a low, embryonic woofing: on “Buzzards”

21 Feb

I thought I’d read everything worth reading in The Best American Essays 2008, but on an odd Saturday not that long ago, I took it from the shelf and browsed the Contents. At the very bottom: “Buzzards,” by Lee Zacharias. I don’t know why today it caught my eye when before it must not have. But I turned to p 260 and began reading.

She had me at “They woof.” In an empty parking lot, Zacharias is photographing a group of vultures, the proper name for what we call buzzards, and she describes the sound:

I am in the middle of a flock of black vultures, a vortex, maypole for this uneasy circle dance in which they weave and run at one another, raising their ragged wings and thrusting their gnarly gray heads. I would not call the sound they make a grunt or a hiss, nor a croaking coo, nor a snarl; it is more a low, embryonic woofing.

Their lack of voice is a major theme throughout the essay. “Lacking a syrinx…they are incapable of song. … The bird’s muteness sits upon its shoulders. It knows what death tastes like, but cannot speak of the flavor.” Which offers for consideration the other major theme: death. An inevitable road for an essay on “scavengers, consumers of carrion.”

Coragyps atratus. From the Greek korax, meaning “raven,” and gyps, meaning “vulture,” Latin atratus, “clothed in black, as in mourning.” The Grim Reaper’s hooded cloak, wing-like sleeves, and protruding skeletal feet all come to us as a personification of the black vulture. … The Latin vulturus means “tearer.” Give voice to the word and you cannot distinguish it from terror.

Her writing is full of such internal references, textual markers pointing back to previous sights or foreshadowing others, her choice of language reinforcing her themes. In the above passage, “Give voice to the word” is a direct reference to the vulture’s lack of one, discussed only lines before. In a later scene, she’s sitting at a table, having dinner, and she writes, “We picked at our food and waited for the meal to be over”—a subtle allusion to the buzzard’s eating habits.

The essay is structured around a second narrative, that of Zacharias’ father’s death. At first it seems her father is there as a peripheral character of anecdotal necessity: “To photograph birds requires a great deal of equipment. I paid for most of mine…with money I inherited from my father. He would not have approved.” But as his story is interwoven—far from flawlessly, but well enough—the essay becomes Memento-like in its structure: flashcuts to her childhood, to her father’s interests, habits, and tragic end shown in a sort of muted gray, while the main story continues in vivid Technicolor. In the middle, it begins to sag, as the liveliness of the main discussion overshadows the familial narrative, and one begins to wonder if this isn’t just a contrived construction: weaving in a family death to add some human-scale emotional poignancy to an essay otherwise strictly concerned with the avian. But by the end, she begins to take more time with her father, turning over larger and larger stones and revealing a story as gripping as its counterpart.

He filled his time by fixing things, so many things it seems now as if everything we owned must have broken. He gave to objects the kind of attention he could not deliver to people. …I have no recollection of his hands, no memory of the texture of the skin or the shape of his nails. He had beautiful handwriting, but no inclination for words.

The best part of the piece is the time Zacharias spends dismantling the imagery and associations we have with vultures, not just within contemporary American culture, but around the world. Peruvian ceremonies, Iroquois legends, Hindu beliefs—vultures are carriers of the human spirit, as well as gatekeepers of hell. Tibetans feed the vultures their dead.

… Sky burial is regarded as a final act of charity in which the deceased provides food to sustain living things, and the Tibetan name for the practice, jhator, means giving alms to the birds. Interference with jhator is a serious breach of Tibetan religion, in which the vultures, sacred messengers called dakinis, the Tibetan equivalent of angels, are believed to carry the soul up to heaven.



As I read the essay, I couldn’t help but think of Andrew Bird’s “Carrion Suite.” As if he knew all that Zacharias did—and I wouldn’t put it past him—the song seems to dwell not on the deathly associations of the bird but on this otherness, the oddities and cultural paradoxes it enjoys. Glen Kotche’s loose but hypnotic rhythms with dark crashes on China cymbals touch on both the foreignness of the bird and those cultures that invite them to eat their dead; Bird’s violin offers the dirge of voices calling them. But then, I think that if the (aptly named) Bird had known all this, he couldn’t have included “Carrion Suite” on an album titled Useless Creatures. It would’ve had to be on the other half of his simultaneous release: Noble Beast.

One Response to “a low, embryonic woofing: on “Buzzards””


  1. PACKAGED 11.2 « read::zebra - March 23, 2011

    […] 2/21 a low, embryonic woofing: on “Buzzards” :: an unnoticed essay on life […]

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