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Kye Oh Tay

The notion of the trickster and the culture hero, together, is fascinating to me.   Around the West, coyote was the hero of these tales.  In the Northeast it was Raven, and in the South and Eastern United States it was hare and rabbit.

But what is a trickster?  And what is a culture hero?  In reading about ‘culture hero’ definitions, it is a mythical animal or creature that brings important things into this world, such as the animals, or humans, or gives fire to humans and teaches them how to grow or find food.  Coyote fills this bill in many stories.

Coyote blends into the landscape with deer in background

And the trickster?  That is harder to define.  A trickster is the embodiment of opposites, of extremes.  He makes you laugh at the absurd, or at his foibles.  Jung described the trickster as the ‘shadow side of a culture’, all the things that you can’t admit to or hide now out in the open and that energy is expressed and released through story.

I am intrigued by the trickster, because no matter how much you read about it, the trickster is enigmatic and can’t be grasped.  Coyote stories remind me of a tradition I studied for some time–Tibetan Crazy Wisdom. These Enlightened Adepts taught through living paradox; their life and teachings (if they had a teaching at all) were expressions of their unconditional freedom.  They lived lives outside the conventional agreements of morality, religion and social contracts.  Their very existence in Time and Space exploded and confounded our idea of living as limited mortal beings.

Coyote, as creator and destroyer, rogue, knave, fool, giver of fire to humans but also of birth and death is the Crazy Adept of many American Indian cultures.

Coyote hunting ground squirrels

But what is interesting to me is simply how confounded I am when I read Coyote stories.  I think “I don’t get it” and that is exactly it.  It is funny and silly yet profound and sacred at the same time.  There is a depth that is untouchable and indescribable.  And still my question remains “why Coyote?”   We can tell the story about how coyote has defied extermination by the White Man, and lived to spread ten-fold instead.  Or how he might follow a trapper, dig up his traps, urinate them and run off to the hills.  Surely these tell of Coyote’s cunning.  But I suspect the native peoples understood many more attributes of coyotes that white men overlook because our culture has seen them only as pests and predators to be extirpated.

Coyote catching grasshoppers

In choosing Coyote as their culture hero and trickster, native peoples have bestowed a great honor as well as power to this creature.  Coyote is given the power to stop the mind just as the Zen Masters’ stick might give the blow of Enlightenment to his student.  Coyote frees us from stodgy mind, creating an opening for creativity, inspiration, and True Religion.  Coyote embodies our dualistic nature, Yin and Yang, Good and Evil, Form and Formless.  In the embrace of Paradox, we are Free.  Coyote is here to guide us through his Crazy Wisdom, his Tricksterness, beyond Time and Space.

That is a great power.  And so I am still puzzled, speechless, and confounded by The Trickster–and that is as it should be, I suppose.  I feel that I need to observe and understand coyote more deeply so that his hidden blessing will be revealed.

It was a cold night. Winter was beginning to set in.  My window was slightly cracked and, at 2am, I awakened to the songs of a ‘Medicine Dog’–a lone coyote howling just outside near the front lawn. Since Koda has lived here, the coyotes take a different route home at night, so this was a rare visitation.  In my sleepiness, it seemed like the right thing to howl back.  After some responsive singing between us, it became clear that this was a pup of the year, calling for his pack and I was only confusing him, so I stopped singing his songs back to him.  And sure enough there soon came faint replies far up the mountain from where the coyotes den in the spring. The teenager took off to meet his brothers and I fell soundly and happily back asleep.

Coyote as Creator

Several weeks ago, while botanizing, I noticed a dead-end steep drainage with a series of picturesque hoodoos.  It drew me and I decided to hike up and explore.  The drainage was thin and narrow with steep sides, so I was following up the bottom.  Although the nearby creek was full of run-off, this little tributary was dry yet there was vegetation as well as a series of downed dead trees.

As I rounded a curve, about six small balls of furry things ran quickly across the drainage for cover.  What were they?  Too big for marmots or squirrels and the wrong color, not moving like rabbits, it took me a moment to wipe my eyes and decide what I was seeing.  Pups!  Yes.  And they were just the cutest things you’ve ever seen, scurrying back to their den for cover.  One little guy got caught up in some dead branches and was trying hard to get over them.

Area around den. A perfect spot

I paused for a moment when they had disappeared, thankful their parents were nowhere in sight because I had the dog with me.  Koda was a good boy.  He saw their fluffy things and, in his curiosity, wanted to investigate but he obeyed and kept close by me.  I retreated from the area right away, worried about their parents returning, the dog and my smell causing their parents to move to another den site.

These pups, from a URL, are about the same size as what I saw

O.K., I said to myself, were they wolf pups or coyote pups?  It all happened so fast, but as I thought it through I realized they were all the same tawny brown color, a definite sign they were coyotes, and I guessed they were about 5 or 6 weeks old, just by having been around dog puppies enough to discern their bodies and skill set.

Interesting, with the late spring and all the snow this winter, everything is late.  Two years ago on Mother’s Day, early May, I saw some coyote pups that looked about 12 weeks old.  And here it was late June, and these little guys were only 6 weeks old.

Coyote pup mother's day 2009

A few days ago I ventured back.  Coyotes leave their den when their pups are around 8 weeks old and I figured they’d be gone.  Just to make sure, I negotiated a route from the back way.  Instead of up the drainage, I came from high up on the top of the hillside where I could look at the site from above.  I sat for quite a while and glassed the den area.  When I was fairly sure there was no activity, I went and explored.

The den

The area right in front of the den, as pictured above, was clean as a whistle.  I used my watch and shown some light inside the den.  It too was immaculate–no bones or feces.  There was another smaller opening nearby, and I understand that coyotes usually have a second entrance. The front entrance was about 12″x 14″.  In the drainage directly below, under the debris of downed trees, scads of old bones and feathers lay around, and piles of scat.  There were at least 3 deer skulls, but they were so old that I figured this den had been used quite a few times before.

Den in size relation to Koda. He would never be able to enter

I picked through some of the feathers.  Songbirds, flickers, an owl and even a red-tail hawk. These parents were good hunters.

As I went on my way to continue searching for plants, I remembered something.  Last year I took an early spring hike up this valley with a friend.  The main valley goes far and narrows into dense forest with a year-round stream running through it.  On our way up, we spied a coyote carrying a deer leg in the direction of this den.  Could it have been one of the same parents?  It was the right time of year.  Maybe I caught a glimpse of the mom or dad.