Howling with the Trickster: A Wild Memoir Part I

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Coyote by Hadley (a couple of years ago she wants me to add)

Heading back to Cape Cod tomorrow. Thought it was appropriate to post this, since it is from when we left. Parts of this originally appeared in The Harvard Review as well as in Sick of Nature. 


             Here is how it begins:

            I am driving from Cambridge to Cape Cod to get my last load of belongings, my final trip before our move to the city.  I am resolved to make this move, despite some apprehension.  The sun is out and the snow melting when I start the drive, but by the time I reach the bridge at the canal the clouds have bulked up, and fifteen minutes later I am in the midst of something just short of a blizzard.  Right after exit 8 the car in front of me slows and I slow to see why.  There, by the side of the road, stands a beautiful black and gray coyote in its full winter coat.  The coat gives it the illusion of great bulk, so that an inexperienced observer might think it a wolf.  Snow swirls around the animal as it waits patiently at the very edge of the highway, waiting for a gap in the traffic to cross.  I glance to my left, the north, toward the woods that are its destination.  Then, before I pass, I get one last look at the coyote’s eyes.  They shine orange.  They are intelligent, watchful, intent.

            It is that glimpse of the eyes that scrambles something inside me.  Before then I had resolve, plans, deadlines.  But the eyes introduce uncertainty.  Somehow they change everything.


* * *


            Until recently my wife Nina and I lived on the beach with coyotes as our neighbors.  We grew used to seeing them skulking across the backyard to the beach, hunting in the field next door, staring back curiously from the brush by side of the roads, hopping down the street like kangaroos in our headlights.  Though they favor night, coyotes are neither truly nocturnal or diurnal, and they seem to appear any time and anywhere.  These sights became increasingly common, but I never found myself quite getting used to them.  They were a happy reminder that, for all the development on Cape Cod, there was still some wildness left.  But more than that they were the thing itself: each sighting brought an electric jolt of wildness. 

            During two of those winters on the Cape, Nina and I had the good fortune of renting a house right on the edge of earth and sea.  While living in the edge house I walked the beach obsessively, up and down so often that it almost took on the regularity of vocation.  The stretch of Bayside beach below the bluff near our house contained a point of shoreline among the rockiest on Cape Cod.  Those large rocks, as well as being a congregating point for eiders, cormorants, and seals, were a great catch-all for whatever the tides dragged in, and in winter what they most often dragged in was death.  “A vast morgue,” was how Thoreau once described a Cape Cod beach, and ours was certainly that.  All winter long I hiked the beach and all winter long the ocean kicked up cadavers.  Thoreau called himself “the inspector of snowstorms,” and during those cold months my title might have been “the examiner of corpses.”  Morbid surprises greeted me almost every day.  There were the usual gulls, cormorants, fish, crabs, and dozens of horseshoe crabs of course; and there was the dead seal that lay where it had been thrown up against the rocks, the seals bones and its resilient all-weather pelt a landmark for my walks.  And then there were the more unusual finds: the plump, little dovekie, like a miniature penguin, that washed up practically on our lawn, and the thresher shark that beached at Linnel Landing in December.  The shark was thirteen feet long, half of that length taken up by its blade-like tail, a tail that it had once swung scythe-like to herd and stun small fish.  It bled from its teeth.

            My prize find during those winters was a coyote that washed up below the bluff.  A young coyote, it had probably weighed about 30 pounds while living, but the sea had soaked it through.  When I first found it I dragged it above the tideline and called the Natural History Museum, but their coolers were full and so it was left for me to study alone.  I pulled it up behind some rocks, above the tide, where I hoped no one else would disturb it.  The thick winter fur, surprisingly white, had bunched up on its side and swept down through the bushy fox-like tail.  Its legs, long and rangy, stretched out straight from the torso as if it had been killed in mid-yawn; its teeth, stained pink with blood, were set in a grimace; its eye whites red.  The people I talked to at the Museum suggested it might have drowned.   

            Over the next two years I watched the gradual process of decay, and soon I was studying the coyote’s bones.  By the second February the bleached ribs were delicate and thin, the vertebrae almost weightless as if hollow, like a bird’s bones.  Reddish hair still clumped atop one of the leg bones, black toenails studding the end of the bone–small little bones like knuckles.  Next to it sat several more small bones, bones in a row side by side like one of the multiple-chambered flutes played by satyrs.  The skull itself had been washed and weathered almost free of meat.  It stared out with enormous eye sockets, like a gull’s skull, but with teeth and fangs like no gull ever had.  The jaw bones still held to the upper skull, seemingly glued by the last adhesive scraps of muscle and cartilage.


