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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

Turkey (copy)

A strutting tom turkey displays in March 2018 at Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge.

Since Christmas Day, I have been immersed in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The John Steinbeck novel, published in 1939, details the struggle of the Joad family as they are displaced from their Oklahoma home by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. In my opinion, the book is THE great American novel.

My wife gave me an audio version of the book for Christmas. I’ve read the novel four or five times, but listening to the words takes the experience to a new level. And, although I know many of the passages by heart, in the vernacular of the book, “I haven’t given er a good goin’ over in quite a spell.”

For those who haven’t read Steinbeck, he writes bluntly and delicately at the same time. He takes on broad social topics, but he weaves his stories with intricate detail. Steinbeck’s prose not only makes his characters come to life, but he writes with an intimacy that places you in the bed of the Joads’ rickety old truck or puts you at their campfire for dinner.

At several junctures in the book, Steinbeck reveals that he has spent countless hours in the outdoors, sitting and observing nature. It is evident from reading, or listening to his words, that he is both awed by the powers of nature, but also aware of the subtleties that largely escape our view.

Early in the book he writes about Tom Joad and Jim Casy walking through the Oklahoma countryside after dark. The two men decide it is pointless to walk through the night and decide to bed down in a dry stream bed.

Steinbeck describes the feeling of burrowing into the warm sand to seek refuge from the cool evening air. He eloquently describes those moments when human presence disrupts the ebb and flow of life in the wild.

The world goes momentarily quiet as the men settle into the sound. Steinbeck describes the sound of the wind lightly rattling leaves in the nearby willow trees. Within a few minutes, the men hear the tentative cry of a few birds, the lonesome sound of nighthawks flying overhead.

And, in the moments before they fall asleep, Joad and Casy become aware of emboldened field mice scurrying through the sand.

His description, which my words give little justice, is precisely what every turkey hunter experiences on a cool spring morning. The world is eerily quiet in those first minutes after you settle next to a large tree. The birds and animals back off to take stock of your intrusion.

As you sit motionless for several minutes, squirrels begin peering around trees inquisitively. They begin their incessant chirping as their confidence grows. As more time passes, woodpeckers and nuthatches begin landing on nearby trees. They poke around nervously, advancing nearer one tree at a time, all the while making you feel as if you’ve become an actual part of this wild world.

Finally, you hear the wingbeat of a bird lighting on the back side of your tree. At that moment, you realized that you’ve assimilated. It is a moment that brings a measure of pride, not to mention comfort. When you are accepted by nature, you realize human beings are part of something much larger than ourselves.

Which, coincidentally, is also the premise of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

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LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thsouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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