the waning buck moon

girls and prosecco

I didn’t sleep much last night. I’d wake and realize my entire family was sleeping in this house where we raised our children and to which they’ve returned with their own children or (as with Aunty Angie) on her own, by small plane across Georgia Strait, and I felt so excited at the prospect of swimming today, watching the kids play elaborate games with a soccer ball and badminton racquets and frisbees. Would the huge prime rib roast be enough for all of us? Which Desert Hills red wine would pair with it? Would the kids like the dinosaur pinata we are going to hang from the clothesline later today? I could smell the smoke from our campfire (or firecamp, as Francophone Manon calls it) last evening where we roasted hotdogs wrapped in bannock and ate blueberry and peach galette. Smoky hair on the pillow reminds me of our summer camping trips across the province when my children were small, sleeping in the tent and hearing my family breathing like a single organism.

The waning buck moon was just passing our bedroom when suddenly the entire coyote family began to howl and yip just on the bank below the house. Were they hunting? And (oh!) where was Winter the cat? (Hidden, on the upper deck, listening too.) The sound was a tangle of harmonies, low voice, high voice, and (almost certainly the mother’s) middle vibrato. John and I held hands in the moonlight, while the song briefly followed the moon to the west. stopping as suddenly as it began.

And listen: the coyotes are singing, the deep voice of the father,the rather more shrill voice of the mother—anxious that all her offspring eat well and learn to hunt, to care for their safety in the forest beyond the orchard—and the lilting joyous youngsters unaware that a life is anything other than the moment in moonlight, fresh meat in their stomachs, the old trees with a few apples and pears too small and green for any living thing to be interested in this early in the season.

—From Euclid’s Orchard (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017)

the night wild with their song

crossing over

Last night I was awake again and from my warm place in the bed, I heard the coyotes. They were far away but one of them (the male, I think) was howling and one of them (the female) was yipping. Yesterday, on our walk down the driveway (we can’t drive up in this snow so leave the car by the highway), we saw the whole story of how the coyotes had spent their morning. It had snowed overnight so we knew the tracks were fresh. They’d been up near the house (which explains why the cat was skittish). One of them stopped to pee. Above is where they were ambling down the driveway, their tracks crossing. Sometimes you could tell that one was following almost in the other’s footprints. Sometimes they walked on separate sides of the driveway. By the time they reached the old orchard, they were walking side by side.

lives

They are presences in our lives and even in our sleep. And in my memory, as I think of the years that we’ve heard them, seen them, the night wild with their song.

And listen: the coyotes are singing, the deep voice of the father,the rather more shrill voice of the mother—anxious that all her offspring eat well and learn to hunt, to care for their safety in the forest beyond the orchard—and the lilting joyous youngsters unaware that a life is anything other than the moment in moonlight, fresh meat in their stomachs, the old trees with a few apples and pears too small and green for any living thing o be interested in this early in the season.

—from “Euclid’s Orchard”, published in Euclid’s Orchard & Other Essays, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

 

It’s all in the song.

pup

Last night, we’d just fallen asleep when the room was filled with noise. Coyote noise. I think it was the estrus call of the female and it went on and on. Then was answered. Most years we hear the courtship music of the coyotes and later in the season, we’ll hear the resulting family song.

Coyotes weren’t around when we first moved to the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, they were on the lower end, then people were reporting them in Halfmoon Bay, and by 2005, we were seeing them regularly. We think of them as part of the landscape and it’s surprising to remember that they haven’t always been here. Or at least not in our time. In Mammals of British Columbia (Eder and Pattie), there’s an interesting note that David Thompson wrote regularly about fox and wolf sightings as he traveled west but he didn’t mention coyotes. They’re certainly thriving now, in cities as well as wilderness.

They arrived on our land around the time our children had moved away. I’ve thought about this a lot. How we’ve heard their courtship, seen the young pups, heard the family singing in late summer, and then in winter watched the parents crossing the old clearing where our orchard used to be. When I see them, I think of my family, its long residency among these trees. I wonder if the coyotes think of their own grown offspring.

