Later this month, President Obama will step out into the White House Rose Garden and be handed a turkey. He will then proceed to pardon it, as other presidents have occasionally done, formally and informally, as far back as John F. Kennedy. This turkey, the pardon promises, will not be killed and eaten, as is the American way, but will instead go to a farm in northern Virginia or southern Maryland to live out its days alive, sentence commuted. This is our national pledge to each other: Here is an animal we will not murder, maim, or disfigure. It’s a nice gesture. It is proof we are kind and generous and humane. No judgments.
I, myself, have enjoyed many a tender turkey thigh. I also never fail to tear up with patriotic holiday sentiment when the pardon is made official and the crowd gathered together politely applauds and then disperses, heading home to deader birds. I might go so far as to say that the practice is among my favorite federal traditions: This turkey we’ve plucked, so to speak, from the poultry millions, crowning it a winner in a cruel lottery that is the universe, compels me to remember how well I myself have fared in that lottery. In other words, the ploy works. Of all the holidays a non-religious American like myself celebrates, Thanksgiving and its trappings come the closest to what one might call meaningful.
As for the synecdoche of Thanksgiving, the turkey itself: That relationship is more complicated. Just because I get weepy when the president pardons a turkey does not mean there is any love lost between those birds and me. For a time as a teenager I was a strict animal-rights-motivated vegetarian: none of that pescetarian business, no hamburgers on the sly every few months, just a whole lot of pasta with the occasional vegetable as garnish. Only a force as powerful as my own righteous adolescent conviction that animals were not put on this earth for our casual consumption could have made me believe otherwise. That said, this moral resolve had taken hold before I had any direct personal experience with the species Meleagris gallopavo, otherwise known as the domesticated turkey. This hole in my education was duly filled during the fall of 1996 when I left my public high school in Virginia to spend a semester in Vermont at a program designed to instill in teens a sense of connection to the natural world.
My sister was in college in the Northeast at the time, and I had learned about the program through a couple of her new northeastern friends who, themselves then all 20 and 21, had once upon a time spent a semester there. The American truism that has held for generations held for me: Upon initial encounters, southeasterners from public schools are inordinately impressed by northeasterners from private ones. I thus became fixated on the idea of going to this place that represented wool sweaters, cross-country skiing, Labrador retrievers, wood chopping, and Robert Frost. I was looking to unlock a way of life. So I applied, was accepted, and went.
Of all the holidays a non-religious American like myself celebrates, Thanksgiving comes the closest to what one might call meaningful.
The campus was a picturesque 350-acre working farm in the Green Mountains. On our first afternoon we 45 students sat on Garden Hill, introduced ourselves then read aloud round-robin-style from “The Man Who Planted Trees”: All this, at the time I embarked upon my long walk through these deserted regions, was barren and colorless land…The wind, too, scattered seeds….When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources…. We then picked ripe corn and ate it raw from the cob.
In the classroom, English revolved around Thoreau, Roethke, McPhee, and Dillard. In science class, our textbooks were plots of land from which we were tasked with deciphering the movements of glaciers and tectonic plates millions of years ago. Bunches of dried flowers hung from the rafters of the dining hall in the corner of which, positioned in an alcove of windows overlooking open meadows, sat a grand piano. During downtime at the dorms, I was educated in the social machinations of this world in which I was still an innocent; it was in the dorms that I learned what a Milton Academy was, that there is a difference between a Dalton and a Fieldston, that summer camps could determine degrees of WASPishness or cultural Jewishness, and that there is an iceberg’s worth of implication slipped into the seemingly innocuous phrase, “Do you know so-and-so?”
There were also farm chores. These included reaping the harvests in the greenhouses and on Garden Hill, which would be delivered to the kitchen and later appear on the dinner table, tapping the maple trees for syrup, rotating the cows in their fields, feeding the pigs, collecting the eggs, and mastering the art of axe and log by chopping wood. The chores were designed to help answer those basic human questions about purpose and meaning that begin to develop a stranglehold during teenage years as the problem begins to dawn on you that life has to be worth something. Not only that it has to be worth something, but that it is up to you to figure out how you are going to use—or spend—yours, and that perhaps in that chasm between “use” and “spend” lies some clue as to the fabric of your character with which you will reckon on your deathbed.
