The primal fears of our ancestors remain not that far beneath the surface of our psyche. We think of ourselves as sophisticated human beings. Superior to the animals around us. We communicate well between ourselves. But can we cross that border to reach understanding with other wild species? I had an incident that challenged my rational mind and brought to the surface some deep, dark fears from the primeval past.
It was early November, the time of year when I like to get my small country property tidied up and put to bed for its long winter sleep. I had been tied up with city matters for most of the day and returned home with just enough daylight hours left to finish some cleanup work on the three-acre field at the back of the property. This remote little idyl borders on the cedar swamp which marks the property line to the west.
Throwing off my city attire, I slipped on my favourite worn-out and grubby coveralls that my wife has long been trying to put on the burn pile, only to have me rescue them before they go up in smoke.
I had left the tractor outside the shed with the bush hog still attached. It was just a matter of a few moments before I was happily on my way down the farm lane to finish the job on that little field that we had decided to keep rough and dedicated to wild flowers. It wasn’t big enough for hay or other feed crop. Besides, milkweed had become established around the edges and an outcrop of rocks in the middle makes it unsuitable for cultivation. During the months of September and October we enjoy the migrating Monarch butterflies which use it as a fast-food stop as they set out in the direction of their winter destination in the forests of central Mexico.
It had been a warm day for November but the temperature was dropping rapidly as the sun approached the horizon. The moisture from the cedar swamp rose to meet the colder air above, causing patches of mist to form. A gentle breeze wafted through the opaque areas so that one moment the air was clear only to have visibility reduced to just a few feet as the tractor passed into another foggy patch.
With daylight fading, I wasted no time getting back to my trimming of the frosted growth of wild plants. The mulch that the bush hog created would rot over the next few months and help to improve the fertility of the thin soil for next year’s growth of grasses, weeds and wildflowers. While this was true, there was still a little bug inside my head that said the property looked better if it was neat and tidy. From this you can conclude that a bit of the urban householder remained in me which placed appearance high on the priority list. Keeping up with the suburban Joneses is a competitive challenge that still lingered.
I engaged the drive shaft of the powerful mower to the p.t.o. on the tractor and started down the line of where I had left off the weekend before. Up and down in neat rows, the wild and haphazard growth of the long summer months was reduced to orderliness.
With just two or three passes left to go, I felt a strange sensation.
I was not alone.
At first, I told myself I was imagining it or perhaps one of the dogs had come down from the house to see what I was up to. A glance over my shoulder confirmed that neither Simon nor Sallie, the two Jack Russells, were there. Since they are both white, they would have been easy to see in the gloaming.
I turned the steering wheel for one final pass down the length of the field, pleased with the accuracy of the pattern of straight lines I had created. And there it was again, that sensation of not being alone. I felt uncomfortable. The hairs on the back of my neck felt like they were standing on end. Of course, this did not actually happen, but it is very true that this sensation can be felt when something unknown threatens. Perhaps this is the same reaction a dog displays when the hackles on its back rise as a result of some impending threat. Whatever its origin, the sensation is real in humans even though the physical display is lacking. Maybe it is a reaction to the adrenaline rush as a fight-or-flight decision has to be made.
A gentle breeze wafted across the field and the mist cleared enough for me to detect movement in the bottom corner where the cedar trees have taken over from the border growth of milkweed. I stopped the tractor and switched off the ignition. Another puff of wind and my vision improved.
Indeed I was not alone. Standing just thirty metres away was a full-grown coyote. We locked eyes and remained this way for what seemed like ages but was probably just a minute. I presumed it was a male as he was surprisingly long-legged and muscular. I had seen other coyotes on previous occasions suffering from mange and in distressingly undernourished condition, but this fellow was in good health.
He stood his ground, as I did mine. At that moment we were two equals. In his gaze I read that he regarded me as an intruder on his territory. I was a fellow creature and he was curious about what made me tick. He was not afraid and wanted to know more about me. I, too, wanted to understand more about him but I was afraid. I stayed on the tractor, glad to have my iron horse beneath me, ready to beat a retreat on my command. Upon later reflection, I realized that my fear was unreasonable, but childhood nightmares of a deadly game of Russian Roulette involving a pack of hungry wolves pursuing an overloaded troika galloping through the snowy Russian forest remained not far beneath the surface of my mind.
When reason returned, I realized that this coyote must have been the culprit who had killed and eaten the tom turkey I had heard drumming in the bush earlier in the spring. The bird was elusive but I had caught a brief glance of him standing on a log with his tail feathers spread out like a lady’s fan. This handsome bird had fathered a fine brood of young turkeys that I had seen while riding in the back fields on my horse, Danny, just a week or so back. The hen bird and her half-grown family were still alive, but last month I had found the bones and large wing and tail feathers of the dad scattered in a clearing in the bush. No wonder this fellow looked so healthy with a tasty meal like that under his belt
I felt a puff of wind pass by and the mist rising from the swamp waters rolled across a curtain of obscurity. The mutual interview ended.
When next the air cleared, the stage was empty. He had melted into the screen of trees as quietly as he had appeared. I was left alone on the tractor gazing at a corner of the field with it’s neat rows of mown weeds. My spectator, my companion, was gone.
I turned the ignition key on the tractor, disengaged the driveshaft to the bush hog and headed back to the farmhouse. Shadows were lengthening and I was looking forward to a log fire and a warm supper. I reviewed my encounter with the coyote and wondered if he was also thinking about our little tête-à-tête, and whether he too would find his supper on his way home. Perhaps an unwary rabbit or, if his luck failed him, he could dig out a couple of field mice on the bank by the creek. If worse came to worse, he would have to be satisfied with eating some of the fallen wild apples that still lingered on the ground this late in the autumn.
When he eventually returned to his den, curled his tail around his nose, and settled down for a few hours before his next pre-dawn hunting excursion, would he wake to regard me as his natural enemy, safe enough when sitting on my smelly iron horse, but to be avoided at all costs if I carried one of those loud sticks which dispensed flame and pain? Or was I just another strange creature that lived in his world and with whom he had tried to communicate and reach an understanding?
I like to believe that each of us had tried hard to make a connection. That we had both struggled to do so. We had come close, but the inter-species barrier had not been overcome. Our meeting of the minds remained one step too far. It had been an inconclusive but thought-provoking encounter for which I am grateful.
Posted September 4, 2019
English-born Derek French grew up in Kent through the years of World War II, served as Master of the Eglinton and Caledon Hunt (ON) from 2000 to 2007, and is the author of Spirit: The Lighter Side of Life in Wartime Britain, available through Amazon.