To follow on the track of fish, birds, or any other animals, might be both discovery and repetition, because it might mean to go exhaustively into the nature of being alive.â¤¨
The coyotes are here. I’ve picked up six separate samples of scat on the back trail behind our house. I’ve even used my beagle, Murphy, to help me find the scat. Murphy keeps his nose close to the ground as we walk. I never thought of using my dog as my own personal scat detector until I read an article about a researcher in New York State who trained her Labrador retriever to seek out scat and sit beside those droppings left only by coyotes. It sounded like a good idea, so I watched Murphy closely, and sure enough, the first day he walked off the trail to pinpoint three deposits in the dry leaves I would have passed right by. I even took to carrying treats in my pocket so I could reward him each time we came upon these signs.
Why care what’s shitting in your neighborhood? Because each deposit is like a book waiting to be read. From what’s left behind it’s possible to find out what your animal neighbors have been eating. Scatology is a little like going through the garbage cans lined up on the street on pickup day. The first time Murphy led me to a deposit of scat I picked up a twig and poked through what he had found. Four inches long, the scat was pinched at one end. First thing I noticed was that my defecating neighbor had been feasting on late-season persimmons. The shiny, cinnamon-colored seeds clogged the dark brown deposit.
Once I got into the scat project I made an intricate map of the series of trails in the corridor of woods behind our house and numbered each intersection, one through six. When I found a deposit I placed it in a plastic baggie, and—with the Sharpie I carried in my pocket—I logged the location, date, and weather like a scientist.
It is now a January morning and I’m walking through some woods along Lawson’s Fork above Glendale, South Carolina. The trail is through bare winter woods. I’m walking with my friend Mike Willis. Mike used to be a trapper, so I guess you could say he’s retired, though he’s only in his mid-fifties. Following us is my Wofford College colleague Gerald Thurmond and fifteen of his interim students. Gerald’s class is spending the entire month in search of animal signs utilizing a series of morning meetings and hikes like this one to learn the world of scat and signs.
Neither Gerald nor I are biologists. Gerald’s a sociology professor. Mostly what Gerald teaches is social psychology—gender and the family—but these interim classes give him a chance to tune up the natural history he practices. We take these walks in the woods for many reasons: love, curiosity, and a range of other emotions and drives that are only half understood. Neither one of us has the connection to the wild world that Mike has, though we both wish we did.
As an American archetype, trapping runs deep. The image of the mountain man alone, dressed as an Indian, wading through deep snow, his horse heavy with sets of traps, has been celebrated in western novels like Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher and films such as Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford. Mike’s been trapping on these trails since his boyhood days. I always wonder what he sees as he walks through these woods. I know he sees signs and tracks we don’t see. I wonder if he sees any portents that might lead me to the coyotes I seek. What would happen if Mike turned his attention to the coyotes behind our house as I have done? Could he catch them? Could he track them along these trails and set traps for them and bring them to me?
For me, walking this trail is a triumph of sorts. Two weeks ago I broke two ribs (one in two places) in a fall at home. As I walk I realize that the accident is my first true encounter with a different sort of coyote spirit than the one analyzed in all the scientific papers I’ve been reading. This time Coyote serves the purpose of the trickster, and the powerful figure has had a field day with me in early January. He’s out there somewhere in mythic space, laughing.
On a Tuesday morning two weeks before the hike, I was answering e-mails in the living room. Betsy and Murphy were sitting side by side on the couch. Suddenly Murphy looked like a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon: “How dogs throw up.” He stood, stiffened, and began a familiar arching of his back, moving the contents of his stomach outward through a series of rhythmic retching upchucks we’d come to recognize quickly. You know how dogs hurl—one, ugh, two, ugh, three, ugh, then—blah!
“Get him out! Get him out!” Betsy said in a panic, pushing Murphy off the couch in the middle of the process.
