The year of the fox by Patricia Karamesines

Red Fox public domain

From July 2010 to December 2013, the two years following Mark’s stroke and brain surgery, he struggled to regain lost cognitive and physical ground. The hemorrhage occurred in the back of the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex in an area of the brain that supports eyesight. During the stroke he lost more than half of his field of vision. On the day we figured out that something momentous had occurred and I rushed him to the hospital, he cocked his head to his left side, like a bird, to see the doctor and nurses. We caught the stroke too late so some of the vision loss became permanent. The change in his vision disturbed him most at night when the house turned foreign. Every little object on the floor or crease in a rug transformed into a confusing and dangerous obstacle.

The combined brain injuries from the stroke and surgery to resect the vessel that bled also affected dexterity. His sense of balance suffered. He could no longer walk over uneven ground. He tripped, stumbled, fell, and frequently dropped objects he tried to grip and hold. One by one my glass mixing and storage bowls slipped through his hands and shattered on the floor. When I realized he wasn’t going to stop handling them I replaced them with plastic ware. He was a craftsman and had developed fine motor skills for manipulating tools, but after the stroke, he cut himself with kitchen knives when he tried to prepare his own meals. When he cooked for himself he often burned the food. To avoid sparking a house fire he began cooking only what he could prepare in the microwave.

We learned he suffered from prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces—even those of neighbors and friends. To compensate, he engaged in adaptive reasoning, listening to conversations and inferring from details who the person was that had stopped him in the grocery store in such a familiar fashion. Sometimes, he suffered episodes where he lost consciousness and collapsed. We came to suspect these incidents were seizures. As he came to, Saul and I helped him off the floor, sat him down on the nearest raised surface, and watched over him until he regained full awareness.

Despite the challenges, Mark had not lost his “fix it” impulse. He went through the house installing nightlights to help him find his way through the dark, running strings of Christmas lights in some places so that they worked like runway lights. He rearranged cords and other objects that posed tripping hazards, ridding the house of offending items. Common levels of household noises overwhelmed him. His sense of smell had also become heightened. Unpleasant odors conspired to deepen his anxiety. Some of these odors, we came to realize, were phantom sensory events, products of his brain injury.

As he whittled away all sounds and odors that over-stimulated him, his attention swung to the cats. Our daughter had not kept their litter boxes clean enough. After a few unheeded warnings, he proclaimed all of our house cats outdoor cats.

The rest of us understood that the cats’ banishment meant their deaths. By this time we had several, some of which were from two litters from a feral tortoiseshell we’d adopted and called Dazzle. Cats from those two litters included polite money cat Carmella, air-headed Otter (a long-haired tortoiseshell), and irascible Rocket, the sole survivor of Dazzle’s miscarried second litter. Munchkins Mouse and her sister Ears (named for her outlandishly large ears) were either drop-offs on our rural road or feral kittens who came in from the cold.

Until the end of 2010, our neighborhood supported a large population of feral and pet cats. Nearly everybody living along our road kept at least two or three felines to control the variety of rodents native to the area. Of course, this method of vermin control comes with outlandish expense to other species living in or at the edges of our semi-wild yards. Outdoor cats treat every smaller, more vulnerable creature living on their hunting grounds as commodities for their stomachs and, worse yet, for their amusement. In our yard, birds, lizards, chipmunks, and rabbits all fell prey. The local hummingbirds, who we’d invited onto our back porch prior to the cats’ arrivals, suffered before we managed to teach the cats not to hunt them. We did this by throwing cold water on the cats whenever we saw them near the feeders, muscles coiled to missile the birds when they flew in for nectar. We rescued hummers from their mouths and chastised the cats, who proved unexpectedly sensitive to reproach. But during this time, we lost the hummingbirds’ trust. They no longer allowed us to stand close to them nor would they sit on our fingers. We mourned the loss of our relationship with our hummers but believed it for the best, given the cats’ presence in our lives and now, unfortunately, in theirs.

