In the Latino communities of the American southwest, there is a saying:
The only thing smarter than a coyote is God.
And while we car-driving, blog-writing humans may take issue with this claim, just ask yourself this question:
How many coyotes have you seen holding fidget spinners?
I sat rapt recently as I listened to the nature historian Dan Flores talk about his recent book: Coyote America.
It is essentially a biography of America’s most adaptive underdog.
And it is also a strange topic for a blog on faith and culture.
So we should probably address that weirdness.
A DEFICIT OF AWE
You may not know it, but coyotes are not exactly “click-generators” in the world of social media. They do not wear bikinis; they have no thoughts on Donald Trump; and (unlike cats) they do not appear on Youtube playing the piano. (I checked.)
So why write about them?
Two words: unexpected awe.
While there are many problems in the modern world, among the least acknowledged may be our loss of wonder. Despite all our technological marvels, most of us are far too rarely dazzled.
So while we are awash with entertainment, we have a deficit of awe.
And from this evil Amazon.com cannot deliver us.
This state of disenchantment presents a problem for the church, because a capacity for wonder may be a prerequisite for what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis—our sense of the divine.
INTO THE WILD
In the Bible, such awe comes often out-of-doors–though not exclusively.
It presents itself in burning bushes; in stars that mark descendants; and in a grappling angel by a brook.
In such wild places, our sense of wonder is refreshed.
And this brings us back to the coyote.
While Flores’ book starts in prehistoric times, its most interesting parts reveal how the coyote flourished while other species were decimated by the settling of the American West–a period that brought perhaps the swiftest destruction of wildlife in world history.
Yet despite an all-out war on coyotes starting around 1915, the only noticeable result has been that they continue to spread like wildfire.
While first inhabiting only a portion of North America, the animals now stretch from beyond the arctic circle down into South America. And what’s more, they now inhabit every major city in the United States.
The reason for their flourishing has something to do with what the apostle Paul identified as “power perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9).
Because coyotes adapted as the smaller, frailer cousin of the wolf, they could not rely on brute force to stay alive. Instead, they had to lean into their wits and learn to leverage weakness.
Case in point: their use of howls and hormones.
According to Flores, when the female coyote howls (or yips) each night, one purpose is to take the roll of the respective mates within her group.
If a male does not respond—say, because he was trapped or shot or mauled—it triggers a chemical reaction within the alpha female that does two things, both of which are awe-inducing:
First, it sends her prematurely into heat; and second, it causes the ensuing litter to be larger than normal.
You might want to read that again. The mere absence of an answering “yip” both triggers heat and makes the litter larger than they would be otherwise.
Most likely, this adaptation emerged from a history of weakness and inferiority in the face of larger predators. Yet somehow, this tendency to get killed-off by bigger animals coincided with a freakish adaptation that gave coyotes an advantage.
Example number two:
While wolves tend to stay almost perpetually in tight-knit groups, coyotes are what Flores calls a “fragile pack” animal. This means that when they face pressure from their enemies, they tend to splinter into smaller groups and then cast about in search of new territory.
Because grey wolves group more rigidly, the killing of a single wolf often leads to the killing of the entire pack—sometimes aided by the use of the original hide as a way to lure others to an ambush. For such reasons, wolves were almost eliminated from the American West, while coyotes spread rapidly in all directions.
“They tried to scatter us,” you can almost hear them howling, “They didn’t realize we were seeds” (cf. D. Christianopoulos).
Okay, okay… so coyotes have some crazy adaptations that have led to flourishing – but what do we do with this?
The tendency, for preachers like myself, would be a move to application: something like, The Coyote Principle (Now available for $12.99!).
After all, the book of Proverbs tells us to “Consider the ant” in order to be wise. And if Solomon were relocated to the Sierra Madres, perhaps the text would read “Consider the coyote.”
To be sure, there are lessons to be gained from such creaturely longevity.
- Weakness does not have to be a weakness. And:
- Scattering can be a form of conquest.
Yet the too-quick drive to application can be a fault of teachers like myself. And in some cases it borders on a sacrilege–what Kierkegaard called “pillaging the holy.”
Because while we may benefit from life-lessons, sometimes we have a deeper need to marvel merely at the wonders made by the Creator.
As Donald Miller writes in Through Painted Deserts:
I sometimes look into the endless heavens, the cosmos of which we can’t find the edge, and ask God what it means. Did You really do all this to dazzle us?
In sum: application is no substitute for awe.
THAT SUCH THINGS SHOULD BE
A related point is made beautifully in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
In one scene, two ragged “okie” boys slide into a roadside gas station as their family migrates west in search of food and better fortunes. In patched overalls and dirt-streaked faces, the children halt suddenly before the candy case. There they stared
not with craving or with hope or even with desire but just with a kind of wonder that such things should be.
Perhaps this tells us something of how Christians ought to look at nature, at coyotes, at oceans, at eclipses, and even at our fellow man—not with craving or with quests for application, but with naked wonder that such things should be.