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The First Vulture of Spring: Rejuvenation through Necrophagia

I can't seem to write about gardening without writing about death. Now it is March, and I should be thinking about spring bulbs, or maple sap rising, or tree buds swelling. However, for every little song bird that perches in the branches outside my window, I see a large, black shape swooping with its wings tilted into an ominous low V, lifted by the new heat of the ground, searching from the sky for the dead.

No one talks about the first vulture of spring in the way that we talk about the first robin of spring, but it is a well-known secret that the spring feeds on the rotting corpse of winter. The vulture is the most honest emblem of spring. It is a harbinger of the end of decay, the catalyst of regeneration.

When the snows melt in March, they reveal the tips of daffodils piercing the earth, but they also expose the bodies of creatures that have gone cold under the assault of winter. Lying in fields and ditches, roadsides and front lawns, the carcasses are unattended by flies, who are still too cold to do anything but crawl. Still, it is warm enough for the flesh to rot, and so it would do until summer if it were not removed by the vultures. I see the first vulture at the edge of the woods, ripping apart the leg of a deer.

Only the crows had scoured the snow drifts throughout the winter, but they could not find the refrigerated morsels of meat that rested below the surface. From West Virginia flying north, through Pennsylvania on to New York and soaring above our agents of homeland security into Ontario, a line of dark buzzards sweeps the landscape clean of the litter of death. Their naked heads dive into fallen bodies and consume summer's leftovers. The carry away fallen bodies to safe, secret places we never need see.

I can walk in my garden and smell nothing but the sweetness of hyacinths because of the vultures. They are the engines of spring, the power behind the season when all of nature breaks its long fast by feasting upon the dead.

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