On Coming Back as a Buzzard

Photo: Martin Harvey

I KNOW, COMING BACK AS A CROW IS A LOT MORE ATTRACTIVE. If crows and buzzards do the same rough job — picking, tearing, and cleaning up — who wouldn’t rather return as a shiny blue crow with a mind for locks and puzzles? A strong voice, and poem-struck. Sleek, familial, omen-bearing. Full of mourning and ardor and talk. Buzzards are nothing like this, but something other, complicated by strangeness and ugliness. They intensify my thinking. They look prehistoric, pieced together, concerned. I might simply say I feel closer to them — always have — and proceed. Because, really, as I turn it over, the problem I’m working on here, coming back as a buzzard, has not so much to do with buzzards after all.

A buzzard is expected at the table. The rush would be over by the time I got there and I, my lateness sanctioned, might rightfully slip in. I wouldn’t saunter, nor would I blow in dramatically — flounce, as my grandmother would say. The road would be the dinner table (just as the dinner table, with its veering discussions, is always a road somewhere) and others’ distraction would resolve — well, I would resolve it — into a clean plate.

I would be missed if I were not there. Not at first, not in the frenzy, but later.

Without me, no outlines, no profiles come clear. The very idea of scaffolding is diminished.

“The smaller scraps are tastier” would have no defender. “Close to the bone” would fall out of use as a measure of sharply-felt truth.

Without a chance to walk away from abundance, thus proving their wealth, none of the first eaters would be content with their portion. I make their bestowing upon the least of us possible.

With me around, mishaps — side of the highway, over a cliff, more slowly dispensed by poison — do not have to be turned to a higher purpose. I step in. I make use of.

And here, I’m whittling away at the problem.

As a buzzard, I’d know the end of a thing is precisely not that. Things go on, in their way. My presence making the end a beginning, reinterpreting the idea of abundance, allowing for the ever-giving nature of Nature — I’d know these not as religious thoughts. It’s rather that, apportioned rightly, there’s always enough, more than enough. “Nothing but gifts on this poor, poor earth,” says Milosz, who understood perfectly the resemblance between dissolve and increase. Rain scours and sun burns away excesses of form. And rain also seeds, and sun urges forth fuses of green.

I’d love best the movement of stages and increments, to repeat “this bank and shoal of time” while below me banks and shoals of a body went on welling/receding, rising and dropping. I’d be perched on a wire, waiting, ticking off not the meat reducing, but how what’s left, like a dune, shifts and reconstitutes. Yes, it looks like I hover, and the hovering, I know, suggests a discomfiting eagerness. Malevolence. Why is that? I haven’t killed a thing. If the waiting seems untoward, it may be confirming something too real, too true: all the parts that slip from sight, can’t be easily had, collapse in on themselves and require digging, all the parts that promise small, intense bursts of sweetness unnerve us — while the easily abundant, the spans, the expanses (thick haunch, round belly and shoulder), all that lifts easily to another’s lips, and retains its form till the end — seems pure. Right and deserved. Proper and lawful. Thus butchers have their neat diagrams. One knows to call for chop, loin, shank, rump.

I’d get to be one who, when passed the plate, seeks first the succulent eye. This would mark me: foreigner. Stubborn lover of scraps and dark meat. Base. Trained on want and come to love piecemeal offerings — the shreds and overlooked tendernesses too small for a meal, but carefully, singularly gathered — like brief moments that burst: isolate beams of sun in truck fumes, underside of wrist against wrist, sudden cool from a sewer grate rising. I incline toward the tucked and folded parts (the old country can’t be bred out of me), the internals with names that lack correspondence, the sweetbreads and umbles, bungs, hoods, liver-and-lights. If the road is a plate, then the outskirts of fields and settlements where piles are heaped are plates, too. And the gullies, the ditches, the alleys — all plates. I’d get to reorder your thoughts about troves, to prove the spilled and shoveled-aside to be treasure. To reconfer notions of milk and honey, and how to approach the unbidden.

I resemble, as I suppose we all do, the things I consume: bent to those raw flaps of meat, red, torn, cast aside, my head also looks like a leftover thing, chewed. I have my ways of avoiding attention: vomit to turn away predators. Shit, like the elegant stork, on my legs to cool off, to disinfect the swarming microbes I tread daily. I am gentle. And cautious. I ride the thermals and flap very little (conserve, conserve) and locate food by smell. I’m a black V in air. A group of us on the ground is a venue. In the air we’re a kettle.

