That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Kathryn Wilder writes from a remote corner of southwest Colorado where her home abuts public land, including a wild horse management area. In her forthcoming book, Desert Chrome: Water, A Woman & Wild Horses, Wilder explores both the controversies of managing America’s wild horses and the struggles in her own life that have led her to this place of rich, wild beauty. In this stunning installment of That Thing With Feathers, Wilder faces a troubling conflict within herself as she watches nature’s drama unfold just outside her door.

Withdrawal

By Kathryn Wilder

After checking for new calves in the Nichols Wash pasture, where we moved the cows last month, I got home early enough to eat dinner before dark while watching an episode of The West Wing, pretending that was our political world, when above the delicious banter of Martin Sheen and his staff, I heard a cry that would crack any mother’s heart,

a sound I’ve heard before, felt before inside my skin, primal voice turning blood to ice,

and I ran out the open cabin door to see on the flat of old riverbed below a coyote on a fawn. I mean the coyote was on top of the fawn, pinning it down with the weight of instinct and hunger,

“a sound I’ve heard before, felt before inside my skin, primal voice turning blood to ice,”



and I think I yelled like I would to turn a cow, hyah, hyah, my border collie Jessi barking, and when the coyote looked up the fawn pushed free and bounded through the creek toward its mother,


the coyote also now leaping through rushing water after the fawn, the doe turning not toward her fawn but after the coyote, chasing it back across the creek, where it ran into the thicket of willows and three-leaf sumac, weaving through the tight stems and out and after the fawn again,


who stopped and stood, confused, but not so the doe—mule deer fury inflating her chest, she stomped her feet and charged the coyote and the coyote leapt away through water and angled up and across the cliff face on a narrow trail invisible to me until that moment as the coyote used it to disappear

then came out on top of the cliff and stood at the edge, shaking water from his thick winter coat and watching the fawn below, who stood, panting, lost,


for as the coyote went up the cliff face the doe plunged back through the creek and scrambled up into the rimrocks—I heard her hooves clattering on stone and I think she was trying to get to the same level as the coyote to chase him some more but I couldn’t see her,


and the coyote looked down from his ledge and shook off more water—I could hear him over the creek, sounding like my dogs, fur flapping as drops flew—then he vanished into the thick piñon and juniper forest that ascends into ponderosas


and I did not see him again, or see or hear the doe come back, and I also lost sight of the fawn, who ran the wrong way up the canyon and what could I do.



“But how do we protect our offspring in this climate of dis ease? Whom do I call out for threatening my children, my grandchildren, my mother?”


That was the first time ever in my life I thought about shooting a coyote.


I do not believe in shooting predators or scavengers; I believe in not shooting them. I believe they provide a tremendous service to the wild world. The world around me. But I felt in that moment an urge—what was it? Not to kill, exactly. An urge to protect. A fawn. As its own mother was doing in her challenge and pursuit of a hungry coyote.


That I believe in: protection, not vengeance. Not bloodthirst.


But how do we protect our offspring in this climate of dis ease? Whom do I call out for threatening my children, my grandchildren, my mother? Whom do I fight? Whom do I blame? What do I do? To withdraw is my only choice? Is that even in my nature?


No. It is not in this mother’s nature to withdraw from that which will harm her children.


I wished for a quick reunion of doe and fawn, and that the coyote would resort to rabbits.


And I wish to understand what the coyote knew as he watched and withdrew, what the fawn knew in her fleeting escape. Wild animals know when to do that—to withdraw for their own survival.

Kathryn Wilder’s essays have been listed as Notable in The Best American Essays and have appeared in such publications as High Desert Journal, River Teeth, Fourth Genre, Southern Indiana Review, High Country News, Sierra, many Hawai`i magazines, and more than a dozen anthologies. She is a past finalist for both the Ellen Meloy Fund Desert Writers’ Award and the Waterston Desert Writing Prize. A graduate of the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, she lives among mustangs in southwestern Colorado.​


This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.


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