Turkey Vultures and Venn Diagrams

Eagles are majestic birds who rule the skies above mountains and ridges, but few birds compare in their thermal soaring abilities like the turkey vulture.  These relatively large birds live all over the North American continent and are usually associated by most people as devourers of carrion – dead animals (as in road kill).  Vultures scavenge for food in open fields, along shorelines, and in rocky terrain, but they most often are seen circling in the skies as they search for their next meal.  The scientific name for turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, means “cleansing breeze.” They are not deemed the most beautiful of birds, perched in a creepy, hunched over position when not in flight.  Their featherless red faces and heads allow them to probe deeply into animal carcasses without getting a nasty mess on their feathers.  Vultures defend themselves by spewing up pungent regurgitated remains on would-be attackers.  They urinate on their legs as a way of cooling off since they have no sweat glands.  Vultures are among the few species of birds who have a sense of smell, and theirs is probably the most refined among their aviating peers.  This helps them to locate dead and rotting carcasses from miles away.

turkey vulture - ugly but beautiful

turkey vulture - ugly but beautiful (photo by Ramona VanRiper on http://www.vulturesociety.homestead.com)

In spite of its somewhat unpleasant attributes, when a vulture takes to the sky it demonstrates flying skills that hang glider and sailplane pilots worship from afar.  A vulture has an unparalleled ability to find even the most elusive of thermals (bodies of rising air).  On the most marginal of days a vulture can remain aloft for hours without flapping his wings.  The mechanisms a turkey vulture uses to locate thermals so consistently remain a mystery to those who study them in their habitats.

Certainly the turkey vulture, with its widely varied array of characteristics and abilities, is a unique creature in the animal kingdom.  Humans who dream of soaring think he is beautiful in spite of his raw physical appearance.

John and Mark in Wheeling, West Virginia at the end of a trip across Ohio.

John and me in Wheeling, West Virginia at the end of our first trip across Ohio.

One of my other recreational passions is biking.  My friend John (not the same John as John or John with whom I fly) introduced me to distance bike riding over a decade ago.  We have enjoyed many Saturday rides through the central Ohio countryside which were spiced with good conversation and great meals at restaurants along the way.  One spring day John suggested that we plan a cross-Ohio trip from west to east.  We would follow Route 40, otherwise known as the National Trail, starting just across the border in Richmond, Indiana and ending 4 days later in Wheeling, West Virginia.  We accomplished the trip that summer as planned, but not without a good bit of pain!  John and I perfected the use of Tylenol, and we would go on to do 3 more cross-Ohio trips in as many years, each averaging around 300 miles.  During one trip we did a “century,” riding 100 miles in a single day.

We had many great experiences and numerous meaningful, soul-searching conversations during our hours on the road.  One discussion remains embedded in my mind above all the others.  We were talking about our relative insignificance in the great scheme of things.  Yes, we both had some decent attainments and abilities, but there was no accomplishment in particular in either of our lives that set us apart in a unique way.  Soon we found ourselves complimenting each other about each other’s achievements – John was in the middle of a distinguished coaching career, and I had just earned an advanced university degree.  We began to realize that, even though no single accomplishment was particularly noteworthy in a Nobel Prize kind of way, it was the blend of small talents and attainments that made each of us very unique.  For example, John is a male school teacher, who is skilled in teaching mathematics to middle schoolers, who is a tournament-winning basketball coach, who plays guitar and leads worship at his church, who has ridden 100 miles on a bike in a single day.  Certainly there are very few people on the face of the earth who have this particular blend of accomplishments and characteristics.  John is unique!

The longer we talked, the more excited John and I got about the concept.  At the time, we worked together as math teachers in the local middle school.   John suggested that we could illustrate the uniqueness of each individual using a Venn diagram where the core of intersecting circles represented that special blend of talents and achievements.  John’s Venn diagram is illustrated below.

John's venn diagram illustrating his uniqueness

John's Venn diagram illustrating his uniqueness

At my graduation party a week or two after our trip, John gave a card to me on which he had drawn my Venn diagram.  It was one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received.

Like the turkey vulture, we are all unique.  Some of our rough edges may need a little grinding and polishing, but we also have gifts with which we can benefit others.  The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gave this exhortation:

In His grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well.  So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well.  If you are a teacher, teach well.  If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging.  If it is in giving, give generously.  If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously.  And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.  Don’t just pretend to love others.  Really love them.

Romans 12:6-9a (NLT)

No one is equipped to serve others in the same exact way for which you have been crafted.  You may think you are not good enough, but God has given you the ability to soar!


2 Responses to Turkey Vultures and Venn Diagrams

  1. LuAnn says:

    Mark, good things come from difficult circumstances. Without your recent forced rest, we may have never had the opportunity to be blessed by your gift to put craft with words.

  2. Mary Peterson says:

    I agree 100% with LuAnn, Mark. Among your many gifts is your talent for writing in a way that brings thoughtful introspection and we are constantly being blessed by your words.

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