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Convergent Evolution

Here’s another one from the archives, written in 1997. Obviously, writing about wildlife, family, paleontology, and Zeke through the lens of how I feel about my relationship with myself is not a new thing.

Craig pauses, a hundred yards back, to survey the valley from which we climb. My dog Zeke runs back and forth between us. Craig’s in better shape than I am, but my role as elder brother demands that I make it to the top of this hill first. This is no mean feat. This range, though low, does not yield its summits readily. A season of rain has loosened its skin; earth sloughs off the trail like a week-old sunburn. Catching my breath, I pretend to study the layers of rock that erosion is exposing here in Briones Regional Park.

As Craig catches up — annoyingly long of breath — two women on horseback alert us to a large herd of muledeer just around the bend. I scan for distant brown spots on the hillside. There they are, dozens of them, across the Sindicich Lagoon. Searching nearby slopes, I find two more, almost. Something about their color is wrong. They’re grayer than the rest. A bit closer, and the mystery resolves: two gleaming coyote faces stare at us above the tall grass. Zeke lopes cautiously toward them.

I had known there were coyotes in these hills, but never saw one until this spring. These are the second and third I’ve ever seen in the East Bay, the first being a fat female that I met in the Oakland Hills on my way back from an afternoon’s hike a month ago. All the coyotes I’d seen before had been in the deserts of Arizona, eastern California, Nevada.

1994: Becky and I drive on dirt washboard east of Pyramid Lake. Coyote trots ten yards ahead, keeping watch on us out of the corner of his left eye. His footpads kick up no clouds, though the road is awash in dust. When rut or sandpit slows us, Coyote waits patiently for us to catch up. After ten minutes or so of the game, Coyote gets bored and — with a sidelong, dismissive look — dissolves into sagebrush.

1984: Elissa, asleep at the wheel early one Arizona morning, careens off the Joshua Tree Parkway at the one spot for miles not involving a cliff. We hit a reflector pole, pushing fender against tire, then stop on a shoulder carpeted with ground glass. We obviously aren’t the first ones to go off the road here. Matthew and I snap from drowse to sharp fear, pry the fender more or less into place with fingers quaking from fatigue, caffeine, and death narrowly avoided, and pull back onto Route 93 heading toward breakfast in Wickenburg, Arizona. A few yards down the road, Coyote — eating flattened crow beneath the first wild saguaro I’ve ever seen — laughs heartily at us, victims of her practical joke.

I bring a raft of expectations with me to this hilltop meeting. I have read the literature, heard the myths, watched the cartoons. In a dozen previous meetings Coyote seemed a wilful actor in the encounter, judging my intent and character. Now I feel nothing of the kind. These are just animals. The coyotes’ attention is riveted on Zeke, as Zeke’s is on them. Necks crane over grass awns, nostrils seine breezes for identifying scents. Both species of dog show frank curiosity, and not much else.

I imagine the coyotes a bit confused as to Zeke’s identity. Though his papers at the humane society read “Lab-Shepherd,” my dog looks a lot like these wild cousins. Tan-white down, black guard hairs along his spine, tail a calligraphy brush dripping black ink. He lacks the mane of a healthy coyote. His eyes are domestic brown rather than wild gold. But Zeke has prompted a thousand questions of wild ancestry from passing human admirers the past few years. Mindful of the demand for stolen wolf-dogs, we respond with a curt “no.”

The truth is, we don’t know. Zeke isn’t telling. I amuse myself by considering the possibility of an illicit liaison in Zeke’s recent ancestry — wild, dangerous suitors, flaring nostrils, flashing eyes, slipping through night fences — a tale no more likely than that of the great-removed Mohawk granddad who haunts the forest edges of my mother’s family myth. True or no, the tales sustain us, Zeke and me.

The coyotes aren’t telling either. To be honest, they’re most probably no more uncertain of Zeke’s identity than the old Mohawk woman at Akwesasne in 1980 — who fed me corn soup and asked me politely if I was Indian — was of mine. Her sardonic look told me I’d best answer in the simple negative.

Zeke surely bears the smell of domesticity, of corn meal and gasoline, flea soap and human sweat. This is a meeting of alien species. Dog and coyotes examine one another across the gulf of time separating them from their common ancestor. Their paths diverged when dire wolves roamed California. Now they seem to relish this fleeting encounter, kinship and unfamiliarity intertwined.

I feel that dilation of time and sharpening of vision that often accompanies wild animal encounters. Thirty yards from the dogs, I see individual hairs twitch softly as they’re raked by San Pablo Bay’s breezes. Color differences among teeth. Flickers of eyelash. I face Craig, eager to point out detail, but stop short. He’s as rapt as I, watching the scene with a faint smile flickering across his lips.

My younger brother and I have traveled together a lot these past few months. We don’t talk much as we go, but each hike still holds more conversation than did the previous two decades’ brotherhood.

He was the first gift the universe ever gave me in response to a direct request. As a five-year-old boy with two younger sisters, I did everything I could to persuade my mom to ensure the new kid was male. In those pre-sonogram days, when older brothers were forced to wait on tenterhooks until the phone call came from the hospital, the last few days before Craig’s birth were a torment of stretched time. It’s odd that I’d remember that, and not the moment I did learn his gender. I do remember coming home from school to see a red, swaddled lump on my grandmother’s couch. Not at all what I had in mind.

Before too long though, Craig was worth spending time with. Lap rides as I slid down flights of stairs, wrestling matches on the kitchen linoleum, aimless walks through the woods and creeks of western New York. We took turns breaking our arms. We shared a hatred of school. We were kin, after all.

Times change. Circumstances shift. When I left New York I was twenty-two, in flight from a disintegrating family and eager to leave the past in my wake. When I left my brother he was sixteen, adrift and battered by the same storms that filled the sails pushing me west.

I might have seen my brother’s sixteen-year-old hostility toward me with more tolerant eyes. I might have remembered my own snarling, snapping, testosterone-driven challenges to my father’s authority. I might have realized that we felt the same gnawing hunger, literal and figurative. I might have fed him. I might have been an older brother. But I was twenty-two, and took the apparent loss of my brother’s affections as one more reason to split for the coast. Craig and I didn’t talk, other than taking phone messages, for the next fourteen years.

We had speciated. The exchange that binds animals one to the other had been disrupted. We were free to evolve along the paths we chose, but each without the other.

Given this divergent history I’ve been amazed over and over at the commonalities between us. Our interests contrast wildly, yet still rhyme. One expects a certain amount of congruence in sons of the same parents. Craig and I share at least a quarter of our genetic makeup, and had similar — though not identical — upbringings. But I wonder which gene is responsible for a fondness for Orson Scott Card and Philip Glass; which early shared experience drives this mutual thirsty, passionate observation of meeting of wild dog and tame.

Coyotes were unknown to western science until Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery to the mouth of the Columbia River in the early nineteenth century. They’re now North America’s best-known wild mammal. Quick-witted, preternaturally able to survive human attempts at extermination, the coyote has expanded its range both geographically and within the American consciousness. Go to the bookstore nature section, grab a book at random, and it’s likely you’ll have picked up something about coyotes. The brush wolves figure in other kinds of literature as well, from Willa Cather’s howling harbingers of rain, to Mark Twain’s colorful calumny (he called the beast “a living, breathing, allegory of want,”) to the coyote-as-schlemazel of the Warner Brothers cartoons.

Small wonder. Coyote is a potent symbol, the best example we have aside from ourselves of North America become self-aware, the most significant challenge to our self-proclaimed godhood the continent provides. We invest in coyotes our hopes, aspirations, fears, self-loathing, self-aggrandizement. They are clever. They skulk. They learn from our mistakes. They are disturbingly honest, disturbingly amoral. A coyote will linger for days around the corpse of its mate. A coyote will eat its own snake-bit pup. They mate for life, or close to it. They co-o�perate on the hunt. They learn to avoid the leghold traps, the coyote-getters, the dogs. They look both ways before eating roadkill.

We fear they’re smarter. We rely on secret weapons: thallium, that odorless, tasteless contaminant of sheep corpses we use to kill coyotes, and hawks and skunks and everything else. Compound 1080, a poison shot into coyotes’ mouths from booby-traps placed on open range. Helicopters. Habitat destruction. Media horror stories. We revile them. We envy them. We fear them. We string their corpses on barbed wire: talismans to deter the coyote gods. It doesn’t work.

Coyote’s relationship with his first human neighbors was more forgiving, but hardly less complex. The mythic trickster has enjoyed enough press to have become cliché, pastel earrings for sale by haute couturiéres in Sedona and Santa Fe, smooth coyote-shapes howling at earlobe moons, vaguely resembling My Pretty Pony and with no more mystery. In tribal oral histories the myths are a bit rougher, truer to the nature of the beast. Coyote starves his friend to death as a practical joke. Coyote helps a young girl across a creek, then helps himself to her in midstream, populating the world. Coyote carries his three sisters in his stomach as huckleberries, defecating them into a pile when he needs to ask their advice. Coyote offers to babysit for four beautiful women, then cooks up the babies in a stewpot. When the grieving mothers become angry bears and give chase, Coyote cooks and eats them as well.

Watching these coyotes walk curiously closer to Zeke, and he to them, atop this raveling terrain, a different story comes to mind. It’s less sordid, but every bit as challenging to our sense of who we are.

The Mayans tell of Coyote’s rapport with fences. Confronted with men’s property lines, Coyote whispers to them; posts and rails bend to let him through. When barbed wire was first brought to Guatemala, it took Coyote a few weeks to learn the right words to charm this new fence. Tufts of torn fur dangling from wire bore mute testimony to culture shock. After a time, though, Coyote and barbed wire got used to one another. The wires were clean where he passed through.

I hear that whispering in the eye contact among the three canines. Zeke seems to hear it too. He’s never seen anything like this before. The line between dog and not-dog has blurred. He is confused, excited, alert to this newly permeable boundary.

Zeke and the coyotes have speciated for good, though their common ancestor lived as recently as the Pliocene. No one knows for sure just what animal the domestic dog was before it decided to follow human families around the globe. Wolves have their partisans, as do jackals. Both possibilities seem feasible, both seem irrelevant. Whatever the dog was, it is no longer. Tens of thousands of years of partnership have transformed house wolf and smooth ape.

What force, what accident turned the dog? Once it wasn’t much more to us than a pair of wild gold eyes fleetingly, nervously reflecting the first campfires from off in the brush. It’s now the family member closest to the hearth. Was it a gradual, seamless merger, ragged knots of mangy dogs getting ever closer to our food and heat? Was it involuntary, pups stolen from wild dens on repeated occasions, their less-tractable offspring bred out, until Fido was distilled from Lobo? Could it have been some of both? Did it happen once? A thousand times?

And does it matter? Perhaps the real story isn’t how dog and human signed their license, but why dog left his parents to wed us at all. It might have been the promise of an end to the gnawing hunger, the beckoning satiety at the hearth. It might have been the result of family splintered, pups whisked out of the litter by forces they could neither comprehend nor control. It might have been frank curiosity. Whatever the cause, dog split from wild dog. Aside from the occasional midnight tryst through the fence, dog — wolfhound, shepherd — had only snarling, snapping, hostile contact with its relatives for tens of thousands of years.

And what did it gain in return?  Tying your genetic future to a species with which you cannot interbreed is a risky proposition. The boundary between human and dog is one that’s damn hard to coyote your way through. Still, for dog and human, it’s worked. Dogs have paid the price in genetic monstrosity: basset, borzoi, bulldog. But evolution’s only measure is continuation of species. By that standard, the dog chose better than any other mammal. There will be dogs after the last pigeon dies.

Zeke has fared well the journey his genes took from that wild missing link, though their journey ends with him. (A veterinarian’s steel snips saw to that.) He is exceptionally well-proportioned and graceful. Strong hints of his remote ancestors lurk behind his goofy smile. Powerful back legs rocket him after gophers, ground squirrels, and cats to whom he has not been formally introduced. He runs fast enough to have caught one of the wary fox squirrels in the pocket park around the corner from our house. He let it go, uninjured, then looked disappointed when it didn’t chase him in return. He cuts tight slalom courses of his own imagining across open lawn. He plays. He mourns his daily solitude. He bravely keeps up on the occasional forced-march death hike.

And just as did the first wolf, or jackal, or whatever, that came into a human camp and stayed, Zeke has ensconced himself in our tribe ‘til death do us part. Emotions are the dog’s legal tender. The beasts are supremely sensitive meters of mood: an essential skill for negotiating the subtle hierarchies of dog society. Put me in the corner, weeping. If I leak tears of grief, Zeke nudges my nose with his until I hold him. If my tears are of rage or frustration, he hides under my desk in the farthest room. He anchors our family. He lives to accompany us on meaningless rambles, to shove us off the bed at night by increments, to help us eat our sandwiches. He is one damn fine dog.

I never imagined, after all my romantic speculation about Zeke’s imagined coyote ancestry, that I’d be standing on a wet hillside seeing him and coyotes in the same blink. I feel vaguely like a loyal spouse, swept up in a potential affair, watching the principals meet at a cocktail party. There stands the one I love, to whom I’ve pledged fidelity, who wants nothing other than to make me happy. And opposite him, the exotic other. Flashing eyes. Flaring nostrils. I am consumed with sharp happiness. I wish this encounter to lodge in the machinery of time, to stop the gears. I ache. I am become a living, breathing allegory of want.

Zeke’s interests and concerns mirror those of the coyotes, though their paths parted long ago. With his translation, we meet as rough equals. He conducts meaning from coyotes to humans and back.

We have an ancestor common to us all, a mother whose progeny include all placental mammals. She lived and died in the shadow of dinosaurs at the end of the Jurassic. We share her venerable family with bears, pumas, squirrels and weasels. With the man and woman that raised Craig and me and our sisters. With the unknown dam that suckled Zeke, and the deadbeat dad that sired him. With the coyotes, flayed and hounded and poisoned, that nonetheless survive the new range wars. Our paths diverged long ago, but we are bound by cords of love or chance to this moment, to one another. Our lives braid now, if only for an instant. We are shockingly different, but we share still the capacity for rapt attention at encounters like this one. We are kin, after all.

Zeke steps further toward his cousins. Tales of poodle-eating coyotes flit through my mind: Nature’s tax collectors harvesting pets from California patios. But the only neck hairs upended here are mine. The coyotes bear so little malice, fear Zeke and Craig and me so little, that they resume their mouse hunt. I realize they are mates, probably feeding a gestating litter of pups.

Still. These wildlings have breached the fence of my familial duty. Or perhaps that’s Zeke’s low voice whispering dangerous blandishments to the barbed wire. Or maybe my posts have fallen of their own accord. Whatever the cause, my threshold is crossed. Suddenly the protective dog owner, I call Zeke to my side. Craig joins us. We three stand and watch the brush wolves hunt north along the trickle that drains this swale. They move with purpose, working together. They recede from our view, but never fully wink out of sight.

3 thoughts on “Convergent Evolution

  1. beth

    I read this one spellbound, watching the encounter like you. What a great piece, Chris — an example of your special skills as a writer, building up to the crucial moment and weaving so many threads together along the way, but also of why it is worthwhile to learn about the natural world firsthand, to study it but also to experience it. The Zen of field biology, or something like that. If we don’t learn to suspend our 21st century acculturated selves we’ll never be able to see ourselves and our companions in the continuum — or to simply be there in the extraordinary moments like this one.

    Has this been published someplace else? Because if not, it should be.

  2. Anne

    you are a damned fine storyteller. spectacular, in fact. every thread taut and woven, connected. write some more, i’m greedy for YOUR words.

  3. Siona

    Spellbinding is a perfect description. I wish I had something to put here that Beth and Anne haven’t already written . . . what can I say? I wholeheartedly agree with both. The ease with which you weave cool observation and subjective reverie together is incredible.

    It doesn’t hurt that you’ve mastered a genre (if genre is the right word) near and dear to my heart: a personal essay that carries within it fascinating bits of ‘book-learning.’ Thank you for the treat.