How well did you know your Thanksgiving turkey? Maybe you were running low on time this year and only had the chance to whip up a turkey sandwich. With deli meat. It’s OK, you can admit it, I won’t judge. If that was the case, the question might rather be is that even turkey? Maybe you had one of those turkey-in-a-bag contraptions that, admittedly, taste great, but remain slightly unsettling in concept. A turkey-in-a-bag is, most likely, a turkey with unknown origins having lived an unknown life. Maybe you’re a die hard locavore and you treated the family to a whole turkey from Baxter’s Farm down on 104th St. This turkey, perhaps, was named Gary. Gary the turkey. Or maybe you took the local food concept one step further and hunted your own bird with an English longbow and handcrafted arrows, because you’ve been watching too much of the hit show Alone. There are degrees of intimacy with our food in the turkey experience—from the LaCroix hint-of-turkey-flavor level, to gobbling-earlier-this-morning level.

And then there’s My Life as a Turkey level. See the turkey, be the turkey. That’s what Joe Hutto did, an ecologist with a bent for going the extra mile to understand the natural world. As the story goes, Joe opened his front door one day in rural Florida (a location very on brand for what played out next) to find a basket of turkey eggs his neighbor had found. Like any of us, he was startled by the unexpected discovery. Unlike most of us, he saw the unhatched eggs as a perfect opportunity to study the process of imprinting on animals and the social dynamics of turkey culture. He kept them, incubated them, and successfully hatched eighteen little turklets.

Joe raised these turkeys, named each of them, and legitimately learned to speak turkey over the course of the eighteen months he was with the gang of gobblers. During this stretch he rarely communicated with other people, dedicating all of his time to following the turkeys and taking notes. To pass the time, they did fun activities together like forage for grubs, roam the forest, and kill snakes. Though it must have been hard to choose, Joe had his favorites to hang with in the pack, and he was generally well-liked by the group and seen as a mother figure.

For a while all was peachy in their turkey family. The turkeys embraced Joe, and Joe got to conduct his research through close observation, painting an intimate portrait of turkey life like the world had never seen. That is, until the turkeys realized Joe contributed little to the success of the group and was not, afterall, a turkey, much less their mother. One fateful day, like a lightswitch of the natural order of things being switched back on, the turkeys turned on him, scratched him, and ousted him from the group. Joe was heartbroken. The next day his favorite turkey came back to find him for a final goodbye. Let me tell you, dear reader, nothing so wrenches the heart like turkey tears.

Joe’s tale is unique, and yet the themes of this story cross genres. An obsessive scientist sacrifices everything in a quest for knowledge. A foreigner seeking escape or adventure becomes part of a new culture but ultimately cannot change his identity and must return home. An outsider wants to roll with the popular crowd but is booted in a fit of scratching. Though not identical, these stories are ripe with echoes of one another. And they echo, too, with themes of old. There’s nothing new under the sun.

My question, after witnessing a tale like Joe’s, is why? Not necessarily why embark on the journey, but why does a story like this grip me in the first place? I’ve written of Joe’s tale with a bit of a snarky bent, but I can’t deny how flat out impressed I am of his work. Surely Joe has gone too far in his quest for scientific knowledge, surely he deserves the admittedly painful rejection from the clan for trying to join in the first place; yet deep down I envy his experience, leaving humanity behind for a few months and taking on the instinctual, hierarchical, red-in-tooth-in-claw existence of another species. I imagine that, when stepping into a world as foreign as a turkey’s, certain articles of humanity’s baggage begin to fade away. I imagine there are moments of serenity, of rebirth and new life, like being able to breathe underwater in a separate world governed by a set of more ancient and elemental rules.

The experience Joe had brings to mind another recent documentary, My Octopus Teacher, the story of a filmmaker in South Africa who finds sanctuary free-diving in the kelp forests near his home along the coast. While diving, Craig Foster encounters a common octopus, whom he follows over the course of a year, free-diving every single day to follow the octopus. Craig, like Joe, hears a calling to go deeper, to pursue curiosity to the physical limits of the human body. While following that call, Craig undergoes a transformation; he is psychologically healing from mental trauma, and his mind becomes so in tune with the octopus that he can literally sense her presence in a patch of kelp forest. He becomes a new person, one that is more octopus-like and yet more human, too.

My Life as a Turkey and My Octopus Teacher are both stories of pursuing natural science in an extreme way. They are both stories of animals and stories of people, stories of pain and rebirth. They are stories of transformation that blur the Cartesian Dualism of human and non-human. These stories suggest that the mysterious life of “the other” maybe doesn’t need to be so mysterious; maybe a much deeper understanding is possible. And yet, maybe there are lines that can’t be crossed, boundaries so fixed they can’t be dissolved. Who is to say? Maybe these are questions for each of us to ponder for ourselves.

As for me, I’ll stick with the turkey sandwich. Thanks to Joe Hutto, I already know that if I sought a closer friendship, even if I dedicated eighteen months of my life to it, that bond would end in a fit of rejection, getting scratched by the turkeys I sought to connect with. Pass the cranberry sauce, please.

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