A Small Howl Against One American Tradition: Violence Toward Nature

“American policymakers have always needed enemies, and with wolves gone, the coyote stepped unsuspectingly into the glare”
― Dan FloresCoyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History

In my retirement I am trying to focus my time and energies on the things I care most about.  One of those things is the natural world. This led me to volunteer for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  I’m a member of the Geological Society there, which gives me a chance to learn about rocks and fossils and the stewardship of the environment. Readers of this blog also know I have taken courses in astronomy there, and have waxed amazed by our nearest neighbor in the cosmos, our moon.

Me, with Linus, a river otter.

But the part of the Museum that has captured my deepest and most enduring interest is the Wildlife Center, where I spend two afternoons a week as a Perkins Steward – a kind of animal docent – helping visitors learn about the animals we have there, but also paying close attention to the critters as a part of the Museum’s need to be observant regarding their health and the safety of their environment.

Although I don’t like to use the word, one of the big attractions at the Wildlife Center is the coyote environment.  (The Museum is not a zoo – we do not collect animals for the sake of display or entertainment.)  The Museum is a teaching and preservation institution. All the animals there are either rescued, injured or they have been raised by hand and cannot succeed in the wild.  And all are native to Ohio.

Coyotes Tex, Red and Ember (l-r) on the roof of a den at the Wildlife Center

The three coyotes in the spacious enclosure (Red, Ember, and Tex) that visitors see when they first enter the Wildlife Center were rescued even before they were born, having been delivered from the deceased body of their mother, who was hit by a car, and raised by hand for the first part of their lives. They are beautiful, and despite their sense of familiarity as members of the canine family, they also carry the mystique of the exotic, stemming from our shared history and the lore of the American wild west.

Coyotes remain for us, emblematic of the wild, free spirit we embrace as Americans.  But at a deeper and more elemental level they also call forth the fear and the knee-jerk impetus to eliminate all that threatens to disturb our comfortable, 21st century lives.

I’ve learned a lot about coyotes in recent months and in the process have had to confront some very disturbing facts about myself as an American – someone who has often taken pride in the independence and rugged individualism that is part of my unspoken birthright as a native-born U.S. citizen. This was brought home to me from reading a terrific book, Coyote America by Dan Flores (read a transcript from an NPR interview with Mr. Flores here) and from a recent news article about how America is the most violent country in the world.

What is it, in us, that instantly defaults to rejection, to the point of desiring elimination, of anything not comfortably within our limited understanding and experience? A case can be made here for not just animals and people who are different, but ideas, traditions and values as well.  Why are we so threatened by sharing space and resources with those not of our immediate tribe?

Setting aside our country’s embarrassing first place rank in murder and gun violence – I believe a direct correlation to our romanticized gun-slinging wild west past – look at what we have done as a nation to kill by violent means anything we consider undesirable in our domination of the natural world: wolves, of course, buffalo, otters, the passenger pigeon, among many, many other animals – and coyotes.  The story of our efforts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to eradicate* these clever, adaptable, wholly native American animals is shameful and sickening. And, like our efforts to do the same with so many species, resulted in some very negative consequences for us that we were too stupid or arrogant to foresee.

Yes, coyotes scavenged some of the weaker members of the cattle and sheep herds that ranchers had brought in to graze the vast plains once the buffalo herds had been slaughtered. But then the rabbit population soared, devouring the grass that the domesticated livestock needed to survive and forcing farmers to fence their crops against the proliferation of voracious rodents.  And when wolves were re-introduced into the national parks after having been hunted to extinction, the booming coyote population was reduced to a level that allowed both species to co-exist successfully.

Everything has a place in the order of things, and that order, if it is to remain balanced, must be allowed to sustain itself, with as little manipulation and savagery from us as possible, for the long term – centuries if not eons. This is as true of coyotes as it is of glaciers, fruit bats, the ozone layer, coral reefs, and bees.


FUN FACT: Coyotes are able to manage their own populations.  Females can conceive up to 15 pups in times of scarce resources to ensure that enough survive to carry on.  They can also limit their reproduction to just a few pups to maintain a sustainable population and not overrun their environment’s food supply.

ANOTHER FUN FACT: According to experts, due to their (yes) wiley and highly adaptable nature, it can be reasonably calculated that a coyote is now no farther than one mile away from every person in America – no matter where you are.


* More than 1 million coyotes killed a year during the last decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, through shooting, trapping, poisoning and biological warfare: inoculation with canine-deadly disease.

 

 

 

No One is Alone

”People make mistakes, holding to their own, thinking they’re alone.”  No One is Alone, from Into the Woods, by Steven Sondheim

Yesterday, while working the Times crossword and finishing my second cup of coffee, a centipede slithered out of nowhere, weaseled its way across the carpet and disappeared under the coffee table.

