Field notes #1

Posts  in this series are semi-polished exerpts from  the pocket-sized hiking journal I carry when I go out walking in local canyons, etc.    If something interesting happens or a  bolt from the  blue  strikes, I  pull out the old journal and  get down the basics.   I’ve left Field Notes  elsewhere around the bloggernacle,  such as  here and here,  but I thought that for Wilderness Interface Zone and simplicity’s sake  we’d just start over again at #1.

As always, if you, dear reader,  have field notes or vivid memories  of trips taken, you’re invited to  make entries  you’d  like to share in the comments section.  

February 18, 2009, a.m.   Approaching the trailhead into Crossfire, I glance at the knoll northeast where reposes the horse skeleton.   My eye catches a flash of movement.   I stop.   Small deer maybe?   No. The  tail end  of  some other kind of  animal slips into a juniper’s scant cover.   Will the animal reveal itself?  

Wait for it.

A few breaths later  a coyote steps into an opening to the right of the tree, coat camouflaged against the knoll’s sandy soils and the grey-brown haze of dormant plants.   The animal looks across at me trying to get a fix on who I am and what my intentions might be.   It’s a big coyote, one of the biggest I’ve come across.   To let it know I’ve seen it, I meet its gaze directly.   With animals, opening steps in the dance of approach or of flight are accomplished  with the eyes, in the meeting of glances, the weighing of intention lit in the brain as it flickers in the organs of  sight.

After making its quick study, it slinks up the knoll to the next tree, from whose cover it peers again.   Then it takes the discretionary route to the knoll’s crest, moving in fits and starts, tree to tree.   On the other side of the knoll runs a well-established game trail; probably it’s heading for that.

It disappears.   The wonder of the encounter distracts me so that when I resume working my way down slope I miss the trailhead and must retrace steps.  

Blankets of snow drape the trail’s northern exposures,  blank except for a single aged set of tracks.   Can’t tell what it was, only what it wasn’t €”not a rabbit’s pattern.   A fox’s, a bobcat’s, maybe a coyote’s.      The tracks have collapsed so much from melting and  being windblown, a deer might even have made them.

In surface ice crystals growing on a plot of snow, glorious popcorn color flashes up every step I take, shifting its  field  with the slightest  change in my line of sight.   I never get used this explosion of  rainbow glitter in my way, it always  tranfixes me.   The phenomenon stretches my mind, which  feels not only attracted to the sight’s charisma but to its stroboscopic effect, as if my brain senses information there it’s trying to read.   An impulse to interpret?   A mapping thing?   Something about the elegant nature of the triangulation occurring between my being alive, right here, right now; the position of the sun as it stands in relation to the earth at this moment; and the telling panes of ice that spread apart light at the apexes of revelatory angles.   Standing in place, I sway side to side, watching the colorscape shift its pinkish-red,  brilliant blue, yellow and green gleams.   Oh man.

While I’m standing still writing, a flock of juncos flies in close, filtering through tree branches like big, feathered raindrops.   On the hunt for what they can find, they keep in touch through constant twitter, shattering quiet as they come.   One junco proves especially loquacious, producing in variations of chirps and cadence strings of talk  recalling the rhythm of a tale or perhaps tones of emphasis and insistence in a persuasive speech.   It’s a stirring fabric of sound.  

On the move  again.   Along the way, I find a cliff rose, purshia stanisburiana, refurbishing its leaves.   This cues me to look for other signs of rising springtide.   Sure enough, more plants are turning up green flames along stalk parts set closest to their roots.

More birdsong in the canyon; a canyon wren cuts loose with its falling measure. The creek running in the crease in the canyon’s floor €”the creek that in partnership with wind, rain, and time cuts this canyon €”these warmer temperatures are loosing its tongue, which for  weeks has been  encased in  ice.   It regains its  voice, a soft trickle of release.

Notes splashing up from the water’s movement recall the quavers of color that flash up from my movement across snow.

As I walk through a grove of cottonwoods casting webs of grey shadow across sheltered snow, I see the same color scheming in the snowflakes I saw earlier, only here, contrasting with tangles of  tree shadow, the effect reaches several times the intensity of light splintering on open snow.   To control the effect this has on me I blink and breathe slowly.  

Don’t follow the lights.  

