In her new memoir, “Wolf Girl: Finding Myself in the Wild,” Doniga Markegard describes her coming-of-age as a young environmentalist deeply influenced by wolf tracking, study, and conservation. The lessons she learned from wilderness immersion shape her current work in regenerative agriculture—as in this story of a day on her family ranch and an encounter with a local coyote.
Early in the day, the first thing I did was to jog out to the front of the ranch where the dairy cows were in their grazing pasture to bring them in for milking. Nearly a mile on uneven terrain, skirting around brush and jumping over ravines, I paid attention to the life around me. Seeds clung to the tarweed plants, which were still green despite many dry months. I reached down to touch the soft seed of a thistle plant, smooth to the touch with a sheen that resembled silk. On a foggy summer morning the grasses are dry; however, we moved the cattle into a pasture with a high percentage of California oat grass and purple needle grass, both native bunchgrasses that pull water up that is stored in the soil. The green plants provide the cows with much-needed protein later into the dry season. It is a longer walk to come in every day for milking, and the cows don’t always get the cue that their milking parlor awaits them.
Our dairy herd is larger now. Milk cows have come and gone, but Daisy, our first cow, is still with the herd. I found her and Annabelle, the other Jersey, grazing with the two lively Guernsey heifers. With coats of light brown like the color of oak furniture, with white blotches, the Guernsey cows, Bluebell and Buttercup, each have a distinct pattern displaying their own identity. Daisy, 10 years old, was starting to show her age. At the back of the group she walked slowly, carefully conserving her energy, traveling along the contour of the hill, not meandering from her path.
Walking back with the four ladies, the herder instinct was awoken in my brain. As I walked behind the small group of hoofed mega fauna, bringing them in to be milked—an act that humans began over 10,000 years ago with the domestication of livestock—my body felt the connection to the earth and emotions of happiness overcame me.
In the faint light of dawn, a coyote sounded a barking howl in the distance. I quickened my step. There were newborn calves in the pasture where the coyote was sounding the loud bark. I heard our two dogs, Luta and Nuka, barking from the safety of the barnyard in response to the coyote. The two Australian shepherds, who stand slightly smaller than a coyote, have come to know they are no match for their wild cousin.
I began to run up the steep incline above our house toward the sound of the coyote. I climbed over the split redwood fence that delineates our little patch of human inhabitancy and I entered into the wild grasslands. The coyote continued to sound a barking howl, loud and echoing through the rolling grassy hills.
The hill in front of me blocked my view of the animal, but as I reached the apex I saw her standing there. She was facing east, barking and howling loudly, not disturbed at first by my presence. The calves were not running in fear; they were frolicking amongst the moms, playfully. The dogs did not follow me, most likely because they did not want to start a squabble over territory. Now less than 20 yards away, I approached to see how close the coyote would let me get. Obviously her attention was turned in a different direction. Possibly she was protecting her den, which sat in the southern-facing eucalyptus canyon above our house. We had tracked the den site and at times found pups’ chew toys adorning the entrance of the holes, slightly taller than they were wide, dug into the slope. It reminded me of the rendezvous site I found one day in the Idaho wilderness tracking wolves. Even things that had been stolen from the barnyard, like work gloves, lay strewn and chewed close to the entrance. Maybe it was a way for the coyotes to show they were outsmarting our dogs—by stealing things from under their noses. It was the wrong time of year for pups, but the right time of year for breeding. If this was the alpha, she may have been reinforcing her hierarchy in order to dissuade other coyotes from breeding. The period of courtship amongst coyotes, called proestrus, is the longest of any canine, signifying that the bond between the alpha pair is especially important.
The coyote turned and slowly trotted, stopping in the middle of the pasture. The mother cows paid little attention to the coyote as they chewed the dry grasses. Nuka apprehensively appeared by my side just as the coyote scratched the ground with all four feet. Left rear foot timed with right front foot and right rear foot timed with left front, she scratched the grass, kicking up some dirt. She continued to bark and howl, and then journeyed to the other side of the pasture, briefly glancing back at us. Was she communicating territory or possibly calling out to a mate to elicit breeding? The location she chose to scratch and leave scent from the scent glands between her toes was a prominent place on a small hill next to the intersection of the ranch road and the straight trail she traveled toward the eucalyptus trees.
I often track the coyotes in the silt of the ranch road; the substrate portrays every detail of the wild canines’ tracks, the wrinkles in the pad and the sharp pricks of the claws. Scat also lines the ranch road and accumulates at the top of the hill in a large latrine. One day we counted 20 scats from coyotes of all different ages. Living in a place where there are no longer wolves, I often turn to the coyote, their closest relative. I have tracked coyote in the middle of cities and on edges of suburban neighborhoods. It reminds me that I do not need to be deep in the wilderness to find that connection to the wild. The coyotes travel the edges, they take part in the cycle of life and death. They can be a symbol of that wild that still remains no matter how much humans have paved over their homes and bulldozed the fragments of habitat amongst the high-rises.
As I head back to the milking parlor I contemplate our role as regenerative ranchers. Things are out of balance. Many of the interactions that once kept the grasslands healthy, the large predators that moved the herds of prey that in turn impacted the health of the plants, the songbirds, and all life on the prairie, are now gone. As I learned from the wolf, it is my time now to tend to my family as nature tends to hers. I have the responsibility to feed my children and nurture the wild they have inside. I work to retain and protect wild spaces and wild patterns within us and around us, making space for the wildness we and all our kin need to survive and thrive.
This adapted excerpt from Wolf Girl: Finding Myself in the Wild by Doniga Markegard (Propriometrics Press, 2020) appears with permission of the author and publisher, and is available to order here.
Doniga Markegard is a wildlife tracker, regenerative rancher, speaker, and author. Her teen years in nature school started her on a path that led to a career in animal tracking and then permaculture and ranching in California. Using the innovative, carbon-storing methods of regenerative ranching, she’s restoring the land she tends, bringing native grasses and wildlife back to the depleted Bay Area. Doniga is a consultant, guest instructor, and speaker for numerous nature and permaculture programs around the country.