November 24, 2014

A Tale Of Two - um - Turkeys.

With Thanksgiving fast approaching and a population explosion of wild turkeys dotting the countryside (translation: suburbs) in the past few years, Ellen Goodman from truthdig discussed how the world and all its inhabitants are jockeying for space:

“The wild turkey is hardly the only creature that has learned to get along with us. As Greg Butcher of the National Audubon Society says, “it’s a strange era where every species is either too common or too rare.” The differential, he adds, seems to be the creatures’ “willingness to put up with the human lifestyle.”  It turns out that wild turkeys prefer to live on the “edge,” botanically speaking …”

My Thanksgiving prep began in one of those markets where, for a premium, you get a story with your food. Every vegetable, every creature and every jar of jam comes with its own pedigree and memoir.

The best of these tell how the farmer and his pigs, chickens or calves live in a sylvan idyll until the day when … well, they skip that part. These romantic tales of the farm are directed at consumers like me, a slightly uneasy carnivore and committed free-range turkey buyer who prefers to imagine her Thanksgiving dinner roaming happily over the American landscape under a clear blue sky.

Of course, I am aware that the USDA definition of “free-range” means that the turkey only has to be “allowed access to the outside,” even if it’s too institutionalized to actually waddle through a door. Nevertheless, it deserve a story. Maybe even a DVD.

Now those of you who do not live in the Bay Colony where the first Thanksgiving was held, the home of Plymouth Rock and Red Sox Nation, may be surprised to learn that in the past few years, they have had either (1) a population explosion or (2) a plague of wild turkeys.

Nationally, the restoration of the wild turkey has been a wild success story, up from 350,000 in 1950 to somewhere more than 3 million today. Massachusetts was fresh out of this game until 1972, when 37 turkeys were trucked over the border, released in the wilderness and promptly began to beget. There are now 20,000 more turkeys.

But who knew that these birds would take to urban and suburban life? Who knew that these 4-foot-tall, 20- pound would be found gobbling around backyards, hanging out near Starbucks, and roosting—look, a flying mattress!—in the trees. Who knew they would make routine appearances on the police blotter for behaving like, well, turkeys?

I attribute their occasional aggressiveness to the fact that the toms were originally from New York. I attribute their easy life to the fact that you can’t wield a 10-gauge shotgun within range of a streetcar. Their only natural enemies, if you don’t count the postman, are automobiles and the shiny bumpers that reflect back their own worst nightmare.

The wild turkey is hardly the only creature that has learned to get along with us. As Greg Butcher of the National Audubon Society says, “it’s a strange era where every species is either too common or too rare.” The differential, he adds, seems to be the creatures’ “willingness to put up with the human lifestyle.” It turns out that wild turkeys prefer to live on the “edge,” botanically speaking.

My tale of two turkeys—the free-range bird on my order pad and the wild turkeys—is an example of the odd evolving relationship between human and other nature. On the one hand, there is a growing premium on domestic animals that live more naturally. On the other hand, there is an explosion of wild animals living more tamely.

Consider a third turkey, the one at the White House. No, really. There has been an annual ceremony for a turkey. The creature, raised “using normal feeding and other production techniques”—say what?— received a presidential pardon, although it is unclear what crime he committed.

When the ceremony was over, what was the fate of the liberated poultry? It’s something that would make Jon Stewart’s writers long to cross the picket line. This turkey will be flown. First class. To Disney World. There, he will live out his, um, natural days as an exhibit in the backyard of Mickey’s Country House in Magic Kingdom Park. Meanwhile, the president will undoubtedly be dining on another free-range turkey.

When it comes to figuring out our place in nature, I have begun to think that we’re all living on the edge. Maybe Ben Franklin was right when he said that the wild turkey—not the bald eagle—should be our national bird.

After all, the eagle, in all of its restored glory, soars majestically above the fray. But the turkey is down here, gobbling, squabbling and flourishing, while we try to figure out our place in the pecking order.

Happy Thanksgiving.

October 09, 2014

A Hallowed Tale?

Yesterday I took a stroll to visit a location that has intrigued me for years.  A few years ago I wrote a blog post about GriffithPark and in the last paragraph mentioned the ranger station.  

