[9 August 2011]
In Coyote at the Kitchen Door: Living with Wildlife in Suburbia, Stephen DeStefano blends personal stories, observations and recollections, research about numerous environmental issues, and an overarching story about a female coyote to create a thoughtful and sometimes sobering narrative.
When DeStefano is storytelling, Coyote at the Kitchen Door is hard to put down. And he tells some great stories—almost losing his life going over a waterfall, camping in Australia and falling asleep to the hooting of a barking owl, and getting close enough to a polar bear to see his “calm sense of curiosity”. My personal favorite, though, was the tale of a lonely moose that gets into a horse paddock. Everyone in town showed up to watch its rescue and release, and chocolate chip cookies were involved.
Connecting it all is the story of the coyote. This tale starts “in a grassy field in Massachusetts” where “a solitary coyote lies, head up, surveying the field in front of her… Forty yards away, cars whiz by at speeds twenty to thirty miles over the posted limit and houses dot the edge of the meadow…” Throughout the book, she finds food ( and we learn that coyotes “just like humans, will eat practically anything and everything”), makes “friends” and then finds a mate and has a family.
Naturally, the coyote is the final image of the book:
A coyote is moving across the field, angling away from me…I pull over and stop to get a better look…She seems to have a bit of a limp, and there is a fringe of gray around her muzzle. There is gray around my muzzle as well, and I squint, trying to see if she is the same old girl I have been seeing from time to time…I think she is. She pauses and looks back, as coyotes are wont to do…I’d like to believe that she recognizes me, but I doubt it. The important thing is that I recognize her…
Why the emphasis on coyotes? The coyote, DeStefano tells us, “is an American success story” and “is an American icon. It symbolizes freedom and independence and wildness. It reminds us of that renegade streak that we like to see in ourselves and in our national character.”
By the end of the book, it’s hard not to feel for the coyotes (and other animals), but then DeStefano notes, most people do care about animals—at least the cute ones—and believes “We like animals—after all, we feed birds and photograph animals and subscribe to dozens of wildlife magazines and watch Animal Planet”. But—there’s always a but—“when animals overstep…boundaries, we want swift action and an immediate response to our problems, whether they are real or perceived”.
If only all the book was just a story. DeStefano says that he didn’t want this to be scholarly scientific book and further contends “Part of my goal in writing was to try and bring some of the relevant scientific information, as seen through the lens of my own personal and professional experiences, to a wider audience. The scientific community does not really need my perspective on the topic.” For much of the book, DeStefano succeeds in reaching his audience, but every now and again, the academic voice creeps in.
Each chapter is divided into three sections: “a narrative introduction that focuses on some species of wildlife in a wild place; the central part of the chapter which addresses an issue related to the urban/suburban environment, and a concluding vignette that describes…the North American coyote”. It’s the middle section of each chapter that gets DeStefano into trouble every now and again; this is where the academic, scholarly tone sometimes weasels in: “Urbanization is the name given to the process whereby the landscape is developed through human settlement and occupation. Roads, water and sewer lines, and power grids are laid out. Factories, apartments, schools, and malls are erected. Parking lots appear.”
Nothing screams scholarly science writing like passive voice (unless it’s endnotes and the book has a few of those, as well). And, let’s be honest—parking lots don’t just “appear”—we build them.
And because parking lots, cars, lights, strip malls, and all other sorts of modern conveniences are often thought of as progress, DeStefano suggests changing how we define that term: “Progress used to be measured by the degree of development and economic growth we could show. That, and that alone, was our measure of the advancement of our society. We now need to define progress by the strides we have made toward living a more sustainable existence on earth, by consuming less and by adopting a land ethic.” Or as it’s put more simply in another section of the book: humans need to learn how to share.