Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006 | You take your mentors where you find them. It was a turkey buzzard, minding his own business, who made me see that anything is possible.
I thought he was a condor. Huge, black bird, circling and soaring in a hot midday sky around and above our house, several years ago. I was impressed that I might be looking at a condor, a rare bird to which much symbolism is attached. When I spotted him, I thought that some mechanics of symbolism might be in place, guiding him to this house, where I might see him.
Such is vanity. I felt so special that I went inside to telephone the zoo, to report a sighting of this endangered creature far from his natural mountain habitat.
“Probably just a turkey buzzard,” said the voice from the zoo. “We get calls like this all the time. Does he have an ugly head?”
I couldn’t answer that question. I found the binoculars, took them outside, and found the bird, ranging back and forth not more than 200 or 300 yards above and beyond our deck on the hillside, and not more than a quarter-mile to either side. Yes, he had an ugly head, red and wormlike. I watched him anyway. Watched him for a couple of days. He had the span and the presence of a condor, soaring and wheeling on wide wings whose elegant tips and trailing edges flicked in fine-tuned equilibrium with the faint signals from the hot, still, noonday air.
At his wingtips were long, slender feathers, fanned out aristocratically, individually changing pitch (I could see through the binoculars) with every nuance of lift and drift. Not many creatures enjoy such rapport with their element, and I envied his.
The sun was directly overhead. The bird was in a low, watchful glide over the hillside when he apparently had a change of mind. He let the air lift him higher, and turn him in lazy circles, until he was several hundred feet above me. I tracked him with the binoculars. He could see me – I thought he looked at me – though I don’t suppose he was watching me. I wanted to imagine some communication going on, and so I did, even if it was me with me.
He drifted toward the sun. It was so bright that I had to look away. I picked him up again on the other side of the brightness. He came back to the center, circling the brightness as I watched, spiraling nearer to it. I thought it was magnificent, and symbolic at least of opportunity. I watched as long as I could, until I saw him touch the edge of the sun. Then I looked away. I blinked my eyes for only a couple of seconds, then lifted the binoculars again, to pick him up.
But the bird was gone.
I dropped the binoculars and scanned the wide view, from sun to horizon. I turned quickly around the 360-degree circle, searching the sky, feeling very much on the earth point of an axis. The bird was not there.
“Wait a minute,” I said. I looked back at the brightness. Maybe he was still orbiting there. I watched the vicinity for 10 minutes, and the bird didn’t emerge. For the next half-hour I tried to watch all of the sky at once, looking for him. I had watched the bird fly into the sun, liking the symbolism of it, and then the bird had disappeared. For a minute I wished it had been a condor, then was glad it was not. Condors should fly into the sun only for holy men. My turkey buzzard, though lacking romance, had made the same mysticism perfectly accessible to an ordinary man with the sun in his eyes.
The bird did not reappear. I was compelled to wonder what it might mean, to see what I had seen, when a man saw a bird fly into the sun. If I, for whatever reason, had been assigned to be the one to find out, then I was willing. And that changed me.
I saw the bird a couple of hours later, cruising the hillside as before. So I had not been chosen, or assigned, after all. But I was changed nevertheless. I still have no idea how he got out of the sun, but I am not disappointed. In those minutes when I believed he might be gone, I accepted the contention that anything is possible. And when anything is possible, what is there to fear from the unknown, from the realities that can’t be measured? What else is there to do, but to accept the idea of God?
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.