Thinking Like a Desert

Last week, I posted an excerpt from Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain” with his ever-popular essay about understanding wild things, especially wolves.

Recently, during a stay in the New Mexican high desert, I stared into the eyes of a coyote.

She stood not twenty feet from my window, looking at the house, seeing, I supposed, the reflection of the bright midday sun on the window. She appeared curious, unafraid but cautious.

I don’t know if she saw me standing there on the other side of the glass. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I saw her – really saw her.

I am an animal lover, and have a special affinity for dogs. I’ve always had a dog in my life. It all began with Rusty, then Reggie, then Oreo, Bo, Cinder, Jordan, Gunner, Annie, Oscar and now Trixie. I love each of them, and I do not fear their kind.

And so, when the coyote trotted across our front yard, and paused in front of my window, I took it as a greeting. She was beautiful, her hair thick, a vibrant rug of black, brown, gold and white. Her body was lean, muscled and ready for winter. Her eyes were bright, observant, critical.

Dinner was probably on her mind, but she stopped midway through her afternoon jaunt among the scattered homes of my neighborhood. There is food for her and her pups there – ample rodents and rabbits, birds and seeds. I imagine she passes my home in the mornings and afternoons on what I have to believe is a regular route to find food. Unhurried, she trots a jagged path, ever alert, watching and listening not only for prey, but for danger.

People who live in the desert are at home with danger, even though we are the largest and most dangerous of species. We share that desert world with some of the most disliked creatures on the planet – snakes, scorpions, lizards, red ants, and even larger predator species like bobcats and coyotes. Desert fringes, close to mountains and pine forests, may be home to bears, mountain lions and wolves.

The thing is, in a desert, everyone has to live together. The elements can be harsh, from intense heat, to drought, to monsoons, to blasts of arctic air. People living in that climate have a respect for the other beings enduring those conditions. Fear has no place. Occasionally life-threating situations require an unwanted action. But we prefer to live together amicably.

The coyote and I watched each other. Her yellow-brown eyes were intelligent – more curious than anything. Seconds passed as we stared into each others eyes. I thought to myself, she has more right to be here than I do. She and her kind were here first, long before these houses were built. Her kind has had the intelligence and the stamina to survive through the centuries, when climate has driven people to other places. Coyotes and other wild creatures still remain.

I know I’ll see that coyote – or others – again on future visits. I am comforted by knowing they are there, they have survived.

I lifted my hand – the coyote startled. She leaped to one side, stopped, looked back over her shoulder – and then trotted away.

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