Part urban nature travelogue, part philosophical reflection on the role wildlife can play in waking us to a shared sense of place and fate, The Way of Coyote is a deeply personal journey that questions how we might best reconcile our own needs with the needs of other creatures in our shared urban habitats.
|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Coyote Rolls the Dice
One day, Coyote was playing a game of dice with Badger and Wolf — and losing badly. "Ha!" barked Badger at Coyote, sweeping the dice up in his paw, "I win again." (Badger was not known for his magnanimity.) "It's just not your day," Wolf smirked at Coyote while casting a conspiratorial glance toward Badger.
The pair certainly seemed to be enjoying Coyote's loss, a feeling considerably sweetened by past grievances. They were frequently on the receiving end of Coyote's many tricks. Even when Coyote loses, Wolf thought, somehow you know you didn't win. But for now Wolf was satisfied, smug even. Badger was no better. Honestly, Badger was gloating. "Ha!" he repeated. He couldn't think of anything worth adding, so he said again, "Ha!"
The sun began to set, throwing a wash of shadow on the trio of gamblers. "Last roll and then we're done," huffed Wolf with authority. He handed the dice over to Coyote. With a pained expression on his face, Coyote assessed the situation. "Seems I'm in a spot of trouble, gentlemen," he murmured, eyes fixed on the dice in his paw. "I needn't remind you that the odds don't favor me. But as I've told you before," he said, brightening, "I don't worry myself with odds."
Before the last of those words tumbled from his mouth, Coyote tossed the dice across a bare patch of soil. The three companions intently watched as the dice rotated, thudding against the dirt, turning their way into what was certain to be a losing combination.
Then a strange thing happened. The dice struck the edge of an unyielding and mysterious barrier, abruptly skidding to a stop.
The three companions ran to the dice, eyeing them from above. "Cheater!" wailed Badger. Wolf shook his large head slowly.
"The dice can't lie, my friends," chuckled Coyote. "They fall as they may."
"But they didn't finish rolling!" Badger pleaded. "It doesn't count. Roll again. Do-over."
"Fair is fair," replied Coyote, a twinkle flashing like starlight in the corner of his eye.
"Who cares about this game, anyhow?" said Wolf, not bothering to mask his sourness. He pointed to the barrier. "I want to know what this is and how you put it here."
Coyote feigned innocence. "How should I know?" he said, sniffing at the flat, too-level surface.
For a moment, the game of dice was entirely forgotten. Each of the animals took a turn pawing at the odd, unyielding substance, scratching it with their claws, nibbling on it with their teeth, pushing at it with their heads.
"It doesn't budge," said Wolf, visibly perplexed.
"I can't dig through or under it at all," complained Badger.
Coyote paused, contemplating. Then cocking his head at his companions, he sprung theatrically into the air, landing with bravado on the hard, flattened surface. Wolf and Badger gasped in unison.
"You haven't seen pavement before?" he asked his incredulous associates. "Well, it seems to lead somewhere," he said, bounding up and down, delighted by the shocked expressions on his companions' faces.
"I don't like it," said Wolf.
"Not one bit," said Badger, finishing Wolf's sentence.
"You two sticks in the mud," clucked Coyote, "No fun. No spirit."
"I don't like it," Wolf repeated.
"Not one bit," said Badger, again finishing Wolf's sentence.
"Suit yourselves," replied Coyote. Trotting casually back to his companions, he snatched up the dice.
"Hey," snarled Badger, "those are mine." He slashed at Coyote, who easily leapt backward as Badger's sharp claws swished through the vacated air. Coyote stopped bouncing.
"Give Badger back his dice," Wolf growled.
Coyote held the dice out in front of them. "Well, certainly," he said, baring his teeth. "Come and get them."
Wolf and Badger made as though to move but couldn't bring themselves to cross the threshold where the mysterious not-soil began. The pair snarled and puffed out their chests.
Coyote looked upon them with pity. "Tsk, tsk, my friends," he said, pocketing the dice.
He pivoted, shook his tail as a final insult, and coolly loped down the concrete path — all without so much as a twist of his head back in his companions' direction.
Wolf and Badger stared with a mixture of astonishment, anger, even a dash of regret, but they could think of nothing else to do but return home.
The Channel Coyotes
The first sign was the rabbit bones.
I'm a wanderer by inclination and a walker by choice. When we moved to Chicago, our family of three gave up our car, a Honda Fit affectionately named the Trusty Grape for its dark purple hue (and as a contrast to our previous mechanical nightmare, the Silver Lemon). Life without the Grape is good. Not having to find parking or pay for anger management classes compensates for the small inconveniences of not owning a car. Another ancillary benefit is the gift of exploring the city by foot, at a pace conducive to free-ranging thoughts.
