I was raised by a nanny for most of my life. She was an illegal immigrant from Guatemala that made it to Los Angeles, and then into my family home. She was kind and loving, and knew how to get me to be quiet when it was time for me to sleep. She would say to me: “If you don’t be good and get to bed, the coyotes will come down from the mountain and eat you.”
It’s worth mentioning now that ‘coyote’ is the term used to describe those who bring immigrants north of the US border from Central and South America. It is commonplace in Hispanic communities around Los Angeles (especially those which include recent immigrants) to have had direct or indirect contact with coyotes of this kind. Embodied in the nature of these smugglers we see traces of the ancient magic of Coyote, the mythological character who serves as both guard and upsetter of the threshold. Coyote here is a portal by which ancestral trauma passed to me from my nanny, and I still don’t know whether she was attempting to pacify me through fear of man or animal.
My best guess is that she was conjuring the beast, as there were nights when the hills surrounding my childhood home would echo with the high-pitched cackling of coyotes. Packs of them run wild all across the Santa Monica mountains, which peak on Mulholland Drive, and descend to Sunset Boulevard in the south, and The Valley in the north. My house was in a valley surrounded by hills, and their voices would reverberate in surround-sound, masking the cries of whatever animal they had had found to kill.
They hid well, and it was some years before I saw one in the wild. My small person brain imagined them as great lumbering beasts – more wolf than house pet, black and gnarly like Gmork. One of the first memories I have from my childhood is seeing coyotes jumping through windows. Falling asleep, they would crash through the second-floor window, over and over again, shards of glass flying everywhere. And me, paralysed, wishing for sleep to stop the beasts.
As I grew older, the sound of the coyotes’ cries would freeze me in place even into my early teens. I would curl up and cry when they echoed down the mountain. The coyote-as-barrier-crasher had inflicted herself upon me like a curse, fissuring the fragile glass wall of my young psyche, and playing the role of antagonistic dream-keeper. I understand this as my first glimpse of Coyote’s dual-nature magic: out of fear of his barking I longed for sleep, but only in sleep could I get to dream. In respect of him as prod and guide, so began my relationship with the shapeshifting animal.
Much later in life Coyote returned to me, to help and disturb, lead and trick. I had just finished my Master’s, having moved to London in my mid-20s to study, and now adrift without a job and barely affording studio rent in East London. I was lost in every way, and desperate for guidance, or at least some help understanding how to progress on my journey.
Lewis Hyde’s The Trickster Makes This World seems now to have arrived out of nowhere like a brick from the heavens. The heavy thud of new ideas and a magical framework for understanding the world changed my path irrevocably. Through the history of Coyote told by Hyde, I came to understand the nature of the beast, as well as my own role as artist, and the possibilities poured out. I thought to myself: “Yes, I am Coyote, I will play tricks, I will upset, and I will commit to the path of in-between, as artists always have.” Despite warnings against such flagrant commitments to a spirit whose home is in the idea of disturbance itself, I carried on. First, I made some of the worst artwork of my life and then I committed to a tech start-up that a friend asked me to found with him.
I’d sold my soul to commerce, and completely bought into the tech start-up zeitgeist that hit London like a tsunami in the early 2010s. It was a beautiful lie that I couldn’t quite get ahead of, the way that small companies could call themselves “creative, free-spirited, young, lean, quick, anarchistic, democratic” blah blah blah. By the end of my stint in tech, it was obvious that capitalism had just found a way to co-opt and remint the coined phrases of a previous generation’s sincere disenfranchisement. A cunning trick (it outwitted me), but sick to its core. It took me those two years to understand that the strength I had absorbed from Coyote’s spirit – curiosity, playfulness, setting traps, increasing wit and following instinctual desire, the great creativity of living in two minds at once – had completely fucked me over and sent me careening down a path completely at odds with my dreams.
As an engineer of flux, change and inversion, Coyote curtails clarity and resolution. The tales of Coyote’s exploits in Native American myths, whilst marginally moralistic, are most often used to explain how certain knowledge (fishing, trapping, hunting) came to humans. In the simplest tales, we understand hunger, desire and many of our strongest urges through Coyote’s own successes and failures. In the more complex tales, the foundation the world itself shifts because he has majorly screwed some balance that was carefully put in place by ancient powers. Only in the margins of the aftermath do we start to see any direct sense of “good” manifest. In other words, Coyote is not intended as a model for one’s own actions, but rather as a reflection of forces that are unavoidable, inherent and at times admirable in our basic inner animal.
Back in my studio, lost again, I poured the fury and desperation in my heart into the beast itself, manifesting Coyote’s will as my own more directly than I had managed previously. My misunderstanding of how to relate to Coyote caused serious problems which needed addressing. Maybe I’d learned that attempts to pull out sage knowledge without the trappings of experience were pointless, or maybe I couldn’t avoid taking the animal head-on any longer and we just needed to fight it out. For whatever reason I interlinked our fates, and now we were dancing together, eating at the same time, throwing up in unison, using and being used by one another. Painting and drawing these first images of Coyote, I couldn’t tell whether she was trying to devour me, or me her. They were portraits, perhaps, but also dreamscapes and imagined solitary worlds where a more private, intimate and immediate relationship could take place between us.
Today, Coyote once more takes on wider significance. Borders the world over are being contested through political policy, civil activism and those who are desperate to find a safe home. As party leaders attempt to impose rules over the real and imagined thresholds between nations, trepidation over the ‘unknown other’ shows precisely why we need the unruly and unpredictable Coyote magic. Coyote would warn that a closed or static culture is a dead culture. Culture manifests as a function of the unexpected and upside down: historical reversal rituals like Carnival and Saturnalia enabled society to change roles and invert customs. Now as the west seeks to limit and control the power of boundary crossings, coyotes are no more than smugglers to be maligned.
Whilst I wouldn’t imagine I could active Coyote’s energy on a global scale, I’ve been busy bridging the metaphysical space that kept me separate from Coyote. Perhaps by shifting the perceived barriers all around me, bigger boundaries may become more porous. And yet, despite this effort to move and be moved, final destinations are wholly unknown. Physical and drawn portals are appearing but I can’t tell if they picture an urge to be ‘elsewhere’ or an attempt to usher in spirits from another world, or both. Are we coming or going? What defines “our world” and the “drawn world”? Is Coyote a vessel, some kind of astronaut tossed out to test the unknown? Or is he just showing off and clarifying the extent of his powers? Is he submerging or emerging?
This intangible, in-between space feels appropriate for her in many ways, and also may be ‘the point’ to this story. As artists, we find ourselves as masters of change because it is the only term from which new experiences can manifest. The pleasing irony is that mastery in this case just means complicity and willingness, as the principles of change are indirect, mysterious, and definitively uncontrollable. The properties of time, in fact, are often largely irrelevant, as visions don’t come with instructions or endings.
The most recent lesson she’s taught me is not to look for resolution in ending points, or revelation or epiphany. An end can be a simple statement or commitment, a sigil or an invocation. In this spirit, I have quieted Coyote through the writing of this journal, and formed a passage for you, myself and him to wander together for a while.
I’d like to imagine Coyote now inside me but not flowing through my veins as before. She is asleep in my shoulder or curled up under a kidney. For now, Coyote is resting as if under a watchful eye and cosy in a tent.
Image credits (from top):
1. Mike Salter, Goodnight Pup
2. Mike Salter, Sniff It Out
3. Mike Salter, Ceremonial Yurt
4. Mike Salter, Adrift
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.