Standing at the kitchen sink, hands sponging soapy dinner dishes, I glimpsed a gaited movement in the glow of the street lamp. A cat is what I expected to see, but as my eyes focused on the critter I realized it was a fox. A fox trotting along the vacant pavement, as if to remind me that I had finally come home to a wilder place.
It was late April and my first week living in Washburn, WI after 13 years in a suburb of St. Paul, MN. It had been the longest residence of my married life (near 24 years) and the most congested. Never had I lived among so many people. Certainly I found coyotes, cardinals and tree frogs around me, but the thrum of commuters, lawn-mowers and overhead commercial airliners dims nature like inversion smudges the lines of a city-scape.
Here in Bayfield County, nature transmits like HDTV with home theater surround sound. Who needs digital entertainment when life teems within your touch and gulls wake you in the morning to remind you that the air is cooled by a great inland sea two blocks away? Why adjust the color when color is subjective to the day? I never knew until I moved here how fickle Lake Superior is in wearing one hue, and that my favorite color would not be deep blue no matter how well it contrasts with brownstone cliffs and pink beaches.
The quiet is not without sound. I can now tell the difference between squirrel chatter, spring peepers and a phoebe. I know when the pileated woodpeckers are pounding on a pine or a power pole. And I can hear my neighbors in conversation three house away (and the houses all sit on wide wooded lots, not tucked up tight like stadium seating). It’s as if I had played heavy-metal music in the background for over a decade and now the radio is turned off.
Sight follows sound, and I am learning to see. There are wildflowers growing in the grass: tiny sprigs of white, rambles of purple and stalks topped in petals of blood orange. Funny how there seems to be less dandelions in natural lawns than in the Roundup Ready turfs of suburbia. Most everyone mows here; it’s not a lack of care, it’s just natural, like natural is okay. It’s beautiful. And it invites the presence of a fox.
The dogs prance and pull at their leashes some nights when we visit the potty-grounds before bed. The dark grips its obscurities, and for all I know the dogs sense a squirrel. Maybe it’s the fox. She? Let’s say, yes. She has a red ruff and ears, but her wolfish coat marks her as a gray fox. I have seen her so close up that my hand prickles in anticipation of stroking her soft fur. The fox visits the back yard next door nearly every day and has a favorite tree where sunlight pools at the base around 3 p.m. That’s where she likes to sit.
Between my room with its window open to receive what the day brings–the mineral taste of a wash of rain or the warble of robins in the grass–and the fox tree is a clothes line. My dwelling is a two-story brick structure the color of brownstone with eight apartments. I live on the bottom floor in the second bedroom with my daughter Allison, her husband Drew and our collective quad of dogs. The clothes line looks to be in the broad back yard of the neighbor, and perhaps it was. It seems that the neighbor and her husband built this complex that they no longer own, yet that sense of ownership remains beyond the signing of documents.
Allison met Lou Ann first, hanging clothes to dry in the June sunlight. They talked about the fox and how it has lingered here for three years. Since that conversation, I am diligent to look for the fox around 3 p.m. Although experts claim that gray fox sightings are rare due to their wooded habitat and nocturnal activities, they are known to nap in sunny places, even up a tree since they can climb. They have a small home range and are said to be territorial.
Some people live along golf courses; others in gated communities with covenants; I live in gray fox territory within view of a napping tree. For several afternoons I’ve sat beneath a cottonwood with my camera, but the only time I get a photographic shot is when the gray fox is on the move. Pretty as she is, the gray fox fuses into the grass and glooms like a mottled pile of dry pine needles. She materializes when she moves–I have seen her trot, leap off Lou Ann’s deck and roll in her favorite napping spot, sunny-side up.
Lou Ann was spraying flowers tonight, so I grabbed my camera and stepped outside to introduce myself. I anticipated the story of the fox like it would be my after-dinner dessert. Lou Ann welcomes my wave, and I ask about the fox as heartily as I would spoon into creme brulee. Turns out there are two. She tells me to note the difference in the noses: the mama fox has a pink one and the younger yearling does not. Both are fat, and there are hardly any more chipmunks around.
Do you know about the bears, Lou Ann asks. Ah, the bears…the first day I sat writing at my desk with the window wide open to my new world, I heard her talking to a man about three bears in town. Not wanting to admit to eavesdropping so soon in our infant relationship I simply counter, What about the bears? She tells me that there were three in her back yard. Last year a mama bear had three cubs and now the trio is trouble, although DNR trapped two and released them on Hurly. Having grown up in a bad-bear dumping grounds (Markleeville received the release of wayward Yosemite caniforms), I know what it feels like to reside in Hurley. Sorry, Hurley, but we have one last bear to send your way. We’ll keep the foxes.
As we chat, I catch movement. Oh, the fox is listening to us. Lou Ann follows my gaze and offers that I can go take pictures if I’d like. It’s the last and best bite of creme brulee. As I stealth across the lawn, Lou Ann continues to spray, telling me, It keeps the deer away which keeps the bears away. I don’t want to ponder bears drawn to deer at the moment, I’m fox hunting. Poor lighting; it’s evening, in the shade of woods and setting to rain–I can smell it in the air. One photo is decent; the other blurred.
Yet, my perception of nature grows keener every day in Gray Fox Territory.