Category Archives: Coyote

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.

J. (6)

[This is the sixth and last in a series of posts which are probably best read in order, though some effort has been made to make each installment capable of standing on its own. The series starts here.  — CC ]

Night turns slowly to dawn in the west Mojave. Black envelops sky and earth. The dry air does little to mask the stars. A dozen miles away ten thousand bright pinpricks, like stars but brighter and more constant, spread across the ground. The lights of a borax mine, I learned later, but it seemed the stars had spilled out onto the ground there to burn against the desert soil. What was the soil, and what the sky? It wasn’t until the first pale purple filtered through the eastern sky at 4:30 am that the horizon fixed itself, grew hills and Joshua trees and signs marking state route 58 near Boron.

My second morning waking in the Mojave, and I was again in Elissa’s car. It was no accident this time.

We’d come back to the Bay Area two years earlier, in 1987. Elissa had passed the bar on the first try, gotten a job, become close with a fellow attorney, and asked if I minded if she pursued a second relationship. We muddled through polyamorously for a few weeks. The new love quickly took precedence. To compensate, Elissa and I planned to spend some time together in Los Angeles at her parents’ house. The second day, he called and asked her to fly back early.

You don’t mind driving my car back alone, do you Chris?
Sure. You bet, Elissa. No problem.

It occurs to me that Elissa is coming off badly in this retelling. That’s unfair. She was young, and made her share of self-centered decisions, and the ones that hurt are the ones where my memory stays freshest. But she was good to me. I would not have made it to this day without her. She was fiercely loyal, a pitbull, objecting when anyone other than her criticized me unfairly. She was generous and, more often than not, kind. Thinking of Sun Tzu a couple weeks before our Los Angeles trip, I asked the other man to meet for coffee to discuss things. He was visibly shaken. At the end of our cordial chat, I’d realized he was better for her than I could ever be: he was desperately in love and willing to fight to be near her. Could I say the same?

I dropped her at LAX, saw her to her flight, and took off in precisely the wrong direction to head home. Up over the pass into the Antelope Valley, I had been filled with a mixture of fury and self-pity.

By the time dawn broke over Boron, I had been reminded of a few things more important than my disintegrating relationship.

Geometry, for one thing. Even the straightest desert two-lane curves with the surface of the earth. Drive and drive relentlessly, hands not straying from ten and two o’clock on the wheel, tires in perfect alignment and no wind to blow you off course, and before too long you will be pointed in a direction wholly different from your original destination. Tangent builds on tangent, a palimpsest of infinitesimal increments, and the weight of the world nudges you in a new direction.

Through Jeffrey pine forests, past the fantastic tufa towers of Mono, and over the great green granite wall of the Sierra I meandered. I arrived home several days late: Elissa seemed not to have noticed my absence, having spent the intervening days with him.

It wasn’t working. Six years before, I’d clung to her in the aftermath of J.‘s death to avoid facing one more loss. Now I wasn’t sure whether staying longer wouldn’t be a greater loss.

I told Elissa that I thought she needed to make a decision.

As I packed a few days later, the phone rang: Elissa’s brother’s girlfriend. She and I had become close confidantes over the last couple years, allies in contending with Elissa’s odd family. “Mike told me you and Elissa are breaking up.”

“Yeah, she’s fallen in love with someone else.”

“Well, I really don’t want to lose touch with you.”

Last week, as she worked through a stack of bills on our kitchen table and chatted with me about her day, I mentioned I’d written about J. She looked up, interested. I don’t talk about J. that often, even to Becky. “How are you feeling about it?”

“Fine,” I lied.

I read the first installment of this story to her, the exhilaration and the stunning grief, my numbness and acquiescing to life with Elissa, my hunch that if J. had lived we would not be on speaking terms. She thought for a moment after I was done.

“You don’t know that, Chris. You don’t know you wouldn’t have been a good husband, a good father. You might have risen to the occasion: worse men than you have.”

