Finding Comfort in the Cries of Coyotes

A meditation on the language of the wild

12-01-2001 // Les Line

NIGHT CAME CRISP AND CLEAR on Christmas Eve 1985, the cloudless sky fading from twilight blue to black as the sun settled behind the mountains to the west. But with an almost-full moon beaming down on a fresh quilt of snow, I could watch the draft horses in the pasture across the way munching on the last of their evening timothy.

And I could hear the crunch of their hooves in the snow, for not a wisp of wind stirred the air. Truly a Silent Night.

With an armload of oak logs for the fireplace, I reached the kitchen door only to be stopped by the distant ringing of bells. Across two miles of quiet fields and woods came the sound of carols being played on the new carillon at a historic church down in the valley.

And then something wonderful and unforgettable happened. Unseen on the near hillside, a coyote lifted its head to the skyful of stars and answered the carillon with a series of sharp yips and yaps that led into a long melancholy howl. A second coyote joined the Christmas Eve songfest, then a third and a fourth until it became impossible to tell the size of the wild canine chorus whose marvelous medley continued unabated for perhaps five minutes, then stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

The ranchlands of Wyoming? No, the dairy and horse farm country of New York state's Taconic Highlands, a mere 100 miles north of Wall Street. But that should not surprise anyone who has followed the rising fortunes of the "brush wolf," a canny creature with the adaptability to thrive both in the sagebrush plains of the Wild West, its natal land, and at civilization's doorstep in the East. As the late John Madson, eloquent chronicler of prairie life, wrote: "With an inherent intelligence and catholicity of food habits, the little song-dog has gone tiptoeing over the landscape, exploring new places, sampling new foods, testing new hazards, to become the central figure in the most compelling wildlife success story in the history of our continent."

That Christmas church bells prompted my neighborhood coyotes to song wasn't a surprise. Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie once told a tale about a hermit of Scottish descent who, on fine desert evenings, would serenade the moon with ancient bagpipe ballads, the coyotes roundabout joining in harmony from nearby hills.

Scientists relate that coyotes communicate a great deal of information to each other with their yips and howls, which is no doubt true. But I believe there is also pure joy in their singing--joy for moonlit nights, for good meals, for dens full of healthy puppies and, in particular, joy for having outsmarted that two-legged predator, Man.

Now, many years later, song-dog serenades in the late hours are no longer a novelty and rarely intrude on my slumber. In these troubled times, however, horrifying images replay in my mind, and sleep does not come easily. As I lie awake, I am comforted by the sounds from the woods and fields beyond our bedroom window; not only the coyotes' cries, but the gobbles of restless wild turkeys sheltering in a towering sugar maple, a night heron's sudden squawk, the murmur of geese in the corn stubble, the conversations of a pair of great horned owls, a raccoon family squabble. I am reminded of the opening lines of a poem by William Cullen Bryant, "Thanatopsis," that I was required to memorize and recite in a high school English class a half century ago without, then, really understanding its meaning:


To him who, in the love of Nature, holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language: for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.

New York journalist Les Line is a field editor of this magazine.

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