Illustration by Matt Weismantel
Turkey | Rebecca Ryall
The forest is alive today. Bellbirds chime, swallows chitter, currawongs trill, and there’s the call and response of the whip birds, not yet frightened off by the bellbirds' hostile incursion. The air is filled with the white noise of millions of leaves in the wind. Tall gums sway and bend, shedding leaves, twigs, and even small limbs. Larger branches crack and fall, thumping to the floor deeper in the forest. The younger gums are coltish – slender and clumsy in their dance – but the older ones are kind of stately. Only their leaves display their delight, waving about like jazz hands.
The fierce wind is visible, sweeping across the treetops in the valley beyond, ruffling papers on my desk and slamming doors on its passage through the house, and carrying a whiff of smoke. Various engines whine in the distance as fellow humans wield chainsaws and brush-cutters and drive tractors, futilely, in the face of the continued drought and threat of fire.
A constant in this cacophony is the rhythmic scrape of sharp turkey claws against the plywood lid of our compost. The ply is the exact dimensions of the bathtub in which we collect our food scraps to turn into soil. It is often left ajar, allowing entry to one of the turkey brood who roam here. The compost is irresistible to these guys, holding not only food scraps but juicy worms and various bug larvae. The lid at the moment sits securely, but this doesn’t faze the turkey. All day he has been there, patiently scraping against the lid, moving it in tiny increments. Eventually, the lid will shift, just enough for him to poke his wrinkly, whiskery little head in there and start making a mess of my front yard.
There’s another out the back, digging laboriously into the fine, powder dry dirt, seeking sustenance, deeper down where perhaps the soil is not so parched and dying. I watch as the hole gets deep enough that the turkey gets inside and starts pecking away at all the tiny critters it has unearthed.
These turkeys are the bane of my existence. Whatever I plant, they dig. Whatever I rake, they redistribute. If I happen to leave a door open in the house a turkey is sure to take advantage. Faced with the happy accident of an open door, one will wander in and, finding itself confined, panic, throwing itself at any source of light – window, mirror, lamp – and tearing at anything in the way. On the odd occasion, granted entry, one will shit on the bed, spreading the mess around in a frenzy, covering window, bedclothes, books, in putrid smears that I, as den mother, am tasked with cleaning up.
Bush turkeys have a fold of flaccid, yellow flesh around their necks, a bit like a scrotum. Most have only a small amount, somewhat like the loose skin on your elbow: imagine that around the scrawny neck of a turkey.
Not the dominant one, though. You can tell who that is by the size and colour of his gobble. This guy’s neck skin swings pendulously, sometimes stretching nearly down to the ground, and is a vibrant, sunflower bright yellow. He struts and his gobble swings down between his legs.
Some weeks ago, I was in the middle of a mad panic, packing cars and cleaning around the house, responding to fires nearby, when I noticed a limping turkey. A week or so later, when the fire mania had well and truly set in and we were all living a new normal, my youngest child also noticed. This meant the turkey had been injured for more than a week. It was unable to put weight on one of its legs and was hopping pathetically, slowly, around the yard.
I am not one to intervene unnecessarily into nature’s process. I see my role as witness and am familiar with the savage capacity of the universe. Anyway, I did not want to interfere with the survival (or otherwise) of what is essentially a wild animal. And the child ultimately did not want a scratched-up face, leaving the turkey to its own devices. After a few more weeks I noticed something else.
The turkey was still limping around, despite the relentless heat and difficult conditions. Then, one afternoon I spied the dominant turkey stalking around the perimeter of the yard, keeping all the other turkeys at bay while the injured one hopped and limped and pecked at the dry ground.
So, it seems the turkey pack look after their own. There is no way that turkey could have survived without the protection of the pack.
There are between four and eight bush turkeys sharing this little patch of bush with us, though they tend to range further than I do, frequenting several other dwellings besides mine. I assume they get up to the same mischief everywhere they go. The problem, as I see it, is that they are unwilling to negotiate. There are many other creatures and critters that live on the same patch with us and most seem to be happy to inhabit different territory to me. We have an accord – I won’t needlessly disturb their places of work and play and they will similarly respect mine – and it works, mostly.
Just not with the turkeys.
I recently came across a pictorial map of Bundjalung country. It differed from maps I am used to in that it contained no words or place names, and no topographic information. It was recognisable to me due to the coastal features I’m familiar with. The images on the map related to creation stories held by all the different mobs of the Bundjalung nation of Indigenous Australia. While they all have their own stories, which connect to the specific geography and ecology of their own lands, each country’s stories all connect and weave together into a greater narrative. This serves to bind together the human and non-human inhabitants of this place, and describes movements around country. I was curious as to how my place might be represented on this symbolic story map. I located myself at Goanna headland, a significant landmark to all Bundjalung peoples, and a recognizable feature located around Evans Head. I travelled up the coast past Arakwal country at Bryon, a little further north, and then headed west to look for the area where I live, just south west of Wollumbin.
Lo and behold, what do you think was the symbol I found there?
A damned turkey. Of course this is turkey country!
In other areas, not even that far from here, turkeys are endangered, and so they are a protected species. I feel like my resident turkeys know this, such is their arrogance and sense of entitlement. But really, it makes perfect sense for me to find them there on that map. The turkeys outside are so sure of themselves, so well adapted to this environment and completely unperturbed by my attempts to domesticate the surroundings. I am confronted by a deeply buried, but foundational value of my culture. As a non-Indigenous person, it is hard to let go of the idea that I should be dominant.
These turkeys know who really rules the roost. I disperse the pile of small rocks at my front door, get rid of the water guns, and resolve to watch the turkeys, instead of chasing them away. Perhaps they have some clues for me, about how to live in this place.
Rebecca Ryall has completed a Bachelor of Arts at Southern Cross University, minoring in Indigenous Knowledge and Cultural Studies, and is continuing studies through an Honours project.