Almost every night I hear coyotes. Their voices rise in cacophony and mayhem from the hill across the valley, the one my kids call “the horse hill.” It is the song of a pair I hear most often, but the rollick and ruckus they make gives the impression of many more animals. Sometimes, as it happened tonight, a lone voice comes faintly, drifting on the air from much further afield, from far points unknown in the open space that surrounds our home. Somewhere, out there, on some indistinct, grassy vantage a sole coyote pauses to recognize the stars with his birthright sound that carries across space like the voice of the night itself.
On rare occasions, a yip and bark from one direction will stir a response from another. At times, I have heard coyotes calling in three directions. My head cranes from one tilt to another as I strain to direct my listening to filter the voice of an individual animal, but it is no good. I am surrounded. In those moments the opaque hills matted against the blue-black sky become coyote rich, and I know who has dominion. In those moments, there is no doubt. I am naked, blind in the dark, nearly deaf with my human hearing, and nose-mute. This is coyote country and I am a clumsy guest.
In my community a rumor flourishes. It is believed and passed on in street side conversations as truth that the rousing concerts of yips and barks we hear in the night are the death knells of neighborhood house cats. One of my neighbors said to me, our cocktail repartee interrupted by the rumpus of coyotes, “Yep. Got another one.” The mythology of monsters is fertile, not easily debunked. I don’t know if the story of the violent end to house cats is true, but I suspect not. There just aren’t enough cats.
I do suspect mythology though. The barks and howls as they erupt in the night do sound triumphant, as though a pack had perpetrated an act and gotten away with it. The fact is coyotes almost never travel in packs. They are solitary or mated or sometimes triune. I have never seen four at once. The apocrypha of the pack is a function of what we think we hear when the song of the coyote whips up in the dark, maybe from a couple of directions, and we begin to feel vulnerable, surrounded, an easy mark in the night. “There must be dozens of them!” No. Just a pair. Maybe a third lone comrade miles away.
But it is a human feature to interpret what we experience, to look for patterns, to attempt to understand. A human feature, perhaps an evolutionary advantage, but it is a foible to understand what we experience only in human terms. The song of the coyote is triumphant, I suspect, only to us. But is that enough? Is the perception of triumph enough for us to create the myth of the cat’s bane? Not quite. An enduring myth requires a shred of truth, a germinative seed of fact from which to grow. I think it likely, nigh unto certain, that in the course of natural events it has come to pass that an errant cat has run afoul of a coyote in the night and has failed to return home by morning. I am sure it has happened, and yet I know that more cats meet their fates under car tires or at the claws and teeth of neighborhood dogs than of coyotes. Even so, the myth is created from a shred of truth and a human perception. Every time the coyotes howl, a cat has met an untimely end. Murder most foul, we cry.
Despite my desire and effort to understand nature not just in human terms, I don’t have compassion for coyotes, and I believe that coyotes and humans should not occupy the same spaces at that same time. That is to say, humans and coyotes must share habitat, but not concurrently. Compassion is a human emotion, a human construct. A coyote, if it needed to and if it had the opportunity, would do me in without thought of compassion, understanding, or sharing habitat. It would act in accordance with ancient directives that were issued by an indifferent universe. Maybe we all do. After all, I do carry a sturdy stick when I walk in the hills with my family.
I don’t set myself against the coyotes that run in the open space around our home, but I don’t call them cute, either. They are not beautiful, not majestic, not wily, and not smart. These are all words we tend to use in reference to nature but they are human words, and in the end they misinterpret. In the end, to understand and to interpret in solely human terms is to underestimate what is more than merely human. When you realize that a coyote is responding to ancient directives issued by an indifferent universe, it becomes simply inappropriate, a misapprehension to label a coyote “crafty.” They are not crafty. They are what they are, but craft as we humans coined the term has nothing to do with it.
What language should we use then? Now we are getting somewhere. That is a good question and I don’t know. A language older than words, perhaps.
The feeling I have for coyotes is awe – but it is the kind of awe one has for a jealous and unpredictable god. It is not admiration I have for coyotes; it is uncertainty.
I was standing in the grass around midday a few weeks ago. I happened to be checking my hives, so I was suited up in white and my scent was heavily masked with smoke and smears of honey. First, I heard the rustle of leaves in the oak woods below me and then I saw the coyote emerge, head down, from the stand of oaks. He came right up the hill toward me, oblivious of me, in the tall grass so that he disappeared sometimes in the grass and then reappeared in a different place further on. I stood still, then glanced around for a weapon. I found none, thought I probably wouldn’t need it, anyway. I was caught in the tension of opposite pulls. I wanted to see this coyote up close and so I stood still, hoping not to be noticed. But I also had the urge to shout and to maintain the distance between us, which at this point was no more than thirty feet. When humans and wildlife meet, it is always bad for the wildlife eventually.
The coyote came up the hill perhaps ten feet closer before it lifted its head and saw me. It became aware of me without fear and without startle. It didn’t jump. It simply and gracefully, seamlessly, changed its course. I saw it register me and the field of its vision moved right on past me as it swept its head downhill and took a bound over some tall grasses, disappearing into a stand of bays almost immediately. I had not had time to move.
Standing there, hive tool and smoker in hand, I watched for it, but I saw almost nothing, only some grasses that moved out of synch with the wind. Then, moments later, far across the face of the hill and moving up the valley I saw the coyote emerge onto a prominent hillock and regard me where I still stood. I felt again that fleeting thrill of contact, man and wildlife, that tempting delusion that animal and human might share a connection in this moment of mutual recognition. Alas, I was again humbled and abashed and aware of the human foible of wanting to understand the world in only human terms when the animal took not a moment’s pause in looking my direction. It moved on out of view as quickly as it had turned, giving me no notice, only the briefest of glances. I knew I was nothing to it, less than nothing at this distance – only a vague reference in an ancient directive issued by an indifferent universe. It wasn’t curious or compassionate or interested in connecting. It was hunting for food.
Here is an article from The New York Times on July 2, 2010. It describes a couple of recent incidents involving coyotes and humans and what the NYPD is trying to do about them. Give it some thought. In my community we have not yet had an attack, but can it be far off?