Pause with me for a moment.
Do this mental exercise: what comes to mind when you think of a turkey?
For most of my life, my first thought would have been an oblong, shrink-wrapped package in the frozen food section. These plastic-coated wonders are so well suited for launching that there now exist actual community events testing how far you can throw them…
My second image would’ve been that iconic, golden-brown, perfectly-garnished turkey on an expansive platter; the image that Hollywood has bestowed deep into our collective psyche. I know a gal who worked for years as a food stager, spraying turkeys and such with layers of airbrushed paint to add that glistening flair…
Both would’ve been technically true, and yet totally false.
Or maybe better said: true, but not real.
Describing a turkey is a similar exercise to one John and Brent offered in The Sacred Romance Conference years back:
What is the truth of a kiss? Technically… it is two set of mandibles pressing together for a certain duration of time with the potential exchange of digestive fluids. For those of you who have experienced the wonders of a kiss will know that while true, this description is so untrue. Those who know kissing feel robbed; those who don’t are apt to say, ‘if that’s what kissing is all about, I think I’d rather not.’ We’ve done the same thing to theology.
We’ve done the same thing to turkeys.
We’ve done the same thing to masculinity.
Growing up in the suburbs, you don’t learn much about wild turkeys—these brilliant, highly intelligent birds with stunning eyesight that can detect movement at profound distances. These noble strutting toms have an entire language to vocalize dominance, competition, communication between mother and child, to warn of predators and more. Watching their wild displays of strength and virility as they fiercely fend off competitors is remarkable. To sneak into their twilight clucks and gobbles in their annual courtship is a symphony of wonder.
I started turkey hunting at square one. No experience, no mentor. Fatherless.
But hungry. Hungry to put food on my family’s table. Hungry to find the antidote for the danger that Aldo Leopold speaks of in A Sand County Almanac…
There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
According to this wise man, I was in danger.
For years, my forays into the wild for the Merriam turkeys of the Rocky Mountains were futile. Armed hiking was a better description. Just spotting a track or a scrape or any sign of turkey was a remarkable success.
But this year was different.
I had collected four years of preference points and had my sights (and research and scouting) on my first limited, high-quality, turkey habitat.
I saw the first anniversary of my younger brother’s Crossing Over coming up on the calendar and realized my heart needed three things to commemorate the day:
Wilderness, Beauty, and God.
I had a feeling that I could find them out in turkey country…
Having scouted this state wildlife area a few times over the past years, I got my boots on the ground the night before and managed to observe several turkeys making their transition from the courtship rituals to their high-perched sanctuary in the towering cottonwood trees. Silhouetted in the last light, I put them to roost and quietly maneuvered out in the dark. I dreamed in wild anticipation—over beers, a one-man campfire, and under a starlit sky—of what might await me tomorrow at first light.
My heart was grieving and full. Aching, and being made whole.
Early in the still dark hours, I geared up and began my hike into the backcountry in hopes of setting up my turkey-calling ambush with decoys and all. When first light arrived, the woods erupted with clucking hens and gobbling toms. Light blazed upon tree tops and I was enraptured in beauty, wonder and adrenaline.
To my utter shock, a big tom caught sight of my decoy and made flight toward my set up only to be welcomed by my Remington 870. It was ten minutes into first light, and I had my first turkey on the ground.
Such a fitting commemoration to my brother’s glorious life. Such a kind gift to my grieving soul.
An experience of the Father’s continued initiation and validation.
A rite of passage.
I admired the wild bird with the utmost respect and honor. I took in the remarkable color patterns of his feathers. I studied his well-worn spurs and torn up wing feathers with amazement, clear signs of his years of battling other toms for mating rights. I admired his double beard, like a four-leaf clover of gobblers, and the brilliant red, white, and blue color patterns on his head and beak (those are lopped off the Butterballs before they make it to the grocery so I had never seen one up close).
After I gutted my first tom, I hunkered down among ancient cottonwoods and fallen timber, sipped on steaming chicken broth from the Thermos and watched and listened to the morning unfold. I felt a quiet, coursing anticipation as with each passing moment, I watched layers upon layers of beauty overlaid upon each other.
I’ve read about turkeys. Researched hunting them. Tracked them. Observed them. Learned their calls.
And with turkeys, something in me has encountered a new piece of creation that has always been right in front of me but which I’ve never chosen to intentionally and fiercely engage.
And something has been healed deep within me as a man.
I got something back.
I can’t full explain it.
But something has been made whole again…
Dick Proeneke is a mentor (from afar) who lived over thirty years in remote Alaskan wilderness. He lived in a cabin he built and maintained with his own hands, using tools he made with his own hands, eating food he gleaned with his own hands, and none of it with the use of machine power.
In his incredible documentary, Alone in the Wilderness, he illuminates one of the fundamental disconnections in the soul of modern man:
Too many men work on parts of things.
Working on the whole, recovering a mastery of the entire process of a thing is essential for the integration of a man’s soul.
For thirty-seven years, my turkey came from the grocery.
This year, it comes from the wild.
