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Classics Reissued: Illumination in the Flatwoods

Illumination in the Flatwoods

by Joe Hutto

Lyons Press, 2011

It’s a pure joy see Joe Hutto’s miraculous book Illumination in the Flatwoods back in bookstores, reprinted in conjunction with its recent PBS television special; its a pure joy to be able to recommend it under any circumstances, since it’s a classic of natural history and one of the most thought-provoking and moving books you’ll read all year.

Like all such nature classics, it’s firmly premised in the wonder of the ordinary: Hutto raises a rafter of turkeys from the moment they peck their way out of their shells to the moment when nature calls them back to the wild. The birds ‘imprint’ on him as their parent/guardian, take solace in his company and follow him dutifully on their increasingly long walks in the North Florida countryside. Those walks are filled with details of the natural world, and Hutto both narrates these details with an easy, readable authority but also accompanies his text with his pencil drawings, several of which are as charming and unassuming as his prose (the book also has an inset of color photos taken at various stages in the lives of his feathered charges). He acknowledges that turkeys have a sorry reputation among common readers, for whom they symbolize not only a hearty meal at Thanksgiving but also avian stupidity at its most embarrassing. And underlying Hutto’s narration is just the faintest hint that he himself considered them so, before he got to know them.

He introduces his little birds to the natural world, and since that natural world is in Florida, many of the introductions are ghastly: Hutto is positively stoical about the swarms of buzzing, stinging, biting, blood-sucking insects that plague every single moment of life in the Sunshine State, and of course he has encounters with some of Florida’s bigger nightmares:

A summer of cat and mouse in water as black as coffee caused me to gain enormous respect for the alligator’s prowess as a predator. I observed one particular alligator day after day as he systematically attempted to dine on baby duck. I was amazed to see that he employe various strategies that often involved great patience and restraint and also apparently some degree of abstract reasoning of the type one would associate with mammalian predators. On several occasions the alligator actually got within three or four feet of me. I would suddenly realize that he was next to me in the water and would have no idea how long he ha been there.

But the book’s real stars are of course the turkeys, who look at Hutto as their leader, even when he occasionally confuses them:

It is my intention to avoid using my human voice. When on a rare occasion I do, they tend to ignore the indiscretion as though it were some idiosyncrasy I alone possess. They have begun to find that I am odd.

What emerges as his days with the birds unfold is nothing less than astonishing, especially to readers who’ve given no thought to the possibility that such creatures might be possessed of personalities. Where outsiders might see only a group of homely fowl, Hutto increasingly finds a collection of individuals. From the book’s earliest pages, he’s on guard against his own tendency to anthropomorphize, although on more than a few occasions, his enthusiasm gets the better of him:

We gradually begin working our way down the west bank of the creek. The turnkesy have never spent this much time in a mature hardwood area, but they are very much at home, casually browsing on deer berries, various seeds, mushrooms, insects, and spiders. One of the smaller hens plucks a rather large, green anole from a deer berry bush, gives it a couple of brisk shakes, runs a few feet away from jealous companions, and then swallows it. We are eating lizards!

That very question – the possibility of mistakenly attributing human characteristics to non-human animals (and thereby tainting the reliability of his observations) – is central to the book, because what Hutto discovers in his little charges is a series of amazements: they think, they enthuse, they wonder. “Consciousness is everything that science is not – abstract, subjective, and qualitative,” Hutto writes at one point. “It is probably the height of irony that reason should attempt to proceed from such a place.”

Hutto cites authorities on language and personhood from Freud to Derek Bickerton, author of Language and Species, all in quest of understanding how much of what he’s seeing in his turkeys is rote instinct and how much is actual personality. Despite his talk about how “we” encountered a snake in the woods or “we” reacted to the scream of a hunting hawk, Hutto is a careful observer, wary of letting sentimentality cloud his look into the alien world where he’s gained access. The picture that emerges is a quiet revelation: that complexity exists everywhere we look for it, and that there might be as many kinds of consciousness as their are kinds of creatures in the world. Readers of Illumination in the Flatwoods will step from its last page into a broader world, a world of fewer assumptions. Such higher effects were almost certainly not Hutto’s design in keeping a journal of his time with his birds – this is a delightfully unassuming book – but they happen just the same.