This page offers excerpts from a few of my published works. I will post a different excerpt every week. Come back and check it out. Thanks!
This is an excerpt of the first essay in Animal, Mineral, Radical: A Flock of Essays on Wildlife, Family and Food
A friend of mine says coyotes are passé. He says they’ve gone the way of the whale. “The whale,” he says, “was the first one to make a big splash.” He laughs when he says this.
“What was it before whales?” I ask.
“Happy faces. I think it went: happy faces, whales, coyotes. But that nature stuff—it’s all passé now.”
“Yeah. Now, it’s angels.”
We were in a desert canyon, and it was the dead of summer, so no one pitched a tent. We, six of us, or so, were strewn along a small beach by the river — most of us lying on top of our thin sleeping bags. It’s one of the simplest, most exhilarating things in the world to do: sleep under the naked sky without a tent, without a sleeping bag, without clothes, if possible. You can feel the stars on your skin. It jump starts something wild in you; it’s like sticking your finger into a live socket and connecting up with nature. After all, you breath differently out here. Certain things slow down (your heart rate; the noise in your head), while other things speed up (your awareness; your ability to laugh).
So maybe it was because of how good it feels when there’s nothing between you and the sky, but when my eyes peeled open that morning, everything seemed like a hallucination. My friends were sleeping on shore, as they should have been, and the sun was rising, as it does. But there was no separation between earth and sky. What I mean is this: I felt sealed in; the world felt like an organism, and I was a cell moving through the riparian veins of some single, living creature too huge to name. Over there were my friends, buddies on the molecular level, I assumed.
The sky was the color I imagined the inside of a vein to be: red clouds on the eastern horizon bleeding into white clouds, moving like liquid; a visible heat wave intersected the sun; it pulsed on the horizon like a huge heart, and everything moved slowly, like lava.
That’s when I saw them. I turned from the sun to the river. The air by the river felt cooler, but the heat wave still distorted everything. In that light, they looked like ghosts. There is no other way to describe them. Their legs were longer, skinnier than I’d imagined. The crisp outlines of their scrawny bodies blurred in my sight. There were four of them. Coyotes. Their gait was as silent as an owl’s flight; it was as if they were not touching the earth. I might not have believed they existed, except I could see them breathing. I could hear their breath, a certain rhythm almost like panting, but less desperate, more quiet.
It takes awhile for the brain to file information straight from nature. You don’t expect it. No matter how many times you go out into the woods, you don’t expect to see wild animals this close to you. At first, they loped. Then they crouched and lowered their heads. They were sniffing toward my sleeping friends. I should warn my friends, I thought. One coyote doesn’t pose much of a threat, but four might come up with some innovative way to slow the growth of human population in their canyon. But I was not recognizing this sight as “reality.” I felt as if my dreams had seeped out of my sleeping brain and their liquid images were pouring into my waking perception; this was an illusion.
I remained motionless. And the particular light of the morning changed from soft reds into a brilliant dome of blue burned through by a hot dime of white sun.
The coyotes vanished as the bright day began. It was as if they knew I was on the verge of believing they were real, so they teased my tenuous grasp of reality, and disappeared. At one point, a single coyote looked toward the horizon, saw the sun inching toward white, then turned to the pack. They all stopped sniffing. They stood at attention. Then they ran. The way they ran made me certain I’d been hallucinating because I could not track their direction. There was nothing difficult about it, nothing tricky; they didn’t take some wild and hidden path. They just vanished. I can’t tell you where they went. If they had gone up the sides of the canyon, as I thought they had, why wasn’t I able to see them from a distance as they loped away? It was as if they entered the walls of the canyon, the way the dead baseball players in Field of Dreams entered the cornfields — except, better. A lot better.
Eventually, my friends woke up and, while it was great to be outdoors, there was nothing dreamlike about the day. We ate breakfast the way river runners eat breakfast: eggs, milk, coffee, hash browns, pancakes, French toast, syrup, orange juice, tortilla chips, salsa, beans, etcetera. We didn’t scrimp. We celebrated and indulged. After all, this was nature. This was home. It would be weeks before we saw the inside of an office building or a shopping mall.
Everyone is allowed to be in any mood they want in a place like this, and I was quiet that morning. I couldn’t shake the image of the coyotes, but for some reason, I didn’t want to tell the others about them. And I still felt like some particulate matter floating inside a monstrous creature. Words seemed strange to me. I don’t know why the coyotes affected me this way; they just did. I kept repeating the word “lope” to myself. My tongue leaned from the “l” into the “oohh” then fell softly onto the “pah” of the “p.” Lope. It sounded like coyotes to me: the way their thin legs moved, the way their paws stopped with a “pah” on the soft earth. Lope. Lope.
And that’s how I paddled my kayak that morning. My shoulder was loose and relaxed; my paddle tilled the water softly. The river was calm — class two all day. And I was a coyote. Or, more accurately, I was a human with the arrogance to believe that for a few hours before noon on that particular day, I moved with some sort of animal grace. Truth was, I couldn’t get their beauty out of my mind. They moved like every perfection I had ever strived to attain. Yet they were anything but “perfect.” They just were.
Like anything wild.
Sometime after I returned from the river trip, a pack of coyotes began trotting by my home on the mesa every night at twilight. My windowsill was level with the ground, no screen attached, so the coyotes would stick their heads inside, sniff curiously, then continue into the night. My roommate would squirt them with water to scare them away, but I enjoyed their nightly visits. When I was alone in the house, I just greeted them and wished them a prosperous hunt.
When I landed a job in the Silicon Valley, I bid the pack and their new spring pups farewell and moved to northern California.
