The Buddha in the Buzzard


I find lately that I am wildly envious of turkey vultures. More so this Spring than ever. I suppose it comes from watching them soar effortlessly hundreds of feet above me. I am struck by the view they must have. With their 6-foot wings fully extended, they ride thermals above breathtaking landscapes. With imperceptible shifts in the tips of their wings, they change directions, elevate, descend, stall, dive and float. While I am deeply rooted amidst bad news and deteriorating conditions of all sorts, the vulture soars above me in this great limitless, placid place. Where they are, the World must make more sense. I realized I had sorely missed them over the Winter.

They migrated back again this year---on the Vernal Equinox. The exact day. Just like last year. And the year before. They went back to the same communal roost. Most of them to the same tree. The same limb. Predictable and dependable. I like that in a scavenger.

They are certainly curious birds. Enigmatic. Close relatives of the exalted California condor, the vulture is generally reviled. Though certainly not the most handsome of creatures, they are perhaps one of the more elegant. Their reputation as vile and repugnant harbingers of the dead and the unclean belies the fact that they are fastidious, even dapper in their habits. By all accounts, they bathe often, submersing in ponds, shaking and scrubbing for half an hour. Then they walk up on the bank and hold their wings out to dry in the sun. They spend a minimum of two to three hours a day preening. That's beyond hygiene. In my book, that borders on vanity. I bet if they had mirrors, it would be four to six hours. They'd be teen-agers. Who knew?

Many humans are appalled by their eating habits. Abhorrent, loathsome creatures, they are called. And I admit that they eat a lot of dead animal. But so do we. And we pay dearly for ours. Vultures pay nothing at all for theirs. And ours have probably been dead longer. Granted, our dead animals have been kept in a somewhat cleaner environment, at a more controlled temperature probably. But still…I consider this a fine distinction. They have found a food source that is both free and plentiful. I suspect we're just jealous.

Turkey buzzards perform a valuable environmental service, taking care of matter that is a breeding ground for pathogens harmful to most species. But not harmful to them. No way. Anthrax? They laugh at anthrax. They eat it like popcorn shrimp. Rabies? ‘Yum-yum.’ Cholera? ‘H-m-mm…an interesting aftertaste.’ Vultures are protected from diseases associated with decaying animals by a very sophisticated immune system. Their digestive system has the unique ability to kill any virus and bacteria in the food it eats. Even their bodies are immune. Bacteria die on their faces. Whoa! Of fear probably. Great God, what a creature!

My mother used to tell me that I had the gastrointestinal system of a turkey buzzard. As I look back on it, I don't think she really meant it as a compliment. But I took it as one. Even then, I was honored to be compared with this spectacular beast whose scientific name, Cathartes Aura, means “cleansing breeze”. Who wouldn’t die for a moniker like that? Walk down the street, “Yo! Cleansing Breeze. Whazzup, C.B.?” How cool would that be!

While it is technically true that others' misfortune is their good fortune, they are not embarrassed by the grisly nature of their jobs. To the contrary, they take a great deal of pride in the efficiency with which they perform it. They are highly evolved, remarkable specialists. For example, they have over time rid their heads of feathers so they can thrust themselves into the gut of a carcass without leaving a nasty, hard-to-clean mess. Clever! They release urine down their legs to clean off bacteria. Ingenious!! They defend themselves by projectile vomiting, hurling ingested remains at potential attackers. Brilliant!!! The much-maligned buzzard is the ultimate martial artist. He of so little respect is a Zen Master of aggressive self-defense. I love irony.

And they seem to be thriving. I see them in increasing numbers, populating the skies. What with the number of cars and trucks out there, there’s a lot of road kill, baking on the asphalt. With the scarcity of predators, there’re a lot of animals dying of old age. A lot of unclaimed carcasses. With all the old coon hunters dying off, there's a lot of carrion out there for the taking. I doubt that the Earth has ever been so bountiful a place for a scavenger. These days, in this part of the world, it is good to be a buzzard.

By all accounts they are extremely inquisitive and intelligent. They possess a certain wry wit. And why wouldn’t they? Any animal that can ascend to those heights and remain there as a silent observer for hours at a time would have a distinct advantage over the rest of us who struggle along, eyeball-to-eyeball with our peers and our dirty laundry and the rest of our earth-based problems. The vulture transcends the hubbub and rises above the din, gracefully soaring on the Earth's good will and abundance. Where they go, there is only the Music of the Wind. Up there, you can listen to the Sound of the Universe. Way up there, you can hear the Voice of God.

I like to think that if I had that type of access, that type of perspective on a regular basis, once a day, once a month even, I would be much wiser than I am now. Those of us who are earth-bound are almost 2-dimensional in perspective. Up and down is a limited option. We are ruled by Gravity. If you’re a buzzard, Gravity ain’t such a big deal.

So vultures have a much broader vision, a more expanded view of the world around them. Time and space would be different from that altitude. It’s always seemed to me that if we could stretch out our arms like that and be lifted by warm air, if we could extend our fingers and feel the differences in pressure, we could learn to play the wind like a harpsichord and turn Energy into Art. If we could roll with the wind, float with the clouds and waltz across the sky, we could see the bemused Face of Creation in the landscape below. If we could understand the Seasons, know the days without a calendar, Time without a watch, we could touch the Eternal. If we could feel the Poles and understand the Cycles like the lowly vulture, we would be enlightened bearers of Truth and Balance. We would be the smiling Buddha-bird. We could be the Cleansing Breeze. How cool would that be?