Welcome to "The Gods Are Bored," prominent source of vulture worship since 2005! All hail the Sacred Thunderbird!
This post is dedicated to recording my experiences at the East Coast Vulture Festival 2009.
For me the Sacred Event always begins when a huge, heavy box arrives on my doorstep. The box contains a theatrical-grade vulture mascot costume, consisting of a giant furry pink head with curved beak and a mantle of "feathers" which are really strips of fabric sewed in tiers ... and tiers ... and tiers ... and tiers. In short, while the vulture body looks like feathers, it feels like chain mail, or more precisely, about 17 fur coats knotted together .
As for the mascot head, when you put it on you have to choose between seeing and breathing. You can't do both simultaneously. Well, actually you can if you come from a high altitude and are accustomed to living with less oxygen.
But these are minor quibbles. Does the pope complain about the weight of his crown? I think not!
On this Vulture Fest day, the temperature topped out at 74 degrees F. This is record-setting warmth for the first week of March in New Jersey.
Recall that the Sacred Vulture mascot costume consists of many layers of matted cloth and a furry head that emits limited oxygen.
Never mind. I, Anne Johnson, spent two hours in the sunshine, posing for pictures with the many tots who came to the Children's Vulture Fair from 1-3 p.m. in Wenonah. There's nothing quite like being hugged by dozens of kids who think they're meeting a giant vulture. This costume is a little scary for some, but most children love it. One sweet little boy gave me a hug and then walked away shouting, "I knew there was a person under there!" So many of them said, "Thank you, Vulture," for a high-five or a picture.
One slightly older kid looked Vulture up and down and said, "You're crazy."
Every faith has its skeptics, right?
After two glorious but sweltering hours in that mascot costume, I got in the car to drive back to Snobville to pick up my two companions for the Evening Vulture Revival Service. As I was driving, I felt giddy and tight in the chest. Made me wonder if I was about to enter the Higher Plane where I might actually be reborn as a Sacred Thunderbird.
So when I got home, I wrote on the message board, "No Regrets." Just so everyone would know that if I keeled in a vulture costume I would die happy.
But I didn't keel. I picked up my two disciples, daughter The Heir and our best friend that we have finally gotten to know, the Monkey Man. Monkey Man has a puppet for every occasion. While he brought his monkey, he also brought a wonderful condor puppet bigger than his arm. And since he was to be part of the praise and worship extravaganza, he had a borrowed vulture costume and a few dead rats that looked really good in the condor's mouth.
Before the service got underway, Heir, Monkey Man, and I had a chance to go to the main vulture roost and watch the Sacred Thunderbirds begin their evening descent into the trees.
I have been to Wenonah on many occasions, but never when the temperatures were so benign. (The vultures only roost there in the wintertime.) There must have been more than 200 buzzards in the air and in the trees. They were kettling on high, swooping practically right over our heads, and performing aerial displays worthy of any pantheon. Heir, Monkey Man, and I lay on our backs in someone's yard and stared up into the blue ether as squadrons of vultures passed over.
What a sublime moment! Two of my dearest loved ones at my side, hundreds of buzzards overhead and scattered about, a brilliant sunset, and bearable temperatures!
If my life ever gets any better than this day, my face will freeze in a perpetual smile.
I mouthed my usual prayers, which generally consist of praising the Thunderbirds and wishing I was one. "Oh, to be a buzzard," I said.
Monkey Man said, "You're kidding."
Heir answered: "No, she's serious. I've heard this every day of my life. My mom wants to be a vulture."
Monkey Man, who is a poet, allowed that "my mom wants to be a vulture" would be a great first line to a poem. If any of you out there are inspired, please put pen to paper!
Then it was time for the Evening Revival, held in a sanctuary otherwise known as Wenonah Elementary School All-Purpose Room.
For awhile as the congregation arrived, Monkey Man and I both worked the outdoors, greeting everyone. Then it got cooler, so Monkey Man went inside, and I continued to greet. It's always important at worship services to make everyone feel at home, warm, loved, important, special. You know. Nothing like being greeted by a 7-foot-tall vulture to accomplish that.
