(Pictures taken by my wife; click to enlarge)
One nice thing about spring is that you don’t have to create poetry, because you are basically wandering around in a poem. It is a time of rebirth, and what could be more creative than rebirth? So why should I feel any pressure to be creative? Sometimes it is nice to just relax, and watch a better Creator.
For the second spring in a row I have discovered a foxhole, and been able to watch baby foxes play at the mouth of the den. It’s a pretty big thing in my life, considering I went over a half-century wandering about in woods, and, though I did discover foxholes and spot foxes, I never saw baby foxes play before.
I don’t think I have become craftier. Instead I think the foxes always have been crafty, but now are more concerned with outwitting coyotes than humans.
Humans are spending more and more times indoors on their computers, and far less time out hunting, and a consequence of this is that coyotes have made an amazing comeback over the past fifty years, and coyotes do not coexist well with foxes. To be blunt, coyotes could do with some lessons in political correctness, for they will kill foxes every chance they get.
However foxes have been outwitting coyotes, wolves, dogs and humans for so many millenniums that slyness has become their middle name. While many young and inexperienced foxes do get caught and do die, the foxes that survive become smarter and smarter, until they develop a somewhat amazing repertoire of tricks and escape routes. The people who hunt foxes do not do it so much to protect chickens, nor for the beautiful fur, nor for the undesirable meat. They do it because a fox is an amazing creature to hunt, and the older ones usually escape. Part of every foxhunt are the tales of the fox’s tricks, told by a fire afterwards, and many of the best tales are about a sly, old fox that got away.
I prefer to coexist with foxes. I confess have become very angry with them, when they’ve stolen my chickens, and have even set some traps in a rage, but I’ve never caught even a young one. Ordinarily my strategy involves lots of chicken wire, and a sort of bunker for chickens to hide in at night. The foxes seem to catch on that I am no fun, though they keep checking, hoping to catch me when I’m careless. And, when I’m careless, I tend to lose a chicken. That’s how smart foxes are, and how thorough their investigations of their neighborhood is.
When hunters and foxhounds, or coyotes, chase an old fox, the fox knows every hollow log he can run through and out the other end. He knows every long mesh fence with a single fox-sized hole he can duck through. He knows the shallow streams that wash away his scent, the mires he can cross by leaping hummock to hummock, ways to back-track and then leap sideways to a leaning tree, and how to run up the tree and then drop down to rabbit runs through brambles. In the cases he doesn’t elude his pursuers and grows tired, he knows and has widened the deepest woodchuck holes, amidst boulders and roots that make digging difficult, and, should a pursuer actually attempt to chop roots and shift boulders, such hideouts usually have a hidden back entrance, and the fox can run off laughing after a good, long rest.
I say “laughing” because, as crazy as it sounds, older foxes actually seem to like being chased. Ask any foxhunter. The younger foxes are running for their lives, and are scared, but the older ones are having fun, and there are tales of an old fox who, hearing the horns announcing the start of an English foxhunt, would actually appear in the far distance and yap, announcing he was ready to begin as well.
My favorite story involves an end of a hunt, when a young fox had run out of tricks and was harried and exhausted, running on his last legs with no place left to hide, barely ahead of the hounds. Right then an old fox crossed the trail behind him, in clear view of the hunters and hounds, so brazen and so taunting that the entire hunt veered after the old fox, (whom they never caught,) and left the young fox alone.
Why would an old fox do that? They are not a pack animal. To suggest the old fox was knowingly saving the young fox’s life is likely to attract accusations of anthropomorphism, however just as humans can sometimes behave like beasts, beasts can occasionally behave better than beasts.
Many have raised fox cubs, (including Winston Churchill,) and have learned foxes are quite friendly and like puppies, as cubs. However, because they are not a pack animal, there comes a day when they simply depart. It is a dangerous world out there; but, (unlike humans, who are pack animals,) foxes have no trouble “leaving the nest.” They simply are drawn away, and in most cases are dead within a year. However the young foxes that survive to become old foxes do return to the abodes of the humans that raised them. They do not rush up to the humans that raised them with wagging tails, like a dog would do, but rather watch from afar, at the edge of the woods, for a while, and then they depart. If their old “owner” approaches them, they depart sooner.
Why would an old fox do that? Obviously beasts have memories, but what sort of memory would draw a fox to sit and watch, when neither food nor sex is involved?
Foxes make me wonder, and wonder is a nice thing to have in life. Perhaps that is why I like children; they are filled with wonder. And perhaps that is why I don’t like certain adults; who think they know it all.
As a boy the schoolmarms wanted me to know it all, but I preferred to wonder, and it got me in trouble. Also I grew up in a stuffy town of wealthy people, and they all liked to strut about with lifted noses acting like they knew more and didn’t wonder about much of anything. They would poke fun at a little airhead like me, who wondered at foxes and cumulous clouds and, (to be honest,) never paid much attention to what a good student was suppose to attend to.
