Wildlife, wildlife, wildlife. The grandeur of Wingate cliffs and the delicacy of a Colorado columbine draw me into wild places, but wild creatures connect me to deserts and mountains with a particularly vivid immediacy and intimacy. Whether I’m startled by a snake rustling fallen leaves or awed by a soaring hawk, I’m thrilled by the lives of creatures so different from me but dependent on the same water, air, and land that I am. When I leave the built environment to engage with the natural environment, I allow for marvel and humility, a glimpse into the intrinsic value of wild places. Or at least wilder places. Here, author Susan Imhoff Bird rides her bike up a Utah canyon to find a wildlife wonderland that ignites her own wild places.
the coyote in my canyon by susan imhoff bird
approaching the final curve before the hill’s crest, the sun is moments from advancing the sky from dawn to day. particles of the night’s darkness hang in the air and everything—rocky hillsides, trees, the road itself—blurs gently around surfaces and edges and my headlight throws a fat cone of weak light that illumines naught but hovering molecules of night.
nothing is sharply defined, and all is tinted by the watery mutedness and appears mottled green or one of sixteen shades of earth.
when a dust brown creature suddenly appears at the far reach of my vision it shifts from apparition to solidity slowly, my revolving wheels lessening the gap between us and changing fuzz to fur, brown, mottled, four legs, a slender torso, a long and narrow tail.
it is my coyote. he has crossed the road south to north and disappeared into the tall grass and scrub edging the asphalt. I watch the spot with intensity, wondering if he will wait and watch me pass as he often does. the steep grade retards my approach and I am still half a dozen yards away when a howl shatters the air. bark, bark, howl. I see him now, he sits in the sage and cheatgrass, his back to me, and howls. another bark, and a long howl sent out over the valley opening below him. the sound dancing on those lingering particles of dawn, dropping on trees and shrubs, falling on leaves, tickling the ears and minds of squirrels and rabbits.
parallel to him, now uphill of him, he howls again, ignoring me, or perhaps serenading me with nonchalant neglect. I pedal, he howls, I reach the top of the climb after his vocalizations have ceased, their reverberations no longer trembling blades of grass. the air is still, and the sun, lifting itself over the furthest eastern mountain, has removed the last vestiges of dawn and what had been soft is now sharp, what was unclear is now illuminated.
this morning’s sighting is my seventh, and each has brought me as much delight as the one before. it’s an unspoken hope each time I ride, let the coyote cross my path today. he is curious and, other than the single concert, silent. for a canine he is surprisingly cat-like, his paws like fog. he has dashed across the road behind my descending wheels, he has hovered on the side of the road. he has feinted toward me like a pugilist, then apparently thought better of it and retreated to the shoulder to watch me pass. I’ve been studiously ignored; I’ve been studied as though I’m the first human he’s encountered. he brings what’s untamed, wild, to my border and dares to cross into my land.
great horned owls hunt in my canyon as the sky releases its deepest ink and the world becomes one of silhouette, their wings spread wide in flight, to scan, to attack. I look to treetops, utility poles, seeking that familiar elliptical shape focused on examination of the shrubs and ground below. details cloaked, it is shape, silhouette, everything dark against a sky of baltic blue. porcupines amble and deer startle, bounding up hillsides of scrub oak and balsamroot. a stretch of road is silent, then the cacophony of bird song reigns for the next mile. raccoon eyes shimmer between scrubby brush, a rabbit turns tail and runs. but not a creature is anything like my coyote.
perhaps it is the teeth, its predatory nature, the fact that it is only size that keeps me from being at risk. or perhaps it’s that he is only evolutionary steps away from being a household pet. that my mind and heart think dog when he trots across the road or seems to consider interaction.
or maybe it’s the howl. a howl that send shivers up spines, that declares desires and needs, that energizes air and speaks to all within earshot.
the canyon is not mine, nor the coyote. but at the edge of dawn and day when all is dirt brown and muddy green, I am transported to a world of deepest truth and being by four-legged creatures that leap and amble, bound and jump and trot, and, when all my stars align, occasionally and resonantly, howl.
Reposted from the tao of cycling | susan imhoff bird
Look for Susan’s exploration of the wolf controversy, Howl: Of Woman and Wolf, in May 2015 from Torrey House Press.
Which of these things is not like the other?
1) “The ultimate objective…is to liquidate all public ownership of grazing land and forest land in the United States…The immediate objectives make this attempt one of the biggest land grabs in American history…The plan is to get rid of public lands altogether, turning them over to the states, which can be coerced as the federal government cannot be, and eventually to private ownership. This is your land we are talking about.”
2) “The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land.”
3) “Since its inception in 2012, the [American Lands Council] has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative front group backed by the oil and gas industry and billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, to pass state-level legislation demanding that the federal government turn over federally owned national forests and public lands to Western states.”
Answer: though they all sound ripped from today’s headlines, only the last one is from this century.
The first quote appeared in Harper’s nearly 70 years ago. For twenty years, writer, historian, critic, activist Bernard DeVoto wrote a column, The Easy Chair, for the venerable magazine, and by the time this passage from “The West Against Itself” was published in 1947, DeVoto had already played an instrumental role in converting a land-grab fever into the 1946 formation of the Bureau of Land Management, thus preventing a potential sell-off of the West. It wasn’t the first time ranchers, energy interests, and developers had demanded private ownership of public lands, and it wouldn’t be the last.
The second statement is from an essay written for The Atlantic Monthly nearly thirty years later by DeVoto’s protege, Wallace Stegner, who spent his long and distinguished career writing about America and advocating for the protection of the West. His “Wilderness Letter” of 1960 ranks with works by John Muir and Henry David Thoreau in the conservation canon and was used to introduce the 1964 Wilderness Act in Congress. Despite his successful influence in establishing one of the most effective conservation laws in America, Stegner remained frustrated with the culture, practices, and mythos of West, and in this 1964 article, “Born a Square,” Stegner exhorted the West to “take a hard look at itself and acknowledge some things that the myths have consistently obscured”: it is politically reactionary, ruthless, and exploitative. True fifty years ago and true today.
This last frightening scenario was reported last week by Matt Lee-Ashley, a former communications director for the Department of the Interior who now follows public lands, energy, and environmental policy for the Center for American Progress. Lee-Ashley points out that the recent attention on public lands policy in the wake of Cliven Bundy’s refusal to obey court orders to remove his cattle from sensitive public lands is only the latest episode in the the West’s ongoing conflict about what wild lands are for. But the funding mechanisms behind today’s campaign to turn over federal lands to states or the highest bidders–which ultimately amount to the same thing–are staggeringly insidious, powerful, and frightening. The Koch brothers and ALEC have helped the American Lands Council extract more than $200,000 in taxpayer money from 42 mostly rural counties in nine Western states to “advance an aggressive and coordinated campaign to seize America’s public lands and national forests for drilling, mining, and logging,” Lee-Ashley asserts at ThinkProgress.org. Of course, the state of Utah is adding even more taxpayer funding to the extractor-fueled greed: the Republican legislature has already spent more than $500,000 to study a proposed takeover of federal land and has set aside an another $3 million to fight the federal government in court.
The crusade by special interests to wrest public wild lands from public ownership is as old as American statehood in the West. What’s new is that Western taxpayers are helping to pay for this effort to enrich the few at the cost of the many. Somehow, I don’t think DeVoto or Stegner would be surprised.