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Coyote's Fleas

by Freeman House
Spring 2001

Dan Stolpe, a noted Santa Cruz fine artist who specializes in Native American/human-animal transformation images, told me this story: "Some say Coyote is the first of all animal people, the first to be named by the creator. Some say he has the power to change the sun and the moon, but with all that power he can't get rid of his fleas. So the best he can do is find a log on which he scratches his back, while he watches the fleas jump up."

Humans are tinkerers. Always have been, along with some of our primate ancestors. For a very long time - most of our time on the planet, in fact - we did our tinkering within the restraints of Coyote's world, those fleas implicitly acknowledged as the workings of creation over which we had no control. Were we wiser then in our recognition that we were participants in a vast web of relationship always just beyond our comprehension? I hope it's true, because if it is, there's a chance we might recover some of that wisdom. I have little doubt that we attained those ancient cautionary principles the hard way, by making mistakes, some of which likely threatened our very survival. And we moderns who have survived the 20th century have a wealth of mistakes to instruct us. Think green revolution. Think atomic energy. Think Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers.

I grew up in a culture that had all but forgotten Coyote's world, and I suffered that forgetfulness in a personal way. I know now that my pain was the pain of a human animal in cultural exile from the nourishing embrace of its earthly provenance, but I didn't know that then. I thought there must be something wrong with me.

I had some good luck. My wanderings took me to Puget Sound, where I found myself working as a commercial salmon fisherman. My work on cannery-owned purse-seiners was, in spite of its industrial arrogance and alienating efficiency, an enlightening immersion in the world of natural provision. The great life of wild salmon entered my personal life, where it continues to swim today, 30 years later.

I left the fishing life after only a few years. I followed the salmon now swimming in my psyche into the practice of watershed restoration in my home drainage.

About the Author
Freeman House's book, Totem Salmon: Life Lessons From Another Species, received the Best Nonfiction Award from the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association for 1999. A co-founder of the Mattole Restoration Council, he is a frequent public speaker.