We are all shaped by hunger. Appetite organizes the very structure of our bodies.
I am tracking Coyote.
He trots in a straight line—each pawprint direct, conserving energy. He is always looking for food. His scat contains anything or everything. The shiny shells of beetle bodies. Twisted fur from some small mammal. Seeds blackened by a bilious stomach. Scaled skin of lizard or snake. Coyote moves with intention, and scats often. He has an appetite, and he follows his belly.
In Mossback, David Michael Pritchett traverses geography, history, and genealogy to explore landscapes and mythologies at the intersection of environmental, Indigenous, and social justice. This collection of a dozen essays searches terrain—from the heart of a swamp to the modern grid lines remaking our watersheds, to the tracks of the animals who share this earth, to the inner landscapes of the soul—to find glimpses of light in dark places and hope in painful legacies.
I jot measurements, draw observations. I am a scribe of Coyote’s hunger.
I live on Chumash land in Southern California, and here, as in many places across North America, Coyote is one of the archetypal trickster symbols. As Lewis Hyde shows in his book Trickster Makes This World, the trickster figure pursues his appetite, often to his own dismay.¹ One Chumash story about Coyote says that he conjured salmon to jump out of the creek, until the beach was filled with the fish. But Coyote wanted to be able to gorge himself, so he walked across the country to a place with brackish water, so that he could purge his belly and prepare to stuff himself with fish. While Coyote was gone, Blue Jay, watching from a cottonwood the entire time, swooped down and ate and ate. By the time Coyote returned thin and hungry from his purging and his long journey, the beach was empty, and Blue Jay was laughing from the cottonwood, his belly full of salmon.²
Desire, Coyote reminds us, shapes the world. To understand a species, simply observe it. Its body and its movement show what it wants. What does the oak tree reach toward? Follow the contours of its fibrous body to light above, and water, mineral, and nutrient below. Want to find a white-tailed deer? Follow its tracks, which will show you what it wants. Water. Fresh herbs. To lie in the tall grass in safety.
We are all shaped by hunger. Appetite organizes the very structure of our bodies. Animal physiologists observe that every animal body, from the smallest worm to the largest elephant, is fundamentally a tube. We call this tube the digestive tract, or, perhaps more scientifically, the alimentary canal, and we think of it as a series of organs, but in fact it is an opening, a passage, around which every animal is merely a different set of cellular riffs. Merlin Sheldrake observes that while mushrooms and plants put their bodies into food, animals put food into their bodies.³ The animal body is a hungry cylinder—open, living, and eager to bring the world into it.
The animal body is a hungry cylinder—open, living, and eager to bring the world into it.
Digestion: to break down into nutrients that can be taken up into the body. This definition smacks of violence and prepositions. Break and take, up and down. Somehow in that brutality and directionality magic happens. Something that was outside goes inside and, on the inside, joins the body. Through appetite, through eating, the apple comes to constitute our very bodies.
So grasp the rosy apple. Take a crunchy bite. Do violence to it with your teeth. Taste the sweet fructose. Notice the moist matrix of fruit crushed in your mouth. Let it linger a moment. Roll it on your tongue. Open the gates to your insides. Swallow the mashed bits. Feel your stomach churn. Imagine the chemical warfare of your bile exploding the cellular structure of the apple. Sense the scurry of enzymes cutting carbohydrate chains into pieces. Give the first fruits of the harvest to the bacteria in your gut. They are hungry, and you can afford to let them feast. A taste of the sweetness will agitate them and will wind the metabolic machine of their own enzymes. They will conjure their own alchemical magic onto the mash, and you’ll harvest some of the dregs of their work. Sometimes tricksters dupe others into doing the work for them.
Hunger means to want the world to be inside you so that it can become part of you. Yet you are already part of the world. Your inside already belongs to the outside. In a way, digestion breaks down the false boundaries we construct between us and what is not us. The body is a fuzzy boundary. The line between me and not me blurs in the belly, in the billions of bacteria in the gut, in the inhalation and exhalation of air merging and diverging in our lungs. At what point does the Honeycrisp apple in my stomach become part of me? At what juncture does the oxygen count as “body” rather than “air”?