* * *


            It wasn’t just dead coyotes we saw on the beach.  The family that rented the house to us also owned the house next door, and one of the ways we lived cheaply–in what was by no means a cheap neighborhood–was to dogsit for them when they were away.  Their dog was a black standard poodle named Beau, a moody animal, stubborn as a camel, though loved by its owners more than most children.  Despite occasional spasms of puppyish energy, Beau was generally placid, even slightly mournful with his owners gone.  But one day around sunrise he started acting strangely, running in circles, and yelping and whining to be let out.  Nina got up and opened the door and Beau went flying across the yard and disappeared over the bank down to the beach.  A second later Nina heard a burst of loud barking and yelping.  Then, right at the spot where Beau had disappeared over the bank, a large coyote came trotting back up.  Ruling out the possibility that Beau had been magically transformed into a coyote, Nina came to another conclusion, one she yelled up to me where I still lay in the bed: “A coyote killed Beau!”

            Coyotes don’t kill dogs Beau’s size, at least not often, but that fact didn’t reassure us as we pulled on our clothes and scrambled around the yard and beach, searching for the missing poodle.  Ten minutes later when we found him, he was unhurt, except psychologically.  The formerly placid dog seemed to have suffered a temporary psychotic break and it was with great effort that we herded him back into the house.  While we did this the coyote just stood there, watching the whole thing from the edge of the garden.  When I came back outside it only backed up slightly, studying me as I studied it in the rising morning light.  It had a thick whitish winter coat, like the dead youngster I’d found, but it was much bigger, maybe 40 pounds.  The coyote took its time looking me over before showing me its tail and turning away.  Then it casually trotted off toward the cranberry bog.

            Though often described in books as “elusive,” the coyotes I’ve encountered can just as often be brazen.  Certainly Beau’s coyote was.  Maybe, in this case, it was just a question of asserting its domain.  It was Beau’s yard during the day, but part of the coyote’s core territory during the night.  At sunrise, that wild edge between light and dark, the two animals met, and a decision of ownership, of property rights, had to be resolved.  I’d heard many stories about domestic dogs scaring off coyotes but not in this case.  Maybe Beau, with his well-groomed curls and fancy hairstyle, was an affront to the wild dog who roamed along our beach, and maybe the coyote needed to at least briefly assert his supremacy.  No poodle was going to stand in his way.


* * *


            During those winters in the edge house I learned that I need to live near water.  A place where land stops and something different (and wet) begins.  We are both creatures of edges, Nina and I.  Never having bought a house of our own, moving almost every year since college, we have lived more like jellyfish than barnacles.  Uncertainty and rootlessness have been our themes, and when we left the edge house we began again, jamming our lives into boxes.  As we packed I had the sneaking suspicion that I was leaving the best place I had ever lived and the best place I would ever live.  We lost something when we left, something less obvious than a nice view.  “How to live?” has always been a question that obsessed me, maybe to an adolescent degree.  But living on the edge the question became slightly modified, sharpened and polished.  It became more limited, but at the same time began to imply its own answer. 

            Here was my new question: How to live wild?


* * *


            And now our time of captivity has begun.  As captivities go it isn’t a bad one, but we feel the domestic closing in.  Our city house has gates around it and the gates are locked at night.  Just before six each morning we wake to the sound of enormous dump trucks, letting out their hydraulic sighs and rumbling down the narrow streets like dinosaurs.

            For years we have drifted so that we could write and live in beautiful places.  But now we are moving to Cambridge to start the first leg of a new sort of life.  I am finally going to give in and teach, and we are going to have nice, civilized things like paychecks and health insurance.  Everyone agrees it’s about time.  I’m forty years old, for God’s sake, and we have a baby due in three months.  It’s time, as everyone says, to get serious. 