Becky’s right, and that’s just one of many things I don’t know. I never learned J.‘s last name, for mortifying example. Nor her parents’ names, whether they got along, whether J. liked salmon or Chopin, desert or glaciers, green tea or Tequila sunrises; whether she read Stegner or science fiction or cereal boxes or at all. I don’t know where — or if — she was buried. I don’t know who killed her, or whether that person spent even a fraction of the time thinking about it that I have. I don’t know her other friends, the other men (or women?) who loved her, her aunts and uncles and cousins and whether they still mourn. I don’t know who I would be if she had lived; I don’t know who I would be if I had never met her.

“Fine.” I lied. Each sentence dredges up feelings I’d rather persuade myself I’d long left behind. I’ve shaped my moods like a director, sending myself off last weekend to hike Point Reyes in a haze of freshened grief, heading to work after writing the nursery section wearing the first deep and thorough smile in a week.

Drink a shot of mercury, and if you survive the first few months — and it will be touch and go there for a time — there will come a day when you stop dripping quicksilver from your pores, your eyes will clear, your hair will show less and less contamination. You may feel cured, but for the rest of your life the heavy poison will be suffused through every cell in your body. The task is to live nonetheless.

I had two months and a promise with J when she was alive. I have spent 120 times that since she died. I have a life surpassing my dreams, and love enough to dazzle me, and I have purple-leaved plums for remembrance. If I tell you there are no happy endings, that is only because I see no endings.

J. (5)

The coleus were dry. I consolidated the six-packs scattered across the A-frame bench into a few flats, and watered them. Water ran out the bottoms of the flats, and I moved on to the celosia, odd flowers like crimson and orange candle flames, close cousins to amaranth. Let celosia dry out too far, and its leaves crisp at the edges. The plant survives, but who’d buy them? And then the geraniums. Nudge the head of that water wand beneath the blossoms: water on the buds will cause botrytis gray rot. A whole bench of geraniums with moldy flowers waited on the back bench to be cleaned. Lee poked his head around the bench. “Jenny’s here again.” I rolled my eyes, hung up the hose.

Rockville, being in the suburban hinterlands, demanded a less interesting supply of plants than I was used to. Back at the DC store, the craze for ornamental grasses was just taking off, and every third customer asked for Festuca ovina glauca. Perennials were popular. Here in Rockville, one of the managers referred to perennials, with a sneer, as “weeds.” We sold geraniums, petunias, celosia, marigolds and begonias, tomatoes and peppers and squash, a few dozen baskets of fuchsias a week in spring. People would pick a six-pack of begonias from the rack, and we would fill the holes with other six-packs, and the great cycle of life would continue, until we were asked to carry a fifty-pound bag of steer manure to a customer’s Volvo, and mind you don’t mess up the upholstery, now. Here’s a dollar.

I’d started paying attention to the flowering plants outside Dad’s place two years before, the Joe-Pye weed and viburnum and invasive loosestrife. Found a book in the library to help me identify them, read it, found myself interested. My niece Allison was born without incident, and I left the next day for DC, and the day after that saw a nursery with a “help wanted” sign out front: I bought a razor, ducked into a gas station bathroom on Wisconsin Avenue, scraped off my eight days’ worth of five o’clock shadow, filled out an application and the next day I was learning the difference between geraniums and begonias at minimum wage.

My boss Gordon, the most patient man in the world, recognized my interest and kept my learning curve canted at just exactly the right pitch to keep me from boredom. Within a year and a half I’d been transferred to the Rockville store to run the pesticide department there. (A little joke on this organic gardener, played by everyone’s favorite caniform demigod.) My Rockville coworkers included Lee, a sweet gay man from the slopes of Mount Saint Helens who quickly became my closest friend, and Mason, a friendly, slow-moving teenager whose standard greeting was “Bon Jovi, dude!” I’d ride the Metro from the Pentagon basement each morning, eighty minutes on average to Rockville Pike, plenty of time for reading books on English gardening and xeriscaping, Stephen Jay Gould and Gary Nabhan and Henry Mitchell and his DC iris garden.

