It would seem that I’m not to be trusted to pump my own gas, and nobody can remember the last time I showed up anywhere on time. My house is a shambles, an insult to civilized humanity. In 47 years, I’ve yet to get through a single year without financial assistance from one or another relative. I’m pretty useless.
But I’m also a person you could call on if you wanted to know where and when to go to see dozens of turkey vultures circling down to roost for the night, or where you might have a chance of spotting an indigo bunting or a blue heron. I could tell you just when to step outside in the rain because there might be a rainbow, when the white heath blooms (some just started today in my back yard, as a matter of fact), and when a flock of migrating Franklin’s gulls are passing right over your head.
None of this information is of any particular use to anyone, and not really interesting to anyone other than myself, or occasionally one of my daughters.
So you see, there are trade-offs -pretty substantial ones -to being me, or being around me. Some days I don’t think it’s a good trade. I’d give anything to be someone else, someone capable and effective. Someone who gets things done, who carries her own weight. I wish desperately that I could be someone who doesn’t have to spend half her life apologizing for her failures and the other half scrambling to catch up to the starting line, someone who gets to the end of a day and doesn’t wonder what she did with it.
But when you see the turkey vultures in the slanting light, circling low over the trees, it’s really something. One of these days they’ll rise up in the mid-morning sun, head out over the hills, and keep going, until they reach some distant southerly perch. But for tonight they’re coming back to that stand of trees in Strong City, near the Cottonwood River, and it feels like a privilege to witness them. It feels like being in on a secret, but a secret that’s right out in the open where anyone can see.
I point them out to whoever is around. At those times, sometimes, people look at me blankly, as one would a child who isn’t yet able to speak intelligibly. More often, they don’t notice I’m talking at all.
It seems to have become a full-on habit, to call out the names of birds I see while driving. It’s like my own personal version of Tourette’s syndrome. The kids have taken to critiquing my performance. “That wasn’t as loud as you could yell, Mama.” And most of the time they don’t catch a glimpse before we’re on down the road, though the scissor-tailed flycatcher that flew in front of the windshield yesterday gave us all a lovely view of the stripes on his tail.
I get most excited about the more interesting birds, such as the said scissor-tail, which has a relatively small range, and isn’t seen many places in the US. I’ve never found any good footage of the scissor-tail in flight, even though it is the state bird of Oklahoma.
You regulars know how fond I am of turkey vultures, which are quite common and widespread in North America. But just the other day we were talking about the return of bald eagles from near-extinction, and it occurred to me that perhaps my failure to pay attention wasn’t the only reason I never saw turkey vultures when I was growing up in Emporia, just twenty miles down the highway from where I see them every day now. Their populations were hit hard by DDT contamination, like other raptors. Their numbers have increased steadily since DDT was banned in 1972, when I was five years old. So I remain unapologetically thrilled when I see them gliding above the highway, and, besides writing poetry about turkey vultures, I do not hesitate to shout out their name when I see them from a vehicle.
The kids are also used to my shouts of “Blue heron!” and “Red-winged blackbird!” and “Franklin’s gull!” We finally got my car’s air conditioner repaired, so no one outside the vehicle is likely to hear. But if you see me driving by, look to see if I’m pointing and shouting, and maybe you’ll get to see it too, whatever it is.
Like the return of turkey vulture, prairie burning is a sign of spring in the Flint Hills. It isn’t the terrifying disaster some might imagine; the burns are lit intentionally to clear dead plant matter that would choke out new growth. From the blackened ground will emerge fresh grass, greener and more nutritious to the animals who graze here. It is considered an essential part of prairie stewardship, and it also raises the monetary value of a pasture. Prairie never burned or grazed by a hoofed animal eventually turns to woodland. Burning kills off the invasive trees, while the deep roots of the native grasses are left to send up new green shoots.
While I haven’t heard anyone criticizing the practice of burning the prairie, there is some debate about how often it ought to be done. Many ranchers burn annually, and profit from that practice. At the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, they burn once every three years, and find that allows for greater diversity of plants, most notably, more wildflowers.
Weather conditions must be right for burning. Strong wind can blow the fire out of control. No wind allows it to burn out in all directions. A light, steady breeze is ideal, so that the flames advance in a predictable line, from one side of a pasture to the other. There may not be many days when the season and weather are right, so when they come, there’s a lot of burning all around. The smoke burns the eyes, and, even miles away, tiny bits of ash come falling from the sky.
Yesterday smelled like a camp fire, everywhere, all day. My client from Emporia reported smoke thick as fog on Highway 50. The fires at night are beautiful to see, but the day was preternatural and I couldn’t wait until dark. I went to the high spot at the scenic overlook, and though I didn’t see any blackened prairie, I got a few shots of the smoky hills.
