People refuse to see vultures, those common black bombers leisurely patrolling our skies. Two examples. Years ago, I stood on Monument Mountain in the Berkshires, which has rugged white outcroppings of quartzite like the raw uncut blocks for marble statues; impressive literary lore, for Melville and Hawthorne once picnicked here; and sweeping views northwards of the Stockbridge Bowl. It also has turkey vultures slowly soaring by on updrafts not twenty feet away from the cliff top almost as orderly as carousel horses. As I later wrote:
“’Look at the hawks!’ said a young man in a goatee and hightop sneakers. From his accent, I guessed he was from Brooklyn, so I decided to be a nature emissary. I told him the true identity of the birds. I hoped he would overcome the popular prejudice. But he didn’t even look at me. Several minutes later, when new hikers arrived, he sounded like an expert. ‘Look at the turkey hawks!’ he told an appreciative crowd.”
My sympathies arise because these birds played a key role in my life. In 1989, after my mother suffered a series of debilitating strokes, I treated myself to a day-away-from-it-all of hiking in the Hudson Highlands. Descending Breakneck Ridge, I stopped for a break on a natural bench in an exposed slab with dramatic views of the Hudson River and surrounding mountains. Seated there, I realized that my mother, who’d been the naturalist in our family, would never again step outdoors, and I felt it incumbent upon me on her behalf as well as my own to experience the natural world that I’d largely missed for the past eight years of living in Hoboken. That half hour, which I later thought of as my “Born Again” nature conversion, steered my life in a new direction. In time I went to work for an environmental magazine and eventually left the City for a Catskills log cabin.
During the midst of that spell, three black birds soared slowly nearby, riding the winds down the stony ridge buttress until they vanished as tiny specks against the backdrop of the Hudson. Knowing nothing about birds at the time, I would have guessed they were hawks. What I did know for sure was that they were emissaries of an unspoken truth about life and death in the natural world. Years later, when I wrote about this experience in an essay, I quoted from poems by Mary Oliver and David Bottoms that evoked the redemptive power of vultures. Ever since, I’ve been a fan of buzzard poems.
Second example. Several years ago, Matt Spireng invited a handful of us to read poems of our own choosing from The Poets Guide to the Birds, a terrific anthology edited by Judith Kitchen and Ted Kooser, at an event at the Inquiring Minds in New Paltz. Beforehand, we had the whimsical idea of dressing up as a bird we’d read about, so I did: black jeans, black sweater, maroon ski hat. But my fellow reader, Rich Parisio, couldn’t see it. “You were supposed to dress up as a bird,” he chided. “But I did,” I insisted. “Guess what I am.” For the next few minutes, Rich, a professional naturalist, tried his hardest: pileated woodpecker, red winged blackbird, crow. How could he miss the obvious? I wondered. But perhaps I should have been grateful. Rich has a good heart. He didn’t want to see me as a scavenger of rotting corpses.
Bertha Rogers has now added a beauty to my small collection of vulture poems. It appears in Heart Turned Back, a book filled with close observations of nature that lead to metaphorical insights. She’s truly a Catskills poet. And, I should add, she’s a great ambassador for poetry, as the blue haired (“Windex blue” she calls her choice of hair dye) force behind Bright Hill Press, which publishes books, hosts readings, and brings poetry into the schools. She’s a creator. She would understand vultures.
Unable to lie, the vulture points out truth:
he descends to scavenge tread-deaths,
the fox’s spoils. Discrete as an undertaker,
he swallows all but the bones.
After dining, he stands a moment,
staring into the open; stiffens his wings
around his torso like a penitent
fixing a hair shirt; then maneuvers
his earth-ugly bulk up, away from his work.
End feathers lifted, span eagle-wide,
the sin eater transmutes, he becomes the sky’s
most exalted fixture, an angel
risen out of of something’s last long pain.
As a footnote, Bertha adds: In parts of Medieval England, after a death, the body was laid out with a plate of food upon its chest. A local outcast, the ‘sin eater,’ was paid to eat the food, the act symbolically granting absolution.