Coyote Dream

It's become a game. Between the two of us. Looming mound, hill or mountain elicits the response....ahhh Bugarach. Driving up the PCH the other evening Santa Cruz was back lit by the setting sun. We saw it at Zuma, on the horizon in an orange strip of clear sky between ocean and cloud. Ahh....Bugarach Island. Up on the old County Property at the top of Koenigstein there was Santa Paula Peak ....ah, you get the idea.

At 4,040 feet, the volcanic Bugarach peak is the highest summit in the Corbières mountains. It is also reputed to contain an entrance to the underground world of Agartha - or a UFO garage, depending upon whom you believe (RV III). At 8,847 feet, Mount Pinos is almost exactly twice as high, and was considered by the Chumash to be the center of their world, or Liyikshup - the point where everything is in balance.

Santa Paula Peak stands at 4,911 feet. David Stillman is a local who goes where I write about - and takes pictures. He  describes his hike up the local Bugarach thus,

"the trail winds steeply up a ridge via a series of burley switch-backs. It leads over, around and through grassy hills, chossy crags, and dense chapparal. It ends in a scramble up a forty degree field of scree. The summit is small, with sheer cliffs on two sides. The view to the west is remarkable, staring down on upper Ojai Valley. To the northeast lies Bear Haven. To the north is Devil's Gate, the Sespe, Topatopa, and Santa Paula Gorge."

To save you Googling, I will tell you that 'chossy' means a climb/cliff/mountain/crag composed almost entirely of choss, and therefore only suitable for climbing if you are (a) insane, (b) suicidal or ... and that choss refers to loose rocks. It's a specific piece of rock-climbing argot equivalent to the less specific 'sketchy' and has some kinship to the urban inflected 'ghetto', as in 'pretty ghetto'. David climbs rocks, and has the vocabulary to prove it. I run, an activity a little light on specialized vocabulary, although I will tell you that right now I have a strained gastrocnemius which is annoyingly called 'tennis leg'. Thus my experience of Santa Paula peak, this morning, was from the seat of a bicycle. It was generally clear, but the mountain was garlanded with a light haze that had an almost spectral aspect. As David points out, it has a small summit and steep sides and can masquerade effectively as an extinct volcano.

On the old County Property, which I believe was an honor farm back in the day, but is now privately owned, there is a track that leads to the Silver Thread oil leases. On its west side is a meadow that runs most of the way to Koenigstein and upon which cattle sometimes graze. At the moment it is given over to tar weed and turkey mullein (Eremocarpus setigerus) - neither, I'd guess, of much bovine nutritional value. On the east side, it is chaparral with views of the Santa Paula ridge and peak; immediately beyond the fence there are the occasional oaks tangled with the usual under-scrub and it was there that I saw two bushy tails snaking through the leaf litter, fallen branches and poison oak.

A few weeks ago, driving down the 150 early one morning I saw very fresh road kill in the middle of the road and flashing by, I thought for a moment it might be a bobcat. The next morning I rode down on my bike. Someone had had the decency to pull the mangled animal off to the shoulder and I was able to identify it as a grey fox. Its innards were exposed and they were attracting flies and wasps, but its mangy tail, reddish ears and short snout were clues enough. The two tails I spotted this morning belonged to altogether livelier specimens. I got off the bike and walked back quietly to where I had seen them and, sure enough, they hadn't gone far: I was rewarded with a beautiful vulpine silhouette as one of the pair trotted along parallel to the path, beyond the oak, with the rising sun behind it.

I dreamt last night of a coyote being attacked by an evil looking hyena not much bigger than it. I haven't seen a coyote since last spring. I miss their howling, I miss their guilty faces as they lurk along the side of Koenigstein. I even miss their ill-mannered squabbling over freshly killed rabbits. To dream of coyotes, apparently, means there is a part of your soul that feels desolate, fearful, and lacking support; (or it could just mean that you miss seeing coyotes). Mark Twain famously described the coyote as a "long, slim and sick-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakeness and misery, an evil eye and a long sharp face..." The grey fox, that for the moment must stand in for the missing coyote, is certainly less needy looking, is more wraith-like and crepuscular than the canine, and has the enormous charm of a fluffy tail.

I think of the coyote as a fringe-dweller, it is the true spirit animal of the Urban Wildland and has generally prospered as residential areas have pushed into chaparral hillsides and canyons. The Chumash, like many native American tribes, saw the animal as a trickster: a shape-shifter, living between order and chaos, in liminal space, between the human-world and the wild. As tricksters, capable of metamorphosis (without losing their essential character or soul), they are un-killable, both mythic survivors and perpetuators of their own myth. They'll be back. This year is just a down year. It occurs to me now that they are, perhaps, the faunal equivalent of laurel sumac (Skimmer).

If we (Lorrie and I) see Bugarach in every passing hillock, tumulus and knoll it is because we recognize its essential character or 'soul' in local earthforms. We have absorbed its mythic portent and in the kind of intellectual 'making-do' or bricolage that Levi Strauss ascribes to mythical thought, we see Bugarach re-created in the lumpy landscapes of Ventura County. Maybe.

Like Gary Snyder, the poet, essayist and environmental activist, who has studied native American coyote mythology, I can only read the coyote myth as a white Californian male. I make no pretense at a visceral connection with a Chumash understanding of their sprit animals. Snyder claims that coyote is a symbol of the American west and reflects an interaction between myth and a sense of place. Now that is my kind of intellectual leap out of the soup of primordial mythology.

 In the name of Claude Levi Strauss, in the spirit of bricolage, of making do, of appropriation, I am claiming coyote for the Urban Wildland, as a creative spirit rooted in the love of the land - but currently it would seem, at least in his material incarnation, he is on sabbatical.

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