Winged Omens

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Author: Elizabeth Dodd

There’s a photograph by Kevin Carter I can’t shake from memory, part of the traveling Pulitzer Prize-winning exhibit from a few years ago. The scene is drought-stricken Africa, Sudan, 1994. A young child, robbed of any specific age by emaciation, can no longer hold up her—or his—heavy head and lies folded on the ground, face down. Her legs are tiny, bent twigs. She seems to wear a white necklace of some sort, but nothing else. The viewer can tell that the child is near death; so, too, can a vulture that is standing nearby, waiting for a meal it knows cannot be long off. By its posture, the vulture appears ready to take another hop closer, then another.

This image comes to mind when I think the word vulture. It gives the imagination a terrible shiver, the premonition of personal disappearance. It is the sublime, therefore, in its most terrible form, without a single hint of beauty mixed in. But there are less horrifying thoughts of vultures. I’ve seen them roost together in Appalachia, in winter, far, far from the world of drought or famine, where they fill a leafless oak tree with their dark, companionable forms. Where I live in Kansas, the birds leave for the winter, and their return to the skies each spring makes nearly visible the air’s thermals lifting from the sun-warmed earth. They soar effortlessly, gracefully, searching for opportunity.

I’m thinking of vultures because I’m thinking of condors. And I’m thinking of condors because I’m thinking of teratorns, enormous birds of the Americas that, like so many of the larger animals of the Pleistocene, did not survive that geologic era to join us in the current age. The remains of more than a hundred individuals have been found in the archival La Brea Tar Pits in California. Several subspecies must have ranged throughout the Miocene and Pleistocene; perhaps the largest of these was one found in Argentina, with a wingspan of about 23 feet. Others have been found from Brazil to Oregon; the leg bone of one found in the Willamette Valley was reportedly mistaken at first for that of an elk. The most commonly found subspecies, Teratornis merriami, wasn’t quite such a giant, but its wingspan of 11–12 feet is still an amazement. The shadow it must have cast as it landed to feed, or the flap and swoosh as it lifted, heavily, into flight! It must have been a thunderous bird, a Thunderbird.

Teratorns were close relatives of storks and vultures, and are sometimes considered the ancestors of condors. They presumably disappeared from the skies over the Americas some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, though some researchers speculate that, like the 20th-century California condor, isolated populations might have held on in Mexico and the Southwest into even more recent times. The Jicarilla Apache, in the late 19th century, told ethnographers of Giant Eagle, a fearsome bird that came from the sky to carry people away to its bone-strewn nest; a young boy managed to kill it through archery skill and careful cunning.

To the north, the Navajo spoke of Giant Vulture, who proclaimed “Whenever Monsters are killed and decay, we . . . will be present as scavengers.” The great creatures of the last era were plenty large to cast their shadows deep, deep within the psyche, to feather forth in cultural tale and image, figure and form.

***

I remember as a child, hiking in a small group of family and close friends, how complete was the invasion of a storm in the Alpine tundra of stonecrop and granite boulders. As the thunder cleft open the world around us, we hurried to get down below the tree line. I knew the danger of being taller than the surrounding features of the landscape, a little mammalian lightning rod attracting destruction from above. While the adults walked briskly, I trotted ahead, crouching beside each glacially placed boulder until they caught up, then raced ahead to my next defensive position.

Two decades later, I once sat awake, the tent leaking around its small perimeter, while all around me the tall pines of New Mexico’s Frijoles Canyon were sheeted in downpour and rocked by wind. The staccato thunder rocked my heart beneath my ribs, and not far away a tree crashed down in a branch-ripping spasm of cosmogonic power. I sat wrapped in my sleeping bag and suffused in near-panic, waiting for daylight.

Panic is a Western name for a universal sensation, drawn from the mythological figure of Pan, that god of inner and exterior wildness. “Pan was thought to frequent mountains, caves, and lonely places, and sounds heard or fears experienced in such places came to be attributed to him,” the Oxford English Dictionary reminds us, calmly. Pan is also universal. Panic can suggest the sudden rise of visceral fear from deep within the psyche, or it can suggest the staggering realization of one’s infinitely vulnerable and fragile position in the vastness of unruled being.

***

One accounting for the swift, widespread extinctions that marked the opening of our present-day Holocene epoch is Paul Martin’s view that Clovis people, flourishing across the Americas some 11,500 years ago, were expert hunters dedicated to the pursuit of big game. Resolutely and skillfully, they targeted the large beasts of the age, who animated a landscape that held only non-humans as predators. When the hunters came, Martin argues, they cut through the unprepared populations like a knife through butter, decimating and fracturing the breeding communities. In a matter of a few centuries the favored prey was wiped out through “overkill.” Other species dependent upon the grazers and browsers followed quickly into disappearance.

For a time, scavengers (those teratorns, I think, those condors and giant vultures) would have become familiars of the human hunters, vying for the downed prey, as eagles and ospreys will tussle over one another’s catch. In the overkill mode of that time, the ground must been littered with kill sites, with carrion waiting for the great birds from above. Feast would soon have turned to famine, and the other large animals—predators as well as scavengers—would leave nothing but their bones behind.

It’s easy to see the parallels between that world and this one; the cusp between ice age and what author Brian Fagan has called “the long summer” of the Holocene. Researchers have pointed out that Martin offered his hypothesis in 1967—just half a decade after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and three years before the first Earth Day, so the collective imagination was primed to believe that we—or our Clovis-age ancestors—were likely to have decimated the animal community of the Americas; we were still doing the same thing. In an irony unfolding today, the vigilant attempt to bring California condors back from the microblade-edge of extinction is fraught with today’s hunters in the desert Southwest, not far from the important Clovis sites.

