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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

The Deal Is Off (p. 80)

From chapter "Claims to Virtue"

The deal is off with the coyotes. They’re back, they’re eating chickens, and they’d better watch out. If it’s war they want, well, it’s war they’ll get.

It lasted two years, and they kept their end of the bargain far better than I kept mine. I probably only killed six or seven birds the whole time. But I don’t care, damn it. They’re my birds, to kill or not, and the coyotes are eating them. I talked to a friend, the guy who used to kill bears in Alaska.

“New coyotes, new deal.”

The next day I awoke early from a dream, walked to the window to look out on a cold February dawn. I saw a coyote trotting away, empty handed, as it were, and I opened the window. I shouted, as I had two years before, “Please don’t eat the chickens, and I’ll give you the head, feet, and guts when I kill them.”

It didn’t work. The coyotes came back with a vengeance week after week. A chicken, a duck. I’d dream of chickens, and another bird would be gone.

I pictured this new batch of coyotes, tough young dogs wrecking the neighborhood. If these were people, they’d lean against buildings, smoke cigarettes, and make rude comments to passersby. Or maybe these were the pups of the ones I’d made the deal with, ungrateful wretches no longer satisfied with crumbs from my table but determined—damn them—to take everything I owned. Worse yet, these might be the original coyotes, sick of my promises— Next weekend. I’ll kill one and give you the guts. I swear. I mean it.Maybe they just came to take what they thought was their due.

Sometimes I’d see them, and wish I was holding a gun. I would’ve shot them where they stood. Or at least that’s what I told myself; had the gun been in my hand instead of safely stowed in the closet, I don’t know if I would have followed through.

Over the years I’ve known many people with no such hesitation about coyotes; ranchers, for example—those who shoot first, and rarely ask questions later. I didn’t want that; I just wanted them to stop taking chickens.

Finally I called a friend and asked her to help me put up a fence. It took us the better part of two weeks to get around to it, in which time the coyotes took a couple more chickens. Because I didn’t want to confine the birds, the completed fence ran around only half my property cutting off easy access from the woods to the east and forcing the coyotes to cover a long stretch of open ground if they wanted a clean shot at a meal. I figured, rightly enough, that the dogs could (and would be happy to) patrol the open area. The only birds who got it after that were the ones who squeezed through the fence to forage in the woods. I figured they were asking for it.

The return of the coyotes caused me to reevaluate all I had experienced. I wondered again if I had been projecting, if other interpretations better described the two-year respite from their raids. That didn’t seem likely. It seemed more to the point to reevaluate what defines a conversation. I’m aware that at least some of the conversations so far—the original one with the coyotes, many of the conversations with the dogs, and the conversations of death with birds—have been one-sided, by which I mean I have simply made requests to which they have acceded: the coyotes quit eating chickens, the dogs quit eating eggs, and the birds gave me their lives and flesh. What have I given in return? Knowing the one-sidedness of these earlier interactions, can I even say that the ending of the “deal” with the coyotes was the end of the conversation? That would certainly imply a perverse definition of conversation, the word being reduced to do as I say.Where does mutuality fit in, the simple pleasures of neighborliness?

I remembered a brief conversation I’d had with Jeannette after the coyotes came for the rooster Amaru had singled out the day before. I asked her if Amaru was trying to tell me which animal to kill. She was silent for a long while, and finally she said, “I think there might be other lessons to learn.”


We’ve all read about the agricultural revolution about ten thousand years ago—when large groups of people in the Near and Middle East shifted permanently from hunter-gatherers to husbandry. Many anthropologists and historians, as well as religious scholars, suggest that this transition was the felix culpa, or fall from grace, which led to the life of toil described in Genesis. Everything I’ve read suggests that members of hunter-gatherer cultures—even those alive today, who’ve been driven to the least hospitable regions of the planet such as deserts and dense jungles—work far less to support themselves than people living any other lifestyle. They work three to five hours a day. I’ve also read they feel closer to the rest of the world than we do, that they usually don’t see the world as a dangerous place of eternally warring opposites: me against you, man against woman, man against nature, God against all.

Instead hunter-gatherers see the world, and I realize I’m grossly generalizing, as a ribbon of cooperation: you and I cooperate, and that process of cooperation helps define our community; men and women cooperate; humans and nonhumans cooperate to allow the world to continue; the gods cooperate with all.

I used to understand all that in my head. Now I understand it in my body; I’ve gained a visceral understanding of how this transition caused us to view the world as a competitive place.

Take a quail. I see coveys of them nearly every day. If I were a hunter-gatherer, or merely hungry, I would probably eat some. But I do not own them, and even if I killed one to eat, it would not be mine. The thought of ownership does not occur to me. The quail are simply my neighbors, and I say hello to them just as I do to the deer I see occasionally, or the hawk that often floats above the house, the trees outside the windows, and the magpies that have for years made great mounding nests in the trees’ lower branches. In each of these cases, after we say our brief hellos, we continue with our days, just as happens when I nod and smile to the retired doctor (not the neighbor who drew the cartoon of genocidal Colonel Wright, but another one) who lives across the way. If a coyote eats a quail, as I suspect happens often, or one of the marmots who live among the rocks, I am simultaneously sorry for the end of a life and glad for the coyote. It’s not personal. In fact it can and will be me some day. That’s life.

The chickens are different. They’re mine. I raise them from eggs I collect and put into an incubator, or I buy them at Aslin Finch Feed Store for ninety-seven cents each. I rear them in my bathtub until the weather turns warm enough to let them outside. I dig through dumpsters to find food for them. I sell the eggs. I eat the meat. These chickens belong to me—they do not belong either to the coyotes or to themselves. A coyote who kills a hen is costing me six eggs a week at a dollar fifty a dozen, and when she kills a rooster she’s taking meat I could have put into a stew.

If I perceive chickens as my private property, it makes sense that I would build a fence around them to prevent coyotes from stealing them. I see now the line of thought and experience that leads ineluctably from this perception of private ownership—the word privatecoming from the Latin privare, to deprive, because wealthy Romans fenced off gardens to deprive others of their use—to the protection of this perceived ownership at first through fences, then through the creation of a theology and politics to justify my perceptions, and finally through a whole system of police, prisons, and the military to enforce my rights when others are so stupid or blind as to not acknowledge my ownership.

I see also a parallel and complementary line of thought that doesn’t merely protect my belongings, but proactively and permanently prevents others from stealing them. Instead of building a fence, why don’t I, as I mentioned before, just kill the coyotes? It would be easier, and would eliminate the worry. I’d be in chicken heaven, or at least chicken-owner heaven. Of course coyotes are sneaky, so unless I kill them all I’ll eventually be forced to invent better ways to kill them. Others, too, may steal the birds. There are hawks, snakes, skunks, raccoons, and rumor has it, a mother bear and cubs can be found. Now that I think about it, even though my retired-doctor neighbor and his family seem very nice, they do sometimes look enviously at the big black hen. I’ve got to stop them all. Today I own chickens, tomorrow I eradicate coyotes, and the day after I knock off the retired doctor and his family. And it’s not only the chickens. I need gasoline to run my truck—I can’t dumpster dig without a truck—and gas has to come from somewhere. I heard that Saddam Hussein wanted to cut off access to United States’ oil in the Persian Gulf. The dirty bastard. We’ve got to stop him, too.

Shit. I don’t have money to build a nuclear bomb, and there’s no room in my refrigerator for that economy-size canister of anthrax. As for the latter, I’ll have to get a bigger refrigerator. I’ll have to start saving for the warhead. The tree outside my window is awfully big, and I just realized I own it, too. I wonder how much I could get for it.