Natalie Sirett – Artist

“The environmental impact of human activity on birdlife suggests that, as a species, we care little for avian survival. Yet our culture and language are crowded with bird symbols that reveal a deep and passionate connection to our ‘feathered friends’. Birds symbolise love, hope, renewal; our hearts soar and flutter, we rise phoenix-like from ashes, while it is the dove who finds the first symbol of peace. The bird in flight symbolises freedom, while a trapped or injured bird represents imprisonment. My Flight Boxed Series is inspired by this tension between constraint and flight. These artworks were made on boxes because they can be locked and unlocked, opened and closed, like wings. The drawings, or ‘nets’ were made as practical diagrams, rather like the nets of 3D shapes we make in school. They were essential to help me wrap the birds around the boxes interior and exterior surfaces.”

Natalie Sirett was born in Heswall, Cheshire and currently lives and works in London. She received a BA in Fine Art from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and studied painting and printmaking at the Royal Academy Schools, London. Her work explores symbols and stories embedded in our culture. “I am in some ways a contemporary symbolist or icon painter. I want to make art where object and meaning, substance and symbol unite.”

Boxed Crane, oil on wood 100 x 20 x 25 cm, 2015/6
Boxed Pelican, oil on wood 70 x 40 x 14cm 2015/16
Boxed Swallow, oil on wood 70 x 40 x 14cm 2015/16
Crane’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015
Pelican’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015
Swallow’s Net, Indian ink on Japanese Paper 70 x 50cm, 2015

Theatre Road at Dusk

by James Walton

 

there is a vacancy in my house
that cannot be occupied

an emptiness
lost to deer by fading

headlights are her weakness

an urge to perform
a hand painting given rainbow air

the schooled leap of cosine dance
one precise bound only

across dizzy evening margins

where the vacancy in my house
cannot give audience to an elegance

four becomes one momentarily
in a Fonteyn of grace

she vanishes off stage

as night sways
like a bead curtain

after someone has stepped through

 

James Walton was a librarian, a farm labourer, a cattle breeder, and mostly a public sector union official. He is published in many anthologies, journals, and newspapers. He lives in an isolated farming community in the Strzelecki Mountains is South Gippsland, Australia. He has been short listed twice for the ACU National Literature Prize, and was commended in the Welsh Poetry Competition.

The Chetwode Grey

by Tom Jeffreys

Sitting on a low stone wall outside the parish church of Chetwode, about four miles south-west of Buckingham, I wonder how close I have just come to death. The experience – and an unrelated pain that follows it – will force me to think in depth for the first time about the importance of the human body. Might our bodily vulnerability provide a clue to our relationship with other animals – both our similarities and our differences? Could the body change the way we think about thought itself? Perhaps I’m over-magnifying the afternoon’s incident in my mind. But that horse was very big, and very close.

I’ve always been terrified of horses. Or rather, my fear has become so ingrained that I’ve forgotten its origins. In fact, now I think about it, it wasn’t always this way. I have a hazy childhood memory of happy horse-riding through sunny rural anywhere. We even spent a hot afternoon clearing fields of yellow-flowering ragwort: if dried and mixed in with hay it is highly poisonous to horses. Alive, its flowers glow a golden yellow and drive the bees doolally. That evening, we sat around a campfire and I cut my finger on a ring pull. I have no idea where or when this memory comes from – perhaps it’s not even mine.

Since the midnight apparition on the first night, horses have been a frequent sight along this journey. On the fourth day, I passed quickly through a field of them standing in the rain. They gathered after me at the stile as if imploring me to stay and entertain them. I walked on, looking back with regret at my own fear. My wife, Crystal, seems able simply to approach strange horses – she holds out her hand, and pats their neck, and soon they are the best of friends.

Perhaps they can sense her affection for them. Perhaps they can smell my fear. On this fifth morning, I passed through another field – this time of smartly liveried ponies, each in its own neat blue jacket. They looked at me with the habitual disdain of the over-pampered, softened only by a momentary flicker of curiosity. They soon turned back to their grass.