            But when I get back to Cambridge I start to read about coyote.  I begin slowly at first, fending off what may be a newly rising obsession.  After a week the coyote books have piled up in our apartment, and I put the skull from the beach on my desk.  A few of the teeth have fallen out but the skull still looks savage, a bird-like point to the nose, some dried scraps of carrion still hanging off, undigested by bacteria.  I bring it to my first class and place it in front of me on the podium like Yorrick, hoping to scare off freshmen.  If I have to live away from Cape Cod then at least I can bring a little of the Cape with me.

            The fact is that while our digs may not be as spectacular here as a seaside cottage, they still have some of the sheen of the romantic.  The visitor’s suite we are renting, in Adams house at Harvard, is usually rented out to the Nobel prize winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.  As we move in we discover Heaney’s notes to himself around the apartment, scanning them for literary content but only finding exhortations to get milk or Kleenex.  I make a note of my own to get hold of Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.  Living here brings us more than just the usual name-dropper’s thrill.  Having left our wild beach behind, and begun our time of domestication, we are reassured to find ourselves in the lair of Seamus.  

            After I teach my first class I head over to the library to take out some of Heaney’s books of poems, and then migrate over to the Ernst Mayer Zoological Library to continue my fledgling coyote studies.  Much of what I learn I know already, from my years living out West, but some of this is new.  “Dog cortex has been mapped for neural function, but coyote has not,” I read.  Yes, that is precisely it: the unmapped.  Beau’s behavior was always more or less predictable, except on days like the coyote day when the wild was introduced to the doggy equation.  But coyote itself is unknown to us.  In Native American myth coyote is the bringer of change, of chaos, the Trickster.  Coyote won’t stay still, won’t settle, and this fact excites me.  He is a wanderer who could serve as totem for my coming time of wandering. 

            The pastoral was not just my mode of living during the years on Cape Cod, but my mode of reading as well.  While staying on the beach I devoured the work of contemporary nature writers.  Though I loved most of what I read, I occasionally found it to be overly-pious and dull.  The overriding metaphor that I discovered, the metaphor that I tried to live out myself, was that of marriage to a place.  The work, as a whole, preaches that we must find the place we love, commit to it, fight for it, and never leave it.  For me the best thing about this idea is its radicalness, given the transience of much of American life.  But the worst thing about it is its dogmatism.  I couldn’t marry Cape Cod for many reasons, cost of living among them.  My relationship with the Cape could better be described as a stormy love affair: all my life I’ve been coming back to this peninsula and then leaving again, trying to settle down but never quite managing.  At the same time, over the years, I’ve fallen in love with other places: the slickrock of Utah, the mountains of Colorado, the white city of San Francisco, the concrete canyons of New York, the brick world of Cambridge.  I have become a fickle sort of nature lover.

            What I like about the coyote stories I now read is their tendency to thumb their nose at the pious and predictable.  Coyote comes to town and farts and fornicates; coyote laughs and drinks and cheats.  Coyote has no use for false humility, but he is often humbled in the end through the usual roads of arrogance and self-deception, and he knows–or at least momentarily learns–the futility of imagining he can predict or plan how the world will proceed.  Perhaps, it occurs to me, coyote is not the greatest role model as I begin my first real grown up job and await the birth of my first child.  But on the other hand I like the effect the stories have on my insides.  They tweak the orthodoxies of place.  They loosen me up, breaking things apart, leaving me feeling wonderfully free.

            I drop the books at the apartment and walk down to the water.  Our own bit of wildness is now reduced to this narrow patch of nature along the Charles River, but I am happy to go there daily.  Yesterday I heard a kingfisher rattle along above the shore, and saw a red-breasted merganser floating in a small puddle of open water, one of the few places the river hasn’t iced over.  Later two red-tail hawks let out a war cry on my way to class and I looked up to see them circling Memorial Hall.  Last fall on Cape Cod I watched a pod of humpback whales break up through the waves, simultaneously breaking through some barrier in my consciousness.  I suspect I won’t see whales breaching in the Charles, but I may find more than I bargained for.


* * *


            In fact I am in on a wild secret that makes my time here more exciting.  My secret is this:

            Coyote has come back to the city with me. 

            It’s true.  When most people picture Canis Latrans they place them in the dry tumbleweed deserts of the West, but by now coyotes have spread throughout the entire continental United States.  Their migration was a characteristically contrary one from West to East, gradually moving eastward as cultivated fields opened up meals of mice and voles.  The other factor allowing the early stages of this movement was the human slaughter of wolves.  Wolves not only compete for the same foods with coyote, they kill them.  With the wolves gone the coyotes crossed the Mississippi and then, both curious and pressed by each generation’s need for new territory, they pushed on, reaching northern New England by the 1930s.  By the early 1970s they had spread through eastern Massachusetts, and by the late 70s and early 80s they were being occasionally spotted by surprised observers on Cape Cod. 