Elissa was tolerant of my new obsession, although she did poke fun at it from time to time. Our backyard in Arlington was a more or less blank slate when we moved in: in went vegetables and herbs and daylilies, white clover seeds beneath the American persimmon tree, and I ate the invasive volunteer Korean onions sprouting through our lawn almost every morning. Zoom, the stray cat that had moved into our Berkeley apartment, knocked down the mouse population before he died, expensively, over a few months ending on the day after my 25th birthday. We got more cats.

Jenny was waiting for me near the insecticides. She was a regular customer, a nice enough woman, an attorney with an arborvitae hedge in her backyard. She was hugely, top-heavily pregnant. “The whiteflies are back again,” she said, grinning.

Jenny had been in every two weeks for the last few months, buying stronger and stronger insect killers, pyrethrins then malathion then diazinon then lindane, and I’d wondered what it was she was trying to kill. She had seemed to know what he was doing. This was the first I’d heard her problem was whitefly, an annoying but basically innocuous insect whose population builds to nuisance levels only when its predators are removed — for instance, when someone sprays an increasingly strong blend of broad-spectrum insecticides throughout their yard.

“I wish I’d known you had whitefly, Jenny. I could have saved you some time.” I handed her a bottle of insecticidal soap concentrate, sat her down, and gave her the quick predator-prey population dynamics lecture. “You’re going to have those flies for a while, and chemical insecticides will just make things worse. Spray this soap when the flies build up to the point where you can’t stand them, but let them be otherwise. They’ll feed the insects that eat them, and their  populations will build up, and you’ll have your problem more or less under control.”

Jenny read the label. “That’s just great. I’ve been spraying my kid for nothing.”
I grinned. “Well, ask me next time. You know I don’t want to sell you this stuff.”

My boss walked by, overheard that last line, pretended to scowl.

Glad for the chance to sit, Jenny chatted about her plans for her child, due in less than a month. Painting the bedroom, buying a baby monitor, taking another six weeks off before starting part-time work, husband anxious and already packed for the obstetrical car ride, and I drifted, nodding politely but not really listening.

“How bad am I going to feel about this pregnancy talk?” I thought.

Huh. Not all that bad.

I looked for J. in my mind like a tongue searching for a missing tooth. Found her swaddled under a few layers of gauze, indistinct and numb.

Jenny took my arm, hoisted herself out of the chair, and we walked together up to the register. She kissed my cheek and turned to pay the cashier. I walked back to the bedding plants.

I realized it had been, what? At least a week since I’d thought of J. No, two: the woman on the Metro that sounded like her. At least what I remember of how she sounded. I tried to call her image to mind. It took a while. If I tried really hard, picked very diligently at that old mental scab, I decided, I could make myself feel kind of sad in about five minutes, if I wasn’t distracted.

An odd loss, as if a hole had fallen into another hole and vanished. It felt like a betrayal, but of which one of us?

Lee was standing in the middle of the bedding plant yard, watching the sky. I looked up. Crows were flying west in single file, hundreds of them, an unbroken line stretching from horizon to horizon. The boss came out, looked up. “Oh, yeah. They do this every year about this time.” He went back in to his office.

One after another they passed, weaving a tight skein of trajectories, deliberate and determined.  Every third or fourth crow would call out as it passed, a raucous cry directed at no one we could figure. They kept about fifty feet between them.  They kept about a hundred feet between them and the ground. We would think we’d seen the last one, and then another hundred would resolve out of the haze to the east. Where did they come from? A trash midden? Too many of them. The Chesapeake, fifty miles east? Perhaps. Were they heading for the Potomac, near the spot where it bends westward at Great Falls, a doorway through the first range of Appalachians?

And why did their route take them directly over the nursery?

