Coyote Totem

9 November 2013

I came into this world as a throw back and a cultural bastard child. I had a deep yearning to connect with the other living things around me, yet no indigenous traditions to follow. I may never find an Indian Shaman to mentor me into ancient mysteries. Like a feral cat or an escaped hog, I need to let my instincts and ancestral wisdom come to of themselves as I enter the wild. I glean what native wisdom I can find. The traditional home of the coyote is the Southwestern deserts and the great plains, yet they are invading the Forests of the North, learning to hunt deer as they come to occupy a niche left by the wolf. They seem to stand with one foot on the former domain of the wolf and one foot on a new niche they found for themselves, living on the edge of civilization. They walk a new path.

The Eastern Coyote, too, is a mongrel invader, with DNA from the Canadian wolf and possibly a smattering of feral dog.

The only thing I really know about coyotes is what I have experienced. I don't trust books or field guides for anything but really basic info. That's all just abstract knowledge to me. Too many times, I have experienced wild animals do the unexpected.

My first real life coyote encounter was much more interesting than the accounts I had read. I was in the Army and stationed in California. I can't remember exactly what I was doing, probably some type of guard duty. We were out in the desert. It was an unusual situation, because I remember having my b.d.u.'s on yet I had some type of free time. Generally when you are out in the field you can't just do what you want and take a stroll by yourself in the woods, unsupervised. (I think less people would join if they knew this fact ahead of time. Being under complete control by a chain of command takes most of the fun out of camping).

So, I was walking in this Scrubby semi arid area of California, and I came to a dump and saw a coyote; a big one. I was like Holy shit! There's a coyote. I remember thinking it had really big ears. They were really tall ears and nearly touched each other at the base of its narrow head. It stood and looked at it for a while. It looked back at me kind of warily and then went back to tentatively sniffing around on the ground. It was reddish tan with gray markings. It looked really big like maybe 60 or 70 lbs. I have seen many coyotes since and this was still the biggest one I have seen.

So like a dumb ass I decided to chase it. I had gotten into the habit of chasing deer while running at night on my time off in the streets of Monterey. Black tailed deer would come into the suburbs at night, and I would come upon them while jogging and so I would often sprint after them for a while. It was kind of invigorating.

So I took off after the coyote, thinking that like a deer it would take off and run away. It did something slightly more unsettling. It simply leisurely trotted off while giving me a sidelong glance and doubled around behind me in a half circle. It wouldn't allow me to get closer than 50 yards or so yet also wouldn't put more than 50 yards between us. It just kept circling around me like that. It became unclear who exactly was chasing whom. It was unnerving. Its tongue lolled out like a dog and I noticed its eyes were very narrow and oblique and the color of the red rock on some of the hills. My perspective had shifted quite suddenly. At first it had looked slightly comical to me with its big jack rabbit ears, but now it seemed ominous. Threatening.

So I stood there for a while just kid of staring at it, not doing anything. At the time I was probably 20 years old and in the best shape of my life. I ran everyday just about, not just in training, but in my time off I would run through the hills and along the beaches of Monterey and Carmel.

But as in shape as I was, I wasn't as smooth as this guy. He moved effortlessly. I had taken off after him in a sprint and he hadn't broken out of a leisurely trot. He also had me perfectly timed. The perfect timing was what was unnerving. He was not a dumb animal to chase or to do with as I wish. I had encountered intelligence, in some ways superior to my own.

He was a quick study who had taken stock of me and was not overly impressed. The timing revealed his physical mastery and intelligence. It was sort of like Mohamed Ali, in one of those clips of film where he invites some novice to go ahead and take swings at him while he simply stands in font of them and dances around without being touched. As the coyote gazed at me with his red eyes the color of the land, he seemed to say to me Now what are you going to do?

This all happened in the space of a few minutes but I think it revealed to me quite a lot of information upon later analysis. He probably knew what a gun was and that I didn't have one with me (which I didn't) He knew I couldn't run fast as he and that I was alone. This was the first wild animal I had encountered which was completely unafraid of me. But it wasn't out of foolhardiness or viciousness. He had intelligently assessed me and decided I wasn't a threat and that I wasn't going to chase him away.

So I decided to back away and then walk back to Camp, or my guard post, or whatever the hell it was I had been doing before I had taken a stroll.

