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.

 

 

 

How To Sweep A Garden Path

garden pathPerhaps you know the story about the Zen master and the student, whose task was to sweep the garden path. Again and again the student washed and swept only to have the Master say it was not done properly. Finally, when the student was sufficiently confounded – and the path totally sanitized – the Master reached up and shook a branch and let a few leaves fall where they may on the stones.  The task was not to erase nature from the path, but to appreciate and make room for its contributions to our lives.

* * *

This morning, the hollow-reed plaint of a mourning dove, rusted trill of a redwing blackbird and the high, chittering glissando of finches quilt their calls in a syncopated patchwork of sound. Cardinals, robins, jays and wrens race along the invisible highways in the air above the lawn while the squirrels flex their bodies like furred muscles around the trunk of the tall cedar behind the house.

I’m sitting on my backyard deck in the hot-sun, cool air of an early May morning, watching spring arrive; everything pushing up, leafing out, letting go with abandon. Almost perfect. Almost.

Beneath the lively scene, underpinning the warm embrace of the sun and breeze, the faint odor of my resident skunk persists.  It’s gone, now, but not as I’d expected it would go – trapped and removed, to be released elsewhere, or humanely (I hoped) euthanized.

I thought I was being so clever – dusting the deck with flour for several days to track its coming and going so I could block the gaps after he – or she – had departed for the evening (see previous post). I thought I was being so clever.

DSC00639An urban critter-trapper laid baited ‘have-a-heart’ traps around the deck and reinforced the blocked entrances, except one where he affixed another cage. If the skunk was still under the deck, this would be its escape route where it would surely be trapped, he said, though he warned it might take a few days “if it’s trap-savvy.”

For weeks there persisted a mild, skunky odor around the deck. But we caught nothing. The odor faded then for a few days until one morning – 3 AM – I woke to a powerful and sickening smell. I knew instantly what had happened.

The deck was already part of the house when I bought it, so I had no idea how it was constructed. Although we’d left the skunk an escape route, it had settled in a section under the deck that was blocked from that exit.  We had trapped it in and it had died. Its fur was still glossy and soft when the trapper removed it from its nest under the deck.

If I am honest, I must admit having a descending order of tolerance for my yard’s co-habitants, with skunks at the bottom of the list. Still, I have remorse over my actions, however unknowing, that caused this painful end to a small life. It reminds me of a beautiful poem, Snake, by D. H. Lawrence in which the narrator regrets the pettiness of his reaction to a creature which, upon reflection, he recognizes as having its own beauty and nobility within the realm of its ‘otherness.’

* * *

finchesTwo days ago my resident house finches left me. It was a Saturday morning and I was in my customary seat in the living room watching the male and female busily feeding their chick in the nest they’d constructed in the wreath on my front door (previous post). But they kept hopping away to perch, chirping loudly, on the chairs on my porch.  Back and forth, nest to chair, while the chick stretched and flapped its tiny wings, chirping back.  This exciting display went on for a good quarter of an hour. Needing another cup of coffee, I left my post for a few minutes, and when I returned – no chick.  It had found its way out into the world.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

I confess to feeling a bit bereft.  The finches had become part of my everyday.  I felt privileged to be a small part of their lives and to be so close to this little bit of nature, even though it meant giving up access to my front door for a few months.

I left the wreath with its nest in place through the week-end – just in case anyone came back, but there were no visitors. When I finally removed the wreath,  one tiny, unhatched egg lay at the bottom – pale blue, with a touch of fuzzy down stuck on. I’d read that house finches often use the same nest and can have up to three clutches a season, So I found a high, protected spot for the wreath  out of the human traffic pattern – again, just in case. 

DSC00655

Finch egg, dime and Cheerio.

* * *

The trick, I think, is to figure out how to live with nature – not against it. So hard to do both at the global level but also on the small stage of a suburban back yard. Last week I put in two small raised beds for herbs. I put up a fence and attached mylar ribbons to float in the breeze. Whether these measures will discourage deer, rabbits, chipmunks and birds I cannot now say. But I am preparing to accept that one morning I will look out my kitchen window and be greeted by a bed of headless herbs. If so, I may re-plant – or not, and try to remember to accept letting the leaves  fall on the swept path however they will.

 

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