They weren’t telling, a dark corvid caravan against the pale Maryland sky, heading due west for the next six hours. It got dark; we all went home, went about our evening routines, slept, awoke, brushed hair and teeth,  rode or drove to the train, rode the train to Twinbrook station, walked the three blocks to the nursery and they were still flying.

At three the next afternoon I watched the last crow fly overhead, looking as though it was having trouble keeping up. I turned and watched it recede, dwindling to a pale black dot. It vanished in the western sky.

J. (6)

J. (4)

Grief is a siren. She bades you forsake all others, divest yourself of interests and passions. She promises bitter, familiar comfort, and all you need do is give your life wholly over to her. And when you do, she is gone. Even the sharpest grief will fade into depression, bitterness, resentment. You have shaped your life around something you no longer have.

I feel it necessary at this point to beg your indulgence, dear Reader, though your patience with my brooding may well be approaching a state best, if metaphorically, described as threadbare. Rest assured I sympathise. I know precisely how tedious it is to read the remembered maunderings of a bereaved and self-absorbed boy in his early twenties, even if filtered through the diffidence of the self-absorbed man two decades later. I am, therefore, certain that you can imagine the far greater tedium of actually being that slight post-adolescent, especially as that summer in Buffalo ended up actually being a summer spent mainly in my father’s suburban basement, twenty miles out of town. No car, no public transit, and — as I wasn’t speaking much — no conversation.

Endless amounts of beer were consumed down in that humid cellar, and I broke my petty vow never again to touch fingers to keyboard. Lurid stories were written, all featuring Coyote, most of them involving him being beaten senseless by friends or suffering humiliation at the hands of admirable, complex women.

Stuck in Buffalo one evening and unwilling to call for a ride, I walked ten miles along Buffalo Creek from the outermost bus stop to my father’s house. The shallow water rippled over slate banks on its way to Lake Erie, breaking the moon into a million brilliant shards. Every mile or two a bright building loomed: a convenience store, a nursery, a noisy tavern whose music and breaking glass carried oddly on the moist night air.

I found a place to sit along the bank, let the mosquitoes land. While it was sharp, my sorrow over J. had oddly sustained me. But somewhere between Berkeley and Buffalo I had crossed a line, one separating the immediate tragic aftermath from the long haul. The bugs were biting and I was getting hungry, and those were the only two reasons I had to ever move from that spot, and they didn’t seem enough. The rest of my life to live, and no interest in getting there. Dull grief is scant distraction.

A grove across the water had been badly pruned. Amputated limbs indicted the moon. Reducing us to one color, they complained. Unhappy, I imagined myself in the Mojave, a landscape I had driven through only in darkness, contorted Joshua trees looming in the headlights’ margins.

It took an hour to recognize the feeling that came over me for what it was: homesickness.

I leaned against a silver maple, fell asleep as Buffalo Creek murmured. I dreamed I was at the wheel, driving through endless desert canyons, J. beside me fiddling with the radio knobs as static filled the car. We parked in Barstow, walked out onto the dry bed of the Mojave River, laid down together among the tamarisk.

Did I say the grief had ebbed? It was particularly sharp when I woke, alone and cold.

On glass-littered streetsides the mountains look down
The wrack and the ruin, the heartbreaking town.
But up above Crestline bright snows can be found;
They melt to the river that flows underground.

The desert is blazing, the mercury high
The sun pouring molten from up in the sky
Oh don’t bother listening, you’ll hear not a sound
from the inconstant river that flows underground.

The surface too thirsty for water to flow,
It seeks out the depths of the earth far below.
Though dams in the mountains may briefly impound,
the water runs through them to flow underground.

It passes through Lenwood, and Helendale too
The center of Barstow a dry sandy slough
And through Afton Canyon with cliffs red and brown
Mojave, the river that flows underground.

The desert is blazing, the mercury high
The sun pouring molten from up in the sky
Oh don’t bother listening, you’ll hear not a sound
from the inconstant river that flows underground.

Well early one evening down in Riverside
The love of my young life was struck down and died
I watch from the mountains, my sadness profound
My tears join the river that flows underground.

