My Friend, Huehuecóyotl


Music, Dance, Mischief & Rodent Control

“coyote_01”by Jethro Taylor is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Aztec called the divinity Huehuecóyotl (we we koj-tl), roughly “Very Old Coyote.”  “Very Old,” I understand to denote “to be respected,” like other divinities, and not specifically the character’s advanced age.  I like the way the Aztecs thought. I’ll resist “him” or “her” pronouns, also, as coyote in mythic form could often be gender changing. Just one from mythic coyote’s versatile arsenal of tricks, but perhaps one of the most amusing ones.  But the common thread that unifies all descriptions is that Huehuecóyotl liked to have fun.  Singer, dancer, musician, and often benign trickster, this coyote was a tonic for relief of boredom.

Aztec Huehuecóyotl
By Unknown – This image was created with Adobe Photoshop., Public Domain,

Should you encounter a less mythic coyote on your Wild, Abandoned route, you’ll experience said relief from boredom, albeit as a racing heartbeat and perhaps excessive perspiration.  That’s a fair response.  Generally not considered to be dangerous animals, you should still not approach a coyote.  But you also should not run away.  This makes you look too much like prey.  I mean, let’s face it, you ARE prey; but, why flaunt the fact?  Coyotes are now common to all urban regions across the lower forty-eight.  So, you should know the rules in addition to not making like Road Runner (you aren’t fast enough):

-Don’t approach or pick up pups. They are not abandoned, but on their way into the world. Also, they will bite you.
-If a coyote approaches you, yell loudly, look large, and stand your ground (make like Huehuecóyotl).  This works. I did it on a walk in my neighborhood when one came prancing (no other way to describe it) toward me.
-Keep those small pets (cats, dogs) indoors.  Really, all bets are off on keeping the larger one’s out all day, as well. Keep all dogs leashed when walking in coyote prone areas. By the way, are you actually leashing and walking a cat? The answer “yes” might indicate that we need another rule.
-Don’t leave food (dog chow, etc.) outside for any animals.

I’ve seen groups of three or four move like electricity arcing over a stream in Goldsmith Gulch, Hutchison Park, South Denver.  I know, I know:  such quaint Western names.  Another lone coyote sun-bathed dead center in the Highline Canal bike path, not moving for anyone or anything.  I braked some thirty feet away and coyote just scanned me as I re-routed like a human navigation application.  “Coyote ahead, thirty feet, would you like to use this alternative route, re-routing, re-routing, re-routing.” I’ve seen them alone with prey in their jaws, leaping above high grass, burrowing in snow, in a parking garage (always tip your attendant), and perched on my backyard fence at 5 a.m.  I’ve seen them “here,” I’ve seen them “there”; hell, Sam, I’ve seen them “everywhere,” even “in a box ” (no lie, it was trap).  But never, never have I seen one “with a fox.” 

On that subject, I can say with some confidence that the abundance of rabbits and mice in fields and in our front and backyards here in Colorado have reduced tensions between the fox and coyote. There is no fierce competition for a food supply. Science says fox and coyote are changing their behaviors in the urban regions in which they are also thriving.  Maybe not cooperating, specifically, but not engaging in Battles Royale. I can attest, that coyote is forever entertaining.  Unless, of course, you own a poodle.  Coyote attacks on un-leashed poodles seem to be a thing in these parts.

So, when a few years ago a local suburban village hired a marksman to shoot a group breeding nearby, I was briefly saddened. But more so, amused.  Because taking them out doesn’t work.  Coyote are conditioned to something called “responsive reproduction” following a sudden population loss.  That’s right:  they will make more, “Huehue” more.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist). Pack litters also decline when food is scarce. This attribute is one of the reasons coyote are adapting so well to life in urban areas. Another, sadly, is that they are moving into areas of the eastern US where the poplulations of their primary competitor, wolves, have radically declined.

For us, the observers of the mystery of the natural world to which we are conditionally attached, let’s observe carefully and respectfully. Coyote, this very old, uninhibited entertainer is in our midst and is not going anywhere anytime soon.

Image attribution for banner photograph with appreciation to Jethro Taylor:

Full. Hollow. Canyonesque Postscript (revised)

the heart of a cactus

Here’s where I break the rules again, as promised. If the terrain you travel and the landscapes you wander don’t make you think of music then you haven’t been listening to any good music. Now it’s a music blog. I’m not sorry.

When Roberta Joan Anderson arrived in America in 1965 from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I think it’s very unlikely she ever saw a cactus other than in a window box garden. When Joni Mitchell (as she was later known) entered Sunset Sound in Hollywood in 1967, it would be to record her debut album “Song to a Seagull”. By this time she likely saw a cactus or two in California. Of the acres of standout songs on this underappreciated classic is the melancholy “Cactus Tree,” written by the performer.

The five achingly beautiful stanzas in this song-poem are a story told of a woman who traded the certitude of a conventionally described life for an existence pursuing her soul’s work. I may have that nearly correct–this is only an interpretation. By the final stanza, she speaks of both the price and the profits of her self-determined independence. Only in the final stanza do we encounter the magical metaphor of the song’s title: “And her heart is full and hollow. Like a cactus tree.” I interpret this as nature providing a moment of clarity to the protaganist. Call it the voice of the cactus, were it to declare: “You see, nature provides a model for a state that is neither full of what you think you must have to be happy nor regret in not having it.” You already have ‘it.’ That’s the Lorax-ian metaphysics, now on to the botany.

Trufula Tree?