            How did they get onto a peninsula–an artificial island really thanks to the canal–only accessible to us by bridge or boat?  At first most people hypothesized that they swam across the canal.  But coyotes, like humans, are famous “path followers,” and, as the Cape Cod coyote expert Peter Trull argues, they could easily have slipped over the bridges in the dead of night.  Like the coyote I saw by the side of the highway, they simply waited for traffic to die down, as it always does after midnight.  “Coyotes apparently have little concern for the comings and goings of humans, as demonstrated by the continual reports of coyotes trotting through yards and along streets,” Trull writes.  “The most credible hypothesis, then, is that coyotes did walk (or run) over the canal bridges.”

            If it was surprising to see coyotes along the beach, imagine what it must be like to spot one while driving on Boston’s southeast expressway.  Supremely adaptable and canny about the human ways of things–as any animal must be to thrive in this compromised modern world–they have lately made inroads into the city itself.  This past summer a young biologist named Jon Way captured and collared a coyote in the town of Revere, following it by radio surveillance as it trotted through the wild patches of the city.  The coyote, named Maple by Way, jogged down abandoned railroad tracks at night and shot through alleys.  Her den was behind Weylo’s, the Chinese food restaurant that sits like a junk on a hill above Route 1, and she regularly prowled behind the Burger Kings and used car lots along that same trashy strip.  When moving through suburban neighborhoods Maple would travel surreptitiously, like a cartoon spy, pulling over and hiding behind lightpoles as cars drove by.  Coyotes are wide ranging and Maple would often travel as much as fifteen miles a night, all within the city boundaries of route 128.  Jon Way believes that these nightly peregrinations are only partly motivated by the search for food.  Just as often they are driven by curiosity.  By the dog equivalent of wanderlust.


* * * 


            During our six years on Cape Cod I became friends with the great nature writer, John Hay.  John’s life was an admirable attempt to live a life close to wildness.  He had come to Cape Cod in 1946, after World War II, back when the place still had a rustic feel.  He came in part to be close to his mentor, Conrad Aiken, but he also came for another reason.  “I suppose I came here following some vague urge for ‘space,'” he said to me.  By space, as I finally figured out, he meant freedom.  There were only 800 people in town in those days and he bought 20 acres on a hilltop for practically nothing, a house where he still lives today.  He liked the sense of sprawl, of having plenty of room for both his art and his family, and he liked to get away from people to think and feel.

            The Cape Cod I have left behind is running out of the space John came for, if it hasn’t run out already.  As with many places, a sense of suburbia has encroached on the old rustic feel.

            Fortunately, the ocean helps mitigate this encroachment, as do the returning coyotes.  

            “I’m glad the coyotes are back,” John said to me when I visited him recently.  “It’s nice to have truly wild neighbors again.”  


* * *


            Wildness is defined, in part, by wide ranges.  That is why we are kidding ourselves if we believe we can confine the wild to parks.  Mountain lions require the largest range of any animal on the continent, about 200,000 acres to a black bear’s 15,000.  Canids are great roamers, too, wolves most famously, capable of ranging from 100-200 square miles.  Typically coyotes only manage to cover a tenth of that, between 10-20 miles, which still makes for a lot of wandering.  When Maple was found dead, hit by a car, she was up in Peabody, on the other side of Route 128, over eight miles from here den.

            Since we moved to the city a few weeks ago I have confined my previously wide range to three mile walks along the river.  Yesterday, February 7, I walked during a morning snowstorm.  The snow added a layer of wildness to the place, piling up on streets and sidewalks, as well as covering the river ice.  As the snowfall intensified the whiteness began to illuminate other whitnesses.  The birches along the water gleamed and a gull with black-tipped wings was transformed into a stranger, more exotic bird: a white dove of some sort.  I walked to the open water near the grate where I knew I would find the great blue heron, and sure enough he was there, hulking, long neck pulled in, solitary.  I worry for the bird: how will it survive?  What is it eating?  As I moved forward it leaned forward too, poised for flight.  It has become habituated to the walkers and joggers and cars but this new unusual creature with his curious movement forward, and his pauses and uncertainties, must have seemed uncategorizable and therefore predatory.  Finally the bird pushed off into the snowstorm, gray legs straight behind it as if in a steep dive.  It disappeared in the white for a moment before reappearing by the other open grate.  It dipped into the sewer tunnel as if into a cave.  