Sometimes we rescued other animals from our cats just in time; sometimes we arrived too late. The stunning irony was that now the cats had been thrown out into the harsh world they had themselves become targets for predators. Owls, hawks, and coyotes all hunt cats. Fast drivers along our rural road put pressure on the cat population. While that isn’t exactly predation (it’s more like inattention) we’d lost one of our favorite young toms—Carmella and Otter’s brother Tab—when he was hit by a car. Another brother, Ambris, disappeared without a trace a couple years later. Dazzle, their mother, had always been a wanderer. She lived outside on her own for at least a year while before we adopted her and she never settled for living in the house. She came in only on the condition we let her out when she wanted. Sometimes she disappeared for a couple of days at a time. One day, she failed to return home.

So there were the usual losses. But during the last third of 2010, a dramatic and mysterious shift in pet and feral cat populations occurred. The animals disappeared rapidly, down to the last barn cat in the neighborhood. We felt the remarkable change with dismay. One day a cat was on the porch, winding in and out of our legs, talking to us, and the next it wasn’t. First we lost Otter, then Ears, then Mouse. The entire area became eerily catless. Neighbors blamed coyotes, but one night, as my husband and I drove home, a large, long-legged red fox flashed through the headlights. I tapped the brakes and barely avoided hitting it. Shortly after this my daughter reported encountering the animal in the neighborhood in broad daylight, a splash of bright red among the silver sage. She said it didn’t seem especially afraid but watched her for a bit then walked away casually. Foxes are notorious for preying on cats.

Within six weeks of Mark’s evicting the cats we were down to just two, Rocket and Carmella. Somehow, they survived the slaughter. In fact, when the predation ended after somebody hit the fox with their car, they were the only two cats left alive among all the households on our road. At nearly nine years old today, they are by far the eldest cats in the neighborhood.

During the year of the fox, Rocket and Carmella’s behavior changed. They became extremely wary, jumpy. Perhaps because of her untimely birth Rocket had turned into an especially tough, ruthless hunter and bold confronter of other animals in the yard. One day we returned home to find her sitting feet away from a neighbor’s two-hundred pound ram who had escaped and was helping himself to grass in our yard. She appeared to be training a watchful, perhaps challenging eye on the intruder. She would even charge our cat-hating husky Sky—an especially dangerous game.

But during the year of the fox Rocket become increasingly dependent on human company. Whenever I went out at night to push Teah up and down the porch in her wheelchair, both cats—usually Rocket first—slunk up onto the porch within minutes of our appearance, as if relieved to have protection. It was not unusual for one or both of them to suddenly go on alert with their fur standing on end as they watched something out in the yard or in the pasture behind our house. Sometimes Rocket came flying up onto the porch, her tail a bristle brush, her body tense with terror as she clearly sought my protection from what I suspected to be the neighborhood Reynard, though when I looked out into the darkness, I saw only the reflection from the flashlight bounce back from a pair of eyes.

* * * * *

In his book Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram paints a desolate picture of humankind’s contemporary spiritual and physical state. Those of us living in fortresses of civilization have fallen away, he says, from our primordial nature whereby we were once much more intimately connected to the natural environment, one thread of consciousness woven into a gorgeous and complex tapestry of life. Our profound loss of reciprocity—exchange of interaction—with the animate earth, he says, is one we feel keenly and have sought to restore but have done so only poorly compared to what we once had. Among other things, our fall from the garden has led to us locating paradise beyond this world, in heavens and other realms—including the interior regions of the self—whereto we may travel spiritually while alive and upon the deaths of our bodies venture wholly as spirits. Abram asserts that these supernatural realms and the personages with which we people them are the impoverished results of our narrative take of life on earth where we hold ourselves to be in sole possession of the earth’s store of intelligence. Combined with a convenient portrait that we’ve painted of the natural world that depicts it a mechanistic and soulless grocery and hardware store, our errant beliefs have enabled us to savage nature in ways that our ancestors neither could nor would have—especially if the tribe had a powerful shaman on hand to negotiate and control the human impact on the surrounding animal, mineral, aquatic, and vegetable communities.

