Fantastic Friday: Praise the Vulture

I had my daughter in January 2016. So it’s no surprise that I didn’t get to that month’s issue of National Geographic. Cleaning the house, I found it tucked away with a few other unread magazines. The article on page 70, “Bloody Good,” features the benefits of vultures in our world, and the positivity made it into my brain for this week’s Fantastic Friday post.

From the Bible to Darwin to pop culture, we normally think of vultures with such negative connotations. As writers, we use the term “vulture” to refer to someone who is predatory and takes advantage of others. We associate vultures with death and decay. One of my favorite childhood films, The Dark Crystal, created the evil Skeksis to look like human-sized vultures, playing on their aggressive and disgusting nature. Even the National Geographic article feature photography speckled with blood and written descriptions of vultures fighting for access to the intestinal tract of a dead animal.

But, like many of the animals we think of negatively, vultures are important to our ecosystem: they rapidly clean up dead animals, preventing disease and rot. As the article goes on to explain the threats to the vulture population, it also details what would happen in the absence of the bird: animals would take three times as long to be consumed/decompose, meaning other scavenger mammals would interact longer, and the pathogens that are neutralized in a vulture stomach would spread more easily, both in the wild and in domestic populations.

Nature always seems to have balance down to an art. As a writer and teacher, I like to look for metaphorical lessons in nature. In the case of the vulture, the “bad” brings about unexpected benefits and makes the world a cleaner, safer place.

I like to think that the negatives in our own lives help to improve our lives in their own unique way. A (minor) surgery my daughter had scheduled made me appreciate her all the more—even the tantrums—as my mind imagined the worst. A vacation ending soon helped us appreciate the time we do have, savoring every ocean sunrise (or sunset). After tearing my ACL, I better appreciate the ability to run since its (relative) healing. Even in the case of serious illness, which of course is mostly out of our control, there are such gatherings of love and support from friends and family that we realize how blessed we are, despite the horrors life throws at us.

And that is the blessing, wrapped in the curse, of being human. None of us are here forever, and that knowledge is what can bring out the best in us. Whether it’s taking a moment to enjoy a mottled sunset sky, letting the toddler have five more minutes in the bathtub, or taking a casserole to a friend in need, we all have a deep impact on our own outlooks just as our actions have deep impacts on each other. Even if you’re a vulture.