Coyotes

Out here our house is turned to the linear wildness along the creek like a big ear. We listen for what happens in the timber and thick undergrowth below us with the fascination of someone sampling a new CD. If I hear a bird I don’t know, I try to track it down for identification, adding its name to our “play list” of what this place might spin in our direction. I scribble the name in the back of an old field guide, a note as to what is passing by.

The narrow finger of woods behind our house is part of an interstate highway system for wildlife, a corridor running along the Broad, Pacolet, and Lawson’s Fork, broken only in places where human habitation has pinched it shut or roads cross it and turn it into a killing zone. It runs from the ocean all the way to our backyard. Beyond us this corridor continues all the way to Inman. Most people don’t see the land this way, as a watery set of fingers reaching upstream and down. Hunters think this way, but most people don’t think like a moving animal. Instead people of the suburbs and cities focus on roads and airways and where they might take us.

I’m not saying wild birds and animals don’t go overland, from ridge to ridge. They do. They also migrate along the waterways in great numbers.

On Halloween night we heard a new song in the woods down by the creek, “Listen,” Betsy said. “It sounds like Mad dogs from Hades.” With all our listening we were used to the sound of wild dogs chasing deer, or feral cats mating in the bottom land. This was different. It was a new set of chords the night had plucked.

Three or four more nights in November we woke up to the musical yips and gurgles in the middle of the night. It was a chorus of foreign sounds moving up and down the creek. It didn’t sound like any canine I knew, but I had my suspicions. Walking Toby early in the morning I’d see fresh scat on the trail that looked very dog-like, only this had shiny persimmon seeds in it. “Coyotes,” I finally speculated. “It has to be coyotes on the creek.”

Then the night before Thanksgiving we finally heard them howl. The disordered yipping finally broke into two distinct howls like we all used to hear on Western movies, Wiley Coyote howls, long and lonely with a hint of desert music in them. Every night since has been full of anticipation. If we hear them we wake and crank the windows open.

There are logical human arguments against coyotes in our neighborhood-they harass what little livestock remains, raid turkey nests, chase deer, carry rabies, and kill pets. They’re not native to the Southeast and have only moved in because they are relentless breeders and opportunists. They exploit the marginal pastureland and settled suburbs. It’s perfect habitat.

I know all this, but I still love the coyotes howling and listen every night to hear them again. They remind me of my travel out west. They add mystery to my place. Scholars talk about iconographic images like the American flag-raising on Iwo Jima or John Kennedy waving to the crowd from an open-topped car in Dallas. There are sounds in nature that take on the status of icons as well. A hawk’s whistle or a howl in the woods announces wildness, otherness, distance from what it is to be human. We used to have gray wolves and red wolves here. They used to call this creek home. We wiped them out, and they’re probably not coming back.

Now mostly we have beagles and German longhaired dachshunds roaming among us. But the nightly howls remind me that wildness is also on the run behind our house. Whatever reminds me of its eternal and essential presence is worth a listen.

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