We have forgotten that we are a part of the natural world, that each of us is connected to the hidden lattice work of creation. I’ve spoken about this in many previous posts, and I thought you readers might like to know where I get some of my outlandish ideas. Some of them come from experience, as in the one I’m about to relate. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, or in the right place at the right time, we get a tiny glimpse of this greater reality.
I grew up on the prairies of Eastern Wyoming, where coyotes are plentiful (but not as plentiful as Mormons), though you rarely see them. They know enough to keep their distance from us, while we provide a pretty good living for them. They live on the fringes of civilization, under the radar, so to speak. Growing up, I kind of identified with them, as I was a shy creature myself. I wasn’t one of the popular kids, and kind of hung around the fringes of school society.
The coyote (Mex. koyotl) is a predator, and considered a pest by farmers and ranchers. Every once in awhile you hear about some California suburb, of coyotes carrying off a small infant. This is tragic, to be sure, but I find myself in agreement with the late conservationist and author, Edward Abbey. I too, like my coyotes sleek and well fed. This wouldn’t happen if we weren’t encroaching into their territory (and there was a little better parenting).
Coyote is the trickster deity prominent in Southwest Native American lore. He compares to Raven in the Northwest, the Scandinavian Loki, and Hermes/Mercury of the Greeks and Romans. He’s cunning and resourceful, but with a streak of mischief. He’s known to play pranks. I like that, too, because I’ve pulled off a few of my own (if you were in the Dogie Theater in Newcastle, WY that night in 1957 — three of us spent all day gathering those grasshoppers). So I sort of think of myself as having a lot of coyote in me, except this coyote doesn’t waste his time with roadrunners.
My tale begins in 1989. I’d attended an all school reunion in Wyoming, and was on my way back to the West Coast on I-90; it was a warm sunny day. I wasn’t thinking of coyotes or much else, but enjoying the gorgeous landscape. I was just East of Butte, MT, where you cross the Continental Divide, about 1:30 p.m. I’ve made the trip many times, so remembered the summit area. Heading west, the road gradually climbs to the right, and on the left is a grassy ridge leading up to a stand of trees. As I was nearly to the summit and looking at the ridge, something ran out of the trees, a dog I thought, and was making its way down the ridge towards the highway. Closer now, I could see it was a coyote. He stopped to wait for a break in the eastbound traffic, then crossed the road just before I went by him, at the summit. He reared up and put his front paws on the concrete barrier and looked right at me as I passed. I was in the fast lane, so I saw him from maybe six to eight feet away.
I kept glancing intermittently at him through the side mirror as he checked traffic again, crossed the highway, and headed back up the ridge. By then I’d lost sight of him, as the road begins a downward curve to the left. What had just happened? Did I really see a coyote, at 1:30 in the afternoon, run across an interstate highway to watch me go by? Was he really thinking of crossing the westbound lanes too, and continuing on his way, but then thought better of it? I pulled off at the next rest area to think about this. I took out pen and paper and wrote down the details while they were still fresh. This could make a helluva tale, maybe. I’m almost certain it was a coyote and not a dog; they do look different. And because this area is in a National Forest, it wasn’t likely there would be a home nearby, let alone a dog.
Interpreting strange encounters is always subjective, I know this. For me it was like an affirmation of my respect for this intriguing animal. It’s not as if I was somehow “chosen,” but rather acknowledged as an acceptable acolyte. In that brief moment that my eyes met those of Coyote at the summit of the Continental Divide, I was in a state of grace. But he wasn’t done with me yet.
Two years ago I took the train to southern Oregon to visit a long-time friend. My main goal was to finally see Crater Lake, this magnificent remnant of a massive volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. We left in mid-morning, under a partly cloudy sky with a few raindrops. About 25 miles to go, crossing a valley bottom, something ran out of the trees on the left, maybe 50 yards ahead. It was a coyote, and he ran across the road up ahead of us. It was the first coyote I’d seen since the one I told you about, and my friend and I both thought it was a good sign. As we negotiated the last few miles to Crater Lake, the clouds and fog got thicker. When we got to the lodge near the crater, we could barely see the lodge. It stayed that way till dark. Fortunately my friend had booked lodgings at one of the more modest places nearby. The next morning it was the same, and into the afternoon. That ol’ Coyote, he tricked me real good, didn’t he? As disappointed as I was at not getting to see Crater Lake, the honor of being pranked by the best almost made it worthwhile. It’s interesting that in both sightings he approached from the left. I don’t know what that might mean, if anything.
Environmental writer Derrick Jensen talks about other complex technologies, involving songs, chants, dreams, and the ability to communicate with one’s surroundings. The late mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about how we no longer revere, or respect, the natural world. If we are to survive as a species, we’re going to have to recover that respect, and act on it. That begins for each of us by recognizing that we are a part of the natural world, not apart from it, and most definitely not above it.
“When you tug on a single thing in nature, you find that it’s connected to everything else.”
— John Muir