illustration by Carla Wilson
It was the peculiar moment in the day that some people—myself included—refer to as “the gloaming,” when the sun’s set, but darkness has yet to fall and objects flatten as shadows dissipate. That’s when I saw it, standing in the middle of our country road, its spindly torso and pencil-thin legs straddling the single lane, a question caught in the moment of asking.
Initially I mistook the creature for a small fawn. My family and I sometimes refer to dusk as Deer O’Clock, as the pastures and woods on and around our farmhouse teem with deer—mostly does and fawns, though sometimes you’ll catch sight of a buck—each evening. But this was no deer, nor was it an emaciated dog or comically large squirrel. No, this animal was my familiar, if rarely seen, foe: This was the little red fox.
In my time as a farmer, I’ve endured complicated relationships with animals. There was the milk cow who kicked for the head when one approached her udder, the pigs who sat down when we tried to load them into a trailer. Rabbits ate our garden, and raccoons ate our poultry. But the one animal who’s driven me damn near to tears in frustration, all the while enchanting this old fool with its beguiling ways? That would be the fox.
Now, when I refer to “the fox,” you should know that I’m actually referring to a whole mess of foxes who traverse my homestead. I know this both because I’ve been told countless times, “You’ve got one fox, you’ve got at least three,” and because I once saw simultaneous specimens in both the east and west pastures. No matter—in my mind, these disparate creatures are “the fox.” When I see the fox and reach for a rifle, I do so in anticipation of solving the fox problem.
Oh, but why would I shoot a fox? Yes, literature’s made a trope of them as cunning, devious and downright evil entities, but that’s hardly a reason to put down an animal. Besides, the fox recently enjoyed an impressive rebranding as hipster creature of cool. (“We are the foxes,” croons Taylor Swift.) I saw a low-budget documentary about fox hunting the other day, but the sport seems based more on a British love of inclement weather and willful discomfort than actually shooting a Vulpes vulpes.
My answer’s simpler: chickens. Foxes love ‘em and I have ‘em.
The last time I’d seen my crimson criminal—creator of feather piles we raised from chicks—was on a two-day stakeout I manned from our upstairs bathroom window, the lavatory that conveniently overlooks the chicken yard. I spent a series of maddening hours watching and waiting with loaded weapon until, at long last, I spied his shadow in the woods beyond. I raised my gun, steadied my breath as the little canid crept from the underbrush. He eyed my laying hens, and I observed him, hunkered like a cat and ready to pounce, for a long moment. Then he leapt, his wiry frame electrified by frantic kinetics as he danced around a chicken, jaws snapping, tail twitching and feet prancing in a ridiculous show of movement.
I took aim, squeezed the trigger and, because I am a terrible shot (I care little for guns and see no great thrill in target practice), missed the animal completely. The crack captured the fox’s attention, however, and he ceased his little dance to turn his beady eyes up to me. I fired again, and missed again, but I somehow got close enough to scare him back into the woods. For the moment, my chickens were safe.
The fox’s dance stuck with me, though. In his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Kentucky author (and personal hero of this Kentucky-born author) Wendell Berry writes, “Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.” I love that command—which I read as a call to over-activity for the basic fact there’s so much a body can do—all the more for having seen a fox deliver a wildly unnecessary amount of footfalls for his desired outcome. In my own way, I do aim to emulate the fox, dancing this way and that, covering more ground than necessary simply because the ground is there and I have the feet for dancing.
So when the fox, likely a different fox but still “the fox,” abandoned the middle of the road to gallop into the trees behind my chicken yard, I instinctively grabbed the rifle and headed for my bathroom window. A few minutes into my vigil, though, I remembered something: It was dusk, when chickens head for the coop. And so, choosing the easier of solutions, I locked my rifle away and stepped outside to close up the chickens.
The night was cool and comfortable. Hens safely secured for the night, I allowed myself a stroll around the yard. I peered into the woods in hopes of glimpsing my foe, then, from the direction of the house, my wife shouted, “There he is!” I turned and heard a rustle to my right, saw the underbrush move as the fox skittered away, to his den or maybe to a neighbor’s chicken yard. For the briefest of moments I’d stood, unarmed and unaware, right beside my nemesis on a beautiful evening: two predators with no prey, just a couple of fools dancing idly in the gloaming.
/ Rodney Wilson is either a pig farmer who writes or a writer who farms pigs. Either way, he’s got a freezer full of bacon and a finished manuscript, and he’s trying to sell both.
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