That first day, the taste of raw corn still in my mouth, the man who planted trees still planting away in my prefrontal cortex, my chore was assigned: turkeys. I would be taking care of the turkeys. If there is a less romantic farm animal out there, I don’t know it. I love animals. I did then, I do now, I always will. It’s in my blood. Before arriving that September, I had entertained visions of tending sheep. Of bottle-feeding orphan calves. Of gathering eggs in a gingham apron. Of helping train adolescent border collies to “come-bye.”
The campus was situated along a hill, with the main road out toward civilization at the bottom and the dorm where I lived with five other girls at the top. Beyond our dorm stretched bucolic New England countryside, the stuff of American postcards. Over the course of the next three months that view would go through the paces of its seasonal saga: summer greens followed by autumn reds and yellows and oranges, and a finale of white woods and snowy evenings. It’s too bad the turkeys had the best seats in the house. Their pen was on this hilltop, moving a few feet every few days in one direction or another to keep the turkeys from overtaxing any one particular patch of grass.
There were about 25 turkeys in the flock and by that September they were all mature birds unwittingly working toward improving their body mass index in favor of fat. My responsibilities sounded simple enough: Let the turkeys loose in the morning, then corral them back together again in the evening to protect them from the coyotes at night. Occasionally, when the windows were open in the dorm, you could hear the coyotes through the darkness yipping and howling somewhere in the woods beyond the meadows and you’d vaguely register the likelihood that some proverbial prey was having its worst day while you were inside bent over a contemplative essay about how a human might imitate the singular survival instinct of weasels.
Our time together began well enough for the turkeys and me. The sunrise over the Vermont mountains was beautiful and the dew clung to the late summer grass in a way that made the whole hill shimmer. The morning air was refreshing. Far be it for me not to knock the animals that got me out of bed for these moments. There was the novelty of the experience as well: I’d never seen a turkey up close. They were so big! Their wattles so grotesque! The control they had over their feathers—puffing them up, pulling them down, fanning them out, folding them in—so fascinating! From a distance and in the right light, the silhouette of the flock pecking its way along the horizon could even have been considered sweet.
But by the second or third week, the novelty had begun to wear off, as it does. My feelings were slipping from genial to dutiful. The loveliness of the sunrise was transitioning to the loneliness of dawn. The dew on the grass was hardening into patches of ice on the dirt. My bed was getting warmer. The turkeys were unchanged. I had by then, too, grown sufficiently accustomed to their impressive statures and entrancingly hideous wattles to turn my attention to their personalities, which, I was learning, could be less than charming.
I can get righteous defending these basic truths: Turkeys are stupid. Very stupid. Turkeys are dirty. Very dirty. And turkeys are mean. Very, very mean.
My central task—getting the turkeys in and out of the pen—proved challenging, particularly in the evenings, and soon made for a struggle of bodies and wills that didn’t always have a clear winner. The turkeys in the flock were remarkably attached to one another, operating more like a single strange creation of wings and beaks than a collection of autonomous animals. Until, that is, I needed them—as a flock—to go where I wanted. I’d approach from behind in a pathetic attempt at herding. They’d see me and scatter like sparks jumping from a fire into the night. I’d successfully coax a few in the desired direction only to turn around and find another few had scurried the other way. I’d think I had the flock squared away for the night when I’d scan the hill one last time and see a group of stragglers hanging around like delinquents outside a 7-Eleven. I’d curse and mutter, then trudge in their direction.
By the end of the first month, there was no equivocating: My feelings had plummeted from dutiful to resentful. By the time daylight saving time rolled around, I was pushing off my morning turkey duties past the point of responsibility. Too pea-brained to grasp I was in a rush and that the pellets I was throwing into the grass outside their pen were not fun-fetti for my own entertainment, but enticements designed to encourage the birds’ expediency, the turkeys refused to be hurried. I’d stand to the side of the gate, shivering, gritting my teeth, and taking deep calming breaths to abate my creeping desire to wring all their necks, noting with tightening lips each clumsy assemblage of animal parts (turkeys were not designed with any golden mean in mind) as it made its leisurely way past me as if participating in a parade to the end of time. I was lazy enough not to let this stop me from continuing to stay in bed past a reasonable point, but Swiss enough to get irate over the fact that my charges had begun to make me consistently late for class.
