• ilana

The Gift of the Dead Coyote

Updated: Sep 21, 2021


Trigger Warning: death ~~image of dead coyote~~

Pierrot meeting death. The Pantomime by Thomas Rowlandson

I live on a property that is butted up against the Angeles National Forest. Lots of creatures regularly roam past my door, so to speak. Black bear, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, fox, mule deer, great-horned and barn owl, red-tailed hawk, raven, turkey vulture, to name a few of the neighbors I have met.


By met I mean I’ve either seen them face to face, heard them, or caught footage of them on my trail camera. (This is a motion-sensor, weather-proof camera that is positioned along an animal pathway on the property.) Just the other day a very itchy bear appeared on camera! Scratching their side for a couple minutes right in front of the camera.



As I was walking down the driveway earlier this week, something caught my eye on the hillside. How I saw it, I’m not sure because it was a very well camouflaged coyote that was napping under a tree. I cautiously moved closer to it until I realized it was in an eternal nap. By the state of decomposition it looked as though it had begun this endless slumber several days ago.


The "slumbering" coyote

greeting the discomfort

I immediately thought, “I should have it removed.” (Perhaps you thought the same of the image of the coyote above?) That’s what we do with dead things. We have them taken quickly out of sight. In many instances this is because the dead thing can be a health hazard. And can get quite stinky. But I think perhaps it has more to do with our discomfort with mortality. In this instance I am looking at a dead coyote on a hill in the forest, where coyotes have lived and died for thousands of years. How strange to have the instinct to remove it. For billions of years this planet’s ability to thrive and evolve has depended on dead things giving back to the cycle of life.


I paused to investigate this impulse. First of all, where would the coyote’s body be taken? To a facility where they would incinerate it? To a dumpster? What was my discomfort with the coyote? Do I think that death is ugly and unsightly? Where did that perception begin? From where was it learned? I thought I had a more sophisticated relationship to death. I have memento mori throughout my apartment, after all! I’ve done death meditations. I recite the Five Remembrances which are basically Buddhism’s reminder that you’re in a mortal body. I am totally cool with the reality of death. So I thought.


A momento mori. Philippe de Champaigne's Vanitas.

I sat and looked at the coyote. What life did you lead, little friend? Is there a coyote family that misses you? What caused your life to end? It appears that whatever killed you didn’t eat you. Why? Did you die from old age? Or sickness? Or both? In my questions and pause I was able to view the coyote beyond the dead thing that needed to be gone from sight.




talkin' bout regeneration

The coyote is not only meaningful in the life it lived, but also what its body has to offer the earth in its death. There are numerous other smaller wildlife that had already begun to reap the treasures of this relatively large dead mammal. Beetles and flies were happily making a temporary home in the carcass buffet. The ecosystem's process of regeneration, recycling in beautiful action. What other scavenger animals might have the fortune of sniffing it out? So I let it be. Hoping that none of my neighbors would notice it - for fear they’d have the same initial instinct as me, but follow through with it.


The next day I passed by it to see if it was still there. As I walked up, I saw two dark figures near the location where I’d seen the coyote. Turkey vultures! And up in the tree were a couple of ravens. They were having a big scuttle over who has the rights to the treasure of the decaying coyote. Making some really interesting sounds in the process. (Did you know turkey vultures hiss? I didn’t!) The ravens live nearby and have a nest every year in the tree just above where the coyote lay. So I imagine that they had the first sighting on the carcass. I’m guessing the turkey vultures were then alerted to the dead coyote because of the ravens. And now they were in competition over a major life prize - sustenance.

Two well-nourished turkey vultures.

So now the coyote has become a sort of meditation practice. A true momento mori. I check on it regularly, for one, out of curiosity for the process of decomposition so often out of view. But also as a striking reminder of the fact of my own fragility. My death is imminent. (How superficial so many of my worries appear when faced with this fact!) As I watch the hissing vultures, excitedly receiving the the gift of the dead coyote, I sit with the many facets of my own relationship to mortality.


 


Journaling Prompt: What can death and mortality show you about living?

Journaling tips can be found here.


Leave a comment below or email. I'd love to hear your reflections.




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