Coyotes

I have lived in the neighborhood where I live now for just over five years and I have heard about coyotes from those who have seen them here. I have seen their paw prints in the dirt and the snow. My dog seems to have one particular bark he reserves just for passing coyotes. I believe I have, once or twice, heard them cackling away in the distance like they do and like I have heard other places in my life.

I’m not exactly outdoorsy, but I have listened from my sleeping bag on a mountain somewhere, more than a few times, to the sound of coyotes reminding me that I am only a visitor, the way they combine menace with humor, talk about you while you’re still in the room, remain only just out of sight, only just past the turning of your head.

Once, backpacking to Finger Lake northeast of Yosemite in California, I had gained lonesome on the trail with the people ahead and behind out of sight. Climbing a bothersome hill I looked up at the crest of the trail and saw a white coyote. Now, I’m not saying there was a white coyote on the trail, I’m saying I saw a white coyote and then did a full-shake double take and when I looked back the coyote was gone. When I reached the top of the hill I found a small white boulder sticking out of the ground. I kicked at it a bit, daring it to grow legs and ears. It did not.

I did not then and do not now doubt for a moment that my brain conspired with the sweat in my eyes to turn that white boulder, for a fraction of a second, into a white coyote. What I mean is, I have never believed there was actually a white coyote above me on that trail. But I did wonder and wonder still why, of all things, my brain, no doubt bickering with my body at the time about where to feel the most pain, chose to see a white coyote.

Why a white coyote?

I was forced to adopt the white coyote, not as a spirit animal so much as…a spirit animal. I can’t say I actually believe in having a spirit animal, but the white coyote became mine, nevertheless. It was the only rationally irrational response.  For the next few days, each night as I fell asleep, I listened to the coyotes off in the distance, reminding us with their hyena laughter that we belonged somewhere else eventually. And we did.

That was almost half my life ago and just the other day, as it goes. I was in a gift shop one day and found a tile with the image of a white coyote, a Native American image, or so I was told. I bought the tile because who wouldn’t among all of us whose minds had once turned a white boulder into a white coyote.  I still have it.

Since then I have seen one or two coyotes off in the distance, crossing the highway in a desert somewhere near Palm Springs or in New Mexico or while fighting my way across Texas. I once had a staring contest with a coyote at a zoo, before I gave up zoos. I was asking him about the white coyote but he chose to ignore me. That, or he was just an animal thinking about animal things, like when food might arrive.

What I’m saying is my visual encounters with actual rather than imagined coyotes under the 50 yard mark and without a cage between us have been, at least since I was born, zero. Until a recent evening.

I was working at my desk in my home office when my dog started prancing and jumping and generally making a nuisance of himself, which is dog language for wanting to go outside. I let him out and he began to bark. But it wasn’t the people-walking-past bark, or the neighbors-dog-is-loose bark. It was the wild-animal-nearby bark. This was confirmed by dogs all along the street who were all barking insistently. So I grabbed my flashlight and headed out onto the deck to see what I could see for no reason whatsoever.

My backyard is wild, which is how I like it. My neighbors might not agree with my aesthetic preference but I love feeling like those are real woods out back and yonder. I clicked on the flashlight and scanned the brush. About 50 feet out I came across the eye shine, two eyes, reflectors, staring back at me.

I have seen plenty of eye shine in my backyard before, possum and raccoon. But these eyes were further apart and they didn’t sway and fidget like raccoon and possum do. In fact, they stared back at me without flinching or moving at all. Then, without any concern or urgency, the eyes turned away and a coyotes passed across the beam of light. It wasn’t white. For five minutes I listened to what I think was more than one coyote loitering, carefully stepping through the bushes, dead leaves giving them away. I only saw the eye shine one more time, further out, saying goodbye maybe as it headed for the fence line where over the years fallen trees have created many gates.

They’re troublesome during the winter, quietly taking cats like vampires take drunken tourists. And I’m told they can be brazen lately, running across a yard full of children, not in a threatening way but in a taking-the-short-cut way. Still. And the truth is I wasn’t all that comfortable with the size of the animal I saw in my backyard, largish for a coyote I thought.

Coyote attacks on humans are rare enough and only one adult human is known to have been killed by coyotes. They have adapted to nearly every environment imaginable, including major cities like Chicago. And yet the ghost of the prairie is a ghost everywhere. Coyote sightings are unusual relative to their presence. For every coyote you see there are…well, more. The internet can’t make up its mind how many. Estimates range between five and 50 coyotes for every one you see. Coyotes are loners except when they’re not. They run away when you harass them, except when they don’t. They are active at night, except when they’re active during the day. They are blamed for more cat vanishings than they perpetrate. You never hear people saying, “We have to get rid of all these owls.”

