Yesterday, about mid-morning, four coyotes went ghosting through the Figure 8. They were moving south to north, toward their home, and fanned out through the trees with no particular sense of urgency. We have the benefit of large windows on that side of the house, so we can see most of what happens out there–the birds and the squirrels, the occasional hiker with his dog, folks horseback, the deer, and very often–almost every day–the coyotes. At night they romp through our woods and occasionally start yipping and yelling just beneath our bedroom window. When that happens, when they come in that close–about ten yards–it’s as if someone cracked open a portal to hell. It will actually lift your body off the mattress, and suspend and spin it there, before dropping you down fully awake and slightly bewildered. I’m convinced the coyotes know they are doing this, and do it on purpose. There is one coyote in this bunch with a bad throat, and his call is both wrecked and disturbing on a cellular level. I like to think of him, and wonder about him and his life. It’s even possible I like his mojo.
This particular pack–I think there are six of them total–lives down on a scab flat just northeast of us–it’s a quarter section of forest service property bordering Wychus Creek with some mixed timber, lots of rocks, and one deep draw that wends through the middle. It’s perfect habitat for coyotes, and also lions and bobcats, but for now the only full-time residents appear to be the yotes–who are probably one of the most adaptable critters walking the earth.
There was an era in my life when I would have considered shooting them. There was an era in my life when I did shoot a lot of coyotes. As a younger man it was sport for us kids to bury ourselves in a haystack come lambing season, and to play a rabbit call on a cassette recorder until the coyotes would come slinking in from various corners of the desert. I remember those mornings fondly–the pogonip in a quiet desert basin, the utter stillness of the world, the cold. People who raised sheep for a living appreciated the help because coyotes can wreak havoc on a flock. That’s real money to a family and there are a lot of coyotes out there. We’d sit and watch them come in from the horizon, up from the sage and buckbrush somewhere, testing the air, stopping and watching the way only a coyote can watch the world, then trot a little bit, eager to pick up the margins of a scent cone and finally fixing on the sound of a wounded rabbit as a meal ticket.
I keep my camera near the door for just such moments, the kind that remind us this planet isn’t only for humans and their endless cycle of self-induced problems, and stepped out onto the porch to see if I might squeeze off a few photos before the pack strayed too deep into the trees. I had the wrong lens on, and precious little time to change them, but I’ve learned not to worry about that too much. You either get a shot or you don’t, and you make the best of the gear you’ve put into action.That’s true with guns and cameras both. Plus, nothing was going to tear me away from just watching them. There is something of the revenant in the way a coyote moves in the forest, and with four of them it elevates to a kind of silent and inter-connected dance that has true elegance. I watch for that reason, and also because I’m curious to know how much interest they have in our chickens. Our henhouse sits in a kind of no-man’s land between the coyote trail and the house, and there isn’t a coyote walking the earth that wouldn’t enjoy that crime of opportunity. Mostly, they stay just far enough away. For one, the henhouse is a hard target, a bird fortress really, so it’s too much work, and also we have four dogs. A coyote would mangle any one of our dogs in a solo fight but coyotes don’t have health insurance or veterinary care and they can’t afford to go looking for fights. Mostly, that’s not their modus operandi.
Coyotes have been a constant thread in my life. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to the coyotes while standing at my school bus stop on early spring mornings in Lassen County. The bus stop was at the end of a dirt road and on those mornings I would stand listening to the irrigation sprinklers ticking away in the ice-encrusted fields and the meadowlarks (still my favorite bird) on the fences, feeling that cozy spring sun on my face and watching the light get organized on the low roll of rimrocked desert hills to the north. That’s where the coyotes lived and when the sun fell just right into the shadows the pups would begin to yip. Nothing carries like the sound of coyotes on motionless mornings like that, and whether its joy or angst or just because they can–or maybe it’s all of those things–standing there listening I had the distinct impression that something was triggered in the rules of relativity, that time had lengthened, and a single minute could easily feel like ten.