We’d been through this drill many times. The dog would head toward the dining room rug where he’d let it go. I was to intercept him, pick him up, and head for the door where I’d toss him on the deck. Everything happened fast. I picked him up and held him out front. I was not aware that he’d already completed his sequence and the puke was in my path. I hit the dog vomit and my feet flew out from under me. I went down hard on the corner of a built-in bookcase next to the door, and the dog landed on all fours in front of me.
When I hit the bookcase I knew from the pain and the movement in my back that I’d broken some ribs. I couldn’t get a breath. For a moment I thought I was dying. After I was gone, how could Betsy possibly explain to anyone that dog vomit had been my undoing? “Relax and you can breathe,” Betsy said, and she was right. My breath came back, but the pain was excruciating, and I couldn’t sit up.
After an ambulance ride and six hours in the emergency room, I was finally back home with painful ribs, a bottle of Lortab, and a volumetric spirometer. “Blow in this ten times an hour,” the doctor said. “Broken ribs can’t kill you, but pneumonia can.”
For four days I couldn’t walk from one end of the house to the other, much less a mile. The injury didn’t stop me from thinking about coyotes. Outside each night at about nine, they mocked me from their sanctuary deep in the floodplain. Their song served as a Greek chorus to my misery as I played my spirometer flute. After ten days I finally felt good enough to drive the truck downtown, stepping gingerly on pavement when I parked. Driving the truck is one thing, but actually getting out on a trail was something else.
I focus on the woods around me, the bare winter oak and hickory thickets climbing the eroded hills north and south of the creek, the net of bird song suspended around us in the last cool of mid-morning, the thin, sandy soil of the floodplain, and needle sharpness of the green smilax vines.
As Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing begins, all the deep accumulated wisdom of trappers has disappeared, along with the very trappers themselves. The hero of the novel, Billy Parham, and his father have to remove a wolf from the cattle country of New Mexico in the days before World War II, so they go to the locked-up cabin of Echols, the departed master trapper of the territory.
McCarthy describes the cabin as like a magician’s chamber: “… a strange basilica dedicated to a practice as soon to be extinct among the trades of men as the beast to whom it owed its beginnings.”
Inside Echols’s shuttered cabin Billy’s father forages among the abandoned, stoppered essences of the lost trapping craft, “… the dark liquids. Dried viscera. Liver. Gall. Kidneys. The inward parts of the beast who dreams of man and has so dreamt in running dreams a hundred thousand years and more.”
Later, Billy watches his father set the first trap and thinks, “He looked to be truing some older, some subtler instrument… Like a man bent at affixing himself someway in the world. Bent on trying by arc or chord the space between his being and the world that was. If there be such space. If it be knowable.”
On these walks I’m always trying to get as close as I can to my place’s essence—like the content of one of those dark jars opened and exposed in McCarthy’s trapper’s cabin.
Now I take the point, and I worry a little about our lax organization. If we were a platoon of soldiers, I think, Indians with bows and arrows could pick us off, and the others would never notice. I’ve known Gerald for thirty years and I know he’s not worried. He strolls at the back of the column talking with Mike. I know from past experience that an outing like this for Gerald is total freedom and he likes to impart that freedom to the students. On some hikes he gets back to the cars and somebody’s missing, and he just waits for them to catch up, or sends out a search party if finally needed. In three decades of teaching in the field, he’s never lost anyone for more than eight hours, so it must work.
I circle everybody up anyway. It will give me a chance to pause and rest, to pass a little time until Gerald and Mike show up. I tell stories of the mammals we’ve seen behind our house in the decade we’ve been here: bobcat, mink, raccoon, deer, squirrel, rabbit, beaver, fox, and now coyotes. I tell of seeing the coyote once on an early morning hike, how I spotted it in the trail twenty yards ahead of me, and how it simply looked back over its shoulder, saw me, and trotted on. “Oh,” I say, “and possums,” and I end with a story of my encounter with a wounded possum on the upper trail. “That bloody possum staggered up the trail toward me and then fell over and died right there,” I say.
Just then Gerald shows up. “Be sure to write in your journal that Professor Lane scared a possum to death,” Gerald says, lingering with Mike at the rear of the line, listening to the last of my story.
