They were high. Tilt your head back high. Turkey vultures. Dozens of them soaring in narrowing circles. Wings outstretched in flap-less flight. Surfing thermals of warm air pushed up by the tufty peaks of a vast cumulous cloud that advanced on us like a mobile mountain range.
We were sat outside on the patio of the Black Bull Pub on what would prove to be the last day of the year warm enough to sit outside on the patio of the Black Bull Pub.
I’ve seen turkey vultures before. Over farmer’s fields, out in the country. Two or three at a time describing those same slow circles. But never so high and in such numbers and certainly not in the city above the glass towers of the downtown core. What could they possibly be doing? They were at too great an altitude to be looking for food. I stood up to better see.
‘It’s a sure sign of the apocalypse,’ I said too loud to my friend in a voice bolstered by two pints of beer. I was only half-joking but the other patio patrons now craned necks and raised their chins to take a look before we were driven inside with our drinks by the coming storm.
48 hours before a prescribed crew change I will set my waterproof North Face duffel bag open on the bedroom floor. Each time I pass it I will feed it. Drop an item, or items into its hungry black maw. A pair of underwear or socks. A book. A lighter. A shirt. Etc.
At times, I might congratulate myself on this efficient packing method, for it is, to my mind, and at that moment, ingenious. Both mature and considered, especially when compared to the old days, when packing would doubtless mean a last-minute dash to fill a bag whilst half-crippled with spectacular hangover.
On this past crew change day I departed my house in a rental car at 0700. For a change, I did not drive north or west, but east four hours to Prescott, Ontario, and to drive in this direction felt fresh and new.
However, the more km’s that accumulated between me and my home, the more fastidiously I checked and re-checked that list in my head. In sharp jolts, similar to electric shocks, I began to remember the things I’d left behind. At which point I cursed myself and my packing method. Told myself what an imbecilic way to prepare for a month at sea it is, and swore, as I always do, that next time I will write an actual list, not one confined to the inside of my too-busy and moronic head.
Thankfully this time it was only my electric razor, Yorkshire gold tea bags and a box of anti-histamines that had been left behind. It has been, on different occasions, more crucial items such as underwear, rain gear, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and a phone charger. Of course this only ever heightens my anxiety, which is already at DEFCON 4, as it always is on my return to sea. Up only one from 3, where it remains dug into a foxhole on the hillside of this Anthropocene era we live in.
I have heard the term ‘existential threat’ used at least sixteen times for different reasons in the last few weeks. For me, the word ‘existential’ used to only mean or refer to a school of thought popularized by postwar French writers and thinkers whom I affected, as many young questing readers do, in my late teens without ever really understanding what they were on about and not as is its definition ‘of or relating to existence’. Now, I only ever hear of it in this context. And it is real. And it is terrifying.
As I drove I listened to a documentary on the world service about the last northern white rhino who lived alone in the wild. He disappeared a little over ten years ago. Some tracks were found leading into the Congolese jungle but nothing of him was ever found. He was likely killed. Dismantled. His limbs sown for trophy. His insides harvested for bullshit medicine.
An effort is being made to introduce the southern white rhino into the northern’s old habitat. Eight have been released and are under close supervision. They will be exposed to viruses foreign to their immune system, different flora and fauna and the same corruption, wars and poachers that their cousins were undone by. Still, scientists are cautiously optimistic.
Two weeks ago, two hours from the city we sat. Three of us abreast in cottage chairs so deep they seemed fit to swallow us. We gazed out from a wooden veranda, perched on the hard, gneiss ridge of a valley in a pitch-black night. Stared up at a sky sagging with stars.
We talked the usual cottage talk.
‘The stars that don’t twinkle are planets.’
‘Careful on the grass if you go for a wander in the dark, you might roll your ankle on an apple.’
‘Anyone want a drink?’
‘Shush,’ she said. ‘Coyotes.’
Ever so faint, above the deafening silence. Above the riffle of leaves and the pleasant rhythmic chirp of the crickets we could hear that tell-tale falsetto yip.
We sat there on my friend’s veranda in the middle of the woods unspeaking. Together, but alone, as we always are. Prisoners in our own heads.
To the Anishinaabe people coyote is a trickster. To the Navajo and Hopi, he is a guide to the spirit realm.
It is easy to believe that there is a spirit realm when you’ve heard coyote’s haunted ululation.