“They Come Down From The North”: Tracking the Transnational Mutant Mythologies of the “Coywolf” (C. latrans) Across a New Climatological Frontier

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Cars on both sides of Cape Cod’s route six hit the brakes as a tawny blur narrowly avoids its second oncoming set of headlights. Ripples through a quiet and tourism-dependent community as word travels of another being tracked and put down by National Seashore rangers (Caldwell 2020). “They come down from the North”, you will hear your neighbours say, talking amongst themselves. “They come down from the North after breeding with wolves in Canada”. Their yips and barks and screams pierce the dark, echoing against the strange acoustics of the dunes, reflecting familiar narratives in the nation’s past. It was, after all, on the very shores of Plymouth, Cape Cod, and of Newfoundland that the “great and strange noises” of a new frontier first ‘filled the English with dread’ in 1620—and it seems they still do, over four hundred years later (Coleman 2004).

Stories of fear and curiosity for lupine figures dot the North American landscape (a narrative dynamic Dan Flores’s introduction to ‘Coyote America’ represents very well) (Flores 2016). Whether flanking our frosty morning runs in public parks or “escorting” us off their territory on a walk with our dogs, they seem ever at the periphery of our notice (Canid Mythbusters 2018; Dogs and Coyotes: What You Need To Know, 2016). They sing their haunting songs even as we discuss them around our kitchen tables, bold, rascally, and big. The Coywolf—a highly mythologized but scientifically-relevant sobriquet for the Eastern Coyote—are ubiquitous in conversation, but hardly as well understood (Way and Lynn 2016). Their relationship to climate change, and to the transnational mythologies they engender—even less so (Breining 2015).

Vid.1: “Urban coyotes” singing along to sirens in New Haven, Connecticut (Quinnipiac, Wappinger Land). 1 February 2022, C.E. Abbott.

Meet the Coywolf (Canis latrans):

The coyote—and its nineteen subspecies—now commands an “established presence” in forty nine of the fifty United States (“Learn About North America’s…” 2022; Dell’Amore 2019). Yet the ecological study of the coyote’s historical distribution in the United States remains “poorly characterized”—the result of a longstanding lack of work in the field (Hody and Kays 2018). Conversely, studies of coyote range expansion in Canada are considered critically better-examined by many ecologists (Hody and Kays 2018; Chubbs and Phillips 2005). As in Canada, their current range within United States borders reflects a massive expansion from their more limited, pre-twentieth century range (Fig. 2).

A recent breakthrough recent study indicates a larger historic occupation of North America than has been suggested in prior analyses of Holocene1 populations—and provides researchers with a truer semblance for the scale of their expansion (Hody and Kays 2018). While giving credence to much more liberal estimates of the species’ precolonial2 geographic range, it is from the data of this study one can determine the true scale of their population increase even by conservative estimates. Since American Thomas Say’s imperially-funded3 Missouri Expedition with Major Stephen H. Long produced the first published scientific description of Canis latrans in 1823, the Coyote has expanded its range by 45% in the lower forty eight continental United States alone4 (Hody and Kays 2018; Say, 1823). In no small part, settler-colonial efforts to extirpate wolf populations in pursuit of new frontiers and to secure domination over old ones account for the coyote’s transition to a leading role as a top apex predator where it otherwise may only have remained an understudy on the “stage” of frontier in the American imagination (Coleman 2004; Coleman 2012; Hody and Kays 2018).

Fig.1, left: Thomas Say’s 1823 description of the coyote is the first such mention of the animal per Linnaean classification, inducting C. latrans into settler-colonial scientific discourse and introducing the species to such as a distinct creature from North America’s other endemic canid populations. Fig.2, right: Hody and Kays’ 2018 study used archaeological, museum, wildlife management agency and other records to contribute their thorough map of C. latrans’s historical range. Against this, their modern expansion was considered. It was from the cartographies of their study that the 45% figure was calculated (see footnote 4 for fuller description of methods).

