The Bare Bones of Vulture Culture: Find Bones with Sleight of Mind

the bare bones of vulture culture

ReD has an eye for finding bones in the woods. She grew up with vulture culture. If we want to find bones, we must learn to treat the woods like our home and change the way we look at garbage.

There are a lot of things that look like bones.

A leaf, bleached in the sun and curled just so, can look like a molar.

A pile of hawk scat splattered against the edge of a rock becomes vertebra in the right light.

But the frayed, splintered pieces of a fallen tree are the worst imposters. These wood chips look so much like jawbones or ribs poking half out of the dark soil that it’s disorienting to see them as anything but bones after spending an hour staring at the ground.

The woods behind my house look like a graveyard now. The bones of trees are everywhere.

When they first started to timber, the fallen trees were stacked into neat piles and then run through a wood chipper until a pile of mulch the size of a two story building replaced it. Now, they’re left where they fell. Mushrooms grow on some. I find a tuft of rabbit fur snagged against the other. No bones though, unless you count the trees. I’m dressed all in black and feeling an awful lot like a vulture as I comb through the desiccated forest.

What is Vulture Culture?

I don’t really remember when I first heard the phrase vulture culture. Maybe I saw it on a bumper sticker.

I do remember a sinking, sticky feeling in my gut the first time I heard it used in casual conversation. I was eating lunch during my undergrad and a classmate motioned to me with his sandwich. A piece of lettuce fell onto the table next to the book I was reading.

“She’s into the vulture culture thing, too,” he explained to another classmate, a girl I recognized from an English class. “You should talk to her about it. She can give you some tips.”

I brushed away the lettuce on my table but I couldn’t brush away the conversation he opened up.

Vulture culture is the moniker given to taxidermists and artists who create pieces from scavenged animal parts. Roadkill is fair game for both the real vulture and the artist operating under this ideology.

taxidermy nicola hebson

Vegan taxidermist Nicola Hebson works with roadkill art

skin spirits by lupa

Skin Spirits by Lupa – a guide to finding, preparing and using roadkill and ethically sourced animal parts for ritual

There is more than one way to participate in vulture culture. The rules of vulture culture (if you can call them that) vary, but the guiding principle is this: you have to find the remains of an animal that died naturally. What constitutes ‘find’ and ‘naturally’ is up for debate.

I never intended to become part of vulture culture.

I did not read about vulture culture online or have a classmate wave me over to another student. I grew up with it.

In my graduate classes on an urban campus, it’s not uncommon for me to be the only student who knows how to gut a deer (even if I’ve never killed one) or identify animals by their scat. I can make a good guess for how long an animal has passed through and find them based on their tracks. Make no mistake – I’m not a farm girl, either. When I sit with folk who have grown up with wide open spaces between them, it’s obvious that I did not come from a rural life. I’ve never shovelled manure or woken up before dawn to chop wood. The callouses on my hands and feet are in all the wrong places and from all the wrong things – a pencil, not a shovel. Hiking boots, not work boots.

I’ve always been good at finding bones, though. I was very privileged as a child (and still now, as an adult) to have parents who made the woods a fun place instead of a scary one. Our family vacations were to national parks to hike and see wildlife. We had woods behind our house and we would hike there, too. I still hike in the woods, or I try to, because there is not much left of these woods anymore.

“Look!” I’ll point to something grey and speckled sticking out from a rock.

That’s the first mistake vulture culture beginners make. Bones are only white when they’re bleached by the sun. More often they’re a molted tan or grey with yellow splotches and bits of fur on them.

I had a hard time explaining this to the classmate who was interested in vulture culture. We went walking in the woods on a cold afternoon.

“Of course they’re not white,” she said, “I know that.”

She did know a lot about scavenging. She read a lot, but without a car, it was hard for her to get out on her own to explore the pockets of wild places.

She still couldn’t find the bones before I did. I reassured her it’s because I had plenty of years of experience in this thing, this vulture culture, that’s now a hobby. I could explain to her what the texture of bones is like, how to look for the spots where a rabbit was snagged, and how the soft splotches of mud alongside a creek are always prime locations to check, but I couldn’t make her see what I saw.

I realize now it’s because there is a fundamental difference in growing up a vulture and becoming one.