I wrote about coyotes and family and mathematics in an essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”. It became the title of a book of essays released in 2017 by the wonderful Mother Tongue Publishing.

One day a single light brown coyote came out of the woods and walked by my window. It had all the time in the world. It passed the wing of rooms where my children grew up. It passed the windows they looked out at night, first thing in the morning, drawing their curtains to let sunlight in or the grey light of winter, in excitement, lonely or sleepless, in good health and bad, dazzled with new love or sorrow, at the lack of it, on the eve of their birthdays, new ventures, on the eve of leaving home. I went to the back of the house to see where the animal was headed, but it did what coyotes do, a trick I wish I could also learn. It dematerialized. Vanished into thin air.

Mostly coyotes are monogamous. Their life span is 10-14 years. I don’t know how likely it is that the pair we heard last night is the original pair. But perhaps one of the offspring and its mate, drawn to the old territory?

So it happens again. Courtship, mating, birth, nurture. It’s all in the song. In August, in moonlight, we’ll hear it again, will recognize in the beautiful harmonies something of our own deep story.

Braid groups, harmonic analysis: The whole is greater than the part. Euclid’s 5th Axiom

A midsummer evening, clear moonlight. Down in the orchard, the coyotes have gone under the fence with their young. How many? I’ve seen one, heard several others. I’ve imagined them on the soft grass, tumbling like my children used to play, rolling down the slope over tiny sweet wild strawberries, over the heart-shaped violet leaves, the deep pockets of moss, while around them snakes hid under the lupines. But now in the quiet, I am shaken out of my dreaming because a coyote is singing a long, low passage. A lump forms in my throat as I look out into the night, the sky dusty with stars, a three-quarter moon hanging so perfect over the hidden lake that I think of a stage set, an arranged scene created by strings and wishful thinking. A jagged line of dark horizon and the vertical trees, the line of them rising, then descending as the bar changes, a page of music, the arpeggiated chords, the implied bass line. A pause, a comma of silence. Another coyote joins in, then at least two more. It’s a part-song, a madrigal. Each voice is on pitch, but one is low, another high, and several braid themselves in and around the melody line.

redux: “with the days unspooling”

I was looking to see when our cat Winter came to live with us and discovered that two years ago, right around now, we were finding his tracks out in the light snow. No snow this morning, just a hard frost, and Winter is fast asleep on our bed.

_________________________________________

tracks

North America and Europe have been experiencing cold weather, colder than usual. We often have a few very cold days in mid-winter, some snow, but this year — and last, because we’re only just into 2017 — we’ve had a lot of snow and temperatures around minus 10. Last night it rained and everything is melting today. What I’ve enjoyed about the snow is seeing the tracks and realizing, again, how populated this area truly is. Deer tracks, elk, weasels winding up and down the driveway — and a cat. A wild cat. Not a bobcat (we have those too) but a black and white cat hovering around. Yesterday its tracks were so clear in the snow, wandering around under the bird feeder, the woodpile (where mice nestle in for the season), the compost box (where mice nest, too, for the warmth), and then darting under the old dog-house, uninhabited now but restored, just in case. I was surprised because there are coyotes around and a cat would make a good breakfast for a hungry canine. Especially in winter. I put a little dish of food out in a protected area and see this morning that it’s empty.