It wasn't until about ten years later, in the North Woods of Minnesota that I was to have my first wolf encounter in the wild, But I have to say that coyotes are far more impressive in person than wolves are, even though I was much more interested in reading about wolves as a child. The wolf simply fled in terror as soon as it was spotted. It was even more skittish than a deer. White tailed deer are hunted regularly, yet often when I encounter them they only run off a little ways and look back to see if I am chasing them. If they determine I am not they go right back to feeding.

The wolf just high tailed it out of there. It wasn't taking any chances. It wanted to put as much distance between us as possible in the smallest amount of time possible. It didn't look back at me, it just ran.

The coyote seemed as curious about me as I was of it. Its been open season on coyotes for 200 years now, yet he didn't run. He even decided to screw with me a little. He seemed to have a sense of humor.

In almost all the subsequent encounters I have had with coyotes, they seem to be having fun. The one I saw in Madison Wisconsin was having fun. He was having more fun than me. I lived in Madison Wisconsin for several years, most of that time wishing I were somewhere else. I longed to be about 200 miles north of there, up by lake Superior in the Northwoods, or better yet 2000 miles away in the wilds of Alaska, yet there I was walking through a park going to work.

I was really unimpressed with all this green space people in Madison bragged about. A patch of green surrounded by buildings and city streets seemed more like a prison to me, than an oasis. I also could never find any solitude; a dozen other Madisonians were always enjoying the outdoors with me. I felt like I could never get away and be by myself.

But there by the bike trail one morning was one of the now infamous urban coyotes and
he was having fun, hunting rodents, half -heartedly it seemed, mostly just bounding around and screwing off. He looked up at me and we had some type of exchange, taking each other in. Always this eye contact seems very portentous, to me of something I can't quite put my finger on. Its not like looking at a dog and not like looking at another person either. Dogs don't really belong to themselves and neither do many people. These little glimpses I get into the minds of wild animals always seem somehow more authentic to me than encounters with people or pets. There is a gulf there. I will say though that the humor stayed on his face and that he soon looked away and went back to playing around. Once again I came away feeling these animals are curious about me without being overawed. They do seem interested in something, yet are way less impressed with me as I am of them.

So I felt something from this little exchange of eye contact. I felt some type of kinship but also a contrast. Here I was walking quickly to work, I could feel the stress in my body and the conflict. I didn't want to go to work but I didn't want to be late either, I wanted this little time before work to be my own to take a stroll, but it wasn't. I wasn't relaxed, I wasn't present, I was overcome with thinking about having to be at work. I was dressed for work. I wasn't on the clock yet the morning was not mine.

Here we were in this ridiculous patch of man made woods. There was some type of burlap along a ditch that had been constructed to look like a stream bank once again after spending several years as a culvert. There were newly planted trees around and many invasive plants had been recently removed. It was an effort at something positive, yet I resented it for reminding me that I was not in the wilderness some place but in a city of 80,000 people, in the capital of Wisconsin. It bothered me for being fake - yet trying to look natural. Approaching the nature and coming short, indelibly marked with the artificial and man made. I felt like I would almost prefer it to be a concrete ditch or a steel pipe instead of a stream bank made of burlap and planted with native plants At least then it would be authentic.

The coyote in contrast, was like a king. Everything he set eyes on was his. He wasn't worried about the aesthetics. He had apparently found there everything he needed and had moved in. I learned later from some local birders, that I had probably seen the adult male of a family of coyotes. He seemed like an alpha male. His time was completely his own, and he was caught up simply in the joy of being, free to leisurely hunt and jump around and enjoy the day while I slogged off to work.

I walked to my job and told a couple people about my encounter, some were pleasantly pleased and others were concerned that dangerous wild animals lived in such close proximity.

I realized that these artificial distinctions I made between the natural and the man made, the Pristine and the artificial were quite invisible to the coyote. In what sense were these distinctions real?

There are different layers of reality from which we can experience the coyote. The Indians legends examined coyote from a deeper layer of reality than the field guides. The field guides don't tell you what you see when you look in its eyes and see red clay in the hills staring back at you, laughing at you, challenging you, and then looking away again at something it finds more interesting, such as a piece of garbage buried in the dirt. In this deeper layer of reality there is really only one coyote. The shamans spoke of seeing coyote, not coyotes or a coyote. Coyote is an aspect of the Universe.

