A desert biologist friend of mine I’ve known 44 years, said to me this year that our kind have opted not to feel their connection to Earth. I completely agree. But this little missive is one time when I was astonished our usually accurate observations proved incorrect.
These days I live in a curious, urban-to-me locale. A six-lane boulevard with cars powering past our house at 45 to 50 MPH abuts expensive homes or nice apartments. Some of us drive faster. Some of us would call the boulevard a parkway. I wouldn’t. Our tract of single family homes is gated. At least three gated tracts nearby come to mind. Most of the homes here are well north of $750K in value. Most of the people around here are sociable. And most of them wouldn’t care a whit about the thousands of acres of undeveloped, beautiful chaparral wildlands which are also interleaved with our homes and streets, or the non-human residents of those lands.
Around here, it’s always easy to see soccer moms in $75K SUVs or bacon-bearing dads in $80K to $120K German sedans, who never set foot on the wild land around them. Six years ago I joked with my 11 year-old son that most truck and SUV drivers underwent obligatory, reversible brain-reduction surgery to make them intellectually deadened enough to try to drive a 6,500 to 7,500 lb. SUV like it’s a golf cart.
His lovely mom had owned both an imported SUV with leather seats and a luxurious pickup with leather seats. When I first met her she owned a modest imported pickup. A brilliant 5’5″ Italian-American business spitfire, a former high school softball All-Star who also water-skiis – whose friends likened her appearance to Jodi Foster’s – totally worked for me as my imago of an aspiring mother. One night, in her 40s, she was so Locked-on-Target to a softball she was fielding that she dove to the ground for the catch – twice.
Think of me as ursine and her as deerlike. Overlooking the SF Bay, we eloped at beautiful, tree-covered Coyote Point Park. When I first met her I owned a ’75 Maverick in pristine condition, sold to me with 60K miles on it by a 70 year old widower. My grandmother.
Now, a little fun? So you don’t feel I’m granola-munching preacher here, I have also owned and run fast in higher-performance cars. “Bless me Lord, for I have sinned,” is what I’d say in confession if I were Catholic. I’m not ;-)
It wasn’t so long ago that I owned a well-modified Mustang Cobra. My son and his mom had watched me fly low, at triple-digit speeds, on Willow Springs Raceway’s Big track when he was about 3 1/2 years old. He was waist high. On video, she commented to our son as I flew past them up the front straightaway, “Daddy’s going really fast.” On my game, even on forgiving, un-grippy street tires, I’d kiss 128 MPH on the half-mile front straight before I’d brake for Turn One.
At Willow, as I idled into the paddock from the first time she saw me run 20 minutes of hot laps, she walked up as I parked. She was standing next to my open driver’s window as I shucked my helmet. I remember exactly the surprised look on her face as she saw the afterglow of my adrenaline bliss. She half-joked to me, “Look at your face! I’ve been replaced!” Serenely I replied, “Well – not exactly, sweetheart.”
Since the car’s exhaust was modified, it was louder than average at full throttle. Driving the Cobra on the street, she was only once cited for an innocuous exhibition of speed. She was blipping its throttle in neutral while rolling up to a stoplight, for our son to enjoy from his child seat. To me that was part of her hot-babe, grrrl charm. She would have never lit up the tires with him in the car. The sheriff chanced upon an easy score and explained he was making an example of her driving for our son.
I hope to again do open-tracking. Immune to the rush I’m not. And you’ve heard about that “zone” which athletes experience? It’s a suspension of time and space – nothing else holds your attention except the speed. All your worries dissolve. You become your dancing consciousness as your car sways to and fro, sweeping in and out of corners. It’s truly intoxicating and exhilarating.
I got good with the Cobra on fast, twisty road courses. I dug it because high-powered, rear-wheel drive cars are tricky to drive on road tracks. Cobras don’t have an even, front-to-back weight distribution and it makes them prone to spin under power if you’re not paying attention. But it also makes them especially exciting to throttle up when exiting turns.
Mike and Son ©1999 Austin Family Archives. All rights reserved.
Now, pause the car personas. There are also vast, lovely walks around here, and lots of beautiful vistas. Southern California’s chaparral ecosystems have a blend of lovely scents all their own including sage, Mountain lilac, oaks and manzanita. At the beginning of a local fire access road I do usually see a couple of parked cars. The road’s dirt and goes on for miles. Walkers or mountain bikers traverse it. At the right times they have an option to walk or ride sight-unseen for hours by anyone with two legs. But not many of us do that very often, including me.
