I do not have to look any further than my bookshelf at home to find many of the famous literary works that collectively sparked the American conservation movement. I can go to my bookshelf and reread Walden by Henry David Thoreau while daydreaming of a life of solitude with only nature as my companion. I can reread Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and be disgusted at the destructive chemicals that many seem so eager to let degrade our natural systems. I can even find and reread A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold where I will both be inspired by stories of Leopold prowling the woods in search of ruffed grouse, and discouraged knowing that the drum of ruffed grouse can be heard in far fewer places today than that of Leopold’s time. Though these books may have been instrumental in sparking the conservation movement, I have found that the influence of these books can be heightened to an almost spiritual level when compounded with personal experience. Experiences that can only be encountered in intimate interactions with nature, such as those interactions by the hunter or outdoorsman, can give these books a multidimensional purpose far deeper than the print of their words: an awareness of just what is at stake. I can hardly strain to think of any experience that has had more authority over my perspective of conservation and nature as the story of how I fell in love with the wild turkey and turkey hunting.
Since childhood, it has always been a tradition for my father and I to take exploratory walks through new patches of woods after the thrills of duck and deer season have ended. Our expeditions in the woods served as a grand finale to the year’s hunting season, and a kick off to a long seven month wait. There was no telling what these explorations would hold in store for us. Maybe we would find a half rotted wooden tree stand at the site where the now ancient and weathered hunter had cultivated his most favorable memories. Maybe we would stumble across an old overgrown woods road whose destination may be unbeknownst to us, yet must have served a vital purpose before the trees and shrubs took hold. These explorations always ended with a new story and was usually a “farewell to hunting season” satisfactory enough for me. Little did I know this was all about to change, our March and February exploration tradition forever eradicated, after a local hunting club sold thousands of acres of land to the state of New Jersey.
The new public land became a quick priority for exploration, and it was not long after the deer season’s end when my father and I found ourselves discovering the stories the new land had to tell. The new forest was mapped with deep and intertwining dirt trails providing access to various lakes and fields where signs of wildlife were plentiful. Deer tracks lined the muddy banks of the lake shore where a parched buck may have come for a late night drink. Coyote paw prints told the story of a canine searching for its rodent dinner in the field. As we walk, my eyes are glued to the path in front of me in search of what else the forest wishes to entice our imaginations with. Much to my delight I find something that sparks my interest. The next fifteen yards of our dirt trail is lined with overturned leaves and freshly uncovered earth. Upon further investigation, I studied what seemed to be scratch marks on the ground and quickly became intoxicated with my conclusion: this was the work of a hungry wild turkey! My mind deflects to tales told by my grandfather, and even my father, of a time where wild turkey were absent from the woods of New Jersey. It was at this instant I felt not only privileged to grow up in a time where I could read the story of a wild turkey from the scratch marks it had left me, but also overwhelmed with an unrelenting desire to learn what I could about pursuing this magnificent creature, in an attempt to not salute our hunting season goodbye just yet.
I left the woods that afternoon on a mission to become competent in the art of wild turkey hunting. Months went by as I slaved over my admiration for all the wildlife sign the new patch of woods had to offer, reveled at the prospect of successfully harvesting a wild turkey, and anticipated my return to the woods. Just as my patience began to wear thin, and the call to return to the woods dominated my thoughts with laudable authority, the time came to apply for the turkey season lottery. As luck would have it, both my father and I drew an end of season tag for “D week”, or the first week of May. The game was now on; time to find the gobbler of the woods that has been holding my imagination and dreams captive for months now. Newly born into the art of turkey hunting, with a few months experience on a turkey call, and with old deer hunting camouflage, we set off before daylight into the woods where we had found the promising turkey signs months ago. We spent four tranquil days deep in the woods, each morning commenced with the whippoorwill’s magnificent calls greeting the daylight, and each afternoon concluded with a new story. Day one resulted in no action except for a curious field mouse who came to inspect my motionless and camouflaged body as I sat waiting in a field. Day two resulted in lengthy conversations between us and two toms who were not as enthused by our calling as we were by their gobbles. Day three ended with yet another failed conversation between us and more toms, and the visit of two whitetail deer to the field of which we made a set in. Day four came as quickly as the first three flew by, but we now feel more competent than ever to play the game of chess that is turkey hunting. The first three days allowed us to learn the rules of this meticulous chess game which the turkeys have so cleverly mastered, and now the ability to play in a strategic manner is going to be key. We set up before daylight yet again, with our backs to a large mound of dirt, and beyond the mound lies deep and dense woods. In front of us lies a field that we suspect the turkeys have been frequenting, blanketed with hay-like grass bent over by many a day’s wind. The sun’s rays begin to pierce the tree line just as a rambunctious tom begins resonating the woods with his gobble. The tom’s fervent calls can be felt within my chest as I notice he is not so far behind our mound of dirt backrest. With a few precise calls we manage to draw the thundering gobbles even closer, to where I can now comfortably assume it is in shotgun range. I carefully shift my body and turn around onto my stomach so I can peak over the mound. The sight of a beautiful tom displaying himself to several females induces an adrenaline rush, and I feel as if they may hear my heart beating out my chest. I slide my Remington 11-87 over the mound of dirt and rest it on the mound’s peak with extreme caution of my movements. I hold the butt of my shotgun tightly to my shoulder, try to soothe my nerves with a few deep breaths, take aim at the magnificent tom, and squeeze the trigger.
Looking back to that week I am reminded of the words by naturalist John Muir: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” That week I walked valiantly out of the woods with not only a turkey slung over my shoulder, but also a new comprehension of the natural world and conservation of which I had never become acquainted with before. It was an epiphany that allowed me to build upon the messages sent forth by those authors who provoked the conservation movement that thought the world would be empty without wilderness. It was also an epiphany that came in a series of realizations. I first realized that I am no longer waiting seven months to hunt again after deer season, and I will be out every spring trying to harvest wild turkey for many years to come. I secondly became aware that I never wish to live in the world my grandfather and father grew up in, where the rumbles of a wild turkey cannot be admired in the spring woods, for this must have been a time of sad and devoid woods. I thirdly gained a great admiration for all wildlife enthusiasts, hunters and non-hunters alike, with a mind for conservation, for these are the people who made it possible for myself and many others to enjoy the opportunity to celebrate at the mere presence of these magnificent birds. Lastly, I have come to the realization that turkey hunting is one hell of a fun game of chess, one that I wish to participate in for the rest of my life, and preserve for future generations.