The Navajo know the coyote as Creator. Is it just a silly story? What was the Navajo saying? How could the coyote be the creator? It point to the coyote being central some how, essential. Its like coyote stands in some type of balance point some type of fulcrum around which the universe revolves. Coyote is at the center of chaos and creativity, sex and death. Coyote rolls the dice. Wolves don't seem to roll dice the way the coyote rolls the dice. If wolves come across humans way out in the woods, it doesn't seem to be a joke to them. It always seems to be a joke to the coyote. There is something numinous about coyote. We are all just symbolic of some greater reality perhaps. The coyote is symbolic of something central; a divine joke. I am convinced that there is a spirit of evolution. This Spirit is at work in the coyote.

Maybe it has to do with nobility. The Coyote has none. Wolves are noble, the Buffalo is noble. The Wolf and the buffalo fought the good fight. The coyote fucking cheated. They are gone and he's still around.

Its not really luck. The Buffalo and the Wolf, and the Indians hunting freely on the plains,
they were all killed off by design. The Buffalo and the wolves lived only in zoos; the Indians were confined to reservations. Only the coyote stuck around and continue to do as it wished, stealing sheep and howling at the moon, scheming its next petty con job. Declaring war on the coyote is a war no one can win. Every coyote is a monument to the failure of Colonialism, Imperialism, modernism, manifest destiny and civilization of every kind.

Once you come to see them for what they are, coyotes are obscene! They are no less obscene than Pan walking on goat legs with a giant hard on. I find coyotes remarkable for how they defy the dominant narratives. Man the despoiler? Man the conservationist? Its of no matter to the coyote. He is independent of humanity and human civilization- the- vast impersonal machine that feeds on life.

So divine coyote was playing with me.

Coyote often shows up suddenly at high noon as it were like Pan, or just after dusk like Odin on his wild hunt. The coyote is the creator, the fire stealer.

Each time he greeted me I seemed familiar to him. Perhaps I was being initiated. In Native American tradition the circle is a symbol of unity. I see a distinction between the circle that unites and the grid that divides. It was through the unity of the circle that coyote came to me again and again, taking me in recognizing me as one of its own.

The first time I was encircled by coyotes was on a hundred mile canoe trip I took down portions of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers. Eventually, I came to Wyalusing State Park, located on a hilly, wild area at the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. My budget was limited at that point. If at all possible I planned to do some stealth camping. I stored my canoe by some trees and headed up the hill into the park. The spring rains had washed out a portion of road and the park was deserted. This seemed like a good place to make camp. I had been looking at nothing but green trees all day and was tired from being in the canoe for more than 24 hours straight. As I closed my eyes I continued to see nothing but images of trees and shrubs. As I drifted off to sleep, the green images contorted into the shapes of sinister, predatory faces.

I had only been asleep for a few moments when I awoke to the sound of coyote calls. Their howling had bled into my dream.

A pack of coyotes rallying for a hunt had surrounded my tent. It sounded like at least six or seven coyotes, their howls coming from all directions; dominating, warlike. It was strange to me, yet familiar. Having been away from the world of words for a few days, I had gained some insight that went beyond labeling more of a feel. These coyotes seemed to be displaying some type of aggressive bravado. That was the feeling. I remained very still.

I dont know how long I lay there listening to them, but they were close enough that I could hear their footfalls on dry leaves.

Soon I heard the pack tearing something apart. At first I thought that maybe some of the coyotes had been fighting, but the pitiful cries of the victim put that to rest. Whatever it was they were killing, they were not doing so dispassionately, but rather with prejudice; aggressive and savage.

I heard them eating and chomping noisily and then there was another group howl. It really seemed like a victory howl, like the singing of a group of drunken sports fans whose team had just won. It also called to mind a group of brokers on Wall Street whooping it up at the opening bell. The cries triggered a memory from more than twenty years ago where I witnessed a gang of hoodlums assault and rob two people in a park in Southern California. It seemed to be a type of initiation for some new members. They had a cry that was like an Indian war cry. I remember chills running down my spine as I heard this call. It was the same call I heard from these coyotes.

After the cries had died away and the coyotes had moved on, I was still unable to sleep. All night long I heard the throaty call of a mother deer calling desperately for her fawn. The call sounds like rushing air with a muffled whistling. It was a call of desperation and maternal love. She called for it all night, circling the area around and around, but it was to no avail: Her fawn was in the bellies of six or seven coyotes and was no more. The call slowly faded into deep morning and finally quieted down in despondence.