From the window where I’m writing this can sometimes be seen coyotes cavorting on the broad scrub hillside next to our housing tract. I love it. At 2:41 AM as I awoke just now, I heard coyotes howling and yipping in a wild canyon around a third of a mile from me. I have walked there at dusk with my biologist friend. No animals I can think of vocalize during a hunt because they’d scare away their prey, so I figure the coyotes are doing whatever social, fur-bearing predators do. Someone I know owns an expensive tract home which overlooks that wild canyon. It’s a different canyon than the one with the quiet, dirt fire road, a couple of hills away.
One afternoon as I rounded a first turn, driving down our residential street on which young children frequently play unattended by adults, a road runner darted in front of me. S/he stood on a homeowner’s short planter while as I watched quietly, only a house and narrow street away from hillsides of wild spaces. By now you can understand there are lots of animals right next to where I, and thousands of others live.
Our kind are also, social, fur-bearing predators, even when we’re not trying. Road-killed squirrels are common on our tree-lined boulevards. If you’re a squirrel, when you don’t have a predator’s stereoscopic vision, it’s difficult to appreciate how quickly a giant metal box atop round things is bearing down on you at 50 MPH. You can’t accurately judge speed and size like humans can. That’s the biggest reason why they often don’t move until you’re nearly on top of them. If you’re a predator, as are humans, it’s difficult to either understand or appreciate this.
Several months ago I found myself very uncomfortable that I kept passing newly dead squirrels laying on some four-lane, foliage-lined boulevards nearby. It felt as if I was dishonoring them and our planet by not doing something. I’m concerned that I might begin to ignore the amazing experience of feelings we all carry as a birthright, and that I’d try and shut them off to not feel them. That would be self-destructive, so I started carrying disposable gloves in the back of my car. Now, I have the option to move the dead squirrels to the foliage at the sides of the roads. They won’t become unrecognizable, furred meat pancakes, and everyone else in the food web can have their role. I’m a roadkill undertaker. My vegetarian son once watched me move a squirrel from a 1 1/2 lane mountain road with little traffic.
I had also recently seen one expired, road-killed raccoon but couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it because I identify with their playful, mischievous nature. Two days later I was relieved to see that someone had done what I wanted to and moved it to the side of the road. Four days after that the raccoon was gone from the roadside.
Yesterday night just past dusk, at around 8:45 PM as I drove home in my Prius, from a solo qigong session in park about three miles away, I was shown there’s at least one person with a soul not unlike mine.
Coyotes can be pretty fast and nimble. They’re also fearless, and I’ve many times seen them sauntering across streets around here at dusk. A few years ago, my son and two entree-sized dogs faced one down at 10 PM at a creekside’s edge. He stood silently, 15′ from us, sizing up his chances for a big, easy meal. It wasn’t until I hollered at him and waved an arm that he turned with near disdain and walked away. You almost never see coyotes laying lifeless on the road because they’re big enough and strong enough to be a fair match for a race against a 6,000 lb. SUV. When they must, they can usually out-sprint any car that can’t turn quickly.
But last evening, in my headlights lay a small coyote, fresh from its battle lost to someone’s car. From its hiding place in a roadside hedge, it had made it 12′ into the road when the driver hit it. With the driver traveling between 35 MPH to 60 MPH, they knew it was likely to be a deadly encounter. But I’d doubt they turned back to see if they could do anything about the animal’s suffering. The switch of their feelings was most likely adjusted to “Off,” and they kept going.
The first time I approached the coyote I was taken by surprise and had to swerve slightly to avoid doing it any more damage. But I knew it to be dead as I passed. I’m not inclined to think it was Attila the Hun, observing the laws of karma by innumerable incarnations as an animal less canny than a human. I think of every living thing as an Earth spirit.
Four lanes, two on each side of a road are divided by a raised curb and planting strip. I drove to the stop lights, and drove back. I parked against the curb, several feet from where the coyote lay. My headlights illuminated it well. In around 25 seconds while I slipped on my shoes, two cars whizzed past. With me parked right next to the coyote, the second of those two cars ran right across the tip of its nose. The lane next to them was absent any cars whatsoever. I got out and stepped toward the hatch of my car where I had stashed my gloves.
And, as I did, a different, heartwarming and curious thing astonished me. A woman in a BMW X5 had stopped in the fast lane on the opposite side of the parkway, and hailed me with her head out her window. I was at my car’s left rear fender and hadn’t yet made it to the hatch. Urgently and upset she asked me, “Is it dead?” I could feel her Heart and replied calmly and assured her, “Yeah, it’s dead.” My inflection and intonation of the word dead conveyed it was a sure thing. It felt she was asking so she might somehow help the animal’s suffering if possible.