The history of the horse in Britain is a long and fascinating one. The oldest known horse remains were found in Pakefield, a suburb of Lowestoft in Suffolk, and date from 700,000 BC. To put that in context, modern humans have only occupied Britain for some 40,000 years. Horses have been in this country nearly eight times longer than us. From objects of the hunt, horses gradually came to be employed as tools of the hunt. Domestication had begun here by 2500 BC, and the horse became the fundamental component of military strategy up until the decline of feudalism and the emergence of the longbow in the fourteenth century. From symbols of status to modes of transport: through the nineteenth century, horses gradually replaced oxen as the animals of the plough.

Although the subsequent industrialisation of agriculture removed many animals from the land, in certain areas horses were still widely used well into the twentieth century. Just to the east of where I’m walking today lies the village of Hardwick (a common Anglo-Saxon place name meaning ‘livestock farm’). In 1966, Hardwick was immortalised as Byfield in Richard Hillyer’s beautiful memoir Country Boy.

In the book, Hillyer (whose real name was Charles Stranks) tells of his upbringing in the tiny village. Raised in a world of back-breaking agricultural labour, Hillyer finds himself cut off emotionally and intellectually from the community by his intelligence and by his love of reading. His is a largely private, internal world, characterised by moments of magic in books and nature.

Throughout Country Boy animals are a recurring source of fascination. The villagers, for example, are repeatedly compared to animals. ‘My father had the patient courage of an animal,’ writes Hillyer, in what seems intended as a compliment but nonetheless not an unequivocal one. Hillyer is not alone in describing workers in this way. Several times in Capital, Karl Marx does the same. ‘The slave-owner buys his labourer as he buys his horse,’ he writes. As if in response to Marx, Richard Jefferies wrote in his 1885 essay ‘One of the New Voters’: ‘a man is not a horse’ and then again a few lines later, ‘Roger the reaper is not a horse’.

In Country Boy, the patterns of rural life that surround the young narrator are both comforting and deadening. It is a world marked by ‘the heavy stupidity, the animal indifference’ of his fellow humans, who exist only to work in the fields. In many ways, the animals are more important than the men, for whom they are supposed to be tools. Hillyer notes, for example, that the working day is ‘limited only by what the horses could stand, the men didn’t matter’. It’s hardly surprising that, in such circumstances, man and animal occasionally come into conflict.

In one especially heart-rending scene, Spicer, the horse-keeper – described as ‘a surly beast at the best of times’ – resorts to repeated violence against the horses at the plough. He ‘dashes at the horse, curses it, beats it, kicks it, his heavy boot coming up with savage impact on the smooth, tight skin of the horse’s belly’. The whole episode comes about due to the narrator’s own nervousness with such animals – his fear and his lack of that apparently innate ability to understand and guide them. This comes in stark contrast to the dexterity of his brother John, who seems to have a natural way with horses in particular. Hillyer’s guilt at his own incompetence is palpable: ‘I could have saved [them] from such treatment if only I had known how to handle them.’ When I read of John, I can’t help thinking of Crystal. It is Hillyer with whom I identify.

And now I’m climbing over a stile, just off the road through Chetwode. I brush aside some branches and enter a large open field. Three adult horses look up at me, bored, and return to their grazing. A fourth sidles over to say hello. Hello, I say in return. As she comes closer I stop and hold out my hand, as I’ve seen Crystal do so many times. She comes closer.

The last time I had been this close to a horse it had not ended well either. On our honeymoon, Crystal had somehow persuaded me to accompany her riding. It was an idyllic afternoon as we rode along the beach and through the sea. I say ‘rode’, but I simply sat atop the horse as a friendly local ex-jockey walked along beside with a rope to keep the horse in check. In the home straight, however, the horse decided that he had had enough of this obedient slow progress. Perhaps it was being overtaken on both sides by a pair of cantering males; perhaps it was the proximity of home and dinner – but inside his horsey head a switch flicked discernibly. He threw his head from side to side and the man, who had been in total control up until now, suddenly lost his grip on the rope. In that moment I was alone atop this huge dark beast.

