by Peter Coyote

Stand in a puddle of water long enough and even rubber boots will leak. It is not surprising then, that after two centuries of occupation, and despite conscientious efforts to the contrary on the part of most humans, awareness of the essential energies of this continent's plants and animals has begun to exert an effect on transplanted Europeans, Asians, Africans; insinuating themselves into our psyches and infiltrating our cultures.

Rings, charms, embroidered pillows, cruets, lorgnettes, cookie jars, and clocks with eyes that move announce the supremacy of Owl as a totem for millions of Americans. Ceramic plates, statuary of varying dimensions, breast pins, drinking mugs, ashtrays and rings honor Frog. Each state has a native flower and bird associated with its sovereignty; sports teams compete under the heraldry of Bluejay, Hawk, Cougar, Bear and Lion. Consciousness of Whale, Baby Seal, pure water, clean air, sanctity of wilderness, snail darter, minute butterflies and salamanders has been the vehicle of massive political organizing. Even the Citizens Band Airwaves are flooded with names of "Tarweed," "Porcupine," "Meadowlark," and "Stink-bug."

Some prostitutes, poets, Zen students and several varieties of libertine have rediscovered the wit and utility of the Coyote-Trickster archetype. They have joined with those Native Americans who continue to recognize the beauty and worth of their ancient traditions, in creating a small but vital host who find value in this half-mental/half-mammal being.

I count myself among the number whose spinal telephone is being tapped by Coyote. Having spent time thinking about him, being addressed by his name, raising some Coyote pups, talking to those who know him and his traditions well, and as eager as any to see him gain his recognition in our physical and cultural environment, I am delighted to see hosts of contemporary references to him cropping up in re-discovered myths, journals of ethnopoesy, union organizing literature and Roadrunner cartoons. I can't help noticing, however, the singularity with which most of these references herd Coyote into a limited and already overfull pantheon of American iconoclastic personalities.

Coyote absorbs Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Bogart, Garbo, Dietrich, Mae West, Dillinger, Midler and Cagney as more dated symbols of allegiances to personal codes. His once extensive range of possibilities and adaptation is being reduced to the narrow spectrum of anti-sociability and personal excess. An example is Coyote's (recent) association with Zen eccentrics.

Although Zen training and traditions stress personal experience and understanding (thus the aptness of the lone, homeless wanderer as a symbol), the three treasures of Buddhism are Buddha, Dharma (the teachings), and Sangha (the community of like believers and practitioners). The transmission of Buddhism owes at least as much if not more to those who chose to operate within the non-personal, non-eccentric framework of tradition, as it does to those who have remained without. Personal liberation and tight community structure are not mutually exclusive, but in contemporary usage, Coyote is usually invoked as the crazy, enlightened loner whose purity is somehow measured by the number of forms and conventions he abuses. He is never (except in Native traditions) pictured as householder and community man. The rush to overlook this is a Coyote tricking that bears some watching.

I thought that it might serve our burgeoning interest in Coyote to share something of my own experience of his range of habitats, terrains, and markings so that future students not diminish his potential by maladaption, or make the too frequent error of designating wide varieties of adaptive possibilities within one species as hosts of subspecies. It is to this that I dedicate the following:

Coyote is the miss in your engine
He steals your concentration in
the Zendo. Mates for life. A good
family man who helps raise the kids.

A good team player, but satisfied
to be alone. He's handsome and
well groomed; teeth, hair and eyes
shine. He likes prosperity and goes
for it: a tough young banker bearing
down at a high stakes tennis game.

He is total effort. Any good after-
noon nap. Best dancer in the house.
The dealer and the sucker in a
sidewalk Monte game. An acquaintance
that hunts your power. The hooker
whose boyfriend comes out of the
closet while your pants are down.
He's also your boyfriend.

He eats grasshoppers and Cockerspaniels.
Drinks out of Bel-Aire swimming pools,
rainwater basins and cut lead-crystal
tumblers. He brings luck in gambling,
Inspires others to write about him. He
is jealousy.

A diligent mother. Top fashion model
with a fearless laugh. Easily bored.
He forgets what he was knowing.
He pretends to forget. Usually
gets the joke. Rarely follows advice.
Acts out our fantasies for us.

Is in the Bible as Onan's hand.
He's the gnawed squash in your garden.
The critical missing wrench from
your toolbox. He is the one who
returns with a harpooned acorn.

He may be Sirius, the dog star,
who, like Coyote, wanders and dies
awhile then comes back: companion
to Orion, the hunter, who like the
rest of us hunting enduring value and
knowledge, never forgets the brightest
star in our heavens.

The quintessentially outlaw nature of Coyote is expressed by Ramsey's reference to his "hostility to domesticity, maturity, good citizenship, modesty, and fidelity of any kind" (1983:27). This is in some ways quite the opposite to the nature of the biological coyote - which, as has been observed, is a faithful mate (at least during the one-year breeding cycle). Coyotes are also conscientious parents: Kleiman and Brady note that coyote parents care for their pups for at least the first nine months and that some coyote families remain intact much longer (1978:175). Once more, Old Man Coyote seems not to reflect any "wildness" in the wild coyote. Rather, it appears that human beings, perceiving such traits of coyotes as their wandering habits and their appetites, have projected other characteristics onto them - reflecting, above all, the rebellion of humans against their self-imposed domesticity.


(Published in the book, A Coyote Reader, edited by William Bright, 1993 and in James Koller's magazine, Coyote Journal, in 1982)


The Official Peter Coyote Web Site