This Thanksgiving, First Light will descend into the smoker, hemmed with extra thick-cut bacon slices and a decadent rub of thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, and sage. He’ll be stuffed with aromatic delights of orange peel, garlic cloves, onion wedges, and bay leaves (Father, thank you for Youtube for our uninitiated places: it’s all new but I’m giving it a go).
Liturgy can be found in all sorts of unexpected places. And every day, in every situation, the Father is inviting us to become more true, more wholehearted, more of what he meant when he meant us, as men.
I appreciate how Michael Pollan frames the possibility of the table in Omnivore’s Dilemma;
Imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.: We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.
For countless generations eating was something that took place in the steadying context of a family and a culture, where the full consciousness of what was involved did not need to be rehearsed at every meal because it was stored away, like the good silver, in a set of rituals and habits, manners and recipes.
Walt Herrington’s Everlasting Stream is one of the all-time best books on the masculine heart. Walt was raised by a respectable, hard-working, blue-collar father. Walt chose a professional path, ascending to the highest levels of society and professional accomplishment, at least externally, as a prestigious journalist for the Washington Post. His life was completely disrupted through the backwoods Kentucky relatives of his wife. First he was shocked to enter their world of rabbit hunting on a fateful Thanksgiving trip to Glascow, Kentucky. Wearing borrowed gear and with a shotgun in hand, he was completely uncomfortable to find himself chasing rabbits with men of little societal stature. Yet over the next twenty-five years of this ritual of Thanksgiving rabbit hunts, he found that these backwoods men had what he had been looking for all his life. They were men. They were brothers. They were friends. They were at ease. They were comfortable and confident in their world. And their joy knew no bounds. Decades later, he found himself reflecting on the remarkable paradox he found in the backwoods of Kentucky.
It took my father time to feel proud that I was a journalist. I mean, I didn’t even know how to replace my own car muffler. When I came to own a house, I wasted money on plumbers to fix leaky faucets and electricians to repair broken light switches. I hired a nursery to lay down the landscaping and a gardener to trim and tidy it all up twice a year. Even if he could have afforded it, my father would never have ceded so much mastery of his world over to hired hands. But I had done what young men in America are supposed to do. I had risen in society. I had eaten dinner with the President of the United States. Funny, but despite all my social ascents, my simple and deepest hope came to be that I could teach (my son) some of what my father had taught me about being a man. He taught me that a man kills and eats animals. Animals bleed. Live with it. He taught me that a man strives to master his world, whatever world that is. He doesn’t sit and whine —he acts. Most important, a man is never powerless, no matter how powerless he is.
It doesn’t take a hunter to put a turkey on your table.
And you don’t have to own a farm.
There are plenty of ways to move closer to reality.
I have friends that raise chickens in a coop they built and installed on the fenced slab of concrete in the back of their town home.
I heard the story of a guy here in Colorado whose family buys two young turkeys every spring and names them “Thanksgiving” and “Christmas.” The kids tend to them daily and then on Thanksgiving the family harvests guess who, and on Christmas, his buddy. It’s liturgy. It’s honest. His kids have lived closer to reality than most when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner (way to go, Jake!).
If you put your turkey on your table this year, I commend you. If you are like me and went most of your life thinking that turkey comes from the grocery, it’s not too late.
Start this year.
If only to begin to acknowledge the reality that someone killed that turkey you are eating.
And before it was in that plastic wrap, it had feathers and wings, and was alive.
Start with the ache and the longing. Allow yourself to feel it.
To be more whole.
To cultivate more fierce mastery over your world.
It might start with investing the time and the intentionality to cut your Christmas tree down this year with your own hands.
Remember, integration of our external world facilitates integration of our masculine soul.
Ask God what it would take to sit down with those you love and share the turkey that you harvested with your own hands.
It may take years. I’ve been chasing the dream of putting my own turkey on my family’s table for six years.
I’ve been chasing the dream of getting my heart back as a man for almost two decades.
Every day I’m a little closer.
You are too.
What if, next year, you were closer than you are today?
What would your first step be in that direction?
Maybe it is as simple as enjoying this most stunning documentary produced by Nature (the Nature series being the most viewed documentary series of all time) about the real and extraordinary life of a wild turkeys. My Life as a Turkey features a man who chose two intentional years of solitude with no human interactions and instead, lived among turkeys from incubation to adulthood, giving visibility to a world never been visited by a human before. And what he discovered was remarkable… More than a Butterball to say the least…
You can watch the HD digital download on iTunes for a few bucks.
Or if you prefer to order it, you can grab it at Amazon.
It’s great for the whole family, less than an hour. And let’s be honest, it might do both of our hearts better than the third NFL game of the day…
Thousands of years ago, Isaiah named one of the most fundamental problems of his day and it remains true on this Thanksgiving:
No one stops to think… (Isaiah 44:19).
That doesn’t have to be your story.
You can choose the Narrow Road.
And and you can truly have, a happy Thanksgiving…
Ask God; he’ll show you the next step.
Footnote: to watch a short trailer of Alone in the Wilderness click here. I strongly suggest you enjoy the entire documentary as God leads…