The Twentieth Century was not a great time for territorial conquest and overt annexation. The most successful nation of that century engaged in a far more sly method of co-opting its targets, while the next most successful power of the epoch, the Soviet Union, largely inherited its extra territories from its predecessor. The old colonial empires crumbled from their height to nothing in that time. The vast majority of new overt conquests were undone in the course of a single decade. A few outlasted this. Only things like Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara and Israel’s rule over the Palestinian territories, where the power imbalance was geographically immediate and overwhelming, seems to have truly lasting power. And those are still incomplete and contested takeovers. The Twenty-First Century seems even less promising, with few trying and those that do, such as Turkey in Northern Syria and the U.S. in Iraq, entering the most convoluted and embarrassing situations possible. The present disposition of forces has not been friendly to this type of direct takeover since the territorial swapping of League of Nations mandates showed clearly diminishing returns on the annexation project. The largest scale attempts to try to give it another go were touched off by Japan, Italy, and Germany and led to their total ruin.
This is, of course, only talking about the human world. Sure, we all know diseases and bacteria are the same as they ever were with Spanish Flu, AIDS, and Covid continuing in the path of Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, and the like. That is normal and to be expected. But in the Anthropocene, the time of unquestioned human dominance, it is interesting to note the larger animals that are not just succeeding but rising to dominate in a way that they didn’t before. I am not just speaking about the obvious candidates like rats and feral descendants of domestic pets, i.e. animals you would expect to increase in numbers as the human-heavy ecological imbalance teeters from growing cities, suburbs, and more anthropogenic land use conversion. Humans, domesticated livestock, and agricultural crops have become a truly disturbing proportion of terrestrial biomass. And we know the effects of it are extreme losses in biodiversity with resulting negative impacts on environmental sustainability. The general view is that wild mammals in particular, and the larger variants especially, are all on the wane.
But there is a big exception to this. More than one, in fact, but right now I am going to concentrate, as per theme of this site, on the most obvious and most tricksteresque one. The true troll of North America in mythology and real life, Old Man Coyote himself. Since human conquest started slowing, coyote conquest increased. Not only that, but it also seems to be happening at a far greater rate than most human expansion in the prehistoric era was, at least as far as we can tell from archeology. A species that normally stuck to the Great Plains and the Southwest has exploded in every direction, moving to the north and east coast and then down in an inexorable southern march since about 1900.
What is even funnier is that humanity at least partially caused this current colonization. The migration of coyotes out from their traditional ranges was greatly accelerated by attempts from farmers and ranchers to kill them off in huge numbers with traps and hunting bounties. It caused the species to scatter far and wide and adapt to new environments with great vigor. The eastern branch of this migration seems to be diverging from the norm and growing in size, likely due to admixture from breeding with both wolves and domestic dogs. The path of this side of the family tree went up to Canada, where the wolf admixture was likely introduced, and then into Maine. Since then it has been coming southward steadily and now if firmly entrenched in the southeast.
Coyotes set up shop in forests, plains, deserts, suburbs, farmland, and cities. They can ride the metro. They can go from pack animal to solo to small family units and back again depending on circumstance. The eastern ones even provide a valuable service by introducing a large predator to our over-populated deer problem, giving us the first chance in generations to see a proper return to flowers and flora in our stripped-bare-by-the-hooved-menace forests. They can live anywhere, they can live in any kind of social group or none, and they can eat anything. Truly, in a time of accelerating environmental and demographic changes, a species to look up to. As Darwin said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one most responsive to change.’
I grew up with a large amount of Native American folktales in my childhood. The ubiquity of trickster figures in those cycles was postulated by Paul Radin to be a response from the first people to populate North America as they reacted to a land where the weather behaved erratically, earthquakes were frequent, thunderstorms and tornadoes massive, and the rapid growth and melting of ice age glaciers in that migratory period caused sudden flooding and bizarre microclimates. This implied that the gods were mercurial and fickle towards the fate of humanity. Coyote is by no means the only one of these figures, but he is the most common in tales translated into English. And it is the species that inspired him that is currently the most ubiquitous of these trickster totemic animals out in the real world.
Coyote tales are the true chaotic neutral worldview distilled. There are stories which can be within the same tribe’s cycle of Coyote creating fire, saving the world, dooming humanity with mortality, embarrassing himself or getting himself killed due to foolishness, and defeating monsters through trickery and guile. He might boon the human race either intentionally or unintentionally. He might trick a mother into believing he is a reliable babysitter so he can eat her children. He might even eat a talking plant that says ‘He who eats me will defecate!’ on a dare thinking, ‘well, I am too strong, I will not defecate,’ and then be launched into the sky on a rocketing tower of his own feces. This is why the animal that provided a model for the mythological figure succeeds. It rolls with the times but is never merely of the times. Rebellion and adaptability rolled into one. Failures and even death do not seem to weaken or stop it in the long term. In one century, a whole continent fell to this expansion after the U.S. government instituted its most brutal and sustained wildlife killing program in history. It most likely took the first Native Americans longer to traverse the continent. We know for a fact it took four hundred years for the Europeans to become truly endemic across the land. And that’s with steel, gunpowder, compasses, and maps. They were still beaten by The Tricky One.
Coyote is the chaos agent. He exists to remind us that all the planning in the world cannot adapt to random circumstance. Stories about him often begin with the phrase ‘Coyote was going along…’ and sometimes they end with, ‘and Coyote went back to going along.’ Motion is perpetual, but it is not headed to any particular place. The destination might be as random as the outcome of running into such a figure. Perhaps it works because the way to adapt to an uncaring world is to cultivate a sense of bemused aloofness in turn. As Dan Flores, the author of the book ‘Coyote America’ put it:
‘But what, no moral code in these stories? No promise of eternal life, no salvation from death? Coyote stories offer up none of these things…It ought to be said that Coyote stories are not really for visionary dreamers who expect to change the world. Coyotism is a philosophy for the realists among us, those who can do a Cormac McCarthy-like appraisal of human motives but find a kind of chagrined humor in the act, who think of the human story as cyclical…Coyotism tells us that while we may long have misunderstood the motives of our behavior, we’ve also known how human nature expresses itself. And who better to illustrate that than self-centered, gluttonous, carnal Coyote?’
It is theorized that this current expansion of the coyote might not be the first time this has happened. The Red Wolf of the southeast might be a remnant population of coyote-wolf hybrids from a pre-recorded time. If so, it means the east was theirs before. But even if not, it is theirs now.
The part of Pennsylvania which I am currently based has had coyotes for decades now, but you rarely see the signs. My knowledge of their presence until recently was merely word of mouth and indirect indications. But last week I took a walk outside around midnight in this tree-shrouded hill country far from the desert origins of the coyote. Echoing in the darkness from a patch of thick woods around a creek valley not more than a mile to the southeast came a chorus of yips and howls from a pack of coyotes. Their calls bathed the trees in an echo not heard in these parts for possibly thousands of years, if ever.
That particular pack stayed for only a few days as it turned out. But it was obvious that the land is now claimed. There will be more.