Enigmatic

question mark on screenLately I seem to be confronted by enigmatic signs. This morning while I was eating breakfast, for example, I noticed that one of the two cartons we bought peaches in, which originally held Xerox office paper, had “Thoreau” written on the side in magic marker. Perhaps someone connected with the orchard had previously used it to move or store books. But an entire carton just for Thoreau? He didn’t write that many books; it must’ve held mostly books about Thoreau. I’ll take the peaches.

Yesterday around lunchtime, a question mark butterfly landed on the screen of my front door and stayed there just long enough for me to snap three pictures from inside. Nothing too odd about that, except that the very same thing had happened two days before, around the same time of day. What might it mean?

Yesterday afternoon, a dry high blew in. By late in the day, that end-of-summer mood I tried to evoke with quotes from favorite poems yesterday morning had given way to elation and a distinctly autumnal sky. black locust log After supper, I grabbed my camera and headed up over the ridge to the west, escaping the long shadows that already reached as far as the houses. The wind blew steadily, making the shadows dance as I poked along through an open forest of very old, gnarled chestnut oaks and black birches. The thin soil and open rocks of the Tuscarora Quartzite formation support little else, especially since the loggers of a hundred years ago took most of the white pines, almost all of the hemlock, and all chestnut oaks straight enough to serve as mine timbers.

I soon came to the first of a string of small talus slopes — open rockslides of a few acres in size that start just below the ridge crest. Such rockslides are a familiar feature to anyone who’s ever hiked along a ridge in the western half of the Folded Appalachians. Logging and associated burning in the 19th century may have set back their colonization by lichens, moss and trees by a few centuries, but essentially these rock slides all date back to the last ice age, which ended 8,000 years ago. Though we’re well south of the southern-most extension of the Wisconsin ice sheet, periglacial conditions reworked local landscapes throughout the central and southern Appalachians, creating talus slopes, bogs, and a host of other unique habitats.

At the edge of the rockslide, I paused to admire some paper birches growing in a clump, as they so often do, re-sprouting from the same roots. I stood at the center of the clump, my feet sinking into a deep, spongy mound of rotted wood. The individual trunks might last little more than half a century, but I’ll bet this birch has been here in some form for a very long time.

vulture 1I was just starting out onto the rocks, looking for pictures, when I saw something large and black out of the corner of my eye. A turkey vulture had landed on the other side of the rocks, about eighty feet away. The head was still half gray, which I guess — in contrast to human beings — would make it an immature. I froze and started snapping pictures, expecting it to take off at any moment. But it didn’t.

I eased myself down into a comfortable sitting position on the warm rocks. The vulture didn’t seem at all concerned about my presence. Its head swiveled slowly about, and from time to time it reached down to groom its breast feathers, but otherwise it seemed content to sit and face the sun, which was about half an hour from setting.

vulture 2So that’s how I found myself watching the sunset with a turkey vulture. I shot its picture several dozen more times, of course, hoping that a few shots would turn out relatively unfuzzy (I wasn’t packing a tripod). At a certain point I realized it probably intended to roost nearby, though I didn’t see any other vultures around — they generally roost together, I had thought.

Since the air was now so clear, the light didn’t change much as the sun neared the horizon. The steady wind filtered out most valley noise except train whistles. As I watched the bird, I began to regret what I wrote a week ago about the ugliness of vultures. The wind lifted the feathers of its breast and nape, and the sun tinged them with gold. vulture 4I saw its head from all angles as it looked about, and it came to seem as appropriate as punctuation at the end of a line of fine, dark calligraphy.

I’m sure that more scientific-minded readers will fault me for anthropomorphism in implying that the vulture was there to watch the sunset. But no sooner had the sun dropped below the horizon than the vulture hopped off its rock, waddled into the woods and flapped up into the branches of a black birch tree. I took that as my signal to get up, too, and get off the rocks before darkness fell.

eastern clouds after sunset

16 Comments


  1. Boy, I’m not one for the beautiful sunset photos, but that one really made me gasp. You’re really putting that new camera to good use – it’s exciting to see what you’re seeing through it, Dave.

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  2. Thanks. I got that photo by turning my back on the sunset and starting back toward home – the sky was way more interesting in the east.

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  3. Nice! I’m jealous of your autumnal days and your vulture buddies.

    I love the clouds in your sunset picture as well.

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  4. I’m glad you’re rethinking vulture aesthetics. They are one of my favorite birds. I have never heard turkey vultures cooing but I understand that’s what they do in family groups. They puke really easily, though, and you don’t ever want to be in the way of THAT. It wasn’t so great to begin with and it certainly doesn’t improve on regurgitation.

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  5. I saw its head from all angles as it looked about, and it came to seem as appropriate as punctuation at the end of a line of fine, dark calligraphy.

    This line makes me unreasonably happy.

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  6. Wonderful post, Dave. Interesting how you look at everyday little things as being enigmatic, and look at the usually viled vulture with appreciation for its beauty, and to see the opposite side of the sunset. Like an artist.

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  7. wow, that last shot’s a beaut. wish you’d had your tripod but I know it might be difficult carrying it through the forest…crisper vulture head would be appreciated by this reader. there was a musical group a few decades ago, question mark and the mysterians. enjoyed the written report as well as the photos, thanks.

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  8. Thanks for all the comments — much appreciated.

    Pica – A vulture coo sounds like something worth hearing!

    Q.R.R. – For some reason I got out of the habit of carrying a tripod a few months ago. I guess I’ve accepted the reality that I’ll remain a dilettante where photography is concerned.

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  9. A random hypothesis about vulture motivation…

    I’ve seen them atop street lights in winter, holding their spread wings out just at sunrise. I’ve seen them do the same thing in rural West Texas, and have wondered (since they usually look cold, damp and otherwise a bit miserable) if they are warming/drying themselves after a chill night.

    So perhaps this one was soaking in the day’s last long rays, before the cooler evening put a chill in his light bones.

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  10. Well, sure. I imagine that was a big reason for its apparent sun-worship. Just found in the abstract for a paper in The Condor (Vol. 87, No. 3 [Aug., 1985)] pp. 350-355):
    “Turkey Vultures appear to spread their wings for at least two reasons: (1) to dry feathers, and (2) to ameliorate the thermal gradient between themselves and their environment …” (Though the bird I was watching wasn’t doing the wing-spreading thing.)

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