In another story, Chumash villagers of Mitsqanaqan said that Coyote came and ran all over the hill. He couldn’t decide what he wanted, so he meandered about, tasting berries, snapping at voles, and scatting everywhere. That’s why the water tastes bad: because Coyote shits and shits.⁴
Thus, Coyote embodies the fundamental aspects of being animal in this world. The animal cannot produce its own energy and so must eat the flesh of other creatures that do create their own energy. Coyote stirs up trouble, agitates the existence of other species in order to satisfy his own hunger, the vacuous nature of his digestive tract. In the ultimate boundary crossing, he takes the rabbit’s body in, makes the meaty rabbit flesh part of his own. His creativity lies in his hunger. Sometimes that creativity and curiosity give him a feast, and other times just a mouthful of thistles and a belly full of fur.
Coyote stories provide a thick description of the relationship between tricksters and hunger. But there are many other examples. Some of my own ancestors come from Wales, and one story they told along these themes, the legend of Taliesin, provides a study in the relationship between desire, tricksters, and inspiration.
Don’t go feeding your own appetite until you, too, are willing to be eaten.
Taliesin, a Welsh bard believed to have lived in the sixth century CE, was renowned for his poetry. The Book of Taliesin, a 12th-century manuscript, contains Welsh bardic poems attributed to him. He was so renowned that court bards after him took up his persona and claimed the same inspiration that danced across his tongue. The legend of Taliesin, however, survived as much in the countryside as it did in royal halls.
Much of what we know about his story comes from the account written by Elis Gruffydd in the 16th century. While the Book of Taliesin contains bardic poetry and thus only references aspects of Taliesin’s life, this history of Taliesin purports to tell the entire legend.
In the tale, a powerful woman named Ceridwen sought to create a magical potion that would confer wisdom on the person who tasted three drops of it. That person, according to Ceridwen’s plans, would be her own son, who was so ugly he was named both Morfran and Afagddu, meaning, respectively, “Great Crow” and “Utter Darkness.” So Ceridwen went across the countryside of Wales collecting herbs, placed them in a cauldron, and set an old blind man to stir the pot for a year. She also conscripted a peasant boy named Gwion Bach to tend the fire.
For an entire year, the blind old man and the young lad went about their work, stirring and stoking, and the herbs congealed into a potent stew, and Ceridwen continued to add herbs and water to the magical brew. Ceridwen knew that after a year, when the recipe was complete, three drops of the elixir would jump from the pot. As the time drew nearer, and the fire was raging and the cauldron bubbling, she stationed her unfortunate son near the pot to catch the elixir of wisdom. She leaned back as she waited, pleased at her work, but fell asleep.
Ceridwen was thus fast asleep when, just as the drops sprang from the pot, Gwion Bach, the fire-stoking peasant boy, pushed Morfran out of the way! The cauldron itself cried out in light of this trickery and shattered, spilling the magical brew. Ceridwen woke from the commotion and looked with poisonous eyes at Gwion Bach. He had a burned tongue and a sudden well of wisdom, but it took neither wisdom nor age for him to know that she had a murderous rage toward him.
Gwion Bach fled. When Ceridwen ran after him, she saw him turn into a hare, bounding like lightning across the fields, so as she pursued, she became a greyhound. Gwion Bach, seeing that she was overtaking him, jumped into the river and became a salmon, while Ceridwen also dove into the water, becoming an otter. And so they went. Salmon to dove, otter to hawk. Finally Gwion Bach came to a barn filled with grain from the harvest, and he became a kernel in the sea of wheat. But Ceridwen, equally clever, became a hen and ate the entire pile of grain, thus devouring Gwion Bach.
But now, with Gwion Bach, the shapeshifter, the thief of wisdom, in her belly, Ceridwen became pregnant. For nine months she carried the child, and in the tenth month, she delivered him. But when she saw the child with his beautiful brow, her murderous rage softened. She could not live with the boy, but she also could not kill him. So she set him in a hide-covered basket and put him out to sea.
Eventually the coracle with the beautiful baby washed into a seine ashore the coast, and there was found by a lord named Gwyddno. On seeing the child, Gwyddno exclaimed, “Taliesin!,” meaning “What radiant brow!,” and took the child home with him. Taliesin, like Hermes, was a precocious baby, spouting poetry and song even in his coracle. This poetic wisdom led to a bardic vocation, and as long as Taliesin was in Gwyddno’s court, wealth came to the lord. There is more to the tale: the lord’s boast, a king’s jealousy, and a bard’s magical words. But those are words for another day.
