One of the most dramatic wildlife stories of our times -- the ever-increasing presence of a wholly new species, literally part wolf, in every suburb, city, and backyard east of the Mississippi
Catherine Reid left her hometown in western Massachusetts in the 1970s, when people were just beginning to talk about a new creature sliding from the southwest into New England via Ontario, a canid bigger than a coyote, not quite large enough to be a wolf. Back home after decades away and settling into an old farmhouse with her female partner, Reid writes, "A mixture of fear and fascination compel me to take up the hunt. I want to see a coyote, I want to know its story, I want to unravel the way it intersects my own." Her search for this outlaw species leads her to rich and remarkably controversial fieldwork; to a session with a coyote litter in captivity; and, eventually, to spine-tingling sightings in the wild.
Reid alerts us to the extraordinary story of evolution in action unfolding under our very noses, the story of an animal that is a "mix of wolf and coyote, old and new, necessary and fierce and wily." As Reid's beautifully grounded writing shows, the eastern coyote in its hundred-year migration from the western plains to New England has picked up wolf DNA and a little-understood combination of coyote and wolf behaviors. The eastern coyote typically weighs considerably more than its western cousin, many well over fifty pounds. The size of the eastern coyote and its ability to take such prey as deer, as well as domestic dogs and cats, have left some ecologists to wonder whether we'll call this animal living among us "coyote" or "wolf" in another twenty years.
Coyote rekindles our age-old fascination with coyote as trickster, coyote (as Mark Twain put it) as "living, breathing allegory of Want." And it suggests, through a wealth of astonishing evidence, that we will all need to forge a brand-new relationship to this large, until recently unknown, and uncannily intelligent hunter in our midst.
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CATHERINE REID is a naturalist, teacher, and poet. She lives in an old farmhouse in western Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
After two months in this old house, I think I know the night noises at last the knock and scramble of mice in the walls, the huff of wind across the chimney, the bristle of windows within their loose frames. Yet tonight comes a cry that I wasn’t expecting, that hauls me out of sleep, a chorus of wailing above a percussion of yips, excited and eerie and twitching my heart.
Coyotes. Their very existence makes this place seem risky and wild. I hadn’t reckoned on their presence when we made an offer on the place. Carpenter ants and powder-post beetles, flying squirrels and foraging deer, gray squirrels fattened on acorns and birdseed, plenty of roaming bear these were the known parts of the package, along with what we could see for rot in the sills, what we hoped was solid framing behind the new siding, and what we couldn’t quite follow in the network of old knob-and-tube wiring.
But at the thought of a pack of coyotes a gang, a family another sensation crawls across my skin, like knowing someone is behind a door before a hand can slam it shut.
I want to see them.
I want to find their outlines when I scan the edges of the meadow. I want to know if I’m being watched while I work in the garden or mow the field. I want to know where they sleep and spend their days, where they go when the neighboring dogs race through or when November arrives after the leaves have blown free and hunters slip into the newly naked woods.
Mostly I want to know how they’re managing here in Massachusetts, in this place I’ve returned to twenty-.ve years after leaving. Coyotes were just sliding into the landscape back then, rarely seen and seldom heard, and only starting to appear in northern Vermont, where I first lived as a young adult. I saw them sometimes from a distance. I heard them now and again at night, that same rupture of my sleep, something separate from the weave of other sounds. And once I met a coyote in a field, each of us too distracted by the hot August buzzing to notice the other until we were both in full view. Without taking its eyes from me, it did a slow turn, lowered itself into the grass, and disappeared. I backed up to the field’s edge, to the shadow of a big rock maple, and waited for an hour. It didn’t return; its shape never reformed inside that dense weave of grass.
I want to know how they disappear like that.
Those of us who decide to return home run certain risks. We lose the luster of the one who got away, the status that accrued when no one really knew what we did with our time. We no longer feel free to move on whenever plans change, a relationship doesn’t work out, another job beckons from somewhere farther afield. We become accessible and known and have to face tomorrow the mistakes we make today.
