“Suzanne, come look!”
Toby, I’ll call him, my house-mate, knew that I was in awe of nature’s beauty.
I quickly put on my sandals and shuffled toward the window.
As the sun rose above the greening hill behind the ranch house, I looked out at the far
They stood there like totems, the vultures, ten in a row, silent, reaching, in the glittering first rays of spring- time sun. Wingtip-to-black wingtip, they opened their wings to the warm drying light, touching one another in a stiff, feathered chain. Toby explained that the furrows beneath their wings sometimes became too moist; here they were, vulture to vulture, in a group sun bath. *
The ranch yielded many such moments.
One night, a horse pranced back and forth beneath my bedroom window, bending his head and neighing, as if pondering a worry, back and forth, back and forth.
Another time, as I went out to take a breath of air after a moment of discord with Toby, I heard a click- click, and suddenly an Owl with a great white face and hooked beak leapt from the roof of the tack room — where saddles and harnesses were kept — and swooped down towards me, making me hasten behind the kitchen screen door, back into the house.
A death in the family ensued. From then on, I feared them. Nevertheless, the Owls had a job on the farm as predator, and between them and the soaring red -tailed hawks, mice trembled in terror, and stayed out of the house.
Toby believed in nature, and in astral order. I watched in awe as he rounded up the sheep with the help of his border collies. No “ here boy,” or “come,” or “down!” for them.
Toby explained that these well-trained dogs had specific commands, ones which clarified for them the work they had to do to round-up the sheep. “Off!” instead of “down!” “Come- say- hello,” instead of “here boy.” And so on. Serious business, when you are a black and white collie herding woolie grey-white sheep. I loved to watch them in action, with their master Toby in charge, and the dogs, looking as if having a purpose gave them joy.
When I asked about the cows that surrounded his acreage, Toby cheerfully described the difference between types of cows. In a voice full of patrimony, he explained:
Meat cows are Herefords. Raised for eating. White faces, brown bodies. Heifers are born to be mild, he explained — “they give a lotta milk which is low in butterfat, just right for dieters and cardiac freaks. And they are pasture thrifty, as my uncle used to say.”
“Then there’s the Jersey. For all the meat and potatoes people and anyone who loves buttern’cream. He patted his ballooning gut: “my kinda cow!”
Although ours was a tenancy relationship — I rented a room from him as I finished my last year at the university — Toby was a kind of mystic. He understood cycles, synchronicity.
Once, I was needing a pink sea-shell for a project. There was no time to drive the hour it would take to get to the beach, and the project was due in a few days. Toby understood what motivated animals and people. He didn’t forget. Or, put another way, he remembered, and when he did, things happened. He had patience. He had a gift for retrieval.
This time, he was folding chicken manure into the rich dirt of his garden, chopping up dry clods, bending and scooping and tilling to prepare for the seeds, when he stopped and called to me:
“I’ve found something you want.”
Since I never developed a trusting rapport with him — it was his turf, after all, and he never let me forget it — I walked over hesitantly.
He held out his large, earth-laced hand, and uncurled his long, meaty fingers.
“Here’s your pink shell,” he said, dropping it into my hand.
There, in the middle of ranching pastures, far from the ocean, he had found the pink shell I needed for my presentation!
Then, this tall man with a bold warrior face, a strong bent nose, and a thatch of sandy hair that stood up like thick grass, wiped his hands on his green baggy pants and returned to digging.
A gift for retrieval.
His son, whom I’ll call Joe, had a similar gift. He enthralled fish. Even in streams where others failed, he was able to catch one. Like his father, he understood cycles, and how to wait, knowing that what is sought will eventually come.
Many native healers understood the language of a larger world, a world in which we are all connected, whether two-legged, four-legged, winged, plant or stone. The late scholar Vine De Loria wrote about those ways in a book called The Way We Used to Live.
In our secular society, we have forgotten cycles. We have forgotten how to have patience and wait. We have become desperate, clinging to things, to now.
We have forgotten how to understand the meaning of symbols:
A row of vultures sunning their wings on a fence post. A horse trotting back and forth beneath my window as I thought of someone I love who was far away. And then I heard from him.
An owl swooping down as if to pick me up in its talons. A relative dying, not long afterward.
A pink shell dug from the earth fifty miles from the ocean. .
Of course those things may mean nothing, nothing at all.
C. Suzanne 2013
(See collective nouns for Vultures)(photo from iStock)