The other day we went for a walk around what we call the Sakinaw loop. Down our driveway to the highway, along for about a quarter of a kilometer to Sakinaw Lake Road, down that long hill to the lake and Haskins Creek where the coho spawn, and then along a trail that leads through the woods below our property, meeting our driveway again beyond the gate to our neighbour’s place. We were talking, talking, as we always do. It’s been a 38 year conversation at this point in our lives. I’ve just finished a book of essays and John is coming to the end of a collection of poems so we discussed what we hoped the work had done –in my case, to explore old ground in a new way; and in John’s, to complete a sequence long in the making, about animals. At the top of Sakinaw Lake Road, we noticed the coyote tracks, fresh, in the snow, two sets, one on either side of the road, leading down the hill that we were also walking (carefully) down. Sometimes one set of tracks would edge closer to the other set and at one point, there were signs of a skirmish or play in the deeper snow by the salmonberry bushes. You could see at another point that one animal had run for a bit. But mostly the pair was ambling, as we ambled. I expected the tracks to lead over to the creek where there might still be some carcasses to feed on. But no. They continued, as we continued, along the trail through the woods. Fresh scat. The bodies coming closer together as ours came closer together where the trail narrowed.

There’s lots of research that tells us coyotes practice social monogamy – they live together for long periods but might mate with others. But recent research suggests they also practice genetic monogramy. They only reproduce with each other. I don’t know if the tracks we were following belonged to the pair who mate each year, in late February, in the woods near us. We’ve heard them. (It’s something that I wrote about in my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, part of the book titled for that essay,  due out in September…) And one year one of their pups came most mornings for a week, in August, eating salal berries just below the deck where we were drinking coffee with one of our sons, watching as it explored, even entering the old dog-house to try out the space.

So I walked down the road with my life partner, talking, and just ahead of us on the trail, the coyotes were ambling too, either talking, or not, with the days unspooling ahead of them.

The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
    --Gary Snyder

“as if to say: it’s midnight”

spring grass

Last night, awake (in part because of the cat’s restlessness, using my shoulders as a launching platform to jump to the windowsill above my pillows), I came down to work. It was 1 a.m., then 2. And dark outside, because clouds moved in to cover the waning gibbous moon. There, there, in the far distance: coyotes. A singing explanation for the cat’s behaviour, and mine.

On my way home from lunch with a friend yesterday, I slowed down on the Sakinaw hill because bears were crossing the highway. I suspect it was this year’s orchard family. I saw two—the sow and one cub, but the other cub might have already raced up into the old gravel pit. The sow loved our young grass last year and came in the evening to graze.

It might have been them the cat heard. In the darkness, anything is possible. I thought of Alice Oswald’s beautiful poem, “Fox”, which I read yesterday, and its reminder that lives run parallel to our own, close enough to hear, if not touch:

in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name

as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf

My own children sleeping, in whatever the time zone, so far away, and yes, my life laid out for them, a quilt for their safety.

 

a wild orchestration

coyote.jpg

On a walk up the Malaspina trail yesterday, coyote scats everywhere, full of hair and new grass. This is a sign of spring as much as daffodils and salmonberry blossoms (though yesterday we didn’t see a single one). Last week, an ambulance sounded its siren as it came down the long hill near us, on its way to an emergency in Egmont or Earls Cove. And as soon as the siren stopped, we heard the pair of coyotes denning just to the south of our house sing their own version of the siren’s song, two voices rising and falling, in a complex and beautiful harmony. In the title essay of my book Euclid’s Orchard, there are coyotes singing and they might even be the same animals as the ones last week. I’ve always loved the continuities, the cycles.

We knew about the coyotes because they left scats on our driveway, in the hollows of moss in the orchard, on the nearby trails we hiked regularly, and even along the highway we walked to collect our mail at the community boxes about half a mile away. Every time we walked, we saw the scats. If we were on a trail, the scats were in the middle. The animals wanted anyone using the trail to know they’d been there. On the edges of the highway—a sign that the animals had mastered the knowledge of traffic—the piles were right on the human-worn margins.

