The reflection of moonlight before dawn illuminated the iridescent outlines of freshly formed dew drops in the brush. With great care, we followed our father’s footsteps through the tall grasses. The ambient frequencies of toads were amplified only by the crisp springtime air. As we entered the fringe of the towering oak trees, the canopy had not yet yielded to the moonlight — total darkness.
We continued along hastily in darkness and in silence.
“Chad, pick up your feet..” my father whispered after hearing a twig snap beneath my boot. And the silence returned.
A few steps later, “Whoosh, Whoosh, Whoosh”. A startled Grouse broke the silence. Simultaneously, several beams of orange sunlight shone through the leaves above, illuminating our steep, narrow path. Our father paused briefly, “Just a little bit further and we can rest,” he said to us before regaining his pace.
As the path steepened, Paige lengthened her stride to match our father’s footsteps. I began counting each breath to remain focused on the pace. The valley crest was upon the horizon.
Our descent into the Valley of Oaks required a cautious gait to maintain sleight of hand on Mother Nature. We had snuck our way deep into the forest, pre-dawn. Now was the time to observe. We found a Great Old Oak to lean against. And we waited.
As the minutes passed, so could have hours. The stillness of the forest had little concern for the pendulums of time.
A crow cawed in the distance, preparing its team for the day’s benediction. Our father pulled a call from his jacket. “Caw, Caw, Caca, Caw, Caw”.
Suddenly, a thunderous gobble of a turkey filled the valley. Without hesitation, my father again mimicked the crow. The Tom responded aggressively, 3 times in rapid fire.
The hair on my back, arms, and neck pricked up. My heart began to beat at thrice its normal speed.
Across the valley, another Tom joined the conversation. By this point, my father had traded the plastic crow call for his hickory hen box call. As he mimicked a hen, both Toms were coaxed toward our direction as they departed their nests.
The patriarchal competition between wild turkeys during mating season can be understood intuitively without a degree in wildlife biology. Nonetheless, seeing is believing, and Mother Nature is the best teacher.
However, on this spring morning, in the very valley we bore witness, the competition between adult males rendered itself secondary to the Nature observed by my sister, father and I.
As dawn continued to break through the canopy, other birds joined the chorus of sound filling the valley. Woodpeckers began drilling for weevils; squirrels scurried around in search of lost treasures. All the while, a hen in the valley became curious of the ruckus. It certainly was not she who had roused the attention of the Toms. And thus she made a direct inquiry, sneaking silently towards our oak tree.
“..who has encroached upon my nesting area,” the Hen expressed through her audible clucks. Her communication excited the other gobblers nearby that had, likewise, been curious of the activity within the valley this morning.
Perhaps the day was unique. Perhaps it was a special valley. Perhaps observing Nature does indeed change Nature. Nonetheless, what occurred next will be hard to appreciate without having lived it yourself, but I will do my best to give the story justice.
Beneath the oak tree, we waited silently as the convergence of wild turkey came fully within eyeshot. Not only did each Tom bring along a cohort of adolescent males, but also multiple hens were interested in this fertile valley. The sound of 3 turkeys from the dimlit morning, turned out to be an entire flock in full sunlight!
The hens were no longer concerned with an imposter nearby; once they became aware of one another, curiosity became reality. After a series of clucks and puts directed back and forth, the hens charged each other with breasts puffed out, and barreled the full weight of their bodies into each other. A few pecks of their sharp beaks were aimed at the others head. The momentary struggle dissipated and they circled away from each other, but not before other gobblers took notice. The adult males made deep, rumbling, drumming noises as they displayed their full tail fans in the distance and strutted back and forth. Some of the smaller Jakes pecked around patiently, in silence.
Astonished by the close encounter, I leaned back against the oak and spanned my vision across the vast valley. To the east, amber tones glistened through the barren trees lining the valley crest. A slight rustle of the leaves pulled my attention to the hens circling behind us as they pecked along the steep western slope. The Toms continued to boast their tail fans, and slowly headed toward the White Pines at the northern end of the bowl.
I noticed a mosquito land on my hand, and simultaneously had an itching feeling in the sole of my foot. The struggle to remain silent and still was palpable. I brushed away the insect and crinkled my toes inside my boots. No avail. The mosquito found my face. The itching sensation remained.
Smack! I solved the first problem.
I tried again to fold my foot in half. If only my toes had the dexterity of my fingers. Frustrated, I dragged my foot through the dead leaves.
Immediately, I received a direct impact to my right shoulder — a subtle message from my sister to keep quiet.
The turkeys continued to waltz about the fertile oak valley, searching for acorns and berries. Some made off as pairs, and others trailed behind the dominant leaders. As they moved on with their morning, we continued to wait in silence. As the sun broke through the forest, warmth filled us up, and I found myself tempted to snooze.
My father found the box call again, “Yelp, yelp, yelp..”
A chorus of gobbles answered from low in the pines.
Gone, but not forgotten.
I hope you enjoy my earliest memory of Nature. I oftentimes revisit this story. It is embedded deep in my mind. Human consciousness is not a fickle concept, and I don’t intend to portray it as such. Are we here to observe? To protect? To teach? To learn? Well my friend, that is up to you. When I feel lost – when I am uncertain of my purpose – I search for the Oak Forest. Where do you go to find yourself?