It was the first day of Louisiana’s spring shrimp season, with a promise of clear skies and slack winds, and photographer James Loiselle and I were traveling on a sheriff’s water patrol boat to better see how the catches of various boats were shaping up.
Along a stretch of bayou in Dulac, James spotted a committee of vultures (yes, that’s what a bunch of them all together is called) uncharacteristically perched on the frames of some shrimp boats that had not yet headed out for the harvest.
I say uncharacteristically because there are vultures a-plenty in south Louisiana; they are not, however, seen with regularity at wharves and docks, having plenty of sugarcane fields and forested swamps for socializing and feeding purposes.
The sight of so many vultures on a boat gave me a quick shiver. And because the vision occurred on the first day of shrimp season, I was a little concerned about the symbolism. Vultures, thanks to their feeding habits, are associated with death after all. And so many have beat the drum for so long about the pending death of the shrimping industry and the bayou country’s commercial fishing culture.
There was also the more direct concern about the portent potential, our own voyage and the safety of all those at sea.
James captured the image and I later did research on vultures in mythology and literature, including shamanic interpretations, and did I ever get an education.
The short answer was that yes, vultures are indeed seen as harbingers of death.
But for millennia they have also been seen as close to the gods because they have a tough task to do and get it done without complaining.
In some cultures they are symbols of rebirth and renewal, because their onerous task of scarfing up carrion is necessary to make way for the new, and for purification.
They are the embodiment, I determined after my research, of the phrase “it’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.”
And that, of course, brought my mind square back to the fishermen I have written about for so many years, people who know more than lots of other people how hard work can be, but how rewarding not just financially but also spiritually their labors are, and how so many people on and off their boats benefit from their sacrifices and their determination.
The more I thought of these things the more I realized how appropriate indeed it was for me to see vultures on a shrimp boat frame on the season’s first day, and how appropriately those vultures could be seen as a particularly good omen for all those laboring on the water that day.
Photo: A committee of vultures perch atop the net frames of shrimp boats on the opening day of Louisiana’s 2014 shrimp season. James Loiselle photo