Noble Turkey.

As I contemplate the big bird before me, I bless this creature that has given its life so that we may savor our Thanksgiving traditions and nourish our bodies. Though I am “mostly-vegetarian,” I’ll be enjoying this bird with my family. My objections to eating meat stem from the way animals are raised nowadays, in environmentally- and ethically-awful facilities I cannot name but rhyme with Bactory Barms.

This particular bird, however, never knew the cramped quarters of most commercial facilities. He roamed the Ferndale Family farm in fresh air and sunshine, and moved along to enjoy a fresh new pasture every week. Pecking, gobbling, trotting, playing and napping at will.

I scan the QR code on the package, and I’m delivered right to the farm. White turkeys with all manner of red, wrinkled snoods, wattles and carunkles (yes, I had to look those words up) peer at me from the website banner. “We treat our turkeys like they’re part of the family. Because since 1939, they have been” reads the Ferndale Family slogan. My tender heart goes pitty-pat.

Hand on my heart, I salute the Ferndale family and all farmers doing right by the animals they raise for our nutrition and consumption. Farming is harder work than I have ever known, and I offer my one-woman standing ovation in your honor.

I recall hearing how Ben Franklin extolled the virtues of the wild turkey over those of the bald eagle. As it turns out, he never expressed this opinion publicly (thanks for that tidbit He did write to his daughter that the turkey is a “much more respectable bird” than the bald eagle.1 The turkey, Franklin expounded, is “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

Such high praise causes me to wonder how much turkey we would be eating now if Ben Franklin really had proposed the “Bird of Courage” for the Great Seal of the U.S.? What if he’d proposed the turkey instead of . . .you ready for this? Moses. Yes, I said it, I mean, said it: “Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea. . . .2 

bird feet

Still, I honor Franklin for recognizing the noble spirit of the American turkey, even if only in privately-shared sentiments. I do wonder how the turkey fell from such esteem to representing “a person or thing of little appeal; dud; loser.”3 Ouch. Harsh. I think back to the gobblers happily roaming in all that fresh grass, and I’m suddenly glad they know nothing of their fall from grace.

Or do they? I wonder if there are secret coalitions of turkeys ready to march, to protest, to demand the respect that they are due? I wonder if there are support groups for wild turkeys who still grieve? I wonder if Ben Franklin is an icon among wild turkeys?

I wonder if I’m hitting the cooking sherry a little too hard.

bird feet

Then I recall reading about a very different characterization of the turkey in Medicine Cards4. Many native Americans called the turkey the “Give-Away Eagle” because it gave so much of itself to nourish the People.  Inspired by the noble turkey, members of native tribes engage in give-away ceremonies when a “tribal member may gladly give away all that he or she owns, and do without in order to help the People.”4

The give-away ceremony stands in stark contrast to the frantic race by us so-called civilized people who scramble to get and get and get more for ourselves. I mean, if you watch television for one single day, you’d think that five kinds of fast food, a libation or two and a hot new car would bring you all the happiness you could imagine. But does it?

The older I get, the more I realize that all my stuff has never given me a moment of true happiness. I might sleep a little comfier in our groovy waterbed, but does ownership of said waterbed fill the void when I’m depressed? Hasn’t yet.

Still, the thought of giving away all that I own is akin to pulling my own teeth out of my head. I do like to think I’m generous. I like giving from the ‘overflow,’ when I have more than I need. I do not like the thought of giving away my creature comforts and “do without.” I mean, how would I sleep without my special pillow or get from A to Z without my beloved Volt?

And yet, GIVING does give me joy. One sign of hope I’ve seen in this pandemic is a boom in community giving. As more and more neighbors were losing jobs and becoming food insecure, a community fridge popped up in our community. It’s restocked as soon as it’s depleted.

Even more neighbors are sharing freely in our local Buy Nothing5 groups. While global shipping delays mean fewer goods on the shelves, my neighbors are gifting everything from toilet paper to pianos, from knitting needles to kids clothing. What’s more, we are learning about each other than we ever would when moving around in our respective silos.

bird feet

As I sit here with the remains of my noble bird and the dregs of the cooking sherry, I think of us all, giving what and when we can. Perhaps the life of a free-range turkey represents the best any of us can hope for in this world. Roaming sweet green pastures. Being treated like family. And someone to give thanks for our gifts after we depart.

May I learn to be as generous as the Give-Away Eagle, the noble turkey.

For more turkey mythology, see:

1 “Did Benjamin Franklin Propose the Turkey as the National Symbol”?

2Franklin proposed an image of “Moses standing on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm pharaoh who is sitting in an open chariot” along with the motto “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”  “>

4Jamie Sams & David Carson, Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power through the Ways of Animals (St. Martin’s Press, 1999)

5See this recent article in the Los Angeles Times.

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