The situation was reversed in the evenings: I had homework and gossiping and bonding and teenage-girl fights to get back to in the warm dorm, so there was no time for dillydallying: the birds needed to hurry up and get back in that pen. The turkeys again begged to differ. This was when they could get aggressive. Wanting to move the process along, I would sometimes forgo herding and resort to simply trying to capture them one at a time, depositing them where they belonged, then going back for another. This was rarely a welcome overture. If, upon approaching a bird I planned to grab, the bird caught onto my plan and rejected it, its neck would shoot up and seem to double in length. It would cock its head and focus a black pebble eye on me, then scurry straight toward my body with remarkable speed and no friendly intentions, at which point I would turn and run and spend the next 20 or so minutes a safe distance from the flock, trying to regain my cool and the guts to get back at it and finish the job.
If the bird was less aggressive but still displeased with my plans to grab it, it would go for my fingers once I had its butt cradled in the crook of my arm. I returned to the dorm more often than not with wounds to dress where the birds had drawn blood. Viciousness aside, even the basic act of holding them was not an activity I relished. Their bodies were big, but because they are birds their skeletons are still made of the hollow, delicate material that provides the scaffolding for all birds and which you could sense through the feathers and fat, heightening the feeling that you were both holding something and also nothing, a sensation I found unsettling and creepy. By the beginning of November, my resentment had given way to full-blown revulsion.
It was around then that the situation came to a head. One night, I was late getting back from the dining hall and thus very late in tending to the turkeys. It was black out, and the wind was whipping around like it had deadlines to meet. It may have even begun to snow. The process that night had been one of deliberate procuring and delivering, procuring and delivering, procuring and delivering, not group herding, and the birds had proven particularly uncooperative. None of them wanted to get back in the pen. Tired and cranky when I arrived, I only got more so as our nightly struggle of animal wills dragged on. This dance was getting old. It was at least an hour before I finally had them corralled, and I was shoving the last bird through the gate when a gust of wind came up and caught the edges of the pen’s plywood roof with such force that it blew right off the pen and into the grass. I must have screamed. I was no doubt stunned. Whatever I did, by the time I regained my composure at least 10 of the birds had skipped town. At that point I sat down on the ground, surrounded by turkey shit, put my head in my hands and cried. The world on the hill had become my own private snow globe from hell with me and these goddamn turkeys trapped inside.
Since that fall, many a turkey lover has stridently assured me that turkeys are majestic creatures. They’ve told me turkeys are beautiful; I’ve looked at them as if they have just landed from Mars. It’s not that I haven’t listened or wanted to revise my feelings. Being an animal lover, I’ve tried: I’ve watched the PBS Nature documentary, “My Life as a Turkey,” where a man I’d probably want to marry if I knew him hatches a family of turkeys, raises them, and spends a year ostensibly becoming a member of their family, observing and recording their habits, trying to determine and distinguish the behaviors birds intuit from those they learn. But not even the example of this man and his profound tenderness could convert me. My own learned experience had been too formative. Impressions made on soft, southern 16-year-olds are impressions that stick. To this day, I can get righteous defending these basic truths: Turkeys are stupid. Very stupid. Turkeys are dirty. Very dirty. And turkeys are mean. Very, very mean.
Three months had altered my moral compass. Did I want to kill a turkey? Yes, I wanted to kill a turkey. Where was the knife?
Of course, one of the many unfortunate facts about being a turkey is that, if you are raised on a farm, chances are high you’re being raised for consumption. Butchering took place a few days before Thanksgiving. The school did not outsource the job. Students were not required to participate, but there was an attitude that suggested, if you ate meat, you should probably know something about how that meat appeared on your plate.
Had you asked that August, whether I wanted to kill an animal, my answer would have been an indignant “No!” I was much too virtuous a vegetarian to consider such a barbarism. Three months had altered my moral compass. Did I want to kill a turkey? Yes, I wanted to kill a turkey. Where was the knife?