So the story of Taliesin is a story of boundaries, of theft, of shapeshifting, and, somehow, out of all that, wisdom and poetry. Gwion Bach, in his theft of what was meant for Morfran, becomes a boundary crosser. In receiving the drops of wisdom, he takes magic that was not meant for him, a peasant boy. Trickery connotes a plan, a premeditation, but the story is not clear on this. Perhaps the year of fire-stoking also sparked a plan in the lad’s head. But just as likely, a poor boy with few options saw the sleeping Ceridwen and in the moment took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
What might it mean to inhabit Coyote, to enliven the landscapes we dwell in? If indeed the world is alive, how does this change how we understand our own contingent, hungry lives? What is the role of humans in the ongoing story of life, which is the tracing of desire, the appetite-induced merging of bodies into bodies, at times the hungry crossing and at others the fearful honoring of boundaries?
Foresight was the first gift of the elixir. It does not take a genius to consider the danger presented by a sorceress from whom you stole a year’s work and a beloved son’s gift, but then Gwion Bach did not seem to think about this before he tasted the potion.
Trickster reads the room and knows when to cut and run. But the real wisdom came, as is clear in multiple poems from the Book of Taliesin, from the shapeshifting pursuit. The bard and those who came after him appear to locate Taliesin’s wisdom in his experience of being other than human. One poem, “Angar Kyfundawd,” expands the shapeshifting:
I was a blue salmon,
I was a dog, I was a stag,
I was a roebuck on the mountain,
as a block, I was a spade,
I was an axe in hand,
I was an augur held in tongs
for a year and a half.
I was a speckled white cockerel
covering the hens in Eidyn
I was a stallion at stud
I was a fiery bull.
I was a stook in the mills,
the ground meal of farmers
I was a grain…
It grew on a hill.
I’m reaped, I’m planted
I’m dispatched to the kiln
I’m loosed from the hand
in order to be roasted.
A hen got hold of me—
a red clawed one, a crested enemy.
I spent nine months residing in her womb.
… the red-clawed one imbued me with passion.⁵
And so the shapeshifting bard has multiple lives and experiences to invoke. He knows the hunger of the roebuck for mountain herbs, the muscled gallop of stallion across the meadow. This is the source of his wisdom as well as his inspiration. In Taliesin’s telling, the red-clawed Ceridwen is the source of his gift, for she gave him chase.
Here we find a deepening of Hyde’s thesis, that it is trickster’s appetite that motivates. For appetite is merely the surface of the more fundamental desire for life. Hunger is the symptom of vitality. The constant fight of bodies against decay, against dying, requires massive amounts of energy. So the belly reigns in the body, a tyranny of the ravenous tube.
In the end, Taliesin’s own appetite for life caused him to be reborn again and again. It also caused him to be eaten himself. Taliesin thus knows that all creatures participate in this hunger for life. Herein lies his greatest inspiration: don’t go looking for wisdom unless you are ready to face the tooth and the claw. Don’t go looking for a poet’s tongue until you can swim the cold seas and rivers or can climb, hoof on rock, to the highest crag. Don’t go feeding your own appetite until you, too, are willing to be eaten.
An organism’s own bodily boundary is a process rather than a discrete thing. An amoeba’s membrane denotes its affirmation of what belongs and what does not—a declaration of the self and the nonself. Boundaries can be exclusive and affirming of hierarchy, or they can denote the process of creating the contours of life. Yet the tricksters who slip through the pores open the possibility for richer life. As biologist Lynn Margulis first hypothesized, mitochondria and chloroplasts, the energy-generating organelles in animals and plants, respectively, were originally independent organisms that got swallowed up and yet partnered with their host cells.⁶ These relics of past symbiosis still have their own DNA, indicating their prior independence.
The inner ecology of your bowels depends on the biodiversity of the habitat.
And so here we see that life is not just organisms constituting themselves through their own desire to continue persisting. Sympoiesis (a word championed by the preeminent ecofeminist, posthumanist, and science historian Donna Haraway) corrects this idea.⁷ Organisms don’t create themselves; rather, they create together.