For me, being home again means having to bridge the gaps between the kid I was when I left and the adult I’ve become. That seems most obvious when my tender-hearted father calls and leaves a message on the machine. It’s your daddy,” he says, his voice as it was when I was five and six and seven, not that of a man in his seventies addressing his forty- something daughter. Later, when our paths cross in town, the joy on his face feels equal to my own at the unexpected chance to catch up on more of what we missed during all those years we spent so far apart.
It’s the same with my five siblings when we jostle and tease each other as we did when we were teens; then we step back and wonder when the gray crept in and the wrinkles inched across our faces. All of them have kids now, ranging in age from one to eighteen, children amiable and curious, though I can’t tell yet if any have a name for the aunt who came back with her companion, a woman with a past that is full and unknown to them. It’s partly Yankee reticence, this reluctance to talk about the less visible part of our lives; it’s partly a wish not to be misunderstood. But it might also indicate how much has changed since that day I left in order to become my whole self.
You’ll never be able to move back home,” a former partner once told me, and I believed her. She was older, and I thought she was wiser; she studied family relationships as part of her job. Years passed before I understood that by saying I’d be smothered by the traditions that abound here, she meant she was afraid of what they might do to her.
For me, fear that I couldn’t be myself was a natural consequence of years bounded by tradition, centuries of Puritan-tight belts and stiff upper lips defining our options like lines of barbed wire inscribing old woods. As a teenager, however, I was oblivious to history’s impact. Everything was new and possible, and I’d felt free to come and go as I wanted, to slip back annd forth between adulthood and adolescence. Yet I was caught unawares by the arrival of a love I knew to be unlike any other I had experiiiiienced. I was even more startled by the reactions from those who had always encouraged me. They had never said No, they had never said Don’t, so when they pulled back in anguish You can’t love her! I was unmoored. The rope connecting me with the familiar had been cut, and a part of me folded up, a part that has often felt stranded in despair.
The property we found is in the hills of Franklin County, with the summits of the Berkshires a few miles to the west and the taller mountains of Vermont just to the north. To the east a short downward slope separates us from the flat expanse of the Connecticut River valley. As a child growing up near the river, I was sure that the hill people had far sturdier and more inventive lives than those of us stuck on flatter land. But after high school I never spent much time here, except for the year I hiked north with spring, from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail. By the time I reached New England, I had been out for about three months and loved being back within reach of familiar- sounding towns Stockbridge, Dalton, Pittsfield, North Adams enjoying the resonance of known accents and idioms, the way words like the Berkshires” felt in my mouth. But I never thought I would live here, that the pull of home would be so strong, hauling me back from a thousand miles away.
A selling point of the property was that it had not one but three structures: an old farmhouse, a barn, and a much smaller building, about seventy-five feet across the lawn. We designated it the studio, and I won the coin toss for its use. A previous owner had run a small-engine repair shop out of it; another had sold used books. The latter must have been the one who had it wired and insulated, had a phone line brought in, had the walls covered with Sheetrock and painted. No one ever dealt with the concrete floor, however, which sloped toward a drain at its center.
Another benefit of moving back was that my siblings had most of the necessary skills for building or repairing whatever we wanted to fix. My youngest brother, Doug, spent much of his vacation time showing me how to erect jacks in the cellar under overly long joists and how to refinish the banged-up wood floors. We also spent hours in the studio leveling sleepers across the concrete floor and securing them with a gunpowder-driven hammer, each slam like a pistol going off in the small building. We fitted tongue-and-groove birch plywood on top, and immediately the room felt warmer and tighter. When his vacation ended and we were on our own, I continued to borrow Doug’s tools and seek advice over the phone.
My brother Arthur helped as well, mostly by explaining how things worked. He reassured me about the knob-and-tube wiring, the gas heater in the studio, the buckling wall at the bottom of the barn. And that’s probably an old well cover,” he said of the large, .at fieldstone in the barn floor. He offered to help lift it when I was finally curious enough. Then my oldest brother, Bob, brought two of his sons and a high-sided truck to the place we rented while readying the property, and their energy and hustle (sparked by the promise of a swim in the river) made the move to Shelburne Falls seem easy.
I like knowing that they are all close and would help in any way they could. But I need to sort out the rest of this on my own; it’s how I learn. It’s how I figure out what it will take to support my life. With the paint dry and the boxes emptied, I don’t need to be inside the house any longer. It’s time to learn the lay of this land.