The knife was passed down the line from student to student. We stood waiting our turns to slaughter in fleeces and flannel in the backyard of the kitchen where the rite of passage was staged. For a slaughter, there was a remarkable sense of order. One by one we’d reach the front of the line, then step forward, away from the group and toward the solitary task at hand. One by one we were dividing ourselves into those who had killed and those who hadn’t. With each defector, the teachers would turn to those who remained and say we didn’t have to do this; this was our choice. We’d nod and try not to look too closely or think too carefully about the world beyond the front of the line which was where, before long, I found myself.
The knife was clenched in my right hand as I stood facing the wall of a shed, onto which was bolted half of a funnel. Through the narrow end of the funnel poked the vulnerable head and neck of the turkey, its black pebble eyes blinking mechanically, its body straightjacketed inside the contraption. At my feet was a plastic bucket. This was how the birds were killed: by hand. You took the bird’s neck in one hand and sliced its head off with the other. I paused only a moment before going in for the kill. I tightened my grasp on the neck that knew how to elevate the bird’s height by inches when its feet were on the ground and it had me in its crosshairs. In an instant, my motivations had shifted seismically, my bloodthirstiness usurped by a frantic desire to put this behind me. And then it was.
The animal’s head hit the bottom of the plastic bucket with a thud. Blood gushed from the hole in the neck where, seconds earlier, a head had been joined to a body. The bird was dead. That thud is among the heaviest sounds I have ever heard. It was the primal thud of an impassive food chain.
What else can I tell you?
What I’ll tell you is this: When I recount the turkey story now, I act bemused at my teenage angst and incompetence. Then, the end of the story arrives and, with it, a physical memory as real as anything in front of me in the present: the loose skin of the bird’s throat in my hand, the pulsing blood of its life against the fleshy determination of my human thumb.
I ate meat that Thanksgiving for the first time in years and have done so every Thanksgiving since. This Thanksgiving, however, the jury is still out. I spent a few months in Wyoming and Montana over the summer. What I brought back east with me was the reminder that the news on the East Coast is not necessarily national news. What people are talking about out west is not necessarily what people are talking about where I live. Out there, people are talking about that perpetually unresolved issue of land use—ranchers and conservationists duking it out over public lands, water rights, and wild life. Cattle, at the rate we consume them, eat up a lot of land. So do sheep. Ditto chickens and turkeys. So I’ve stopped eating meat, not for animal rights reasons, this time, but for reasons of land use. My threshold for cheating, however, is lower now than it was when I was 16, my allowances for self-indulgence higher, and my addiction to fish tacos more serious, so a piece or two of tender turkey thigh may still make its way past the ethical gatekeeper with questionable ethics that is my mouth when faced with the stuffed and browned bird on the set table.
Whatever I decide about turkey thighs in the end, I’ll go that morning, if the weather cooperates, to participate in another ritual designed around a Thanksgiving killing. The Blessing of the Hounds is held in the yard of Grace Episcopal Church, a brown stone chapel out in the part of Albemarle County that is all old Virginia money, new New York money, and horses. It’s the only church service I ever attend. The chaplain in her elaborate robes throws dog treats on the ground to keep the hounds’ attention as they are blessed while the hounds, for their part, keep their noses firmly in the dirt and their tails resolutely in the air. The horses doze between getting restless or cranky with each other and the riders, generally, look bored. What I remember most each year, after the service ends and weeks have passed, are impressions of color and sound: the browns of the church and the dried leaves and the horses, the blacks of the bare branches and tall boots and jackets, the whites of the breeches and the horses’ various markings, the red coat of the hunt master, the glint of the bugle like a knife. The melody of “We Gather Together” and the intonations of the Lord’s Prayer, the words of which I could do without, the cadences of which I couldn’t.
We then follow the procession to a field across the road and watch as the horses, hunters, and hounds set off over the hills in search of a fox that, if the dogs find, they will devour. If a fox is indeed cornered and caught that day, those riders who have never before been present when the prey has been successfully chased down—usually children or adolescents—will be blooded, meaning one of the more seasoned hunters will draw with his or her fingers on the foreheads of the uninitiated the sign of the cross in blood. Someone will take the trophy head home and put it in the freezer. If anyone happens to still be lingering back where the hunt began, chances are they will know nothing of the small drama unfolding in the woods. If they are aware of anything at all it will be only the vague sense that somewhere dogs are howling as if having found what they were looking for and that a primordial hunger has, for a moment, been sated.