Of William Faulkner, vultures, and nature

Going into the museum the other day, I got into the elevator in the Soldier Field parking garage behind two young women, they were talking to one another and I caught the conversation in the middle:

Young woman 1:  “…What do you have against birds?”

Young woman 2:  “I don’t know, I guess I’m just not a nature person”

When the elevator opened, we got out.  I walked ahead of them towards the museum and heard Red-winged Blackbirds, a singing Eastern Phoebe and calling Black-capped Chickadees from the artificial hillside which graces the north side of Soldier Field.  A crow was sitting on one of the light posts along McFetridge Drive.   As we got closer to the museum, I heard young woman 1 trying to get my attention: “Do you know where the west door is?”  I told them, but at that point, I had to ask what they were doing at the museum.  They said they were there for a class.  I said to have fun. Is there a chance that young woman 2 became more of a “nature person” as the result of her trip?  I sure hope so.  I am convinced our institution can have that effect on people.

I have tied this incident to this William Faulkner quote I ran into while looking for something on the web.  Young woman 2 admitted she was not a nature person, I feel like Faulkner thought he knew something about nature.  Who am I to express a negative opinion about one of America’s greatest writers?  I get frustrated by what I feel is a heightened sense of anthropocentrism in the world, where biodiversity is pushed aside by humans.  Reading this quote, my feeling was, that like too many other people, Faulkner thought he had vultures figured out, when all he really was illustrating was a weak connection to the natural world, just like Young woman 2.

I contend that Faulkner knew little about “buzzards” (a largely southern term for vultures), and that he is wrong in just about every way he thinks about them. Vultures eat carrion (dead things), but that actually is fairly specialized, they do not eat “anything.”  Faulkner thinks that nothing “needs” them, but like it or not, vultures are part of their ecosystems, just like humans.  For example, mammalian scavengers often rely on seeing circling vultures to find carcasses.  Also, various species of parasites have evolved to live on vultures (just like those on humans).  Humans even “want” vultures, sometimes.  The sense of smell of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is so good that putting beta-mercaptanol (a compound produced by rotting flesh) into the long natural gas pipelines stretching across large portions of the western U.S. allowed workers to find leaks in those lines by the vultures that were attracted to the smell at the leak site. 

Unfortunately, I also think a lot of people do “hate” vultures.  For instance in many parts of the New World tropics, Black Vultures (Coragyps aratus) will hang around trash dumps. Several years ago, the presence of large numbers of these Vultures near the runway led to the closing of the airport of the town of Tefé in the Brazilian Amazon.  The solution was to move the dump was which also moved the vultures, so you can say that they can be a headache.

One of Tefé, Brazil 's Black Vultures along the riverfront.

Finally, many vultures actually are “in danger.”  In Asia and Africa, almost all species have suffered substantial population declines, collateral losses as humans use a pesticide called Furadan to poison predators preying on their herds of cattle and goats.

Maybe I am being too hard on Faulkner, I doubt there is much envy associated with vultures, but for as great a writer as he was, I suspect he was disappointed if actually got his reincarnation wish given the situation in which vultures have to share the planet with us.  We definitely need more “nature people.”