As it crested a small mound of sand it reared upwards, throwing its head back. I managed to cling on – but not for long. On the downwards slope it bucked again and I half-slid, half-fell off the side of my high horse. Betraying my inexperience in such matters I thrust out a hand to cushion my landing. This is how wrists are broken: fortunately, the sand was soft and forgiving. Not so the horse. As I landed, I looked up. Above me and towards me, coming hard, the black, kicking hooves right at my head. They say that in such moments your life flashes before you. All that flashed before me was the hot fear of imminent pain. I shut my eyes and ducked, I think, or rolled. Or fell. I felt nothing. I braced for the sudden onrush of agony – pain always waits one tricky moment before launching its full-frontal assault.

Still nothing. I got to my feet, swayed a little, and breathed. The man ran towards me – relief and terror writ together across his wide brown eyes. As the horse disappeared into the distance, I laughed a nervous little laugh.

This memory is, if not quite at the forefront of my mind, then certainly somewhere lurking around, as I continue to proffer my palm to the Chetwode grey. She approaches and snuffles at my empty hand. Slowly, with my other hand I reach up to stroke her face. She breathes hot and loud upon my hand. I wander what she is thinking, but her eyes are inscrutable. It is, I think, the same confrontation with ignorance in the face of the other that Helen Macdonald experiences when looking into the eyes of her goshawk. ‘What is she thinking?’ she asks at one point. ‘What is she seeing?’

The process that Macdonald goes through over the course of H is for Hawk not only involves learning about the mind and life of the animal other, but also about the limits of that learning. There is, ultimately, only so much we can know. ‘I cannot know what she is thinking,’ Macdonald admits in prose of simple brilliance towards the end of the book, ‘but she is very alive.’ It is the same conclusion drawn by Mark Rowlands about his wolf companion in The Philosopher and the Wolf, by Jacques Derrida when his cat sees him naked in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am’, and by countless others. However deeply science can probe into the brain of an animal, however accurate our simulations of the eyesight of cats or bees or hawks, ultimately there are some things we cannot ever know.

I look up into the big, dark eyes of the grey face in front of me. I have no idea what it might be thinking, or even if ‘thought’ is the appropriate word. I smile nervously and decide not to push my luck. I say goodbye, withdraw my hand, and turn away to walk slowly onwards. Is this a mistake? If so, I won’t know it yet. The grey follows me close behind – just as I’ve seen a little pony do to a lone lost walker in the Oxfordshire countryside when I was on holiday with my father a year or so before. That pony nipped on to the girl’s rucksack and followed her up the hill. She looked terrified, but we smiled and the pony skipped off playfully.

This time I laugh too. But as I walk on, the grey’s pacing becomes increasingly erratic. Suddenly she is up alongside me. As I turn, she retreats away. Then back towards me, then once more away – this time rearing up and kicking its rear legs out straight towards me.

‘Holy shit!’

Panic floods upwards. I try to keep calm, keep walking slowly onwards. No sudden moves. That’s the correct response, right? Again it approaches fast, right up close to me, darts back and kicks. I duck away. How the fuck am I going to get away from this horse? Up ahead the field simply stretches on. No stile or fence or wall. Nothing to separate me from danger. I make my calculations: there’s no choice but to turn back.

I wheel around, holding out my stick to try to keep the horse at a distance. (Finally, it seems to have come in useful.) I make my way as quickly as I can back the way I’ve come – walking, trying not to appear panicked. I’m not entirely sure who I’m trying to fool. I remember once being followed in similar intimidatory fashion by a herd of cattle when out walking with language artist Camilla Nelson near her home in Somerset. As I pretended not to be terrified she told me that if you simply ignore them then they won’t do you any harm. What time is it, Mr Wolf? The cow as wolf in reverse. Unlike the cattle, however, I don’t think this horse is fooled. Certainly its strafing manoeuvres continue – closer and closer, each time I feel the air rush past my face as the hoofs kick through the air. I hasten towards the bushes and finally – after moments that feel like years, that stretch out interminably as I look back now – finally into the branchy protection of the trees at the edge of the field. I scale the stone stile to the safety of the road beyond. My heart is pummelling against my chest.