I cross the creek on stepping-stones and loop back around the stream on a parallel trail running through deep sand.   Here in the frozen  sand are well-preserved footprints  I made passing through  a week or so ago.   Finding my footprints always amuses me, I think of it as coming across myself.   Tracing  my prints along this part of the trail, I  meet with  a surprise.   Perfectly contained in one of the deepest, most clearly defined boot prints are white ropes of coyote scat.   A mark upon my mark of passage.

It is an object d’art, executed with skill and precision.

I laugh.  

I walk a few more feet down the trail, turn around, return to admire again.  

I laugh again.

If footprints can be thought of as a kind of web log, then some coyote, “coyoteing around” as the Navajos say, has left me a pithy comment.  

Hm, is it trolling?  

Animals don’t think of their bodily excretions in the ways we do €”they don’t think of them as €œwaste. €   To many species, the piles and stains they leave around are conversation pieces €”pieces of conversation.   Strokes of territorialism?   That’s how we often interpret them.   Certainly I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of animal remark.  

In his book Coyote, Wyman Meinzer, speaking of the marking behaviors he’s witnessed among coyotes in the Rolling Plains region of Texas, remarks that coyotes, usually dominant males, maintain scent marking posts along cow trails and roads that all the coyotes within a given home range travel.   He says:

According to some research finding, scent post locations could be a way for the animals to assess population densities within an area.   In such cases, high frequencies of scent posts could result in some coyotes dispersing to find new home ranges.

A kind of message board for other coyotes rather than a starkly territorial warning against trespassing.   In fact, Meinzer remarks that over  his decades of study  he has not witnessed coyotes behaving particularly aggressively toward other coyotes but has seen them  attack foxes, bobcats, and  dogs.     In other words,  a coyote’s characteristic expression of territorialism appears to be attack, not marking,  and  the animal  it most  often  directs its aggression toward are members of other species.    

However  this  message  is meant, I take it as a direct response to my presence in the canyon and enjoy its forthrightness.   In Coyote, I know what the appropriate response would be but restrain myself.   Really, I don’t think like that.    The new tracks I’m leaving around this ornamented one will make answer enough.

The beaver ponds along this stretch of Crossfire mostly retain their ice ceilings but silver ribbons of light-streaked water ripple around the dams by odd paths.    One such watery ribbon appears to be flowing uphill at the point where one of the  dam’s  edges conjoins with the opposite bank.   Trying to make something of  the sight  I slide down the bank’s loose red soil, following a trail leading  to the pond’s edge.   Getting closer doesn’t help me make sense of the sight.   But as I reach the bottom of the trail, my ears then my head fill wall-to-wall with a sound so loud it stuns me.  

r-r, ruhhhUUHhhh, r-r.

r-r, ruuUHH, r.

r-r, ruuuUHH, r-r.

The noise fills me up, knocking aside my consciousness. I stumble out of the daze in recognition.   It’s a coyote, maybe the one I saw topside, calling somewhere very close €”close enough its voice fills the canyon and makes a sensational impact upon my mind.   Echoes fly away south down-canyon riding the  taut skin  on the cliff faces.  

The coyote must know I’m here €”how could it not?   All the coyotes I’ve seen while I’m out hiking have always known I was there before I discovered that they were.   The canyon is relatively narrow and the bottom trail runs through the open much of the way. I don’t exactly pass quietly, thinking it to my advantage to make at least enough noise to give fair warning.  

I listen and make mental notes, adding  this  event  to my growing file of coyote encounters.   This call is different, lower and throatier than most that I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot.   We hear coyotes rioting around our neighborhood nearly every night.  

All these details mean something, but what?    Note to self:  learn to  read coyote  vocalizations.

The  animal falls silent, releasing me  from the grip of its voice.   Unable to solve from this side of the dam the visual puzzle of the water that trickles uphill, I work my way back upslope, stepping over elk scat, and continue on my way.

By now, the canyon has warmed.   The frozen trail  melts into stretches of slick, sucking mud.   Seeking refuge from the sloppiness, I take to remainders of snow clinging to the trail’s tree-shadow-side.   On one of these strips I discover fresh coyote tracks, flower print indentations  flecked with mud and drops of water.   If these tracks were very old at all, the sun €”now blazing full glory €”would have warmed the dark mud tracked onto the snow.   The tracks would be melting, collapsing.   Also, the  trail’s soils  have been frozen until recently and weren’t of a trackable consistency.   The prints lead north, the direction I’m traveling.  

