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Turkeys in the Larger Scheme of Things

At my place here in Humboldt County, Northern California, turkeys learned their lesson a few years ago, when five fine specimens of Meleagris gallopavo–wild turkey to you–wandered onto my property, a few days ago. I assume they forgot to check the calendar. Under California fish and game regs, you can shoot them legally for two weeks around Thanksgiving. Out came my 12-gauge, and I loosed off a shot that at some 100 feet did no discernible damage, and after a brief bout of what-the-hell-was-that the turkeys continued to forage. A fusillade of two more shots finally brought down a fourteen-pounder. I hung him for four days, plucked him and by Thanksgiving’s end he was history.

Wild turkeys hadn’t been seen in California since earlier in the Cenozoic era, but in recent years two ranchers in my valley imported a few and now they’ve begun to appear in our neighborhood in Humboldt County in substantial numbers. I’ve heard reports of flocks of up to a hundred wild turkeys fifteen miles up the Mattole River around Honeydew, an impressive quantity though still far short of the thousand birds counted in one day by two hunters in New England in the 1630s.

The taste of wild turkey? Between you, me, the drumstick and my dog Jasper, it was markedly similar to farm-raised turkeys, though of course superior to the flanges of blotting paper consequent upon the familiar over-roasting of store-bought turkey at low temperatures for ten hours. I’m for high heat and about three and a half hours for a turkey of average size, though not the dirigibles raised one time on a farm in Loleta, near here, which turned the scales at forty pounds.

Globalism has its alluring sides. It was good that turkeys, potatoes and peppers got to Europe, (though I have my doubts about the squashes, which evoke the bland horrors of pumpkin pie). That was early, early globalism. It was much more rapid those days. The speed with which New World foods spread across Europe and Asia is astounding. the first Indian housewife got the basics for what we regard as part of the eternal Indian diet in about 1550, and in about 1555 it was on every household menu in the whole of India.

Cortez brought turkeys back to Europe from Mexico, and by the 1530s they were well-known in Germany and England, hailed at the festive board as part of tradition immemorial. The Puritans had domestic turkeys with them in New England, gazing out at their wild relatives, offered by the Indians who regarded them as somewhat second-rate as food.

Of course, wild turkeys have many enemies aside from the Beast called Man. There are swaths of Humboldt and Mendocino counties where coyotes and mountain lions now hold near-exclusive sway. Ranchers running sheep used to hold off the coyotes with M-80 poison-gas canisters that exploded at muzzle touch, but these are now illegal, and the alternatives are either trapping, which is a difficult and time-consuming job, or getting Great Pyrenees dogs to guard the flock. But the coyotes are crafty and wait till the sheep have scattered, then prey on the unguarded half.

And not all Great Pyrenees have that essential sense of “vocation”, as they used to say when I was growing up in Ireland in the Fifties, and the Catholic Church was still a flourishing concern, with not a premonition in the minds of the Hierarchy that the downfall of Rome and the return of paganism was only sixty years ahead.

My neighbors down the river, the Smiths, who raise sheep, had a fine Great Pyrenees, Esme, partnered with the idle Tofu. Esme would rush about protecting sheep while Tofu lounged under the trees near the homestead, reading the paper and barking importantly whenever cars drove up. Before she died in childbirth, Esme produced Baxter, taken by my neighbors up the river, the Weaver-Wrens. Baxter grew bored at the Weaver-Wrens. I would see him trotting down the road, then up every driveway to gossip with all the locals. Jasper would run him off, and Baxter would never make a fight of it but collapse instantly like a vast white eiderdown, paws in the air and throat exposed.

It’s ended well for Baxter. A new couple on the road thought Baxter was a good match for another vast white dog, Grendel, already in their possession. They commute to Berkeley and I hear that Baxter is now a familiar flaneur on Shattuck, pausing to review the menu outside Chez Panisse before crossing the road to greet the pizza crowd next to the Cheese Board.

 

 

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