Enter Coywolf, stage right… sort of. Widely considered an informal term, the well-documented hybridization of coyote DNA in both Canadian and American populations has given the term increased presence in recent scientific literature (Way and Lynn 2016). Indeed, northeastern populations of C. latrans are, at an average, just six parts western coyote: the rest, a usual mix of western, or great plains wolf (Canis lupus nubilus), eastern wolf (Canis lupus lycaon), and domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) (Monzõn, Kays, and Dykhuizen 2014). Colloquially, the term itself has spread with the species. What a more formalistic or traditionalist scientist may call a coyote—and what a folklorist might call a Coywolf—would, by any other name, smell about the same after a romp in the rain or a roll in the grass.

As discourse both social and critical mounts the charge to address and respond to rising incidences of hybridization in the age of climate change, the Coywolf receives surprisingly scant acknowledgement from the environmental history community for being considered, as one writer summarized it, a ‘poster child of mongrelization’ and ‘nightmare of Anthropocene’ (Breining 2015). Indeed, despite advances both critical and canine, studies which account for the environmental history of coyote populations remain perhaps the most absent aspect of coyote research: a harmful dearth echoed by scientists and hinted by environmental humanities scholars alike (Coleman 2004; Hody and Kays 2018). Working within this deficit, scholarship of the last decade has analyzed coyote-human (and thusly, coyote-pet) interactions within recent Canadian print media, but a gap remains representing a growing American component, or an historical one (Alexander and Quinn 2011).

In 2014, the Coywolf’s silver screen debut came in the form of a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary depicting the creature in oft-romantic terms (Fleming 2014). The documentary provided vital work in assuaging pockets of growing national trepidation as “great and strange noises” seemed louder and closer by the season (Coleman 2004, Fleming 2014). It marveled at the coyote’s climatological uniqueness, its adaptability. For the first time, C. latrans was presented as a creature not suffering the effects of an anthropogenic climate, but thriving there (Fleming 2014). Wildlife biologist Dr. Mark Weckel laughs as an image of inquisitive pups captured on their trail camera comes on screen, his ease and eagerness a counterweight to those who had voiced concerns for their pets to him in the past. “This is what you’re worried about,” he says, smiling at the footage as he and his research partner are pictured preparing to place camera traps in New York City’s Central Park (Fleming 2014). The urban (and suburban) Coyote-Wolf-Dog hybrid had made a red-carpet debut which brought it to the homes of millions of North Americans. But to those who had seen firsthand what those pups could later to do the proverbial Fluffy or Fido, there was an immediate lack of resonance with the tone of their conservation message. The Coywolf was already there.

Vid.2: C. latrans investigates a curious-looking garden sculpture not forty feet from a single-family dwelling. The vast majority of interactions between C. latrans and human (and pet) populations are without incident; indeed, even, invisible: proverbial ships passing or the odd bark of a dog smelling company.

Even in 2004—ten years prior to the PBS Nature documentary—relevant peer-reviewed data supported the concerned pet parents of New England and beyond (Timm et al. 2004). By 2007, ecologically-informed community care models had become the subject of conferences and published, reviewing potential methods of mitigating negative interactions between coyotes and humans and their pets: discussion which certainly paved the way for the abundant community resources hosted by nonprofit conservation organizations today aiming for informed coexistence (Baker 2007). From the perspective of rural New Englanders in particular—lacking social context, the scientists had lost touch. And further complicating the reach of science to rural communities? The extensive parade of mythologized fears which accompany mutant populations wherever they have occurred on the frontiers of North American colonial history (Coleman 2004). To understand the significance of the Coywolf to transnational environmental context, this is a valuable place to turn.

“To become a success as a folk villain is a much more intricate task than becoming a biological one. As the lupines of yore mutated from dead legendary foes worthy of reverence to the sexual associates of current ones, a cultural mutation occurs”

Fig. 3 (Whitetail Deer (Odocoileus virginianus); Fig. 4 Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus); Fig. 5 Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor), and Fig. 6 Wild Turkey (Melagris gallopavo) are a few representative species which cohabitate with C. latrans in New England and, who, while often sharing the ire of property owners who view them as a scourge per their various “destructive” tendencies, receive less of a moral reputation as villains despite quite arguably upsetting far more bird feeders with a far greater sense of impunity.

