The vultures on the riverbank pay me no mind. I’m mobile flesh and my height barely equals their wingspan. Neither treat nor threat, I don’t deserve their attention.
Vultures are carrion eaters, feasting upon carcasses that litter the land. They like their meals dead, slightly tenderized, and ideally herbivorous.
These vultures are gathered on the ground, which makes them collectively a volt or a venue or a committee. They look like undertakers in dark suits not quite ready to start the day. These are black vultures; they don’t have a strong sense of smell so they haven’t yet caught the sweet-sick stench of dead animal in the woods behind me. Their olfactorily-gifted turkey vulture cousins will be along soon to point the way, though.
It’s just after seven on a late-summer Tennessee morning, and quiet as the grave. The river’s glass surface, empty of traffic, doesn’t spare a ripple. Birds are silent, leaves don’t rustle, humid air hangs heavy. The vultures are quiet, as well, but that’s their way. They have no syrinx to allow for calls or song. All they can muster is a grunt or hiss when feeding or defending.
Despite my best effort to ease onto the scene, I’m a clumsy invader. All the residents of this riparian community hit on my presence at once. Turtles slide off their log and slip into the water, barely breaking the surface. The heron squawks a warning to the jays and squirrels, and suddenly the world is open for business.
Even the committee has roused. Like me, they’ve noted the sliding arrival of two men in a boat (a drift of fishermen) trolling toward the cove where a shoal of catfish lurk near the muddy bottom. Farther away, a tiny speck on the horizon, a towboat urges a float of barges ahead of it.
This is the time of year when the water level is at its lowest, a result of summer drought and dam adjustment. Because of that, I can walk the naked shoreline that is usually covered by the waters of Kentucky Lake.
Every drawdown reveals a slum of rubbish. My mission is to harvest the garbage. I spot two plastic water bottles, an inflated beach ball, a pair of men’s boxer shorts, three railroad spikes, and the amputated section of a boat dock, all on the first twenty feet of shoreline that I travel.
Once I thought I could pick up everything the scag of humans abandoned. I was wrong. I became the Sisyphus of the shore, presented with a fresh strew of rubbish every day. I gave up on saving the dignity of the neighborhood, the purity of the riverbank, and settled instead for tidying my conscience.
Now I focus on one particular type of trash: glass. By the time bottles and jars ride the waves and come to rest on solid ground, they’ve cracked and shattered. They usually lodge in the mud sharp-edge-up. Glass in water is practically invisible; a good rain turns this shore into a punji trap waiting for barefoot children and neighborhood dogs to splash through.
I spot the first piece immediately – the inverted neck of a Bud Light—just as a shadow passes overhead. The turkey vultures have arrived to lead their kin to the breakfast buffet. The committee becomes a kettle when it flies up and scans the ground in ever-tightening circles, a formation of skydivers performing a dream ballet, light and gauzy and choreographed to achieve maximum energy efficiency. Keep your hummers and tanagers—it’s this species I admire most.
The kettle moves behind the treeline, and I go back to work. I’m careful with the broken glass, approaching it cautiously, moving slowly and stealthily. Eventually, undoubtedly, there will come a time when my attention wanders, when I’m distracted for half a thought by a migrating monarch or the splash of a carp. My hand will slip, and blood will flow before I realize I’m sliced open.
When it finally happens, it will probably be a minor cut, a small inconvenience. Then again, it could be a laid-bare-to-the-bone gash that opens a floodgate of life fluid—a gush of blood that drains my strength and consciousness before I can call for help.
Then my single-use shell will end up on this river’s edge, just another piece of human detritus littering the landscape. I’m a vegetarian, so that’s a plus for the wake of vultures that will clean up after me.