Saturday, May 30, 2009


The newest critter to appear in our yard here at Sewanee was a red fox, one who slinked through the yard, stealthily approached the bird bath, and surprised a fat robin just before the bird took wing. It was midday, and foxes are nocturnal, so I was surprised that it was hunting during the day. Foxes devour eggs, mice, birds, insects, frogs, lizards, berries, nuts; and this critter had a plethora of things to eat in our yard (and, no, I don’t think they like flowers, so it is one less garden predator – it isn’t among the deer, rabbits, moles, caterpillars, and, lately, slugs who have destroyed four plantings). Actually, foxes have sometimes been used to control pests in fruit orchards, eating the pests and leaving the fruit intact.

The critter in my yard was a red fox and looked much like a dog except for its muzzle and bushy tail. It was a solitary hunter, as most of them are, but wasn’t quick enough to catch its bird prey, which told me that it had been hunting most of the night and was just making a last pounce before retiring to the underbrush of our hemlock tree. I felt some trepidation about the critter being in my yard, but fox attacks on humans aren’t common, unless they’re rabid. Some of them will appear on doorsteps, and the Russian Silver Fox can be domesticated. When tamed, the fox loses its musky smell, puts its ears down like a dog and begins to wag its tail to express happiness. Stone carvings of foxes found in eastern Turkey attest to the fact that they’ve been around a long time.

My friend Vickie’s mother, who lives in Frostproof, FL, reported that a fox turned up in her backyard, and she instructed the manager of her groves to get rid of it. He brought in a few pieces of sweaty, dirty clothes and placed them over the entrance to the fox’s lair, and Vickie’s mother never saw the critter again. Evidently, they dislike the smell of humans!

As I’m a Beatrix Potter fan, I particularly liked her TALE OF MR. TOD (circa 1912) in which Mr. Tod, a sleek, sophisticated fox, is one of the principals; the other major character is Tommy Brock, a bristly badger. The story centers on the kidnapping of the Flopsy Bunnies, and Beatrix wrote the story because she said she was weary of writing “goody-goody books about nice people.” Then there’s the classic Bulrovian fairy tale about Foxy Loxy who leads Chicken Little of “The sky is falling” fame and her band of barnyard animals into his den to eat them when suddenly the sky falls on him.

There have been no cataclysmic events since the red fox appeared under the hemlock tree, and some nights when I can’t sleep, I find myself going to the kitchen window and looking out at the bird bath, searching for him. I think it was a male fox, a Reynard, and I’m curious to see it use its bushy tail (referred to as a “sweep”) to change direction quickly. The “sweep” also helps keep the fox’s feet and nose warm when it goes to sleep. I’m told that foxes often cache the food they find, but I’m not brave enough to search for hidden evidence of my fox’s midnight marauding under the hemlock.

Also, unlike the British, I’m not interested in taking up the sport of fox hunting. However, I can recall my former father-in-law packing up a half pint of whiskey and a thermos of coffee, two counteractive substances, and going into the woods around Franklinton, Louisiana, in a dilapidated van at night to hear the hounds bay while they chased foxes. He’d return at daybreak, not having seen any foxes but filled with good humor from the sound of his hounds baying and from finishing off the half pint of Jack Daniels that stimulated the fun of the sport.

Here’s the only fox snippet I’ve written, taken from my chapbook, COUNTERPOINT:

In the lush Louisiana spring
the woman and her lover
move as starved foxes,
pointed noses jutting in the dark,
hunting wild,
doubling back on their own tracks
to confound their enemies.
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