The people around me, I can’t let them know
the loss of that woman is hurting me so
I’ll wander the desert, on dry land I’ll drown
My heart like a river that flows underground.

The desert is blazing, the mercury high
The sun pouring molten from up in the sky
Oh don’t bother listening, you’ll hear not a sound
from the inconstant river that flows underground.

J. (5)

J. (3)

Whom Coyote loves, he first makes mad. His best gift to the writer is a difficult early life. Wait until the person hits the patch of black ice, and then make his transmission go out. If you survive — and one always does, until one doesn’t — then you have a great story.

That must be why he took J. away from me, I thought. Ask those Authors Unknown who penned all those Childe Ballads: nothing grabs an audience like a lovely, dead young girl. Story writes itself: writer twists knife by mere act of remembering. Who was I to deserve such a generous, generous gift? I was not worthy.

I swore never to write another sentence. Especially not about J. I quit playing the guitar — easy enough, as Elissa wasn’t particularly impressed by my musical talent. I had been involved, in my own naive, idealistic way, in peace activism: I drifted away. You think you’re taking my purpose away? I’ll show you taking my purpose away.

It wasn’t self-loathing, really. I was always far too fond of myself to commit that particular sin. It was more a form of self-abnegation, though some would disagree. Ramana Maharshi maintained that Self is that left after all that the Self perceives is left behind. Take away the two-day hangover, the half inch of stale Tooth’s Sheaf Stout in each of the bottles on the kitchen table, the cat box and the oven with the door that won’t shut right and the sun and lemon tree outside; take away Matthew and Zoom the cat sunning themselves on the porch and the scent of freesia coming in through the window, the buckwheat somen in the bowl and the sound of Elissa coming up the front steps, glistening with sweat after a run, and what is left? The Self, Sri Ramana says.

Feh. Big help. The thought “I am not my pain” is not what I’d call an effective analgesic. And after I stripped away all the external, all the internal, everything that defined my life in Berkeley and my sense of who I was, what remained?

A hole in the world the size and shape of J.

I had increasing trouble talking. I’d use wrong nouns, calling a cat a car or a chair. I gave up, went days without saying anything not absolutely necessary unless I was talking to Matthew. Elissa misinterpreted my fear of saying the wrong thing as unwillingness to listen, and the arguments swelled. She pressed the point, demanded I answer her, angrily posed lose-lose scenaria. I put my fist through walls.

Another visit to Buffalo and the long Greyhound ride back, and I sat watching the West roll by through the tinted window. The bus groaned up over the Pilot and Toano ranges, past the Rubies and East Humboldts, rolled down into Elko as Joni Mitchell sang to Coyote in my ear. I worked 12 or 13 hours a day and came home to a small room I had to myself in the house Elissa and I had moved to with Matthew. There was a map of Nevada on the wall beside my bed. I soothed myself to sleep imagining infinite valleys, the scent of sagebrush.

Whom Coyote loves. I got a phone call from my sister. She was pregnant, and asked if I would move back to Buffalo for the summer to be her labor coach.

Oddly, my promise to go coach a woman who was not J. through a pregnancy that was not J.‘s resulting in a baby that was neither J.‘s nor mine didn’t particularly spur any more resentment that I had lost J. That cup was already full. I had to walk that stretch of University twice a day past the sari shops, seen the plums drop their purple leaves and grow new ones, smelled the coffee through the doors of the Old Mole on my way between Herb’s and the Caffee Durant. Getting out of town seemed a good idea. Besides, Elissa was heading to law school, probably on the East Coast.

It was decided. We’d drive back east, tour the schools to which Elissa had been accepted, drop me off in Buffalo to become an uncle, and then I’d meet Elissa wherever she decided to enroll. Matthew came along for the ride: the three of us (and all my stuff) crammed into a two-door 1980 Civic. We left Berkeley in late afternoon, watched the sun go down over the Temblor Range, coasted up over the Tehachapis — my first visit to the Mojave. I slept through Needles and Kingman, Matthew and Elissa trading the wheel.

