My coyote education

  • Colorado boy with butterfly net

    David Carey
  • C.L. Rawlins, camped out

    HCN file photo

More than being in church, I loved the junipers. There, I learned how ants move cookie crumbs and how the first drops of rain sound. I also learned to lie about the dirt on the knees of my pants.

In fourth grade we had an ant farm, one of those glass-paned horrors. Science class was rockets and beating the Russians. So I haunted the desert fringes after school and fled church picnics for the brush. I felt guilty as I slipped off, intent on my coyote education, but I didn't stop.

Cottonwood leaves sprouted, grew teeth, and rattled in the breeze. There were tadpoles in the seep, and then tiny frogs. When the leaves turned gold, the frogs went away. You could smell the rain before it fell, and the odors of juniper, piûon and sage were skeins of color, braided in the air.

My teachers stayed inside. My scout leaders lacked the names of plants. Instead, they gave orders: Chop wood, build a fire, string a monkey bridge. We'd find a spot and colonize it.

My forebears were farmers and ranchers, so being outdoors meant work. I bucked bales and herded sheep, and then joined the Forest Service. With Ed Abbey as my model, I scrubbed toilets, wrote tickets, and fought fires. It was good to sleep under canvas and spend whole days under the changing sky. A season of work paid for a quarter or two of school - shoved into hot rooms and stuffed with laws, axioms, chronologies, and procedures. It was a relief to take off for the next dead-end job. Education was the opposite of Outdoors.

But it shouldn't be. First, we need to roam, and learn from nature itself. To dabble, wade, dip, wallow, and splash. Toss pebbles, or pick them up. Sleep by the water until it sounds in our dreams. See our faces in a pool, and look beyond. Then, study hydrology.

The human learning curve, traced over a million years, is not easily redrawn. But every year there are fewer coverts to explore and fewer streams from which to drink. So, in perverse proportion, we require more nature seminars, field institutes, and adventure schools.

I teach them, sometimes. I don't promise wisdom or oneness. Those are profound aims, and private ones. Instead, we'll map a stream. You'll discover slippery rocks, bottomless silt, and mosquitoes. You might fall in, whoops, and then get chafed, hiking in wet shorts.

Or you might have an awakening. Paul Shepard calls this sudden, luminous connection to our surroundings "a biological heritage of the deep past." Most of all, it takes time. If you're ripe, it may not matter whether you do field science, go on a Crystal Vision Quest, or herd sheep. If you can stay close to the scene, you're lucky. But if it happens under Delicate Arch or on Knifepoint Glacier, where you're a visitor and cannot remain, what then?

You try. As a Wyoming coyote, I used to snarl at the town pups who went through National Outdoor Leadership School or Outward Bound, and stayed. Couldn't they go home?

But I saw that they didn't work for big timber, or lobby for strip mines, or hustle real estate. They surveyed wildlife, labored for conservation groups, and wrote for High Country News. So now, in forgiveness, I'll say that we all felt the same thing: the land's deep imprint. Where it takes place, so do you.

What's the lesson? Visitor, take care, or you'll end up yearning for some desolate rock.

Maybe. I'd take the chance. Not long before his death, Wallace Stegner wrote me a letter about my having left California to come back to Wyoming.

As for your decision, don't regret it. Never regret returning to your native country, but never be content with what you find there. It's a little bit like working on your own character - painful but useful.

Some outdoor schools incline to myth, some to science, and others to suffering. Wilderness boot-camps dish out pain. Upscale quests avoid it. Most, like NOLS, fall somewhere between (though it's odd to send students out with pressurized gas stoves, synthetic fleece, and no toilet paper. Sandstone. Ouch.)

Why suffer at all? Because it's an immunization. Not for pain itself, but against fear. Because at some point you reach the dark country, where land and soul touch. Even with modern equipment and a good guide it's perilous, and some schools, like holy orders, reserve teaching to the ordained. Others are less strict, but to teach, a person should know the hazards, and have found their own way through.

With a leadership-school friend, on a night drive through a Wyoming blizzard, I asked about the instructors I met in the Wind Rivers who'd never been there before. They'd see me, edge away from their group, and ask for help. Shouldn't they know the place?

"That's not important," she said, imperiously. "The idea is, once you learn the system you can go anyplace." I thought of Scott at the South Pole, and the British Raj. Like empires, institutions have a way of claiming territory, and lives. Outdoor instructors used to be coyotes: long on experience and short on cash. Between paid trips, they camped where the climbing was good, or parked rusty vans at the houses of friends. Now, instructing's a career with degrees, promotions and retirement. Private wilderness schools charge Ivy-League rates, and most students are white and well-to-do.

Any system, no matter how well-intended, has a dark side, which René Magritte saw as the "urge to give meanings to things, so as to use or dominate them."

It's April. Environmental educators sit in airless rooms, droning about how to teach wildness. That scares me. What's wildness? Coyotes howling the moon up out of a ragged horizon? Drunken lovers waltzing the deck of a ship in a storm? What does nature teach? Is it balance? Or is balance a point to be noted in passing, as we dance, or hang on?

Nature taught me what every good coyote learns: how the world works. Water's wet. Rocks fall. Rain turns to snow. But nature can never teach us how to behave as human beings. We're not bees in a hive, nor wolves in a pack. We can't strive together without conflict, nor can we kill without regret.

C. L. Rawlins, HCN editor-at-large, lives in Pinedale, Wyoming.

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