            Snow makes for good tracking and when I got home I put in a call to Dave Eatnough, a science teacher at Revere High School.  Eatnough and his students have been working with Jon Way to try and track the coyotes within the Boston area.  For over a year now they have been setting box traps in hopes of capturing and collaring the coyotes, but other than Maple they haven’t had much luck.  They have seen prints and scat and other signs of activity but the coyotes seem to be on to them.  The box traps are like giant Have-a-Hart traps, with spring doors that close once the animal enters, but recently they have been trying a new method, luring the coyotes in with meat before firing a net launcher over the dogs.  Two nights ago I was supposed to join Jon and Dave for an all-night stakeout in hopes of catching a coyote.  But I, tired from a trip and teaching, called to beg out.  I fell into my usual routine: dinner, a couple beers, some dumb TV, and early to bed by 9.  That night, while they were readying the new net launcher, a coyote wandered into one of the box traps.  If I had been there, preparing for the stake out, I would have seen the coyote, and the next morning I chastised myself for not following my first wild impulse.

            Today, the snow having transformed Boston into a wilds, I head out with Dave Eatnough to track the new coyote that they have named Bart.  Bart, Eatnough tells me, has a terrible case of mange, with very little hair, though he weighs a surprising 32 pounds (as contrasted with the relatively healthy Maple’s 30).  After Bart was sedated and collared, and given medicine for the mange, before being released.  Now we are driving along Route 1, my arm frozen from holding an antenna out the window, listening to little electronic beeps on our receiver that will tell us where Bart is moving.  We drive behind Stop N’ Shop and Petco, following our electronic trail.  When we pull into neighborhoods we immediately explain ourselves to people so they don’t think we’re with the CIA.  A man gives us permission to tramp across his backyard, and his three year old son asks him what we are doing. 

            “They’re trying to find the coyote so he doesn’t eat you up,” he says.


* * *

             We track for a while, getting close a few times, but without much luck as Bart is likely hunkered down for the day.  The point isn’t to get too close anyway, as that would disturb him, but just to get a reading on where he is, which we have done.  After a couple of hours I thank Dave and head home.  

            But then double back to a spot he brought me to earlier.  Before we began tracking, Dave took me over to a cemetery where another of the box cages was set up.  There coyote tracks ran all through the snow, and Dave showed me a den where the local pair lived.  He told me that he had seen two coyotes there the week before. 

            I am glad to be alone.  Dave is a fine companion, with a passion for coyotes and the energy to allow him to teach all day and check cages at night.  But I’m not sure how I feel about the sedating and radio collaring of a large wild predator, especially one that has had the wiles and wherewithal to survive within the borders of metropolitan Boston.  There are all sorts of scientific rationalizations for the trapping, the best being that knowledge about the coyotes can be used to protect them from human beings through education, but we are still talking about using the coyotes for something.  Confinement and control are the opposite of the wildness I purport to be after, and confinement and control are a large part of any radio collaring experiment.  It’s true that my own curiosity isn’t exactly pure; I am not without my own uses for things.  Still, as I follow the coyote prints into the junk-heaped woods behind the cemetery, I begin to think that I prefer this kind of tracking to the kind that involves electronics.

            This is a bruised landscape–refuse piles, car dumps, iron bars jutting out of rock mounds–but the snow smooths and heals.  The coyote trails weave beside a half-frozen tidal canal, encased in a concrete trough.  The trails cut like a wake, dark blue shadows through the snow, or, as Dave said earlier, like contrails.  Coyote tracks, at least adult coyote tracks, have little of the wayward wanderings and random playfulness of dogs.  Coyotes place their feet in the prints they’ve already made–this is called “perfect stepping”–so that the lines cutting through the snow are surprisingly narrow.  Like humans, coyotes make it easy on themselves.  They follow paths: frozen rivers, old railroads, even sidewalks.  As I quickly learn, they  particularly like to hug fences.