And came the sound of brake linings, of skidding tires, of metal groaning on impact and my friends yelling in alarm. Elissa had fallen asleep at the wheel, then woke up in time to see us headed off the road. No one was hurt; we came to rest in the one spot for miles along Route 93 where there was shoulder to spare, neither rock wall nor cliff. A reflector pole had broken off, pushed a fender into a tire, dented the rim. I pulled out the fender with shaking hands.

I insisted I was awake enough to drive.

Was that how it was, J.? A moment of fright pre-impact and then the aftermath? Was your attention taken by our plans? Were you hurrying because I’d kept you on the phone for twenty minutes of goodbye? Are you sure? Are you sure?

“Chris! Are you sure?” It was Elissa. “Yeah, I’m really awake all of a sudden.” We pointed the little car toward Wickenburg.

He was waiting for us a hundred yards down, standing at roadside, grinning wild and lupine at his little joke. Bastard. I started laughing.

J. (4)

Who’ll inherit the earth again?

PZ Myers — who I need to add to the blogroll — offers this video of a crow dismantling the barrier between us vaunted Homo sapiens and all those other, lesser animals. Yeehaw!

PZ’s description:

The crow has the job of lifting a bucket with a food reward out of the tube — and all it’s given to do the job is a straight piece of wire. Watch it make a hook in the wire so it can snag the handle of the bucket and lift it out.

Proper citation (thanks, Ian):
Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows
Alex A.�S. Weir, Jackie Chappell, Alex Kacelnik
Science, Vol 297, Issue 5583, 981 , 9 August 2002

Fluffy Bunny!

This afternoon we climbed Eagle Peak, a ridge running north from the summit of Mount Diablo. I followed Becky up and up through head-high chamise and manzanita, past fragrant sage and crumbling rocks covered in lichen, up and up beneath oaks and pines shot through with mistletoe. We sweated and huffed and scrambled over steep rocky places with treacherous footing, traverses with just enough exposure to raise the hairs on the back of my acrophobic neck, though one would need to be somewhat persistent to actually plummet to one’s death from any particular point on the trail.

We reached the ridge crest and followed the trail south along it, a thousand-foot drop ten feet to either side. After an hour or two, we made the summit at 2,369 feet, about 1,800 more than we left at the truck.

We sat and drank, water and vantage point both. At our feet lay the head of Mitchell Canyon, 1,500 feet down. Beyond the Oakland Hills, The Bay, Mount Tamalpais, Japan. 

The sun arced lower; the shadow of our ridge crept upward in the valley to the east. A coyote, then two, then a half dozen started a chorus of lament. Becky turned to me. “They just got the election results.”

Berkeley Summit Meeting report

And Coyote said “he has written a screed against people, and so it would be funny to have him run into people he likes very much, so that he will feel conflicted.”
And it happened, but he was not conflicted, neither did irony poke at his bowels, and he said “ha, ha, Coyote, you missed me.” And he was thus in deep trouble, for Coyote was sore vexed.

I just bailed out a bit early from a very pleasant get-together with Pica, Numenius, Siona, and Maria. I can report that each and every one of them is exactly as their readers might imagine, only less pixelated.

We shopped for books, bought take-out curry from a spot on Telegraph with loud Bhangra music playing, sat on the banks of Strawberry Creek and ate, and chatted much of the time. It’s nice to meet people in real life and like them so much, so quickly. (Truth be told, I’d met Numenius and Pica before, but that was true then too.)

Raccoon digs everybody up

The first thing was the marsh. Before any of our towns existed, before there were people, there was the water and the mud, and only cordgrass and pickleweed grew there.

Raccoon was in there, walking back and forth through the cordgrass. The water was about up to his belly, and mud stuck to his fur as he walked around. The cordgrass stems tangled his legs. He didn’t like it. He thought “I need some dry land to walk on.”