I reuse even the language.

A simple word, aftermath, structures my day. Sometimes I think epic — doesn’t everyone apply to their journey a story? Then flyblown, feculent, scavenge come — how it must seem to others — and the frame of my story’s reduced. Things are made daily again. The first eaters are furiously driven — by hunger, and brute need releasing trap doors in the brain. Such push and ambition! I hold things in pantry spots in my body and take out and eat what I’ve saved when I need it, and so am never furious. On my plate, choice reduces. I take what I come upon, and the work of a breeze cools the bowl’s steaming contents. There’s a beauty in this singularity: consider bringing to each occasion your one perfect bowl, one neat fork/spoon/knife set. That when the chance comes, you’re given to draw the tine-curves between lips, pull, lick, tap clean the spoon’s curvature — and for these sensations, there’s ample time. Time pinned open, like the core of a long summer afternoon.

Am I happy? Yes, in momentary ways. Which I think is a good way to feel about things that come when they will, and not when you will them. While I’m waiting, I get to be with the light as it shifts off the wet phone wire, catches low sun, holds, pearls and unpearls drops of water. If I bounce just a little, they shiver and fall, and my weight calls more pearls to me. There’s light over the blood-matted rib-fur, and higher up, translucing on the still-unripped ear of the fox. Light through drops of fresh resin on pine limbs, light on ditchwater neverminding the murk. I get fixed by spoors of light, silver shine on silks and tassels, light choosing the lowliest, palest blue gristle for lavishing. I wait at a height and from afar, with what looks like a hunch-shouldered burden. Below, the red coils of spilled guts gather dust on the ground. Such a red and its steam in the cold gets to be shock — and riches. Any red interruption on asphalt, on hillside, at dune’s edge — shock, and not a strewn thing, not waste. Not a mess. Plump entrails crusting with sage and dirt tighten in sun: piercing that is an undersung moment, filled with a tender resistance, a sweetness, slick curves and tangles to dip into, tear, stretch, snap, and swallow.

The problem with coming back as a buzzard is the notion of coming back.

I can’t believe in the coming-back.

Sure, I play the dinnertime game, everyone identifying their animal-soul, the one they choose to reveal their best depth, the one, when the time comes, they hope fate will award them: strong eagle! smart dolphin! joyful golden retriever! But there’s the issue of where I’d have to go first, in order to make a return. And the idea of things I did or failed to do in a lifetime fixing the terms of my return — and the keeping of records, and just who’s totting it up. As soon as I imagine returning anew (brave-stallion reward, dung-beetle reproach) I lose heart. It’s too easy.

Anyway, I already think like a buzzard.

The times I forget my child, most powerfully marked by the moments that follow, in which I abruptly remember him again, with sharp breath, disturbed at the oversight — those times are evidence enough of my fall into reverie, into all that is set, unbidden, before me: inclinations gone to full folds, bone-shaded hollows, easings and slouchings, taut ridges, matched dips, cupped small of the back, back of the neck, the ever-giving body — yes, I take what’s set before me. So much feels hosted — and fleet. I chew a little koan: all things go / always more where that came from.

That the world calls me to hissing and grunting, that I am given a nose for decay’s weird sweetness, that I am arranged in a broken-winged pose to dry feathers and bake off mites in the sun, that I love the wait, that I have my turn, that no one wants my job so I go on being needed — I have my human equivalences for these.

Lia Purpura’s collection of essays, On Looking, was a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. A recipient of NEA and Fulbright fellowships, she is writer-in- residence at Loyola College in Baltimore.


  1. Lots of buzzards in my neck of the sagebrush near the Snake River in south central Idaho. I often seen four or five circling, riding the canyon thermals. They may have a bad rap when it comes to beauty, but I watched one of the most spectacular and enviable shows of current riding I’ve ever seen by a buzzard near the City of Rocks National Momument. It lasted fifteen or twenty minutes, nary a wing flapped, up and down. What a ride to watch and if one had to come back as a buzzard with that kind of ride in store, one might be able to foresake the beatuy and myth.

  2. Each Fall, in the south end of eastern San Joaquin Valley, huge rising clouds of buzzard/vulture ascend in miraculous beauty, a lovely thing to witness. They pause every half mile or so to allow stragglers to catch up in another swirling cloud of uncountable birds, eloquence of the sky.

  3. Vultures, both Black and Turkey, nest in trees by the Intracoastal Waterway near my home in Southeast Florida. Amusing — and instructive — that they choose to live on some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

    This, too, shall pass.

