope, with a sense bordering on panic, that it is not the Hobbler—has met his turkey maker (we hear no more gobbling), a second shot ringing out just to be sure. At least someone’s having turkey tonight, my Uncle says, while we head back down the timber.

Early the next morning, through a gray fog of sleep, I hear my Uncle go out to the porch to see what stirs in the dawn light. All quiet, I can tell--no one shakes me truly awake, and I settle back to dreams for another sweet hour.

We end back up on the ridgeline after spotting six jakes near the fish pond, my face still flushed with sleep—I am sure the stillness will come easy this morning, so near am I to the deep, slow rhythm of that different consciousness of late night. The world glitters in the sun of early day, a soft purple wild orchid waves nearly translucent in the sea of surrounding grass—I sit, taking it in in a kind of haze, while my brain works to reconcile the landscape of today with the landscape of last night, an ever-changing stretch of texture, color and light.

Maybe they stayed in the timber, we speculate, while waiting for the jakes. It’s just Uncle Jay and I today—your Dad, he says, is one of the most impatient, well, he’s too impatient for this. A half-smile and a shake of the head—that stillness, the waiting, doesn’t always find each of us right when you need it. He comes with us, I know, just in case—just in case we see one, and I get a shot, he does it so he can see me. Today we’re back by the runway, watching the strip to see what moves. Have you ever noticed how as soon as you start hunting all the turkey disappear? he asks me. I am idly picking at a dry stalk of bunch grass, the silvery blue of the rest of the bunch prickling my thigh through my jeans. I shift my leg underneath me, can already tell it will fall asleep in minutes, the weight is just right.

Yes, I say, I guess I have. Those jakes this morning made a quick exit as soon as we headed out in camo, face masks hot in the morning sun. They knew something was up.

It’s intention, I think, they can sense your intention.

I believe this—to me, it’s the same cosmic thing that lets birds fly in whirling tandem as they wheel across the sky, how schools of fish relate even as they’re spread across seas, it’s the prickle on the back of your neck when you feel sure you’re being watched. Turkey, anything really, must know when they’re being hunted. Wouldn’t you?

Stay still, stay awake. The Verona leans against me comfortingly, a reassuring heat warmed up from the ground. I hear a very faint gobble, from across the highway, a whisper of turkey brought on by the wind. So faint I’m not sure I really heard it—Uncle Jay doesn’t, his ears still thick with a cold. Too far away to be interested in, we start picking ourselves up off the sandy tan of the ridgeline, calling it a morning. It’s a nice way to spend an hour, watching the day wake, letting your senses absorb as much as you can of the world around you. The timber, when we get back down into the deep of it, is dark and deliciously cool after the exposure of the ridge. I follow on the way back, my head down and lost in thought—all alertness shed—watching for where my Uncle’s boots have left neat depressions in the steep slope for me to sink my own boot into. Abruptly, they stop.

There, where we are about to break out into the open light of the field, are two of the jakes we were after earlier. He says nothing, points back up the ridge, and his meaning clear, we charge forward with long, purposeful strides, our intent like a red flag as we move through the trees.

We stop, listen—they are gobbling but it’s hard to tell from where, the forest dampening the sound and misdirecting it. In an instant, I watch my Uncle take it in—the turkey, the direction they went into the timber, the light filtering through the pine, the sweet heady scent of spring in the air, my face, an open question—and weigh it against all the other thousands of birds he’s watched, all the other hundreds of heart-hammering decisions made when you become a predator.

Sit, he whispers, put your back against this tree. The trunk is reassuring, a good thing, I’ve never shot my gun from the ground before, something I’ve just realized, now with my heart somewhere between the vein throbbing in my neck and the pounding of blood in my temples. The barrel of the Verona is dark and unfamiliar here, reflecting the quiet dark green of the woods—I am so used to seeing her flash brilliant against a wide open sky, wiped clean by the wind and higher than the clouds.

If they come between that log and us, you shoot, he tells me. This one, I say, pointing in the direction of a felled pine, a deep Y splitting to the left. Yes, he whispers back, and then really, for what feels like the thousandth time, I take a deep breath and try to stay very still.

It must only be seconds but it feels like an eternity, watching those jakes move across the top of the ridge, their light bird bodies a dark outline against the sun. They move the way birds do, heads nodding forward with the jerk of each step, gobbling as they go. We are invisible as they pass, two hearts racing amid the quiet beat of trees around us. They stay high, past the log. I don’t have a shot. Still, my hands are slick with sweat and excitement, my head dizzy with anticipation.

We stand and brush ourselves off once they pass, buckle the pads we’ve been sitting on back to our vests.

Should we go after them? My Uncle asks, a real question and not a statement. We might as well, I say. So once again, we head uphill, after those elusive dinosaurs, our evasive feathered foe.

And again, at the top, my Uncle pulls up short—met face-to-face with the jakes themselves, about to take-off from the runway we’ve been so diligently watching. It is hard to tell who’s more surprised. He turns back to me as if to say both I told you so, and can you believe it. We weren’t quick enough to head them off, and we weren’t patient enough to wait for them to come to us. I can believe it, I can’t.  I had the stillness in me, I was transparent in the trees—but we lacked the patience, this time.

Before we head back down through the timber for the last time today, we’re headed West to the valley tonight, I pause for an instant to see if I can spot them, soaring to the other side. No, they’ve disappeared again, though now my intentions are good. I missed the turkey, this year, but gain more each time I go. I catch up to Uncle Jay and walk side-by-side down the through the deer saddle, the road a stark hazy tan in the sun, already thinking about how to tell this story.