The Way of the Coyote

If you love Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, you’ll love The Way of the Coyote, published earlier this year by Gavin Van Horn. Gavin is the Director, Cultures of Conservation for the Center for Humans and Nature. Actually, I prefer his Twitter handle: @StoryForager.

Throughout the book, Gavin forages for good stories that challenge “the tenuous boundaries we often draw between humans and nature, urban and rural, civility and wildness.” Like many a good story teller, he does not forage alone. For traveling companions, he takes with him Aldo Leopold and Lao Tzu.

Leopold is a name familiar to many as the author of the bible of the modern conservation movement: A Sand County Almanac. As Gavin does throughout his book, I’ve been having my own on-going conversation with Leopold through A Midewin Almanac — my blog (and one day my book) about the healing recovery of the former Joliet Arsenal into our first National Tallgrass Prairie.

Gavin acknowledges he was as surprised as anyone to have Lao Tzu as a foraging companion. But he finds the Tao Te Ching essential for opening “boundless landscapes of imagination, creating breathing room for contemplative dialogue.”

Gavin chooses real, live foraging companions, as well — his son, various friends and colleagues. I am honored to be numbered among them.

A male bobolink, which Thoreau described as a “flashing, tinkling meteor.”

In the chapter entitled, “Desire Lines,” Gavin joins me monitoring grassland birds at Midewin. Gavin picks up on something important — how important it is to “see” with your ears. Some grassland birds are easy to spot. Male bobolinks, for example, are strikingly plumed and during breeding season they brazenly fill the air with their enchanting, R2D2-like songs while on the wing at eye level. Many other grassland bird species, however, require good listening skills to suss them out. Grasshopper sparrows, for instance, tend to keep themselves tucked in the grasses, emitting only a very soft, insect-like trill. Henslow’s sparrows likewise lay low and sound like a grasshopper sparrow trying to stifle a hiccup.

A rare glimpse of a Henslow’s sparrow at Midewin.

In others chapters of his book, Gavin delights us in finding so much nature where you least expect it — jewelweed growing out of the crack in a sidewalk, white pelicans along a stretch of the DesPlaines River, and black-crowned night herons taking up residence in Lincoln Park Zoo.

However, one of the things Gavin realizes about Midewin is that for many bird and plant species, “size matters.” No matter how hard any of us looks, we are unlikely to see a grasshopper sparrow, an upland sandpiper, or an eastern meadowlark at a backyard bird feeder or an urban park. In order to survive, grassland birds require big, open spaces to breed and raise their young. They require a recovery of the prairie landscape that has been all but eliminated from the Prairie State.

Dickcissel — another one of several grassland bird species that call Midewin home

As Gavin relates in his book, both of us understand how important Midewin is for so many different kinds of birds, plants and animals. But “tallgrass [prairie] isn’t a landscape to which everyone is immediately drawn.”

That turns our attention to Midewin’s herd of bison, which Gavin calls “ambassadors of prairie.” Again, size matters. Bison, like birds, require very large grassland habitat, including Midewin and The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands. Gavin forages a great story about the first bison calves born at Midewin: “I watch two calves prance, skipping and bouncing their burnt-honey bodies between the legs of their kin. These calves at play represent something new and simultaneously very old and wild, like seeds unearthed from an ancient lithic midden and resown in the present. Tender shoots of hope rising to gather the sun.

One of the matriarchs of the growing bison herd at Midewin.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Gavin’s other story foraging companion. Coyote. Coyote appears throughout the book — as a mythic creature reimagined for today’s story listeners, and as a real creature that likewise challenges so many different kinds of boundaries. Gavin relates the story of one coyote that ended up in a sandwich shop cooler in downtown Chicago. Gavin has seen them lurking around the edges of a golf course near his north suburban home. I’ve seen them loping along the edge of abandoned industrial areas near where I live in historic Pullman. I’ve seen litters of coyote pups roughhousing with each other on several occasions at Midewin.

A lone coyote — ghost of the prairie — at Midewin.

I love nature, I love wildness wherever it is able to find a toehold — in the crack of a sidewalk in the heart of the big city, in the 20,000 acres of recovering prairie at Midewin. I love Gavin for writing such a wonderful book, for helping us to see with all of our senses, to spark our imaginations, to challenge our perceptions. I can’t wait for our next story foraging adventure together.

You may order the book through the University of Chicago Press, Amazon, or your favorite book seller.

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