Still stopped in the fast lane, she then nervously implored, “Are you going to move it?” It felt like if I didn’t, she would, but she wanted to avoid doing it herself. I replied, “Yes,” and although I was astonished, again moved toward my car’s hatch. I was wearing my city face because I was a freak tree-hugger doing something mildly dangerous around people driving two- or three-ton, fast-moving weapons at dark.
Of course, it would be a woman. Most men wouldn’t feel such a thing so much they’d take the time to stop. Men don’t carry our kind inside our bodies and we’re taught to conceal our emotions and volunteer for wars. Even I’m not immune to nature and nurture.
She drove her car to a parkway entrance, turned around and stopped behind mine with too much of her car in the traffic lane. As she did I noticed its license plate frame proclaimed it was purchased in Beverly Hills. It felt like she stopped her car half into the lane to prevent other drivers from hitting, me, us or the coyote. I’ve seen other drivers do this at other accident scenes. But I asked her to instead pull her car over to the curb because most drivers are pretty bad at anything other than mouse trails. I didn’t want us impacted by the same kind of doofus who had slain the coyote and drove on without stopping.
Yeah, the coyote’s way dead and it happens. I feel sad for it. It’s upsetting to me. But I’m astonished that such a pretty driver of a fairly expensive SUV would have such compassion that she’d actually stop to do something. She’s pretty enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told me she had never had dirt under her fingernails her entire life. Lovely, she is. By looks alone you wouldn’t be surprised to see her sitting silently behind sunglasses, as seat candy in a stock broker’s 750i as he would drive past.
She volunteered as she dismounted from her SUV that she usually carries “a towel or something” in her car for such purposes. Wow. I didn’t know anyone like her existed in the big city. Her demeanor and persona were that of someone who has a big Heart. She also said she thought the coyote might have still been alive when she first passed before I did. She explained it seemed to be laying on its side, curled up, but facing traffic when she passed. By the time I had seen it, it was facing away from traffic. I reassured her, explaining it was likely dead right after impact, but a subsequent car would have hit it again, after its death, and rolled it on its other side. This thought was uncomfortable for both of us, but she accepted it gratefully.
Cars and SUVs continued to whiz by every few seconds in mini-herds. I stepped into the roadway and gently picked-up the still flexible coyote by both its front and back legs. It had no breath. Its eyes were lifeless, its head hung low. Its warmth and weight were unsettling. “There was just a spirit in this wild creature,” I thought silently. I felt it wafting, above, behind and around me, confused that some random biped was peeling “one of its kin” off the pavement. It was watching and present, still trying to catch up with what had just happened.
Its common knowledge in Buddhist cultures that a phowa needs to be performed when a person crosses over, especially in cases of surprise death. “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” or “Bardo Thodol“ is about how to ease a soul’s transition into its next state. As far as I’ve heard that’s just for people. But I’d suspect many Buddhists are totally fine doing such a thing for critters. I did what I knew how to from the many times I’ve witnessed for animals as they crossed, and the couple of times I’ve been on the scene after a person crossed. Yeah, I know that’s strange for a white man. But, you could accept it.
My new acquaintance walked to the hedge under which I had just lain the coyote, just behind a fence, as I watched. Standing, she half-turned toward me and said, “You’re getting angel wings for this.” I figured I’ll never see her again. Still wanting in vain to look as little as possible like a freak to passing motorists, I replied, “I’m not sure about that,” although I’d certainly be glad to accept a modicum of good karma and was touched that she offered it. “I’m just going to say a little prayer for it and then I’ll go,” she said. Crouching, she faced the coyote and silently spoke her benediction. I thought a surprising compliment in her direction, “This girl’s fearless.” I had already been silently reciting my own prayer on the fly, sending the coyote on to fur-dog heaven.
The woman and I thanked each other. I was so slack-jawed to have met someone like her I proffered my business card before we drove off. She accepted it as I spoke, “Look me up some time if you feel like it.”
I’d doubt she’ll look me up. But, writing about this now actually makes tears well up in my eyes. Had she not done what she did, it’s likely no other human would have ever heard about this. I would have been upset for a few days. I’m 6′, 225 lbs., and known for an intense but humorous disposition. These days I’m about business. My university-bound, highest honors son has described me as capable of being both “intellectually intense” and “light-hearted.” When I’m in a blazer and tie I look and act like many other ursine, money-grubbing capitalists.
But, the astonishing fact that another suburban human wanted to honor and observe the passing of a simple coyote touches me deeply. I’m glad she paused. She’ll do it again. And any children who learn from her will have the same choices. Thank you, Rose.
Patrick O’Hearn’s song, “A Lovely Place to Be“ is the last song on Pandora as I put my computer and I to sleep 2 1/2 hours after I started this.