It was early spring. In the last light of evening, as the quacking calls of wood frogs were giving way to spring peepers, a coyote ghosted down off the ridge and followed the small creek that ran for a little way along the edge of the woods before disappearing into a sinkhole.
Something was different. He stopped and sniffed, trying to puzzle it out. He smelled fresh sawdust and gasoline, yes, but also the moist earthy spoor of rotten tree — a lot of that. As if some enormous coyote, its gut full of fur and seeds and scales and all manner of indigestible things, had stopped to leave a massive calling card.
The truth was almost as massive and hard to digest: the great white oak had toppled, splitting open near the ground. Many of its limbs were as big around as regular trees, and at its base it was half again as wide as a coyote is long. A small limb next to the humans’ trail had been cut — that’s where the sawdust smell had come from — but otherwise, for once, they seemed to be leaving it alone. One massive limb had jabbed into the earth at an angle and broken off, and now it made a very convenient — in fact, an irresistible — ramp up onto the fallen trunk.
Quick as thought, Coyote was on top of the toppled giant. The smooth plates of its bark felt very agreeable, and as he nosed about, he saw and smelled not a tree but a maze of paths, all of them leading back to him. Mice, squirrels, weasels, chipmunks, fishers — nothing can resist the open highway of a log. If he waited here long enough, they would come to him.
But that’s cat thinking; Coyote doesn’t hunt like that. Any path that is too obvious can make him vulnerable to his ancient enemies the wolves, whose own lack of imagination had doomed them here in the East, and most other places besides. Coyote didn’t take over by being predictable. No, an obvious walkway like this is good for one thing and one thing only: saying hello to other coyotes. And so he did, and hopped down, trotting off without a backward glance.
A few weeks later, he happened by again, and remembered his missive. He climbed up onto the tree to take a look, and sure enough, there was a reply — a long one! He read it carefully. It said, I’m a nursing mother, I’m eating well, and I can kick your ass. He thought about it for half a minute, then left a short, neutral response — I’m still here — scurried down off the tree, and trotted rapidly back the way he came.
It was late autumn before he returned to that end of the valley again. The tree was still there, and though it had human odor all over it, at least three more coyotes had been there, too — the half-grown offspring of the mother who had left a message earlier, perhaps. There was a sort of uniform character to their odor, as if they’d all been dripped on by the same tree — which a family would be, of course. The oak itself had lost a great deal of its pungency, and his paws detected a bit more give in the bark. He squatted once again. Though in life this tree was what foresters call a wolf tree, with its huge spreading crown of crooked limbs keeping sun from getting to other, straighter, more marketable trees, in death it was definitely going to the coyotes.