Don't Insult the Coyote
Written by Justin Bauer
Published in the 2016 Nomads issue of Wilderness Magazine
The coyote was here first. Both evolutionary and spiritual theory suggests that the natural world came before your species did. When the First Nations people arrived, it is said that the Coyote taught them how to survive.
Our species, looking in on this growing alien community, is threatened. Coyote come closer and deeper into our sacred urban land, taking sheep and Chihuahuas. Desperate moves for a dog that prefers rabbits. Suburban neighborhood-watchers lose sleep over this free-range menace. Government snipers and ranchers stab at formulated year round extermination, a rate of 400,000 dead. What does the ‘talking dog’ have to say to that? Probably: "You have collected too much enterprise."
The coyote is a martyr for wild evolution, dying and rising again. A symbol for the feral at large and a tent pole for the First Nations people. We build concrete cushions to separate us from the foreign, but wilderness isn’t your weekend escape. It’s a thing we’ve escaped from and it’s invading again with cause. This widening culture has more to offer than what’s bobbing on the surface of your favorite fishing retreat.
I remember when I first met Coyote.
Pale, lanky grass stood thick out in front of me. The wind was sorting through the trees like usual but I noticed some extra movement in the grass. I was 15. For me seeing a coyote was like discovering a mythical friend.
At 7, my friends and I would follow the creek into the hills behind the houses that our dad’s had made. A search party armed with pocket knives and fishing line. A puny posse. We were catching crawdads, burning wood, and stealing the neighbor’s pomegranates, but only as surrogates to our illustrious plan of finding a coyote pack den. We had all the caves in our jurisdiction mapped out. Knowing nothing of decent tracker etiquette, we would follow tracks and scat. Dad taught me about grey dry scat, and I felt empowered with mystic cowboy knowledge, knowing there was greater defecation terminology to enhance my juvy language arsenal.
If it was a bad day, and we couldn’t find a den, we would trek to the caves.
My friends and I would just assume they’d practice their vocal amplification skills against these concave rocks at night; like a sacred ritual. These caves were where I saw my first porno mags wetted and dried by the elements. Disappointed, we’d discovered torn pages and needles in the den of teenagers instead of Native American Coyote etchings or artifacts.
Every weekend, though, we’d tirelessly branch out on our crusade.
But it was always a ‘bad day,’ and we never found a real den with these mini-wolves inside.
I’d never seen a Coyote while actually on horseback all those years. So here at 15, I felt charged with one horsepower on my side as these ominous shadows tore across the dirt into the forest door. At full gallop, horse and I, ducked into a hallway of stunted, mangled trees after one of them. Cut by thorned branches; I was immediately bleeding from my face. My mythological mutt passed under few inches of briar-patch somewhere and seconds later he was out the other side.
And then he just stopped, waited, smiled back at me, then strolled away.
That night I didn’t want to fall asleep without hearing them howl. You probably know the sound; it’s dead silent and then instant cries break out as if they’ve been just outside your window the entire night.
Coyote, the fabled and legendary clip-art.
The coyote represents a culture apart from ours, but we’ve reduced them to a singular pastel-colored voice howling at the moon like the comic relief in a Pixar film. Are they spiritual nostalgia, sensationalized or a common pest seeking crumbs?
When you see a coyote stroll into your camp looking for food, do you think:
“There’s a coyote coming into my camp?” That’s an important question.
"There’s a homeless man loitering my street, I should call the authorities."
Both of those thoughts are coming from same person. A person who divides.
For all the attempts at compartmentalization and population depletion the Coyote does something that no other mammal does. Peculiarly, extermination efforts have the reverse intended effect. All studies show that the more they’re killed off, the more they multiply, greater in number than before. It’s rare for any species to take an active role in fighting it’s own extinction. In this often invisible clan, we’ve found the hero we’ve been looking for. While other animals are lying down and dying out: the trickster is actually out-multiplying it’s doom. Yet we still ogle their wildness as if we are not wild ourselves.
