A suburban Alabama coyote, the kind that is "here to stay".
The past few weeks have put me and my spirit animal in close proximity on several occasions. If I confess my affinity for the coyote, I do so with a caveat, namely, that the mythic character of Coyote doesn't appeal to me. What I love about the coyote is what I also love about the wolf- the relentless habit of howling at the moon, speaking to the night, feeling safe in that silvered light.
Coyote the creature, a wandering loner content to dwell outside the pack, has my respect. But Coyote the myth, the trickster who tries to live outside ethics, who holds himself to no standard apart from his own pleasure, has always struck me as a rather juvenile fantasy, the kind I might have entertained back in the day when I still thought my parents were to blame for the stuff that went wrong in my life. Again, my love for coyote rubs hard against my wariness of Coyote.
But here's why it matters. Last week, when we were wandering through the Arboretum doing nature journaling, a coyote happily crossed our path. Then he veered into the parking lot. This week, Kenny informed me the coyote population was very high this year- he's seen several in the unofficial dog park in the past few weeks.
Then, lo and behold, when the king joined us for lunch today, trumpets unfurling blue banners, his first words to me announced the presence of coyote on the street just outside our house. A dirty-blonde, reddish, sneaky coyote fellow walking near our mailbox, crossing the street with that typical bouncing step that makes canine friends look sluggish.
The kids and I missed seeing the coyote (Max worried about how the coyote and the fox that lives behind our home would co-exist), but we managed to identify his tracks. The coyote of Cherokee Hills, a legend begging to be narrated.
As usual, the events of the day determined our learning schedule. All my previous plans whistled through the window and the coyote-inspired ruckus gathered momentum. So I found a few fact sheets and tasked Max with reading them and sharing their contents with the girls. The little proffesor loves the opportunity to profess...
Coyotes in Alabama Fact Sheet (Outdoor Alabama)
The Coyote: Facts and Myths (Alabama Cooperative Extension Service)
Meanwhile, I set about doing my bit of research on Alabama coyotes. It seems that the coyote trapping season in Alabama lasts from mid-November through February. Local coyote friends eat small, furry mammals, many of which are out and about during this time, seeking food to store for the winter.
As I mentioned before, Native American legends have long included a character known as Coyote, whose powers include an ability to blur moral boundaries by playing the trickster. Coyote (the character) cannot ever be trusted.
One of my favorite tales is an old Caddo story, "Coyote Goes Fishing", in which an elderly Caddo man takes revenge on the ever-deceptive Coyote. It's unusual because it turns that tables on the ever-wiley Coyote.
I shared it aloud with the little people to see what they thought. Did Coyote get what he deserved? What did the Caddos teach in the telling of this tale? Did you feel sympathy for Coyote? Why or why not?
One time Coyote went out hunting along the river and saw some one walking along its banks, carrying something on his back. When he came nearer he saw that it was a man carrying a fish. Coyote came to him, and said: “How do you do, my friend? Where are you going? Where have you been? Where did you get that big snake?”
“Well,” said the man, “I have been out fishing nearly all night, and finally I caught this fish. I was so tired that I did not care to catch another.”
“What!” said Coyote, “do you call that a fish? How did you get hold of it?”
“Well,” said the man, “I will tell you how to get them. When evening comes go down along the edge of the river and break a place in the ice just big enough to put your tail in, and stay there until I come to see you again.”
That same evening Coyote went to the place and found the man waiting for him. It was getting dark. The man told Coyote to sit down by the edge of the water, while he was breaking the ice. Coyote did as the man told him. He did not know that this was a man whom he had tricked some time before and that he was trying to get revenge. The man left Coyote sitting by the bank fishing all that cold night. Toward the middle of the night the water began to freeze on Coyote’s tail, and toward morning the ice got thicker and thicker, and when morning came Coyote tried to get up from his seat, for he was very tired, but he could not. There he was, trying in every way to get free, but he could not move.
When the man came he said to Coyote: “How are you getting along? Are you catching any fish?” Coyote replied: “I think I have caught two or three of them, but can you help me to get them out on dry land?”
“Yes,” said the man, “of course I will, although I want to talk to you before we get the fish out of the water. You remember that a long time ago you were one of my best friends, but finally you tricked me, and now I am getting even with you. You will have to die, for I am going to kill you.”
“My friend,” said Coyote, “I think you are mistaken. I do not think I am the man who played the mean trick on you. You know very well that I never betray my friends while I am able to see. If you will let me go this time I will go and bring the man you are looking for, and I will come back to-morrow evening and assure you that I am your friend.”
“But,” said the man, “I do not see how you are going to get loose to go, do you? I will look for the other man myself, and I will do to him just as I am going to do to you.”
The man went back to his lodge to get his bow and arrows. When he returned to Coyote he took one of the arrows out and showed it to him and said, “You see this?” He began to sing the song that warriors sing just before they kill their enemies. When he had finished the song he shot and killed Coyote.
Then we read "How Coyote Stole Fire", an alternate telling in the line of Coyote legends. It's another favorite- a story that should be told by a blazing bonfire with shadows dancing across the faces and nary a star in the night sky. A story in which reveals nuances in Coyote's character.
While the girls and I discussed the two stories, Max compared them in his journal, focusing on what traits of Coyote each story revealed. If the weather agrees, build a fire outside tonight and share this story with your family. Add a few marshmallows for the squirmiest little ones... I garner it will spark something memorable.