It’s time to take the long way round, again.

 

This is an edited extract from ‘Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot’ (Influx Press, 2017).

Tom Jeffreys is a writer, editor and occasional curator with a particular interest in art that crosses over into the sciences or explores our relationship with the environment. He writes regularly for Apollo, Frieze, and Monocle, and has also been published in numerous other newspapers, magazines and websites. Signal Failure is his first book.

Dogspel

by Ann Cefola

In the beginning was the Bone
and the Bone was good and strong, it grew
outward in layers, flushed inside by beating blood,
held by organs, muscle and sinew, until with a yelp
and flash of water emerged with other bones, blind
and mouthing toward a teat, squirming bones,
minute paws and the long-sanded tongue that cleaned,
organized and let the tiny sacks of calcium sleep and start
the mysterious journey where dream and life are one,
rolling back and forth, entry and exit
scented and calling
Come, come.

 

Ann Cefola is the author of Free Ferry (Upper Hand Press, 2017), and Face Painting in the Dark (Dos Madres Press, 2014); and the translations The Hero (Chax Press, 2018), Alparegho, Like Nothing Else, forthcoming from The Operating System next year, and Hence this cradle (Seismicity Editions, 2007). A Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Residency recipient, she received the Robert Penn Warren Award judged by John Ashbery. For more information, see www.anncefola.com and www.annogram.blogspot.com.

Sarah Gillespie – Artist

Reflections on the Images of Moths

Looking at Sarah Gillespie’s drawings of moths I find myself absorbed by the complex patterning and subtle colouring on the wings, the delicate antennae and legs, the sense of a life-form both robust and fragile. I am taken aback by their beauty. I am in wonder at Sarah’s technical and aesthetic skill, while at the same time curious about how their elegant shape and remarkable markings arise in the natural world. Questions about ‘art’ and ‘nature’ arise together.

The scientific explanation is that the entire form of the moth arises through processes of random mutation and natural selection that enables them to successfully compete within an ecological niche. This is a causal explanation: the form and pattern that we call a moth is the result of historical influences on the species, constrained, of course, by its biology. Beauty, in this view, is entirely secondary, the projection of the human view.

There is a lot of merit in this explanation, but it misses out a big chunk of the story.

If we follow the poetic ecology of writers such as Andreas Weber and Freya Mathews we can see that life is also a world of inner feelings and expressions. Moths—all living things—are not causal machines. Rather, they maintain themselves in improbable animate form against the forces of entropy, continually expressing their desire for life. An organism not only responds to its environment, it gestures toward it, expressing its wayof being in continual relationship with other beings. It articulates the paradox between autonomy and connection, strength and fragility, life and death; it is always open to transformation and the creation of novelty.

This gesture is itself poetic, artful, an embodied expression of being that precedes thought and explanation. The world speaks itself.

From a Taoist perspective, David Hinton writes, existence ‘wants to recognise itself, wants to celebrate and explain itself’. And no, it is not recklessly anthropocentric to speak of existence in this manner, for the very concept of anthropocentrism is itself anthropocentric, in that is privileges the human and ‘presumes human consciousness is fundamentally different from everything else’.  Our human poetic and artistic expression are themselves part of the body of the world; we are able to grasp the nature of creative reality because we, like all life forms, coexist with this reality.

So art no longer separates we humans from nature, but is life’s creativity fully in us and transformed through us. Sarah’s drawings should not be seen as representations of the moths, nor as expressions of her personal aesthetic; neither ‘realist’ or ‘impressionist’. We can see them as the process of a poetic collaboration and a transformation through which a new expression of being in the world emerges. And you and I, as we behold these drawings, may experience something quite different from the artist. Another transformation becomes possible; for as the painter Edgar Degas is said to have remarked, Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.

Hinton, David. Existence. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016.

Mathews, Freya. For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003.

Weber, Andreas. Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology. Translated by Rory Bradley. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017.

