A few days ago I drove past a dead fox on a road I travel frequently. I stopped and backed up carefully. I feared it was my fox.
The fox lay a short distance from the entrance to a small parcel of land, 9/10ths of an acre that my husband and I recently purchased from a Ms. Fox (a real person) as a writing/gardening retreat (this writer needs to be close to the land in order to write). Ms. Fox told me that a fox was living under the garden shed and that she would block the entrance because of the musty smell. I could see the scooped out place at the entrance to the shed and imagined a fluffy red tail disappearing into a safe hiding place under my writing desk. I said that I didn’t mind the smell (because in fact I couldn’t smell anything unusual) and I would like to share the shed with the fox, and I came to think of Ms. Fox’s fox as my fox. Ms. Fox told me that the garden “wants to be wild” but she had wrested, with her pruning shears, weed wacker, and true grit, sinuous beds for hardy, tough perennials. My husband and I planted three different kinds of foxgloves (Digitalis) (the woolly foxglove, the salmon-pink Foxglove ‘Glory of Roundway,’ and the golden-apricot Foxglove ‘Goldcrest’) to attract pollinators and glove the fox.
So when I saw the dead fox near the entrance to the secret garden, I felt a sense of loss and a need to take responsibility for the body. I got out of the car, put on my gloves, and went to the fox. She (he?) was in perfect condition. There was no blood nor any visible external blemish. I picked her up, she had stiffened in rigor mortis, and brought her inside the entrance, set her on a patch of clean snow behind the gate, and admired her beauty. The tail was magnificent, bushy, long, and full. The ears were lovely, delicate, pointed, furry. The tip of a pink tongue peaked out from her mouth. Dainty feet! What whiskers! Gray or red fox? I thought gray because each tawny hair was white tipped. From a distance it looked like a dusting of snow covered the body. A perfect way to be gray.
Ithaca was in the grips of another polar vortex, so the body remained frozen, and the ground as well, so that we could not bury her. My husband and I decided that nature’s way was best, that letting vultures or coyotes nourish themselves upon her body was beneficial to the ecosystem. That was the decision—but nothing happened. I kept visiting my fox. After 48 hours she lay there as pristine as ever, though I had seen signs of winter creatures eating other winter creatures everywhere.
At Seven Fields my husband and I observed a frozen deer carcass be eaten to the bone over several days. I worried about my dog becoming interested in my fox if a thaw set in and decomposers had not found the body.
Meanwhile, at the same time, on a completely different tangent, hunting for a poem to memorize, I opened Ted Hughes: Selected Poems 1957-1994.
The first poem in the volume is “The Thought-Fox,” which I read many times with my writing-as-a-naturalist students in a different book, Hughes’ superb Poetry in the Making: An Anthology. It is a collection of informal talks he gave for the BBC designed for interesting children in poetry. In the essay called “Capturing Animals,” he describes his youthful interest in animals, how sometimes as a boy he stuffed 30-40 live mice in his pocket that he had plucked from sheaves at threshing time, and the genesis of his poem “The Thought-Fox.”
Hughes writes: “An animal I never succeeded in keeping alive is the fox. I was always frustrated: twice by a farmer, who killed cubs I had caught before I could get to them, and once by a poultry keeper who freed my cub while his dog waited. Years after these events I was sitting up late one snowy night in dreary lodgings in London. I had written nothing for a year or so but that night I got the idea I might write something and I wrote in a few minutes the following poem: the first ‘animal’ poem I ever wrote. ”
So as I was visiting my fox I was thinking of Ted Hughes’ “thought-fox.” I completely agree with Hughes that immortalizing an animal in a poem has many advantages, but I had a body to think about.
I agonized, checked the yellow pages, made a phone call, and then made a decision on the third day. I drove back out to the secret garden a few hours after my morning visit, wrapped my fox in a blanket, put her in the back of my car, and took her to a taxidermist.
I was apprehensive about my decision, but happily a positive adventure ensued. I handed my fox over to a lovely couple in their ‘70s who run a retirement business in taxidermy. He, tall, bright-blue-eyed, youthful baseball cap on his head, and she, beautiful, gracious, and friendly, gave me a complete explanation of the processes involved in taxidermy, which I will omit here for the sake of brevity. Their ranch house looked unremarkable from the outside, but soon my head whirled, as I found myself nose-to-nose with several elk, a turkey vulture, crow, huge mountain goat, and numerous deer. These taxidermists work terribly hard. After a career in construction he retired to taxidermy and championship archery, and she, after 39 years working for the local trust company retired to be his indispensable helpmate and companion in the taxidermy business. They know a lot about animals of all kinds, well, mostly the furred and feathered. He told me that the grey fox (Urocyron cinereoargenteus) is a creature of the brush and has the footprint of a cat. Coyotes tolerate this most ancient member of the dog family (Canidae), which can climb trees to escape predators. He said the red fox has the footprint of a small dog and favors wooded areas.
Taxidermy was a critical job skill that helped Charles Darwin gain his position as naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle. In Edinburgh, when he was studying (unhappily) as a medical student at the university, Darwin had lodgings two doors away from those of a freed Guyanan slave named John Edmonstone, whom Darwin hired for a guinea a week to teach him the art of taxidermy. Darwin and Edmonstone formed a congenial friendship, based on mutual natural history interests, that Darwin remembered all his life (see his Autobiography). In the process of rewilding, a movement whose aim is to bring extinct animals back to life (see Nathaniel Rich’s “The Mammoth Commeth” in the New York Times, Feb. 27th, 2014), taxidermied specimens may offer the DNA fragments that will allow geneticists to reconstruct the original genome of the extinct animal. Thus, Darwin’s specimen of the now-extinct Floreana mockingbird may sire descendents one day.
In his BBC talk, Hughes tells children, “in some ways my fox is better than an ordinary fox. It will live for ever, it will never suffer from hunger or hounds. I have it with me wherever I go. And I made it.” Hughes wanted children to understand that poets are pacifists, but there is a paradox in his words. There would never have been a thought-fox without the real fox, which first appeared 3.6 million years ago.
Taxidermy has been called the art of death. I cannot offer a rational explanation for why I took my fox to the taxidermists. However, in a few months, a fox, more than a thought but less than real, will keep me company in the shed as I think about the lovely taxidermists and the poet, thought-foxes and real foxes, and mortality and extinction.
I want lots of foxes and foxgloves in my garden, all real. I want to see fluffy tails disappearing into tangles and thickets, and spires of speckled peach and rose colored foxglove flowers. Like Hughes, I want foxes of all kinds to live forever. One problem with extinction is how barren human imaginations will become if we destroy all the models for our flights of fancy.