The name vulture comes from the Latin vulturus – “tearer”. If you’ve ever witnessed a buzzard stripping down a carcass on the side of the road, you’ll understand how they earned their name. Vultures have strong stomachs. Their acid helps them feed on remains infected with bacteria that would kill other scavengers or contaminate groundwater.

A group of feeding vultures is called a wake. They hunch together in groups over deer splattered against the shoulder of a four-lane highway like they’re mourning. Nature still works even when the landscape is concrete. The vultures are the clean-up crew.

When the company that bought the land first began to timber the small forest behind my house in preparation for a new highway, they began cutting in the spring.

Hawks circled where their nests used to be. Black bears were pushed further into our development, cutting through lawns and ravaging bird feeders. It was disorienting to walk into the woods and see people instead of deer. They continued their work until the early fall and they left behind a boneyard of trees, dormant machinery, and garbage. It felt a little bit like a funeral.

One day I took my dog and we went out to scavenge. I came home with a possum jawbone, enough deer vertebra to make a necklace, and a perfectly pointed piece of quartz crystal.

My classmate was impressed. She said, “That’s a pretty good find for only an hour or two.”

I’m going to let you in on my secret to Vulture Culture.

I wasn’t out there to scavenge the bones.

I was there to clean up the garbage.

I am patently not a real, actual vulture. My stomach acid, through strong enough to earn me a prevacid prescription, is not strong enough to kill anthrax or hog cholera. I do not eat fetid possums or deer bloated three times their size and swarming with flies in the summer sun.

I am a creature that eats pizza in cardboard boxes and meat packaged in Styrofoam trays. I drink soda from plastic bottles and chips from bags that do not break down when exposed to the elements.

When I eat side by side with my friends, we call it dinner, but we might as well call it a wake for the impact an average American meal can have on the environment.

I try to make better choices and many times I succeed, but if I am a vulture, it’s in a culture that promotes waste. There is garbage everywhere. Sometimes it becomes part of the landscape. Most people don’t look twice when they see a soda can mixed into the weeds on the side of the road. Throwing things out is advocated as a cleaning method in plenty of self-help books: discard any clothing you haven’t worn in six months, don’t let plastic containers accumulate–toss them right in the trash!

No one is a terrible person for producing garbage. Feeling guilty is not the response I would want anyone to feel when introducing him or her to the beauty of vulture culture. No one wants to return to a place that makes them feel bad.

We need woods and swamps and marshlands as much as we need highways and bridges. We need wildlife as much as we do domestic animals or agriculture.

We need to stop looking at the woods as part of the outdoors. We need to start treating them like our homes. We need to start acting more like vultures and cleaning up the messes outside in our community.

If you want to find bones, change the way you look at garbage.

How to act like a vulture and pick our community’s bones clean

Here are small ways you can help clean up your environment. You don’t need grand gestures. Sometimes, small simple things can make a surprising difference.

  • Bring a garbage bag and thick gloves every time you go scavenging or hiking in the woods. Even the most well maintained parks and nature sites will have trash that escapes into them.
  • Trash often accumulates on the side of the road. You can organize a clean-up with a few friends or just head out yourself. Dress in bright colours and be mindful of the traffic. Early Spring is often the best time to clean up along roadsides because the plant life has not yet grown around all the garbage and it is much easier to spot.
  •  If you notice trash alongside the highway, contact your local municipal building. They can often put you in touch with a real person to talk to about cleaning it up safely and legally. Many states in the United States have an adopt a highway program where you can gain access to a mile stretch of a highway in your name.  (In my experience, most government and highway officials are more than happy to help you get the information you need when they find out you want to clean it up, not have someone else do it.)
  • Recycle everywhere! Don’t be afraid to ask your school, place of employment, or even the restaurant you’re dining at what their recycling policy is. If they don’t have one, take your recyclables home with you.
  • Be mindful of the products you purchase. Can you get the same item with less packaging? Fresh fruits and veggies can be wrapped in a cloth handkerchief instead of a plastic bag. If you can’t get an item with less packaging, try to get an item packaged with materials that can be recycled. This won’t always be possible, but it is important to make positive changes where you can.

Remind yourself—and others—how beautiful the world is. Look for positive news of wildlife and environmental recovery. Make change and care for the environment something you want to share, not something that causes a guilt trip. If you want people to make a difference in the environment, remind them what treasures we already have and what we have to gain by making changes.