Rugged individualists and harmonious flocks
By Michael Mountain
At sunset, where I live at Angel Canyon, you can sometimes see the wild turkeys line up at the top of the cliffs overlooking the creek.
They’ve spent most of the day foraging up top. But as evening cloaks the canyon, they seek out the comfort and safety of the trees, of which none are better than the tall, leafy cottonwoods that line the creek at the bottom of the sandstone cliff walls.
Peeking over the edge, they look a little uncertain at first – like student hang-gliders about to take their first jump. Then one of them steps forward, launches out from the precipice, and, as she falls, spreads her wings. If you’re standing below, she sails over your head with a dramatic “whoosh,” banking steeply before coming in for a perfect landing in the branches of the cottonwood tree.
Now the next one takes her place at the edge of the cliff, shuffles around uncertainly for a moment, and then leaps. Someone watching them once commented: “They look just like witches on broomsticks!”
In the late fall, bald eagles migrate south from Alaska and Canada, to take up residence in the canyon, too, for the winter.
While the turkeys live in flocks, the eagles are individualists, soaring alone or in pairs in the winter skies. That’s part of how they became the symbol of the new American republic that was being carved out by rugged individualists.
But there was a strong lobby, at the nation’s birth, to adopt the turkey as our national symbol. And when the eagle won out, Benjamin Franklin expressed his disappointment in a letter to his daughter:
“The bald eagle … is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly… He watches the fishing hawk; and then, when that diligent bird has taken a fish for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him… Like those men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy.
“In truth, the turkey is a much more respectable bird, and a true original native of America… He is, besides (though a little vain and silly, it is true, but not the worse emblem for that), a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a [British grenadier] who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”
Old Ben Franklin was perhaps a little hard on the eagle, who is truly a magnificent creature. But we’ve all seen what the “rugged individualism” at the heart of our entrepreneurial system can sometimes turn into when taken to extremes and with no firm governors.
Perhaps it’s time to extol the virtues of the beautiful, iridescent, wild turkey, who, like the eagle, is just now making a comeback from the brink of extinction.
This generally peaceful, harmonious creature sets a good example for our times: the individual who lives for the flock; triumphing over adversity; unassuming yet persistent; and blessed with a touch of magic.
To witness the soaring eagle is to be inspired with awe. But to spend a few moments at dusk with the turkeys is to take part in a leap of faith that transforms simple life into a world of wonder.