It’s smoky again today, so maybe I’ll get a chance to photograph some actual flames. For now, here are some smoke shots, and I’ll post more later.
It was the kind of week when you have three shut-off notices and too many checks already out to cover, you should have some money coming in, but you’re not sure how much, or exactly when, and the process of earning the money complicates the managing of it. I did okay, though, but on the way to the bank on Friday, multiple shut-off day, I realized I’d forgotten to stop at the other bank first. Cursing, I turned around at the historic marker and drove back the way I’d come. It was then that it occurred to me that I needed to dedicate my day to the Divine, to let the ego be the operations manager but not the CEO. To operate on the assumption that whatever happens is okay, and nothing is something to get upset about. Every day should be thus, and I’ll admit to being somewhat pleased with myself for remembering this before I got too bent out of shape about the way my day and week were progressing.
Still, I didn’t feel it. I could think about the perfect Divine nature of everything, but it was all in my head. To elucidate it, I need to feel it, so I mentally flailed for a bit and then my thoughts drifted somewhere else. Maybe later, after the errands, the massage I was scheduled to give, then picking up the kids from school, I could slow down and get myself there.
Then I was at the bank. I did my errand and went on my way. I was still in Strong City when I saw a tiny flicker of most brilliant blue. “Bluebird! Bluebird!” I called out loud, to no one, as I was alone in my car. There’s nothing like a bluebird (except perhaps an indigo bunting, but this was a bluebird), and on second look I saw the rosy belly before it disappeared from my view as I drove on down the street.
My attention was piqued, and as I came onto Highway 50, I was alert for every creature. I studied several hawks at 65 mph, though only one was a red-tail, the only one I can easily identify. Most of the geese have departed to the north, while the gull migration has just begun to appear here. There were starlings and other black birds I didn’t get a good enough look at to identify, and possibly a meadowlark. I also thought about the northern flicker I’d seen earlier, while taking the kids to school. The birds are back, and wintery weather doesn’t stop the birds from getting down to business.
Then I noticed warmth and openness in my heart chakra, and realized I’d entered into the divine space I’d been seeking earlier. It occurred to me that connecting with that which is larger than the self is as much as anything a process of noticing what brings one there. It didn’t come from speaking words, or thinking, or planning, or being in control of a sticky situation which on another day might have brought me down. It came from noticing, paying attention, to that which is alive and present in the moment. It came from being willing to let nature be part of my daily life.
In the words of Ted Andrews, “The bluebird is a native bird of North America. Although once common, they are now quite rare. This often is a reminder that we are born to happiness and fulfillment, but we sometimes get so lost and wrapped up in the everyday events of our lives that our happiness and fulfillment seem rare. When bluebirds show up as a totem, it should first of all remind you to take time to enjoy yourself.”
What do you enjoy? What arrests your attention, bringing you out of mundane egoism and into awareness of the big Oneness? What does bluebird say to you?
Monarch butterflies have come and gone, on their journey through Kansas and on to Mexico. It’s been perhaps two weeks since I’ve seen a live one. The lepidopterists say that any stragglers at this point would be unlikely to make it.
They’ve been replaced by Franklin’s gulls, making their semi-annual flyover. They don’t come down, so I never get a picture. But I love to see them every fall, on their way down from the Canadian plains. I wave to them as they pass, and call out, “Have a good winter in Texas! See you next spring!” I saw hundreds at a time this week, but only a couple dozen today. I think their migration has peaked.
They’ll be followed, maybe next week, by the turkey vultures. Turkey vultures like to warm themselves and stretch their wings in the sun of a morning, but days are getting shorter, and the mornings are getting chillier. One of these sunny days, soon, they will rise up, fly south, and keep going.
Whenever I search for information about vulture migration, I find some sites about the west coast, and some, such as this one, from the east. But if anyone in Kansas is watching turkey vultures, s/he is keeping her observations to herself. I watch for them, take pictures if I can, and will report to you, dear readers, when I see them leaving.
It was a hectic morning and I wasn’t pleased to get all the way home from the park before discovering one of my children was barefoot. I didn’t scold her, nor did I make any attempt to hide my irritation that she’d left her shoes, of all things, in the park. How can you not notice your feet are bare?
On the way back, a bird sitting in the road didn’t move out of the way; I had to swerve around it. I pulled over and waited for traffic to clear so I could investigate. It could hop and almost fly. Both wings seemed to work, but it couldn’t get more than a few inches off the ground. As it hopped away from me it left a dark red drip on the pavement.