The coyote’s yard goes from Alaska to Canada to Central America, and covers all of our public parks and most of our cities. A pack intelligently tempers its number according to particular resources and circumstances within that territory. It does this when you’re not looking. You might only get a glimpse of this eye-sore cruising by, spoiling your neighborhood mc-mansion settlement, ducking around the corner, colonizing near the local underpass.
Proper tracking reveals that these supposed migrants are everywhere that you thought they weren’t; they’re simply specialists at becoming invisible. If a coyote feels your gaze, it will casually walk away from it’s den as if lost in thought, taking a stroll. When you think you’re watching it, it’s watching you. If you exterminate their rabbits, they’ll eat your watermelons instead.
They mate for life. A researcher in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone found a male attempting to remove a trap that was clamped to his partner’s leg. The next season, that same researcher found several traps dug from the ground, and defecated on. The urban coyote has mapped your entire city. After being chased off the causeway at Portland International Airport, one hopped the Max Red Line train on it’s way back to a slightly greener downtown. Their personalities are varied. They’re known to play at the golf range, catching small white balls, wishing they were eggs. Some may bite at your leashed dog, others have been seen chasing them as pals. They have been heard howling along with passing ambulances. They’ve been caught coveting stolen plush squeak toys inside their den.
You asked for this America. You love dogs. This is our collective dog. It doesn’t want to be dressed up on Valentines Day, but it does want a sustainable existence.
Yes we like to tame, and domesticate. but we are like the wolf. It’s other nemesis.
Like us, this famous rival pushes the coyote to it’s limit. Season after season of the wolf bearing down led the coyote to adapt, becoming a “super dog” with a hyper-watchful eye. When the Eastern Wolf was wiped from Eastern Canada, the Coyote took their dens in droves. Despite their rocky past, they mated and formed a new breed; the Eastern Coyote. Larger and more audacious, the Eastern Coyote has made it’s way from Ontario, Canada to New York. No longer an outcast, they survived the wolves first, only to become the ultimate survivor cross-breed.
There is an old Mexican saying, “Next to God, the coyote is the smartest person on earth.”
Trickster culture, too abstract for an elevator pitch.
Unknown in nature, the natural world holds more than non-reasoning beasts. It’s presence contains every measurable tool used to define your own existence; an existential paradise. Regular discomfort is a tangible life, one that can even be played in. Coyote, symbolically speaking, represent all ends of the spectrum.
In one Navajo tale, God (called the Black God) had the stars in his hand and was slowly and carefully placing each star in the sky; Coyote was bored, grew impatient and chucked them in the sky haphazardly forming the Milky Way. Now it is impossible to quantify Coyote’s character from these countless legends, but he emerges as both a trickster and a revered god.
One Lakota story says, Coyote was wandering a path, wearing a thick blanket of many colors. He sees a large rock (Iya the Storm-Monster) out on the road. Coyote offers his blanket as a gift, places it onto Iya to keep him warm. A few steps down the path a storm begins, pelted by hail, Coyote returns to Iya to ask for it back. Iya replies: “What is given, is given.” Coyote makes off with the blanket anyway only to eventually be flattened out by Iya. Of course, resilient Coyote dies there and is reborn.
Though Coyote is often cast as fool he remains the center of these lessons, often a combination of animal, god, and the traits of man.
A Maidu myth says that God was making mankind out of clay and Coyote wanted to join in, but he kept laughing and botched our appearance. God said that we’d turn out better if he would shape the clay without laughing. Coyote denied laughing in the first place, and so it goes that the first lie was told. A variation on this story suggests that Coyote formed us to look like a dog instead of a human.
Coyote invented death. In a conversation with the world’s Chiefs, he suggested that peoples should not leave to the spirit world for only a while, but forever. The Chiefs didn’t agree. So the first ‘dead’ man went away as a spirit, to return a while later in the wind. When he was just about to enter the sacred lodge to become alive again, it’s said that Coyote just shut the door on him. The Caddo say because of this; whenever anyone meets a whirlwind or hears wind whistle ‘someone is wandering about’ searching for the spirit land.
Other variations of these stories suggest that Coyote’s sons died and his master plan turned on him. Unable to see his sons again he left in grief, roaming the country without food, the forever survivor.
