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We went to the woods today.
It was one of those almost shockingly beautiful days, so incredibly fall – a crisp, rich blue sky, blazing fireworks of leaves exploding in every shade from lemon-lime to ruby. The sun was warm enough and the air cool enough to balance the scale perfectly, and a light breeze tickled its way through the forest.
We are amazingly fortunate in that we have neighbors who not only allow but encourage us to roam their property, and we live beside a state park, so we get to slip in and out of its boundary, in an area not crushed by crowds. We spend hours out there, inspecting the edges of mud puddles for tracks, visiting old tree friends, peeking into crevices for bugs, and testing the depths of burrows. It is a magical fairyland, a wilderness playground, a place I feel out-of-my-mind lucky to be able to offer my son. One learns lessons in nature not found anywhere else and cultivates facets of spirit not attainable elsewhere. This place is where we both come into our own, reconnecting with our roots as we explore those of the trees.
I was lost in all this today, reveling in it, taking photos every few steps as I fell in love with yet another maple in a bright pink-orange display. And then – and then I noticed our dog, who was noticing something of his own. Our last two trips we have been fairly sure we’ve happened upon a bear, and this being, as I mentioned a moment ago, not regular stomping grounds for others, I am always on alert. We have a couple of dogs, but my old girl tore her ACL on this hike a couple years ago, so I am having to learn to trust in my son’s dog. He will be 4 in February, so he is beginning to lose his puppy goofiness, and I am increasingly impressed with him on our ventures. Now I keyed in on him as he began to prick his ears, pause, veer off, and train his attention over the edge. We were on a shortcut trail that drops down into a 6-way intersection where the park service road comes through, and we had limited visibility right before the brief descent. My son was about to rocket down to the clearing, but I warned him back and we went cautiously together. As we popped out of the rhododendron I saw and heard a flock of birds – big birds. “Turkeys!” I exclaimed, which I had been somewhat suspecting by the dog’s actions.
“No, Momma,” he said. “Vultures.”
It was a dead coyote. Over the edge, maybe twenty feet below us. A place where locals, maybe even our own beloved neighbors and their family, have dumped trash over the bank for years, now laced with broken bottles and rusting cans. Here, as if it, too, were garbage, rather than a unique, special, and necessary part of this glorious wilderness. This was no natural death; it had been tossed here, discarded.
My heart felt heavier with every slow step down to the body. This beautiful, perfect day in the woods had a sudden stain upon it. I stood beside the small form, remembering earlier in the week when my son had called me outside – “Come out if you want to hear the coyotes singing!” It had quit before I got there, but I had heard it several more times later – not the usual lively chatter, but a haunting, brief, solo call. I felt sick realizing we had probably been listening to this creature’s mate wondering why it had not returned, or telling what they had seen happen.
And why? I mean, why? Beyond this lone coyote – the wolves, the bear, the mountain lions. Why have we humans historically felt it our duty to eradicate every predator we run across?
I have hit the age of appreciating my mortality without fearing it. Across our seasons in these woods, I have come to love it more than all the other hiking areas around – and we live in a land of plenty here – because of the very fact it still feels wild, like while I may be at the top of the food chain, I am not all-powerful. There are things out here that warrant respect. I have been so thankful of the times we have been alert to bear, so I can help my son understand how to share space. How to be knowledgeable in one’s actions so as to not need to fear. How to be so that others can, too.
We stood over the coyote for a while. I felt like something needed to be said, some sort of apology offered up to our surroundings. The air was still with sadness. The smell finally drove my son back to the trail, and I followed after a long, last look, gathering the now-tethered dog and resuming our travels under a black cloud I couldn’t seem to shake. I told my son I was sorry; this was his first coyote, and this was no way to see one. Growing up on a farm I had seen plenty. It was a very different time: their cries at night spooked me, and we lost the occasional barn cat to them. The farmer would try to shoot them, and back then, I would tell him when I saw one, watch him take aim. Thankfully, he was a lousy shot. You live and you learn, I told my son. I am wiser now. I am also thankful I have known them; that I know their calls, know their habits, have seen them sit like regal statues on knolls, or run the fields with the farm dogs, as if playing.
We walked on, to Crinkleroot Corner, as we call our favorite spot. A tree there bears the face of a wizened old man that we like to think of as Jim Arnosky’s loveable woodland character. My son headed to play in the creek while I decided to walk to the end of the trail, less than ten minutes on. I ambled down the hill as leaves swirled thickly around me and the dog trotted on ahead. At the bottom, the path turns back up and away from the water, and fallen trees create an obstacle course. The dog went through them slowly, sniffing keenly at the vertical branches and eyeing the trail. I continued a bit farther before deciding from his behavior that I was trailing something that had probably come down for a drink. I called him softly, and we went back the way we had come, surprising my son with our quick return.
My decision wasn’t made out of fear; I just don’t need it all. We had our spot to explore for the afternoon, and the animal was welcome to the rest. I want to be a good neighbor. I want to leave a positive mark by not leaving one at all, or the least possible, anyway. Around our area of this state park, the divide between the people and the land is glaring. There are properties that look like rotting junkyards. The litter is obscene. This poor, dead animal that – what? Maybe nabbed a chicken or two? Or simply was, like the coyotes of my childhood? Compared with the incredible beauty we were busy soaking up – it is a stark contrast. If you want to see what I mean, look at the photo for this post; I took it today. With the bottom cropped off, it is quite idyllic, isn’t it?
I’m not sure how to wrap this post up. There is no neat bow to tie on it, I was simply feeling the need to get words out. It hurts to see my favorite places – not just this one in particular, but nature as a whole – scarred by human actions, and I am tired of always having to explain to my son what we need to do better. I want him to see people feeling the way he does and joining in protecting and caring for our planet and its inhabitants with him. I want him to see wild things doing wild stuff, not laying in crumpled heaps after a senseless death. Call me crazy for getting so upset over a dead coyote, but I don’t know. It just made me so darn sad.