Tag Archives: allegory of the cave

Allegory of the Cave (via vultures)

A jumble of sandstone debris lies a few meters from the base of a high cliff. The rocky blocks are the size of wardrobes, small cars, houses. A fallen tree crowns the heap and thick grapevines crawl over its fissures. From a deep crevice, vapors of ammonia reach out and punch me in the nose: aha! Promising.

I clambered up here after seeing a black vulture take flight from a low branch above the rocks. Black vultures do not usually roost so low or in such deep woods. I suspected that the vulture might have an interesting reason for choosing this unusual slumbering spot. So I hauled myself onto the rocks, then tip-toed across their angled surfaces.

First the smell, then a beautiful sight: the random tumble of rocks created a passageway leading to a small underground chamber. If I crawled down there I could just about crouch in place or curl up on the ground to sleep. But going farther was out of the question. Rough-edged, deep hissing emerged from the gloom a few seconds after I peered down the entranceway. The message is clear enough: “Do not disturb.” Unheeded, the message will intensify, turning to a spray of hot vulture vomit. These parents want no visitors as they incubate their eggs. I backed off straight away.

A couple of weeks later I made another brief visit to peek at the hatchlings and to leave a small infra-red triggered camera in a rock crevice several meters back from the nest. I left the camera in place for 24 hrs to see what the parents were up to.

The young black vultures are just visible at the bottom of their rocky chute.

Young black vultures are just visible at the bottom of their rocky chute.

Fuzzy apricots. Mini-hissers. Vultures have no syrinx (the birds’ “vocal chords”) so they make sound by rushing air through their trachea.

Fuzzy apricots. Mini-hissers. Vultures have no syrinx (the birds’ “vocal chords”) so they make sound by rushing air through their trachea.

Attentive parents. they feed their young partly digested roadkill in the form of hot vomit. This is the vulture version of Mac-n-Cheese for the kids.

Attentive parent walking up the stony passageway. They feed their young partly digested roadkill in the form of hot vomit. This is the vulture version of Mac-n-Cheese for the kids.

A nighttime visitor: what appears to be an Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister). This species is one of the "packrats" that make big nests. It is in decline over much of its range due to habitat loss and raccoon-transmitted parasites. Woodrats love rocky jumbles.

A nighttime visitor: what appears to be an Allegheny woodrat (Neotoma magister). This species is one of the “packrats” that make big nests. It is in decline over much of its range due to habitat loss and raccoon-transmitted parasites. Woodrats love rocky jumbles.

Vultures are loaded with metaphor: they nest in tombs, lower than any other bird, foreshadowing their role as ecological undertakers. But when they walk out of The Cave of Childhood, they enter adult lives that are spent on the wing, avian prayer flags that fly higher than all others: defiers of gravity, lifting dead remains away from the pull of the  sepulchral Earth.

Evolution may have robbed vultures of their rightful inheritance as birds — voices and gay plumage — but it seems to me that they sing and shine nonetheless. The vultures’ response to these acrobatics would, I suspect, be a shrug of the dark wings. For now, a dead ‘possum delivered to eager mouths is philosophy enough.

Glaucon answers, Yes, very natural.