Along the trail, seasonal pools are full to the brim from the recent rains, and I know they’ll soon be densely populated with courting spring frogs. We’ll hear them from our deck in the same way I now hear the coyotes. I pause to look at one of the pools. A large flock of grackles passes overhead, chattering away, and pulls my eyes upward. The students stare as the birds pass, and the powerful surge of black, chattering grackles moves just above the tree tops. They’re not Carolina parakeets but it’s still exciting to see so many birds. Gerald and Mike are back bringing up the rear. They’re deep in conversation again, and one student comments on how “Professor Thurmond, the bird man, doesn’t even see the birds.”
After a while we stop in a clearing in the floodplain where a large swamp chestnut oak claims all the available space above. Mike catches up. I prompt him to talk about this spot. He picks up an acorn the size of a walnut. “These are the biggest in the woods,” he says. “The deer come here to eat them. This has always been a good spot for a deer stand.” Then he points out one on a nearby smaller, sturdy ash. We all look over to where he’s pointing and see the rigging for a stand fifteen feet up the trunk.
“Me and my son, Mikey, bow hunt here,” Mike says. “He’s the fourth generation to hunt these woods.”
Mike talks more about his life hunting and then about his past trapping on Lawson’s Fork, the small Piedmont stream that runs over a series of rocky shoals downstream through the old textile village of Glendale. Mike looks around at the deep forest to the nearby creek. “I started hunting here in the ’60s and ’70s when mink and muskrat were still plentiful. My uncle told me that in the 1930s he made somewhere between two and three dollars a day working downstream in the mill. He could get two dollars for a muskrat pelt, and seven or eight dollars for a mink.”
Although Mike only leases the right to be there, he has the deepest connection to the place of anyone I know. “My grandfather told me stories about this place. He called this the Russell Bottoms,” he says. “My father tells stories of catching carp when they drained the mill pond downstream. I shot my first duck right down there around a bend.”
Mike had a career—“if you can call it that,” he says—for several decades back in the 1970s and ’80s trapping mink, beaver, and muskrat mostly along this waterway and others in the county. “Then the bottom fell out of the long fur market. I turned to other things, like carpentry.”
Trapping animals, for food or fur, has been with us for hundreds of thousands of years. As a profession and calling it’s been around much longer than my preferred mode of communing with the world—the creation of essays. As long ago as the last Ice Age, people trapped to acquire pelts to protect them from the cold. Today, people still trap all over the world for survival, sustenance, and money. In this country, trapping is now highly regulated by wildlife agencies, and state and federal laws set the terms on how, when, and what people can acquire through these ancient methods. But in spite of decades of assault by PETA and other animal rights organizations, there are still modern-day fur trappers in every state. Most of the commercial fur is now taken from animals raised on farms, and old-time trapper numbers are dwindling.
Sears, Roebuck and Co.—what we now simply call Sears—used to be one of the largest fur-buying companies in the United States. The store created a promotional booklet written by “Johnny Muskrat” called “Sears Tips to Trappers.” Every week Johnny Muskrat narrated a radio broadcast called “The Fur Market.” All the stores hosted a national fur show each year beginning in 1926 and awarded prizes—even cars—to the best trappers nationwide. By 1959 Sears halted the show—and the fur buying. This was about the time Sears decided to switch from a rural focus to the urban market. Mike’s trapping somehow survived into the 1990s.
In McCarthy’s The Crossing, wolves are described as smart, smarter even than all but the master trappers. They are actively engaged in the process of beating the trappers at their own game. Trapping becomes part of an ancient, true prey-predator relationship. I think Mike would agree with this assessment of the relationship. He’s told me how much he loves wading the creeks, summer and winter, to check his trap sets, sometimes a dozen up and downstream of every bridge on Lawson’s Fork. He’s said he learned how to climb out of the creek, a rifle in one hand and a dead muskrat in the other.
Now he only occasionally practices his craft for hire as a nuisance trapper for corporate and private clients whose creek-side properties have been inundated by beavers.
