Running at twilight in the wintertime is a beautiful thing. Snowbanks slowly turn blue. The last burst of sunlight leaks out on the landscape before true dusk falls. In January, when the night is clear, a starlike planet or two appears in the sky.
Last night the world near us was wrapped in the last bit of haze from a daylong storm. That meant the moon had to push its light past a thin veil of clouds. A bright halo formed around the seemingly perfect circle in the sky. One can see how ancient people thought the moon a “lesser light” than the sun. The real mystery was why it chose to disappear as part of its cycle.
It took centuries to figure all that out, and quite a bit of social suffering on the part of men such as Copernicus and Galileo. The Catholic Church did not like being challenged about the theologically precious worldview that the earth sat at the center of all creation. Because without that belief, the idea that the human race was central to God’s plan for the universe started to fall apart.
Somehow Christianity survived that bit of anthropogenic angst. The religion had to adjust just as it did when the Jews were forced to adopt a more mobile form of religion after the temple was razed and the Jewish people were scattered like dogs into the desert.
Wild dogs with a plan
But even wild dogs have a plan, and a culture. And last night as I ran through a local forest preserve I was treated to a chorus of nearby howls and barks from a coyote pack that lives in the wilds. Their voices carried across the frozen lake and more coyote voices answered from a quarter mile away. They yipped and barked back and forth. I stood there in the fog of my own breath listening to the subtleties of their voices. It was beautiful.
Above me, the coyote moon appeared to coast across the sky. A mottled shelf of clouds was drifting along on the jetstream. I listened a bit more to the coyotes and started running again.
Once the coyotes heard my feet crunching past on the hard ground, their voices fell silent. For the most part, coyotes want nothing to do with us. Sure, they’ll take our small dogs or the occasional cat if they find occasion to do so. The neighbors who walk the path behind our house shared the fact that someone up the path lost their small dog to the coyotes in the past year. “So keep them inside if you’re not with them,” they warned.
Indeed, we have seen a tall, dark coyote trotting down that very path. Their scat is all over the trails through fields in our back yard. They generally make their living on small creatures such as rabbits if they can catch them, and voles, mice, and other natural nuggets.
Coyotes were rare in our part of Illinois just forty years ago. Today they are so common many people prefer that bounties be placed on their head.
In that regard, I feel an odd kinship with the coyote. Forty years ago runners and cyclists were also rare things to see in these parts. Now there are plenty of us, yet some people seem to wish they could run us down when we show up on the roads.
There’s a hierarchy among wild canids. Foxes have to fear coyotes. Coyotes have to fear wolves. Yet all wild dogs have learned to fear humans. For good reason. There is no more perpetual threat to wild things than the human race.
One of the reasons for this is the ancient human fear of bigger animals and predators. One such foe is supposedly the wolf, a terrifying creature of legend. Yet the list of actual wolf attacks on human beings in the wild is so rare it barely merits consideration. Still, this record from 1893 helps the image of vicious wolves persist: “Belliveau and a friend were hunting when a band of wolves surrounded and overcame them, despite the young men firing shots into the pack. The friend climbed a tree and watched as Belliveau was torn to pieces by the wolves at the foot of the same tree. The wolves kept Belliveau’s companion trapped in the tree for several more hours until Belliveau’s co-workers from a nearby railroad construction camp arrived and drove the wolves away.”
However, there are very recent records of coyotes attacking human beings. This video of a Colorado man that was attacked by three coyotes is a bit unnerving. Wildlife experts suggest that it is familiarity with humans that is emboldening coyote activity toward humans.
Which meant that while I ran the path leading out of that small section of woods, I kept a careful watch on the trail behind me. We’ve all seen the Jurassic Park movies in which those smartass velociraptors track and kill their prey. Any flash of movement to either side would have engendered a loud shout from me.
Wild dogs of another sort
This sensation was common back when I started running. Only it wasn’t coyotes, but farm dogs that came charging out of the weeds to attack. There were no leash laws back then. Dogs roamed at will, especially on the farm roads near Elburn where I lived. During college, I was training on a country road when a huge Doberman punched through the pushes and stopped me cold with a growl. It buried its huge snout in my crotch and stood there. It’s owner then appeared and called the dog off. But I know what it means to be hunted. Many times over in fact.
Last night, there was no denying the wildness in the voices of those coyotes. They are great communicators. But a part of me laughs to think how much they sound just like my former running teammates. Our voices would often raise in wild howls during a romp at dusk. Such wild laughter and terrifying jests. It’s a fact: Even humans like to run in a pack under the coyote moon.