Tracks of the fox


The written word is our footprint on the snow, the record of our moment in time upon this Earth.

Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain…
Enid Bagnold (1889-1981), British author and playwright best known for the 1935 story National Velvet

Tracks of the fox

If we do not write about it, if we do not tell its story, it did not really happen. That is what we writers believe.

Restless, sleepless on a full moon night, I rose from bed hours before dawn, leaned into the middle bedroom’s dormer window sill, and gazed out on the snow-covered south yard, blue-white under bright moonlight and patched with shadows that changed shape as a southwest wind made bare treetops sway. On the hillside, 50 yards to west, I saw a furtive movement, a shadow that moved too stealthily and gracefully to be a mirage created by shifting light and wind. A fox was stalking through the understory of the wooded hillside, searching, hunting, working his nightly rounds of rabbit warrens and mouse nests.

He trotted around the perimeter of the yard, never venturing more than five or six feet from under the scant cover, mingling his own shadow with those of cedar and spruce trees, gooseberry clumps and wild raspberry tangles, buckthorn brush, and the last of the broken canes of Japanese knotweed that own one corner of the yard. I followed his progress as far as possible through the limited view from the dormer window, then moved to catch a final glimpse of him from the south bedroom window.

Canine predators move with an ease and grace that stirs my admiration. A million years of evolution has shaped them, inside and out, so that they are running machines, long and lean bodies that cover the ground with seemingly effortless speed and unlimited stamina. A broken-winged pheasant that can outdistance me in a footrace by 50 yards in a hundred is quickly run down and captured by my bird dogs loping at three-quarters pace. Wolves can run for miles harrying and tearing at a doomed deer or elk or bison. Coyotes are possessed of lesser powers of pursuit, and foxes least of all, but all of the canines are built to bring prey to bay with a sprinter’s burst of speed and a steeple-chaser’s endurance.

This fox was not running but prancing in enjoyment of the hunt on a sub-zero night. The top layer of the snow had softened under sunlight and warm temperatures a few days before, and when the thermometer fell back to single digits it hardened to a glossy surface that could support the fox’s 20 pounds without cracking or breaking. Any rabbit that chose flight rather than concealment was certain to become his feast.

When a stray beam of moonlight illuminated the fox his fur showed blood red, but for most of his stalk across his hunting grounds he appeared charcoal gray to my eyes, and I did not catch a glimpse of the white tip of his tail until he flipped it up while descending the slope of the hill on the east side of the yard. He was a silhouette upon the snow, a wraith-fox, a ghost. If I had never before seen the silky movements of a fox in the night woods, I may not have convinced myself this apparition was real.

Each of the past seven summers a vixen has raised a litter of kits in a den alongside the road to our farm, and we have often stopped to watch the young foxes play like puppies or kittens, accustomed to our intrusions and showing no fear of the humans who, except for coyotes, must be their most dangerous natural enemy. But this fully grown fox hunting on a moonlit night was purposeful, not playful. He may have loved the hunt, but he was hard at work, deadly serious. I wish I could have seen him roust out and pounce on a vole or run down a rabbit, but that did not happen on the span of hunting ground where I was granted the favor of watching him. He was there, he was gone, and there was no trace of him to prove I had seen him at all.

The next morning I went out to find his tracks, barely visible on the crusty snow, and followed his trail a few hundred yards, going ever east and north. He had paused to mark his territory by spraying the cherry tree sapling in the east yard, dug a small hole in the snow to investigate something he heard or scented, and picked up his pace to cruise through an open section of the woods that must not have looked productive to his hunter’s eye.

Those signs, words on the printed page of the woodland wild, were his story. If I had not found them I would probably have persuaded myself that my midnight vision of him was a dream.

I think that is why we write about our life’s experiences. With the passing of time our memories fade and change, and the moments that are precious to us would be lost “like tears in rain.” This is the old journalist’s admonition: “If you do not make written record of the event, it never happened.” Twenty years from now, thirty maybe, there will be no trace of an important event in a community’s history if there was no “newspaper of record,” some journal entry of the event, a telling of the story, confirmation that it did indeed happen. The same holds for our individual lives.

The written word is our footprint on the snow, the lasting (though not eternal) record of our passing, our shadowy image, our grace, our hunt, our failure and success, our moment in time upon this piece of the Earth. When someone asks me, “Why do you write?” I cannot clearly explain the compulsion, the purpose, the need.

But I think this is why writers write. I think this is why. _____________________________________________________

 More stories about hunting, bird dogs, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays and two novels, all available through my Author Page on Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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