From My South Window
by Jerry DeNuccio
Very quickly after the hay field just south of my property line was mown, the turkey vultures appeared. Watching from my study window, I saw, at the far end of the field, a group of seven on the ground feeding, a wake of turkey vultures, each taking its turn. Nearer, a kettle of half a dozen, buoyed on thermal updrafts, circles, some venturing so close to the window that I can see the gold-tinged feathers on their underwings. They soar with seeming nonchalance, but their keen senses of sight and smell are on alert for the dead or the gasses emitted by the dying. They are feathered drones, Cathartes aura cruise missiles, looming with searching intensity, ready to strafe down once a target is acquired.
Turkey vultures are singularly ugly creatures: small, warted, reddish-pink, bald heads perched atop a thick neck and large bodies heavily feathered in nondescript brownish-black. Because they are scavengers feeding only on carrion, most people consider them viscerally repellent, a profanation of what psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies as a morally foundational psychology of purity, with its attendant abhorrence of the disgusting and contaminating. An yet, in flight, riding the thermals, with only an occasional beat of their angled up wings, rocking slightly from side to side while tracing an effortless circular path through the sky, these grim raptors must be granted at least a grudging grace. They are nature “red in tooth and claw,” as Matthew Arnold has it. And they are nature in its capacity to “inform the mind,” “impress with quietness and beauty,” and instill “lofty thoughts,” as William Wordsworth has it. Not one or the other. Both.
By and large, we like clear dichotomies. We prefer operating at the ends of a spectrum. Turkey vultures, however, occupy the nebulous seam between several binaries. They are unsightly, but exhibit the beauty of efficient design, perfectly fitted to achieve its purpose. They are repellent scavengers of carrion, but are ecologically important, disposing of carcasses that could breed disease. They are regal in flight but ungainly on the ground. They are merciless and social, voracious and fastidious. They are as simple as a childrens’ tale, and just as complicated.
That’s the thing with things: They regularly break containment, spill over the tidy barriers and borders with which we categorize them, refuse to be graphed on X and Y axes. Our days and ways pulse with the rhythm of the digressive and discrepant. Perhaps the problem is language, words being labels with low adhesion to the things we affix them to. Perhaps inconstancy is the constant, the order within disorder. And perhaps our best response is to see it in all its inexhaustibility and be humble before it.