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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 24, 2005

From the editor
Thanksgiving thoughts on feasting

Saturday, I sat in a barn at Indian Ladder Farms listening to a man talk to a turkey.

Brian Van Wormer was making a mating call and the head of the tom, penned in the cage behind him, was turning blue — really blue. The wattles at his throat were bright red.

"He’s lit up like a Christmas tree," said a hunter, sitting beside me.

Turkeys make 23 calls, Van Wormer told us. He demonstrated various calling devices — a slate he scratched with glass or hickory as the pioneers used to, a box call which reaches a long way. Van Wormer makes his out of walnut because it’s the most resonant.

He then put a diaphragm in his mouth, which keeps his hands free when he hunts, and began talking turkey.

The sounds that filled the barn and made the penned tom and hen react, were sounds I had often heard from the flock of turkeys that frequent our old farm. Ours are eastern wild turkeys, like the pair in the pen.

Although I realized I recognized the sounds, I had never before isolated or identified them.

There was the cluck a hen makes when feeding. "Where’s everybody else"" translated Van Wormer.

There was a contented purr that was answered with a purr from the pen. "Everybody’s okay; c’mon over," translated Van Wormer.

Then there was a fighting purr, a strident noise that made the penned hen raise the feathers on the back of her neck.

There was the cackle I hear our birds make when they fly down from the trees on the hill behind our house where they roost.

Then there was a gathering call for all the young birds to flock to the matriarch.

Van Wormer made the whine of a lonely bird who wants to socialize.

And he made the "keekee" of a young bird separated from its flock.

"It’s easy to realize what they’re saying to each other," said Van Wormer matter-of-factly.

Perhaps he didn’t realize how stunning it was to watch a man making noises that sounded like a bird. When I was a little girl, my favorite books were about Doctor Dolittle, who talked to animals. He understood them and helped them get better.

And, as I headed into Saturday’s session, I harbored false notion. When I had talked the week before to Laurie Ten Eyck, who, with her father, runs Indian Ladder Farms, I asked if Van Wormer hunted turkeys or protected them.

Both, she said.

As I sat in the barn Saturday, listening to Van Wormer and watching the turkeys react, I began to understand what that meant. We had received angry calls last week about our newspaper’s front-page picture, which showed a wirehaired dachshund with its front paws over the neck of a dead buck. It illustrated a story about highly-trained dogs who are called upon to find wounded deer that get away from hunters.

People are often offended by the sight of dead animals. But those of us who aren’t vegetarians eat animals whether we have killed them ourselves or not.

People living in less mechanized cultures than ours had more understanding of and reverence for the animals that sustained them. Native Americans living in the Northeast used every part of the deer that they hunted — not just the meat, but the hoofs and horns and skin. Those living in the West did the same with the buffalo.

It honors the life of a deer to seek it out, once it has been wounded, rather than to let it rot in the woods.

My mind returned to the lecture at hand as Van Wormer, a past president of the National Wild Turkey Federation, was talking about how the turkey was one of the primary foods of Native Americans, and also became a primary food of European settlers. Westerners became market hunters, he said, and, by the turn of the 1900’s, there were fewer than 100,000 wild turkeys in the United States.

"There were zero birds in Canada; they had all been killed," said Van Wormer.

The federation began a program to capture and restock each of the six different species of wild turkeys.

"It’s one of the greatest conservation stories that can be told," he said. "New York State alone now has 400,000 wild turkeys. Georgia has over 700,000."

I realized then that Van Wormer’s group of hunters is responsible for the wild turkeys I so enjoy watching in my fields and woods.

Beyond the pride in the numbers, Van Wormer showed intimate knowledge of the bird he hunts — its habitats, its food and water preferences, its mating style, its sense of territory, the way it raises its young.

"I’d rather hunt turkeys than anything. They’re a very difficult bird to hunt," he said. "I know deer hunters who have tried and, in six or seven years, no turkey."

Van Wormer hunts turkeys all across the United States and all around the world, and teaches others about the sport. He’s a taxidermist who mounts turkeys and he’s a cook who eats turkey, in many forms.

As I sat listening to Van Wormer, I remembered how people laughed to hear about our turkey dinner. I feel protective of our flock of birds, watching the toms strut their stuff in the spring — fanning their tail feathers and swaggering with great cockiness. Later, we watch the hens with their young poults and see them grow through the season.

When friends ask if they can come by our place to hunt, I feel almost as if I’d be offering up my children. One day, a young tom was hit by a car in front of our house. I saw it happen from the window and went rushing out to the road. I scooped the trembling bird into my arms, thinking I would somehow nurse it back to health. It died while I held it.

I was in tears and called my husband at work. He said we should eat it.

He is anything but a cruel man. He had grown up in an Oregon farm family. They ate meat they slaughtered themselves. His grandmother, after whom our daughter is named, was known for being a sure shot and could kill a deer from two fields away. The meat would sustain her family through the winter. When she died, she left my husband her Winchester rifle.

My husband did the laborious work of plucking the turkey. I cooked it. We invited friends over and made a feast of it. I stopped weeping and ate. It was delicious.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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