Monday, December 13, 2010

Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto

A man spends six months living with wild turkeys as their surrogate parent, raising them from eggs to young adults. He spends most waking hours with them, seven days a week. He starts as teacher and finishes as student.

The book is Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto. It’s nonfiction.

Absent a plot or other tricks to entertain, Illumination in the Flatwoods simply describes the day-to-day existence of Hutto and the turkeys. Over the year, there are dramatic moments—if it was reality TV, they’d be called unscripted—but most of the “action” is foraging, exploring terrain, and even more mundane forms of being.

The turkeys seem subdued, and we feed slowly up the through the field. I think they are sun hungry and would like to dust, but we have only dark clouds and wet sand. They are concentrating very heavily on seeds today for some reason. I also hear green pods snapping around me, as they eat the creeping Crotalaria, known commonly as one of the rabbit bells (C. sagittalis) that grow abundantly in these pine woods. Some species of Crotalaria have a reputation for being poisonous to grazing livestock, but this particular species has a green pod that smells as fresh and sweet as any English pea. The wild turkeys are extremely fond of them. I find myself nibbling on one occasionally as well.

On the surface, such passages may seem as interesting as a collection of weather reports. But the cumulative effect of a year’s worth is meditative, altering one’s awareness.

The field and surrounding hammock are pulsing with the hypnotic drone of insects. The repetitive overlapping voices of several species of warbler combine to gently weave a warm blanket of experience. The words of Joseph Campbell quietly overtake me: “Illumination is the recognition of the radiance of one eternity through all things.”

Hutto’s suspicion is that human consciousness may have over-evolved, and that real meaning—the spiritual wholeness pursued by mystics and religions—lies at a deeper level, long ago lost to our big brains’ abstractions. Thus…

As we leave the confines of my language and culture, these graceful creatures become in every way my superiors. More alert, sensitive, and aware, they are vastly more conscious than I. They are in many ways, in fact, simply more intelligent. Theirs is an intricate aptitude, a clear distillation of purpose and design that is beyond my ability to comprehend.

Make of it what you will. For my part, I found Illumination in the Flatwoods a unique, satisfyingly different read.

Thanks to John for the recommendation.

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