Here I present and briefly consider 2 poems about the California condor.
A 1906 issue of the magazine Birds and Nature includes “The California Vulture”, an article that begins with a poem. At the time, the California condor was often referred to as the California vulture. The poem has neither an author or title:
Among the crags, in caverns deep,
The Vulture rears his brood;
Far reaching is his vision’s sweep
O’er valley, plain, and wood;
And wheresoe’er the quarry lies,
It cannot ‘scape his peering eyes.
The traveler, from the plane below,
Sees first a speck upon the sky—
Then, poised on sweeping wings of woe,
A Vulture, Bat-like, passes by.
George Sterling’s “The Black Vulture” was first published in 1911:
Aloof upon the day’s immeasured dome,
He holds unshared the silence of the sky.
Far down his bleak, relentless eyes descry
The eagle’s empire and the falcon’s home—
Far down, the galleons of sunset roam;
His hazards on the sea of morning lie;
Serene, he hears the broken tempest sigh
Where cold sierras gleam like scattered foam.
And least of all he holds the human swarm—
Unwitting now that envious men prepare
To make their dream and its fulfillment one,
When, poised above the caldrons of the storm,
Their hearts, contemptuous of death, shall dare
His roads between the thunder and the sun.
The first poem is definitely about the California condor. But what about Sterling’s “The Black Vulture”? In a letter to Robert Berkelman, Sterling stated that the poem was about the California condor. He also denied any symbolic meaning to the poem, writing that it is “a nature-poem pure and simple”.
In the first poem, the spelling plane in the fourth from the last line is as in the original. So the poet was flying too, and just 3 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. I find it odd that a poet would describe the condor’s flight as “bat-like”. The flight of condors is so stable that it leads many to mistake them for airplanes. This could hardly be more different than the flapping, twisting, and turning flight of bats. However, many have described, as the poem does, the condor’s ability to be a far-off speck one moment and almost within reach the next.
In his poem, Sterling places the California condor alone atop the sky, above even the eagle and falcon. His condor is “serene” but has “relentless eyes” that survey all below. However, the bird is not yet aware, now 8 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, that humans are seeking to conquer the condor’s sky. Of course, in the century since the publication of Sterling’s poem, humans have conquered more of the condor’s habitat than just its sky.
The California vulture. Birds and Nature. December 1906.
Sterling, George. The black vulture. In The house of orchids and other poems. Robertson. 1911.
Berkelman, Robert G. George Sterling on “The black vulture”. American Literature. May 1938.