Tag Archives: Coyote

Theory semioticism du jour

This is the customary role of the best-known figure in lndian literatures, Coyote. To emphasize both his man/animal nature and his transformativeness, as well as to keep in mind the supra-tribal reference of my discussion, I’ll call him Coyote/coyote.

From Deconstructionist Criticism and American Indian Literature, Karl Kroeber, boundary 2, Vol. 7, No. 3, Revisions of the Anglo-American Tradition: Part 2. (Spring, 1979), pg. 76.

Nature photography

I’ve been poring over the photo catalog the last 48 hours or so, seeing images I’d forgotten, cast back into times I’d left.

Some of the images that say the most to me are the ones I might have thrown away, were I a purist. A blurred glimpse of butterfly speeding across the field of vision as I struggled to follow it with the long lens, the Mojave sun backlighting it into incomprehensibility. Feedlots in evening glow, blurred as I aimed, steadied, and shot one-handed, my other hand on the wheel at 80 mph. A perfect Calochortus with a thick blade of grass in front of it, out of focus.

Elk in a fenced-in side yard, spools and fallen chain link underfoot.

Among the best, in terms of composition: a puma seen from behind, relaxing. To call it a “nature photo” might cause some disagreement. It’s a zoo puma, and while shooting photos of captive animals still requires talent and skill, it’s a lot easier than photographing animals out running around. And on the outside of the zoo walls, when you do find animals, they’re far more likely to be doing something worth documenting. But try getting a shot like the one of that zoo puma, in the wild, with a 50 mm lens. And when you try, be sure to turn the camera’s shutter sound setting to “off.”

The important thing is to be honest about where you caught the image. If it’s a parking lot raven, don’t pretend you stalked a less-habituated gal out in the roadless desert. A few years back, a nature magazine caught hell for splicing a few extra zebras into their herd for their cover photo without saying so. If you’re pretending at documentation, be honest. That kind of purism is mere ethical behavior.

But some nature photo purism is just misguided. It’s not even all that pure…

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Coyote and Badger

The people thought Coyote odd when he came to live among them. He broke into laughter at unusual times. He sang loud laments in his sleep. He snapped at the air, as if chasing flying insects no one else could see. He was crafty, and they were wary of him at first.

Over the weeks, though, the people grew accustomed to his manner, and he proved helpful in keeping rats out of their corn. Coyote would dig clay from the river bank and shape from it lithe figures, deer that looked like they might leap from the road into the brush, fish so real they could flick a clay tail and dart into the depths of unseen waters.

Coyote was always beautiful, with eyes of ponderosa pine amber, a tail like silk. But when he sculpted his beauty became almost terrifying, as if those eyes held lightning. Most of the people avoided him politely at those times. But there was one woman, a young woman, who could not tear her gaze from Coyote even at his fiercest. Each night for a month she sat quietly as he worked, watching him from behind the old cottonwood. If he knew she was there he did not show it.

At long last one dawn, the third-quarter moon setting, he startled her awake. “It is done,” he said. He took her hand and led her from behind the tree, turned the sculpture so that she could see it. It was her likeness, faithful enough a reproduction that it made her feel a little faint.

She took him as her mate.

That winter was bitter cold, and there was little food. Her belly swelled with their child, and she was ravenous, but they had only cornmeal to eat, and whatever small game Coyote could capture. On the day the sun hung lowest in the south, a terrible blizzard raged through their town. It got very cold, and they burned a month’s supply of firewood in three days just to keep warm, huddling in damp blankets near the fire.

On the third day Coyote stood. “I am going.”

She gasped. “But where?”

“I must go find some food for us to eat, gather some fuel to keep us warm. We will die otherwise.”

And with that he strode out the door into the face of the storm. She waited for him to return.

He did not return, for a very long time.

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Kessler Peak

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There are so many of them down there. I watch them from up inside the mountain. Dozens of them there, passing as I tried to sleep, laying down over me a mantle of dust.

I drank coffee.

I nodded a silent hello to the trees.

I’m back, I thought.
— We never left.
There are so many of them here this time, I said.
— You will all leave eventually.

They keep to the roads, a trait both curse and blessing. I walk away into the desert. There was a canyon facing us all: In ten years I have seen just one person hike into it, and that was me. A braid of washes spills out of the canyon, and I lost myself in them, dropping out of sight of my neighbors.