I entered another time zone upon my arrival. I was told Santa Cruz was a “laid back town,” so I rented a place there as a sort of halfway house to ease me into a faster pace. When I lived in the small town in the desert, businesses, even banks, closed on whim. If you wanted the day off, you didn’t call in sick; you called up your fellow employees and you all took a few days off. Patrons of your business would return another day. The weather — an ephemeral thing — was beautiful; that took precedence over earning a dollar.
This was not quite the mindset in California. “Laid back,” it turns out, refers more to a style of dress than a way of life. Coffee is essential to survival. Working sixty-five hours a week to pay exorbitant rents or mortgages is the norm. Putting in a fifty hour week, I was a slacker.
Add this to the commute. I couldn’t afford a place “close in,” so I drove forty miles to
work each morning, as did thousands of other ants. The colony gathered just after dawn, and by
seven a.m., we were head-to-butt in line, gassing our compact cars or four-by-fours “over the hill” where we’d spend the day in smaller colonies working fast and hard, talking faster and harder, before returning home via the same, frantic route to enjoy whatever thin slice of evening remained.
A month of this, and I was spent. I decided to start my commute well before dawn to avoid rush hour traffic. In the wee hours, the trek was beautiful. I drove however fast I wanted; I sauntered. As I drove, I pondered the redwoods ensconced in ocean mist; the forest looked two dimensional –black and white, shadowed. When the sun poured over the hills and the fog lifted, the whole place turned to a labyrinth of red spires draped with green.
But at least once a week I overslept, skipped breakfast, slammed down coffee, jockeyed my way over the hill, and sprinted to my eight o’clock class, my hair disheveled, tests and essays flying from my briefcase, and my students already in their seats awaiting my professorial presence. My wimpish ability to adopt a California pace set my circadian rhythms to twitching like chiggers beneath my skin.
I was living in a blur of a world that passed by so fast I could never wrap my fingers around anything certain, and I’d grown involuntarily accustomed to the adrenalin rush that accompanied this pace. My car was my second home, an extension of myself, and I never thought twice about it until my car and I, speeding over “America’s Most Dangerous Highway,” killed a coyote.
She was the first coyote I’d seen in California. And in the split second when I first saw her, I remembered the ghostlike grace of the first pack I’d seen by the river. Though I’d seen scores of other animals in the wilderness, coyotes always seemed to me as if they’d risen straight out of the earth, like phantoms. But this one was not an apparition, not a hallucination. My stomach churned. My eyes connected with the coyote’s, and there was no time to move my foot from gas pedal to brake. She emerged from behind the concrete highway divider, looked through my windshield, lost, sniffing toward me, and my car barreled into her.
Still alive, she tumbled over the hood of my car and into the steady stream of traffic behind me. Several other cars struck her before she landed on the shoulder of the highway. I watched this through my rearview mirror as I tried to change lanes and cut my way to the side of the road. Traffic never slowed.
Sometimes when I tell this story, I relate how I parked my car and walked to the coyote’s side, about a mile behind me by the time I was able to get to the shoulder of the road. I explain the fear I felt as I approached a wounded animal, something I’d been told was dangerous. I tell the story of how her eyes turned toward me, how I could hear her breath, fast and shallow, like small wings. I say, “I wondered if she was smelling me the way animals smell — the way they take in information through the air — if she could smell her own death on me as I stood next to her, watching her die.”
But the gap between the story I tell and what actually happened is equal to the gap between who I wanted to be and who I’d become.
I did stop. The next morning.
The night haunted me. All the possibilities of what I would have seen and felt if I had watched her die and known I had killed her played like a film in my head. But the thing that got to me most was that the reason I was feeling anything at all was pure ego. This was the coyote I killed. I was on my way to work. I didn’t stop. I could have stopped. I made myself sick.
What about the number of coyotes — and scores of other animals — I’d seen strewn along roadsides before? Why did it take my direct participation in a death to push me to the point of change? Why, in that moment, did I decide to move closer to my work and start riding a bicycle everywhere? Why didn’t the years of carnage I’d seen before have any real affect on me?
For weeks afterward, my gut tweaked. I felt caught. Not caught doing something wrong,
but caught doing something I had not chosen to do. Peer pressure, it was as simple as that. When I saw the spark of brown eyes framed by clumps of blondish-gray fur, the ears cocked like a quizzical pup’s, the graceful stride, the familiar lope, it was like retrieving a huge part of myself. For a split second, I felt relief; I remembered who I was. And then I saw myself driving fast, cutting people off, flipping that middle finger with ease, as if the marks of good character were summed up in a fast car, quick driving reflexes, and making a forty-minute drive in under thirty. So when the coyote emerged, I couldn’t stop. I killed her.
The next morning I left before dawn. I drove slowly, and the winding motion of the road turned my stomach. When I reached the coyote’s body, I stopped. I wish I could say I was overcome with guilt, or anger, or fear. Any emotion would have been good. But I was not overcome with anything. For the first time in my life I felt what it meant to be numb. It began in the marrow of my bones and radiated outward. It wasn’t that I felt nothing. I felt everything at once and everything became a wall of emptiness that separated me from who I’d planned to be.
It took awhile to find a place to live closer to work. Until then, I watched the coyote’s body decompose as I drove over the hill every morning. First it stiffened, then bloated. Then parasites and scavengers devoured her muscles, and her blond-gray fur was blown away by wind.
When I run along these paved trails, I think of the Nacirema. They were a tribe, no longer extant, who sought to alter their world to an extreme. No natural place was sacred until it was transformed. . . . To read the rest of this story, please check out ANIMAL, MINERAL, RADICAL