Edward Abbey wished to be reincarnated after death as a vulture. Oddly enough, my husband feels the same. Either that, or he thinks he was a vulture in some distant, past life. Perhaps these men, aiming to soar the skies, feeding on death to create life, in a new life after their own death, help me to see vultures for what they really are.

In the United States, we associate vultures with death. Dark, grotesque birds feeding on carcasses strewn about the roadside. We are appalled by what we find disgusting. But how could they…we wonder, as vultures pluck scraps of meat off the dead. When we find a person to be selfish or exploitative we sneer and call them a vulture. Does it take one to know one?

The main species found in North America are the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), the Black Vulture (Coragyps aratus), and the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). The California Condor has suffered greatly from poaching, poisoning, pollution, and loss of habitat.

Lucky for the Turkey and Black Vultures, these species are doing just fine. With the amount of roadkill and scraps human technologies offer them, it’s no wonder they’re doing well. But how can they stand the smell…we wonder to ourselves, holding our noses, as flies buzz around the foul flesh. We ought to thank these ghastly ghouls, recognize them for what they really are: recyclers. Roadside cleanup crews. Vultures eat death, remove sad sights we don’t wish to see, digest rotten meat with the help of flora in their gut, turn it in to living flesh. But just look at their ugly heads…their featherless heads, also home to a blooming array of microbial life, allow the vulture to dig deep without getting blood and guts and feces stuck amongst the feathers. Instead, their bald heads become bleached by the sun – sterilized clean.

We don’t wish to see dead animal bodies, piling up, turning our highways into breeding grounds for disease. This pile up would remind us of the excess in which our society bathes, would show us a fraction of the destruction we casually cause, day to day. When I see vultures gorging on the surplus of our society, I wonder if they are judging us. I believe thanks to vultures and other carrion lovers, we don’t always have to judge ourselves. They effectively remove a problem. But they feed on rotten meat…

We prefer our meat to come perfectly packaged in white styrofoam and saran wrap, sparkling in the fluorescent light. We don’t want to remember the life, the death, the carcass – just the meat, that’s what we want. We don’t want to think about how we must kill to feed, rather than feeding on a kill, like the vulture. We don’t want to wonder if we create a problem, rather than removing one, like the vulture. We don’t want to know we sabotage a cycle, rather than completing one, like a vulture. We don’t wish to consider that such an ugly creature could possibly be so superior.

Interview with Brandi Jo Nyberg

Border Crossing: Firstly, your nonfiction piece “Vultures” seamlessly explores cycles and opposing ideas (life/death, thriving/endangerment, scientific language/emotional observations, dirty/sterile). Can you tell us more about why you collapse these seemingly contrary images and themes? 

Brandi Jo Nyberg: The type of polarity within this essay is inherent to both my nature and the vulture’s, so it naturally became part of this piece. I have both a science degree, my BSc, and an art degree, my MFA, and when I set out to pursue an MFA, my ultimate goal was always to blend the two realms. Any time I contemplate the beauty of a living creature, I also cannot help but contemplate the biology, ecology, and how/why that species is classified scientifically and named.

And the vulture, well, is a wonderfully dynamic species that both represents and exhibits so many contrasting ideas. As you mentioned in your question, and a theme that is explored throughout the entire essay, is that the vulture represents death. But the beautiful thing about death, and vultures in particular, is that with death, carbon, nutrients, and so much more is recycled to create life. Diving deeper into this aspect of vultures, one can’t help but contemplate so many polar ideas and images inherent to the vulture. It was important for me to illuminate this duality of the vulture – our culture tends to only acknowledge the dark, disgusting side of the vulture: death. However, when I look at the vulture, I see the other side: life and beauty. I wanted a slew of contrasting ideas an images throughout the essay, side by side, not only to bring them to light, but to accentuate the dichotomy.

BC: Your essay relates that Edward Abbey, the essayist and environmental advocate, and your husband want to be reincarnated as vultures. What do you want to be reincarnated as? Can we look forward to another piece about that animal/being? 

BJN: Oh, that is such a tough question! I have thought a fair amount about this question, even before you posed it. At this point in my life, I think I would like to be reincarnated as a coyote. What is amazing about coyotes is an adaptation called ‘fission-fusion’ – they have the ability to survive and thrive alone, or within a pack, depending on circumstances. Very few social species have this ability, but humans are one of the others. I don’t consider myself to be a very social person, and I tend to thrive in a somewhat solitary setting, but I do still thrive in a tight-knit community. When and if I’m ever reincarnated, or reincorporated into another living species, I’d like to retain this unique adaptation. Plus– the coyote vocalization is an entrancing, beautiful yip-yapping song. To be able to speak like that would be a gift.

As for the second part of your question, yes, you can look forward to another piece about coyotes. In fact, it’s already written, and I hope to get it published soon. After writing my piece about vultures, I felt inspired to continue writing about the animals humans typically deem ‘vermin’ or ‘disgusting’ or a ‘nuisance,’ and because I feel so connected to coyotes, a piece about them came next.:

BC: The voice in “Vultures” interjects with italicized negative emotional reactions to the vulture, yet the rest of the essay explores–even celebrates–the benefits of the vulture. What inspirations do you draw from to maintain such a dexterous voice? 

BJN: The short answer is the author Joy Williams, particularly her book of essays titled Ill Nature. I had an essay about vultures floating around in my head for quite some time, but I didn’t know how to write it, or what it needed to be, until I read Ill Nature. Joy Williams is unforgiving in her critiques of human nature, and I respect that greatly in an author (one of the main reasons I also admire Edward Abbey).

I consider myself a critical person (perhaps too critical at times), but often I find myself struggling to express my critiques of the world/human nature/ideas within my writing because I’m afraid of being…critiqued! It’s a fine line to walk at times – I want to express my critical, often negative, opinion about an idea, but I don’t want to point and wag my finger, saying, you, the reader.

In order to balance this within “Vultures,” I chose to illuminate what I imagined were popular thoughts and opinions about vultures by presenting them in a conversational way, using italics to separate them from the rest. I didn’t want to downright contest or refute these negative comments about the vulture, but instead, as you said, celebrate the full truth of what the vulture is and does. Using ‘we’ was very important to me within this essay – as I mentioned, I did not want to point my finger at the reader. I, too, am guilty of many things, so I needed to be part of it all and use ‘we.’ Once I discovered that, going back and forth between the disgust and celebration of the vultures became easier.

BC: Finally, this essay is about 500 words, what some would consider a flash nonfiction piece. Can you share some of your thoughts and feelings on the flash nonfiction genre?

BJN: I’m always a fan of brevity. I think a flash piece that packs a punch has the potential to be more powerful than a longer piece that, perhaps, has the ability to more deeply explore a topic. I’ve always found myself gravitating toward both reading and writing nonfiction on the shorter side, although not necessarily flash nonfiction.

What can be powerful about brevity is that, as a writer, you can open the door for a reader, walk into a dark room with them, but you don’t always have time to walk them back into the light. I like to leave my readers in the dark (not always, but often), because sitting in the dark with a fresh idea leads to contemplation. In flash and shorter nonfiction, an author can pose questions to the reader, and lead the reader in certain directions, but often leaves the answers open. I like that. A lot.

Brandi Jo Nyberg spends her time in the woods, on rivers, growing food, and writing about those things. She holds a BSc in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation from the University of Florida and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She currently lives in western rural New York State, where she is starting a vegetable and wool farm with her husband.