In a circle of coyote howls I felt a murderous predatory energy enter reality like a time traveler stepping through a portal, and I was there in the epicenter.

The coyote howl was a magic ceremony, where the coyotes opened and manifested a mysterious power, which possessed the pack. They then savagely killed a fawn.

Afterwards they howled in celebration and closed the portal. The murderous power left this patch of reality, leaving the mother deer to call all night after her fawn to no avail. Nature is often harsh, yet there is always balance. Each day is divided by darkness and light. Nietzsche in The birth of Tragedy postulated that the decline of Greek Civilization began when Greek theater, began to lose the balance between Apollonian and Dionysian forces. Apollo represented the sun, individuality and reason, in Greek theater this was embodied in the hero. But the chorus stood in for the forces of chaos, darkness, the irrational, the emotionally evocative. The power of the art form was in the dynamic balance of these forces.

My life before the trip had become unbalanced. I was aware of ecological issues, but they
were merely something I passively lamented as the world moved on before me. The coyotes were calling me to action!

They had awakened the warrior- hunter within me, by symbolically initiating me into the pack.

A few years later I was snowshoeing in the Adirondack wilderness when coyotes encircled me once again. It was a cold, clear, late afternoon when I came across fresh coyote tracks in the snow. The tracks were going the opposite way, so I decided to trace them backwards through time. As I uncovered its story through its tracks on the snow. It struck me as being a lot like a form of writing. Black marks on a white page moving in a line. I remembered that anthropologists have speculated that humans evolved the capacity for reading and writing, from our years in pre-history reading animal tracks on the ground. This became self evident to me. But I was reading the story backwards. As I read further the tracks grew older. Older in terms of hours days, months, maybe even eons. How long had predators been leaving tracks here in the snow? As I retraced the coyotes steps I found evidence of a kill, some spots of blood, rabbit fur on the snow. The coyote was a tracker too.

I headed back home as it was getting dark and then, as came to a frozen marsh, coyote calls came up around me and once again I found myself in the center of a group howl. They were welcoming me back to the North woods. Home coming. Return. The coyotes encircled me once more on my evening walk weeks later. But I later left the North Woods.

Last summer I came back, to the Adirondack Mountains. Rumors of sightings of giant hairy Wild men, began to circulate, we they the same creatures known as Bigfoot or Sasquatch of the Pacific North West? These sightings predate the formation of the Park, back to pioneer days and before that to the Mohawk Indian legends of the Stonish Giants I decided to investigate for myself. I brought no camera or recording equipment. I felt if I was chosen to know the mystery would be revealed to me. I had no hope of proving anything to anyone but myself alone.

I went walking through the woods all night, through a remote stretch of road, in the Adirondacks, in the place where many sightings had been reported. It was over cast, no moon, no stars. Complete darkness, except for fireflies who lit my path. As I approached a meadow, coyote calls came up around me, first one, then another. They were from both side of the road. I found myself once again in the center of a group howl. In Indian Lore the Sasquatch is known as "The Husband of Mother Earth" but the coyote is known as "God's dog." Whatever it was I was searching for, I feel the coyote has honored it. The coyotes once again adopted me as their own. What does that say about me? In this fractured age, I glean what mythology I can, wherever I can find it. A friend tweeted a passage from a book entitled Star Wars: The Magic of Myth the passage read:

In a dystopia, the hero lives inside the evil empire and must find a way out, revolting against the status quo. Thus the dystopian story focuses on the individual who can recognize the spiritual and emotional emptiness of the current order.

He or she may physically enter the wilderness outside the technologically controlled world in order to discover there, the dark, irrational self-the human animal inside the social machine. As Luke demonstrates at the end of the trilogy, the hero is the one who is able to resist the lure of the system. Vader on the other hand is a bureaucrat as Joseph Campbell points out living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today...How do you relate to this system so that you are not compulsively serving it? And Campbell provides the answer By holding to your own ideals for yourself and rejecting the systems impersonal claims upon you.

In this day and age, in contrast to ancient times, (which Star Wars hearkens to though mythology) the technological social machine has become so vast that it makes impersonal
claims upon the wilderness itself!