Peter Reason – May 2018

 

Sarah Gillespie studied 15 & 16C methods and materials at the Atelier Neo-Medici in Paris for one year before going on to Oxford University to read Fine Art at the Ruskin.  On graduating from Oxford she won the prestigious Elizabeth Greenshields Award for figurative painting.  With this money in the bank, she took the unusual decision not to head to London, nor go straight into Postgraduate Study, instead moving alone to rural Dorset to paint.  Working slowly and quietly she developed her vision – an unmistakable understanding of the fragility of the more than human world, mixed with a strong feeling for specific place and a willingness to be still and contemplative before it.

For the last seven years she has focused on making works on paper.

Her latest paintings are works of dust and shadow. Intricate and delicate charcoal drawings that capture in remarkable detail the natural. It is a world of dancing atoms and temporal fragility, of moths, blossom, hares and birds, whose cycles of life and death so often remain invisible to human eyes, hidden within the enormity of the landscape or the dark of night.

Her paintings, drawings and engravings are in numerous private and public collections in the UK and abroad and can be seen regularly at the Royal Academy Summer Show.

Sarah Gillespie lives in Devon.

www.sarahgillespie.co.uk

 

Puss Moths (Cerula Vinula) – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
Mottled Umber  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
March Moth  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
Great Oak Beauty  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
December Moth  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.
Dark Rustic  – Charcoal and Watercolour on paper.

Alchemy

by Carol L. Deering

The fox on Riverview, beautiful
as it lay. Small pointed face,
black-tipped snout, white fur lifting
in a paw’s sweep of pathos,
its coat the colors of autumn
fading. Three magpies feasting,
its ribcage a nave.

The fox lay elegant, delicate
for days, until all carnage
rose.

_____A swoon of leaves
rides down the wind. I doze
in my den, let images spin,
editing out
the raucous birds

raising
_______my forepaws,
stalking
_______the foothills
for pinyon-spirited words.

 

Carol L. Deering has twice received the Wyoming Arts Council Poetry Fellowship (2016, judge Rebecca Foust; and 1999, judge Agha Shahid Ali). Her poetry appears in online and traditional journals: recently in Soundings Review, forthcoming in Gyroscope Review and The Kerf. She also has poems in the anthology Ring of Fire: Writers of the Yellowstone Region. Once she had the privilege of interviewing Richard Hugo; that interview, published by Art Notes (Columbia Basin College), was reissued in CutBank.

Please Take Care of the Valuable Livestock

by Ian Dudley

I was taking a walk,
(I thought)

but the walk
had second thoughts

and abandoned me in the middle of fields of unseasonal wheat,
trim, knuckled hedges, and English grass, passive-aggressive green.
It was so quiet you could hear the pins dropping in your head.

It wasn’t natural like the city, unkempt, sprouting, doing its thing:
the land was so worked it practically sat up and begged.
A sheep stared at me. My eyes followed the tear tracks down

its long snout
to a restless mouth

sadly consuming
the universe.

 

Ian Dudley’s most recent publications have been in LossLitInk, Sweat and Tears, and The Rialto. He has won the Oxonian Review (2015) and Aesthetica (2017) poetry competitions, and featured in Eyewear’s The Best New British And Irish Poets 2016.

Two Poems by Joanna Lilley

Short-faced bear

I snort and suck the air for distant
carcass stench to clench my craving.
I run as far as sun-drop,

as far as mammoth, slick and spilled.
I watch the huddle-feast yet do not
undo my persistent pace.

These stocky cats will see me,
barge back to let me in and rip.
Or I will swipe their bites

across this stiff savannah.
For I must shove my muzzle, my cranium
in corpses, crack and fissure

borrowed bones – or eat a cub
or kit a day. My hunger serves me,
now that I must run from, as well as to.

The upright creatures stink of the chilling lands
they came from. They stare, I flee, as they fling
their pointed limbs to split, unblood me.

 

Desmostylus hersperus

Slide in, sand or shingle,
I am sturdy, broad, fixed footed.
I have found my rock
to straddle, slosh and anchor.

Water-sleep is sluggish grace
for the bulky on land.
Water is the colour of me,
flat-headed, only eyes and nostrils
popping surface tension.

Low-bellied, forelegs right-angled,
braced, to aim my trowel head
at mud roots. I move up the estuary
for the food I know I eat,
though my stone-turned bones
will leave no dietary confirmation.

