I never knew how wild my corner of the West was until my daughter started playing volleyball. It had nothing to do with volleyball or the way it transforms giggling adolescent girls into snarling competitive animals.
had to do with early morning practices.
character," my daughter's coach said. The kids' or the parents', I
wondered, as I dragged myself out of a warm bed every Friday
morning at 5:30 a.m. to drive Zoe to the middle school gym.
Once up and out the door, though, I discovered I like the
hour before sunrise. It is a time of great clarity. Sometimes the
moon is up, a yellow sliver hanging above the jet-black outline of
the West Elk Mountains. Overnight, the stars have shifted from
autumn to winter: Orion, bold and belted, takes center stage, while
in the north, the Big Dipper turns upside down, pouring out stars
instead of holding them.
Sound travels extraordinary
distances. The crow of a rooster at the ranch a mile down the road
seems a stone's throw away. From the irrigation ditch, the cattails
rustle with the movements of creatures great and small.
It's the great creatures I fear, yet want to see the most. Our
western Colorado home abuts some of the wildest country in the
Rockies, and it is inhabited by some of the biggest wild animals
North America has to offer, including black bear, mountain lion and
elk. But these are not the creatures we encounter on our early
morning drive. We see what every other American who gets up at 5:30
sees: raccoons and skunks, most of them flattened and smeared over
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Sure,
I'd seen raccoons and skunks every other place I'd lived. Like the
raccoon who knocked over the garbage cans at our apartment in the
hills outside San Francisco, then seemed to laugh at me as I wildly
hucked three perfectly good tennis balls over his head. Skunks and
raccoons also abounded in the suburbs outside St. Louis, MO, where
I spent much of my childhood.
But this was the great
American West. Raccoons and skunks had no business amid sagebrush,
cactus and juniper.
Of course, I was wrong. They do have
business here, as much as humans do. In fact, because humans do.
Skunks and raccoons are part of the semi-wild menagerie that
thrives in humanity's backyard. They are small opportunistic weeds
following the giant path blazed by the mega-weed.
scientist once told me that humans try to recreate a tropical
environment wherever they are. It's sure true for the American
West, where we have stored and diverted every drop of water to
bloom the desert and line town streets with trees from the
woodlands of the East. Biologists speculate that human-planted
trees in towns across the Great Plains allowed many Eastern species
of birds and animals to cross what was once an impenetrable
grassland barrier. They jumped from one moist human island to the
Now, as the human islands in the West grow bigger
by the day, plants and animals that like human disturbance
dominate. Most animals I see are either exotic weeds --starlings,
house sparrows, cats, dogs, livestock -- or native weeds - robins,
magpies, raccoons, skunks. Only a few are the animals I associate
with the wild, untouched West: golden eagles, mule deer, coyotes.
Even with these, the lines have blurred. The eagles feast
on the bullet-shredded carcasses of prairie dogs left by ranchers.
The mule deer thrive in the patchwork of cultivated and
uncultivated land. And the coyote ... well, he makes a good living
despite our best efforts to eradicate him.
morning, I slept in longer than usual. It was Saturday. No
volleyball. As I walked into the kitchen, one of my 9-year-old
son's chickens strutted by the kitchen window. "Zach, the chickens
are out," I called.
As we stepped outside, my eyes caught
the shape of a dog loping easily across the hay pasture. No,not a
dog, a coyote. Damn. "Dad, two of the chickens are gone," Zach
We found feathers scattered in the dirt, but no
other signs of the missing chickens. I told Zach of the coyote.
Tears welled in his eyes.
"I'm gonna get that stupid
coyote," he said.
For a moment, I felt the same way: We
have to defend our animals from the wild ones out there. Yet I know
the line we draw between wild and domesticated is artificial. The
coyote is the perfect predator for the semi-wild West. It eats
domestic chickens, semi-wild raccoons and wild prairie dogs alike.
The coyote, and all of the other eclectic animals that fly, swim
and crawl through our world, are the kin we have unwittingly