The dramatic attempt to pluck the condors from the jaws of death took place in the 1980s: By 1982, only 22 individuals were left in the world. In the arid, isolated cliff-and-canyon country where a few still lived wild in southern California, the birds were methodically trapped and removed from their last hold. Following several years of an intense captive breeding program, releases to the wild began, first in Arizona in 1996, and then, symbolically, marvelously, to the Grand Canyon in 2003.

One spring morning in 2005, I joined a large party assembled in northern Arizona, along the base of the Vermillion Cliffs, to watch the release of the latest group of fledglings—five of them. Their arrival clearly elicited some interest among the resident adult community, and high, high above us, as we peered through high-powered spotting scopes and binoculars, the birds flew about, welcoming or examining the new arrivals.

Four wild-hatched chicks now reside in the area. And of the five who were released to bright, clear skies that morning on the first of March, all but one are reported to be “doing fine in the wild.” One has died; the researchers attribute the cause of death to starvation, a fact I find deeply poignant, given the cultural image of scavenger birds and human famine.

This is all high-level management, 21st century life-support efforts to save not only the life of the individual—a California condor may live for up to 60 years—but, obviously, to resuscitate the species, the collectivity of its evolutionary presence on this earth. Up from that almost-impossibly tiny band of 22, the world condor population is currently 273 birds, with the wild birds now living in four distinct regions in southern California, Baja California and northern Arizona. Their imprint on the Southwest is delicate, tenuous, still uncertain. But there they are.

The overkill hypothesis for the Pleistocene extinctions in the Americas is under attack these days. Donald Grayson and David Meltzer have painstakingly analyzed all the known archaeological sites where evidence of both people and now-extinct Pleistocene mammals have been found in conjunction; there are only 76 of these, they report. The researchers conclude that the physical evidence simply cannot support the kind of blitzkrieg pattern of concentrated hunting that would have been necessary to fold all those giant beasts into the dust of extinction.

So what was it?

As if there were ever one, clear answer. Simplicity is desirable, in both aesthetics and practical life, but so often what we must negotiate is complexity, rich and dismaying. This oppresses the psyche, sometimes, as the sleeping self tries to tease out what is the matter, what is lurking over there in the shadows, like some large bird hopping about the margin of full awareness.

Yes, there was climate change, the rapid and sustained warming that ushered in the Holocene. But there had been periods of warming before. Oddly enough, the Holocene is marked by far less variability, far less change, than the preceding hundreds of thousands of years. Perhaps climate change, coupled with the arrival of hunters?

And what else arrived with the hunters?

***

From the Internet, I download a series of photographs: California condors at Big Sur, feeding on a beached whale. The whale is a rusty-colored, mottled lump on the beach, looking like a weathered boulder, the reddish-orange, rounded rock of the Colorado Plateau, the very landscape to which many of the condors are now returning. In a close-up, you can see the birds have ripped off the whale’s skin along the lower jaw: they reach their bare, snaky necks into the animal’s mouth to feed. I think they’re eating its tongue.

Also available on the Internet is a gluttonous offering of stories about avian flu. The slaughter of poultry in Asia. The speculation (as yet unrealized) about transmission by migrating birds. The specter of a pandemic; the social upheaval and death toll likely should the virus make its leap to humans and sweep through the United States. We’re reminded that the 1918 influenza pandemic was a bird flu; it has been called the worst infectious disease outbreak in history. And that was in an age before air travel, before the tightly woven tissue of globalization.

How keen these various ironies seem. The national press prints suggestions to prepare for the coming plague: stockpile food and water; be ready to remove your children from school; expect disruption of public services. It’s true: An inopportune mutation could kill so many of us, the devastation would be a cataclysmic firestorm, and the world would become, to the bereaved and bewildered survivors, unrecognizable. Meanwhile, those 273 individual birds in the Southwest hang on by little more than a claw, above the abyss of disappearance.

Ross MacPhee suggests something similar happened in those last few hundred years of the Pleistocene. The hunters were brave and resourceful, but they were only human. They were not some tidal wave of stone-tipped slaughter; they couldn’t decimate several million animals in just a few centuries, he argues. But what if they were hosts to something else that could? The people, and their dogs, could easily have carried diseases from Europe to which the New World mammals had no inherited immunity. A “hyperdisease” could move from its accustomed host into the new horizons of a range of species. Such an epidemic, joined with the increasing pressures of hunting and climate change, could have visited the very disruption and death we now imagine for ourselves on the existent animal communities some 12,000 years ago.

***

How fragile we seem to feel, how vulnerable and endangered. In my town, local authorities are preparing a planning strategy, should avian flu become a hyperdisease, an emerging virus that brings us down like medieval Europeans before the Black Death, like the Arawak before smallpox. Despite published reports to the contrary, the planning document repeats the fear that migratory birds may spread the disease as an already-established fact, although to date the source of outbreaks is not wild birds but industrial poultry farms. The authors use telling phrases like “attack rate” rather than “infection rate,” putting that fearsome number at 25 percent of the local population.

It’s difficult, even for men and women in suits meeting in air-conditioned rooms, to keep the deep-seated viscerality of fear fenced within the domesticated landscape of data and rationality. That fear is ancient stuff, far older than mammoth bones. It stood up with us long, long ago, and moved with us across the edible, changeable landscape of the ice-gripped world; it found ways to body forth in myth and image, in the rumble of symbol deep in the imagination. Look out, it warns us sometimes, look out. Something dreadful and dangerous, and far larger than you, is about to come winging in. Listen. Can you hear it, even now?

Elizabeth Dodd directs the creative writing program at Kansas State University. Her most recent book is Prospect: Journeys & Landscapes, winner of the William Rockhill Nelson Award for nonfiction.

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