I bequeath my bullet casing teeth,
my barrel of ribs, my spine
of wooden cotton reels, my neck
as thick and cluttered as a fir cone.

My genes will perish with my progeny.
Yet I am elephant.
I am hippopotamus.
I am every swim and wallow
in the cooling waters
of the ring of fire.

 

Joanna Lilley is the author of the poetry collection, The Fleece Era (Brick Books), which was nominated for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry, and the short story collection, The Birthday Books (Hagios Press). Her second poetry collection If There Were Roads was published by Turnstone Press in 2017. Joanna is from the UK and has lived in Yukon, Canada, for the past 11 years.

Doubting Finches

by Scott Edward Anderson

The house finch nest in my porch light
has a curious architecture,
made entirely of found things:
dried seed heads from last year’s columbine,
dusky strands of my daughter’s hair,
small sticks, rose thorns, bits of string,
a gold thread from a cigarette pack wrapper.

Inside, wool-lined, cotton and fleece,
it holds three eggs, blue with tawny flecks.
The female finch sits on the nest
for an unusually long time; so long,
I fear she is mistaken or my messing
with the nest has disrupted gestation.
She picked her mate for the redness
of his head and chest, proxy for feeding prowess.
(I guess.)

In a few weeks all will be gone:
cherry blossoms drifting on air,
dogwoods blooming, oaks leafing out,
and the female finch finding another mate,
to start a second family this season.
Who was it that said, “Doubt is a privilege
of the faithful”? At least, I think someone
said it or should have. Then it was me,
me finding another mate, another home,
another reason. And I saw they swept out
the finch nest from that old porch light
as soon as I was gone.

 

Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks in Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award.

Spokesbirds for the Spokesbirds

by Katie Fallon

I sat  cross-legged on  the  pea-gravel floor of the enclosure, as still as stone, half of a dead  mouse resting in my outstretched palm. Lew the turkey vulture stood about three feet away and wuffed at me. He roused, shaking out his feathers, then stretched both  wings  back; each flight feather of the right wing was glossy,  silken, and impeccably preened.  The left wing, however, did not extend well, and several  feathers in sheath jutted at odd angles, like porcupine quills. The injury— several  fractures near the  shoulder joint—had already  healed by the time we’d admitted the bird to the acca for rehabilitation.  We knew he would never fly again. The vulture kept his good eye fixed on me. Like the left wing, the bird’s left eye was damaged and not functional.

I swallowed, just a subtle movement, and Lew wuffed again. A few weeks earlier we’d received a permit from  the  US Fish and  Wildlife  Service to keep this vulture for use in environmental education programs, and  I was  working to train him. Or perhaps he was  training me. Our  goal  was for Lew to become an ambassador for turkey vultures everywhere—to allow folks  to admire a vulture up close, to give them a chance to know a turkey  vulture a little bit better. We wanted Lew to be a confident, comfortable bird,  which  might allow audiences to glimpse a turkey vulture’s typical “personality,” and not that of a stressed, panicky  creature (which  is, unfortunately, sometimes the case with  wild,  non-releasable birds used in programs). We were only using positive reinforcement and operant conditioning with  Lew; it could  take some time, but we were confident the result would  be worth it.

Recently, bird-training experts have begun to recommend that  vultures not wear  anklets or  jesses, the leather straps around the legs used to leash hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls.  Because vultures excrete liquid droppings on their legs and feet, equipment can wear out or become encrusted, which in turn could harm the bird.  Also, a vulture’s legs  are not  as strong as a predatory raptor’s, and  a vulture jumping (also known as bating)  while jessed could result in injury. In addition to the potential physical problems with jessing vultures, the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators explains in a position statement that “there is a gradual movement toward giving birds more power over their environment. The scientific community has shown control is a primary reinforcer for animals. When a bird  is empowered with control over its  environment it will often perform with more reliable behavior.” The position statement further states, “Trainers are now discovering that  jesses are often  associated with negative reinforcement and positive punishment,” which could result in a bird that engages in “escape avoidance behavior, aggression, apathy, phobia or generalized fear of the environment.”