I’m not romantic about coyotes, at least not in the way that absolves them of their predatory nature, and so becomes blind to that nature and ends up doing them a disservice. I see a lot of people do that with wolves, and the more they try to sell the warm and fuzzy routine the less credibility they have. I’ve seen what coyotes can do to fawns, and lambs, and chickens, and when I was cowboying on the Fish Creek Ranch in Eureka, Nevada, I came upon a pack of them who had surrounded a calving cow and were dragging the calf out of her even as she fought to defend herself and her calf in a spinning maelstrom of snarling and teeth and amniotic fluid and a prolapsed uterus in the bloody snow. In Montgomery Pass, Nevada, coyotes would routinely lure my grandfather’s cow dogs into the sage and savage them to death in the dark. When I was a boy, coyotes played out their death rights on our ewes in a pasture and the toll was devastating. A coyote is a land shark and much like a shark is not a thing to be trusted. Ever. The natives knew this, in a matured and wry sort of way, which is why so many of the native coyote tales betray the coyote as a trickster, a liar, a beggar, or a thief. In most of those tales the coyote is a cautionary tale about simple duplicity–a creature of whim–that uncle who is always scheming for easy money and easy outcomes and manages, in the end, mostly to outsmart himself.
At my cow camp in Duck Flat, Nevada, I was out riding my circle one day when I picked up a coyote. He fell in behind me and in his curiosity followed me most of the day. When I stopped, he would stop. When I rode, he would trot along ten yards behind. So I stopped once for a little while, and turned my horse and tried to talk to him and figure what he was about. But the eyes and the intentions remained inscrutable. He sat on his haunches, close enough to rope, with his tongue out, turning his head this way and that. I knew cowboys who roped coyotes at a dead run but that was never my thing. At the end of my circle, when I turned back for camp, he seemed to know our party was over and veered away into the endless desert, trotting off east into the sage, and I never saw him again. In Santa Barbara, California, I was followed by a coyote when I was riding my mountain bike home from work. My wife and I had rented an apartment on the mesa, and after a graveyard shift I peddled down State Street to Cabrillo Boulevard, in that magical hour before the city was awake and churning out its daily dose of heavy bullshit and the fog was thick and we were all alone and that faint smell of petroleum was almost stinging in the air. The Santa Barbara Channel has natural seepage of oil and it creates a rarified air, like living downwind from a refinery, which is unique to Santa Barbara. So I went wheeling onto Cabrillo Boulevard, heavy with a night of the world’s troubles, and there he was, a plush Central Coast version of a coyote in the middle of the road, who fell in behind me as I pedaled hard for the air and the endorphin release of exercise. And so on we went, up the hill, much as that coyote had done on the desert.
It would be very easy to make too much of those encounters, and sometimes I want too. Those of us removed from the kind of spiritual world enjoyed by our ancestors seem now, more than ever, to fetch about for what we call “spirit animals,” because it’s an easy way to identify with something–especially when the world let’s us down. I’ve always wanted a badass version–a badger, or a bear, or some kind of majestic bird of prey, because that seems far more sexy than a mangy coyote. But if such a thing exists for us digitized and mostly twice-removed version of humans, it’s clearly pointing toward coyotes.
I’m not at all sure how I feel about that.
I posted a few pictures on bookface of the coyotes from yesterday, with a comment or three, and got the predictable response. The nature lovers and the shooters and the in-betweens all weighed in with their piece and their sacred advices. But I’m past caring about who thinks what about my choices, or engaging too much in opinions thrown out without any real interest in engaging with the background context I offer for examination. I have my own reasons for not wanting to shoot everything I see. I’ve done more shooting in a single week than most people walking the earth will do in a lifetime. That’s not braggadocio, it’s simply a fact born of training and experience. I’ve also killed, and I’ve trained to be a killer most of my adult life. Whatever my reasons are for not wanting to shoot coyotes anymore, especially for no articulable reason beyond what they “might” do, they are good enough. They would be good enough even without the life I have led and the conceits it has engendered. But also I’m not trying to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do. I’m really not. Do your thing. And anyway, in the end people will do what they want, and they will have their reasons. That’s a lesson coyotes have clearly learned, and absorbed without guile or moral animosity. What they have learned in order to survive is mostly about us–human beings–who we are and what we do to survive. The rest they do by rote–and it is probably the main reason they continue to thrive in spite of us–from New York City to Calabassas–and in every hill and dale between.