Bestiaries were traditionally works of observation and natural history. Ancient and widespread, their way of observing allowed room for elements of theology, symbolism, and moralizing that strike our modern ear as wildly unscientific. The animals in these old works were not seen in isolation, but in relation to the human sphere. They carried messages and lessons, and had a rightful place in a greater order.
Our own day has brought more detailed facts about animals and a less secure context for the new information. As we learn more about them, can the animals still teach us? We asked our contributors to listen to an animal which has always interested them. Their responses testify to the many levels of relationship which still endure. For the rest of the essays, click here.
Jimson lives in a new
Small house where the view is shrouded
With hideous hoardings, a view
That is every day more crowded…
…and this is the curious prayer
that he prays when his heart sickens:
‘O fox, come down from your lair
and steal our chickens.’
—Lord Dunsany: A Call To the Wild
When I was a boy in New York City, crazy about anything with fur—and violently allergic to most of it—there were no wild coyotes in the state. Today they can be found in the Catskills and Adirondacks, as in most of New England (indeed, an entirely new species, now generally considered to be a wolf-coyote cross, has appeared in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont within the last twenty years); and surely the Bronx cannot be far behind. I like to think about coyotes on bad days, the same way I take great comfort in knowing, rightly or wrongly, that running water purifies itself every two hundred yards. Two hundred feet? You want statistics, or you want to be able to get out of bed in the morning?
Being Jewish undoubtedly did a good deal, in my case, to enhance a natural empathy with all creatures officially pronounced vermin, to be destroyed on sight, down to the last individual, for the benefit of a superior society. Since the white man’s arrival on the North American continent, the coyote has been the object of increasingly massive and coordinated efforts to eliminate it as finally as the grizzly bear, or the passenger pigeon, or the peoples who deified it and gave it sacred names like coyotl, “First Worker,” and “God’s Dog.” Coyotes continue to be poisoned in great numbers, to be hunted from the air and trapped for their skins as much as for their presumed inroads into sheep herds….
And yet there are more coyotes on the continent now, in more places, than there were when the white man got here. That is more than a simple comfort: it evokes an astonishingly visceral sense of triumph over something I cannot name, when I hear coyotes calling on Mount Madonna at night, or glimpse one sauntering across Los Angeles’s Coldwater Canyon; or perhaps a pair ghosting through the brushy gullies and redwood groves of the U. C. Santa Cruz campus, wary as senior faculty who might actually have to talk to an actual undergraduate at any moment. Still here, still here, still ourselves, how you like them apples? We still sing, too.
In the black South there is a famous old song about the Gray Goose. Shot down, plucked, placed in the oven, he proves impossible to cook; the knife can’t cut him, the fork can’t stick him, the hogs won’t eat him—he even breaks the teeth out of the saw at the mill. In the end the Gray Goose puts his own feathers back in, and when last seen, “he was flyin cross the ocean, lord, lord, lord, with a long string of goslins, and they was all goin quonk-quonk, lord, lord, lord…” Same animal. Same song.
Remember, if possible, that it is a god whose racket is keeping you awake, a god who ravaged your garbage cans and tried to eat your cat. The various Native American traditions, from the Aztecs of central Mexico to the Crows in Montana, cast him eternally in the twin roles of creator and cardsharp, master and fool, world-shaper—according to the Crows, Old Coyote invented horses, hunting, sex and war—and compulsive Undoer. In keeping with his protean nature (The Mammals of North America lists nineteen different subspecies of canis latrans), the form changes at will-some of the old legends imply that there is really no such thing as a physical, earthly coyote, except as the gods need the mortal garment—but the spirit remains: always the trickster, always divine.
One of my three dogs is part-coyote. It shows clearly in her face, and in the way she moves, and it makes her uncertain about her relationships with most human beings. Nevertheless, she is a dog, gentle, anxiously affectionate, and queen of her small pack, going about her appointed business, which is mainly sleeping in the sun. But sometimes the mockingly seductive wailing of her cousins over the hill sends her nearly frantic, and then she howls and howls until they fall silent at last; and whether she is challenging them or crying out to be rescued from what she is, I cannot tell. When we were both younger, I used to fear that she might run away to Mount Madonna one night; now I know that I was foolish. She was never wild enough for that.
Perhaps that is finally why I think about coyotes as much as I do. I am even more domesticated than my dogs: there have been so many far calls I was not wild enough to answer, so many vital adaptations I cannot make—and such an odd handful that I have—so many changes that I fear even to consider if they mean risking what I believe desperately to be myself. The coyote is neither a god nor an anthropomorphized bedtime toy to me—one might certainly as well admire the cockroach or the lamprey eel if survival were all—but I cherish in him the restless constancy that all the old stories insist upon and celebrate. Mutability is written into his germ plasm, making him always a bit at war with himself; yet at the center there is always Old Man Coyote, with his gambler’s calmness and his bone-knowledge of when to let go and what to keep. Hope Ryden suggests that the coyote, like ourselves, “may still be in the process of becoming.” True or false, it is something like that that still gets me up in the morning.♦