What I am aiming at—because a lot of evidence seems to point this way—is the probability that nature and human culture, wildness and domesticity, are not opposed but are interdependent.”
Wendell Berry, “Getting Along with Nature”
The Meyers, recently returned from snow birding in Florida, reported she had moved in catty-corner to their house, in a drainpipe servicing the front yard of our town’s lawyer. Any number of critters have resided in the drainage systems tunneling through our subdivision. One late night the year before a curious and very barky beagle got stuck in there, and Mr. Meyer had to saunter out in his pajamas and yank it out by the tail. The red-tailed fox was more welcome, since the Meyers suspected she had a litter of kits with her. What could be cuter than a baby fox? The Meyers spent every nice day reading on their porch, giving them an unobstructed view when mama fox left the pipe to sunbathe on the lawyer’s front lawn. This happened frequently. The lawyer’s kids and her husband enjoyed the show from a bedroom window, not more than fifteen feet away. Soon other neighbors reported seeing it. All commented on the oddness of the fox’s behavior. No one was feeding her. Yet there she was, day after day lounging on the lawn. Weren’t foxes nocturnal creatures? The only thing that seemed to startle her was an approaching car.
Well, that and our dogs. Katie and I live in rural Illinois, flyover country, on the outskirts of a one-stoplight town. On our drives to our respective universities, we pass fields of corn and soybean, and pastures for horses and cows. From a bird’s eye view on Google maps, our subdivision looks like a 2-wood dropped carelessly on an August-burnt fairway. The shaft ends in a fallow field. Houses encircle the club. Katie and I live at the heel, the lawyer at the toe. Three times a day we walk our three dogs (two Welsh Springer Spaniels and one rescue, a Rottweiler mixed with something or other) on the quarter-mile of tar and compressed gravel around the head, its sweet spot an empty field perpetually for sale. We often slow in front of the Meyers to chat, fingers crossed that one of the dogs won’t crap in their yard instead of the empty field. After hearing about our new resident, we hoped for a good, sustained sighting, but the chances seemed slim.
Our dogs are already overstimulated by the darting squirrels and chipmunks, anxious rabbits, the arrowheads of geese going to and fro above us, the garrumphing frogs splashing in the ditches between drainage pipes. With late winter rains come the garter snakes, and then the crayfish, which, flooded out of their homes, flip mud to the surface, forming miniature hoodoos. You’d think it was southern Louisiana, or a miniaturized Cappadocia with dozens and dozens of crayfish fairy chimneys spiking the neighborhood, not rural Illinois. In the fall, deer tip-toe from the stand of woods behind the Meyers and then sprint across the open field right in front of us, once in a herd of at least thirteen. Our dogs lose it then, yapping and spittling, quartering and darting and kicking up clouds of dirt like a pack in a Warner Brothers cartoon.
Other critters are out there too, often heard (and most certainly smelled by our dogs) but only rarely seen, like possum, raccoons, skunks, coyote, and even the occasional river otter. At each animal encounter our dogs strain and pull at their leashes, often with enough power to drag me sliding through the gravel, or poor, diminutive Katie down on her ass. We imagine the hawks and owls that perch in the trees are first mildly amused by our dogs’ shenanigans, and then pissed, since our presence most certainly scatter easy prey to hidey-holes buried in the high grass.
So, an extended visit with our new resident fox? Unlikely. Occasionally, when we leave our front door, we see a splash of her color across the field, but once the dogs whiff out her scent, forget about it. A blurred patch of orangey-red is about all we’ll see before she torpedoes back into the drainpipe.
One afternoon, though, I get lucky. On days Katie has late meetings, I’m alone walking the dogs. I do so in shifts, with Piper, our rescued mutt, going first, and the rambunctious Welshies second. It was on one of those days when I finally saw more than a flash of tail. Sure enough, just like the neighbors reported, the fox was sunning herself on the lawyer’s lawn. As Piper and I rounded the corner, fox ears twitched and she turned her head towards us for a looksee. So much for that, I thought, fully expecting her to lunge for the pipe.