The wilderness of our ancestral memories, of our collective unconsciousness is not calm orderly and rational. That is what a garden is. Gardens are good things to have. I highly recommend them. Gardening is very relaxing, and the food you grow there will be delicious.

But many highly managed forests, preserves, conservation areas, State and National Parks, are gardens. They are a product of rational planning and management. They are zoned, regulated, coded. They are patrolled and these laws and regulations are enforced. No one can live there, only visit. More and more these places are regularly planted, stocked and weeded. They have for a long time been stocked with game fish raised under artificial conditions, but also game animals, such as pheasants, turkeys, quail. Many established species were once stocked and have taken hold again, but the point is they are their due to rational management. More recently some areas have been stocked with predators, more famously wolves but also lynx and a few others.

More and more invasive species are being removed from wild areas. The thing is, the way I look at it, once you remove these invasive species, also known as weedy species, you have taken out something of the wild. Weeds are something you remove from a garden, not a wilderness. Invasive species are wild in the sense of not being under human control. They don't fit in with the abstract rational categories, of what Forest managers construe to be a wilderness, but a wilderness is not something you create. Thing you create are through artifice, and thus are artificial.

I am not saying I have a better idea of how National Forests should be managed. For one thing. I don't think that the most virulent invasive species will be able to be controlled. Many invasive species will continue to be a big money sink. I don't care about that either.

I am concerned with seeing reality for what it is. I am interested in seeing wilderness. The dystopian hero's journey is the story of my life. This was encapsulated in another experience that happened this past summer. I fell asleep reading "the technological society" by Jacques Ellul. I made a vow to myself never to yield to the machine but to continue to fight it. As I drifted off this large primordial human presence, like a giant cave man, entered my consciousness. After I fell asleep my housemates informed me that strange extremely loud screeching calls emanated from the woods all night. Sasquatch too had given me their blessing.

In my dreams, I often visit a recurring place. It has great tropical natural beauty and exotic wild animals, but also pollution and destruction and natural disasters. The people are dark skinned, some times Negroid and sometimes brown skinned Indians. All of them are criminals, some of them are rebel guerillas, others are drug addicts, addicted to horrible drugs way worse than heroin or cocaine, more like krokodil. Others have horrible diseases such as leprosy, or like these nightmare drugs I have dreamed up something worse. Characters in my dreams that populate this place often have all of these qualities, such as a leader of a Black Criminal Gang, is also a rebel guerrilla and drug addict, and is covered all over his body with foul smelling lesions.

None of these people prey on me, or attack me, I just end up in their territory and I am forced to negotiate with them, in order to continue on my journey. There is often a safer more law abiding well-organized region of my dreamscape, that I try to remain in, but invariably on order to complete some mission I must go into the wilderness.

I had this recurring dream several times before I was struck that this place seems like some type of third world country. But it was a wilderness.

A wilderness needs guerillas, squatters, illegal loggers, gold miners and enough undisturbed areas left to provide habitat for large predators, poisonous snakes, parasites and biting disease-carrying insects. There should also be beautiful birds and some naked hunter-gatherers left living there with painted skin and scarification and or facial piercings. There should be ancient ruins. These wilderness areas should be edged with a few chaotic crowded cities. There should open markets with the corpses of rare and beautiful animals and colorful fish, and lots of pollution and smoke from fires, beggars, lepers, prostitutes, snake charmers, con artists and street thugs. There is no Wilderness left in the US, only parks. There is no Alaskan Wilderness. Nobody is allowed migrate there and set up a homestead and live off the land. That era is over. In the US wilderness is a legal designation used to denote a set of regulations around what is not allowed there. There are more prohibitive regulations in designated wilderness areas than in other areas. That is the opposite of a wilderness. A wilderness is characterized by Lawlessness. A wilderness is a wasteland, a No man's land.

Wilderness in the United States has become highly regulated, in Deleuzian terms over coded legal entities. These places are not outside, but well within, the grasp of the technologically controlled world where wolves are darted with tranquilizers from helicopters and fitted with radio collars, where Federal Agents patrol in search of Meth labs and Marijuana patches, where the public is invited to visit but not remain. But in contrast, to highly controlled regulated Forests, where there is coyote there is wild.

He brings the wilderness to Army Bases, to parks on the Mississippi river, to the Adirondack Mountains and even the center of large cities. Encircling me and singing to me, awakening and rekindling within me that dark irrational self that human animal inside the social machine.