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Monday, August 8, 2011

14) Red Fox

Vulpes vulpes

I don’t know how to approach this post.  I’ve been trying for ages to figure out what I’m going to do with it, how I’m going to write it, what I want to say, but it keeps darting away from me.  I think I have it cornered but it finds a way to elude me.

I don’t have a unifying theme for this post.  I can’t think of one.  When I think of Foxes I have a scattering of memories, none of them connected, none of them of any great significance.  The memories are as vivid as the animal itself, they come to me again and again.

I’m in England in 2003, living with my grandparents in Surrey.  I can recall the startling sight of the red of a Fox’s fur against the lush midsummer green of my grandparents’ garden.  The way a Fox would appear from nowhere and disappear again, the way I never saw the whole animal but only ever a leg, or a back, or the tip of a tail disappearing between the bushes: like a Whale (Order Cetacea) edging above the water before vanishing again; but instead of water there’s grass drying in the heatwave of that year, and a hedge against a fence which provides a covered laneway for the Fox to pad up and down, almost unseen, and high up above the ground the beech trees’ darkening summer leaves are rustling in the breeze.

In my grandparents’ dining-room, in an idle moment before breakfast one morning, I take an old book about Foxes off the bookshelf and flick through it.  I read in there that a Fox will lick its nose to make it wet, and by doing so be able to judge the direction from which the wind is blowing, and then hunt from downwind – and I think of the damp nose of a Domestic Dog (Canis familiaris), and I find that a small question of which I wasn’t even aware has been answered.

Watching the television one evening in that same year, and Bill Oddie is hosting a wildlife show on the BBC about animals living alongside human habitations.  One viewer writes in to report a family of Foxes, a mother and a cluster of young kits, living beneath her shed or beneath her house, and the cameramen set up in her house and film the animals lovingly to be broadcast to the nation: there’s a kind of pride there, this is an animal that represents a nation in some way, mistrusted though it often is.  A fox on the television, or in the undergrowth, is acceptable, delightful.

Two Brant Foxes, grey-and-brown colour mutations of the Red Fox, are picking through the streets of South London near the flat my cousin and her husband are renting as I get up at dawn to catch a train to Heathrow to fly out of England – I may have been going to Italy for a few days, or I may have been going back home at the end of nearly a year away, I can’t recall.  The Foxes were lean and loping the way urban Foxes so often are.

Later, back home in Australia again, I’m at Mulligan’s Flat, in Canberra, and a Red Fox skulks by the low barbed-wire fence erected to keep just such animals out of the nature reserve.  The grass is yellow, like straw, the way grass always is in Australia in summer, and the Fox is skinny and faded-looking, like all Foxes in Australia.  It’s as if they’ve been fading in the sun, generation by generation, ever since they were introduced in the 1840s.  They were introduced so people could hunt them; now they’re baited with poison.  I can see in my imagination a boat full of Royal Marines coming ashore in Australia in January 1788: male Australian King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis) hide their glorious red feathers shyly in the grey-green eucalypt leaves while the drabber females screech and chirp; the Marines are dressed in red and even as they look at this new land their minds can’t take it in, so filled are they with memories of home.  Fifty years later men dress in red blow their horns, and begin to hunt the Foxes they’ve imported from England especially for that moment, but they’re pursuing something that can never be caught, never replicated.  By the time I find myself living with my grandparents in England fox-hunting is on the verge of being banned in the UK.

I’m in Canberra, visiting home just a few months ago having moved to Melbourne in 2004, and either my mum or my dad is driving me back from the airport when a Fox suddenly dashes across the road in front of us.  It’s so unexpected that for a moment I think it must have been a Dog.

Once, years ago, I’m walking down a rocky gully at my parents’ holiday house when I come across a boulder, and beneath it a hollow.  The soil smells of ammonia, and I swear that something growls at me from the darkness beneath the rock, but it seems so unlikely that to this day I’m still uncertain of the memory.

I’m sitting on a tram here in Melbourne, a year and a half ago, and I’m on my way home from seeing Neko Case perform in the city.  The venue was large, too large, and she seemed weary, and her red hair sprang wild and unruly from her head.  On the tram I’m sitting next to a pretty girl, and she begins to hum the chorus of a song by Neko Case called “Star Witness”.  It’s the first song of Case’s I’d ever heard, it comes from an album called Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.  I steel myself and begin a conversation with the girl humming next to me; we talk for fifteen minutes or so; we find we both share a love of literature.  I’m making an effort that year to talk to more strangers, at least one a week, and as the tram heads north I’m pleased with myself.  When the tram reaches the stop near my house I get off, and wish the girl good night, and never see her again.

I search online for a photo of a Red Fox to use at the end of this post.  On Wikipedia I find a photo of a pair of foxes: I’ve never used a photo of more than one animal so far on any post on this blog, but the caption on the photo says it was taken in Surrey, not so far from where my grandparents lived.  It’s impossible not to use it.  They’re so red, the image is so vivid.

Image sourced from

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