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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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July 2009 Archives

Wilderness

I used to think you had to travel to see exotic wildlife - until last week, anyway, when a bird the size of a bus stopped my car just as I was pulling onto the Ford Bridge.

Okay, it wasn't that big. But it was big. And so exotically out of place that for a split second I thought it might be a peacock.

I hit the brakes, my mind Rolodexing through all the reasons why it couldn't be a peacock ("Too big! Too brown! No tail! This is Minnesota!''). By the time the car stopped, I'd hit the answer, though mercifully not the bird.

It was a wild turkey.

A young, rather slim wild turkey, so unaccustomed to automobiles that it didn't run when my front bumper stopped three feet away. It didn't even flinch - though when cars in the oncoming lanes began closing in, it did stop strolling toward the yellow center line. It paced around in front of my hood instead.

Lots of people, especially in rural areas, see wild turkeys all the time. I know that. But this was in the city - in the middle of a street in my own south Minneapolis neighborhood, a place of bungalows and cottages, neat lawns and boulevard gardens, traffic lights and stop signs - a tame world where a wild turkey was about as foreign as my imaginary peacock.

Urban wildlife here is limited to the raccoon families that emerge at dusk to rob garbage cans, the gray squirrel that chewed the tops off my tulips, the chipmunk who lives in the ivy outside my bedroom window, and a hopeful mallard couple that started to nest beside a puddle in our street - until the puddle dried up.

Even a deer would be a surprise here. A wild turkey was so preposterous that I laughed out loud.

I eased my car toward the bird, very slowly, thinking it might reconsider and sprint back into the safety of Minnehaha Park. No, it just stalked calmly around to the passenger-side window, craned its scrawny pink neck and peered in at me. It looked like a teen-aged ostrich.

I was just wondering whether it would peck the glass - and whether the glass would break if it did - when a young guy leaped out of the nearest car and tried to shoo it away. It didn't want to go. He had to chase the turkey up and down, in between cars, yelling and waving his arms, before it finally changed its mind - and its course - and sprinted off.

"Had one in my yard!'' the guy shouted, as he got back behind the wheel. I drove on, smiling, and thought of other encounters with exotic wildlife. The clump of trees on an East African horizon that materialized into giraffes as we got closer. The log in a Florida backwater that became an alligator and crawled away in the blink of one yellow eye. The dark clump of leaves in a jungle tree in Costa Rica that morphed into a howler monkey breakfasting on blossoms.

Those were exotic surprises, all right, but they'd all been in exotic places. Because home isn't exotic, I don't expect wild turkeys here, anymore than I expect peacocks. So I don't look for them.

Familiarity, I realized, doesn't breed contempt - it just breeds familiarity. That wild turkey literally made me open my eyes.

It also made me remember an old family friend, whose attitude toward life deserves to be passed along. Every day, he said, he tried to find a new way to drive to work because he "never knew what he might see.'' He'd have loved that wild turkey. So did I - for showing me that home can be exotic, too.