Essay: C. S. Giscombe

Some Writing at the End of the Known World

(The following was given as a talk on a panel at AWP in Tampa, Florida in 2018; the panel, convened by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, was titled, “Here Comes the Flood: Research and Writing in the Anthropocene.”)

My friend Jonathan Skinner wrote the introduction to the Ecopoetics section of the new Cambridge anthology, American Literature in Transition, 2000–2010. He wrote, “Ultimately, ‘Ecopoetics’ may be more productively approached as a discursive site, to which many different kinds of poetry can contribute, than as the precinct of a particular kind of ‘eco’ poetry.” And then he asks the important question—“How, then, does an individual’s sense of the larger Earth enter into an endeavor made small in the face of overbearing world-ecological forces?” He goes on, in the language of anthologies, to suggest what 21st century poets have done—“conceptual, documentary, and situationist practices,” “boundary work,” “‘mestizo/ mestiza’ poetics of relation” (think of Gloria Anzaldua, e.g.), etc. But beyond those categories the question—and the question’s charge—remains on the table. When I think about the stated description of this panel, I come to the question, “What is a writer’s responsibility to the future? the past?” Perhaps the responsibility is that we do take seriously, “our sense of the larger Earth.”

These days I’m writing about wolves and the presence, in the eastern United States and Canada, of “enigmatic wolf-like canids.” The interest in wolves and coyotes, for me, is not new—it stretches back to deep childhood; “enigmatic wolf-like canids,” a cautiously nuanced reference, is not a phrase I made up. It speaks to “unresolved science.” The vernacular for such creatures is usually coywolf or coydog. The issue is hybridity and, to an extent, taxonomy. Hybridity—biological and cultural hybridity, the messiness of production, the impurity of process, the rag-tag element of chance meetings, sexuality, “race,” color, perhaps especially migration—is of great interest to me, even as the polar icecaps melt. The ancestors of present day wolves and coyotes—including the Florida black wolf that Audubon painted, Canis rufus niger—crossed the old land bridge into the Americas from Eurasia 20,000 or so years ago.

But I would begin this brief statement by reaching into the recent past—into my memory—and acknowledging my grandfather, my mother’s father who lived in St. Louis, having migrated there from Mississippi a scant hundred years ago. Some weekend morning in the early 1960s I found him laughing in the kitchen over the Post Dispatch. He was amused because golfers in St. Louis had begun to see coyotes on the golf courses and they were finding that upsetting. St. Louis then was—as it is now—an urban center with museums and fountains and stately homes. And St. Louis was then—as it is now—profoundly segregated. The city in which I grew up—Dayton, Ohio—prided itself on its progressiveness, one example of which was that there was a city golf course for colored golfers. I’ve never had any interest whatsoever in golf but I remember that. In that way we were allowed the participation in the shape and shimmer of American culture, if not in its actual depths, its belly.

An internet search for the issue of black golf in St. Louis yields complicated results. The Atwater Club—for black people—existed into the 1950s and the published history of huge Forest Park notes that black and white people worked together to end segregation on the city golf course there “after the war.” My guess is that it was coyotes on the country club courses that had irritated well-heeled gentleman enough to inspire an article in the daily paper. In a 2009 Golf Digest article about segregation in the sport, Roy Clay, a black man and a golfer, who still (in 2018) owns an electronics company in suburban San Francisco and who “was reared in the segregated society of St. Louis,” recalled this: “Forty years ago I didn’t know what golf was… I had relatives who worked at country clubs. An African-American couldn’t go in there except to work.” The Professional Golfers Association—the PGA—had a whites-only clause until 1961, the year I turned eleven.

The issue with Jim Crow and its modern day iterations, “the new Jim Crow,” etc.—or one profound issue—is being the perpetual outsider, the person whose non-appearance or death or disappearance is “collateral damage,” the uncharted person, the one who doesn’t count. This is of course the idea underlying the Black Lives Matter movement.

Coyotes? I live in the mellow Bay Area. Once a year or so the San Francisco Chronicle runs a story on the San Francisco’s coyote population. From 2014: “‘Coyotes and golf courses are like this,’ [the wildlife ecologist] said, holding up crossed fingers. ‘They really like the vantage points,’ which allow them to see prey and potential predators over long distances.” So, a grandparent myself now, I’m back in my own grandparents’ kitchen.

Wolves? The Florida black wolf is one of those enigmatic wolflike canids. It was considered a subspecies of the red wolf but recently science has cast doubt on the red wolf being an actual species. (I had studied this as a child, learning Canis lupus—the big timber wolf—Canis latrans—the coyote, prairie wolf—and the red wolf—Canis rufus. The phrase is stuck in my head from my childhood reading—“The red wolf of the south is smaller.”) Nowadays the science leans toward the red wolf of the south being, actually, “mostly a coyote.” My grandparents in rural Mississippi probably encountered red wolves. My grandfather’s nickname, as a young man, was Bad Red, this for his temper and his red hair. There’s nothing in the literature that I’ve ever found having to do with North American black people and enigmatic wolflike canids. It’s below notice.

Dayton? I’ll read a piece from my essay in Camille Dungy’s recent Black Nature anthology, out from the University of Georgia Press. She had asked me to write the introduction to the section on animals. I wrote about many things including a 2007 return to my childhood home in Dayton.

Our parents were old and ill and my sister and I were in town to interview health care providers. One rainy evening, on the way back from an appointment, I pulled off onto the shoulder of a new highway so we could examine a piece of roadkill. This was Ohio Route 49 along the half-rural edge of the city, and my sister and I piled out to see that it was indeed a coyote, Canis latrans, legs almost broken off, head half-smashed, the fur still beautiful in the rental car’s headlights. They’re western animals; I knew they’d been extending their range east for decades but I’d not known they’d made it as far as Dayton, as far as the fields and scrubby woods and culverts between the houses and businesses of the black side of my old town. This was no trickster figure; Googling “coyote” and “ohio” later I found that there’ve been coyotes in Dayton for a while and that in the state game laws they’re a nuisance animal, an animal with “no closed season”—you can shoot a nuisance animal at any time. How’d this guy get here?

I’ve taken pains to locate the coyote among us but there’s really no lesson in any of it, no complicated metaphor; and neither is this a poem about “swerving” or my heart being ambiguously “fastened to a dying animal.” Location’s a jumble of proximities and coincidence.

I hear coyotes these days on the Carquinez Scenic Byway, a favorite walking and biking destination of mine in the Bay Area. As a writer I want to document the jumble of coincidence and proximity, to locate the wildness among us. As a grandparent I want to take my granddaughter—who’s one now—to hear the music coyotes make. Sometimes these desires swerve close to one another.