A riddle of foxes

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

In my attempts to know foxes, I came across a video showing the solitary hunter scouting for prey in the snow-covered Black Hills of South Dakota. Three feet of snow, the narrator says. Pumpkin-red fox on a pure white landscape. It is listening for field mice scurrying under the snow blanket. I’ve read that a fox can hear a watch ticking 40 yards away. The video fox ambles along, listening for the snow-muffled footsteps of unseen mice.

illustration: Stan Fellows

It lopes lightly, nimbly. Then stops, looks down, stares at the snow, head cocking this way and that, ears tuning in. Consummate focus. Seconds pass.

Then it does an astounding thing. It leaps straight up, flings its hind legs high into the air and shoots back to earth like a missile, snout first, plunging deep into the snow — only its back feet and plume tail sticking up. It then emerges, snow-faced, flailing rodent in its mouth.

These dives are haphazardly successful, the narrator explains, unless . . . unless the fox lines up its prey with the magnetic north pole, using that to plot the trajectory of its pounce. Then it is successful 75 percent of the time. The fox, some scientists believe, can see the Earth’s magnetic field as a “ring of shadow” that darkens as its line of vision aligns with true magnetic north.

That is another marvelous thing I have learned about foxes, the dog cousin found on every continent but Antarctica — the most widely ranging meat-eater on the planet. Fennec, cape, silver, swift, red and arctic foxes. Bat-eared, hoary, crab-eating and Tibetan sand foxes. To name a few.

They walk on their toes. The female is called a vixen. A group is called a “skulk” or “leash,” although foxes are largely solitary except when nestled as a family with young in their lair. They may weigh 7 to 24 pounds. They are nocturnal. Have vertical slit pupils like cats, see quite well at night. They have whiskers on both nose and legs that help them navigate. When hunting they stalk and pounce, rarely chasing (although a red fox, for one, can run 30 miles an hour). Omnivorous, they eat two pounds per day, have a superior sense of smell. They reproduce once a year, have a life span generally of one to four years, although some may live to be 10. They growl, whine, yelp and bark — their calls and shrieks often thought to be frightful, otherworldly.

These are some of the facts I have gathered about foxes. But it doesn’t mean I know foxes, or understand the fox.

I met Donnie Bickham on a high school baseball diamond. I pulled into second with a double. He was playing shortstop. He was shorter than me, with blue eyes and freckles and curly blond hair haloing out of his Northwood cap. “You’re lucky Matty misplayed the ball,” he said. “We would’ve had you easy.” He grinned, walked back to his position, called back over his shoulder, “Nice hit.”

We would play against each other over the next three years — baseball and basketball. District rivals. At least two games each season in each sport. We guarded each other — hard — on the basketball court. You could tell he loved the games, loved to compete. But it was never personal, never so intense that he wouldn’t grin between plays, lob a tease my way, mean it when he said “good game” during the post-game handshake.

I never spoke to other guys I played against. I never knew anyone else who saw an opponent not as a foe but as a playmate, and the game as something done together. I can still see Donnie Bickham on those ball fields, in those gyms. He ran — even when trotting from the dugout to his position at short — with a gladness in his being.

I did not get a good look at a fox until I was in my 40s. I was sitting against the trunk of a maple on the edge of a shortgrass field, ringed by woods, broken here and there by messy clumps of brush and trees. It was late in the day, warmish. I was watching sunset, the orange sun low in a reddish sky. It was autumn, and he — the fox — ambled out of the woods, crisscrossed the field, patrolling the hideouts and dens, loping one to the next, sniffing out the rabbits and groundhogs hunkered there. Occasionally he would stop and look my way, peering back over his shoulder.

What I remember best was when he and the sun aligned, his reddish coat radiant, inflamed, haloed by a shimmering orange corona, that fluffy brush of incandescent tail. Vulpes aureole, I exclaimed, in salute to him and his Latin name.

We shared the field and light and air for a while that evening, until he disappeared into that hidden realm where the wild animals go. I went back for weeks and months, occasionally followed tracks through snow, but I never saw the fox again.

So there was this high-school dance one Saturday night; kids from all over the city were there. Summer after my senior year. 1970. What I remember is that along toward midnight, after some hours of music and dancing had loosened us up, there was a rush to the door. “Fight,” somebody yelled. “There’s a fight in the parking lot.”

