Meditations on coyotes

By Kristen Lindquist | Oct 19, 2009

The first time I saw a coyote was as road kill somewhere in New Mexico on a cross-country trek from Vermont to Arizona. I was disappointed that this was my initial sighting of the wild creature I had most looked forward to seeing on my first trip out west. Well, in truth, I most wanted to see a mountain lion, but we weren’t going to the right habitat. Coyotes, I had heard, were everywhere, so I kept my hopes realistic. And besides, Coyote was the infamous trickster figure of many western Native American tribes. An authentic western experience would be spiritually empty without some sort of encounter with this animal, whose irrepressible personality has been expressed through centuries of outrageous stories of theft, trickery and insatiable hunger.

As I spent the next three weeks camped out in the Sonoran Desert in the Buckskin Mountains near Parker, Ariz., I came to believe that coyotes truly were everywhere. Though I only managed to see in all that time one lone coyote purposefully trotting along a roadside wash, we heard them constantly. Our campsite lay under the flight path of fighter jets that would roar up the mountain valleys on a daily basis, skimming the mountaintops at unbelievable speeds.

Each time, the silent wake of the planes’ passing was instantly filled with the howling and yapping of coyotes. I was helping two geology majors carry out research for their theses, tracing bedrock formations all over the mountains, so we could never predict where the chorus would arise from day to day. Sometimes it would be startlingly close. But we never saw them. Just a few minutes of noise — what I heard as annoyance at being roused from their daytime naps — and then they were silent for the rest of the day.

We’d occasionally hear the “song dogs” at night, too. Their nocturnal howls were much more pleasing to the ear than the constant, possessed braying of feral burros, which may be the most terrifying night noise I’ve ever heard. I was grateful at least that we never saw one. In my imagination they took on a demonic presence far overshadowing that of any predator I could imagine. I learned something essential about the desert from both coyotes and burros — in a place so seemingly wide open and exposed, entire groups of large, loud, wild animals remained hidden among impenetrable thickets of cholla cactus and cat-claw bushes, old prospecting holes in which we sometimes found blue copper ore (and once, a large snakeskin), clusters of cottonwoods signifying underground water, and patterns of stones sporadically shifted by sudden flash floods.

The desert clung to me for a long time after I returned to the verdant Green Mountains of Vermont, and I’ve been back several times since. But coyotes became the one part of my desert experience that, in a way, followed me home. Soon after my return, I heard a pack of coyotes yipping out behind my dorm. I had known they lived in Vermont, too. One of my professors who was also a sheep farmer complained every spring about coyotes taking his lambs. But until I heard them in Arizona, their songs had never registered for me in Vermont. It was as if my visit to the West awakened my ear to their beautiful wild calls. I thrilled to think of them lurking there on the edge of civilized academia, while nearby hundreds of college students obliviously thumbed through text books and typed up term papers. After that, I heard them often in the Green Mountains — the sound of a pack traveling along a stream valley or yapping pups quickly silenced by adults. They weren’t after me, of course. But I knew they were after some creature out there in the dark, and it made me feel part of something primeval. Encounters with predators still have that power to instill in us awe and respect.

My friend Brian, who lives on Route 1 in Glen Cove, often hears coyotes calling behind his house, in that strip of wooded land between Route 1 and Old County Road. Here too, coyotes are all around us. They are our wild neighbors here in Midcoast Maine, and as in the desert or the Green Mountains, usually invisible but not silent. We each have our coyote stories. Many people I know have slowed down for what they thought at first was a dog crossing the road as they drove home, or watched coyotes hunting rodents in a just-mown farm field, or have even seen coyotes jogging along a downtown sidewalk. Some of us, like Brian, have been fortunate enough to enjoy that chorus of yipping that sounds more like a bunch of excited puppies than a pack of one of nature’s most versatile and adaptable predators. Some have lost cats or small livestock to these efficient enforcers of nature’s law of “tooth and claw.” Others have photographed them or see them regularly in their “back forty.” And there are those among us who only know coyotes through old Westerns or Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, but have also heard the stories. Something about Coyote always sparks stories.

My favorite personal coyote story isn’t really a narrative but more of a snapshot. At our friend Ron’s camp in northwestern Maine, miles down dirt logging roads on a privately owned lake surrounded by craggy mountains and huge old white pines, my husband and I spend a perfect day. It’s late summer. Waist deep in the lake, my husband fishes for trout for hours. Ron and I pick blackberries and watch birds. At day’s end the three of us swim and feast on moose meat burritos, sharing stories as old friends do.

As it grows dark, Ron hoots from the porch of the rustic log cabin, calling in a barred owl that perches in a nearby pine. Later, we visit a pond where we are surrounded by a deep starry darkness that reflects in the water, containing us within a bowl of night sky. There are no streetlights, no lamps from cabin windows, no lights in the distance — just pure summer sky all around us, shining in the pond before us. The Milky Way streams overhead, we find the North Star. And then Ron howls. A brief pause, and they answer — the song dogs. They yip and yowl, their barking echoing around the pond. We shiver but not from cold. Then, silence. Without speaking, we head back to the cabin, our day complete.
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