In the evening, I frequent the public golf course near my condominium. Not for golf, which is another gateway to anger management classes, but for sauntering. Off a neighborhood street, under the Metra rail tracks, over a rusty bridge that spans the North Shore Channel canal, I reach the fairway of the seventeenth hole. Flanked by silver maple trees and milkweed pods, the fairway provides enough of a long view to tap my inner Watership Down, allowing me to pretend I'm strolling through a meadow in the English countryside. This is where I discovered the rabbit bones. The following evening, they were gone.
I had a vague awareness that coyotes lived in the city. I can't remember who told me, but the news came as a welcome surprise rather than an unwelcome shock. In the first months after our move, we were renting a third-floor walk-up apartment with a window fifty feet from the elevated train (known colloquially as the "L") that runs to and from Chicago. Reading late one night, between the periodic squeals of the train, I heard a competing set of squeals, immediately identifiable as coyote banter. My ears prickled, followed by the hairs on the back of my neck. A visceral memory came to me: I once listened to similar yips and caterwauling surround me in full-stereo sound when camping in New Mexico — eerie peals of distressed laughter, redounding off high desert rock, prompting a smile and an increased pulse rate. In the apartment, I laid the book on my lap — for that moment, Chicago had become a New Mexican wilderness. I couldn't help but smile again. Welcome to Chicago.
Later I found out that urban coyote chatter like the kind I heard that evening is somewhat unusual. In Chicago, coyotes have adapted to city living in many ways — hunting at night, typically giving us as wide a berth as they can, and keeping their vocal hysterics to a minimum. Stan Gehrt, a scientist who has studied Chicago's coyotes for over twenty years, calls them "the ghosts of Chicago."
But they do materialize every once in a while. My first visual confirmation of a coyote — very likely the one responsible for the rabbit bones — occurred on another set of commuter train tracks near the golf course. Unlike the "L," the double-decker Metra train stays closer to the ground. The Metra's tracks bend outward for miles from their epicenter in downtown Chicago. One of those train lines shoots right through my neighborhood.
On a weekday morning, alongside a motley gathering of commuters, I await my eight o'clock ride to downtown Chicago. When we later detrain, the streets will be a chaos of bodies jostling without ever quite touching. But for now, we all mill about on the platform, closer to sleep than to work. The eyes of a be suited older man glaze over the Tribune. A woman brushes lint from her pant leg. A young executive grips his to-go coffee cup as though it's a lifeline.
That's when I see the coyote. He ambles across the double lines of railroad track, facing south, facing me, who faces him and says — too loudly, too giddily — "Coyote, coyote!" A lateral gravity draws me to the edge of the platform, where I stare in shock, even though the headlight of the train already bears down on us both. The coyote pauses for a quick check over his shoulder — perhaps setting his internal clock, having just wrapped up a night's work — and slips down the embankment into a narrow band of shrubs. A man in a neatly ironed shirt glances up, startled by my behavior. The expression on his face wordlessly poses a question: "Drinking before work, bub?" By the time he swivels his neck, following my transfixed gaze, the city's trickster, the wild canine ghost of Chicagoland, has melted away.
An accurate count of coyotes in Chicago is harder to find than coyotes themselves. I've heard rumors there are three thousand, possibly more. One thing is clear: the count is rising. Researchers removed twenty coyotes in 1989; in recent years, those figures have ranged from three hundred to four hundred relocations or euthanizations per year. That's a lot of coyotes. Hundreds now sport radio collars, so a good deal of information is known about their movements and territorial habits, even when they choose to be spirits unseen. What these electronic data points tell us is that coyotes are not just on the outermost edges of the city. They are in our city center. Coyotes are willingly moving to Chicago.
The reclamation of city habitat by wildlife is a national (and global) trend. A number of reasons account for the urban option: prey availability, human pressures on non-urban habitat, laws against hunting and trapping in metropolitan areas. In addition to these factors, coyotes are well suited for the task of city living — quintessential adapters, they consistently defy human expectations.
If one needs an expert on the comings and goings of Chicago's coyotes, Gehrt is the person to know. Out of his office at Ohio State University, he leads the largest collaborative study of urban coyotes in the world. I attended a research symposium where Gehrt showed a video that sent a wave of chuckles through the room. Traffic, a bicyclist, empty fast-food joints — an ordinary Chicago intersection at night. Then, into the camera frame, a spry coyote trots casually to the edge of the sidewalk. She waits for the stoplight to turn red. Then crosses the intersection and continues on her way. Just another night on the town.
According to Gehrt, many Chicago coyotes have learned traffic patterns within their territories. As they patrol these territorial boundaries, the coyotes who survive are those who give due deference to the laws of the street. Available statistics reinforce that what I saw on the video was not an isolated incident. Auto naïveté doesn't serve one well in the city, two-legged and four-legged pedestrians alike, so although death by car is the leading cause of mortality for urban coyotes, it appears that many are learning and adapting to the unforgiving ways of the road.