So Raccoon started digging up some mud, making big piles of it, and he tamped it down with his feet. He made a path from his house to the mouth of Strawberry Creek. Then he walked up and down his path, feeling pretty good about the work that he’d done.

Where he had dug the mud away, he left a ditch that filled up with water. The water was good, and Raccoon liked the way it felt to drink cold water after a hard day digging. Every day he would go to one spot and stick his head underwater, and drink and drink.

One day, Raccoon was drinking and saw Crayfish walking along the bottom of the ditch, underwater. Raccoon caught Crayfish and brought him up out of the water. “What should I do with you?” asked Raccoon. “Put me in your mouth” replied Crayfish. So Raccoon ate Crayfish. Crayfish was the first thing Raccoon had ever eaten. He tasted good.

The next day, Crayfish was there again, and Raccoon ate again. This happened every day for awhile. One day Raccoon caught Crayfish again, but he didn’t eat him. Raccoon said “I’m tired of eating nothing but Crayfish all the time. I want to eat something else.”

So Crayfish told him “Dig more sloughs like the one I live in, and you’ll have some different things to eat.”

So every day after that, for months, Raccoon dug a different slough. In one he found Striped Bass, in another Steelhead, in another he found Scallop and Clam. He had something different to eat every day.

“This is a good idea,” thought Raccoon. “Every time I dig a bigger slough, I get something better to eat. If I dig the biggest slough of all, I’ll never have to worry about being hungry.” So Raccoon dug and dug until he had made a slough ten miles across, and a hundred miles long. He looked for someplace to put the dirt, and finally he just decided to pile it up on the banks of his big slough. You can still see some of those piles of dirt right by the Bay, in Albany and the Coyote Hills and Mount Tamalpais.

But Raccoon got too greedy, and dug too deep. He had the idea that he was just about to find something really good, so whenever he found someone new, he just tossed them over his shoulder, thinking he’d find something better soon. Some of the people he found landed in the water when he threw them—Crab and Salmon and Eel—and they still live there today. Some others —  Grizzly, Coyote, Skink—landed on the bank, and now they all live on the land.

Finally Raccoon found a woman stuck in the mud. She was young, with long black hair, and her belly was all swollen. Raccoon tried to pull her out, but she was too heavy and stuck too deep in the mud. Finally, Raccoon got her out and onto the bank, but he had dug too deep. Out of the hole where the woman was stuck came a flood of water. Raccoon tried to stop up the hole but it was too late; the water flooded almost all of the land he had dug up. If you go out past the Golden Gate, you can’t even see the land on the other side: that’s how much water came out of that hole.

But some of the sloughs weren’t completely flooded. Raccoon could still find enough food, and there were a few different things he really liked to eat. He never got bored again. And the woman’s belly got bigger, until one day she had babies. They were the first people.

Envy envy envy

Anne has an amazing picture of a Yellowstone wolf up on her blog. Which reminds me…

Anne’s a much better photographer than I am, so I’m not really posting out of competitiveness. I’m just taking her photo as a reminder of an encounter with a hungry Joshua Tree coyote.

It was Valentine’s Day, 2001, and my sweethearts and I were taking a winter vacation down in the desert. Becky and Zeke sat on a rock, drinking some water and looking out at the world, and I stared off into the distance trying to figure out why the crow in the Joshua tree a couple dozen yards away was barking at us.

Then came the yipping, and a handful of vague contours behind the blackbrush suddenly resolved into a hidden coyote. We were in her way. She was torn between shy startlement at seeing people far away from the roads where they usually hung out, and a desire to ask us for peanut butter sandwiches. (Joshua tree coyotes are notorious beggars.)

As the sky darkened with a February rainstorm, she came out from behind the scrub.

Later, we saw her by the side of the road in traditional mendicant pose. I rolled down the rear window, and Zeke stuck his head out to investigate. Nothing much happened. We shot a few more photos, and I drove away.