Three summers ago I was on my first solo backpacking trip in Vermont. It was my second night, the sun was setting and I walked down to the stream to filter water. I was tired, out of hiking shape, and feeling a little unsure about the whole trip.Towards the end of the hill, I froze at the sound of an explosive rustle nearby, a sound too big to be a squirrel. My eyes flew in the direction of the noise, and staring at me from across the stream was a coyote. He was young, white, and fluffy, watching me as I watched him. A moment passed and I decided to step back. The second I moved, another coyote jumped from a few feet away – where he stealthily hid – and ran across the stream to his friend. I watched the coyotes play on the other side of the stream, where a third coyote joined. My breath had grown shallow, and I squatted down to watch the three play, unfazed by my presence.
It was the closest, most wild and solitary moment I had ever had with an animal. Afterwards, coyotes made appearances more in my life. They showed up in my dreams. One time I went to a Pittsburgh park, laid down in the grass and looked up at the stars. The night was cloudy, and the cloud right above me looked like a coyote. So vivid and magical, I thought I was tripping. It took a while, though, before I believed coyotes were my spirit animal. And even longer before I said it out loud.
For the past, oh, I don’t know, years? I’ve been thinking about spirit animals. My own, others, the meanings and mythologies. Spirit animals aren’t discussed much in civilization. It’s a mythological topic that is irrelevant to most Americans today, but even
more so, humans are not very connected to the animal world anymore. Pets do not count. Neither do urban squirrels or pigeons. Nor African safaris or trips to the zoo or petting a dolphin at the aquarium. I’m talking about wild, solitary connections. To look an animal in the eye in unclaimed territory, nothing but trees and rocks, controlled by the almighty Circle of Life.
Humans are so disconnected with the animal world that nature is seen as an “other.” The “wild” is scary and unknown, existing only if we choose to enter it. But if we do and we do often, we’ll witness more of the magic that happens within. We’ll move through fear to curiosity, and comfort, and humility. Soon the wild space will be familiar, a natural home. We’d realize the animals are more afraid of us than we are them. They only want food and a safe place to sleep, don’t we? They have their habits and familiar space, their trails and curiosities. They aren’t the ‘other,’ we are. But maybe we don’t have to be.
A few years passed and I met Taylor. One night, in the Adirondacks, we were talking about spirit animals and I asked him what he thought mine was. “Coyote,” he said. I was stunned. It was so cool having someone I know and trust see the coyote in me. And I was surprised, because he didn’t know about my encounters with coyotes in real life, the clouds, or my dreams. His answer made it feel more real, more purposeful. I could say it firmly out loud. It could be more than my imagination.
In researching the coyote, I learned about the many characters they played in folklore and mythologies. The coyote was often given a trickster role due to the animals intelligence and adaptability. Always a companion to another character, coyotes teach humans how to live, revealing the truth behind illusion and chaos in the masses. In Aztec mythology, the “old coyote” was God of dance, music, and carnality. As a spirit animal, it can be paradoxical, for it carries both wisdom and play, greatness and folly. Coyotes have a sense of humor, appearing not to take things seriously, but inside are adaptable and resourceful. During my cross country trip, I encountered a handful of coyotes. The sight of them made me feel warm and reminded me to take a breath. If a coyote appears, it is there to remind you to let go of worries and laugh at yourself. It’s important to know that behind the joke of the coyote often lies a valuable life lesson.
People have different ways of finding their spirit animal. Some simply pick an animal they like. Some have an emotional connection to an animal; maybe it reminds them of childhood or home. Some, if they see a very rare animal more than once, start to believe it’s a spiritual happening. As John Muir said, “There is a love of wild nature in everybody.” Connection to the wild animal world is achievable. The key is spending more time in nature. Deep, far away from civilization as much as you can. That’s the only way to build a spiritual relationship. The more time you spend in the wild, the more you get to know the animals, the more you’ll get to know yourself, and the stronger your spiritual connection will be.