Thursday, April 1, 2010

That first, early gobble

Those who know me know that wild turkeys are a passion of mine. A wild turkey gobble on a clear spring morning represents one of God’s finest musical compositions. Below is a little story I wrote last year about turkeys, land, love, and family….interspersed with a few photos from Georgia and Mississippi from the 2010 Spring season thus far…..

That First, Early Gobble

For Papa

South Georgia has a certain subtle and sublime beauty one must slow down to notice, and thus to appreciate. In the absence of rolling hills and rock lined streams, you find beauty in quiet, little doses. The silence of blackwater around a cypress knee, the renewing scent of freshly burned longleaf woods, the collective notes of spring peepers at dusk on a clear and cool January night.
Of all seasons, Spring is the finest south of the fall line, where the mild and weak winter gives way to a burst of new-green sprinkled with the early bloom of redbud on the edges of roads and freshly turned fields. Nowhere else do azaleas and dogwoods bloom with such fervor, islands of color under towering fire-blackened pines. Spring seems to come rather suddenly here, light and airy, before the weight of the dense, humid summer.

The animals feel it, too. Deer move a little more freely than they did in late winter. Bluebirds scramble in and out of nest boxes, brown-headed nuthatch flit and crawl around cavities, Canada geese stand in pairs around farm ponds, and the sound of gobbling begins to roll up out of the creek bottoms.

I was a young boy when I first met this season, but a boy old enough to have cultivated a well-developed interest in nature and the outdoors. Once the experience of a spring morning spent with wild turkeys grabbed me, it never loosened its grip. Truth be known, I was probably predestined to be consumed with a passion for the wild turkey. Like so many other character flaws, it is likely due to a combination of genetics and environmental influences……I come from a long line of wiregrass turkey hunters. I know my Great-Grandaddy was a turkey hunter, and called them using a lighter’d wood splinter on a piece of chalkboard slate. Though he would have hunted them primarily in the fall, the old man undoubtedly knew the grandness of the bird and the beauty involved in pursuing them. My family may not have had much through those trying decades after the Civil War, but there was an abundance of elbowroom and plenty of wild game and fish with which to supplement the greens and cornbread. The old man passed his rural life and love of the land on to his son, and eventually some of it settled on those of us who came later.

It is that son, my Grandfather, who always made time for a busy little boy itching for adventure. I remember June bream fishing expeditions with crickets and poles, autumn deer hunts spent together in a wooden stand built in a water oak, and watching baseball games on a late summer night. As I look now at my own son, I believe time to be one of the greatest gifts an adult can give a child. More important than money, clothes, toys, and gadgets, giving time is giving of yourself. A gift that lasts a lifetime through the memories created and the confidence that though a child, I am somebody that matters.

I stood recently on a little sandy rise that in these parts amounts to a hill and watched the night slowly bleed away. I looked down into the creek bottom waiting on that first, early gobble, and remembered…......

The light was beginning to pale the eastern sky, barely illuminating the hardwoods as Papa and I made our way along the sandy woods road that ran above the branch and along the edge of the old cornfield. Along the road and to the northwest corner of the field where the old barbed wire lay on the ground and protruded from the trees like skinny metal fingers; waiting to once again prove useful and stick an unsuspecting kid. I remember stepping just inside the treeline and melting once again into the darkness. “We’ll just sit against the tree here and listen for awhile,” Pa-pa said quietly.

And so we sat, shoulder to shoulder. A grandfather and his grandson, alone under the receding darkness of the spring night. The seconds became hours and I strained my ears to hear something I had only heard in my dreams, though I wasn’t quite sure what it was. I listened so hard I thought I was giving myself a headache. I swore I heard the sun coming up, the light sizzling through the fog and the palmettos, bouncing off mosquito wings, then filtering out of sight into the swamp.

But no gobble.

Nothing I could even twist into a gobble with my young imagination. My mind began to wander back to deer season, when after two years of hunting I had finally earned the chance to take an old doe. I could see her suddenly emerging from the mist where nothing had been a second before. Then the nerves arrived, and I pulled the trigger as the crosshairs danced across the most bewildered deer in Georgia. I remembered as she disap…..

And then suddenly and unexpectedly, it happened.

The gobble coming from directly above us seemed to lift me off the ground and rattle the leaves, not to mention any semblance of calm I could have amassed at such a tender age. Papa barely stifled a chuckle, and his slow look told me everything….“Don’t move!” But it was too late…wise old swamp birds have little patience with intruders, even nervous little boys with quaking legs. The big gobbler exploded from the tree and flew north across the creek, disappearing from view into the dark timber of the Sofkee Creek swamp.

I remember leaning back against the tree, numb with excitement and questions, and overwhelmed. To have something so close, so alive and overpowering one second, and then completely gone the next, creates a sudden void that is difficult for a youngster to comprehend and understand. I’ve had that feeling many times since, after missing a shot or moving at the wrong time, and I usually work through it by looking at a track or rustled leaves and slowly understanding that he was here, but now he’s gone. Odds are we will both return again someday, for that is the way of things.

Papa and I still have a good chuckle over that morning every now and then. After 85 years, he no longer turkey hunts, though he still goes to the woods to fish and see the world come alive. Most of the time in the spring, he chooses to simply watch his songbirds and wait on my tales from the field. Driving back to his house with a cup of coffee, I often think how lucky I am to live in a place where I can walk in the footsteps of my Grandfather and his Father before him. People, ideas, and economies come and go. But the land and the water, “bigger and older than any recorded document”, as Faulkner once said, remain.

I sometimes think that when that gobbler flew out of the old warrior pine he flew straight into my heart, because I never walk past that tree without seeing a wide-eyed boy and a smiling old man. God willing, maybe one day I’ll be the old man, and I can sit back and smile at that old gobbler, maybe give him a knowing wink. Because after all, I’ve met him before.

Early spring, 2009

1 comment:

JC said...

Time is such a precious gift to give to those you love!