James Perrin Warren reviews Coyote Settles the South, by John Lane
University of Georgia Press | 2016 | ISBN: 978-0-8203-4928-2 | 196 pages
In the eastern United States, coyotes occupy what amounts to a war zone. Most states from Mississippi to Maine permit the killing of coyotes day or night, from September to March, without any limit. In my home state of Virginia, it is a continuous open season on coyotes. The only limits apply to national forest and game department lands, where killing coyotes is permitted from September through March. Most hunters and farmers in my rural county consider them varmints, a nuisance that nobody should hesitate to shoot on sight. Probably a good number of pet owners and parents of small children would agree. The only good coyote…
John Lane steps into the war zone with Coyote Settles the South, not as a journalist or scientist but as a listener and storyteller. As a result, he creates a complex portrait of the South as a place in the 21st century. He may not bring peace to everyone who thinks about coyotes, but whoever reads his book will come away with a deeper understanding of Canis latrans and the questions we need to ask about them, and about ourselves.
The story starts with a “chorus of mottled voices from two directions, only a few hundred yards distant” from Lane’s back porch outside Spartanburg, South Carolina. Lane begins reading about wolves and coyotes, especially in the West, and he quickly realizes that the Southeast is new ground for coyotes to inhabit. At first, his work is local. He spots a coyote on the trail below his house; soon he is collecting samples of coyote scat along the creek bottom. He finds local experts like Mike Willis, a hunter and former trapper, and hilltop fox hunters like Wade Ward and John Hufsteter. He finds a bona fide coyote hugger, Sean Poppy, who keeps a live coyote named Scooter to show to schoolkids. Granted, Sean Poppy is the director of the Savannah River Ecology Lab Outreach Program, but he is also a coyote hugger, an alligator hugger, a snake hugger, and a turtle hugger. He visits a former student, biologist John Kilgo, at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, learning that coyotes may have a significant effect on whitetail deer populations because of fawn predation. He travels to West Virginia to seek out a mythic Outlaw Coyote, and he finds the two men who killed the coyote, along with the Outlaw himself, “an aging, bad taxidermy job.” As Ray and Clyde talk, correcting some of the wilder exaggerations of the myth while adding others, we realize that an extraordinary story still outlives the Outlaw in the display case.
As this synopsis of the first six chapters suggests, Lane is continually seeking ways to experience the animal up close. He responds to coyotes and people with an open, honest, questioning presence. In each chapter, the Southern coyote is central, while the hunters, trappers, and scientists stand just to the side. Meanwhile, each chapter weaves into the quest narrative a series of reflections on Lane’s reading and research. He is as likely to deliver a riff on Cormac McCarthy or Barry Lopez as he is to summarize Gerry Parker’s The Eastern Coyote (1995) or evoke Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain.” The texture of the narrative is both meditative and experiential, the tone both humorous and morally serious. As new as the colonizing Southern coyote may be, Lane continually discovers traces of old ways, old stories. Coyote keeps leading him farther and deeper than he ever thought he would go.
In the second half of the book, Lane investigates a series of boundary disputes involving human versions of order and wild intruders. “I know as humans in our minds we are always building stockades, making distinctions, deciding what to allow inside and what to exclude,” he writes, but Lane favors the trading post over the stockade: “I’m ready to invite them in because I imagine they have something I want: in this case, a sense of nearby wildness maintained in a place mostly settled and predictable.” Once again, Lane starts locally and expands his quest to far-flung places like Cat Island, South Carolina; Danny’s Field in L.A. (Lower Alabama); Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhoods; and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in far eastern North Carolina. In each of these diverse places, Lane encounters the persistent presence of Southern coyotes and a matching form of grudging respect on the part of the people who hunt and trap the interlopers. That conflict creates the fundamental boundary, but Lane’s inquiry often suggests that it is porous, permeable, even somehow capacious. For if the boundaries don’t really exist, we are all occupying a common place.
That last sentence may sound too hopeful to some readers. Lane ends the book with “Epilogue: Mourning Song,” and he is less sanguine about our relationship with wildness than he is about the Southern coyote’s resilience and ability to survive. At this point in the story, at least, there is a lot of hate and fear directed at the coyotes and, by extension, at the wild itself. How, Lane asks, are we to realize that coyotes are living with us now, and how are we to “carry on in that relationship to them for generations, for centuries?”
Looking at a tannery fur from an emaciated, captive coyote, Lane answers the question by thinking of a younger generation, who “would learn from the stories told around this coyote. They would know the coyotes live among us, how they are omnivores and eat as much fruit as they do meat, how they are secretive and resilient and resourceful, how people are unjustly cruel to them, and their suffering is often out of proportion to their transgressions, and how we must learn to manage our relationships with them and not act out of ignorance and fear the way we had for 200 years out west. This skin would help close the gap between reality and myth in our small corner of the South.”
Of course it is not about the skin; it is about the stories. John Lane tells the stories in Coyote Settles the South, stories that will help close the many gaps between wild animals and fearful people.
Header photo of coyote courtesy Pixabay.