Review by Jeff Calder
“They’re here,” says the environmental writer John Lane, and they’re testing our hospitality.
They, to be precise, are Canis latrans, the subject of his doggish survey, “Coyote Settles the South.” Poetic and convivial, questioning and adversarial, Lane embraces the challenges presented to modernity by this “wild, weedy species,” which sneaked into the region about 50 years ago, like “special ops teams” under cover of night.
Relaxing in his suburban Spartanburg home one evening, Lane was first mobilized by the blue note of a coyote’s howl, with its secret message, hard to cipher: “They rang high, quivering cries strung through space like a clef of ascending notes held too long, a little lonely, but with a strange beauty.”
Lane knows they can be dangerous — Wendell Berry, the celebrated environmental writer and activist, cautions him, “There is not much use in sentimentalizing our relationship to the ‘wild animals.’” But Lane loves them (conditionally) and makes a strong case for respecting the critter as a more or less permanent resident in the neighborhood.
A professor at Wofford College, where he is Director of the Goodall Environmental Studies Center, Lane describes himself as “an eager hobby-poet/mammologist.” Accordingly, he profiles the coyote’s special ways and explores its standing in American folklore and literature. He matches his hero’s “range extension” with hopscotching expeditions around the South. He travels to the coastal Carolina swamps, the lower Alabama scrubs, and the West Virginia mountain range, where he unravels a local legend of an “outlaw” super-coyote in the 1970s that has taken the protean form of a Stagger Lee myth.
Lane is disturbed to find “a lot of coyote hate out there, and the coyote fear is building as well” — the book could be retitled “Coyote Unsettles the South” — but he raises a question broader than the coyote itself: How does the population in the Southeast deal with the difficulties of “wildness” encroaching on the “human-altered habitat.”
Fieldwork on the Southern coyote has been limited; a friend of the author’s tells him, “Nobody wants to fund coyote research unless you are figuring out ways to kill them.” Indeed, in Lane’s home state of South Carolina, the coyote is categorized as “vermin”; 30,000 were killed in 2013 alone, a calculated average of 82 every day. Yet, their numbers keep growing. As Wendell Berry notes, “They seem to be a species that thrives on human malevolence.”
They’re brilliant and adaptive. One tracker describes the coyote as a “four-footed computer.” They also have a way of making themselves invisible — one could be standing next to you at Target right now.
“They’ll eat about anything,” says the Tennessee professor Jim Byford, “as long as it will hold still long enough for them to grab it.” It’s an omnivore’s diet; standard entrees include rat, skunk and lizard, followed by a fruit course, notably, of persimmon. They’re fond of lowly shrews (“he seems to like to hear them squeak”) and, sometimes, well-heeled poodles (“I pulled the leash and all that came back was her dog tags”). Attacks on humans appear to be infrequent.
Lane and his biologist colleagues are troubled that the coyote has become a top poacher of endangered sea turtle eggs on South Carolina barrier islands. While this creates some discrepancy for the Coyotephilic Lane, he identifies other malefactors: “Isn’t it really industrial fishing and coastal real estate agents who should be taking the blame and leading the charge to stop the killing? If we regulated these industries, as they should be, wouldn’t there be plenty of protein to go around?”
Lane advocates an “animal ethic” corresponding to a “land ethic,” and draws connections between the present day and preindustrial, even Neolithic eras, when a more balanced relationship with animals was essential for human survival.
In Atlanta’s Lullwater Park near Emory University, he examines the interaction between the furry critter and the elite denizens of the city’s sylvan Druid Hills neighborhood, “the epicenter of coyote skirmishes in the South.” The preserve’s enchanting mini-quasi-valleys, known as “wooded draws,” have, in recent years, become “coyote highways.” Lane attends a community meeting sponsored by Coyote Coexistence Atlanta, where he encounters an experienced trapper — recommending “knock-back ”— and a California “human-animal conflict resolution expert” who places Lullwater’s issue into a global perspective, mentioning similar clashes between people and elephants.
The more pragmatic side of Lane isn’t insensible to opposing viewpoints. He’s quick to lampoon his own “desire for an ecological Eden not limited by practical concerns.” He never discounts the trapper’s “practical techniques heavily based on his animal observations in the field.” He stops short of a concise point-by-point coyote accommodation program, possibly because he’s aware of the mixed results, even failures, of well-meaning reintroductions of once nearly extinct species, like the Red Wolf, into new environments.
Like the best American environmental writing, Lane strikes a balance between close scrutiny of the natural word and sudden flights of romantic reverie. He admires the “clear prose hard as pitch pine” of a 1914 diary, but just as quickly he’s wheeling like a thrush: “My pants were soon smudged with charcoal from the recent controlled burn, and when I looked down, each khaki leg was a Japanese Sumi painting framed with the burned sapling’s delicate brushstrokes.”
Lane’s concern that coyotes should have places where they can be themselves turns to a meditation on James Dickey’s poem, “The Heaven of Animals,” where “the wild prey and predators live ‘at the cycle’s center.’” As for the practical value of art, if poetry is a portal between the now and the not yet — and who can say that it isn’t — one positive intention of the environmentalist ethic is to position poetic experience more at the center of everyday life. Lane: “The lives of animals are good to use to think about our own lives. They provide us with rich symbols to pour our deepest experiences into, and they can become vessels for understanding our complex, evolving human world.”