I don’t know if she was contemplating the “cactus trees” of Galapagos with their tree-like trunks and crowns of prickly pear at their crests, the zig-zag gait of the Joshua Trees of California’s Mojave desert, or the Tree Aloes you can see in the cultivated sections of Balboa Park. But, it turns out that aside from the poetic sensibility of the phrase, she was also botanically correct. Cacti are often hollow if not full of highly porous pulp. But they are also full of water. They collect and store water while their durable outer skin allows the water to enrich their extremeties before evaporating. There is something poetic about that as well. Like the “she” in Mitchell’s song, who “was busy being free,” the cactus tree independently establishes and is nourished by her own life energy.

By the way, I read in the Purdue Agricultural News (geek alert), something that supports the application of either pronoun to describing cacti. I had this same question when I sat down the write this post: can cacti be described in varieties of male and female? Responding to a reader’s question, the author B. Rosie Lerner offerd that the answer is “yes,” however she added:  “Lack of flowering is not a gender issue” with cacti. She goes on to say that all cacti may flower. Although a scientific response, this also contains a poetic confirmation that we live in what could be described as wholly rational and egalitarian natural world.

Photographs by Vincent Hostak. Joshua Tree from a visit in 2016; Tree Aloe, Balboa Park, 2019; Prickly Pear, Florida Canyon, CA, 2019

*B. Rosie Lerner, Purdue Extension-In the Grow, March 2012


Beaux-Arts & Deep Ravines

Up above the skyline of San Diego just 2.5 miles from the Embarcadero, wind the Cabrillo, Florida and Palm Canyons. In 1868 these rugged gorges sweeping down from the mesa were a barren and undeveloped 1400 acres then known as City Park. This is where the first of two innovative women enter the story. The first, Kate Sessions, was a botanist, horticulturalist, teacher and business person. Are you, like me, beginning to feel like an underacheiver? Just wait. Sessions inked a deal with the city leaders of the time to plant 100 trees a year with the caveat that they deed 30+ acres to her for a plant nursery to support her business. She has a litany of other acheivements across the San Diego region.

Kate and Alice Conquer the Canyons

While there are other figures in the development of the park, these two , in my opinion, are the lodestones of human energies which transformed the fallow mesa canyonlands into a gorgeous natural park with an arts complex. Here now, along with gardens and mostly undisturbed canyon trails, stand Spanish Colonial, Mission and Pueblo revival structures which nearly five million persons visit per year.

Meet our second innovator, Alice Klauber. Alice was born in San Diego in 1872. She was a painter who studied with Robert Henri, a major American “Ash-Can” Realist who exhibited at the groundbreaking Armory Show. Alice was also a poet, interior designer, arts administrator and cultural influencer.

Her influence on what would become Balboa Park, was to launch, as chairman of the art department, the first major contemporay art exhibition at the 1915 Panama California Exposition. The Exposition itself commemorated the opening of the Panama Canal. Henri, whom she convinced to move to San Diego, was also on the board and his work was featured. The exhibition would bring to the American West an event that, while not of the trend-changing magnitude of the Armory Show, would be the first of its kind west of the Continental Divide.

As regards the architecture for the Exposition: of the seven major structures, many are still standing as permanent museums. This includes the ornate baroque influenced buildings and the bridge spanning 1500 feet across Cabrillo Canyon. Other buildings have been added over the years as the plaza developed into the central arts district of San Diego.

There were many women innovators like Alice Hauber largely unaccounted for in the stories of the winning of the West. One transcribed the songs of first Americans. Others were principal in development of the art colonies we know as Sante Fe and Taos. If you’re interested, please check out Lesley Poling-Kempes’ eye-opening book: “Ladies of the Canyons.” Not demure by any stretch of the imagination, these “ladies” rode the range across extraordinary distance and encamped in the high desert when it was primitive, unthinkably dangerous and virtually roadless. Lesley can tell you the rest in her informative and entertaining book.

Up the Junctions

This blog is about natural areas, not cultural history, right? Truth. But, I will break the rules often.

There are trails, lots of them, many maintaining the features of the original terrain especially on the eastern section of the park. The Florida Canyon Trail can be difficult hiking in sections and virtually all of the paths are dirt and scrabble. Heat can be punishing there in the Summer. My two experiences have been in the mild but breezy first weeks of October when the Santa Ana winds roll in from the Great Basin. It is landscaped in portions, especially the cultivated cactus refuge at the edge of the canyon. Flowering cholla and prickly pear bring vibrant contrast to the frequently pale landscape, with their wine, ochres and yellow hued brilliance. There’s plentiful buckwheat also ranging across the dusty landscape. It blooms in pale red to maroon and ivory.

The other easily scalable hike is within the heart of the park in Palm Canyon. Commencing near the Japanese Friendship Garden, it contains 58 species of palm, is shaded, and teeming with pollinators: bees , monarch butterflies and western hummingbirds. Should you be overcome with a sudden onset of patience you’ll see them all. Like Central Park, all of this is in the center of a major city.

Wooden Water

One of the most stirring visions you’ll experience in a non-intoxicated state in the Palm Canyon is the sprawling rootwork of the Banyan-like Moreton Bay Figs. Imagine a mythic story where unseen powers transform a waterfall’s torrents into wood. (George R.R., are you listening?). Something like this happened in this canyon where roots cascade over a man-made stone and mortar wall. Others flow across rock and leaf-bedded slopes merging into the sunken ingress to the public trail.

Along the less traversed canyonlands of the park, like Florida Canyon, there are constant reminders of the Wild, Abandoned theme: as you develop near natural areas, constrain the urge to conquer and subdue the terrain too much. The terrain and its flora, native or otherwise, often win. The designers of Balboa Park seem to have agreed. Please stay on the trail.