Life is a messy complex of organisms: interdependent, undulating, interpenetrating, and hungry. Mycelium poke into plant roots, swapping mineral for metabolite. Algae hold hands with fungi to create a whole new species called lichen. Bacteria slip into cells and decide to stay, trading energetic molecules for a safehouse. Microbes hitch a ride with foods into your ravenous intestines and settle in, happy to help break down nutrients in exchange for regular feeding. Sympoiesis means not just that ecosystems exist but also that you could not exist except for the ecosystem that is your body. You are a quivering, ravenous throng of interdependent beings.
For all the attention that food ethicists and food activists give to what goes into our mouths, there is little consciousness of the other end of the alimentary canal. In the same way that the tracker looks at scat in order to more deeply understand a creature, I similarly want to look at food and appetites in reverse. What can our excrement reveal about our food systems? Or, to use more theological language, in what ways might poop be apocalyptic, by unveiling in colorful detail the result of settler agriculture taken in and processed by our bellies? And how might we use this information to understand how our hunger makes this world, for better or for worse?
In return for the chance to munch on the dregs of our dinners, the bacterial horde provides a host of benefits to our bodies. A healthy gut microbiome has been correlated with improved mood—the bacteria, it turns out, provide most of the serotonin your brain requires to maintain levels of this happy molecule. A diverse and thriving microbiome has been linked to a healthy immune system, an array of anticancer molecules, and reduction of incidence of heart disease and diabetes.
Other important discoveries in microbiotic relationships have to do with diversity. Studies of human microbiomes (by analyzing our own scat) have shown that a greater medley of microbes impart health benefits to the hosts of these hordes. The American Gut Project, which sampled feces from more than 10,000 subjects, showed that a diet consisting of 30 or more different types of plants a week led to the most diverse microbial populations.⁸
Another analysis looked at the microbiomes of four Nepalese indigenous groups.⁹ The four groups represent different food practices on a gradient from mostly foraging to long-term farming. One group, the Tharu, has been farming for more than 200 years, while the Raute and Raji began farming approximately 40 years ago. The Chepang have largely retained their hunting and gathering lifestyle. The study found that the longer a group had been farming, the less diverse their microbiome. This correlates with other studies showing that proximity in space and time to urbanization and industrialization are correlated with a decrease in the variety of biota in the belly.
So we find that human health depends on gut health, and gut health depends on an assorted and thriving population of microbial partners in our colon. Microbiomic diversity, in turn, depends on access to a diverse landscape and variety of food sources. To put it plainly, the inner ecology of your bowels depends on the biodiversity of the habitat. Your excrement, then, tells a deep story not only about your health but also about the health of the ecosystems your food lives and grows in.
Spring has arrived in Southern California. The chaparral bursts with color. Lizards lie on the edge of trails, warming their leathery bodies in the sun. Fiery orange poppies ignite the hills in a constant smokeless flame.
My sip is their flood. My taste is their feast. My hunger, their drought; my health, their wellbeing.
I sit in my backyard garden, with a grapevine trellised overhead. To my left, a lemon tree hangs with plump green ovals just beginning to yellow. To my right, a fig tree swells with large tear-shaped buds of fruit. With a knife, I cut into an avocado harvested from the tree behind me. The knife’s sharp edge slips easily through the thin membrane of skin covering the soft green flesh inside. I draw the knife in an oblong circle, slicing through skin and flesh and around the large seed at the center. I grasp either side of the cut with my hands, and with a turn and pull of the wrist, the velvety thickness is exposed. I spoon out the insides and savor its rich, buttery flavor on my tongue. As I eat, I imagine the bacteria in my mouth, living their lives at the constant whim of my appetite and thirst. My sip is their flood. My taste is their feast. My hunger, their drought; my health, their wellbeing.
I look up to the hill called Mitsqanaqan, “Coyote’s Chin,” and remember: I am living in the land of the Chumash, who have lived here for millennia. Who still live here. Their ability to do so, I suspect, is because of their attention to hunger and their commitments to eat without being all-consuming.
So I bid you: eat these words. Break them down. Take them into your hungering body. Let them stir up trouble within you. May you inhabit Coyote’s belly and Taliesin’s tongue. May your own appetite bring flourishing to your inner and outer landscapes. May your desire make the world a more beautiful place.
Photo by Serhii Hrebeniuk, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of David Michael Pritchet by Ben Travers.