Seen From Above

Poet and Naturalist Loren Eiseley (1907-1977)

It is a well-known fact that there are probably half a dozen writers that you have been urging your friends to read … with no success. My own personal failure in this regard is with the works of Loren Eiseley. Perhaps as a scientist, he is a little too out of date; but the fact that he is also a poet makes everything I have read by him almost numinous. Here, for example, is a poem called “The Condor”:

The Condor

The great bird moves its feathers on the air
like fingers playing on an instrument,
the instrument of wind; it climbs and scarcely moves
while steady thermals push
its giant wings still higher till it soars
beyond my sight completely, though it peers
through strange red eyes
upon my face below.
Its kind is dying from the earth; its wings
create a foolish envy among men.
Its shadow knew the mammoth and he passed,
floated above the sabertooth, now gone,
saw the first spearmen on the bison’s track,
banked sharply, went its way alone.
Its eyes are larger than its searching brain;
the creature sees like a satellite,
but exists within
an ice-world now dead. This bird cannot
understand rifles, multiply its eggs,
one hidden on a cliff face all it has.
Its shadow is now passing from the earth
just as the mammoth’s shadow at high noon.
Something has gone with each of them, the sky
is out of balance with the tipping poles.
No huge, tusked beast is marching with the ice,
no aerial shadow tracks the passing years.
Only below the haze grows deeper still,
only the buildings edge up through the murk.
Planes fly, and sometimes crash, but no black wing will write
the end of man, as man’s end should be written
by all the condor wings beneath high heaven.

I have seen Andean condors in Peru at Colca Canyon. They were rising and falling in the thermals hundreds of feet at a time.

Day of the Condor

Condor at Cruz del Condor

Condor at Cruz del Condor

As I promised you, here is one of my photos of the condors at Cruz del Condor in the State of Arequipa. We were standing on the south side of Colca Canyon at a place that is famous for its thermals, which the condor population uses in the mornings as if it were an elevator to reach maximum altitude with minimum effort.

Because I do not have a super-telephoto lens that weighs half a ton, I had to enlarge the condor in this image. Even when they’re rising on a thermal, condors are lightning fast—at the same time that they are gigantic. The Andean condor has a wingspan of up to 10½ feet. Curiously, there are larger birds: the Southern Royal Albatross and the Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, whose span can be as much as a foot longer.

Still, it is the condor that captures the imagination of South Americans. I’ll never forget seeing my first ones in Argentina in 2011, while Martine and I were taking a bus from El Calafate to Puerto Banderas to see the glaciers on Lago Argentino. Then, too, there is that most pervasive of songs, “El Condor Pasa,” a zarzuela composed by the Peruvian Daniel Alomia Robles in 1913 and popularized by Simon and Garfunkel in their Bridge Over Troubled Water album. If you’re not familiar with the tune, click here. In Lima, at the Palacio de Gobierno, I even saw a Peruvian military band goose-stepping to the music as they played it.

Paintings of archangels done by the Quechua painters of the Cusco School of Art are wearing the wings of mature condors, which are two-toned.

We in California have our own condors, which we are trying desperately to save from extinction. I saw a couple of them once at the Santa Barbara Zoo (below) looking very disconsolate from their extended captivity.

California Condors at Santa Barbara Zoo

California Condors at Santa Barbara Zoo

God knows they are not the most beautiful of creatures, but they come close to being among the most magnificent.



Ugly But Magnificent

Andean Condor

Andean Condor

Andean Condors, like all members of the vulture family, are not exactly cute; but with their 10-foot wingspans, they are awe-inspiring. The only time I ever saw Vultur gryphus was on in Argentinian Patagonia, on my way to the dock to take a cruise to see the glaciers that feed into Lago Argentino. There were two of them a few miles out of El Calafate visible from the left side of the bus. Of course, by the time I got my camera out, they had swooped around the hill and out of sight.

In Peru, I hope to photograph them at Colca Canyon, about a hundred miles northwest of Arequipa. The Canyon has a depth of 13,650 feet (4,160 meters), making it twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I will try to take a tour that stops at Cruz del Condor, where they tend to glide in large numbers past a viewing point looking for their favorite carrion. I hope I can get a few pictures to bring back and post on this blog site.

Colca Canyon is probably the third most popular tourist destination in Peru, after Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca.