Category Archives: Coyote

Wild Eyes at La Contenta

[I read this this weekend at Desert Stories X.]

At 8:15 pm on May 18, 2016, the sky was darkening over Joshua Tree. I was driving across La Contenta Road heading eastbound on Route 62, doing about five under the limit.

And then I died.

At least I think it was me. I do lose track of these things.

You need to understand this: in my entire life, spanning more than half a century spent in the company of a staggeringly diverse cast of people, I have, as far as I am aware, had precisely one nickname: Coyote. Except, pronounced the correct way, the Mexican way: “Coyóte.” The name was bestowed on me by my co-workers in the Berkeley café where I worked in 1983. I asked my boss Beto why he started calling me that. “Because, Coyóte, you shut up about them never.”

“Oh,” I said. “Never,” said Beto. “I see,” I said. “Jamas Nunca,” said Beto.

I couldn’t argue. Still can’t. I am not always happy with this human skin I wear. Coyóte has long seemed a salubrious alternative.

Where I live there are always at least three or four coyotes within a quarter mile, drifting though the creosote and yucca as silent as they wish to be. On occasion they allow me a moment or two of their time. They stand a ways off, eyeing me as though I am preposterous and likely to do something dangerous and stupid at any time, and then once they have had their fill of me they look sidelong at one another and vanish as if due to some prearranged signal.

This is precisely the relationship I have with my birth family, and so it makes me feel right at home.

Though it also makes me less certain of the precise boundary between Homo sapiens and Canis latrans. I hear coyote song and I strain to make out the words. Disoriented in the desert a decade ago I found a fresh set of coyote tracks and cursed, certain that they were mine and I had been walking in circles.

You get the picture. When my species dysphoria kicks in, when the manyfold flaws of the human race begin to rankle, there is a deep part of me that longs to run out into the desert, to chase down cottontails and sleep curled up beneath the cholla. I see one of my coyote neighbors and for a moment, a part of me becomes him. Or at least it wants to. I want to fit into the land as seamlessly as they do, to drift through the creosote and yucca with them as heedless of bank accounts or Twitter handles. There is a part of me that longs to be that grizzled fur coat camouflaged against the varnished rock and alluvium, that longs to be just a pair of wild eyes surveying the Mojave, the desert grown conscious of itself.

I long to be in the landscape, not on it.

And certainly not driving across it, dog and bags of groceries shifting in the back seat, the panel truck to my left seeming to have trouble deciding which lane it wants to occupy. I decide to slow and give him room. When we get to the east side of La Contenta he’s pulled about halfway past me, his front bumper about ten feet farther east than mine.

Coyóte

darts out from in front of the truck, avoiding it by a hair’s breadth. He is making for the Joshua tree forest across the way. His eyes are bright with glee. And then his expression changes. He didn’t expect me there in the right hand lane.


Sometimes I think that in order to really belong to a place you have to have your heart broken there, to have your smug certainty stripped away and your sentiments shattered, brought to that state where every detail of the moment in that place is seared into you, each roadside can and broken Joshua tree branded on your soul forever.

The look of surprise and terror in those wild eyes stakes your heart to the ground.

The knowing that you cannot stop in time.

The knowing that you cannot stop time.

I will grant you the kindness Fortune denied me, and spare you most of the details. But here is the worst of them: it was… subtle. Imagine the Roman soldiers’ nails sliding through Christ’s wrists as if He was made of seafoam.

Coyote dies all the time in the stories, I know, and his friends roll their eyes and set to reviving him. Or he jumps over his body three times to bring himself back from the dead. Death is a momentary inconvenience for a demigod.

I have tried to imagine this since as a comfort. It hasn’t worked.

Because in that endlessly extended second, Coyote’s eyes riveted on me in surprise and terror, I recognized that look wholeheartedly.

My eyes were the same on him.

Our hearts broke the same in that place, just ten feet from the Joshua trees and safety.

Our eyes.

Our hearts.

We are the same.

We are the same.

Listening to the coyote

There was something about the noise
he made tonight
that got to me.

Something about the curdled yowl,
what seemed insensate rage
that came choking out
a rising-toned flood of staccato yelps

Or something I imagined
about his eyes, gleaming cold
and furious,
pinning some imagined quarry.

It is his nature
to prey on weaker things:
I understand that.
It is wrong to ascribe to him
a moral sense,
a willing violation
of some imagined ethical code.
It asks too much of him.

But tonight it was too much.
His manic yelps, incomprehensible
and fervid, sneering sniffle snarls,
his coiled-spring choking throat
as if his claws scraped blackboard.

Tonight it was too much,
and I spent the evening
listening to the coyote instead,
a clear healthy song to wash away the debate.

Whistling in the dark

In the dark and the ancient creosote, something has pulled the dog taut at the far end of her leash.

A coyote then, affecting nonchalance. It lingers, then ventures out to the road, backlit, then stops.

It is warm, despite the dark. A smell of dust, of distant shredded brake lining.  A curious liberation.

It is a puzzle. The more the years-long bleakness lifts, the more I can admit my work is pointless. Sisyphus reaches the top. There’s a sign with a boulder and a red slashed circle over it.

Silhouetted coyote flicks a silhouetted ear.

Farther east? Perhaps. Perhaps. “Remind me of this when I complain about my life,” I said today, in momentary wonder over interesting plans.The pinacate beetle over there means more to me. It walks between the dog’s tensed paws. It pauses. it turns.

We four face each other for a long moment.

Coyote tires of our company. As she glides up the road a bright blue fireball meteor burns slowly above her head, and then is gone.

As portents go, not a bad one. Abandon all hope and the trickster has no power over you.

The Vortex

We will rebuild.

 

At just after 3:30 pm this afternoon my yard was hit by either a very large dust devil or a very small tornado. It lifted this heavy, glass and metal table and flipped it: when I drank my coffee out there this morning it was on the other side of the chairs. My smoker landed two lots down. The wind knocked over two cinderblocks. 

Given that this happened on the anniversary weekend of my beginning to live alone, I choose to interpret it as a good omen, Coyote-style. 

Regarding my difficult workplace environment

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to get anything done around here when just any old mythopoetic demiurge can saunter up and look at me through my office window whenever she feels like it.

Especially when she takes off before I can get my camera focused.

coyotebutt

 

Though she did kindly stop for a glimpse back at the property line.

coyotesilhouette

It’s just non-stop productivity losses around here, I tell you what.

They have the place surrounded

Just ended: 20 minutes of the best coyote hootenanny I have heard in my entire life. It would seem to be a big family. There are pups with their plaintive, piercing peep-yowls and elders with their complex, scat-singing syncopation. They are behind my house and in front of it, close enough that I imagine I can hear the static electricity crackle in their fur.

The local dogs are so well outnumbered that they stay quiet.

I set up the hummingbird feeder outside the office window two days ago. So far two Costa’s hummers have fought over it. A cactus wren tried to drink from it this morning, and late this afternoon a juvenile verdin just old enough to have a tinge of yellow on its face stopped by to see whether the sugar was to her liking. Apparently verdins like to eat the dried remnants of hummingbird food from feeders, which I only learned today. This being the Mojave Desert, the hummingbird feeders are constantly secreting dried sugar. Lucky verdins.

Concert night

Coyote hunting n the Marin Headlands. Creative Commons licensed photo by Franco Folini

Coyote hunting in the Marin Headlands. Creative Commons licensed photo by Franco Folini

We had a concert out in the back yard last night. Closest I’d heard them to the house since I moved in. Looks like someone other than the cat has noticed the presence of rabbit neighbors.

The cat was frankly curious at the singing, wearing his “my better instincts tell me to run for the closet but I’m trying to be brave” face.