Gehrt compares a coyote's perspective of the city to a patchwork quilt. The average territory for a coyote family group covers two square miles, with a large degree of variance depending on available food sources. The more concentrated the prey — which includes rodents, rabbits, deer fawns, goose eggs, and whatever else is available — the smaller the territory. The boundaries of these territories remain invisible to us, but through aromatic and vocal signals, coyotes know which lines they can safely cross.
In the field and at the podium, Gehrt speaks frankly about his awe regarding coyotes' abilities to adapt to urban environments. If it weren't for the radio collars that allow us to peek in on how they've managed to make a living in the most unlikely places, he is certain no one would believe it. They're that resourceful, that clever.
The philosopher of science Donna Haraway once wrote that our world is chockfull of confounding and witty "coyote discourse," which is "embodied in Southwest native American accounts [that] suggest the situation we are in when we give up mastery but keep searching for fidelity, knowing all the while that we will be hoodwinked." Haraway is right: our lives are entangled with coyote discourse, and increasingly in the city with the discourse of actual coyotes, who remind us that wildness moves amid urban areas that we often think of as solely, or mostly, our domain. Coyotes let us know that the mental boundaries we keep — between the human and the wild — are more porous than we may have ever imagined. In the midst of our attempts to control the landscape, to put humans here and nature there, coyotes express an alternative set of ideas about boundaries. If we open our eyes, ears, and minds, a world full of coyote surprises awaits.
These notorious tricksters have escaped from their southwestern myths and go about their business largely undetected, in cities far from their familiar haunts in Taos and Tucson. Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, New York City — all now have thriving coyote research programs. Occasionally, a coyote makes a bold appearance. A few years ago, on a steamy summer day, one found his way into a Quiznos' drink cooler in downtown Chicago. Such brazen acts are rare, yet more people are finding out what is known among coyotes: wildness is part of the city, if you know how to look for it. Keep your eyes and ears open. Or watch the train tracks.
Or head to a golf course at dusk. This past summer, while walking my son home from school, he and I noticed several nighthawks in the neighborhood, sweeping the air for insects. Nighthawks perform aerial acrobatics that would be well worth buying tickets for; they can slice and twist with the precision of top-gun pilots. Feeding on the wing at high speeds, they flash their white-barred underwings with mouths open wide, catching moths, gnats, flies, and other flying insects in their gaping maws. My son and I decided to take a detour to the golf course by the Channel canal, hoping the combination of insect fecundity and open space would lure the avian hunters.
What a show it was. After arriving, we got low to the ground and army-crawled on our bellies to the edge of the grass, eyes darting between birds, mouths as agape as those of the nighthawks, who were reveling in the feast on the wing. The finale, however, came courtesy of a surprise visitor. As we lay motionless, watching the birds, a flash at ground level drew our attention: one of the ghosts of Chicago. A Channel coyote sprinted across the open fairway at a full trot, returning from his own neighborhood adventures. That evening made my son's top-ten best days of all time.
A chain-link fence runs most of the length of the Channel canal, keeping people from the water, so if you're not willing to clamber up and over, you can get to the canal only at special access points. You can, however, see the vegetation on the Channel's embankments from the bridges and roads that cross over the waters. When my son and I left the show that night, heading back home, we looked down and spied the hollowed-out base of a large cottonwood tree. Difficult as it was to see through evening's gloam, we thought we could discern — just maybe — the contours of a coyote head staring back at us. My son was positively sure. Coyotes can play tricks on the mind like that.
I take a lot of walks on the golf course by the Channel. Sometimes I see the coyotes who live there; most times I don't. Once around sundown, a flash of rufous fur vanished in the grasses just as I was turning my head. It could have been a dog — but I know what ghosts look like now.
On another walk in a gentle rain, maple and linden leaves gathering the last daylight, shadows fingering their way across the grass, I see a pair of Channel coyotes — presumably a mother and father — and come to a dead halt. They confer a few minutes as I edge closer, finally vanishing into the underbrush. I walk on, unable to shake the feeling of the encounter and the mutual gaze we exchanged as they took my measure. I check one last time over my shoulder before I reach a neighborhood street. Behind me, fifty yards away, one of the Channel coyotes leans back on his haunches, watching me.
In Make Prayers to the Raven, Richard Nelson's ethnography of the Koyukon people of Alaska, he notes that the Koyukon believe the forest watches them to ensure that they behave respectfully toward the land and its inhabitants. According to Nelson, the Koyukon live "in a forest full of eyes." Ever since I met the Channel coyotes, the city has become more animated for me — in the root sense of the word, anima: to possess breath, spirit, or soul. The Koyukon people live in a forest full of eyes. I live in a city full of eyes. Some of those eyes belong to coyotes, who are watching to see whether I learn how to adapt to a wild city.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Way of Coyote"
Copyright © 2018 Gavin Van Horn.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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