Looks innocent enough? Just a quaint little adobe building?  This quaint little adobe (which is a reconstruction and may even have been moved north from its original location near the Mulholland Fountain) was the end of a treasure hunt for me, because of its importance in the story of Petranilla de Feliz, who supposedly (in 1863) cursed the land that is now Griffith Park.

I researched Petra, and Griffith J. Griffith, who did time for trying to murder his wife, all the way back to the Gabrielinos, the people who lived here before the Californios arrived in the nineteenth century.

I found a 1930 book called On the Old West Coast: Further Reminiscences of a Ranger, by Horace Bell. Bell was an interesting character - he'd once run a satirical paper in L.A. called The Porcupine - and he'd collected some of the oddest tales of old L.A.  Chapter Nine of On the Old West Coast is titled "The Feliz Curse", and details the haunted history of this very spot. It centers on an event in 1863, when - according to Bell - the 17-year-old girl, Petranilla de Feliz, who was set to inherit the land from the recently-diseased Don Antonio Feliz, discovers the Don has left a will giving the large family estate to two lawyers. Imagine the adobe then, possibly looking more like this...

Petranilla delivers this curse:

"Señor, do not dare to speak until I have finished! This is what I hurl upon your head: Your falsity shall be your ruin! The substance of the Feliz family shall be your curse! The lawyer that assisted you in your infamy, and the judge, shall fall beneath the same curse! The one shall die an untimely death, the other in blood and violence! You, señor, shall know misery in your age and though you die rich your substance shall go to vile persons! A blight shall fall upon the face of this terrestrial paradise, the cattle shall no longer fatten but sicken on its pastures, the fields shall not longer respond to the toil of the tiller, the grand oaks shall wither and die! The wrath of heaven and the vengeance of hell shall fall upon this place and the floods - !"

Here the inspired Petranilla swung round and stepped to the end of the veranda until she could see the sun sinking in the west beyond the Tejungas.

"See!" she cried with a far-flung gesture. "Behold! Cast your glance toward the dark entrance of the great Cañon of the Tejunga, and what do you see? Ha! ha! a myriad demons floating in air like so many vultures! They ride the storm clouds, and ay! they are lashing the clouds as the vaqueros lash the cattle to bring them together! Now the air darkens, the thunder rolls, the lightning flashes, the rain falls - ha! ha! the rain falls in torrents! Bowlders grind and crash, the demons ride the crest of the storm, they lash it into fury, it is coming - coming - coming! Ay, see! It has struck our willow dale, my old playground - it crumbles away into the great seething torrent! Now the royal oak is gone! See what the lightning flashes reveal at the base of the mountains - they reveal the oaks withering in the tongues of flame - their bright green leaves are scorched to cinders - because they were above the reach of the waters it is the fire from the clouds that has destroyed them. Woe, woe, woe to you and yours, señor! The meadows are gone, only the hills remain the mere bones of the rancho, and no man shall ever enjoy peace or profit from what is left of this once beautiful spot! Misfortune, crime and death shall follow those who covet these remains!"

Bell has Petranilla then collapse and die shortly thereafter. We know that in fact Petra was real, and lived far past 1863...but amazingly, the cursing itself may have been an actual event (Bell's florid recreation notwithstanding), since it's been described by others as well as Bell, including at least one person who claimed to be an eyewitness. For the next forty years this plot of land did indeed fall victim to floods and fires, while the owners were murdered and debt-ridden (contrary to the rosy picture painted on the plaque, Griffith probably gave the land to the city because it wasn't worth the property taxes he was paying on it - no one wanted to rent or buy the land, possibly thanks to the belief that the curse was real).

Bell goes on to describe workers encountering the ghost of Don Antonio, and he also describes at length a scene (probably nothing more than a satirical fantasy) in which Griffith hands the land over to the city officials during a party that, at midnight, is beset by demons and devils.

It's a lovely area, and one can imagine a young woman's rage on discovering that this land - which she'd believed would always be in her family, thanks to their status as guards of the original settlers in Los Angeles - has been taken from her. I've always thought the ghost stories were incorrect; it wouldn't be Don Antonio's vengeful spirit wandering the park, but Petranilla's, her fury keeping her rooted in place for eternity.

Is it any wonder, then, that this story and this seemingly benign little building have intrigued me?

When you next visit Griffith Park stop by the ranger station and if you encounter any ghosts, let me know.