Lately 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. 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.
I 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.
So 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. 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.
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.