            I follow the coyotes wanderings all through the woods, sometimes winding like ski trails and sometimes very straight and direct, meaning business, on the way somewhere. 

             For a while I trace a single violet trail as it jogs down the side of a hill to a creek, crossing a little footbridge.  There are signs of a pounce, a meal of a mouse along the way, and then a brief stop to urinate.  I get down on all fours to follow the track below a low canopy of prickers and briar.  Snow falls from the branches on the bare skin below my shirt and coat, and melts instantly.  When I emerge I see a small group of sparrow-like birds, possibly longspurs, fat with chestnut heads, picking berries off what looks like a dead branch.  From there I follow the tracks to a small den under the rocks, the den carved into a sort of mulchy pile below the roots in a hillside, the hillside itself located below a car dump.  It’s too small for a coyote den but just right for a badger or possum.  The coyote probably stopped here in hopes of a snack, though it also might have been partly house hunting, since coyote dens are usually just excavations of the dens of smaller animals like these.  I am not yet a good enough reader to tell the whole story of this coyote’s afternoon.  Nearby are wild weavings of some smaller animal: crazy scribbles through the blue-violet shadows.  But how would even mice or voles stay on top of such light snow?  Then the little fork marks give a hint, and I remember something Dave told me this morning.  The prints are the steps of birds, and the marks next to them snow angels created by their fluttering wings. 

            I follow the tidal canal, which seems to marry the urban to the wild.  Where the ice has melted a Big Gulp cup floats next to two dozen nervous mallards, and weed-strewn shopping carts jut up from the dark water like half-sunken ships.  Each squirrel nest in the area seems topped off with the insulation of a plastic bag, as if this were a local status symbol.  This is a place neither urban or wild, though, in moments, both.  Mythic coyote occupies borderlands, places in between, always wandering between different spheres of being.  “In short, trickster is a boundary crosser,” writes Lewis Hyde in Trickster Makes the World.  I cut through a hole in the chain link fence, with barbed wire on top in prison camp fashion, and follow the tracks up a refuse pile, remembering that coyotes like ridges, often climbing them for no other reason than to get a good look around.  Below me the outline of an abandoned tire pushes up through a foot of snow, looking like a sugar donut or a lifebuoy thrown overboard.  I descend from the hill and trot through the snow for a while like the coyotes I’ve seen on the Cape.

            I get a sense of the animal’s range just from the wild perambulations of the one I’ve been following, all these paths created since yesterday’s big snow.  I also get a sense of the kind of “wilds” a city coyote must occupy, the way they must patch together a necessary wilderness where no obvious wilderness exists.  A coyote can survive where a wolf cannot in part because of their “human” qualities and human-style adaptability.  Here you can see how they move behind the back of the human world.  They patch their territory together out of parklands, cemeteries, backyards, car dumps, schoolyards, train tracks.  And of course they occupy that other wild territory: night.  At night the deeds of human property transfer into their names.  When the path I’m following ends at a road it isn’t hard to imagine the coyote trotting right over into the backyard across the street, after which, hopefully, it will reach another larger patch of wild. 

            Hiking mindlessly through the snow I’m more convinced than ever that this is better way to track the coyotes than with the radio collar.  Despite the usual scientific rationalizations and despite the fact that they are getting high school students involved in something other than Gameboy, I feel less enthused about the coyote project.  Clamping radio collars on the few wild animals strong and wily enough to survive in the Boston area seems the opposite of the wildness I am after.  It seems–as usual–about control. 

            By the time I head back to the car I’ve walked for three hours and the shadows on the snow have turned from blue to violet.  I haven’t spent an afternoon like this since I moved to the city, and haven’t spent an afternoon tracking in this manner perhaps in my whole life.  A whole day of coyote.  It’s been a long while since I felt this full.