Lupine Legacy, Villainy, and Vacancy in New England

New England has a complicated and brutal history with wolves, and a legacy of reacting poorly to good environmental health advice.5 Wolf-hate in the so-called ‘New World’ began there and grew from the occasional head nailed up as a trophy and an ensign of conquest in the town square to the pelts hung to dry by the hundreds, pit traps, and accounts of pure torture as the American empire expanded westward in the centuries to follow (Coleman 2004). Historian Jon T. Coleman considers the relationship between animals as “mobile property” and wolf-killing in his book Vicious, echoing the work of other environmental historians who have accounted for the importance of livestock to the settlement of new frontiers (Browning and Silver 2020, Coleman 2004). Wolf-killing which began as the “utilitarian defense of livestock”, Coleman claims, quickly entered “the realm of folklore” (Coleman 2004). Today, the concept of ‘mobile property’ is nowhere more significantly reflected than in North Americans’ relationships with their pets—and with it, the fear of losing them which Coyotes embody. In today’s mythology, wolves are absent elder gods— and coyotes “might eat you”, but they will almost certainly eat your pets.

“Americans killed wolves to safeguard domestic animals; folklore gave these killings cultural and social meanings. As folk villains, wolves symbolized the frustrations and anxieties of colonization, and the canines paid in blood for their utility as metaphors.”

Coleman 2004

To say the absolute least of a deep and abundant body of work in the area, a vast majority of relevant fields of academic discourse have acknowledged the part New England’s extirpation of wolves played in paving the way for the later success of the highly adaptive coyote there (Coleman 2004; Garrity 2018; Way et al. 2010). Indeed, both property and folklore make ‘quick and efficient’ conquering devices—yet with the legends of wolf killing and their corresponding rituals in the past, a dynamic shift in the national cultural narrative began (Coleman 2004). “The eradication of wolves”, as Coleman puts it, may well have “announced the end of the pioneer era”, but it ushered in a frontier all its own… and with it, a vacancy in a headlining role. Colonists made tenacious and bloody, but ultimately, short work of wolf extirpation in New England only to pave the way for a mutant mythology to take their place (Coleman 2004).

The very same C. latrans described by Thomas Say on that very productive Missouri mission came into focus almost immediately as the age of wolf killing came to an end. Yet at the cusp of this nineteenth century transition period, North America still feared the big bad wolf above all. Per Coleman, again: “Coyotes”—while present—“were small and safe; wolves might eat you” (Coleman 2004). But to become a success as a folk villain is a much more intricate task than becoming a biological one.6 As the lupines of yore mutated from dead and beaten legendary foes worthy of reverence to the sexual associates of current ones, a cultural mutation occurs: “Human beings have never been fond of mutants. Throughout history, people labeled creatures that crossed boundaries, mixed classes, and bewildered categories unclean and dangerous” (Coleman 2004). The coywolf commits each of these sins. Canis latrans is, by definition, a hybrid, a “mutant” (Monzon, Kays, and Dykhuizen 2014). In developing folklore, fearful humans chain this sobriquet to Coywolf necks like a dog tag; the demarcation of a mythologized, “mutant” future. All but undetected, the coyote came to prominence as a result of a gap in American fear, and time. To unobservant and easily-startled humans, it slunk there. As their range expands even further along shared borders, it is easy to imagine how these highly adaptive predators carry mythologies along with them.

Half of the myth of the Coywolf besmirches the legacy of more elegant “pests” of frontiers past with their promiscuity, their expatriatism. The other half encapsulates the most exquisite aspects of that legacy: the purity and toughness of an ambiguous, wild north, shadows of a “lone wolf” undefeated within them.

Fig. 9, 10, 11: C. latrans enjoying a cold morning review of a winter pastoral scene—and its runners.

Origins and Directions of “Down from the North” Mythology

The coyote’s transition from the lesser of two evils to their Janus-faced social status as either mutant meat automatons who stalk Americans’ nightmares or friendly woodland neighbours beloved by the conservation-minded, educated elite in less than two hundred years, I argue, is in no small part a result of the species’ transnational behaviours. A great deal of this mythos can be understood through study of nineteenth century print media. From the science which confirms its flagrant crossing of borders, tawdry affairs with members outside of its own, settler-given class, occasional predation on ‘mobile property,’ and critical divide in scientific and social literature, it is a bastard son, and one whose mutant qualities all but ensure it a folkloric legacy.