When there are cars and coolers of beer out there and no alcohol inside and the drinking age is 18 and you’ve got testosterone and toughs from a half dozen city schools, trouble will find its way to the party. And there it was, hostile packs of teenage boys squared off in the shadowy glow of streetlamps. The threats and the shoving had started; the air charged with danger — just needing that matchstick spark.

Donnie Bickham was one of the last to make it outside, but he pushed his way right to the middle of it — shorter than all the rest, a silhouette from where I stood. I don’t know what he said, arms spread, gesturing there to there. But the mob dispersed, most of us went back inside and others drove quietly away into the night, red-glow taillights dissolving into black.

Most of us know the fox mainly through stories. Biologists say they are intelligent, curious, playful, persistent. In legend and lore the fox is a trickster — clever, cunning and sly. In Native American cultures the fox is associated with intelligence and wisdom, sometimes seen as the bringer of fire, depicted by some tribes as a benevolent creator. There are tales of foxes outsmarting humans, tricking wolves and using enchantments to elude the coyote. The fox appeared often in ancient Chinese and Japanese folklore as a powerful, magical, mischievous spirit. In Mesopotamia the fox was the crafty messenger to the goddess Ninhursag. The fox hero tales in Finnish mythology celebrate intelligence defeating evil and physical prowess, while the Moche people of ancient Peru extolled the fox for using its mind to outwit brutish enemies.

One of Europe’s most famous fox heroes was Reynard, a creation of the Middle Ages whose exploits were told and retold in Dutch, English, French and German literature. The clever red fox is a prankster and peasant-hero figure who contends with similarly anthropomorphized wolves, bears and lions, but whose stories satirize aristocrats and clergy.

Over time, through many legends — from Aesop’s 500 B.C. fox and grapes fable to the 19th century Br’er Fox and Br’er Rabbit folktales to Roald Dahl’s 1970 Fantastic Mr. Fox — I have learned about the fox and life and human nature. These stories of make-believe fox carry their own truth. The tales delight in the cunning talents of the fox to vex and misdirect, often leaving others to wonder what is true.

Although the fox is characteristically smart and sly and tricky, in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince the fox is charmingly sweet, open and vulnerable. He speaks plainly, with no disguise, no guile. It is the fox who teaches the little prince about friendship and love — and how, by sitting more closely together each day, the little prince will no longer be “little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys,” and how the fox will no longer be “a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes.” But the fox also warns of his coming departure, and the inevitable missing — a loss eased somewhat, he says, because golden grain fields will forever remind him of the boy’s golden hair. It is Saint-Exupéry’s fox who says, “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

In the summer of 1971, Donnie Bickham and I were on the same pipeline crew working out of a shop in Cedar Grove, Louisiana, just outside our hometown of Shreveport. The work was good and hard — out in the fields, and we didn’t talk much there. But Donnie drove me home after work every day. The deal was this: I’d stick around and throw him a football for 30 minutes after work and then he’d take me home. So we did. He was playing football and baseball at a junior college in Texas. He dreamed of playing Southwest Conference football and wanted the practice.

We did this four days a week all summer long. He didn’t have time on Fridays. On Fridays he was eager to drive off to Texas to see his girlfriend. His enthusiasm for it all shone like a light illuminating everything around him. He loved that girl, loved heading out on the two-lanes to see her, and by summer’s end Baylor said they’d offer a scholarship if he’d have a second season as good as his first. That’s what I knew — and remember — of Donnie Bickham.

It was so long ago. An arctic fox. On Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic. The world was winter white, its mountains, edges and seas sheathed in snow. We were there for 22 days, and every day I walked, snowshoes keeping me afloat in snow that came to my chest. For hours I would follow the footprints of fox, over glacier, sea ice and hill — probably not a prudent pursuit, trekking solo, given the signs of polar bear and other ways to die there. But I wanted to see the fox, find the maker of those tracks.

I can still see in my mind’s eye that arctic fox, white as light, sitting atop that little rise, perched there looking down at me. As if in a children’s book. As if to say, “So here I am, what do you want? Why are you following me?” We looked at each other for a while and then it stood, turned, trotted away, looked back once and was gone. I knew not to follow.

To this day, despite the vivid image in my mind and memory, I do not know that I ever saw that fox. I do not know that this meeting ever happened. But I can see it as clearly as if it had. Who knows for sure? But I savor the moment, as if it were true.

