December 2012

The American bird

By David Feela

A wild turkey crossed my path last year while I hiked along Petroglyph Trail, a recreational sidebar within the greater Mesa Verde National Park, on -- of all days -- Thanksgiving Day. It posed in the open for an instant and tried to stare me down before calmly moving off — an alert, fully plumed and magnificent specimen of a game bird. I felt as if it had stopped to emphasize the difference between itself and the pale, plucked, over-greased variety of America we stuff into so many tiny 350-degree tanning booths on the fourth Thursday of each November.

In all fairness to the wild bird, let me mention how Benjamin Franklin confided to his daughter in a 1784 letter that the turkey would have been a better choice for the Great Seal of this country instead of the bald eagle, which had been officially adopted by Congress in 1782 as our national bird. The eagle, he suggested, was a coward, a bird of inferior moral character, a lazy opportunist that scavenged and did not garner its living honestly.

I doubt if Franklin ever weighed the merits of each bird when it came to filling out the Thanksgiving table.

Perhaps I should have been at home with family like so much of America, crowded into one room, surrounded by relatives, watching at least one football game on at least one television, eating a second piece of pumpkin pie, sipping another beer, instead of hiking this silent path. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but holidays often prompt an irresistible anti-social feeling inside me, an urge to get off on my own, to participate in no gathering, to share no experiences, to converse almost exclusively with the rocks and trees.

And here I’d arrived at a spot where 500 years prior to Franklin’s familial letter, some anonymous hands with pointy rock tools pecked an array of images into this southwestern Colorado cliff wall, and several of the petroglyphs depicted birds. Maybe they are turkeys, it’s hard to tell, but they stand, silently posed beside the outline of a flattened, open human hand – the same figure all firstgraders are taught to draw in class before the fall holiday by tracing a line around the peninsulas of their tiny fingers. I counted exactly two birds beside that single handprint on the rock wall, and it struck me as a shoe-in for the adage, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Eventually I continued along the trail, returning to the Spruce Tree museum, where I paused at that great vantage point overlooking those prehistoric condo cliff dwellings below. The path was still deserted. Turkeys, one; Tourists, zero.

Over 2 million years ago, wild turkeys existed, based on the scientific dating of fossil remains, and it’s even possible the Aztecs had domesticated a variety of the bird. The turkey was here in North America when the Puritans landed, and still here when Benjamin Franklin flew his kite.

I try to imagine the sheer absurdity of proposals being swatted back and forth by our early politicians that finally concluded in the Great Seal decision, which might have threatened to become our first legislative gridlock, and we should be glad an albatross didn’t end up as the emblem for our democracy.

But what troubles me most after the latest election is not who won or lost, but that Big Bird got dragged into the political melee. Here is a purely American symbol of kindness, stature, and diplomacy – not red, not blue, but yellow. Maybe it’s about time a new bird received a nomination for its place on the Great Seal of this country, not predator or prey, not rich or poor, not Republican or Democrat, but an 8-foot pillar of unruffled feathers that stands, literally, for rising above it all.

David Feela is a retired high-school English teacher in Montezuma County, Colo.