The heroic ideal of the ‘North’, with its possession of the “purest” colonies of eastern timber wolves—or at least those whose populations have the least coyote DNA—engenders a strain of frontier which appeals to nineteenth century American sensibilities (Fig. 12) (Coleman 2012; VonHoldt et al. 2016). Half of the myth of the Coywolf besmirches the legacy of more elegant pests of frontiers past with their promiscuity, their expatriatism. The other half encapsulates the most exquisite aspects of that legacy: the purity and toughness of an ambiguous, wild north, shadows of a “lone wolf”7 undefeated within them (Coleman 2004). Where the wolf upholds the American ideal of a heroic and pure North, the coyote is the sensationalist villain of the South, underpinning nineteenth century literary themes still impactful to our cultural perceptions today (Hadamitzky 2020; MacTavish 1998). If wolves were “exquisite vermin,’” coyotes are disappointing mutants (Coleman 2004). Their status in American frontier mythology is as dependent upon their relationship with Canada as it is with the press which paints it, and so, a closer look at the origins of mythologizing mutants with Northerly ties is required.

Fig.12: Review of nineteenth century American print media makes clear the extent to which mutant mythologies pervade perceptions of “the North”. Here, descriptions of the husky and its ancestry amplify American perceptions of “the North” as an ambiguous and “forbidding region”, “snarling its hatred” at those who may try to conquer it.

Examinations of nineteenth century print media inform properly-contextualised analyses of the Coywolf’s mythic, mutant status. They encapsulate a pivotal transitional moment for C. latrans, and it is by studying the vacancy of the wolf and the rhetoric which accompanies it by which parallels may most effectively be drawn. The following article, which appeared in the Monday, August 20, 1888 issue of The New York Times, employs the exact phrasing which so commonly underlies the oral tradition of Coywolf mythology in place today, offered instead as an explanation for the ferocity and origin of then-problematic wolf populations (Fig.13) (The New York Times, 1888). In fact, it goes so far as to suggest an origin for the same explanatory concept two centuries prior to its publication (The New York Times, 1888). Applied to Coywolf mythologies, the article is a critically significant descriptor of a nineteenth century origin to past and present myths surrounding vilified transnational hybrid populations. The uniqueness of this particular piece of journalism lies not only in its exemplification of the longevity of this vilifying trope, but in the underlying implication as to its origin which allows this New England-borne mythology to come full circle. Its most exciting implication is, quite plausibly, the suggestion of an anatomy and scope of a mythos which extends nearly all the way back to the “sound and fear” of those first cries into the dark on the shores of Plymouth (Coleman 2004). Time, while a “squirrelly concept” in this case certainly proves its mettle “wailing across a cultural chasm” (Coleman 2004).

Fig. 13 (The New York Times, 1888), Fig. 14 (Facebook 2022). The above historical source suggests the origin of a mythology four centuries old which seems to have escaped recent critical notice. The above modern source, while representative of this mythology’s footing in kinder perspectives as well as more harmful ones, proves the plausibility of its correlation and impact. Name of commenter redacted. Mythologies made credible at the intention of nameless “historians” make all the more relevant nineteenth century fears of “bloodthirsty” lupine figures driven to “excess” are the same ideologies which drive harmful mythologies of Coywolves today and thusly, are the responsibility of environmental historians and environmental humanities scholars to disentangle, especially where they appear alongside harmful representations of Indigenous People and First Peoples.

Sourcing this rhetoric is not at all difficult: fear and hatred of the Lupine figure abounds in the nineteenth century press, and with the dearth in wolves quickly came a place for the popularization of coyote killing—even by American Presidents (The New York Times 1887; 1892; 1895; 1896; 1900a; 1900b; 1905). Not insignificantly, the importance of examining print media representations of “vicious” animals describes their relationship with frontier (Coleman 2004; Coleman 2012). The West, while settled, was still a “swindle as well as a stage” for masculine regeneration, and by God, President Roosevelt had to have a hand in killing something impressive during his April 1905 visit to Oklahoma (Fig. 15) (Coleman 2004; The New York Times 1905).