    When returning to their roosts in the evening, they often wind-surf on the updrafts from the seabreeze striking our apartment building. We get to watch these incomparable aviators up close and personal (sometimes from as close as a few feet from our balcony). At that distance, we can see how big they actually are.

    The Turkey Vultures are the top soarers in our neck of the condos. Blacks fair less well, having roughly 1/34less wing area/weight, and their flight is more utilitarian: soar and flap, soar and flap. Sometimes it’s amusing, and other times we think it a bit sad that those guys, doing the same work for the same pay, don’t seem to get the perks of effortless flight along with their fellows.

    A kettle of buzzards riding a thermal for altitude is a marvelous thing to watch as, reaching the height they need, they peel off, one after the other, wings swept back for the perfect combination of life and forward speed, and make their way cross country to the next updraft. I’ve seen that repeated time and again, mile after mile, as they make their way from the coast, inland to the huge middens we call landfills.

    They’ve fed on our scraps and other leavings since we wandered out of the savannahs, and they will most likely help finish off the last of us. Marvelous creatures, greatly maligned, misunderstood, and unappreciated for their work and what they can teach us about the realities of this life.

    Marvelous writing, too. Thank you.

  4. I found myself swept into a new epicurean fantasy from a member of the food chain much maligned or misunderstood…until now. Thank you. Keep writing, I need to read your perspective on the viscera of life. Carry on!

  5. If given a choice of animals, I want to come back as a sea turtle. The world is much larger when your domain is water based rather than land based. A sea turtle’s elongated life span, assuming the avoidance of shrimp trawls and large sharks, would allow for a lot of exploring.

  6. Thanks for the article, Lia. My wife and I observed some of the reintroduced condors in northern Arizona this past spring – truly marvelous animals and simply beautiful as they soar over the Vermillion Cliffs! I was so inspired when I saw them that I was moved to write a poem. Since the Orion poetry editor would probably never accept it for publication, I’m sneaking it in here.

    By Jerry Lang

    Watching, anticipating
    Condors sail on the breeze,
    Seeking death’s remains
    Dark angels come feed.

    Circling skyward
    Then passing low,
    Fleeting shadows
    Pass death down below.

    Gather together
    Birds of the air to feast,
    Ripping, gouging, engorging
    Feeding frenzied beasts.

    Now death takes flight
    The fallen arise,
    Dark angels take wing
    Life ascends to the skies.

  7. Recall what Ed Abbey and Robinson Jeffers wrote about the role of the buzzard in nature’s cycle including their possible part in our own little act.

  8. Oh, how I am satiated by your feast of words, images and blurred boundaries of what is real or merely desired. Or known. My gluttonous tendencies indulged, and yet I hunger for more. Does such dichotomy exist in all things? Should I more carefully observe my dog, the squirrels working overtime these days, insects? Thank you for sharing your pondering and process, the depth of your discourse will be difficult to emerge from. My work may suffer today or at the least, have new focus. An image from 20 years ago came back strong: rounding a bend in a river and coming upon a turkey vulture that startled me and scared my wife (who has a fear of birds that can barely be extrapolated to encompass a 3 foot specimen). The majestic scavenger stood ground, refusing to leave her solo treasure. We drifted closer, and were amazed anew: ginourmous bird with a badass visage, only casual interest in agawk paddlers. The river current ended our meeting though the moment lingered for hours, as will your essay.

  9. I love Orion. But as part of a constant push towards public education, we often stress that the term Buzzard refers to buteos (hawks) and is commonly used in Europe. Vultures are not buzzards. Just a pet peeve of mine and sad to see the misnomer continue.

  10. a parrot – long life, intelligence, beauty

  11. Each fall I hike with 6th graders at outdoor ed camp along the bend of the Frio River in central Texas with high steep bluffs and often hundreds of vultures during their migration. We watch for UFOs of all sorts but it’s the vultures that always captivate and give me a chance to expand young minds about birds and their beauty and place in our world. Your reminder is important, vultures commit no act of violence to obtain their food (altho a biologist friend noted black vultures stretching out wings in a cave and flicking bats from the nearby wall – much to their surprise and next meal enjoyment).

    As for the next step to get to being a vulture I tend to view it as my chance to become a habitat, especially after reading much about Dr Bill Bass and the body-farm. And what better way to finally see the planet than a soaring perspecitve. The best way to recycle (or gift) life is to become the basis for a new level of living.

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