First Person
Still Life with Turkey
by Peter Fong
February 28, 2007

I suppose that it's as characteristic of the season as ground squirrels and snowstorms'this urgent desire to spruce up the family homestead. So urgent that I managed only two outings for turkey in April and May. None for antlers. And none to those high-country lakes where sleek trout cruise the receding ice, ravenous for spring.

Some houses look like they sprouted from the landscape, as integral a part of the neighborhood as a cottonwood or boulder. Others rest lightly on their foundations, nestled against the land like a close friend. Our house squats on its lot like a great toad, with picture windows for eyes. It's not the weathered siding that seems out of place, or the woodpiles, or even the swingset. But the overall effect is invasive, as if you had been walking in a forest of pine and fir and stumbled suddenly on a coconut palm.

Don't get me wrong here. I am as grateful for this house as I would be for any home, and appreciate the comfort a stick-built house provides. I have lived at various times in an aluminum single-wide, a third-floor walk-up that listed to starboard like a leaky ship, and a '77 Chevy van with the rear seats removed.

But our burden is to make comparisons. To other times (our youth) and to other places (a log home in the Bitterroot Valley, shaded by maples). Our current abode is a spec house, which does not mean it was built to exacting specifications. On the contrary, this structure was built on the speculation of turning a profit, with a nod and a wink to summer vacationers--long on windows, short on insulation. There is nothing to distract your eye from the rising bulk of mountains, and no shelter from the relentless wind.

The previous occupants made a valiant attempt to establish some greenery, installing a dozen head-high trees in the hard-hearted gravel, then watering them diligently with a hose. But only three stalwarts survived the winter, with the rest reduced to standing tinder. The occupants themselves moved on to greener pastures (Oregon), leaving us with their irrelevant lawn mower and a brand-name barbecue that looks uncannily like a pig.

If I am critical, other creatures are not. Rabbits and mice nest under our deck. A meadowlark broadcasts from the roof peak. Mule deer graze within growling distance of our ordinarily good-natured dog, while a red fox hunts along the ditch. We have no desire to weed and feed a lawn, to remake our little patch of prairie in some counterfeit image of suburbia, but a few trees and flowers might be nice. Something to grow. A live reminder of time's passage. A defiance of sagebrush and prickly pear. And so we planted--North Dakota lilac, Nanking cherry, Siberian crabapple, Colorado blue spruce. Bare-root stock from the state nursery in Missoula; none much more than twigs. But all known for their tolerance of drought and cold, and most reputed to be unpalatable to deer.

Preparing the rocky soil for these outlanders was no picnic. The task required a backhoe and grader, plus many hours with pickaxe, rake, and shovel. We excavated two long shallow trenches, culled the cobbles, replaced the topsoil. About halfway through this project, I recalled that a northern pocket gopher typically moves five tons of earth each year, two teaspoons at a time.

The first seedlings have been in the ground a month now. They have been scoured by wind, buried by snow, and nibbled by deer--who seem genuinely unconcerned about palatability. Nevertheless, some are actually budding. You have to look close, but the leaves are there: red-green and yellow-green and green-gold.

This mild success has spurred more agriculture. Sarah focused on flax and daisies. Dave planted carrots and potatoes. Marina chose strawberries and sweet peas. Flush with the heedless optimism of newcomers and children, we've ignored the warnings of our neighbors with greenhouses. Seasoned veterans, they tell of trees that died after years of careful tending, of bulbs ravaged by rodents, tomatoes frozen on the vine.

When I hear these stories, I wonder if I should have spent more time hunting turkeys. And then I remember the last time I stroked the turkey call, a quiet afternoon in the pine-studded hills east of Sweet Grass Creek. One cluck (or was it a yelp?), and a nearby hen rocketed from the timber, departing with such conviction that I felt a momentary concern for my own safety.

Turkeys, of course, are not native to these hills. Neither are they migrants--like burrowing owls, long-billed curlews, and most of us humans. Turkeys are imports, trapped and transplanted to central Montana in the 1950s. Still, there must have been something in my tone (whether cluck or yelp) that betrayed me as a rank intruder.

The bird set her wings above the ridge, then drifted downslope. Since I would not shoot a hen, she wasn't making an escape, just a statement. I watched her out of sight, reminding myself that home is not where you are, nor even where you belong.
About the author:
For what it's worth, my stories and photographs have appeared in Fly Fisherman, Gray's Sporting Journal, the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler, and the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, among others.

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