Fig. 15 (The New York Times, 1905). This tale of presidential lupine slaying appeared on the front page of the Wednesday New York Times on 12 April, 1905. The President’s excursion with “Wolf Catcher” Jack Abernathy (also known as “Catch ‘Em Alive Jack”) pulled two nationally recognisable, masculine figures into the act of coyote killing on the stage of American natural recreation. It would seem that, per 1905 exchange rates, the absence of a wolf to kill in a ‘unique way’ can be roughly mitigated through the killing of one coyote and one rattlesnake.

In the absence of the ability to nail up a Coywolf head on the wall of a public house of meeting or government, declaring victory over settled space in New England and the United States at large has taken on a much more digital aspect, but retains many of its original, brutal qualities (and unfortunately, the cruelty can certainly still be found). The comments sections of articles which engage with species labelled as “problematic” reflect the reach of social hierarchies into social media, and, to an historian, also reflect the repetition of past sins. It is here the impact of multiple centuries of fear is shown: evidencing the long arm of demonizing rhetoric which denizens of the nineteenth century never spared “pest” wildlife (The New York Times, 1896). After sampling wolf-killing discourse from the New York Times ranging in date from 1888 to 1905 which involved domestic dogs, the following article concerning a wolf-culling incident in Oregon is compared against a composite image of screenshots of public commentary left on coyote-related news media on Facebook within the last six years (Fig. 17). The similarities these figures represent lay bare relationships between gender and frontier, climate and frontier, and indeed, between Anthropocene and what Coleman called “mobile property” (Coleman 2004). Indeed, tracking the mythology of the Coywolf can benefit from comparative study as much as those rooted in traditional models of linearity.

Fig. 16 (New York Times, 1895); Fig 17 (Facebook 2016-2022). Over a century exists between the two images provided for comparative basis here, yet the similarities in perception are tangibly familiar. The relationship between “mobile property”, in both the modern and historical example, is lain bare as an underpinning to North Americans’ aggressive relationship with lupine figures. Factoring domestic dogs in as a baseline, comparative examples like these indicate the modern intersections between masculinity, nineteenth century ideals of frontierism, and mythic foes. Figure 17 is compiled as a composite image of deliberately redacted (and very generally cited) samples of social discourse occurring on Coywolf and Coyote-related news articles over the past six years. Figure 18 represents the origin of the perceptions of wolf-hatred from which Coywolf hatred has developed.

Transnational Mutants in the Midst of a Changing Climate

The ubiquity of the Coywolf in New England provides a dark foil to Dr. Jessica DeWitt’s theory of Park Mythology (DeWitt 2021). It is a villainous alter against our tendency to view parks and public lands as “unqualified good things” (DeWitt 2021). It both occupies and transcends the arbitrary boundaries of human-designated space, part of what is ‘wild’, but subject to continual questioning on the authenticity of its inherent wildness. Whether viewed as a “nightmare of Anthropocene” or a “poster child of mongrelization”, denial of the Coywolf’s placement in social and academic discourse as “the Anthropocene’s animal” simply would not do (Breining 2015, Rutherford 2018). Indeed, any examination of the similarities between wolf mythologies and Coywolf mythologies lacking acknowledgement of climate dynamics would be incomplete.

As climate changes, human relationship with non-human animal mythologies and mythological patterns will change. The nature of those future relationships cannot be known, but considerations of their current and past representations aid all disciplines in foretelling the impact of the human hierarchies which impact wildlife. Wherever transnationally-managed territories are involved—just shy of four thousand terrestrial miles (±6,417 km) in the case of the United States and Canada—ecological relationships become all the more important to analyze and understand in every available academic context. Lori Lee Oates’ recent essay laid bare the critical connections between climate change and colonialism (Oates 2021). These connections lead this study to an important implication.

The link between studies of colonial and postcolonial environments is ubiquitous in (and essential to) environmental humanities scholarship. Studies of colonialism cannot exist without frontier study. And similarly, studies of frontier cannot exist to a high standard without room for intersection. Folklore, mythology, and gender study permeate the experience many scholars share within these fields. If climate change is colonialism, it is also a frontier, fresh and ready for the footprints of global elite. The Coywolf, then, is perhaps more than a poster child for biological “mongrelization”, or even ‘purely’, of mutant mythologies. Transnational species escort the development of our mythologies along climatological timelines, and so, the study of transnational mutant mythologies has never been more critical.