Four-o-clocks bloom incongruous purple on the washes’ north banks. The wash was full of color. Paintbrush and turpentine broom, cholla with its golden armament and I dodged each bristling stand by centimeters, brilliant milk quartz where floods have broken open red-varnished shards of shattered mountain, washed down over centuries.

The trees kept me company. “I’m back,” I said aloud.
— You never left.
“Not the part of me that matters, I suppose.”

They nodded as I gained altitude.

This canyon is intimate, a cleft in the red-varnished rock. There is a pillar there in its center, a monolith thirty feet or so in height, and a patch of shade just my size beneath its north face. A seat for me amid a plenary of trees, of barrel cacti and red-baked rock, of lizard and cactus wren and fly. We sit in fellowship.

I do not know how much time passes. It is as if the passage of time has ceased to matter, though more likely time passes as normal and it is me that has ceased to matter. It is a result of solitude, this blurring of the boundary between natural and preternatural. In the company of people the minutes ratchet past as usual.

The wind shifts a bit, blows from Teutonia Peak and up the canyon to me, resinous and sweet and salt, gnarled juniper lost in longing for distant, fond-remembered jasmine.

Sounds from the crowd four hundred feet below reach me, borne on the wind. The big friendly dog whose barking will cancel any coyote concert tonight. The joyful complaints of old women.

And then a rasping chainsaw sound, and then another, and I recoil inside. Off-road motorcycles starting up, knife-sound to my ears. My hat is brown, my clothing black, skin red: they could not see me up here in the mountain if they looked, but I see them. The mountain has eyes today and we are watching them, and not kindly. Seven of them. Eight. Nine. They roll one by one past my campsite. They keep a sedate pace, I will grant them that much. In time I will find their dust has drifted inside my sleeping bag, clogged the burners on my stove, but that comes later.

They turn one by one, keep to the road, roar off northward down the dusty two-rut. They think they do no harm, I tell myself. Someone has told them, I tell myself, that if they keep to something on the map labeled “road” and do not raise giant clouds of dust near asthmatic campers that they are thus comporting themselves without harm.

A dozen species in this forest rely on sharp hearing to survive, to find prey or to avoid becoming prey. A dirt bike engine commonly puts out about 100 decibels, sometimes more. Human hearing begins to show damage from exposure to sounds of 85 decibels. Those fucking machines are loud. They are loud up here, a mile away. There are rabbits living in the blackbrush stands along the road: I met some on my way up here. I think of their reaction to this acoustic assault, and wince hard.

And of course the dust settles, coating leaves that may not feel rain for years, covering pistils and stamens open just now, cutting photosynthetic efficiency of the plants at roadside by increments and making it harder for those plants to control their internal temperatures, damaging what cryptobiotic crust was left when the cattle were finally removed from this forest, one more injury in a century of injury, and for what?

For fun.

They deny this earth is alive. They deny the forest can be injured. There is them, and there is a desert landscape that is to their minds a paved track with a dust covering and some landscaping they cannot identify, and they deny the commonality between the two. They may be good people, with good hearts. It is true that the off-road “community” possesses a shockingly high percentage of ignorant thugs, who respond to concerns of environmental damage with threats of violence to children and pets. This forest has seen enough of that sort: it was a leg of the infamous Barstow-to-Vegas hare and hounds race, an event so useless and destructive that even the US federal government had to agree, at long last, to stop it ever happening again. These riders may not be that sort. They seem well-mannered, considerate of campers.

I do not care. There is no excuse for ignorance of the damage their sport inflicts; damage to the desert and to themselves. Their ignorance of the desert earth allows them to indulge in its destruction, and their so indulging protects and extends their ignorance.

I am furious. I feel as if I should answer this assault somehow, and yet if I had a gun and plinked their tires, somehow I would become the bad guy. My eyes ache, the tire-spun dust reaching up this far, and I turn to the trees for counsel.

“I should do something.”
— What would you do?
“I don’t know.”

A hundred trees face downcanyon, watching the dirt bikers, watching me. Atop the summit ridge one tree, its view obscured by another red monolith, cranes hard around to get a glimpse.

— They will all of them leave, eventually.

A lesson I have had to learn repeatedly from these instructors. There is a rock behind me slanted imperfectly toward my spine. I lean back, varnished quartz nubs hard against my knotted muscle. There is nothing to do.

