Reprinted from The EnvironMentor, vol. 9 no. 2, pp. 14-15
They say that one day Coyote passed a vine loaded with small berries, black and soft. They looked ripe. “Yum!” said Coyote, and reached out to pick some.
“You better not eat these berries,” said the vine.
Coyote was surprised and angry. “Who are you to tell me what I can do! I'm stronger than you. I'm an animal! You are just a plant.”
“You better not eat these berries,” the vine repeated. “You'll be sorry.”
“Sorry! No I won't. Your ripe berries look delicious,” and he picked a few. They were sweet.
“You're going to be very sorry,” warned the plant. But Coyote just ate more and more berries.
“You can't stop me,” he bragged. “I'm stronger than you.”
“We'll see about that,” muttered the vine.
Just then, Coyote's stomach began to feel funny. Coyote sat down. “Maybe I ate too much at once,” he thought. But his stomach began to rumble.
He patted his swelling belly. “Maybe I just need to drink some water to go with them,” he thought, and he started walking toward a creek. But his insides rumbled more and more.
Suddenly he felt like passing some gas. He looked around and saw no other animals who would be bothered by the smell, so he let some go: Pif!
But it didn't make him feel better for long. More and more gas rumbled in his belly. Poof! Puffle! The gas was so powerful that each poot pushed him along like a strong wind. Then the puffs became even stronger. He flew up in the air like a rocket! And that wasn't all. Coyote poo was coming out too. He couldn't control it!
Poooof! He flew up trailing poo. Crash! He landed on rocks. Poooooof! Another blast, and this time he landed in a pile of his own poo. P-p-p-poooof!
When he finally stopped blasting into the air, he was completely covered in poo.
“I don't think I'll try any more of those berries,” decided Coyote.
When I heard this story, the teller explained that it was usually told when people saw a certain plant whose berries would cause [less dramatic!] stomach upsets. It's fun to imagine a plant challenging Coyote "You'd better not eat my berries!" knowing full well that he can't resist a dare.
Often a funny gross story is more memorable than a serious warning. Listeners would pay attention, and remember to leave those ripe berries alone.
When I heard this story we weren't outdoors, and the teller didn't say the name of the story's plant. But the next summer I found "creeping cucumber" (Melothria pendula) growing in my yard. The unripe berries of this native vine, the color and size of green grapes, taste like cucumber. They are very tasty and harmless. But some websites label the plant as toxic because when its berries are RIPE (black & soft) they can cause diarrhea. I wonder if creeping cucumber is one of the plants about which this Coyote story was told?
Many plants make sure their seeds get transportation + fertilizer by wrapping the seeds in fruit. Usually the fruit is sweet and nutritious, a fair reward for the animal who takes the trouble to pick it, swallow the seeds, and carry them to a new location. I find seedlings of mulberry, red cedar, wild cherries, and other fruit-bearing plants, coming up along fence lines and under the trees in my yard where birds have carried them. In autumn I have seen coyote scat packed with persimmon seeds.
Attractive tasty fruits are just one way that plants help their seeds move to new locations. In autumn we can see parachutes, barbs and prickles that stick in fur (or socks), and other modes of transportation.
Plants can't move around like Coyote, but they have other powers!
Folktale: I heard this story orally decades ago, and regret that I can't recall the teller's name or Nation. The only print source that comes anywhere close is "Coyote and the Grass People" in Susan Strauss' Coyote Stories for Children: Tales from Native America (Beyond Words Press 1991). She writes that she adapted it from Robert Lowie's The Assiniboin (4:239-244 in The Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1909). This story has the grasses murmuring "We are the strongest people in the world" (which I like, because certainly grasses hold the plains together). Despite their warning, braggart Coyote asserts his power by eating some grass which makes him fart so dramatically that he rockets into the air. Finally he grabs the trunks of some poplar trees and hangs on until the farting stops. Conclusion: that's why poplar roots appear to be pulled part way out of the ground.
Facts: for more information about “creeping cucumber, see http://www.eattheweeds.com/creeping-cucumber-melothria-pendula/