Vultures. Yes, vultures. They get a bad rap. Words such as ugly and macabre emerge. There’s even the expression “hovering like vultures” – not typically used in an endearing way. Many vultures do, indeed, have a non-traditional look with their bald heads and bare necks. Their eating habits lead many to look away for something more pleasing to the eye. Even one of their group names, a “committee” of vultures, does little to enhance their reputation.
But when they soar…
Have you seen them soar? Really seen them soar? Have you watched them join a thermal, perhaps briefly flapping their enormous wings (up to a six-foot wingspan), before soaring on the air beneath them? The metaphor is usually “soar like an eagle,” but I, for one, argue for a shift to “soar like a vulture.” They ride and soar and float.
The physical appearance puts many off, but perhaps their negative connotation comes less from their looks and more from where they go. They smell and seek death – not exactly where crowds are drawn. Not only do they seek death and decay, but they go there – they dive on in and take on the toxicity. They enter the realm of death willingly and with a purpose. They find death and they transform it. This story sounds familiar.
They do not succumb to death. Well, they haven’t. Yet.
Spring in Iowa means the return of the turkey vultures – Cathartes aura. Cathartes from the Greek katharsis (purifier) and aura (golden). Golden purifiers. (I’m guessing the committees around here would prefer that name over the generally used turkey vulture moniker.) They are purifiers, cleansers. In fact, they are indispensable in the containment of disease. Somehow, these birds can eat what other animals cannot. Anthrax, cholera, botulism, salmonella. They can eat dead carcasses that would kill other scavengers. They rid the environment of disease – purifying it – redeeming it. Creating, once again, the conditions for life. Without these vultures, these purifiers, death lives on.
And yet, their existence is in peril. Just 15 years ago, there were millions of vultures in India. Those numbers have declined 97-99.9% due to a veterinary drug introduced to cattle back then. When these already sick cattle die, the vulture responds to its call – and in its attempt to bring renewal, becomes sick from the drug and dies. While vultures decontaminate our world, we are contaminating theirs.
And without them, death lives on…
A tree full of vultures might not be noticed unless you’re looking for them. They inhabit a stillness of being. Watching. Being present. They are awake. A wake. Feeding in a group, golden purifiers are called a “wake.” This name seems more holy. They are a wake – awake. Awake to death. Awake to life. Awake to transform death to life (at least for now.) Are we?
May we choose to soar, awake.
Shari L. Miller
(Photographs by Shari L. Miller)