I sit for a long time in the company of the desert.

The sun has moved, and I am cold. There is a flat rock in the sun, in front of me and forty feet upslope. I move to it and sit crosslegged. The sun puts me to sleep, partway. I talk to a far-distant friend, a conversation interrupted down there an hour before dawn. I wake again, and doze again, and sit, and wake again.

The sun has moved more. The bikers have not returned. Did they pass by on a broad loop from the Interstate? Perhaps they fell into an impossibly deep hole on the other side of this range. I care somewhat less now. I am content.

I have not moved a muscle for some minutes.

There is a rattlesnake in the shade of the shrub next to me. It rattles almost hesitantly. I move away, and then circle back to get a glimpse. It does not show itself but rattles again, more insistently this time. Dirt bikes a mile away and a deadly poisonous snake at arm’s length, and the sound of the first roils my mind while the second spurs a cautious fondness. Still, I take it as a hint.

Snakes greet me all the way back to the truck. I pack.

I leave.

Upside

It was wide open on Route 101 this afternoon. The traffic heading north from the Golden Gate bridge was doing about 60. The truck carried me up the headlands slope past Alexander Avenue to the tunnel, then down the Waldo Grade toward Sausalito. There’s a canyon to the west right there, a cliff of dark ophiolitic rock covered in pampas grass, and I was thinking about other days when fog has rolled down that canyon like a river.

An Escalade passed me at about 85 or 90. I glanced as it went by, the driver on his phone.

I possess rank prejudice against people who use cell phones while driving, and people who speed on mountain roads in SUVs, and he was both of those things, so I eased up on the gas as he passed.

So I was only doing about 50 when he fishtailed and spun his ass-end into my lane about seven lengths up, and then

just

stopped.

In my lane.

We were in lane number two, and the lane to our right was empty. I made a lane change. This lane change involved a Δv perpendicular to the axis of the Tacoma, which Δv was significantly in excess of the recommendations of both the Toyota Motor Corporation and the National Traffic Safety Board.

Which means I did a little fishtailing myself. I managed not to hit the Nokia Dementia sufferer in the Escalade, as (thankfully) did the sedan a few lengths behind me. But of the two or three very long seconds in which I worked to regain complete control of the steering, approximately one of those seconds was spent with the truck’s nose pointed at what suddenly seemed an insufficient guardrail, with a steep hill beyond it and some roofs of expensive houses a hundred feet below.

Clearly, I’m fine. I am not a Scott Eric Kaufman kind of blogger for whom terrifying accidents mean only a momentary delay in posting. The truck is fine. But after I straightened out there was suddenly a weird metallic flapping noise coming from the back end of the truck, and I got mad. Just what I needed: an inconvenient vehicle problem. There was an exit with a wide spot just ahead and I pulled off.

A few years ago, when I suddenly found myself spun around and tumbled and then hanging upside down from the seat belt in my late lamented 1994 Nissan pickup at Barrett and San Pablo avenues in Richmond, an absurd calm came over me. I methodically turned off the engine, inventoried body parts for new pain including the all-important spine, wiggled fingers and toes and (very, very carefully) head, then came up with an exit strategy that minimized exposure to the broken glass that covered every square inch of available horizontal surface, all the while pondering whether it made more sense to call home or work first. I remained preternaturally calm until I watched them tow my beloved and well-traveled truck away, the last time I saw it ever. So it did not occur to me to be particularly surprised at my lack of immediate fright or shock this afternoon.

But pulled off at the Spencer Avenue exit, crouching down to find that the metallic noise was probably due to the soda can that had wedged itself into the right rear tire as I skidded on the shoulder, I realized that I was unutterably relieved to have found a trivial, inexpensively repaired fix for the sudden noise from the truck, which I had been upset about.

Said realization was punctuated by raven laughter from a nearby blue gum.

Sure, I’m glad I didn’t die or — worse — get horribly injured. I have a picnic to go to this weekend, and a desert trip next weekend, and other fun travel plans in months to come being considered. I have unfinished conversations to continue, music to listen to, books to read. Plus it really would have made the week difficult for the folks at work, me dying on deadline and all.

But the big relief today came not from failing to plunge off the cliff, but from finding out I didn’t have to deal with a flat tire. Because that’d have just been annoying.

You want a capsule description of my interior landscape this year? There you have it.