Funny thing: looking at the photo above my eye is drawn to the amole, the weedy-looking agave family plant just behind the coyote. A constant companion in three decades of hiking in the Bay Area hills, and it never occurred to me just how much I miss it.

Breathing

I’ve been sick for about a week: a bad cold, but just a cold nonetheless. A couple days of swollen glands and tonsils, a couple days of fluid-filled chest cavity, a couple days of feeling like I could almost scrape up the energy to walk the dog if I concentrated. Over the weekend I slept. Woke up to greet the morning with Becky, kissed her as she left for her errands, and went back to bed to sleep until three.

Last night walking home from BART I noticed in the cool night that I felt energetic and fully oxygenated. How wonderful that feels.

I am going to hike on Diablo again this weekend. Probably not to the summit: perhaps another visit to Eagle Peak. I didn’t get nearly enough hiking in in the Mojave to suit me, a mere thirteen miles or so over the week. Call it thirteen, and include the night walk at Mesquite Spring, five miles over the floor of Death Valley under the moon. The payphone was up the road at the ranger station, and I wanted to call Becky. The quarter moon was bright enough that I needed no flashlight, though the verge between pavement and gravel blurred amusingly at times. Creosote by moonlight is a lovely thing. I reached the phone after an hour and called just as Becky walked in the door. An hour later I walked back. That night I camped at the lip of Death Valley Wash, a ten-foot cliff a short stumble from my tent. At half past asleep two coyotes sang not more than a dozen feet away. I lay frozen in my sleeping bag.

Ruination rumination

When your birthday is a few days after the new year begins, it makes it easy to get lost in self-absorbed reflection as the calendars change. The long nights make it even easier. I have developed the habit of spending the last few days of each year, and the first few of the subsequent year, dispassionately inventorying my accomplishments. As my upcoming birthday is of the “multiple of five” variety, my special goal in this inventorying of accomplishments is to actually come up with one.

And that’s not going to happen, not this week. Like everyone else and her uncle in the bloginuum, I have been thinking of life and loss and tragedy, and my own petty triumphs aren’t looking quite so shiny. I find it tempting to search for a minor personal irony in the timing of the horrendous disaster this week in southeast Asia, right as I begin work on an essay on the Anatomy of Bad News. Of course when you write on that topic, it’s nearly inevitable that a horrifying piece of bad news will come along at a seemingly ironic time. You want detachment from current events, write about good news; about love or fidelity or nobility of spirit. You’re guaranteed not to see that on the news, unless it’s safely bracketed by a context of horror: the guide dog leading her master down the WTC steps as it crumbles around them.

Anyway, Susan Sontag’s loss in the same 48-hour period has earned Coyote a hearty kick in the ass if I ever catch up with that motherfucker. Those of you who don’t immediately catch my drift will once I get the writing done.

The essay will be ready in a week or two, and it’s likely y’all will be the first to see it. And I desperately hope, O Reader, that this tsunami is an abstract horror for you, prompting tears by way of television empathy rather than personal loss.

And at least we get to see reporters using the word “enormity” correctly for a week or so, even if they don’t know they’re doing it. Happy New Year.

Broadcasting

The summit ridge of Mount Diablo bears a couple of radio transmitters, relics of the days when the best and highest use of an isolated mountaintop was to use it as an antenna.

On Friday, as I left the summit and headed down past the lower of the two transmitting stations, I heard an odd noise like a mastiff barking behind a cinderblock wall, only more metallic. I stopped to listen, but the noise had ended. So I took another step or two, and there it was again.

And again. And again. I stopped on an outcrop of red and black basalt, braced myself on my walking stick, turned my back on the official scenic view below to scan the facility.

It was an unearthly noise, almost like nothing I’d ever heard before, except for an odd, familiar undertone of… what was it? Oh.

Raven.

I found her. She was perched in front of a twelve-foot metal parabolic dish, gronking every minute or so at the base of the parabola, then ruffling her feathers and dancing in apparent delight at hearing her cry echoed back, amplified and deeply distorted.