            With my body content plowing through the snow, my mind begins to work better, too, and I feel new questions taking hold.  Why does this thing called “the wild” really matter?  We repeat the notion that we need the wild–it’s become environmental dogma–but what do we really mean by it?  In an increasingly controlled and pre-packaged environment why do we need the wild?  Does it have an evolutionary purpose?  Or is purpose besides the point?  And this: if the wild is so important, how can most people live without it?  Thoreau had a blunt answer to this last question: they can’t.  Or at least they can’t live well.  Better than the famous “quiet desperation” line is this quote from “Walking”: “When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them,–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon,–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”  His prescription was to get out and walk four hours a day, a prescription that most of us would have a hard time fitting into our schedules.  I already understand that my daily tramps by the Charles River are not enough to keep me sane, which may be why I am suddenly attaching myself to coyote, or at least the idea of the coyote, with such ferocity.  I want to believe that I can find wildness here, in this crowded, controlled city on the country’s eastern edge.  Wildness, as many others including Thoreau have said, is not necessarily synonymous with wilderness.  Mine is a potentially hopeful obsession: if I can find the wild here, in this time and place, then I can find it anywhere.  

            Of course I don’t expect to actually see the coyote I’ve spent the day tracking, and I don’t.  But I see plenty.  This afternoon of following wild dogs has also been filled with wild birds.  Four red tails, two adults and two immature, with white winter bellies, keep flying off in front of me, and two gregarious snow buntings, with their delicate butterscotch cheeks and caps, come within a few feet of me.  As the light slants lower a yellow-shafted flicker swoops across my path, a white flash of tail and red patch on the back of its head.  For a split second I see its undersides, pure gold in the afternoon light.  A minute later that same color is echoed back by a willow tree, its yellow buds the first to bloom each year.  The tree glows an eerie gold, flicker-colored, and seeing it defines and elevates the afternoon.

            I return to my car and from there I walk back over to the box trap, following a path along the fence by Mr. Epstein’s grave, then through a stand of shrivelled sumac.  You can tell by the way the prints angle through the cemetery that the coyotes are on intimate terms with this landscape: they know where the open gates are and they go right for them.  I find eighteen crows mobbing by the box trap.  Dave told me that the crows go in and pull the hocks of meat out of the trap, as do the red tails.  This seems behavior undignified for a hawk, but the two that were captured in the cage last week confirm it.  At another trap they keep capturing the neighborhood pit bull but so far the owner has been a good sport about it.  In many ways this has become a community project, and local butchers are also helping out.  “Ya, you can use this meat,” one of them said to Dave.  “Just get us a coyote we can hang on the wall.”  

            Now the cage door is open, poised, and the hocks of meat, big hunks of something that look like cows feet, still half-frozen from the night before, have begun to melt and turn rank.  Of course the coyotes know what’s going on, know it’s a trap, otherwise they’d be on that meat in a second.  From my reading I know that both mythic and actual coyotes have been known for urinating on traps, leading some to conclude that the animal must have a sense of humor.  It’s no surprise that the coyote they caught the other day was mangy since no self-respecting coyote would fall for something this obvious.  The disease must have made the animal more desperate, causing it to brave the cage in hopes of a meal. 

            Before I leave I decide to take one last look at the den that Dave showed me this morning.  Right in the middle of the cemetery, it’s entrance is a circular opening in the base of the tree stump, with roots hanging down over the hole like rasta man dredlocks.  I get on my belly in the snow and peek inside where smooth sand slants downward.  The entrance to the den is so small–a womb like entrance–that the coyotes must squeeze in each time they enter or exit.  How long does the tunnel slant back?  Dave and Jon Way excavated an abandoned den, digging it up to twenty-five feet before they stopped.  The den delights me in a way that I can’t quite articulate, reminding me of childhood forts in the woods.  “All children want to crouch in their secret nests,” writes Seamus Heaney.  Dave told me not to spend too much time by the den, fearing I might scare the coyotes off, but I run back and get my sketchbook so I can draw and remember it.


* * *


I climb back into the car and drive home before sunset.

But first a detour to the Middlesex Fells, the rocky parkland that sits perched like an eagle aerie above the city.  I hunt for coyote prints, wondering if this space connects by some pathway to the cemetery.  Though I find no tracks, I am sure that this is one of the wild patches that the coyotes use to move through this crowded, human world.  I return to the city from above it, slanting down on route 93.  I’m new here, but I’m happy that I’ve started to get to know my neighbors, particularly the hairy, four-legged ones. 

Change and chaos are the twin trickster gods of my existence; I have left Cape Cod behind “for good,” have moved to the city, and will soon move again to a place a thousand miles south.  But for the moment I don’t mind.  Driving back down from the Fells I have a fine view of the downtown skyscrapers in the violet crepuscular light.  It is still a city, true, that hasn’t changed.  But I feel it becoming a wilder place.




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