Because it was a wealthy town, it had town forests and protected wetlands and nature trails, and I had a chance to run away from the world of grown ups. Not that I always could get away with it. I did get dragged off to dancing school, and was forced to attend things called “formals” where you had to wear an itchy suit and do dances called the “fox trot” and “waltz,” but on my way home I’d shortcut through the forest, and get in trouble for getting my best suit all muddy. Being scolded didn’t improve me. Rather than learning to shun the mud I learned to shun the suits. Rather than behaving like a pack animal, and taking advantage of the privilege I was born into, and learning to be a stuffy fat cat, I was a fox who ran free in the woods.
Of course, it couldn’t go on. One must face the absurd facts of modern reality. However for my first few years of being a teenager I stubbornly refused to grow up, and went right on being a barefoot boy. In essence I was Huckleberry Finn in a town of stuffy snobs, but that is a tale for another time. What matters in this essay is a fox I got to know.
Of course, if you get to know a fox, it is not your doing. It is because the fox is curious, and studies you.
I did notice this fox was around, but only as you usually see a fox. You glimpse it crossing the road, if you are up before dawn. If your eyes are young and bright, you see it crossing a distant field, rust red against grassy green. Only rarely do you see it closer, a flitting form in your peripheral vision, and only then because you changed your route because you forgot something. In essence this fox was one of many critters I shared a boyhood forest with.
And so it would have ended, even as I reached the sad conclusion to that chapter of my life:
I came to understand wealthy towns have no place for children who grow up in that town, when such children have no hope of being wealthy. Back then minimum wage was $1.60 an hour, but the cheapest house in my town was a whopping $55,000. I could do the math.
I supposed I could live with Mommy even longer, but, for crying out loud, I was nearly nineteen. It was embarrassing to mooch any more. I had to go.
I was bitter, and extremely maudlin, as I walked the woods I loved for the last time. These were my woods. These were my trees. I knew no other land. It was as if Huckleberry Finn was exiled from the Mississippi River. I felt like a Cherokee sent out on a Trail of Tears.
It was as I walked in this morbid mood that I was suddenly struck by the strong feeling someone was looking at me. So I did what you do: I looked over my shoulder.
Fifteen yards behind me, in the middle of the nature trail, was a fox. He (or she) was not standing, but rather was sitting, and was smiling with very white teeth. I said something along the lines of, “Holy Cow! What the…” but even before I could finish the double take, the fox glided to the right into dense underbrush.
What could I do? I just went on with my walk. However my mood was very changed.
Nor was that the end, for I did not find it easy to escape the comfort of Mommy, even when the writing was on the wall. As a final spasm of love for my town and my woods, I made an absurd and hugely illegal effort to “get rich quick.” That too is a tale for another evening. All you need to know is that I nearly died several times, the effort failed, and the only reason I didn’t wind up in jail was because Mommy knew wealthy people. So I wound up back at Mommy’s, sort of like Blackbeard living at his grandmother’s. (I think I would have preferred being lynched.)
I knew I had to take the plunge, and get away from Mommy, but I was broke, carless, disgraced, and like most rich kids knew nothing about how the poor survive. It was also the dead of winter. To leave Mommy’s was like being the guy who, during Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition, walked out into the storm to freeze, so the others wouldn’t be burdened by his weakness.
Obviously, I didn’t die, but I didn’t know that back then. I procrastinated, however staying home was hell. Finally I couldn’t stand it, and made plans to embark, though I did not know where I was going. It was then a fox appeared a last time. I’m not sure it was the same fox, but in my mind it was “the” fox.
The land had to be built up, to form the foundation at the rear of that house, and therefore the land fell off steeply outside my bedroom window. It wasn’t straight down, but it was steeper than a playground slide. It is not a slope, which I, if I were a dieing fox, I would climb, but some reason a fox crawled up that slope and died beneath my bedroom window.
It did not help me get a job. It had no value, in terms a stuffy town of snobby people can see. However I left my bedroom, walked out the front door and around to the back, and looked down at the glossy red fur of that dead but beautiful creature. My mood was very changed, and I was filled with wonder.
I then went on to my next nineteen years; a sort of “Trail of Tears” where I was a wandering, wondering drifter who slept in his car a lot, and that was followed by nineteen years as a happily married father of five. Now you are witnessing the beginnings of my final nineteen years, and hopefully notice I have a fondness for foxes
If you are pragmatic and practical, you will have noticed that, in the two incidents I described, regarding foxes, I did not receive anything that matters, in pragmatic and practical terms. The fox did not give me money, or power, or fame, or sex, or popularity, or anything you can lay a finger upon. All the critter did was let me feel I mattered. Even if I only mattered to a fox, that can mean something, if you are maudlin.
The reason the foxes are now building dens right by my house is likely because it is a place the coyotes don’t go. However my sentimental side likes to think it is also because foxes know I’m not so bad, as humans go.
The funny thing is that the children at the childcare are so matter of fact about seeing the young foxes play. They don’t understand many will live their entire lives, and never see such a sight.