I certainly didn’t  want  to  punish Lew or cause him  to  be fearful; I wanted us to be partners. I wanted us to trust each other. Still,  I was a bit nervous without jesses. Although I’d given  educational programs in  the past with  un-jessed macaws,  cockatoos, and  African  gray  parrots, I’d never worked with an un-jessed hawk, owl,  falcon, or  vulture. But  bird- trainer extraordinaire Erin  Katzner and  I had  worked  out  a plan for training Lew, and although I remained a bit apprehensive about a truly wild  vulture’s ability  to trust me—and for me to trust him—in public without jesses or a leash, we were willing to give it a try.

Lew lowered his head  and  took a step  toward me. I sat perfectly still. He took another step, and as he drew closer he lowered his whole  body, almost slinking as he approached. When his toenails reached the edge of the blue  mat—our target, the place he was supposed to learn  to stand on to be fed—the vulture began to stretch his neck in my direction. I held my breath. The  bone-white hook  at  the  end  of his  beak  was  only  a few inches from my fingertips. I smelled the musky warmth of his feathers. His good  eye, a deeper brown color than the eyes of other vultures I’ve worked with, rolled in his red head, searching my eyes,  my face. He inched his other foot onto the mat, stretched, and  deftly nipped the piece of dead  mouse from my fingertips. In a flurry,  he retreated about three feet away and watched me as he swallowed the morsel. He opened and shut his beak a time or two and kept staring at me, and perhaps relaxed just a bit.

I exhaled. A wild vulture had  approached me and eaten from  my hand. This was day twelve of our training. The first day, I’d dropped food on the mat, then left the enclosure. After a few days of that, I stood just inside the door. Then  I moved a few steps closer,  and then I began sitting near the mat, moving a bit closer to it each day until  today,  when I rested my hand on the mat,  food in hand. It took me sitting like a statue for almost twenty minutes, but it worked. Tomorrow, he would be more confident.

A turkey   vulture without the  ability  to  fly is  tragic.   The birds  are built to soar,  to  master the wind.  Should we have humanely euthanized this vulture, who now stood just  a few feet away from me? That would have been a reasonable decision.  Lew’s enclosure is equipped with  various pieces  of furniture to accommodate his handicap. He could  only reach  his roosting box (complete with  a floor heater for chilly winter nights) by climbing a ramp we’d built  with “stairs,” much like a ramp you’d find in a chicken coop. A series of gently  sloping logs, branches, and large rocks allowed Lew to run along them without having  to use his wings. From  the  enclosure’s highest perch, he could look out  across a field and see the woods beyond. Other vultures often swirled on thermals above  the acca. Lew would  cock his head and watch them.

Perhaps Lew’s unfortunate fate could save other turkey vultures. Up close, he is an  impressive bird:  the  bronzed-black contour feathers, interlaid like soft scales; the  bone-white hook of his beak; the small, black-pupiled brown eye set in his blood-red face; the  delicate black velvet on his wrinkled forehead; the deep, close-mouthed hiss. Even the warm, musty smell is surprising. And when the wings unfurl, you wonder, for a moment, how the bird’s been hiding them, how he manages  to neatly  fold such great  capes over his back. The quick turns and bobs of his head show how sensitive he is to  his surroundings, and when he fixes his eye on yours,  you realize you’re in the presence of something trying to figure you out, of something that’s thinking.

Perhaps I’m overreaching and  anthropomorphizing. Perhaps not. Regardless, this  broken bird  had  a very important job—to  be a spokesbird for the spokesbirds, to give folks an up-close-and-personal introduction to the most widespread and numerous scavenging raptor on the planet.

I smiled and  reached into my pocket for another piece  of mouse.

 

Excerpted from Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. http://www.upne.com/1611689716.html

 

Katie Fallon is the cofounder of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, a nonprofit research, education, and rehabilitation center for injured birds. A member of the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators, she has glove-trained a wide variety of raptor species, including turkey vultures, hawks, owls, and falcons. She is the author, previously, of Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird. She lives in West Virginia.