In many of these teachings, though, Coyote is the arbitrator between life and death, an ancient being arriving before us. The Miwok have O-let'-te; Coyote-man. He’s the ancestor and creator god and he often calls on other animals to help. The Ohlone describe the first people as anthropomorphic with traits of specific animals, Coyote as the Supreme Being.
An animal fanatics’ attribution of their own traits, displaced hopes, onto their own pet is a tired story. But these personification symbols carry potent medicine, a key to becoming a balanced people. Though varied, It seems cautiously relevant that each tribe would have such developed mythos on the talking dog. From "God to pest" seems like misplaced regression on our part. Ancestral nations revered them at least as fellow people, but never as lesser. Coyote is presented as having traits more seasoned than ours, an originator. It’s not unlike us to approach opposing culture assuming that we will be the teacher. As if we have the knowledge.
Humanity, we are called to dignify.
There’s a coyote coming into your camp, a dog looking for food. Whether you decide to scare it, shoot it, or feed it you’re reducing that encounter to a single belittling transaction. Instead, that encounter could represent an entire shift in lifestyle conduct.
"We all share this world" is an idealistic, kitschy phrase. First-hand experience would suggest that when sharing anything, you also lose something of your own.
This should actually provide relief instead of fear of loss. Those things you’ve worked hard to get, your electronic device, the land you own: these are distant cousins to your ideals. And it should provide comfort knowing that you can walk away from all of it with your ideals intact. What if you were to stay, and share that land instead? Then a true trickster would arrive. You might lose your ideals, you might change, you might be challenged living in the same room as something different from you.
If growing equals attaining, then what’s happening when we stop what we’re doing, to listen?
Our drive-thru tendency seems to dominate our more accessible patient-listener side. When meeting new humans, we risk missing their true nature entirely. We are meant to experience the weight of others, to comprehend not dismiss. Our modern transaction-based ethos unfortunately absolves us of the greater burden we are meant to bear. It pardons us from the patience through observation required to share another culture instead of despairing it.
This isn’t your fault; you are the product of a transaction-only society. And you have driven past a hundred habitats to get here, you can’t be expected to memorize the social system in each one. But you can. This is the land that you have built your house on. You exchanged green paper and signed documents, but your home is truly not yours.
At it’s worst, this fragile thought pattern manifests as a simple toggle; we decide at random who and what gets to be classified: Animal. We equate animal as less than to exalt ourselves, the intellectuals.
The problem we face is a neglect of dignity and awe, and the solution is living within wilderness unknown.
The problem isn’t about finding human traits in wildlife, it’s about attributing respect to the animal traits found within humanity.
Simply consider; something came before you, so listen first and honor that which you do not know.
Concrete culture is begging extinction. America’s First Nations people didn’t leave us cathedrals to gape at or inhabit; nothing too tactile to assign an absolute value. You could try to argue that they simply didn’t have time to advance. But it would seem that their foundational pillars weren’t solely made from stone. Their devotion to fluid surroundings, as suggested by verbal and written history, advocates a polarizing window into a foreign culture. Everything seen with the eye is fluidly interchangeable with the spirit.
It’s possible that we appraised their modest movable ideology as a vacancy for us to develop. It’s possible that we still are.
A week ago while traveling from here to there, I spotted the scandalous three-legged urban coyote. I needed to see him closer. I drove and he ran—I wanted to catch up. I greeted him as he bounced back and forth unsure. I needed to be closer, to catch his spirit, to take a picture of it. There was a full pizza in my back seat; I thought he wanted it. I threw him a slice yelling "hey," camera in hand. At that he ran.
I stopped the car. I listened. It was a shameful transaction.
You look at me, and you see only an ugly old man,
but within I am filled with great beauty. I sit as on a
mountaintop and I look into the future. I see my
people and your people living together. In time to
come my people will have forgotten their early way of
life unless they learn it from white men’s books. So
you must write down all that I will tell you; and you
must have it made into a book that coming generations may know this truth.
- Old Man Buffalo GrassSandoval, Hastin Tlotsi hee
First of the four chiefs of the Navajo - 1928