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Many Paths Through the Woods

21st Jan 2021 in

The desert is home to many tricksters, animal, human, and spirit in form. Of course, it’s not at all rare that a trickster – a shapeshifter – turns out to be a sublimate of all three.

When one deals with a known shapeshifter, it is wise to know his name. Then, just as in science, you can at least know who he is, if not exactly what he is. Here we will speak of totems or representatives with capital letters, "Coyote", or "Javelina”, or "Dog" or "Man", while we will speak of the individuals represented by the totems in the lower case, as "coyotes" and "javelinas".

Kokopelli looking for his flute...

Coyote, with the capital "C", the familiar Trickster of native, and yes, cartoon myth, appears to us frequently, often surprising us in our neighborhoods and yards, shifting through the desert sands and wind, vanishing as quietly and quickly as he appeared. Somewhere, however, you will encounter Coyote again; perhaps standing on two legs, dancing under the stars and playing flute in human guise, painted or etched on rock walls centuries ago. As you ponder his appearances, you hear again the old, wild howl drift up from the wash below. You know it’s Coyote, but you can’t see him. We all know he’s there, it’s just his current form we can’t be sure of. Just as the shimmering mirage, (a Persian word meaning “night wind”), may look exactly like water beckoning you in the distance, in essence, it is only made of air and light. The unseen Coyote's howl is a true sublimate of the mind, passing from existence to spirit in the wind. You never know where you’ll meet Coyote again, only that you will.

Javelina, (ha-vuh-LEE-nah), known to the scientific world as Tayassu tajacu, is a desert trickster of the same order as Coyote, just not so well-known because of their more limited range. Javelinas look very much like pigs but aren’t related. Of course, this is how you know for sure that you’re dealing with yet another desert trickster…don’t rely on size and shape to speak the truth.

Despite the strong superficial resemblance to a pig, Javelina is actually a “New World”, or Western hemisphere native. True pigs hail from the Eastern hemisphere. The javelina is an artiodactyl, or even-toed ungulate like hippos, camels, giraffes, sheep, and true pigs, but that’s where the relationship ends. Javelinas evolved completely removed from any association with pigs, which means that their superficial resemblance is an example of convergent evolution; their bodies evolved to perform similar jobs in similar environments at widely separated places on Earth.

Many paths through the woods...

The javelina, also known as the collared peccary, (A-ha! An alias; another sure sign of a trickster), originated in the rainforests of Central and South America. They have migrated north and south into their present habitat. Four separate species of peccary are known; Chacoan, white-lipped, giant, and collared. The giant peccary is a new discovery, formally described in scientific literature only in 2007. 

It’s not uncommon for tropical life to migrate north as the Collared peccary has. The Sonoran Desert itself is a product of this same migration pattern and is merely a transition zone between the tropics to the south and the colder climates to the north. The legumes, succulents, and even the woody Creosote bush have all advanced northward from Central and South America. 

So our Sonoran Desert is the perfect environment for the trickster to inhabit; one that has transformed and actually is transforming itself, from one shape and appearance to another. Individual parts, seemingly unrelated but intimately tied into a whole. The spirit of the land infuses the life and beings that inhabit it as much as life influences the land. This interpenetration of life and land is the Wheel of Existence, a wheel in which the trickster often occupies the hub.

The name peccary is thought to come from a Brazilian Tupi Indian word meaning “one who makes many paths through the woods”. Terms used in the Desert Southwest for the peccary come from Spanish, and some are strongly influenced by people obviously familiar with the true pig of Europe and Asia. Pig-like Southwestern names for the peccary are "puercos", "cerdos", and "cochinos", all pertaining to the idea of "pig" in some way or another. The word javelina itself comes from the Spanish for javelin or spear, and certainly refers to the incisors of the peccary, which are very long, lance-like, and sharp.

For the same reason that peccaries are called these pig-like names in the Southwest, Javelina does not figure prominently in the lore of the native peoples of the Southwest. This is the result of the javelina's relatively recent arrival in the Arizona region, perhaps as recently as 200 years ago. There is a theory that Javelina may have followed the cattle of European settlers as they foraged the native Southwestern grasses, thereby clearing more area for prickly pear cactus, Javelina’s favorite food, to invade and colonize further and further north.

