The Ancient Modern
The Coyote Creation Myth / Joshua Alan Sturgill
We weren’t close, but we had the kind of neighborly relationship I always associate with rural America: the good neighbors are the ones you trust completely, but mostly leave you alone. So I was always glad for her to be around if I was leaving town, because I knew she’d keep an eye on my house. And I’d nod and wave if we passed on the road. Or more accurately, as she passed by my house on her evening errands. I would often see her near dusk, and occasionally she’d be with one or two of her children, going out to hunt for dinner.
She lived in the arroyo just over the next rise, where there was a wooded space in a group of houses bordering the national forest. I never saw her den, but knew where to look for it if I ever had reason to find it.
The story I learned and am going to pass along doesn’t directly concern my neighbor, but I mention her, because I always think of her in connection with it. Something of her eyes and the impression she made on me—of both absolute relaxation and absolute vigilance. It was almost as if she trusted her senses so much that she could leave them to do the unrelenting work of keeping guard, while the rest of her mind was free to enjoy her very detached and simple manner of life.
This story was told to me by a man I am proud to call a friend. He had deep connections with nature since childhood. He gained much knowledge and experience through travels and hiking in areas of New Mexico that are now crisscrossed with road. But, in his youth, these were still wild places.
Perhaps it was a story told to him by other people, but I would not be surprised if he heard it directly from the coyotes themselves: what I call their Creation Myth. I think my friend could speak to the coyotes. Or, could understand them when they spoke. There are still people here who can do this, which is one of the reasons I came, and why I have stayed for such a long time.
This is story—
Once—they say—the Gardener had no land to grow all the things he could imagine growing, so He created a lump of clay. He took the clay and pressed His Face against it. The impression left by the bridge of his nose became a great valley. The impression of His Eyes became the Sun and Moon. His Breath became the wind. In the valley, he made all the plants that grow, and they spread out everywhere.
But the Gardener wanted someone to share a feast with, to eat all the vegetables and enjoy all the flowers. He made the birds to be His messengers. He made the animals to each enjoy a different kind of plant. He made the humans to help tend the garden.
When He made everything, the Gardener looked into the future lives of all the animals and saw all the joy and all the pain they would suffer, and He began to cry. He cried so much from joy and grief that half the Earth was flooded. The flooded part was the ocean, the rivers and the rain. And the plants began to spread along the rivers to the ocean, and the rain made plants able to grow on the mountains.
The humans were different from the other animals. All animals could talk, but humans made many different languages for different kinds of things. They made gardens for all the animals to live in, and houses for themselves.
Once there was a human who wanted to have his own garden. He did not want to share it. He even wanted to keep it secret from the Gardener. But the Gardener’s tears were in everything. So this human took a piece of clay into his house out of the rain. And he thought he would make the clay very hot to dry it completely. Then he would use it to have his own garden.
But when the clay dried, it cracked. And the crack which began in the small bit of clay spread everywhere. It became as big as a canyon. It separated the animals from each other, and it broke the valley into pieces which became the mesas. It broke the languages the humans had invented, so that they could no longer understand each other anymore.
This much of the story is common with the different versions my friend told me. Some versions add that the animals all used to speak with each other, but now, they can’t. Some versions go on to mention that the drying of the earth affected some places, but not others, and in the driest places, the animals began to eat each other. One version ends with the crack in the earth spreading into the souls of the humans and dividing each one’s heart into two pieces.
When I heard this story for the first time, I had just climbed to the top of a mesa with my friend who, as I said, had lived in New Mexico all his life, and had traveled deeply into many of these wild places. He began the story as we were hiking, and it took a long time to tell, because he would stop to talk about trees or herbs, or he would point out things we could see in the distance and name them—hills and mesas and the peaks in the Sangre de Cristos, which are called different names by different people.
I didn’t ask questions about the story. I have written it down here as I remember it. My neighbor, who comes past my house in the evenings with her children, and stops to look at me and seems to nod and smile—I wonder if she has this story in mind when she sees me. There is no redemption or solution in the story. Things are “just so” and the story explains why. But if I could talk to her, I think I would tell her I know this story, and that in some sense, I believe it is true. And then I would invite her into my garden. My Maximillian sunflowers are huge this year. And I have squash and tomatoes, though my beans are a little late coming along. I would tell her she is welcome any time.