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.

Reading the Lone Pine Field Guide to the Mammals of British Columbia

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Weasels have an image problem: they are often described as pointy-nosed villains, and the name “weasel” is frequently used to characterize dishonest cheats.

This morning, a face at the bedroom window, a tawny curious face, with bright eyes. The weasel was stretched along a cable of trumpet-vine, as surprised to see me as I was to see it.

Despite its abundance, the Short-tailed Weasel is not commonly seen, because, like all weasels, it tends to be most active at night and inhabits areas with heavy cover.

The other morning, on the patio, darting in and out of the wood-shed, climbing the laundry stoop (as I have climbed it hundreds of time, with baskets of sheets and towels). And is this the animal I’ve heard for weeks now, at night, racing across the roof just under the eaves by my bed? Sometimes I hear mice but this wasn’t a mouse. And it was too swift for a raccoon, too grounded for an owl. The sound too loud to be a Little Brown Bat waking from its roost between the fascia boards and the wall.

Habitat: The Short-tailed Weasel is most abundant in coniferous or mixed forests and streamside woodlands. In summer, it may often be found in the alpine tundra, where it hunts on rock slides and talus slopes.

Or on homesteads on the Sechelt peninsula where it can be found on blue metal roof-tops, on trumpet vines reaching across the expanse of bedroom windows, in wood-sheds where the family barbecue waits for the next party and where some fir logs are stacked, fragrant with pitch, the bin of kindling split from cedar shakes salvaged from the old roof an occasional trap for mice and lizards.

Food: mice, voles, shrews, chipmunks, pocket gophers, pikas, rabbits, bird eggs and nestlings, insects and even amphibians. They often eat every part of a mouse except the filled stomach, which may be excised with surgical precision and left on a rock.

Three blue eggs, almost ready to hatch, from the robin nest above the beam carrying the wisteria across the patio to the porch. And, oh, where was the tree frog that usually greets me at the hot-tub in the morning, the one I’ve moved (for its own good, I tell it, knowing, even if it doesn’t, that chemicals aren’t good for creatures with such porous skins, skins needed for their respiratory processes) – moved to an old bathtub pond, moved to a trolley of verdant kitchen herbs, to a bowl of water growing scouring rush, to a collection of potted roses with damp soil. (“These weasels are quick, lithe, and unrelenting in their pursuit of anything they can overpower.”) A small green tree frog, poised on the edge of a hot-tub, its pale grey throat pulsing?

Young: In April or May, the female gives birth to 4-12 (usually 6-9) blind, helpless young that weigh just 1.8 grams each. Their eyes open at five weeks, and soon thereafter they accompany the adults on hunts. About this time, a male has typically joined the family. In addition to training the young to hunt, he impregnates the mother and all her young females, which are sexually mature at two to three months. Young males do not mature until the next February or March – a reproductive strategy that reduces interbreeding among littermates.

I remember a tiny dead weasel, left at the sun-room door many years ago, how its tail was tipped with black, and its eyes were closed, as though sleeping.

 

a face in the window

“Come upstairs, quickly!”

And I did. John was in his study — long windows looking out on the upper deck and the woods beyond. A small animal had just looked in at him as he sat at his desk, standing on its hind legs. His immediate thought was a weasel. So we went to the sunroom and yes, we could see a weasel darting in and out behind the potted tomatoes. And where was the camera? Downstairs.

By the time I came up with it, the weasel — we think a least weasel (Mustela nivalis) but possibly a short-tailed weasel (M.erminea) — was out on the edges of the deck, by the railings, but moving quickly so it was hard to get a good image of it. Here it is (blurry) on a little stair leading from one deck level to another:

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One morning, years ago, home alone and sitting on the rocking chair in the kitchen by the woodstove, I had the sense that something was watching me. When I looked to the sliding doors leading to the deck, I saw a small animal standing on its hind legs, front paws against the glass. Somehow I knew it was a weasel. It watched me watching it. It was curious and didn’t immediately run away — not until I got up from the chair. What had I been doing? Quilting probably. Or drinking a cup of coffee in the sudden quiet after the children had gone down to the school bus. I’ve never forgotten that face — bright eyes, soft brown fur.

There’s a Leonardo Da Vinci painting I’ve always loved, the Lady with an Ermine (an ermine is the short-tailed weasel in its winter pelage) —

300px-Dama_z_gronostajem–though the animal is depicted much larger than life. Still, its sinuous shape is right. The lady is Cecilia Gallerani and there are two theories about why she is holding an ermine (though I suspect both are right: Leonardo had a lively mind…). In his own Bestiary, Leonardo tells us, “The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.” So a nod to Cecilia’s purityand chastity –though it’s possible she was pregnant with her lover’s child when the portrait was painted. She was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, who was Leonardo Da Vinci’s employer. And I love that the first two syllables of her surname echo the Greek word for weasel (ermine): γαλέη (galée).

While I was sitting at my desk, reading the entry for the least weasel in Mammals of British Columbia, I heard a strange sound in the papers behind my door. But I didn’t pay much attention. And a few minutes later, John called down again: “I just saw the weasel running across the room!”

Sure enough it was in the house. When I went back upstairs, I saw it race out of the bathroom and down the stairs. Through the kitchen. I saw it run to the same sliding doors where I’d seen that earlier weasel at least 20 years ago. John quickly closed doors to other rooms and we opened the outside doors. The weasel was behind the washing machine. It peeked out a couple of times — that beautiful face. Then we watched it run through the utility room and out the back door.

Was it the same weasel? We were sure we’d seen that one leave the upper deck by the staircase leading down to the grass. There was a door open behind us — to the sunroom — so maybe a second animal slipped in behind us.

Back at my desk, I read that “Most human encounters with a Least Weasel result from lifting plywood, sheet metal or hay bales. These sightings are understandably brief, because the weasel wastes little time in finding the nearest escape route.”

I wonder how Cecilia was able to coax her animal to remain in her arms for the time it would have taken a great artist to paint her portrait. In various pieces about the painting, critics point out that the ermine is likely a composite. Leonardo drawings from around that time are full of dog paws, boar and bear heads, and there’s even a drawing of a hunter beating an ermine to death.

ermine