Lessons from the Land: Columbine High School, Wild Turkey Hunting, and Hidden Scars

Ten years ago today our 16-year-old son Matt wandered the ponderosa forests of Wyoming’s Bear Lodge Mountains near our ranch with a twelve-gauge shotgun, a couple of apples, deer jerky, a few sandwiches, and two hunting buddies. It was opening day of wild turkey season.

400 miles south, on this same day, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold terrorized and killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Before the day was over, they too would be dead.  I spent most of my growing up years in Littleton, a town whose roots spread from the foothills west into the Rocky Mountains, and east into the shortgrass prairies. The ancestors of the Merriam turkeys that now wander the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming were once native to the ponderosa forests of Colorado.

My son had been excited about opening day for months. This was his first turkey hunt. He and his two friends (one an experienced hunter and wildlife artist, the other a member of a professional outfitting family), had all received parent-approved-leave to miss school that day. All three young men had taken the required Hunter Safety Courses.

On our small ranch we received only two television stations. As I watched the news of the tragic shooting in Littleton, I also envisioned my son and his friends hiking the hills, shotguns pointing downward, turkey calls spilling forth from voices deepening with the promise of manhood. I worried for their safety, trusted in their good sense, gave thanks for the stories they would learn from the land, and grieved for the people in my hometown of Littleton.

During the winter, Matt and his friends had hiked miles and miles of hills and woods—scouting for coyotes, marveling at bull-sized elk tracks, treasuring antlers shed by fleet white-tailed deer. They had bugled, howled, and crowed during their jaunts—discovering each other’s skills and weaknesses. They had sparred and parried, much like the turkeys they were hunting. But for Matt, this day was different—this day was a rite of passage.

They arrived at their carefully chosen hill in the predawn and began the challenge of calling in the birds. The call of a dominant wild turkey is like his strut—proud and boastful. I have heard the wild calls many times, but it was Matt who really began to teach me, as his friends were teaching him, the birth stories of these winged ones.

The male turkey gobbles not only to tempt the illusive hens to come to him, but to challenge the other males as well. If another big male hears the invitation, he may wander toward it hoping to waylay the hens, boldly greet the challenge, or he may acquiesce.

“Mom, once when we were on the hill calling, we ended up on the border between two different bands. They were gobbling back at us, thinking we were the other jakes, but they wouldn’t come any closer.”

I had listened as Matt told me how the male turkeys, from the time they are hatched, begin vying for the dominant position. They leave the brood to wander in a bachelor band, surviving not only howling blizzards and marauding coyotes, but the onslaughts of their own siblings. The young jakes—who have begun to sprout “beards”—wrestle, spur, and peck at one another until finally, by spring, a hierarchy has been established.

“Mom, did you know that it’s only the strongest tom who’s allowed to mate with the hens?” Matt asked as he browsed through a copy of Wyoming Wildlife. This did not surprise him—he knew the way of the bulls and the bucks. And he knew that despite this hierarchy, if the male turkey population grows too large the jakes begin molesting the nesting hens.

The Denver Post started putting news about the Littleton tragedy online almost immediately. “HIGH SCHOOL MASSACRE” read the first Internet headlines. Students described Harris and Klebold as “outcasts and loners.” I was reading these stories when loud gobbling calls penetrated the office walls of our log home. I heard the eager whine of our Border collie, then boots stomping on the wooden deck. I pulled myself away from the computer, dried my tears, and went to the back door.

“Mom, I got a turkey, Bruce got one too. You want to see them, don’t you?” he asked as we headed outside. “Bruce’s turkey was about 40 yards away, Mom, it was a hard shot.” Bruce looked humble, yet proud. Matt continued. “His bird was the dominant male, bigger than mine. Mine’s got an 8-inch beard, Mom!”

By now we had reached the old ‘74 ranch truck. The boys reached in the back of the pickup and lifted out their birds, holding them high in the air. “Let’s go fan ‘em out over by the oak trees. Where’s your camera, Matt?” All three boys were talking at once, each adding to the story.

“As soon as my bird realized the bigger turkey was hurt," Matt said, "he jumped on him and started clawing him. Then he stretched out his neck and stuck out his head to gobble—that’s when I shot him.” Matt was quiet for a moment. “They died fighting, Mom,” he said.

Images of the hillside scene flashed in my mind, intermingled with sound bite images from the morning news—children huddled under desks, the faces of parents frozen in fear, the twisted and desperate struggle of Harris and Klebold to fight an enemy they did not understand and had wrongly identified.

