Thursday, December 24, 2009

Coyote Highway

With the return of the snow season, I enjoy following the tracks of animals as I walk in my yard (2.5 acres) and the surrounding fields. Seeing coyote tracks cutting across my south lawn by the tree margin, and criss-crossing other parts of my yard as well, I’m reminded that they’re still around, as I haven’t actually heard them in a while. If there are any coyotes in your area, the sirens of a passing ambulance or fire truck can get them going, so I stick my head out to listen when I hear sirens, but I haven’t heard the coyote chorus for a year or more.

Following the coyote tracks, I’m impressed with how they are able to work the Michigan grid system. Out in the country, we have “country miles,” where each block is approximately a mile long, with the north-south and east-west running roads crossing each other in a pattern that divides the landscape into squares. Not all of the roads go through, but if you are trying to get somewhere, like to a town that is north and east of you, you can usually work the grid by bearing north then east then north then east, until you arrive in the approximate vicinity you’re aiming for. As for the layout of the individual grid squares, you typically have farm houses and some strictly residential houses fairly well spaced out along the road frontage. There are no sidewalks. The large interior sections are like a patchwork quilt of fields in different crops; these are bordered by tree margins (called “fence rows,” though most are not fenced), with creeks and drains cutting through, woodlots in spaces less suitable for farming (such as sump-like areas), and the occasional pond with its marshy border.

What a pair of coyotes will do (as evidenced by the way individuals’ tracks meet up and separate), is start out in a corner of a field, then split up, each following the fence rows in a different direction, until they meet again in the opposite corner. If there are more coyotes, some might also cut across the field diagonally. The wood margins are a boon to coyotes, because they are an animal highway—again, something you can see by all the parallel tracks. As border zones, they are rich in animal life, including raccoons, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, and cats, who may feel more safety in skirting the tree-thick borders of fields. Woodchucks, pheasants, and turkeys will use the margins too, and also venture further out. When not crossing or grazing in the fields, deer like to rest and hide in the wood margins. On my walks, I have noticed an average of two dead deer per mile of road frontage (on just one side of the road—so about eight per square mile), which gives you a notion of how abundant they are. Wandering through the fields, I sometimes come across the spot where some unfortunate bird or mammal met its end, as the coyote pack converged.

What I wonder about is how the coyotes’ adaptation to the grids affects their cognitive maps, that is, their internalized representation of the world and way of being in the world. It is sometimes said that there are no straight lines in nature, but coyotes at least are getting a notion of lines and squares, (though, strictly speaking, they are not hard lines or angles).

The square relates to modern western (i.e. white European) culture, in contrast to others. Black Elk said that the Power of the World moves in circles, and that Indians tried to move with the world by consciously carrying their acts out in a circular motion. (This is borne out by Native American commentators from widely varying groups, as well as outside observers.) I’m not mentioning this to criticize our modern penchant for angles, but merely to make philosophical observations and cultural comparisons on how our man-built landscape has its effect on the wildlife. When I was in American Studies, I actually thought about doing a thesis on wood margins in relation to the grid system, because there are many social and historical—as well as cognitive—implications.

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