Five people asked me this past week whether I was going turkey hunting. I’m not. I never have. For two reasons: I don’t have a place to do it, and I don’t like turkeys. In fact, I despise them.
I grew up in Frazee, Minn., home of the “world’s largest turkey,” the annual Turkey Days parade and the Miss Turkey pageant. My grandfather was a turkey farmer. My earliest memory is of standing in a turkey pen, looking up at their ugly bald heads, detecting malicious intent in their beady black eyes, bewildered by their wattles. I have had quite enough of turkeys, thank you very much.
But besides all that, I simply don’t need another addictive outdoor activity to compete with the others that already engage my time and attention. What turkey hunters find in the woods, I already find along the trout stream, on the deer stand and in the duck blind. That is, the opportunity for contemplation.
In talking to turkey hunters, the two things that occur over and over in their accounts is the delight they take in watching the world come alive in the early morning and the anticipation of a turkey that can be heard gobbling just out of sight — and is often never seen.
The turkey hunter can confirm, better perhaps than anyone else, the truth of Henry David Thoreau’s words: “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.”
I don’t know why it is that I can’t get myself out of bed at 4 a.m. just to go out and sit quietly in the woods. However, if I’m going hunting or fishing, I have a hard time sleeping at all and usually wake up before the alarm. Maybe it’s a lack of discipline, but I’m not alone in this peculiar failing. Nobody I know regularly goes out into the woods before sunrise just to sit and watch and listen.
Practically all the most memorable moments I have had hunting and fishing were incidental: a great horned owl swooping down on my head as I settled into a predawn duck blind; a family of beavers wrestling, and diving, and coming back up to wrestle again on an ice shelf in a secluded northern pond; brook trout leaping out of the water to snatch mayflies from the air on the first warm day of spring.
I know the discrepancy between what I seek and what I value, but it’s hard to put into words. When I tell someone I’ve been fishing, the first question is: “How many did you catch?” I caught hundreds of trout last year, but the coolest thing I caught was sight of a doe and fawn playing tag in a stream, running, splashing, slipping and sliding on the wet rocks until they came within a rod’s length. That experience is not what I went out to get, but it was the most valuable thing I came away with all season, measured by the number of times I’ve thought about it since.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of contemporary culture is that we have lost the language for expressing the value of non-utilitarian activity. If we cannot demonstrate how it helps the bottom line — how it puts food on the table, or a roof over our heads — it’s hard to justify. And yet, a sizeable percentage of our national economy is dedicated to spectator sports and entertainment.
Some activities, such as watching television, playing cards or shopping are simply pastimes; they are ways of losing time in idleness. But other activities — such as painting, writing, gardening, praying, birding, hunting and fishing — require attentive waiting. They are exercises in contemplation.
The value of such activities is not in what they produce, but in what happens to us as we participate in them. We become more reverent, more observant, more aware that all of life is like this: long stretches of waiting punctuated by brief moments of significance that, if we are asleep, or distracted, or daydreaming, we miss altogether.
If only it didn’t involve turkeys, I think I might take up turkey hunting. For the good of my soul.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.