The turkey life is the best life

It’s the sort of TV show that you would only watch on a weekend morning. That brilliant time where you don’t have any particular place to be and you’re just the right amount of sleepy — not overtired, just waking up slow.

My brain is less critical in those times — it says yes more than it says no. That’s why I ended up watching ‘My life as a turkey’ — the greatest documentary ever made.

It’s about a naturalist called Joe who becomes mother turkey to a brood of 13 baby turkeys. He spends two years of his life devoted to this role. And if you, like me, have some initial concerns about that premise, the show deals with them straight away…

“Spending this time alone with a bunch of birds may appear close to insanity to you. But you don’t know turkeys like I do.”

Fair point, Joe, no one knows turkeys like you do.

The brilliance of the show is best discovered rather than described (in fact you can watch it free and legally here). But what I will say is that Joe has a hypnotising Forrest Gump twang in his voice and as much as it all seems remarkably weird, it is also remarkably profound.

It’s hard to finish the documentary without feeling like the world is a beautiful place — full of meaning and wonder. If that was all there was to it, that would be more than enough. But then Joe the naturalist starts to sound a lot like Jesus the carpenter-turned-preacher.

Joe says…

“I came to realise that these young turkeys in many ways were more conscious than I was. I actually felt a sort of embarrassment when I was in their presence. They were so in the moment. And ultimately their experience of that manifested in a kind of joy that I don’t experience and I was very envious of that.”

Jesus says…

“Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, but your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his lifespan?” (Matthew 6:26–27)

For a beautiful moment in time, Jesus and Joe are saying the same thing. That the humble bird has grasped a truth we haven’t. Turkeys don’t worry about future troubles like we do. They live in the moment and they’re better off for it.

And while I agree that we’re more valuable than these birds, we’re not always smarter. It’s too easy to treat life like a chess match — trying to think three moves ahead — but it just leaves you watching the clock, straining for victory, fearing defeat.

Maybe it’s better to treat life like a walk in the forest (something Joe and his turkeys do a lot). When you go on such a walk, planning becomes less important — instead it’s better to move slowly, smell some things and see if you can find a squirrel.

I wouldn’t want to sum up life in one neat metaphor though. I’m beginning to think that whatever framework you view your life in starts to become true. To a significant extent, you can choose whether it’s a chess match, a forest wander or something else entirely.

So many areas of life are future focused — we’re interested in right now only so far as it helps us predict a brighter or a bleaker tomorrow. So many times I’ve ached after a promotion or a better car, house, television… but when it comes I forget to enjoy it.

The point that both Joe and Jesus make, in completely different ways, is that there is a joy to be found in the present. That right now is valuable not because of how it changes your future but simply because of because of how it is. We need less time spent wondering how to store up our riches, and more time spent just wandering.

What I’m trying to say is that the turkeys are right, I think.

But I don’t know all the secrets of a happy, successful, fulfilling existence. All I know is that one Sunday morning I started watching a show about a madman and his birds, but ended up learning a lesson about life and God and worry.

It’s a lesson I won’t forget.

And let me leave you with a beautiful and largely irrelevant quote from our favourite turkey expert, simply because I could quote this guy all day…

“I feel like an anthropologist, who after immersing himself in an exotic tribe is becoming confused about his own social identity. I haven’t started eating grasshoppers yet but the smooth green ones are starting to look pretty tasty.”