I wander through the field to the narrow trail I found when first walking the property lines, which are defined mostly by old stone walls and a seasonal, moss-lined trickle. Two neighboring dogs use the path most often, but one morning last week I saw a young buck on it about to step into the field. We stopped at the same time to watch each other, but I relented first and slipped into the studio. From a shadow by the window I kept track of the deer’s indecision forward, back, forward, back until a door slammed behind me and it disappeared in a flash of white tail.
Today I follow the path over a hill of white pine. To the north is a gentle slope of mountain laurel and princess pine, partridge berry and rattlesnake plantain; a steady brook churns in the small valley below. The railroad tracks run along the woods to the east; beyond them lies the Deerfield River, the Massamet Ridge rising steeply just beyond it.
Most of this I recognize and take comfort in, despite the years I’ve been away. I like to think that my return here is fresh enough that familiarity won’t lead me to have blind spots, that my powers of observation won’t relax among smells and rhythms that soothe like nursery rhymes. Keeping watch for something as elusive as a coyote should keep me alert to nuance and able to locate signs different from the ones I once expected.
It’s tricky I know this; do I know this? like trying to walk toe- heel down the trail, something I practiced for weeks as a kid when I wanted to walk as silently as the Indians I had read about. I can do it now if I concentrate, but my heel hits first when I look anywhere but at the trail ahead of me, which I keep doing until I’m almost home. It’s when the house and the barn are within sight that I find the first sign in my search coyote scat in the clearing under a large white pine.
It’s easy to distinguish from that of a dog, which looks like reprocessed Alpo, or that of a fox, which is narrower and has less heft. This mass is stringy and long and full of apple seeds and cherry pits, tiny bones and maple seeds, and a piece of waxed paper, wrinkled and wedged between clumps of matted hair.
The house Holly and I occupy was built in 1894, the year the last passenger pigeon was shot in Massachusetts and about fifty years after the state’s last wolf was killed. I don’t know when the barn that used to stand on this foundation was built, but in the years between the gray wolf’s death and the raising of this house, a series of animals was driven out of the state: the last wild turkey, shot in 1851 and only recently reintroduced; the last mountain lion, killed in 1858; the last lynx, in 1860; the last marten, in 1880.
I think about little of this history when I check mouse traps in the cellar. Holes riddle the foundation, small, dingy tunnels that stretch out of sight, some of them large enough to accommodate weasels. It seems terribly fragile, stone on stone, a little mortar or whitewash in between, and above it a two-story house delicately placed on notched and pitted sills.
Two of the traps contain bodies, and I walk outside to toss them into the thicket behind the barn. Then, curious, I force a path through the brush to see where the carcasses landed. Stiff blackberry thorns catch at my sweater, and I have to stop several times to unpin them. But when I reach the tall elderberry, I don’t find any of the mice I’ve flung these last two months two or three dozen total. Instead, I find one bedraggled, inedible mole and the telltale scat of coyotes.
They’ve been scarfing up small mouse bodies at night.
They’ve been within twenty-five feet of the house, maybe even closer, and I haven’t seen or heard them. I’ve simply been the unwitting purveyor, rewarding their approach.
I feel the same mix of awe and caution that I did when I fed a fox from my hand during one of the springs I lived on Deer Isle, off the coast of Maine. A mother fox, her fur matted, her teats swollen, had barked me out of the house in her hunger. Curious as to what she would do, I set half my sandwich on a rock and walked away. She took it and ran. For the next several weeks I tossed her more chunks of sandwich or muffin whenever she appeared in the clearing. Then I bought her Milk-Bones, which she liked, and both of us began taking more time with the exchange (I didn’t let myself think for long about the cost to her of such an association, about whether the next person she approached would hold food or a gun; I simply used her ragged belly as an excuse for the transactions). At last, instead of dropping the food in front of her, I kept it in my hand, and she scarcely hesitated before lifting it from my palm with her teeth.
My body didn’t know whether to scream or laugh when she darted away. I could see only how she took it sharp, white fox teeth, a breath away from my skin.
Copyright © 2004 by Catherine Reid. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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