Unlike many of his hunting friends, Mike isn’t that concerned with coyotes coming into this country. I’m convinced because of his trapping he is closer to McCarthy’s truing of some finer instrument than the rest of us.
A little later we pass the confluence where the creek that drains Calhoun Lakes enters Lawson’s Fork, and we come upon a large beaver dam. “Our own Hoover Dam,” I say.
“In my Duncan Park neighborhood, the city comes in and tears down beaver dams along the little feeder creeks to the lake,” Gerald says. “There’s an old man in the neighborhood who comes along behind them and builds the beaver dams back. Doesn’t he know the beavers would do this anyway?”
A little bit farther along and the students out front spot two otters basking on a big, flat rock. A ripple of excitement goes through the group and they fan out along the shore hoping to see them again, no luck. By the time Gerald and Mike catch up with us, they’re long gone. “How long could an otter possibly hold its breath?” one of the students asks. “We’ll wait them out.”
When we make the shoals I show everybody what I think are the Revolutionary soldiers’ graves up the slope and the old trolley trestle down the way a little. I tell them about a Colonial highway that crossed there, the Old Georgia Road, which was “the Interstate 85 of its time.”
It’s always fun to go out on the big flat rock at the shoals, but this time the current is too swift to hopscotch across rocks without wading, so I sit down and watch as a good part of the group of students pulls off shoes and socks and fords the creek to get to rock. Gerald gives Mike his boots to hold and then wades barefoot through the current. Mike follows. “That water’s not too bad,” he says, looking back at me.
“You want a hand?” Gerald asks when he makes it to the other side.
“Naw, I’ve done this a thousand times,” Mike answers, and wades on across.
I sit and watch Mike, Gerald, and all the students. I wouldn’t want to test my balance and hurt my ribs again. Falling twice would be even more humiliating, and I don’t want to give Coyote any more ammunition.
Soon after they step out on the rock, Gerald and Mike lean over to look at tracks in some dried mud. Gerald opens his big textbook of tracks and scat and flips through until he sees what he’s looking for.
“What did you find, Dr. Thurmond?” one student asks.
“I think it’s a beaver,” Gerald says, “and a muskrat.”
Mike wades back across the little channel to sit with me. We talk for a while as the class explores the shoals and Gerald looks for other signs.
I’ve talked with Mike a good bit about coyotes. He is full of stories others have told him, but doesn’t have many of his own, having only seen them once or twice in all his hunting of the area. “I stopped trapping before they came into the area,” he says. “My friends tell me they’re everywhere. Everybody seems worried about what they’ll do to the deer. I’m not sure they understand the coyotes are here to stay.”
Earlier in the month, before I fell, we’d talked at some length. I’d told him I wanted to see a coyote again and he suggested I walk down here every morning and climb into one of his son’s tree stands. Now I’m limited in my climbing. “I think I’ll come back here and just sit for a few hours right here on this river bank,” I say. “I might see something that way.”
“When you sit in a deer stand, you sit for four or five hours,” Mike said, leaning back. “It passes like a good movie.”
Mike’s reflective about wildlife, and he’s always looking for patterns. He’s seen lots of changes in the forty years he’s been hunting around the Upper Shoals. “At one time there were muskrats and mink all up and down this creek, from I-85 to Glendale. Now the muskrats and mink are rare and these otters are more common. I don’t know how I feel about that, and I don’t know for sure what caused it. Scientists aren’t going to put any of their money into figuring out whether there are fewer muskrats on Lawson’s Fork, so we’ll probably never really know.”
I like muskrats too. Though they range all the way up through northern North America, there’s something particularly southern about a muskrat that an otter doesn’t provide. Maybe this is because muskrats have always been plentiful in the Piedmont rivers and wetlands, and otters disappeared from our streams decades ago and only recently returned. Maybe that’s why Mike loves muskrats so much, because he could always count on them.
“Swamp rats,” I’ve heard my friends call them, but I know a muskrat isn’t an actual rat, though they are rodents. Their teeth grow continuously like a rat’s, so they have to gnaw on vegetation all the time to keep their flat grinding molars worn down. They have dark brown, waterproof fur and weigh about two pounds.
