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Articles Lodging on the Santa Fe River, Alachua County, Florida

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Nature’s Undertakers
March 2011
            It started with the dogs.  I was reading on the banks of the Santa Fe River, outside of my historic cabin.  I noticed My Girl sitting alert beside the river, looking attentively at something. Karl the Corgi started to growl. Only then did I notice them filling the trees across our little river.
 
            Vultures.
 
            They migrate from North Carolina in the winter, filling our cypress trees here along the Santa Fe River. Sometimes I count 25 in a tree, but three or four trees full, all lining the Ichetucknee near the confluence or up the Santa Fe River about seven bends from my old house and three bends from my yurt.
 
            Some think of vultures with disgust because they eat dead things…uncooked. People cook dead thing before they eat them. Didn’t Ben Franklin suggest vultures as our national bird…no, that was the turkey. My dad always reminded me what a service vultures do for us, eating road kills and other smelly dead things that die naturally in the woods.
 
            Engrossed in my reading, I don’t notice My Girl until I hear the splash of her paddling across the river to the recently fallen trees. Karl is barking on this bank. Huge black wings are flapping with that whoosh sound they make.
 
            More curious now, I scan the other bank for what they might be eating. I see a light colored blob. Maybe it’s a beaver. Looks like a beaver from here.
 
            By this time, My Girl, a Lab mixed with Rottweiler, is approaching what I see lying on the sandy bank between the two recently fallen snags extending into the middle of the river. A whirl of big black birds suddenly circles both sides of the river. She is barking them away from their meal. An iridescent crow is talking about it all from his vantage point at the tiptop of one of my trees. We’re all in a flutter, as I rise from my chair to see what I can see better.
 
            My Girl has taken possession of the carcass, whatever it is. I try to shout, “My Girl: no,” but my laryngitis prevents even a squeak to emerge. Not that I could stop this primordial instinct she has. 
 
            What is that instinct?  I’m wondering. Karl the Corgi doesn’t have it, as he’s just as intently watching as I am. I feel relief that my dog doesn’t snag a bite; eating’s not it. But clearly she’s taking possession of the dead thing, like she killed it for her pups? She has no pups.
 
            My dog has successfully frightened the silent undertakers from the carcass. I sit reading another hour, then two. My Girl has lain between the trees, not touching the carcass, but not letting those vultures continue their meal either.
 
            Finally I unlock the hydrobike and peddle across the river with Karl sitting on the deck. 
 
            As I draw closer, I see it’s a doe…a mature doe. “Ahhh,” I try to utter with not more sound than a vulture makes. Did you ever hear a vulture cry out? I have not, and I see many of them often.
 
            The eyes are gone. Like the Vietnamese eating a whole fried fish at the table, the eyes go first. She has her mouth open, and I see her tongue. They’ve gone for the guts, but she must have died last night, because not much is gone. Maybe she has to cure, like a beef hanging for a few days. Did you know they let it rot a bit before sending it to you?
 
            It’s only after investigating this scene that I notice the yellow flowers in bloom. They carpet the wetlands here just as surely as a red carpet is laid down for a princess.
 
            My Girl and Karl and I stroll through the woods among the copious yellow blooms, they lost up to their necks in springtime.
 
            When I cross the river, though, My Girl keeps her watch. I don’t understand it, but watching these curiosities is what keeps me coming back to the river and to the woods. Something’s always going on here.
 
           

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