5 million coyotes can't be wrong

Early October, aspen leaves almost down. A storm has swept through the mountains leaving first snow on the peaks like a billboard announcing winter to town. Today is the day to go into the high country, dig osha roots and bid farewell to the fading light of summer.

The Forest Service road I travel is quiet, just a few preseason hunters scoping out the territory behind rolled-down windows of American trucks. We exchange obligatory waves – hands raised in quick salutes – scrutinizing each other as our trucks pass on the road, perhaps wondering what the other wants from this land.

Is it as simple as wild meat and healing roots? Maybe we have not strayed so far from our hunting and gathering ancestors.

The wind plucks yellow leaves from aspens and returns them gently to the forest floor. A view of the La Plata Mountains opens up to reveal first snow on the peaks, a light dusting from this morning’s storm. The snow is startling after a long, luxurious summer, but familiar, too, like once again seeing your friends in the wool caps they don each winter. These mountains are where Dan hunts, tucked away in the shady fir trees below timberline. In three days, start of first rifle season, he will be out here moving silently through dawn, hoping for a shot at an elk.

I park the truck and with shovel in hand and osha prayers on my lips, I head down an old, overgrown logging road. The plants, zapped by weeks of frosty nights, are brown and tattered, tangled together as they lay down for the long night of winter. This may be one of the last days to dig osha, soon it will be indistinguishable from the other decomposing plants, or buried under snow.

My hands are cold on the shovel under the shade of old spruce trees. The soil easily loosens around the base of the osha plant, and I squat in front of it, following the root runners with my fingers, prying them from the earth. It is a small plant I have chosen, just enough for one year’s medicine: potent antiviral and respiratory tonic. I break open a root and bitter resin smears onto my hand like the plant’s very blood. The taste is strong, earthy carrot.
I am always surprised at how difficult it is to snuff the breath of a wild plant, to slice into the earth and pull out life. I smooth the dank earth back around the wound I’ve created and scatter an offering of a powerful herb from my home garden.

With my treasures in a bag, I continue down the logging road, not yet ready to leave the land and last vestiges of summer’s reign. Chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers narrate my slow stroll, singing the dirge of summer passing. The logging road opens into a large clearcut studded with young spruce and fir emerging through the ruddy grasses. Beyond the clearcut, the Hermosa drainage has settled into winter gray with the exception of two bright patches of yellow, autumn’s flame almost extinguished. Beyond the leafless aspen groves, white peaks – Grizzly, Engineer, West Needles – rise into the sky, reclaiming their imposing winter stance over the land.

It is quiet here. In a few more days, the woods will be filled with hunters and explosions from their loud, high-powered weapons. How do the animals make sense of this invasion? How is it to be stalked, tracked, pursued while you are simply trying to live? I think of the mama elk and their young calves fleeing from gunshot and a deep sadness clamps onto my chest.

And yet, Dan has brought home elk and deer from these very woods, and I have eagerly helped butcher, cutting garnet flesh from snowy bone. On winter nights, I wrap a thick elk skin blanket around my shoulders, and in all seasons every meal of rich, wild meat is savored. I am slowly learning what the animals have always known, that joy and sorrow, life and death, all live in the same house. I can only hope that my heart is open enough to hold both the gifts of living and the pain of loss, not like opposite sides of a coin, but as equal parts of a whole.
Looking out over the vast Hermosa watershed, I offer a prayer to the animals, for their safety and well-being this hunting season. May the deaths that occur be swift and the lives taken with respect and gratitude.

It begins to snow. Graupel they call it, compact balls like cold, wet styrofoam. I walk slowly back, feeling the coldness wrap around me like a shawl and the land closing in on itself, becoming winter. The few birds that were calling have stopped, and the land is silent and still. I reach the truck though remain outside caught by the snow’s glitter, falling in my hair, collecting on the ground in shallow piles of white balls.

Then, like the most natural thing in the world, a coyote crosses the road in front of me, tail fluffed out behind her like a furry flag. She stops on the other side of the road in a clearing and sniffs at the ground. Her coat is the color of spruce bark, grayish-brown stitched with threads of red. But it is her tail that mesmerizes me, thick and luxurious, like a banner of flagrant wealth in this muted, winter landscape. I imagine her laying it across her babies as they sleep.

The coyote digs gently into the earth, scraping up pieces of dark soil. She lowers her snout to the ground and sniffs, bringing the secrets of the underworld up through her nose. Occasionally she looks up at me through the falling snow and I freeze in the place she’s caught me, leaning forward in concentration, blowing on my hands to warm them.

She presses one ear close to the ground and pauses for 10 beats of my heart. Then, like an expert yoga practitioner, she rotates her head in the opposite direction, probing the ground with her other ear while keeping her body perfectly still. Her motions are smooth and fluid, ages of instinct choreographed into a dance of the hunt. She stops and sits on her haunches, eyes clinging to this spot of earth like ice on the north slope of a mountain. The snow falls harder, pressing on the withered, roadside stalks of yarrow.

Watching the coyote hunt, I am let into an intimacy outside of my realm. For this moment – as I am locked on the coyote, and she on her prey – we are the only creatures alive, and the snow draws us closer like a curtain sealing off the rest of the world.

Suddenly the coyote pulls back onto her hind legs and then springs forward and pounces. I hold my breath, waiting for her head to emerge. She immediately rises with a long, gray squirrel tail hanging from her mouth. The spinning world stops, and my mouth falls open. The coyote walks a few feet away and, without taking the squirrel out of her mouth or using her paws, she begins eating the animal. In less than a minute the squirrel is devoured: fur, bones, eyeballs and all. The coyote glances up at me and then walks back to the hole from where she pulled the squirrel, squats over it and urinates (this is how I know she is female). She then trots back across the road and disappears into the spruce trees where I had dug the osha.

I thank the coyote for her presence and for showing me one of the oldest, most natural relationships, that between predator and prey. From death, life again is sustained. I get in the truck, turn on the heat and head back to town; the smell of osha roots, earthy and pungent, fills my nose.







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