Turkey Vultures and Cirrus Clouds

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe
From my nature journal: September third. Around the ragged garden edges, grasshoppers tick and rattle late-summer rasping choruses. It’s their time to sing and mate, lay eggs in the ground, then wait to die in a few weeks, with frost. Playing softly in the background is a native American cedar flute. Carlos Nakai, a Navajo-Ute Indian, drones and warbles ancient woodwind mysteries.

All afternoon a dry northwest breeze ruffles the trees. The first leaves tear loose, flickering like flute notes rippling down the playful wind. The trees whisper to the deep-rooted trees of our spirits. Each September, we watch the year falling behind us---swirling away in late summer winds, dropping sweet fruits, descending summer stars.

High above the autumn land, two Turkey Vultures rise in widening circles. With scarcely a wingbeat, they ride vertical updrafts of air on long outstretched wing-pinions. Watching them, and listening to the Indian flute, I want to soar with them, to see with their sharp eyesight, scan the far blue mountain ranges from Wayah Bald to Grandfather’s jagged peaks, and beyond.

The soaring vultures see the wide river as a thin ribbon of water winding far below, reflecting sky. The high-soaring birds watch the river’s silvery thread, woven into the Appalachian patchwork of golden ripening fields and sloping green forests. The vultures’ spiraling silent flight gives form to the spirit-breath of slow meditative notes from the Indian’s flute. Early native woodwind instruments were often made of hollow vulture bones, holding long memories of soaring through the sky.

The vulture’s genus name, Cathartes, means “cleansing”. It describes the healthful function they perform for the environment in devouring the daily abundance of carrion. Sharp eyesight and a keen sense of smell help them locate decaying flesh. “Buzzards” are efficient, unappreciated scavengers. Everything in the interlocking rhythms of the created world holds an essential and beautiful place.

Far above and beyond the wheeling black vultures spread vast white wings of Cirrus clouds. High thin veils of ice crystals, they float seven to twelve miles above the earth. Today they flare out twenty miles across deep blue southern sky, from the steep face of the Warrior, to the somber slopes of Cold Mountain. Like wispy feathers and “mares’ tails”, winter and summer, they drift along at a frigid 30-50 degrees below zero. Cirrus are often an indicator of an approaching front: a prismatic ring of ice circles the moon. Two mornings later, a storm blows against our windows.

These bright dry days, we hear the year’s ripe apples dropping, one at a time---soft final thumps in the tall yellowing grass. Tangled fox grape vines hang fragrant with must, above the dwindling trickle of streams. The cidery scent of September spices the wind with wild sweet wine. These nights, I hear foxes barking near their den in the upper hollow. We watch the summer ruby of Antares, star-heart of the great Scorpion constellation. Each night it crawls farther down into the west, to sleep the cold months under the mountains. Autumn’s bright red eye, Aldebaran, gleams in the east, rising through tall bamboo behind the woodshed, stacked to the roof with split dry locust and oak, ready for winter.