“We have seen that no species can evolve apart from its co-evolution with all other species—meaning that all have played their role in our evolution. We could not have evolved by ourselves. If we look at co-evolving living systems through eyes other than our own, we will quickly see that we have no more reason to consider ourselves a supreme form of life than have others.” Elisabet Sahtouris
Just yesterday my neighbor posted a picture on Facebook of his cat watching, through a sliding glass door, a turkey eating seed scattered on the deck of the house. Immediately someone commented to his post that the turkey would make a tasty meal and advocated that my neighbor consider acting on this possibility.
This is a comment trend that I have frequently noticed on social media. Someone posts a picture, out of curiosity or in awe, of a pristine wild creature, and it’s not long before the guns come out and someone suggests killing and eating the star of the photo. Usually a semi-polite but slightly heated debate about hunting ensues.
Now, I would guess that the cat watching the turkey is indeed interested in an adrenaline-filled chase of the winged creature (likely not weighing in the fact that the bird is 3 times its size), and, perhaps, the cat in the window is even salivating a little. But it’s a cat.
What I wonder is why the first “highly-developed” human commentary on these kinds of Facebook posts is about snuffing out the bird and gnawing on its leg. Okay, maybe biology explains some of it. “Me caveman. Me eat meat.” But here in the modern US, we are not exactly starving. (Well, some of us are, too many of us, but that is a subject for a different blog post.) What I mean is that the commentators on these social media posts likely have a sizable refrigerator that, if not full, contains adequate sustenance such that a photo of a large bird, or perhaps a doe and its fawn, or a sea turtle, should not immediately trigger salivary glands and thoughts of bloodshed.
Inevitably on these post threads, some wildlife “expert” contributes that the species is overpopulated and there is a dire need for humans to step in with their traps, poisons, and firearms. At first glance, this seems reasonable, maybe even a justification to kill the critter. This comment may also be to assuage some sort of subconscious guilt that energizes over the age-old spiritual questions that arise when a human takes the life of another living creature.
But perhaps these comments come from insidious cultural conditioning. Somewhere, likely through a variety of religious and philosophical texts, we humans got the idea that humankind was plunked down here on this planet, in this galaxy, in this universe, to hold dominion over all the creatures, plants, even rocks, minerals, air and water. I would argue that this foundational belief in the self-maps of many people is what spurs these predatory comments, and this is what spurs the subject to then wander to hunting “rights” and population “control.” For if we hold dominion, it’s our right to shoot that turkey. If we have ultimate sovereignty and control, then we are charged with the responsibility to “balance” wildlife populations.
This notion of dominion thus allows for those that would love a drumstick to be absolved ethically and morally for wanting to end the life of the seed-eating turkey. It’s our role and job as humans—as stewards of the earth. But part of the definition of steward is “responsible care.” And I have to say humanity has not been adhering to these words where nature is concerned.
When I was a kid, I never saw a single wild turkey in my rambles throughout New England woods. I didn’t, in fact, ever see one until I was in my mid-thirties. Now, almost every time I drive down our Vermont roads, I have to stop to wait while a flock waddles across the road. I see them in cornfields, in backyards, near farms, and even in neighborhoods of towns. They are everywhere! So if I had to make an educated guess, I would agree: wild turkeys are overpopulated.
As a country girl, I do not judge or begrudge my neighbors and friends who hunt for food for their tables. I know most of my neighbors use all of the meat, and even the feathers. I know they hunt ethically, causing as little pain as possible. I know that their dinner had a happy, wild, natural life, thus being a kinder meal than eating a factory-farmed bird struggling to stand with its oversized breast while suffering in overcrowded, nasty conditions. I get that hunting can be a morally superior, sustainable food choice.
I do see the language that we use for hunting as stemming from the dominator model, however. We call hunting “sport,” our prey “game”, and we “harvest” kills as if we were farmers. But at least harvesting is a more respectable term than the poor word choice of “bagging” a turkey or a doe, wording more symbolic of a joking, cruel conquest.
But before I’d jump to hand out more hunting licenses and increase the length of turkey season, it seems prudent to ask the question why—why are turkeys everywhere? Are they truly overpopulated, or do they just have less wild space in which to roam? It seems we humans are overpopulated and eating up open spaces and forests like Hungry Hungry Hippos (the silly game some of us played as kids where we tried to “eat” as many marbles as we could with our plastic hippo heads).
Why were there hardly any turkeys in the ‘70s and tons of them now? A complex systems approach is needed. What is going on in their ecosystem to foster this burgeoning? I would bet the reason is tied to some bumbling actions, intentional or unintentional, of the supposed stewards of the planet—us.
In Virginia Scott Jenkins’ fascinating book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, which is all about domination of another natural environment, our yards, she writes about how humankind has long been “at war” with nature. Nature has been our greatest conquest. She quotes John Crowe Ransom, writer and literary critic: “Ambitious men fight, first of all, against nature; they propose to put nature under their heel; this is the dream of scientists burrowing in their cells, and then of the industrial men who beg of their secret knowledge and go out to trouble the earth.” She then quotes feminist activist Annette Kolodny who “concludes that the brutal images of man against nature reflect ‘the very pattern of our current ecological crisis’”. Jenkins continues, “Wilderness has also appeared as the villain, with the pioneer as hero relishing its destruction” (134). We can’t be at war with nature and her stewards simultaneously.
I can hear the Facebook commentators now: “Good grief, it was just a silly joke about eating a turkey.”
At home, I often observe the flock of turkeys that dines on my neighbor’s porch and entertains their cats. The large birds have colorful, shiny feathers, sometimes sticking out with wads of burdock tangled in them. They walk slowly and carefully through the snow, pecking at this and that, their big feet leaving forked tracks. They appear serene, though alert. All I have to do is open the door and they take awkward flight. Sometimes I’m amazed the lumbrous fowl can even get off the ground. They often bunk down under the pines right behind my house near the marshy watercourse. Well, it is supposed to be marshy, but my other neighbor mows it flat each fall. He tells me he wants it the way it was when his grandfather had the land, when cows ate all the vegetation in the low-lying wash. I’ve observed the turkeys picking pathetically at the remaining scattered weeds and seed stalks, and surmise that the vegetation in the wash was likely their winter food source. So now they must resort to bird feeders. Indeed they have a good memory. I had a feeder out back last year, but have not put it up this year. Sure enough, at the beginning of the snows, the flock trucked right under the tree where the feeder used to hang, clucking and looking about, as if in confusion. “Well, it was here last year!”
I enjoy these waddling intricacies of perfection that somehow organized out of the universal chaos that our microscopes and statistics struggle to comprehend. They bring a smile to my day as they bob their heads and yodel about the backyard on their way back and forth to the feeder. I am glad my neighbor with the cat is not inclined to sup upon our feathered friends.
Jenkins, Virginia Scott. The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
Sahtouris, Elisabet. Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. iUniversity Press, 2000.