In the prison of her days
A ‘half-tame’ young vixen has taken up residence in the now-closed flower garden of my local park. Passing, I stopped to look. In broad daylight, she was being kept in food (peanuts and sausage meat) by an Italian couple, while a Japanese woman produced a half-packet of Jacob’s cream crackers from a bag folded in her hands. Watching closely, you could see the fox adapting – each quizzical tilt of the head rewarded. As I watched, though, my interest cooled at the gradual depreciating-creep as she gave up a corner of her wildness for trinkets. Even the nearby pigeons looked plump and sanguine in her presence; only a sceptical magpie kept its distance.
In his book, Being a Beast, Charles Foster points out that foxes and dogs belong to different genera, having “parted company about 12 million years ago.” Dogs, he says, have spent the last 50,000 years adapting to human beings. He contends, however, that foxes have the “raw mental processing power of dogs.” Foster goes on to say that adult foxes are “aggressively possessive about food.” Arguably, it is this huge appetite to survive that drives all mammals. In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men seem to be able to endure everything except hunger. The historian Yoval Noah Harari suggests that human beings did not so much domesticate crops, as were domesticated by them, as farming lead to a shift from nomadic existence to permanent settlement. And therefore, a more traditional theory runs, to the city; to civilisation itself.
And I sometimes see a falling star…
The near-certainty of seeing something can sometimes seem to diminish its value. For two nights running last week, I searched for the Lyrid meteor shower. I followed advice to gaze into the north-eastern sky after midnight, towards the constellation Lyra. Some remaining light pollution one night; cloud-cover the next. With almost no other human company at that hour on the heath, I circled home – looking for a sign. Into that night-walk appeared six foxes. Urban foxes are common in London, but I’ve never seen so many in one dark hour. And out of this stillness, I heard new sounds. The first, a real bark – whether dog fox or vixen, I couldn’t say. (The poet Alice Oswald describes the vixen as “a woman with a man’s voice.”) The second noise, two cubs ‘play-fighting’ under a streetlight – yelping. Imagine! And, for the first time a few weeks ago, I heard the unearthly electric wail of coupling foxes in the long grass (nature’s other great hunger). I stumbled onto the plaintive scene like young Actaeon on the sight of Diana bathing. A human voyeur on a kind of vulpes interruptus.
I will have to wait until next year to see the Lyrid shower – her bright eye – the sudden brush between Hercules and Cygnus. But I’d sooner wait and be caught off-guard. Perhaps because we know we must give ourselves up – to all in life that would tame us.
All of this brought to mind a poem I’d written in the winter, Starveling. It’s posted in the POEMS section of this site:
References in the post:
Charles Foster, Being a Beast (Profile Books, 2016)
Yoval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2014)
Alice Oswald, ‘Fox’ in Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape, 2016)
The sub-headings are from Auden’s elegy for Yeats, and Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Exposure’ (more on this later…)