Broadway, with Coyote Chorus
I just had a modest Maine epiphany. I was puttering around in the woods out front, around noon on a showery Sunday, deciding whether to move a self-sown lady's mantle, Alchemilla vulgaris, and whether to whack down a 25-foot fir partly shading my treasured golden-stemmed bamboo, Phyllostachys aureosulcata 'Aureocaulis.' (The lady's mantle stayed and the fir departed.)
Little by little, I became aware of the sound of singing. It was a lady's voice, wafting through the trees from somewhere in the direction of the little cottage across the road, steadily growing louder. The tune was familiar yet rather bizarre in this context: a Broadway show tune, "The Witch's Lament" from Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.
At last, the chanteuse herself came into view: an attractive and energetic lady in something that might fairly be called a riding hood, striding past the mouth of my driveway and casting her song out to the only audience around — myself and the birds, all of whom I trust were suitably admiring.
Even on the coast of Maine, this doesn't happen every day. I ran down to the road and overtook the singer and tried a proven conversation starter: "Isn't that Sondheim?"
I learned the following. The captivating singer was Suzanne Hall, a member of the Marsh River Street Players. She was rehearsing for a production that opens this Friday, June 19, in the town of Brooks, a short drive over the river and through the woods from Belfast. It's probably a show well worth taking in. Sondheim, even at his most outré, is always interesting, and Into the Woods is perhaps his most accessible, audience-friendly work — a witty mash-up of several well-known fairy tales, all of which take surprising turns from being thrown in together. Unlike many musicals, it is amenable to little-theater adaptations; the Camden Civic Theater mounted a fine production several seasons ago. (There: I've said a nice thing about Camden. Now back off.)
I bid Suzanne break a leg and turned up my driveway. And what did I hear but another tune — this time not a haunting alto but a howling coyote, equally haunting in its way, at least to those of a certain cast of mind.
We often hear coyotes here — more often than show tunes — and I suppose there is a pack in the state park, a mountainous wild stretch that begins half a mile up the road. Immediately I was struck by what an odd place I'm living in. There are places where one might meet a singer on Sunday morning, belting out Sondheim, and places where one might hear a coyote at any time of day. How many places might one do both, at virtually the same time?
Coyotes are creatures of controversy in Maine right now. It's not entirely a hunters-vs.-animal-huggers thing. It's more like coyotes-vs.-deer, but not quite that simple either. It seems that with these animals, as with so much else, there are two Maines. In the more populous southern, central and coastal regions, both deer and coyotes have become plentiful in recent years, and there seems to be a general consensus that — with hunting prohibited in much of this region because of population density — coyotes play a useful role in keeping deer populations from getting out of hand.
In the other Maine — far downeast, northern and mountain regions — deer populations are in significant decline. Many factors are probably at work, including recent harsh winters, loss of habitat, and natural predation by black bears. But coyotes probably also play a role. Hence there's a push, championed by former state wildlife biologist Gerry Lavigne, to encourage hunters to go after this wily and elusive game.
As controversies go, this one is simmering rather than boiling. The trouble is, this kind of issue brings out extreme voices on both sides. For a taste, you might sample a recent letter to the Bangor Daily News (scroll down) followed by an impassioned, sentence-by-sentence takedown by the Black Bear Blogger. The state's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department is left playing the role of referee — trying, in the words of damage control officer Henry Hilton, to find "a middle ground between those who want no coyotes trapped or snared, and those who would like coyotes wiped out of Maine."
Irrespective of what happens in the Other Maine — and I'm willing to concede that deer, like deadly scorpions, probably have an intrinsic right to live — I'm rooting for the local coyote pack. And any wandering divas that pass this way.