Last night I fell asleep reading about the ancient connection between humans and coyotes. This canid, according to the author, is now present within one mile of anyone in America, including me, reading in bed.

Later, I was awakened by the distinct odor of that white-striped denizen of suburbia passing through my backyard.

This morning, a rabbit, a squirrel, a chipmunk and an assortment of birds foraged peacefully together among the leavings from the bird feeder. Each danced unconsciously around the other, minding, yet not minding at all, the act of sharing sustenance and space.

*   *   *   *

When asked, I say I live alone.  But none of us do. While I certainly could do without the centipedes, and maybe the skunks, I’m certain they have a place in the grand order of things, and so I am content to live with them.

The order of things — a frighteningly fragile construct, requiring balance between need and greed.  Between owning and sharing – space or resources. Between caring for ourselves and others. So I could not help feeling a seismic shift in the order of things as I read that, following the America First President’s trip abroad, Angela Merkel declared that now, Europe is on its own.

Objets de ma Vie

First in a series of meditations on things collected from my life.

Let’s begin with this small stone; not two inches long, not an inch thick. It sits on a shelf in the living room, amid photos of past travels.

Rusty brown and gray-green, worn unevenly by time and who knows what other forces that shaped the here and now of its existence.

Plucked, blind, from the bottom of an icy pool; water, clear as air.

The stone, unremarkable except that it echoes, in memory at least, the stepped wall; water, falling loudly, feeding the stream and the forest pool. Water bouncing off the staircased rock of the wall. Water, plummeting; cascade upon cascade into the tiny gorge; the secret gorge, happened upon while wandering alone in the towering rhododendron forests of West Virginia.

First, the sound of water, rushing, somewhere ahead. Then, almost a path through the improbable looking-glass shrubs, last remnants of their extravagant bloom pinking the white sand-red clay forest floor. Almost a path but not quite.  Perhaps a deer’s trail, or beaver’s, scribing a tentative diagram of their wild empire, their invisible existence.

Sound rising as the filter of leaves thins and a splash of sky is seen up and ahead. Sound rising to the white noise pitch of silence. Rising, crowding out all distraction, honing and focusing attention at the nerve-edge of other senses.

Step forward. The air in the clearing; sharp.  Everything microscopically defined through the diamond lenses of fractured molecules flung from the crashing falls. Ozone so thick as if a fish, breathing water.

Another step and the screen of green closes behind. The clearing of the pocket gorge, a private room. And on the smooth blue surface, the polished blue table of the pool – an invitation.  
Now, sitting in this small room, early in the still-dark morning and late in the darkness of a darkening year, this touchstone plucks a bright chord of remembrance, a quiet note of something shining; another invitation.

The dark is not forever. There will be clearings. A pool – un-rippled by the deafening cascade of dissonance, waits.  Come. Dive deep. Seek the silence. Pluck and hold and keep the bright thing, hidden beneath the din.

Here is a poem I wrote some time ago about ‘collected things’ and the memories they evoke.The Things We Cling To

Serendipity

Happiness kanjiAs Friday’s events launched a new and uncertain era in our country and the world, I was struck by the seredipity of the January 20 entry from 365 Tao: Daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao, a book that has offered me daily insights for many years. Here is the entry.

HAPPINESS:  Let us not follow vulgar leaders who exploit the fear of death, and promise the bliss of salvation. If we are truly happy, they will have nothing to offer. . . . If we attain freedom from the fear of death, a sound way of health, and a path of understanding through life, there is happiness and no need for false leaders.

 

And this from Carl Sagan, On Moving Beyond Us And Them, written shortly before his death.  From the wonderful Brain Pickings Newsletter.

 

 

 

Finding Joy in the Season

Those of you who read my blog (thank you) know I have not written much lately.  This past year and more recently this season of fear and anxiety, have made it hard to focus on things other than the daily unfolding of disappointment and alarm that permeates the news. It is always my intention, in these postings, to stay above – or at least to one side – of the political, paying attention to in-the-moment moments from my own experiences that I feel may resonate with you.  So with the deep uncertainty of the coming new administrations, as we leave the third year in a row with record global temperatures, and with a thunderstorm in mid-January raging around the house, I am trying, today, to find and savor moments of joy.

There are the little things – my two sweet cats who daily fill the house with their calm grace.

Shy Cosette safe under the tree.

Shy Cosette safe under the tree.

My first Christmas with an artificial tree that was so beautiful and perfect I did not want to take it down.  The cards and Holiday letters from friends far and near that filled my mailbox in the final weeks of the year with news and warm wishes.

I must mention my terrific students – I recently began teaching in the undergraduate Arts Management program of the Conservatory at Baldwin Wallace University.  Just before the Holidyas I graded final exams and am so happy at the large number of talented young people in my class who got ‘A’s. I am also overjoyed to have this new useful skill (teaching) to develop at this stage of my life.

