Thinking like a Prairie

I have encountered many coyotes at Midewin. There is nothing quite like their hair-raising yips and yelps haunting the sunset hours. Theirs is the call of the wild that nourishes that small sliver of wildness that yet remains within me. Therefore, it came as an especially sad shock to come across this coyote, abuzz with flies.

How old she was, how long she’d been dead and what she might have died of, I couldn’t say. Looking into her eyes, however – something only death afforded me the chance to do this close up – I was reminded of Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a haunting essay in which he reflected on the”fierce green fire” that he watched go out in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot:

I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

I have never hunted, but I know those who do. And to a person they are united in their wish for fewer coyotes, believing that would lead to more pheasant, more deer. I don’t have children or pets, but there a number of news accounts about city and suburban dwellers likewise calling for the control or elimination of coyotes to protect kith and kin, as well as kittens and canines.

Like Leopold and his youthful “understanding” about wolves, a lot of myth and misinformation surrounds coyotes; something the Cook County Coyote Project endeavors to address through research and public education. Coyotes have adapted their behaviors surprisingly well and become an indelible part of our urban/suburban existence.

However, among the many things I love about Midewin is that its 19,000 acres of recovering prairie affords the opportunity for a coyote to remember what it is to be a true coyote; inhabiting wide open spaces, hunting voles and mice amid tall prairie grasses. Free of cars, people, noise, congestion and the myriad pitfalls that it faces as a refugee in the urban environment.

Midewin also affords me the opportunity to experience a coyote, a “ghost of the praire” as they were commonly known, in its native element. A summer or two ago, I was hiking through South Patrol Road Prairie – one of the earliest restoration areas at Midewin – when a handful of coyote pups tumbled out onto the path. So busy were they in wrestling with each other that they didn’t notice me at first. When they finally did, they were more curious than alarmed, and abandoned me only when they no longer could resist chasing each other back through the prairie grasses.

Staring into the eyes of the dead coyote, I sensed that there was, indeed, something known only to her and the prairie. Which makes her and her kind – no less than the returning grassland birds and the soon-to-be-reintroduced bison – an integral, wonderfully mysterious part of the healing prairie landscape of Midewin.