I slowed our pace. On sight of any animal, Piper typically rushes to the end of the flexi and starts whining. Not this time. Weirdly, she seemed just as entranced by the fox as me. We walked in step until not more than ten feet in front of the fox, who looked us over again, yawned a bit, and then went back to enjoying the sun. Piper sat down on her haunches. Her hackles didn’t rise, and she didn’t whine or bark, just looked at the fox. For a good two minutes we set there, the three of us. The fox seemed not at all perturbed by our presence.
Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture…. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.” Humans studied the behavior of the fox, in other words, and came up with the simile as “sly as a fox,” or as Emerson writes, “A cunning man is a fox.”
In high school I carried an overwhelming puppy love for Shawna Hess, a blonde cheerleader, and once, before the bell rang for our German class I found myself alone and made public my admiration by scrawling, “Shawna is a fox” on the chalkboard. She was that beautiful, I thought, and in 1980s parlance, I used the most appropriate comparison.
Our neighborhood fox was certainly striking, with her fluffy tail, sleek body, pointed ears and cheeks. So many other of our other critterly neighbors—rabbits, deer, chipmunks–veer towards the grey or drab brown. The red-tailed fox shimmers though, especially against the backdrop of the green spring grass. Her coloring jarred, like that of a lone cardinal in a crowd of house finches pecking at a freshly mown lawn. I’d say our fox was pretty cunning to, taking up residence in a cozy little drain pipe, both open ends providing a guaranteed escape route if harassed by a predator. Looking at her lazing there you’d think the sun was working on her like a bong hit. Sly as a fox. Beautiful as Shawna. Maybe add “chill as a fox” to that list.
She did finally scamper back to her home, but she didn’t seem hurried or perturbed. She’d known we were there, and probably quickly decided we were no threat. Once she had enough of the sun, or decided her kits needed her, back she went, and Piper and I continued on our walk. It was a thrilling moment, and Katie was suitably jealous.
I realize that seeing a fox isn’t that big a deal. They’re not particular rare in this part of the country. In other places I’ve had encounters with “sexier” wildlife: mama grizzlies with their cubs in Denali; saucer-sized tarantulas in Costa Rica; surfacing humpbacks in Iceland, mischievous macaque monkeys in Thailand; florescent frogs in Ecuador; the tree-climbing goats of Morocco; and all the Big Five in Tanzania. Those experiences, while incredible, were of a different strain. I was visiting the creatures’ habitats, a stranger in a strange land, a temporary guest. Traveling long distances to have those encounters isn’t much different than going to France to see the Mona Lisa, or to China the Great Wall.
At home, here in Casey, Illinois, the fox and I live side by side, going about our daily business within shouting distance of each other. She has her little stretch of human-made pipe to rest her weary head, and in exchange we receive a few moments of pleasure admiring her. Her presence is a little reminder that, despite dire warnings of pandemics and climate change, we are still part of this world, and no matter how much we humans commodify it, it’s a home we share with other species.
But the story doesn’t end there. The kits never appeared; I don’t think they were ever in the pipe. Maybe the fox wasn’t even female. A week or so after Piper and I sat and watched the fox, there was one dead on the feeder road to our subdivision, about a hundred yards away. Perhaps she wasn’t our friendly neighborhood fox, but never again did we see her on the sunning on the lawn. Once I arrived to campus, I texted Katie about what I saw. By then numerous people in our neighborhood knew. Later in the day Wayne, a retired school custodian, shoveled it off the pavement. It was the least he could do, he said. When I returned later in the day, I slowed as I approached the spot where she had been in the morning. On the left, just on the edge of the recently planted corn field, a vulture tugged at the fox’s stringy flesh. I rolled down my window, fully prepared to shout at it. The vulture stopped swallowing and looked at me. If that vulture could talk, she would’ve said: “Thanks for the grub, Dude. I owe you one.”
I wasn’t the one to hit the fox, but over the years on these country roads I’d plowed over other creatures, thereby supplying dinner for this vulture, or for others; it’s not like I can tell them apart, anymore they can tell us apart. So, I didn’t shout at the vulture standing over our torn and broken neighborhood fox, just rolled up my window and continued on my way home.
Mark Lewandowski is the author of the story collection, Halibut Rodeo. His essays, stories and scripts have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. Currently is a Professor of English at Indiana State University.