Fabulous photo by Martin Harvey, and from Orion magazine, and absolutely not mine, but click it to reach them!
Fabulous photo by Martin Harvey, and from Orion magazine, and absolutely not mine, but click it to reach them!

I’ve been graced – yes, graced – with two up-close encounters with buzzards.  (The birder in me must point out that we are actually talking about Turkey Vultures, but I grew up calling them buzzards.)  The first time was while hiking in the Sunol Regional Wilderness, through an area that I think is known as “Little Yosemite.”  At one point, the trail/access road runs alongside, but well above, a lovely, winding river.  We stopped to gaze down at the river, and were nearly startled out of our hiking boots by a small “kettle” of buzzards that suddenly appeared from somewhere directly beneath us, rising up the canyon wall as if on puppet strings, wings fully extended.  They hovered right there, in the air space between our shoes and our eyes, dipping down, floating back up – it seemed we could have reached down and stroked the tops of their wings or their bald heads – and then they quietly slid on down the canyon.  It was one of those moments where you check your sanity by turning to your companion and gasping stupidly, “did you see that?!”

The second time was in our back yard.  For two years, until this past June, we lived in Vallejo CA, in a neighborhood nearing “the outskirts of town” and some open undeveloped spaces.  One hot late afternoon last summer, I went outside to dump a bucket of vegetable trimmings into our compost bin.  As I turned the corner to the small sideyard nook behind the tool shed where we kept the bin, I was spooked by a sudden, large overheard shadow, and a sound like someone beating or shaking out a heavy rug or a comforter.  Fooomp, fooomp. I instinctively ducked, but looked up just in time to see a buzzard lifting away, over my head, over our fence, and to a nearby electrical pole.  Then I noticed an AWFUL smell.  I slowly entered the small fenced area, creeping toward the compost bin, my heart literally thundering from the surprise of the buzzard, and then the worry of what I would find in or around the bin.  But there was nothing — nothing except, ugh, a liquid fly trap I had set up a month earlier to keep the bin flies under control.  It was now full, and had been cooking in the hot Vallejo summer sun, and reeked badly enough to draw the buzzard (one of the few North American birds that has a sense of smell).

Buzzards are not conventionally pretty.  And their thermoregulatory and defense mechanisms couldn’t be more revolting if they were designed by a group of sixth-graders trying to gross each other out at recess: they defecate or urinate on their own legs to cool off; they regurgitate when cornered by a predator (including humans).  But they are so grand!  And so needed.  As Lia Purpura imagines in her fabulous essay, “On Coming Back as a Buzzard,”  “I would be missed if I were not there.”

Read it, please.  It’s marvelous.

As a buzzard, I’d know the end of a thing is precisely not that. Things go on, in their way. My presence making the end a beginning, reinterpreting the idea of abundance, allowing for the ever-giving nature of Nature—I’d know these not as religious thoughts. It’s rather that, apportioned rightly, there’s always enough, more than enough. “Nothing but gifts on this poor, poor earth,” says Milosz, who understood perfectly the resemblance between dissolve and increase. Rain scours and sun burns away excesses of form. And rain also seeds, and sun urges forth fuses of green.

I’ve read the essay four times, already, savoring the language.  I love finding writing that grabs me like this.  I’ve ordered Lia Purpura’s book, “On Looking.”  I’m listening to her poetry.  I’m hooked.

(*slightly revised intro. I didn’t like the post title, then I decided it works in silly way.)


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