Sunday, August 10, 2014

Notes from the Wild Folk: Coyote, Her Fur, and the Flowers of the Dunes

Out at Abbott's Lagoon, where the summer fogs hang thick and a family of river otters splashes through the fresh blue water, there is a narrow path at the base of a great sand dune, flanked on the other side by cattails and lagoon, where not so long ago a bobcat patrolled up and down on the regular, presumably from a resting place in the willows, catching marsh birds, the mice who run the dunes, the rabbits out in the scrub.

Recently, I heard tell from other trackers that there seemed to have been a change of guard—the bobcat seemed to have gone elsewhere. Yesterday, a tracking friend and I went rambling along the lagoon edge and through the dunes. We followed the trail where once the bobcat(s) walked. The tracks in the sand were loose and indistinct, and we could not determine whether they were bobcat or coyote. The tiny footprints of deer mice skittered everywhere. 

Then, we began to find small clumps of fur. 

Above is the largest clump we found. All of them contained some combination of coarse, sturdy, long guard hairs banded black, white, golden or rust, and a rough, wavier undercoat. Guard hairs are generally the hairs that lend an animal's coat its characteristic color, while also wicking away moisture and retaining body heat.

Whoever was scratching herself, snagging on bushes, or shedding, she left an excellent trail! I've never tracked by bits of fur before, but when we crawled into a thicket of willows that comprised the entrance to some sort of resting place, or den, or hideaway, we found several more matching guard hairs caught on the bark or in the humus below our hands and knees.

Guardian oak (or poison oak) characteristically guarded the thicket about seven feet in, so we didn't make it very far, but the stiff guard hairs in our fingers were like little treasures, with the story of a recent creature's passage in them.

We didn't want to linger long, because we felt we were trespassing on someone's secret and guarded front doorstep. (And what a doorstep! You can see the willows below to the left, and the beginning of the lagoon to the far right.)

While it is always a good idea to keep the mind and heart full of questions and myriad possibilities when tracking, and while I am no expert in the identification of small scraps of fur, we were very much reminded of the pelage of the coyote as we examined the hairs, and felt their coarseness. That banded black-cream-rust color very much matches the general coloration of these clever, quick beings. 
Coyote portrait, by Christopher Bruno
Out on the great sand-dune above the willow-den, where the coyotes sidetrot, the bobcats prowl, the deer wander, the deer mice skitter, the raccoons amble, all leaving the stories of their passage in lettered trails, we sat for a time amidst this netted skein of wild lives. At our feet, the dune strawberries made their own constellated nets, somehow surviving on sand, in salty air.

Tiny dune primroses (a fraction of the size (probably 1/10th!) of the evening primroses so similar in appearance that are flourishing in the garden) reached out through the sand and bloomed their bright primrose yellow. They must be drinking the salty fog alone, for there is no other water here at this time of year. 

Together, it seems to me that the dune strawberries and dune primroses must know the secret stories and lives of the animals who pass through the sand at dusk and dawn and the middle of the night; they probably know if it is a coyote or a bobcat who, for a little while, rules over the willow patch with its magnificent front porch. 

And we wondered, all along—was there a coyote watching us from just beyond, in the thick scrub of the hills, bemused that we would crawl on all fours into her hideaway, and take a few of her hairs like pieces of an old enchantment?

For Coyote is a wise old Creator, and knows well the ways of humans...

There is an old story says the world was made by Coyote, who got stranded at the top of Mt. Diablo when the ocean waters were high and right up around its craggy neck. He threw down mats of tule. These became land. He blew feathers from his paws, different kinds, and these became people. His wife, little Frog Woman, helped him, swimming. The world, born right out of Mt. Diablo, a womb of schist and granite, silica, sandstone and coal. The world, held up in the paws of Coyote, nudged gently by Frog.
There is an old story says once there was no death in the world, but Coyote brought it, saying yes you will hate me for this, but how else will there be renewal? How else can we all fit?
There is an old story says Coyote lost his daughter, and went to the Land of the Dead to bring her home again, alive, but in the last moment, carrying her up a mountain, he slipped, he looked back at her, he lost her truly, forever. Then, he cursed the laws he had made, but it was too late to change them, and so he howled long, knowing now the sorrow of humans.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful....
    Wish I could feel that scrap of fur you found. x