Undefeated, on the run

I named her Katie. The little coyote came running joyously out from under the trailing skirts of the acacia trees, whenever I whistled for my dog Suki. Overhead, the raucous call of the big metal birds taking to the air at Los Angeles International Airport, two miles north of our urban wilderness, failed to drown Katie's abandoned song lifted in counterpoint. Eager for companionship , she quickly matched my saluki's long lopes in a mutually sanctioned race across the field of thick sedge, one runner waiting for the other whenever the distance between them lengthened.

Occasionally, I saw little telltale bones about, evidence that Katie was an agile hunter who lived well in her ninety-acre sanctuary, an inadvertent gift from our town's big corporate neighbor. Intended as a lure to light industry, the random plantings of native trees and shrubs and bright California wildflowers also enticed hosts of wild creatures, of which Katie, a buff-colored beauty with shy golden eyes, was by far the most personable.

There were other temporary tenants of this former patch of parched earth that has only blossomed since 1970. Once a speckled great horned owl with a wingspan of nearly a yard rose out of a dazzling display of yellow mustard, pink and purple statice, and lavender and white wild radish, not more than four feet in front of me. Twice a year, flocks of Canada geese paused in their long flight to rest on the hospitable surface of a natural catch basin that collected rainfall and runoff irrigation water. This secluded, shrub-ringed retreat also harbored a chorus of grandfather frogs whose close harmony echoed across the aeons from some primeval pool.

Just before dusk, merry cottontails and jumping jack rabbits joined in a mad game of hide-and-seek. Cottonballs flashed among the flowers, the lacy fennel, the silver pampas grass and the coyote brush, a challenge to the chase that Suki and Katie could never resist. But the handsome, powerful jacks took the fields in a half-dozen leaps that left their pursuers breathless -- and, yes, laughing, for those of us who love the genus Canis know they can laugh. A more threatening predator was an occasional visiting falcon, sharp talons clutching the leather-gloved arm of his falconer. The bird's shoe-button eyes, drawn together in what was surely a disapproving scowl, X-rayed the covering chaparral as he awaited orders from the master.

I have seen sleek families of harmless gopher snakes on display in my fields, adults basking on hard, sun-baked paths as little ones wriggled playfully nearby. Sometimes a lovely, mottled gold skin lay caught in the grass, as though the owner had shed it only a moment before in favor of a summery new one. Suki once approached a four-foot granddaddy, curious about this undulating playmate. As I urged her away, the fellow went into his dragon act, tongue darting menacingly. The ruse worked, and Suki backed off.

Ah, but our urban wilderness was just lent to us, to Suki and me, to Katie, the rabbits, the creeping things, the owl, the pocket gophers with their elaborately engineered hillocks, the Canada geese, the little mole that I rescued from curbside and placed back in the grass.

Even the farm on the hillside that was a distant green patch from our fields has vanished, along with the farmer's sweet corn stand with its mounds of fresh-picked, tassled ears, the foot-long zucchini, the Kentucky beans with their dew-dipped snap. We city dwellers with country privileges are all the poorer.

But we must not permit ourselves too many tears. We had known all along that our wilderness and our farm were only a loan, a loan that began to be payable when the first brave building went up 20 years ago. It seems our transitory bliss was due to corporate caution. For three decades it had been assumed that the storage of liquefied gas in natural strata 3,500 feet beneath the surface constituted a safety hazard. Noting the peaceful passage of years, our town's big neighbor turned over the parcel to its land development subsidiary.

In the ten years since the property was laid out as an industrial park, we have watched muscular new owners gradually evict the small, wild tenants. Now a round-cornered glass building, reminiscent of a giant setting hen, squats on the field where I glimpsed a blue-speckled meadowlark egg nestled in a hollow in the sedge; and a great airline reservations center has grown over the very acres where Suki and Katie raced the west wind.

Where did Katie go? Well, there are fields and flowers a few miles south, and kindly folk who would look with favor on golden eyes and a shy smile, and a friendliness that knows no bounds, even to sharing a gopher.

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