Vulture Culture

To feel keenly the poetry of a morning’s roses, one has to have just escaped from the claws of this vulture
which we call sickness.
— Henri Frederic Amiel

I've been spending a lot of time on my back lately. Alas, it's not nearly as fun as it sounds: for the first time in my life, my back went out, and I've been lying on the floor quite a lot, doing gentle stretching and relaxation. As it turns out, from the floor of my studio I can look out the window and see the tops of the trees. The other day, first thing in the morning, there sat a huge turkey vulture balancing at the tippy top of a very tall cypress tree, calmly balanced on the tiniest uppermost branch.

Some of the time, s/he sat with her wings spread, as vultures do. It turns out they do this not only to dry their wings, and to warm up, but to bake off bacteria. In self-defense, they can also projectile vomit their food more than ten feet. (Note to self if ever in need of a radical diversion from a bad guy.) Even more amazing, vultures gather in communal roosts consisting of anywhere from a few to thousands of individuals. Thousands. They do this so they can hang out while resting (and whatever else vultures like to do together), and hatching their eggs, which they lay directly on the ground. (Can't imagine that they'd be bothered by many predators trying to steal those eggs, even the crafty raven. Then there's that self-defense move of theirs... never mind.)

There are fascinating names for groups of vultures: on the ground, a group of vultures is a committee. In flight, it's a kettle. Feeding on carrion, a wake. And guess what? September 1st is Vulture Appreciation Day! It's a good thing, too, because, in India, where farmers have been poisoning vultures (accidentally as well as intentionally) their numbers have plummeted by 99%. The resulting pileup of cattle carcasses has created a rabies problem that has cost billions.

Watching the vulture balancing in the tree, I marveled at its acrobatic elegance, and wondered whether the presence of the vulture also benefits the tree. Perhaps their urine and feces, which kill bacteria, help rid the tree of certain parasites? Or introduce certain beneficial microbes from their carrion diet? It's also possible that the weight of the bird - of birds in trees in general, stimulates tensile strength or the growth of leaves or blossoms.

So many of life's microbial interactions have remote effects that are nonetheless vital to the system as a whole. This is useful to remember. When at the acupuncturist last week, after some hesitation, I asked whether it was just my imagination that relaxing the tendons in my left arm seemed to make my back feel better. She smiled and said, "Well, yes. There's a lung point on the elbow that relieves back pain, especially during pregnancy." She needled that point, and it helped. What is the connection, I wonder, between that vulture on a branch, that cypress tree, and my spine? Something to think about, lying down.

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Cynthia TravisComment