During a morning walk along roads that penetrate into the jungle in a grid that foretells of new housing to be built for a population that tripled in only 10 years according to the latest census, I spotted a flock of vultures posed on a the lone surviving tree in a large lot recently “cleared”. (Damn the linguistic aberration which implies virtue and goodness in the savage act of cutting down everything within reach of the killing machines…but that’s a rant for another day.)
Approaching along a path, I noticed more flying in circles above me, and I thought that really, they´re not so ugly. Obviously one cannot compare them to toucans or flamingos, but in their own way, for what they do, they are not completely devoid of charm. In flight at least, they inspire a bit of envy for the ease with which they move, and I couldn´t help wondering what the world looks like from way up there… Although their job is not one that inspires affection or empathy, it is a very necessary role and one for which we ought to thank them. Though no child dreams of being a garbage collector, what would be of our civilization if such a profession did not exist?
In fact in days gone by, in various ancient cultures, vultures were recognized and even venerated for representing that sacred link between this world and the next. They were considered messengers of the gods, and guardians of death´s divine gateway. I remember reading of some culture- perhaps in India, perhaps in Africa- where rather than burying their dead, the custom is to place them on platforms high above the earth, to make things easier for the vultures who are to dispose of the body. I´ve always liked that image. Letting nature take care of its own makes much more sense than spending fortunes on boxes and lots, on embalming or incinerating.
I was thinking all this when I was suddenly hit by a horrible stench that was anything but holy. “Damn you buzzards stink!”, I thought. The romantic notions of a few seconds earlier where thrown aside and replaced with a stream of curses against these vile, foul, unpleasant, malodorous , unbearably stinky beasts.
The most colorful piles are of plastic which will last for centuries.
The grossest were completely covered in worms and maggots who will at least recycle as much as possible, returning the organic matter into the cycle of life.
This was the source of the stench. And standing stunned in the middle of the road, I suddenly wept- not because of the burning deep in my nostrils, but because of the realization that the “unbearably vile and malodorous beast”, is me.
On my way back I had to retract my curses and apologize to the vultures. Indifferently they took flight and disappeared, having neither hurt nor offended any of God´s creatures.
David Nuñez is a biologist, photographer and author of several books on the Wildlife of the Mexican Caribbean, as well as a founding member of Mexiconservación.