And they were—are—fascinating. Coyotes are omnivores. They eat rodents, frogs and other amphibians (but not toads because their skins are bitter), reptiles, fish, crustaceans, birds, larger mammals that they can either kill or scavenge, grass (which helps them to digest fur and bones, I’ve read, and which also serves to scour parasites from their intestines), birdseed, and all kinds of fruit and vegetables.Once we watched a young pup hold salal branches down with its foot so it could reach the ripening berries, plucking them delicately one at a time. We’ve noticed more fur and bones in spring, when rodent populations are highest. And sometimes the scats seem to be composed entirely of grass. Once, the head and neck of a garter snake, scales still intact. Bloody flesh gives them a darker color. Fruit— crabapples, wild cherries, even elderberries–give them bulk. Seeds and fur make them grey. And if they’re lucky enough to find a source of dry dog or cat food, the scats resemble those of canines.

Even though they were mostly invisible, we knew they were around and felt lucky when we saw them. Luckier still when we heard them. We live far from the nearest village and can usually hear emergency vehicles coming from a distance. But if there are coyotes in the immediate vicinity, they begin to howl before we hear the sirens, and by the time the ambulance or police car is near our house, on its way to the ferry or to deal with a collision on the highway below us, there’s a cacophony of siren and coyote accompaniment. A wild orchestration for voices and synthesizer—longitudinal waves coming toward us, bending and refracting the long length of the highway. Sound nowhere and everywhere.

“with the days unspooling”

tracks

North America and Europe have been experiencing cold weather, colder than usual. We often have a few very cold days in mid-winter, some snow, but this year — and last, because we’re only just into 2017 — we’ve had a lot of snow and temperatures around minus 10. Last night it rained and everything is melting today. What I’ve enjoyed about the snow is seeing the tracks and realizing, again, how populated this area truly is. Deer tracks, elk, weasels winding up and down the driveway — and a cat. A wild cat. Not a bobcat (we have those too) but a black and white cat hovering around. Yesterday its tracks were so clear in the snow, wandering around under the bird feeder, the woodpile (where mice nestle in for the season), the compost box (where mice nest, too, for the warmth), and then darting under the old dog-house, uninhabited now but restored, just in case. I was surprised because there are coyotes around and a cat would make a good breakfast for a hungry canine. Especially in winter. I put a little dish of food out in a protected area and see this morning that it’s empty.

The other day we went for a walk around what we call the Sakinaw loop. Down our driveway to the highway, along for about a quarter of a kilometer to Sakinaw Lake Road, down that long hill to the lake and Haskins Creek where the coho spawn, and then along a trail that leads through the woods below our property, meeting our driveway again beyond the gate to our neighbour’s place. We were talking, talking, as we always do. It’s been a 38 year conversation at this point in our lives. I’ve just finished a book of essays and John is coming to the end of a collection of poems so we discussed what we hoped the work had done –in my case, to explore old ground in a new way; and in John’s, to complete a sequence long in the making, about animals. At the top of Sakinaw Lake Road, we noticed the coyote tracks, fresh, in the snow, two sets, one on either side of the road, leading down the hill that we were also walking (carefully) down. Sometimes one set of tracks would edge closer to the other set and at one point, there were signs of a skirmish or play in the deeper snow by the salmonberry bushes. You could see at another point that one animal had run for a bit. But mostly the pair was ambling, as we ambled. I expected the tracks to lead over to the creek where there might still be some carcasses to feed on. But no. They continued, as we continued, along the trail through the woods. Fresh scat. The bodies coming closer together as ours came closer together where the trail narrowed.

There’s lots of research that tells us coyotes practice social monogamy – they live together for long periods but might mate with others. But recent research suggests they also practice genetic monogramy. They only reproduce with each other. I don’t know if the tracks we were following belonged to the pair who mate each year, in late February, in the woods near us. We’ve heard them. (It’s something that I wrote about in my essay, “Euclid’s Orchard”, part of the book titled for that essay,  due out in September…) And one year one of their pups came most mornings for a week, in August, eating salal berries just below the deck where we were drinking coffee with one of our sons, watching as it explored, even entering the old dog-house to try out the space.

So I walked down the road with my life partner, talking, and just ahead of us on the trail, the coyotes were ambling too, either talking, or not, with the days unspooling ahead of them.

The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.
    --Gary Snyder