Once the congregants had assembled in the sanctuary, fabulously decorated with vulture artwork, photos, vulture silouettes, and a giant paper-mache buzzard from a parade float, I worked the crowd as long as I could bear the costume, which was about another half hour. I did some pantomines of buzzard behavior and otherwise performed in the foolish ways that mascots do. Between me and Monkey Man, we had the comedy covered.
A word on the obligatory foodstuffs that accompany any good revival meeting. We had soft drinks, coffee, ice water with lemon (thank the Thunderbirds for that!), a huge vulture cake, Godiva chocolates, cheese and crackers, cookies, fresh fruits, and pretzels.
If you weren't disappointed about missing this before, I bet you are now! Everyone from Moonies to Methodists know that good eats bring in the faithful.
The serious portion of the evening got underway at about 8:00.
The East Coast Vulture Festival is a fundraiser for nature education in and around Wenonah. So the festival organizers doled out some grant money, to much applause. Then the local wildlife rescue organization gave a little presentation. The main event was an educational presentation by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Of course it was on raptors. The gal running the presentation showed us a live red-tailed hawk and a Cooper's hawk, and a barn owl. But nobody really wanted to see those birds. We were there to see a vulture!
And the Academy delivered. Out from its carrier came a turkey vulture with a damaged wing, unable to live in the wild but seeming not to care particularly. Oh, that gorgeous bald red head! Those piercing, beady eyes! The fabulous wingspan, impressive even at half mast!
The vulture stared at the crowd (some 200 folks). We stared back. It flapped. We applauded. And just as with every worship service, many of the tenets of vulture worship were stated:
1. They keep the country clean.
2. They don't kill anything.
3. They can't even grasp stuff in their feet, that's why they sit on a carcass till it's bare.
4. They pair bond for life.
5. Their heads are bald because they stick them inside carcasses.
6. The red head of the turkey vulture denotes its maturity and readiness to mate.
7. They don't have voice boxes, so all they can do is hiss and grunt.
8. When threatened, they vomit. It isn't pretty.
9. It is unlawful to keep them as pets.
10. They weigh between 4 and 5 pounds when full-grown and can live up to 75 years in the wild.
So, there are the Ten Commandments of vulture worship. Memorize and repeat.
When the Academy presentation ended, the congregation was treated to music. What worship service would fail to include music? Our perennial performer is a local musician named Jim Sixx. Moved by the Sacred Thunderbird, he has composed several songs about vultures, some of them sweet and moving, some of them funny as hell. He sang them all, and then it was time for the Grand Finale.
Our Grand Finale is a buzzard dance, different every year. This year it was a "Vulture Rap" in which our ensemble "vomited" Mardi Gras beads onto the audience when the "rapper" said, "We vomit like a comet and grunt and spew."
Here's part of the liturgy:
We're here for you
We're nature's cleanup crew
So give us our due,
We work hard for you!
The Monkey Man was a member of the ensemble because one of the regular members couldn't be at the service. Trust me, he fit right in. That's him, second from the right.
Alas and alack, after our Sacred Ritual Rap Dance, performed to delighted applause, the evening was over. I went back to the door to wave farewell to the congregation, just like any preacher worth his salt would do. And many good people promised to be back next year.
As we settled into the car to take Monkey Man home to Camden, I realized that I had just lived one of the happiest days of my life.
How do we measure happiness in this world? For me, happiness has never been a daily contentment, but rather an isolated series of indelible moments, a handful, maybe more, of out-of-the-box highlights to the everyday grind of living. This is why we go to concerts and on vacations, why we put on fabulous clothes for weddings and graduations, why we keep albums of birthday party photos and spectacular snowstorms. Happiness comes in bursts.
Once a year, I am the vulture mascot at the East Coast Vulture Festival in Wenonah, New Jersey. Once a year I know I will be truly, blissfully happy for a day. Thanks be to the Sacred Thunderbird.
Photos from East Coast Vulture Festival 2009 by The Heir