The little brown bird was slow enough that I could catch it -once I even thought it let me- yet feisty enough to get out of my hands. I half-carried, half-chased it out of the street, where it ducked into the shelter of some weeds and disappeared. I was relieved not to have to decide how to euthanize the bird. Surely it wouldn’t recover from internal injury; maybe it was no less cruel to let it die on its own. Maybe there was simply nothing I ought to do about or for this creature.
A mile down the road, a turkey vulture flew low across my path, reminding me that this is the way of things, of life: every creature dies sometime; we just get what we get. It’s neither good nor bad, not any sadder than it is joyful that this life existed in the first place, and it’s not my job to do anything about this reality; all I am called to do is to be present, with compassion, and witness as the stories unfold before me.
In mid-March I was in Hot Springs, Arkansas briefly, and I saw the first vultures of the year. I pulled off a busy highway to get a look, and they were lazily circling like any turkey vulture would on an ordinary day, though their overall concentration seemed a bit high. But it was late in the day, the typical time for turkey vultures to settle down to roost, and they often converge in favorable places. I concluded that they weren’t just arriving in northern Arkansas, but had arrived there before I did. By the time I got home, they were here too.
But today I took a drive down from Strong City to El Dorado. (Dorado rhymes with tornado, for you non-Kansans.) Just south of Burns I saw a kettle of vultures, and being the Cathartophile that I am, I stopped for pictures; as I was shooting, another kettle soared on over my head, like the previous one, circling to the north. In the photo above, I count around eighty. That looks like migration behavior, not daily scavenging. It’s three weeks later than I first saw them; however, some vultures migrate thousands of miles, through the Central American isthmus and into South America. We can excuse some of them for being a little late coming back this way.
It was a perfect day for soaring. Looking to the south for any more, I saw a line of billowing clouds on the horizon. Vultures are inefficient at flying, but masters at soaring. A weather front creates ideal updrafts for them to ride.
Turkey vulture has long been important to me, and to see so many in their element thrills me beyond words. Whenever I feel a deep affinity with another creature, I look to its symbolism for messages it might have for me. Ted Andrews says much about vultures. He emphasizes the importance of action over appearance or words. This is accompanied by an ability to use higher vision to access natural forces. Much can be accomplished with minimal effort. Vulture symbolizes death/rebirth and purification, though it may take three months for the process to be completed. “It [is] a promise that the suffering of the immediate [is] temporary and necessary for a higher purpose [is] at work, even if not understood at the time.”
Let it be so.
The weather has suddenly cooled. Today was lovely, sunny and mild, but the nights are chilly, and I’ve had to put another quilt on the bed.
Gulls have been making their semi-annual appearance. It’s been over a week since I saw the first, a group of perhaps a couple dozen; today I saw but one couple. They may be the last stragglers.
Turkey vultures are restless. I can feel that they will leave soon.
I saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher yesterday. I was surprised that it was still here. But, the scissor-tail’s migration is a fraction of the vultures’ so maybe they’re not in a hurry to leave.
I looked in the cabinet today and was surprised how many beans I have there. It’s almost as if I’ve unconsciously stored up for winter. Perhaps it’s possible after all for humans to follow the subtle promptings of the seasons, if we allow ourselves, and if we immerse ourselves in the sensory ocean of the natural world.
Why not dive in and see how it changes you?
This year for the fourth time I spent mid-May commuting to White Memorial Camp, north of Council Grove. It’s a bit of a drive, but mostly on National Scenic Byway, KS 177. The remainder is gravel, through pastures to the end of a little peninsula surrounded by Council Grove lake. I go there for a job, which is to massage the attendees of Kelley Hunt and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s wonderful Brave Voice songwriting workshop and retreat. It’s a beautiful group whom I love to work with. The bonus is that this remote drive has incredible diversity of wildlife, particularly birds. So every year I am equally excited to do this job as to get there and back. Here’s a list of the many species I saw, most without even getting out of the car.
Butterfly milkweed, not yet blooming.
Wild blue indigo, in luscious bloom.
Cobaea beardtongue, plentiful this year.
Daisy fleabane, blooming rather early, I believe.
Lots of Arkansas rose.
several scissor-tailed flycatchers
dozens of turkey vultures
lots of killdeer
one indigo bunting, which thoughtfully landed in a tree in easy view. I actually stopped the car for this one.
The last two reptiles were here at the motel, but I love them so much I didn’t want to leave them off the list.
Since I was a child I’ve wanted to see a zebra swallowtail butterfly, but never did, until this week.
And mustn’t forget — this one doesn’t belong on my list because I didn’t personally see it, but several of the musicians saw a mountain lion, and got pictures. Don’t tell Fish and Wildlife, they still don’t want to admit that mountain lions are in Kansas.