Coyote’s, it seems, are like the world in general, at least the world as I know it. They are less dangerous than I imagine but more dangerous than I think. And my response is basically the same. I’m not going to buy a gun but I might start carrying a stick to the bus stop.

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Catching the Squirrel

If you have ever owned a dog in an area inhabited by Squirrels, then you laughed at the movie UP every time the dogs came to attention, staring off at the middle distance, as their speaking collars declared “Squirrel!” It’s funny because it’s true (except for the speaking collar thing).

Squirrels know the difference between a window between them and the dog and no window between them and the dog, which is why they feel free to roam about our deck recovering bird seed, or hanging off a suet cage. The majority of the time, our dog can only watch helplessly and occasionally tap at the glass and maybe bark when it becomes just too much to bare. But sometimes, times I am certain my dog considers blessed times, I am working at my desk nearby and I will stand up, walk over to the door, and let him loose to chase the squirrel or squirrels off the deck.

The squirrels are always a good ten feet ahead of the dog and they go flying off the deck in a full four-point spread hoping some part of them will reach the trees eight feet away. They always make it. Even when one of them decides to double back along the railing, bounce off the bird house and up to the roof, our dog Miles usually doesn’t notice until they are already on the roof. It almost seems like a game the squirrels play, doggy ditch ’em. Seems like a game for Miles too. In four and a half years I have never seen the dog come close to a squirrel, let alone catch one. Until he did.

I’m not sure what happened. The squirrel just zigged when he should have zagged, or maybe it was an old squirrel who had no business playing doggy ditch ’em, couldn’t make the leap. In any case, Miles got him. It was over quick and the dog didn’t prolong the event. He got back into the house like I told him.

I felt sad, like I always do when I have watched an animal die. I named him Ziggy and tossed him into the yard where a hawk or a turkey vulture or coyote or some other critter took him away by the next day. I checked in with the vet to make sure all was well. Killing the squirrel didn’t change my dog at all. His eyes don’t go dark now, instead of bright, when he sees a squirrel. He bounces and whines and taps the window and I still get up and let him out to chase the squirrels off the deck, except now I give them a little head start, I tap the window as a warning and then wait a second before opening the glass door. Miles doesn’t get that I’m betraying him. He just thinks I’ve grown more committed to the game.

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Sweet Georgia Green

My first spring in Georgia in 2010 I was out of town for a few weeks in April. When I returned I was hesitating and even making wrong turns trying to weave my way through different routes in my neighborhood. All of the landmarks I used to navigate had vanished. Everywhere I looked was a wall of green. The change was so dramatic that I just did not recognize the landscape. And beyond my neighborhood, some houses on larger properties had completely disappeared.

While I was in Seattle for a week recently, it happened again. I wasn’t losing my bearings this time but I was still struck by the change. Before I left I could see eight neighbors’ houses from my back deck. When I came back, I could see two, the same two I would be able to see all summer because they are on either side of my house. The rest had disappeared…completely. The only way I know they are there is because they occasionally fire up a lawn mower or yell at their dog to “go potty.”

It’s full spring in Georgia and it is beautiful. Fall is my favorite season here, but only by a smidgen. The burst of green, the birds pairing off and defending their territory, which is also my backyard, the peas clamoring to cling to something, anything, in my garden. The darkness of the mid-afternoon shade. I love it.

Yes yes, the mosquitos are coming, as is the humidity. It won’t be long before the only thing showing when I work in the garden are my eyes and my glasses will slide down my nose on a sheet of sweat unendingly. I will bask in the air-conditioning every 30 minutes and I will shed 10 pounds before August.

But I won’t care. I will remember the spring and look forward to fall, like a sophomore who knows nothing and everything at the same time. The sweat will sting my eyes and the bites will itch and I will cuss but I will cuss with a little laughter mixed in because how lucky can one man be? How lucky?

Sweet Georgia green. I loved growing up near the beach, sometimes on the beach, in California. But I have to tell you, my middle age is more suited to a climate that takes and gives in equal measure, a climate that requires my cooperation as much as my surrender, air that requires my active participation beyond simply inhaling and exhaling. I’ll tell you, if you grew up in California and walk out into a July day at noon in Georgia you will not be inclined to assume survival. It’s like a reminder, a reminder I need and appreciate and am grateful to experience. There are places where you can take the air for granted. Not Georgia.

Anything that requires you to be conscious of your breathing is a gift. Anything that requires you to stop and start again is a gift. Anything that forces you to acknowledge that some things are bigger than you…is a gift. Sweet Georgia green.