Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Call of the wild

Over the course of the past week, I was awakened several times by howling coyotes.

It’s not news that we have coyotes in the woods and fields around our house: I hear them yipping and calling to each other throughout the year, most frequently during the summer months when I’m doing chores outside at sunset. But there’s something especially haunting about coyotes howling in the middle of a snowy winter night — something eerie and lonely that goes straight to your soul.

I’m not a particularly light sleeper, so it’s interesting that these howls have awakened me from deep slumber multiple times. It could be because we haven’t heard coyotes in a while; months will go by without a single howl. Although the range of coyote packs varies, it generally encompasses several miles, so we hear coyotes only when their range brings them nearest to our house.

These particular howls have sounded much closer than ever before, however, which may be another reason why they’re catching my attention. Although my husband has slept through these mid-night cries, he’s remarked on the closeness of coyote noises when he’s been putting our poultry to bed lately. As further proof of proximity, he had a pre-dawn close encounter with two coyotes who crossed our driveway while he was walking the dog. Although it’s common for us to hear coyotes, this is the first time anyone in our family has actually seen one.

Or perhaps I’m waking up to these howls because, as a mother, I’m conditioned to awake when there are cries in the night. Usually those cries come from my children, but coyote howls are often described as resembling female screams or baby cries. With a house that ranges from a teenage daughter to a two-year-old, it’s hardly surprising that my weary brain gets confused.

It just so happens that I’ve been thinking about loud noises quite a bit lately, because we’re trying to teach our two-year-old son to stop screaming at the cat.

Our toddler has never met an animal he didn’t love, which is why his “chore” these days is to give our dog and cat their “toothbrush treats.” He’s enamored with our dog and pets and snuggles with her frequently — but his behavior towards our cat takes obsession to the next level.

If you’ve ever seen footage of Elvis or Beatles fans shrieking at a concert, it will give you a good idea of how our son reacts to our cat, Hermes. Throughout the day, every single day, whenever Hermes enters the room it’s as if my son has never seen him before. “CAT-CAT! CAT-CAT! MEEEEEEEOOOOOOOW! MEEEEEEEEEOOOOOOW! AAAAAAAAAAAH!” he’ll howl, chasing after Hermes with outstretched arms. Needless to say, Hermes tends to react by hiding under the nearest couch or bed, at which point my son will attempt to crawl under said piece of furniture, screaming joyfully.

I’ve tried using logic (“Hermes will keep running away if you keep screaming, because he doesn’t like it.”). I’ve tried appealing to his best self (“Use your quiet voice, please.”). I’ve tried playing a “Whisper/Shout” game to teach my son how to modulate his tone. We’re making some progress, but the struggle continues.

You’d think this would have occurred to me before I was on my fifth child, but it’s fascinating that we have to train our children not to be loud. Because that’s exactly what parents do. Coyotes howl for a variety of excellent reasons, usually to communicate with other pack members or to establish their territory. Human babies howl, too, for an equally excellent reason: Before they can speak, crying is what helps infants get their needs met. As one parenting article put it, “children are born programmed to be loud.”

But once infancy has passed and words become the primary means of communication, children still don’t have self-control fully regulated in their brains (nor will they, until they’re about 25 years old). That’s where parents and teachers come in, with our exhortations to “use your inside voice!”

It intrigues me to think that “inside voices” may not be human nature; we’re born howling, and until very recently much of life wasn’t lived inside, but outdoors in the fields and forests where you’d need to raise your voice a bit to be heard.

Still, there’s obvious value to knowing how and when to be quiet. Whether you’re a coyote or a human, the ability for silence enables you to do essential things like sneak up on prey – or ponder deep ideas. And so we train our children to tone down the howls of their infancy in order to move into a thoughtful and productive adulthood.

Of course, quiet may be a subjective concept. While my son is the only one of my children to emit such piercing screams of delight, I notice that most of my children tend to pitch themselves a little on the loud side. I suspect that this comes with living in a household of seven people, most of whom have strong opinions and want to be heard.

“Why are you shouting?” I’ve asked a child, more than once, when I’m standing right in front of them.

“I’M NOT SHOUTING!” they’ll shout, looking at me with confusion.

I’m beginning to think that most of my family may suffer from minor hearing loss; my only quiet child must repeat everything she says at least twice, since the rest of us can’t hear her over the constant ringing in our ears.

If my children tend to mistake shouting for “inside voices,” I also notice that they tend to assume I’m shouting when I’m speaking in a perfectly normal voice. Although in my early parenting days I was sometimes prone to raising my voice when overwhelmed, I now make a conscious effort to not shout in my home, thereby modeling the volume I’d like us all to strive for. Still, conversations like this happen often:

ME: Have you finished your homework yet?

CHILD: WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS YELLING AT ME?!?

It’s like being trapped in a Lewis Carroll book; at moments like this, I sometimes wish I could take to my bed. If it weren’t for those coyotes howling out in the fields…

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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