There was a faint moving pillar on the horizon as Jeff and I were driving into Iowa to spend some time biking on the Wabash Trace trail for the afternoon. The pillar was a murmuration of starlings drifting and flowing through the sky as fluidly as droplets of oil in water.
It’s the sort of thing where you wonder aloud, “How do they do that?! It’s amazing!”
It feels special to witness. I am unsure of how common murmurations are, but each time I’ve seen one I’ve had to take a sort of double take at what I’m seeing. Countless birds flowing in an aerial dance.
The day was perfect. A week into fall, and the air felt light and breezy. Everything feels cinematic this time of year, perhaps due to the dual-tone color palate of brown and green. The leaves on the trees haven’t changed colors yet, but you can tell they are ready. The cornfields are almost entirely brown. As the wind blows you can hear the rustling of the dry stalks against each other – the closest thing to the sounds of the ocean out here in the heartland.
As we were paused on the trail for a moment, Jeff noticed that not a foot in front of his tire lay a small snake in a small patch of sunlight. We see various critters on the trail from time to time. Opossums, raccoons, deer. We’ve never seen a skunk on the trail, but we’ve smelled them nearby. Once, while riding on the trail at night, a bat swooped down just in time for it to collide with Jeff with a deep thump on his chest. When I was on the trail on Monday I saw a pheasant scurry across and run into the undergrowth.
This ride was the third time or so we’ve seen a snake. This one looked like a stick, perhaps in normal circumstances an advantage, but on a bike trail a characteristic that could lead to its own death.
A bit further down the path Jeff startled me with a bit of a holler.
“Ah! What’s that?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell.”
Ahead of us on the trail was a black lump, clearly some sort of animal, but what it was exactly was unclear. As we biked closer we could see it was a turkey vulture. Turkey vultures are not what one calls beautiful at all, or majestic, or anything like that. They are bald and grandpa-like in their features.
As we rode by slowly, we realized that one of the vulture’s wings were broken and kind of hanging a bit too low on one side. It was hobbling around while flies swarmed around it. It looked back at us as we passed.
Does a turkey vulture with a broken wing understand its own fate? Does it know what awaits it after it dies? Does it know any more than we do?
Toward the end of a trail, an indecisive squirrel with a big acorn in its mouth was running back and forth on the trail, trying to calculate avoiding our bike tires. It had made it safely across right in front of us as it decided to run back into the trail at the last second. The squirrel, acorn still in its mouth, looked up at Jeff as the bike rolled right over the squirrel’s body.
Now I’m not sure the ability to survive an injury of that sort, which I’m sure it must have had, but the squirrel still ran off the trail in a hurry, just the same as it had run onto it.
The trail is full of metaphor, and the time spent in conversation on the trail has made it a sacred path for me. Every year Jeff start riding the trail before the trees have leaves, and we stop riding long after the leaves have fallen to the ground. We see the empty fields weeks before anything is planted in them, we see the first spouts of green grow into tall stalks of corn, and then slowly dry out awaiting their harvest. Soon we will witness their harvest, the fields once again cut down and laid bare in preparation for the long winter ahead.
We are nearing the end of the yearly timeline. It causes us to enjoy every week all the more.