The Yaqui tribe of Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona tell a tale of "Topol the Clever". Topol was an intelligent, crafty hunter whose name meant "Jaguar". A mighty chief declared that the man who could bring him a living javelina could have the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage. Hearing this challenge, Topol cut a branch from an Indigo bush, (Psorothamnus fremontii), and immediately went out and found a herd of javelina. As they will, all of the javelinas ran away from him in opposite directions, making many trails through the woods, except for one, who stood his ground to protect the rest of the band. Topol brandished the branch at the lone javelina, who bit into it with all its might. Perhaps through some sort of magic or mirage, or out of sheer stubbornness, the javelina could not or would not let go of the branch. Topol simply dragged the javelina to the feet of the mighty chief and thereby won the lovely bride.

Javelinas are now common sights in the Sonoran Desert. So common are they, that hunters "harvest" about 7000 javelinas per year in Arizona alone. In addition to human hunters, javelinas have other predators to concern themselves with: Bobcats and mountain lions actively hunt javelina; Golden eagles and the larger hawks like the Harris and Red Tail can easily carry off juvenile javelinas. But Javelina’s primary concern, the most pressing predator of all, is none other than his fellow trickster, Coyote. By extension, this predator-prey relationship has the effect of making Javelina very concerned by any encounter with coyote-like animals; dogs for instance.

Mr. Milo

I live in the suburban interface between open desert to the north, and sparsely built but developing land to the south, and I can attest that Javelina is a frequent sighting of mine while out walking. When I walk, I take Dog with me. Dog is a totem, just as Javelina and Coyote. In this case, of course, I take my dog Milo with me. He is a large Siberian husky with black and white markings and icy-cold, blue eyes. Wolf-like and undoubtedly lethal in all respects, except that his favorite food is cheese, (cheddar), and he likes to sleep on his back in bed with humans.

One night in mid-December, we were taking our walk, dog and I, under the stars, waiting for Moon who did not want to rise over the mountains until later that night. The Hunter, Orion, and his dog, Sirius, had both risen and begun their pursuit of Taurus the Bull, who chases the Seven Maidens of the Pleiades, who in turn greedily pursue the throne of Queen Cassiopeia around the Pole star, (a chase they are all destined to wage nightly for eternity, a heavenly parody of earthly aspirations). The sounds of the city were far off in the distance under the lights reflecting from the clouds.

Suddenly, in the darkest corner of our trail, dog became alert and strained at the leash that restrained him tightly under the control of the human world, as he was being pulled by a force equally as strong, the Call of the Wild. Snuffling sounds and grunts came from the black night. A wild musk emanated from the darkness that was in no sense of the term tame. We leaned, prodded, and poked further into the darkness when abruptly, terror and evil erupted around us. A dozen or more of "they who make many paths in the woods" exploded in every direction away from us.

Except for one.

Topol’s one, lone Javelina chose to stay behind and defend his herd from certain annihilation by Coyote and the Man. Under the unnatural yellow light of the street, Javelina raised his hackles and mane – bristles about a foot long, wide at the base, tapering to thin hair at the ends. When erect, the bristles hang and drape in perfect Victorian gothic, satanic biliousness, dripping with evil and vile intent. Javelina’s eyes glow yellow in the dark. Javelina opened its menacing maw toward dog and me, displaying four incisors, each about six inches long…quite sharp and lethal-looking, and charged us.

Dog dropped back behind me peering out from between my ankles. I watched as the slathering Javelina rushed at us from out of the dark, gnashing its teeth and unleashing guttural calls and screams. There was no place to go or hide. Dog was blocking my retreat. I knew that Javelina cannot see well, but can hear and smell with the best of them. I hoped he could not smell my fear. I stepped forward, protecting dog, and yelled at the top of my lungs a roar that must have been heard far away. Javelina stopped his charge, turned suddenly back into the night, and was gone.

As my heart raced and dog stared off into the dark where the many paths diverged into the wild, dog turned his face toward me, opened his mouth and laughed a laugh that made Orion the Hunter pause in his pursuit and smile in the eternal void above. I shook my head, and Dog and Man made their own path back toward home.


Arizona Game and Fish Department. Living with Javelina. No publication date available. 

Kline, Bonnie. “Science Writing.”  Sonoran Desert Species Moving North. No publication date available. (Link removed)

Sowls, Lyle K. The Peccaries. Tucson AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1984.

Schnoeker-Shorb, Yvette A. and Shorb, Terril L., Ed’s. Javelina Place; the controversial face of the collared peccary. Prescott, AZ:  Native West Press, 1999.

Internet Sacred Text Archive. Topol the Clever. No publication date available.

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