Coyotes Tex, Red and Ember (l-r) on the roof of a den at the Wildlife Center

Coyotes Tex, Red, and Ember (l-r) on the roof of a den at the Wildlife Center

Just a few weeks ago I had something close to a perfect day.  I volunteer two days a week at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History – I am a “steward’ (like a docent) in the new Perkins Wildlife Center.

River Otters in the Wildlife Center

River Otters in the Wildlife Center

That job means being both a kind of guard and a guide for visitors: guarding the animals from the few ‘unaware’ folk who sometimes come, and guiding most of the visitors to learn and care about the animals. It is a pure joy to be in that amazing and beautiful space in such close proximity to these wild creatures.

One of those wonderful days ended with a Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall.  There was a guest conductor (Jaap von Zweden) and a pianist (Danil Trifonov) neither of whom I knew. The program was a Britten Requiem (not the War Requiem), Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23 and the war horse – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  I was tired – having walked with the animals for 4 hours that day, but I had a date, so I looked forward to sharing time with a friend, even though I was not all that excited about the concert. I didn’t really need a Requiem just then, the Mozart was not my favorite (19 and 21 are) and I thought; what new could I hear in the Beethoven?

REVELATION! After the somber but compelling Britten, the rest of the concert was unmitigated joy. The pianist’s interpretation of the Mozart had the whole audience smiling and jumping from their seats at the end.  We were rewarded with an encore. And the Beethoven!  I must say I’ve heard some wonderful interpretations, but this was as if every note was new and fresh – as if written that morning.  Up in the second row of the balcony, we all just could not stop clapping and grinning at each other.  What a beautiful, joy-filled shared experience with friends and strangers!

There have been other joyous moments in this dark time, of course.  I just want to keep reminding myself to savor and treasure them.  Each one adds a coin to the scale on the side of optimism.

The Whining of Autumn Lawns

DSC00979As I write this, the leaf blowers are out in full force in the neighborhood, filling the air with complaint.  From this observation you might assume this post is about noise pollution.  Well it is, but not in the way you may think. The air – in particular the media airwaves and the atmosphere surrounding our private conversations this past week – has been filled to overflowing with a complaint of a far more serious and toxic nature.

I am not a political writer.  But I cannot let the events of the past week and the alarming unfolding of their consequences go without comment.  The noise of negativity that has blared so deafeningly this autumn (and summer and spring) electoral season feels almost like a physical burden. The weight and volume of its decibels have piled along the curb of reason so deep that it is hard to see any sign of a familiar or a safe path ahead.

It is hard to know what to think.  Impossible to know what to do.

Friends have forwarded links and essays that either raise the level of alarm and despair, or suggest a kind of urge toward ‘wait and see’ that threatens a descent into complacency – the first step toward capitulation.

I was sitting in a meeting the other day and I overheard the person behind me say he was quite satisfied with how the election had come out.  Suddenly, I did not want him breathing on me. I didn’t want to share the same air space. And although I was ashamed of this reaction, I did not know how to overcome it.

I do not do well with confrontation.  I know my default impulse, in the heat of the moment, is to lash out, hit back, insult and belittle.  Or (what I usually do) say nothing in fear of letting loose my impulses. Neither reaction is useful. But even if I could muster a reasoned response, a calm, nuanced argument, would it make a difference?  Can we even hear each other anymore? And if we can’t, do we now face a future where the angry whine of the engine of fear will always drown out the quieter hum of civil and truthful discourse?Withered Leaf, Dry, Autumn, Branch

It is early, I know.  But it feels like an ending.

I attach again the poem I wrote at the start of it all – an ekphrastic poem in response to Gray and Gold, a painting by John Rogers Cox, in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  His 1942 painting was  a response to the United States entering World War II. Crossroad

Gray and Gold

 

 

Now what do we do?

The common denominator of America’s humanity has been diminishing.  That commonality now feels like a negative number.

A Noisy Solstice

solstice and hands

“Gimme the vice grips.  Pliers ain’t gonna work for this.”

“I need the three-eighths bit, the hammer and a Phillips.”

“We can frame this thing on the ground, then screw it in place.”

“It’s five and seven sixteenths, like I said.  I measured twice.”

——————————————————————————–

The day of the Solstice dawned windless and clear.  The moon, even through its partly lidded eye, cast a bright square through the skylight before making its sleepy way west in the paling sky. Tiny Mercury winked out a little before 6 am. It was a calm and quiet start to the third season of the year.

The old roof comes down!

The old roof comes down!