Some years Mike would trap hundreds of muskrats on Lawson’s Fork. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources still lists them as abundant in the Piedmont, with scattered populations in the upper coastal plain. The state wildlife department’s pamphlet describes them as “polygamous.” They breed throughout the spring and summer, so populations can build up quickly in an area. They can produce four to five litters of five to seven offspring a year.
As we watch Gerald and the students explore the shoals, Mike and I leave muskrats behind and talk about beavers, another big rodent, a subject to which we almost always return when we are out in the woods. Beavers have made a remarkable comeback since their reintroduction into the Pee Dee region of eastern South Carolina in the 1940s by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. About the same time they’d begun to expand into the Savannah River drainage from Georgia. The two populations of beaver expanded their range even more, and quickly moved west and into the Saluda, Enoree, Pacolet, and Broad River drainages. There were lots of people who were not happy about this expansion; people all over the state lost tracts of floodplain timber and ornamental trees in their stream-side yards to hungry habits of these large rodents.
The trapping of beavers had become a lucrative sideline for Mike in the 1990s when more and more timberland became inundated. I note that now there is money to be made in the trapping of coyotes and Mike says, “Yeah, but with beavers, you know, they are in a pond. With coyotes they move too much. I just don’t think I’ve got the heart to trap them.”
When we go quiet my mind wanders to the coyotes that I know hunt this bottom and claim it for their home territory. I have so little to go on, a few piles of scat, some howling sessions in the night, and five hundred pages of academic reading that may or may not apply to an animal, the southern coyote, that scientists know so little about. Researchers have warned me that the habits and life-ways of western and northeastern coyotes may be the same for these pioneers, but they may not be. Southern coyotes maybe have adapted new strategies for survival in a new land. Only research will fill in the gaps in what we know.
The slope behind me faces south, and I’ve read that up north and out west bitch coyotes looking for dens prefer these exposures, warm to the sun through January, February, and March. I assume January through February is the time of pair bonding here, as it is up north, and a female and male coyote are already courting somewhere in the floodplain, forming the nucleus of a family that will stay together until early fall.
Because they bear only a single litter annually, the rituals of mating are very important for coyotes. These canines aren’t like Mike’s muskrats who can get things wrong because they have five or six chances a year. Much depends on this one matchup. When it’s time, the females discharge blood-tinged fluid, going “into heat,” and, much like many humans, the males and females take part in both aggressive and what the scientists called “affiliative” behaviors, or in layman’s language, flirting.
I imagine them circling, tails up, yelping more than usual, the big male and the smaller female; I see the female running away in the winter woods, and the male chasing her like some furbearing Romeo hell bent on getting his girl. Each stops to urine mark. When she is ready the female may sniff or lick her mate, and sometimes she may even mount him, or she may stand immobile with her tail twisted to one side.
And then comes the copulatory tie or the lock, end to end, a trait as old as the species itself, and one that frightened me in my childhood, a time in the South when dogs still ran free and mated in the streets.
Imagining coyotes mating in the woods around me isn’t science, but it is half of what I do when I write about them like this. As Mike has turned to these woods, I hope to turn to the coyotes’ story. The other half of my work comes earlier, looking for their real presence, seeking their sign, something closer to research. Before I began to make my map of the coyote scat at the trail intersections, I picked up the first few dry, powdery deposits I found and broke them apart in my hand and sorted through the contents with my index finger. Mostly I found the ubiquitous persimmon seeds, and mouse hair, and even once the tiny crescent of a mouse incisor, but once deep in one scat there were two small, dry beetles the color of chocolate, and as I poked at them I wondered if the coyote had eaten them or if the mouse had eaten the beetles before the coyote had eaten it.
I know the coyotes are out there. Someday soon I will encounter another real coyote on the trail back and forth to the shoals, but until then, these speculations and explorations are the margin notes I keep on this new species. For today I content myself with their excrement. That is my evidence, how I make my map, how I know that something I do not see is my neighbor.