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Illumination in the Flatwoods: Bottomland Book Club

Brent Rogers

I’d like you to meet a friend of mine; the wild turkey.  I raised bronze turkeys (they have the same plumage as their wild kin) in my childhood years, even keeping a couple as pets. One ole gobbler, appropriately named Tom, lived for quite a few years. We weighed him once and he tipped the scales at 57 pounds! He was a menace to my younger siblings, constantly reinforcing his dominance among his flock by chasing them, knocking them down, and treading on them. The vocalizations and behaviors of our turkeys captivated me, and gave me insights that later supplemented the wealth of knowledge I would learn from truly wild turkeys.

Illumination in the Flatwoods Hutto book

As much as I thought I knew, I was floored when I read Joe Hutto’s book "Illumination In The Flatwoods.” My measure of how good a book is determined by whether I re-read it; I have read Joe’s book several times, and yet it begs to be read again. Hutto essentially became a wild turkey hen for 18 months, after he hatches a brood of wild turkeys, with eggs provided by his Florida farmer neighbors who had inadvertently killed hens on the nest while cutting hay. He vocalized to them, while in the egg and during hatching, and ensured the first thing the emerging poults saw was his face.  As a naturalist, Hutto has done imprinting studies with wood ducks, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and other species, but the story of his wild turkeys re-introduced me to a creature that I thought I already knew.

Some hunters name gobblers they tangle with out of admiration or frustration - or both!  But we only get glimpses of such birds, whereas Hutto gives us an in-depth look at multiple individuals within a flock, and how they interact with each other and their ecosystem. Having been a turkey hunter, Hutto, too, had a keen appreciation for the wild turkey. Seeing and experiencing the world through their eyes and investing himself in nurturing, teaching and protecting them, Hutto records revelations about wild turkeys that will reframe your perspective (or at least reinforce your belief) on how complex the wild turkey and its world is. What Hutto did is so profound and thought provoking, that PBS Nature had him re-create the entire experience for a documentary. No show is ever as illustrative as the book it is based on, yet the PBS Nature special ‘My Life As A Turkey’ is an incredible watch….AFTER you read the book!

Any type of hunting is enhanced through study and observation, and it can be thrilling to use calling to communicate with our quarry, truly taking the experience to a new level. Most hunters might spend a few days each spring “talking” to wild turkeys, and a fortunate few of us are afield in the fall as well.  Imagine spending every day, for a year and a half, in conversation with a flock of turkeys! This is the gift Joe Hutto gives us, and while some will say he humanizes the turkeys, he does so no more than Gene Nunnery does in his classic book "The Old Pro Turkey Hunter," when Nunnery aptly names Galberry Joe and The Phantom of Possum Creek.  You will see just how well Joe has named his turkeys as you get to know each of them. You will feel the gratification as they thrive, and the unavoidable loss, as their lives are snuffed out.  

Far from detaching me from the passion of turkey hunting, this book has done more than any others in reinforcing just how special and extraordinary the wild turkey is. Each turkey we hunt is deserving of the best from us in our pursuit of it in our tactics, our ethics, and our use of the bird. Taking a life is not something we do casually, but reverentially. The celebration of a turkey that we take calls for a moment of joy, and for respectful hunters, it’s not just about social media likes or tic marks on a call. Hunter conservationists have always been the best friend and hope for our wildlife. Joe Hutto, thank you, for illuminating us as to just how marvelous the wild turkey is. The Tenth Legion salutes you!

Joe Hutto’s book, Illumination In the Flatwoods, is available on Amazon.

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