That peaceful beginning is hard to recall right now.  As I write, generators (two of them) buzz and growl ferociously on and off. Compressors spit angrily, releasing their pent-up tension. Nail guns slap rhythmic rim shots that echo off the face of the houses across the street; a syncopated beat from the slight delay of their bounced-back sound waves. On the lawn, the portable DeWalt rips through plywood like an angry seamstress tearing out the hem of a poorly sewn dress, while inside a battery-powered jig saw chatters through sheetrock, opening up space for a new furnace duct.  It is Grand Central Station inside and out the day I get a new roof and air conditioning the same day!

Despite the noise and mounting detritus, there’s something comforting about being in the presence of skilled workmen, doing well what they know how to do.  I’m feeling taken care of by these strangers who scramble over and through the house, calling back and forth in their ritualized language, improving and customizing my world with their specialized tools.

Measure twice, cut once.

Measure twice, cut once.

I spent 30 years of my life as a craftsperson myself and appreciate deeply the hand-made thing.  Whether it’s a cup that sits cleanly in the palm, a teapot spout that doesn’t drip, or a roof that shelters securely from the storm, there is great satisfaction in living with things that serve well their intended purpose.DSC00938

When the dust clears, the equipment is packed away in the workmens’ vans and the house is quiet again, I will be left with a new soffit to paint and a small pile of sawdust to add to the compost. There will be the odd roofing nail to fish out of the garden next spring, I’m sure.  But I’ll also be the beneficiary of a little thrill each time I push the button to turn the air conditioning on, pull up to the house with the warm autumn tones of its new sheltering crown.

 

Summer, Sudden: Now and Later:

Just a late afternoon observation.DSC00931

It’s 5:15 pm and the sky just cracked and let itself loose.  Downtown, the day’s just ended for the workforce and I imagine the consternation: “Should we try to make it for the car, or stay and see if it lets up?”  “Where’s my umbrella?”

I’m sitting, snug and dry on my deep front porch, Jameson chilling (just one cube) in a heavy crystal glass, a thick curtain of water sheeting down all around me.  The sky complains mightily at some unknown offense, and the old, old maples and oaks throughout the neighborhood bend and brush the undersides of the lowering clouds.  Suddenly, the wind dies.  The rain drops straight and hard as a tropical deluge.

In the last five minutes the temperature has fallen ten degrees.  The cars passing in the street arc tsunamis of fresh water across the tree lawns along the way.

Five minutes more and the drama has settled into the humdrum routine of a summer storm.  The sky still complains, but at a distance, like a chastised child massaging its wounded ego after a well-deserved reprimand.

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917

The rain has all but stopped, now, and the neighborhood droops like a Charles Burchfield* painting, the trees, eaves, even the parked cars dripping in a syncopated liquid patter.

A gnat has fallen into my whiskey, but I continue to sip it anyway, the alcohol having provided its antiseptic benefit.  One should not waste good Irish.

Bug in the Jameson

Bug in the Jameson

Tonight is supposed to be the height of the Perseid meteor showers. Not a chance for a view with this cloud cover.  I’m a little disappointed, but it’s been a sweet summer shower and there’s always next year.

A few ghosts of mist, rising from the cool rain silvering the hot earth, float across my lawn.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Here’s a poem I wrote some years ago, inspired by a line from a poem by Denise Levertov.  At the Window

  • * This Charles Burchfield painting is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Meandering into Balance

sprinkler rainbowI’ve been assessing the arc and scope of my days, now that I am nearly 11 months into my retirement. I’ve kept busy with this blog, working on renovating my house, and with a few volunteer commitments that require a focus outside of myself. Early on I felt this last was important so as not to fall into navel-gazing self-indulgence or ennui, things I feared could take over my days ahead. But just this morning I was struck by a sense of lovely balance that comes as close as I have ever imagined to what an ideal retirement – a productive retirement – might be like.

Tomorrow I go to meet with my new part-time employer – one who has offered an opportunity for me to continue to contribute to the arts in a new way that will keep me growing in new ways as well. For the past several days I have been preparing for this meeting as well as finishing some volunteer work.

DSC00895

One tomato gone, another tasted.

But this morning, I woke early and, with nothing on the schedule after feeding the cats, I had, before 9:00, read the headlines and finished the N.Y. Times Crossword, chased two deer out of the garden (after losing a perfect, ripe tomato), painted the columns on my front porch, and set up the sprinkler to water the treatment applied to my lawn yesterday.  All the while the cicadas whirred and the birds looped through the yard to the feeder, the fence and the branches of the trees.  The sun sprinkled rainbows on my parched lawn and the deer kept watch on me from behind the neighbor’s fence.

The day felt both full and open.  I had time—and I had useful tasks, at different levels of personal challenge and satisfaction, both accomplished and ahead. I don’t think there’s a better example of what retirement should be.

Nothing for it but to be grateful.DSC00886-001

Here’s a beautiful poem about a deer from an unexpected source. The Visitation by Marge Piercy

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