Sunday, November 15, 2009

November 15: Fox

The inspiration for today's poem is my friend Brian Willson's Facebook status update this morning: "Up the foggy hill, about a dozen crows are hollering down at a fox that's exactly the color of fallen leaves." This evocative image got my creative wheels spinning in so many directions that I had to make use of it. Thank you, Brian.

What first sprang to mind when I read this was Winslow Homer's incredible painting "The Fox Hunt," which has haunted me ever since I first saw it at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts over a dozen years ago. Crows hound a fox bounding through deep snow, their black wings hovering above the struggling animal in a foreboding manner, sea brooding in the background. And as is typical with crows, more  are flying in to join the harangue. The beauty of this painting, aside from its aesthetic values of color, form, and movement, is its abbreviated narrative. We are given a snapshot of a poignant moment but never know if the fox successfully eludes these birds of doom.

Fortunately, Brian's fox--which he describes as "big, healthy, and fluffy-tailed"--is in less danger as it slips through the woods behind his house. Those crows are just marking its path, hoping to usher it out of their neighborhood. Though I have a feeling it will leave when it wants to leave.

We don't think of foxes as predators because they aren't big and ferocious like lions, tigers, and bears. Only when they're rabid do they scare us. A sort of combination of cat and dog, the fox lives near our houses without fear, inviting our familiarity while remaining wild, true to itself. (Though Russian scientists recently domesticated the silver fox in about 50 years of selective breeding.) In Western tradition, the fox's craftiness has long been celebrated in stories--from the wily fox of Aesop's fables to the sly trickster fox of British and American folklore. Fox-hunting has persisted as a tradition for so long in part because of the challenge presented by the quarry, which often outfoxes all those horses and hounds. In Japanese folklore, the fox is a trickster of more sinister aspect, a shape-shifting creature similar to a werewolf.

I could go on and on. Clearly, a rich tapestry of stories and traditions resonates around the fox, and even now most of us thrill to see a healthy one, its bushy tail waving and red fur glowing as it watches us with bright eyes and then disappears into the woods. With all its cultural baggage, a fox is more than just a fox--it's the embodiment of craftiness, survival, adaptation, and natural beauty. And a fox in the fog, camouflaged by leaves--is it just a fox or some kind of visiting spirit?

Marked by yelling crows,
fox the color of dead leaves
slips through autumn mist.

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