The wise friend who’s been a therapist all her life told me not long ago that I was in the “saying goodbye” stage of life. Time to let go of one’s youth and some of the plans and dreams harbored there. Time to say goodbye to elderly parents dying and goodbye to grown children leaving home, the season when friends start to leave, and colleagues at work, other loved ones departing. I had reached the age, she said, when the passing of time would remove people from my life, one by one. I am finding this too true. And the list has gotten sad and troubling in the missing.

In their wake, in the absence of them as real and living people, I have only memories and apparitions, fragments left in my imagination, regrets and landscapes occupied by ghosts invisible to the eye. The times together now frayed and tattered, almost gone from here, beyond retrieval, fading. But they and all we knew together somehow still carried around inside of me.

I looked it up. Donnie Bickham was killed January 6, 1972. He was 19. Five months had passed since he last dropped me off at my house in Shreveport, said so long for now and headed off to see his girlfriend at summer’s end. He was driving those Texas two-lanes when it happened. Head-on collision with a drunk driver as the two cars came over the top of a hill.

The date says I was home from college. My memory tells me I couldn’t stay for the funeral service. I know for a fact my dad and I went to the viewing; I don’t recall why no one else was there when we showed up.

We stepped into the doorway of the parlor and saw the open casket, all the empty chairs, Donnie lying there alone. “You sure you want to do this?” my father asked. I didn’t want to, but I said, “Yes.” I remember walking toward the casket, with Donnie’s face slowly emerging as we approached. And there he was, up close, face to face, lying there as I stood by.

We stood there for a while as I tried to see Donnie Bickham in that face, the body, such as it was, inanimate. I don’t know that I ever did. But it felt like goodbye. A kind of earthly finality. But not Donnie, not really. After a while I felt my dad’s hand on my shoulder, and the two of us walked slowly out.

I walk a lot in my neighborhood, often at night when the world is dark and people hunkered in their homes, amber light and muffled pieces of life showing from the windows. This is the suburbs, settlements slowly absorbing the landscape, taking away habitat, the woods and fields once the domain of others. I see deer here, possum and raccoon. Coyote. Lordly owls perched high in fingery limbs against a moonlit sky. The streets are curvy; they rise and fall over bluffs and hills. The animals appear as interlopers somehow — emissaries from another side, so fleeting and rare, nocturnal, spectral almost, phantoms in our midst.

There are no sidewalks; the houses are far apart, allowing for darkness and starry skies. There’s an occasional streetlamp. It was under one such streetlamp, in the wide loop of a cul-de-sac, that I saw them — two foxes. Trotting along as a pair. They run so beautifully, delicately. Vivid in the streetlight’s shine. The signature brush of their tails. I got a good look.

It was just as the couple reached the far side of the street that they noticed me and scampered quickly into a mass of bushes and trees. And I strode quickly in their direction.

I stood there for a while, knowing they were gone, said a prayer of gratitude, and turned to head back home. Then noticed, under the streetlamp down the hill and maybe 20 yards away, one of the two had stopped and looked back at me. It was a mere silhouette in the light-glow, but it stood there for a while, sort of taking me in — a pause in the cosmos, a moment in time, a look across borders between this world and that. Fox.

Some stories get an epilogue. A few weeks after that encounter, my 12-year-old son reported having seen a fox crossing our backyard early one Saturday morning. It is a large yard, its perimeters overgrown with bushes and trees, obscuring the 6-foot wooden fence. The gate is always open. His mother verified the sighting. Alerted by her son, she spotted the fox herself and its elegant bush of tail just as it disappeared into the hedgerow in the southwest corner of our backyard.

Of course, I believed them. Despite their hiddenness, fox have adapted well to human habitation. They benefit from their motley diet, have the savvy and smarts to win at hide-and-seek. Besides, it was mating season, time for foxes to pair up and find a place to make a home. There is an abandoned groundhog burrow back there — abandoned because we have trapped and relocated maybe a dozen groundhogs, raccoons and rabbits from that area (yet it still offers plenty of ground animals with whom a fox can earn a living).

We have seen fox tracks these months in the snow, and signs of activity around the burrow. But we have not yet laid eyes on the fox again. Still, at twilight and dawn, when I am up in the night or standing at the window by the kitchen sink, I peer out, hoping for another glimpse, another look at what I think is there. I haven’t seen what I am looking for, but it feels good to know its presence there.

In the course of fact-checking this essay Kerry Temple, the magazine’s editor (ktemple@nd.edu), learned that Donnie Bickham has a middle school named after him in their hometown of Shreveport.