What lesson for Matt hid within the story of these turkeys? I struggled with Columbine’s hidden meaning, too broad in scope for a single human mind and heart. Later, after the boys had field dressed, then plucked and cleaned their birds, Matt told me, “You could read their whole history when you cleaned them, Mom. Mine had a big scar running along his side. He’d been in a lot of fights.”

I marinated Matt’s turkey overnight, then filled it with herb dressing and rubbed olive oil and spices into its flesh. I slow-roasted it, basting it during the day as bits of the Columbine story emerged on the news. “Diary shows gunmen mapping out massacre” read more headlines. I thought of Matt and his friends traversing the countryside as they mapped out the territories of the wildlife. There, in that remote Wyoming landscape, he was able to seek and find himself, to discover his place in the world.

We ate Matt’s turkey at a table set with my grandmother’s china. Sarah took the candles from the mantle and lit them while Mark took a picture of Matt seated at the table. That was not the first meat our son had brought home—we had eaten deer that he had hunted, and beef and pork that he had raised. Our prayers of thankfulness always honored the animals. That night, they also honored those who had died at Columbine.

These are stories of the land. They are the only parameters by which I know to seek my bearings. My heart aches for those who must navigate their way through life with technology alone. My heart aches for those who have stories to tell, but can find no one to listen, for those lost in a world so removed from nature that we have forgotten how to nurture. We must not wait for our young men to die fighting before we acknowledge the hidden scars they carry. We must not forget that there are lessons which only the land can teach us.

To read more stories about this tragey at Columbine High School, please go to Colorado Public Radio KCFR indepth news, BBC coverage, or 20th Century History articles .


Lara Robinson said…
I've been listening to NPR all weekend and again this morning. The coverage is intense, and the memories are still fresh. The land provides some wonderful, intense ways of healing, to be sure. Often it's the scars that define us, isn't it? Our inward and outward signs of struggle that have occurred throughout our lives.
A touching tribute to life in all its forms. Thank you Page.
Beautifully said, Page. It's so important to mark and remember these events, the people, feelings, and outcomes. I grew up in a rural area and accompanied my father hunting and fishing and it was a traditional part of many of the families around us as well. We learned gun safety, honored the land, and the meat and fish supplied our table and was never wasted.
Jerrie Hurd said…
Can't believe it's been ten years. Your comments were spot on. Thanks.
Page Lambert said…
Lara, yes, our inward and outward struggles do leave scars, much like cliff faces are varnished by the weather. Thank goodness, these struggles also give us the patina of wisdom. Thank you for your comment.
Page Lambert said…
Velda, thank you for the uplifting comment.
Page Lambert said…
Rosemary, thank you for sharing a bit more about your upbringing, especially emphasizing the "honoring the land" aspect of how you were raised. This is a part of rural living that many people are not aware of.
Mary E. Trimble said…
Page, what a beautifully written story. Pride in your son--and rightfully so--shines through your words. It's obvious where he gets his love of the land. Thank you for sharing his story.

Page Lambert said…
Mary, I imagine your 4 children were also reared with a deep appreciation of nature. The wooded acreage where you live in Washington sounds beautiful. Thank you for your comment.
Anonymous said…
Touching and almost unbearably real, Page. You build your theme with such delicate skill. I was hooked from the first sentence. Excellent writing!

Carol Grever
Page Lambert said…
Carol, thank you for the lovely comment. I am still trying to understand and articulate the difference between these two scenarios - young men with rifles and stories to tell - yet such different outcomes. One so very tragic.
Susan J Tweit said…
What a thoughtful, searching essay, Page. You're working through those bigger questions about why we make the choices we make, and what makes us so beautifully humane in some cases, and when we go so horribly wrong in others. I know that many see the two young shooters at Columbine as some kind of monsters, but they were human too. What twisted them is not clear, but we can know that somehow they missed out on the sort of grace and mercy that keeps us from making their dark choices. Thanks for exploring the subject, and giving us a beautiful evocation of the role you've played in raising your wonderful kids.
Page Lambert said…
Susan, your comment articulates what I was hoping to accomplish with the essay - which still feels unfinished, almost too large a subject to wrap both heart and mind around in a single essay. Thank you for reading it, and for the affirmation that when we delve into these difficult subjects, we are shedding light into these dark places.
Dina Horwedel said…
This is not only a moving tribute to that day, but it also makes me ask if, by leaving the land, forgetting it, somehow we lose our compass, causing the sense of loss that some people cannot name or identify, making us broken beings, creating tragedy along the way.
Yes, Dina, I think we have lost our compass, our bearings in the natural world. But rather than feeling we are broken, I like to think that we are evolving,and somehow this disconnect is an important part of reconnecting in a deeper, more symbiotic way. Let's hope!

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