- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The bird explodes from a winter-sere cornfield, a great dark blast of wild turkey, his naked neck with its red and blue coruscations extended, snakelike. A weak spring sun picks iridescent bronze highlights from feathers which, at a distance, appear to be matte-black. But this bird—a male, a "gobbler" judging from its beard and size—is so close at hand that you can see the fine hairs growing from the horn-like snood that sprouts from its downcurved beak. Each bristly strand in the blue-black beard that springs from its chest is distinct, accenting the powerful curve of the muscles.
You can even see that he's got dirty feet—not the gaudy Schiaparelli pink of a turkey that's been wading brooks or feeding through snowdrifts, but rather the sheen of mud acquired in the wet, rich lowlands. Inch-long spurs glint wickedly above the clenched toes. So alive, so immediate is this gobbler that an observer well acquainted with the species (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) could swear he sees mites crawling on its back, smells the hot dusty reek of the plumage, hears even the heart-stopping rattle of its primary feathers on cornstalks—and feels the butt of his 12-gauge slam his shoulder as he raises it to fire.
Yet this magnificent bird, except for its angry brown eyes, which are made of glass, is hewn entirely of basswood—down to the last and least of its 1,800 feathers, each so precisely carved and colored as to defy differentiation from the real thing. The turkey, a masterpiece of the wildlife sculptor's art, took 1½ years and 5,000 man-hours from conception to completion. Until mid-January it will be on display in the Roosevelt Memorial Hall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, a place of honor occupied in the past by such works as Leonardo da Vinci's notebook drawings.
The turkey is the creation of B. Porter Brown, 56, of Pawlet, Vt. and Stuart, Fla., and Brown's wife of 20 years, the former Mary Barrett Clayton, 43, a wildlife watercolorist of high reputation. Brown, a slim, jolly Virginian who loves to hunt quail but has never pursued the wily turkey, came to his art by an anomalous avenue. For 27 years before his retirement in 1972, Brown was an aeronautical engineer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, more at home with retro-rockets and vector analysis than ornithology. During those years with NACA and NASA, Brown did flight research on such aircraft as the P-51 Mustang, F-86 Sabrejet, F-84 Thunderjet and the needlenosed X-1 rocket plane that banged on the supersonic door. With the birth of the space age, in 1958 he became launch coordinator for the Mercury program that put John Glenn in orbit, and played key roles in the Gemini and Apollo programs, which landed Americans on the moon. Brown was Mission Director of the Sky-lab program when he took early retirement a decade ago. "I could see the handwriting on the wall," he drawls. "It read 'cutbacks.' The virtually unlimited funds were drying up. And what the hell, I'd really seen the best of it."
But Brown is cursed, or blessed, with the need to work, and at 47 was far too young for full retirement. That's where Mary took a hand. Always interested in the arts—until she tore a muscle in her left calf last summer while performing in a production of Finian's Rainbow, which she had choreographed for the Dorset (Vt.) Players, she was an active dancer—Mary encouraged her husband to try his hand at bird carving. "Neither of us knew the first thing about it," she says. "Porter's first project was a least sandpiper. He found himself a chunk of hardwood—maple, I think—and began hacking at it with a knife." Neither the knife nor the wood was suitable to fine carving, and Brown quickly graduated to better tools and materials.
"We'd bought 50 acres along the Mettawee River in Pawlet," he says, "and one day I noticed some trees growing along the stream—trees with very light, soft wood. Asking around, I found it was basswood, and that wood-carvers considered it superior even to South American balsa wood in its workability. So I had my medium. But I didn't have the right tools."
Most of the best carvers' blades used in sculpting birds in America are made by a fellow named Cheston Knotts who charges $10 or $15 apiece for them. "They're fine enough tools for most carving purposes," says Brown, "but I wanted to try something radically different. I wanted to apply aeronautical engineering techniques to my birds. So I began making my own, special-purpose knives."
Using old bits of file he scavenged from his farmer neighbors and working them down on a grindstone, then adding carefully shaped handles of maple, lilac or walnut, Brown soon had a kit of tools that fitted both his hand and his purpose. Returning to the sandpiper, he produced a decent, but nonetheless disappointing, simulacrum. "Mary took the damned thing away and set to work on it with her paints," Porter says. "When next I saw it, by God, it was a real sandpiper! We both knew that we were on to something."
That was five years ago. Since then they have produced "35 or 40 birds," according to Porter, ranging from tiny, life-size ruby-throated hummingbirds ("A cunning critter: His tongue is touching a larkspur blossom, as if in mid-hover, but it's the flower that actually holds him up") to a grave and stately great blue heron, also life-size and so vital that you expect to see it spear a frog from the Browns' living room floor. The output includes a bald eagle, an osprey with a trout in its hooks, a pair of common egrets in territorial battle, and the capstone thus far: the turkey erupting from the corn.
"This corner of Vermont is alive with wild turkeys," Brown says. "In fact, when turkeys were reintroduced in the state some 13 years ago, the first ones were put in right here in Pawlet. We have them all over our property and in the surrounding hills. I decided I had to try one."