From frontier emerge the icons of epoch: villains and heroes are perhaps, a simpler study, but of ‘mutants’, ‘mongrels’, misfits and non-human animal ‘posterchildren’ of an Anthropogenic age I again borrow the words of Jon T. Coleman in admitting that the result of “considering animals equal partners in American history” may be a “freak”, but I, too, am convinced— “it is a blessed one.” (Coleman 2004).

Fig 18: A lone C. latrans runs on a cold morning.
Feature image and description: A lone C. latrans runs across a farm pasture, fences and trees in background, an open, pastoral, snowless winter scene.

Notes

1 Holocene: “referring or relating to our present epoch” (“Holocene”, 2022). Geologically speaking, this window of time refers to 10,000 BCE to present day.

2 In use here, I have employed the use of this term in the context of the American empire to describe the state of imperially-facilitated settlement the western half of the North American continent which this research involves. This is not to devaluate the impact of other imperial occupants of these lands prior to the inception of the American empire’s “manifest destiny”, but to limit the scope of this study.

3 Major Long’s interactions with Northern North American lands and their history are critically well-established, if deserving of more scholarship. His 1819 marriage to the sister of United States Senator Norvell’s wife politically facilitated his ambitions for westerly expedition, without which, the later publication of “Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains” (under the order of J.C. Calhoun, then American Secretary of War) in which the text depicted in Fig.1 appears, would not have existed in the way history knows it today.

4 The process of coming to this figure was the result of a comparative analysis of available data from the above cited study (Hody and Kays 2018). Provided that the researchers of the study on which this figure was calculated have stipulated based on their findings that “The distribution of excavated coyote remains 10-000-300BP matches the distribution of preserved coyote specimens collected between 1850 and 1899 almost identically, suggesting that the geographic range of coyotes in the late 1800s had already been established prior to the 1700s,” the most current available data assumes the coyote population to be approximately unchanged from 1700 to 1800, and from 1850 to 1899, at least by extenuating anthropogenic means. Although future study may well impact the veracity of this general assumption, for the purposes of calculation, it is assumed that these population estimates are the same from 1850 as they might have been in 1823, with a difference in time of less than three decades. It is assumed based on current research that this time would account for no significant change in data over this period. Based on these figures, calculations were achieved using the cartographical tool MapDevelopers.com, mapping the approximate area of the 1900 data set. Fig.2 is sourced from the Hody and Kays 2018 study (Open Access) and demonstrates the figures from which I worked to achieve this approximation. All calculations computed from the total area in square miles of the lower forty eight continental United States.

5 Both the Salem Witch Trials, and the perhaps-less-globally-infamous New England Vampire Panic, represent a scene in New England’s history which is of interest to medical humanities scholars looking for viable intersection within the environmental humanities. Both of these events saw the rejection of reason made more sensational by way of folk rituals lending themselves to superstitious reinforcement, and both events made the region’s (historical) rural denizens briefly, or permanently, synonymous with puritanical, or gothic, ideals.

6 I have no doubt more than one biologist might argue that the Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar dispar), chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica), or the Woolly Ageldid (Adelges tsugae) is more befitting the reputation of a villainous legacy in the forests of New England and Eastern Canada.

7 The relationship between the lone wolf and North American frontier study exemplifies the ease with which frontier mythologizes the falling of an ‘honourable foe’: final representatives of a race of pest which stood the last stand against settler bodies eager to stop their perceived assaults and predation on livestock and other forms of “mobile property.” The last stand of species which American and Canadian settlers all too often saw as morally-failed beasts prone to “bloodthirsty excesses” honoured the fall of these final representatives, made them legend, and categorized them based on the nature of their resignation to the blade or the bullet (see Fig.5;6).


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Way, Jonathan G., Linda Rutledge, Tyler Wheeldon, and Bradley N. White. 2010. “Genetic Characterization of Eastern ‘Coyotes’ in Eastern Massachusetts.” Northeastern Naturalist 17 (2): 189–204. https://doi.org/10.1656/045.017.0202.

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Caroline Evans Abbott

Caroline is a recent graduate of Glasgow University (M.Res. 2019) with interests in the intersections of literature, gender and environment in the long nineteenth century. She is managed by a small gray rescue Manx.

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