I climb out of the canyon through the mud and over thin sheets of melting snow overlaying steep angles.   Doing this while maintaining balance and control proves a bit too much for my knee, which has been making a long convalescence from repetitive injuries suffered about this same time last year.   I stop at a favorite rock to sit and rest the knee, only to find someone has decorated  it with lithic flakes €”stone flakes chipped off rocks during flint-knapping €”and pottery sherds.   This display is a recent development.  

Sitting  on the rougher patch of the rock  I examine the artifacts, taken out of their original context and  arranged in this new one.   A few of the thinner shards might be from Pueblo-II pottery, an earlier phase, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to say.   The thicker ones €”painted black-on-white €”unmistakably Pueblo-III.   Considering some of the flamboyant jasper flakes I find as I walk in this area the green and grey ones placed here come off as rather dull, though there’s something voluptuous about the fracture curves of  almost every  flake.  

Perhaps the person who removed these artifacts from contexts in and around  the trail  had second thoughts and emptied their pockets before leaving the canyon.   I think of the letters displayed in the visitor’s center at Chaco Canyon, once an important hub of Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) culture, stuff like this:  

€œI took these from the Pueblo Bonito site and brought them home.   Since then, my wife’s left me and I’ve suffered a mysterious illness.   So I’m returning them.   I’m sorry. €  

€œI took these as souvenirs when I visited your park.   The day I brought them home my dog, who has always liked me, attacked me.   So I’m sending them back. €    

Sorrowful attempts to get shed of some unfortunate curse.  

Or maybe this display is an artistic statement, like the one  the coyote made on my boot print.

I head home, happy.   A gorgeous day, an eventful hike.   I  decide take the coyote’s gestures as an early birthday present.

I think: This is   it—this is  what it feels like being alive, here, now,  with others.


3 thoughts on “Field notes #1”

  1. We don’t get to hear coyotes in the east, tho they are growing as urban myth. We do have birds, and I want to tell you which ones I heard this morning:
    mourning doves
    house finches
    and others I can’t identify.
    The crow riots will ease up and the hawks will cry up in the sun. It gets very noisy here, especially about four o’clock in the morning, especially if you leave your bedroom window open at night. I have construction going on near my house, and sometimes the birds don’t even stop for it, other times they stop and wait for the machine noise to die down. I can’t help but wonder what effect this is having.
    I do miss hearing canyon wrens. I think when I was out west, they reminded me of chickadees, which are one of my favorite bird songs all around. I don’t know that they sound that much alike, but something about their song was similar enough for me.


  2. I can’t help but wonder what effect this is having.

    Since I moved out to the edge of the world, where we have occasional stretches of honest quiet, I’ve learned that animals make heavy use of quiet to communicate across distances. I thought I knew this, but I didn’t understand it.

    A couple summers ago I was out in the garden when I heard high-pitched squealing from the p-j forest about a quarter of a mile southeast. I thought, that sounds like it might be a coyote pup, calling. Moments later, I heard an answer, an adult coyote yipping in response from about half a mile to the west. The pup quieted after that.

    Wish my kids listened that well.

    The coyotes talk back and forth over very impressive distances. Some nights, one group lights up then another and another sounds off. It goes around like that, in what seems like a circle, till you can just barely hear a group way out, who knows how far away.

    Ravens likewise carry on conversations across distances I couldn’t cross except via walkie talkie or cell phone. I spend a lot of time out on cliffs. There, I often will witness one raven calling from one direction and another reply from far away. They talk like that, following each other’s voice, till they meet.

    In Payson, we had a lot of hummingbirds around town. But I never realized how varied and powerful their vocalizations were till I heard them framed by the quiet we enjoy here.

    I’ve read that scientists studying a kind of sparrow that lives in cities and also has a country branch of the family has discovered that the city sparrows adapt their chirruping to compensate for the higher decibels they must compete with to get across to one another.

    Imagining how an increase in noise levels might affect the long-distance callers around here isn’t difficult. Some animals would retreat; some would adapt.

    I’d get pretty grumpy, myself.


  3. Oh! You do remind me of the woodpeckers and flickers when they call to a friend across the neighborhood. We like to sit out on the porch and listen for the reply, from far away. Far away here is probably a different term than where you live. The woods are dense, the populations don’t need as much space for foraging. When we have clear weather, the weatherman proudly announces that we have at least ten miles visibility in the region. Sometimes it reminds me of places in Wyoming and Arizona where people declare the visibility is 50 miles.
    I may be rambling at this point. 🙂 You bring so many things to mind, is all.


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