Back when I was visiting Peggy Pond Church at her retirement facility in Santa Fe, I would arrive some mid-mornings to find a note on her door: “Napping, come on in.” Peggy, a poet and writer in her 80’s, was an early riser (4-ish), so 10 am was a perfectly respectable nap time. In a little while she would emerge from her bedroom; as I waited I never failed to take note of a post card of a coyote stuck to her filing cabinet drawer.
From l983 to l986 I worked as Peggy’s literary editor, sifting with her through massive files-rough drafts of poetry books, a biography of the Southwest writer, Mary Austin, notes on other Santa Fe artists and writers, etc. Peggy maintained a constant narrative, interrupted only by a modest lunch and maybe another nap; if she couldn’t put her hands on one of the hundreds of pages in her files she was describing, she’d say “Coyote got it.”
Most of us know the reference in folktales to coyote as trickster. And for those of us who have seen “him” appear and disappear, ghostlike, on the plains-or maybe even in our backyards–he’s slight-handed indeed. Native people say coyote “goes along.” If I could blame my procrastination about writing this blog on him, believe me I would!
But Native people also regarded him as a deity, according to coyote biographer, Dan Flores. Their stories may feature him as trickster, prankster, even buffoon, but his character and escapades guide us. They tell us how NOT to behave and sometimes how to.
I recently heard Dan Flores (author of Coyote America) former historian at Texas Tech University (and most recently the A.B. Hammond Professor of History at the University of Montana) speak, sponsored by the Southwest Environmental Center in Las Cruces. It was a masterful talk, taking coyote from his 5-6 million year origin to Native tales to Lewis and Clark’s discovery of the “prairie wolf,” through various attempts at extirpation until the present day. But one image that stuck in my mind was a slide he showed of a pictograph in Palo Duro Canyon of coyote standing erect in a panel of what Flores identifies as “Old Man Coyote” stories–like any respecting human.
Flores traces the transformation of coyote as deity to coyote as varmit in the public eye, today providing an excuse for coyote killing contests in which coyotes are killed for fun and cash. Texas leads the nation in the number of killing contests per year (33) and New Mexico is just behind. While it’s difficult to access how many animals are killed in these contests, some have a payout as high as $100,000. Meanwhile government sponsored eradication agencies do produce numbers: from l947 to l956 the Bureau of Biological Survey killed 6.5 million coyotes, mainly through poisons like strychnine. Today’s Wildlife Services Agency still kills coyotes with aerial gunning.
But coyote keeps “going along.” Flores calls him an avatar–as the most common wild predator also a stand-in to help us humans see ourselves. Wiley, rueful, shifty, resourceful, it’s not just apt characterizations these suggest. When its population is pressed, as through coyote killings and government programs, coyotes exercise their ability to reproduce and spread accordingly. Today coyote is found from the tip of Alaska to South America–and in our major cities. Indeed, the key to managing coyote is to discover a threshold of population numbers rather than promote, through the extreme killing models, a severe population reduction which prompts expansion.
I liked too Flores’s description of a scene described to him. A coyote was “going along” with a sprig of sage in his mouth. Every once in a while he would stop and throw the sprig in the air and catch it. As the witness to this scene commented, any creature who enjoys life this much, just the livingness of it, surely deserves to live.
Flores says he’s eager to see how coyote copes with the 21st century. Avatar indeed.
Coyote: C’est Moi.