After suffering this unfortunate fall, Abram says we concentrated a great deal of language and technological brio upon maintaining our distance:

To be sure, our obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general, as well as by the very structures of our civilized existence—by the incessant drones of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by electric lights that eclipse not only the stars but the night itself; by air “conditioners”that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles, and shopping malls that finally obviate the need to step outside the purely human world at all.

Abram’s words are nothing if not passionate. But let’s step back and look for other reasons for why people might be prone to reducing the world to bite-sized portions. While deeper connections with the natural world—and with other humans—would certainly enliven humankind and, hence, the world we inhabit both inwardly and outwardly, in locating the gone-wrongness of our relationship with nature solely in human misbehavior, Abram may be missing a more important aspect of human nature that shows the depths of our still alive and kicking connection to uncivilized nature. In fact, in trying to dismantle the concept of human dominance and specialness, Abram winds up asserting it from another angle.

Abram remarks that the human tendency to assume lack of awareness in other species and in the land itself reflects not an actual deficiency in the perspectives of nonhuman species but a perceptual shift in humankind by which our “civilized eyes and ears” have become oblivious to those perspectives. Our technologies, the artifices of civilization, and our applications of language have led to our circumscribing nonhuman nature or “Other”. This perceptual shift, he says, has led to civilization’s “current commoditization of ‘nature’”: We see it “simply as a stock of ‘resources’ for human civilization”. In short, civilizing ourselves “made possible reduction of the animal (and the earth) to an object” or storehouse of objects.

* * * * *

I walk out onto the back porch to shake crumbs out of a towel Mark and Val laid under a loaf of homemade bread as they sliced it. When I step up to the railing I hear a series of sharp chirps then see a flash of movement. A rattle of commotion follows. Through slats in the porch’s floorboards I see an animal streak like an arrow across the ground. It’s Rocket, our black and white cat. As my hearing focuses on what’s happening, separating the cries of distress from bird chatter coming from nearby trees as well as from other animal sounds near and far, I pick out trills and bird-like barks of fear from another creature. It might be a rodent. I realize that Rocket has cornered something under our second-story porch. I hurry down to see what’s going on and if there’s time to intervene.

I find Rocket standing by the wall of the house. A chipmunk has wedged itself between a board and the basement wall, trying to escape certain death. Rocket looks up at me, her eyes flashing uncertainty. She is a veteran of our rescue attempts, including our protecting her from dogs, foxes, and other predators. Yet of our two remaining cats, she is the most ruthless, instantly killing any prey she captures then eating it, often bringing select innards up to the door sill and leaving them as provisions for us. Her calico sister Carmella often carries prey around in her mouth, alive and sometimes unharmed, allowing us time to rescue it in fair to good condition. With Rocket, however, rescue is a matter of prevention. In order to save an animal Rocket has set her sights on, we must interrupt the hunt and bar the capture. The moment the creature is in her possession, it’s dead.

The shrill notes of terror in the chipmunk’s voice are pronounced and obvious. To me, its fear is palpable, as shrill as fingernails scraping along my now thoroughly scribbled over tabula rasa of consciousness. Rocket treats the chipmunk’s screams only as a beacon. As long as the chipmunk makes noise she can get a clear fix on where it is. Now that I understand what’s going on I pick up Rocket, who protests my interference with her own vocalizations. She sounds a bit like an angry duck quacking. I prod the chipmunk with my toe and it sprints down the length of the space below the porch and runs under the steps. I can’t see where it goes from there but all other chipmunks we’ve rescued sprint across the yard and dart into the p-j forest, or what’s left of it, in the pasture areas west of our property. I set Rocket down and walk inside the house to collect a pair of scissors and a plastic bowl to gather chives and tarragon from my herb bed.

When I step back outside I hear the chipmunk shrieking. Rocket has cornered it again in the space behind the porch stairs. Carmella has been drawn to the racket and sits just off to the side awaiting the drama’s outcome. Too conscientious to horn in on what’s obviously Rocket’s hunt, she seems nonetheless completely engaged as a spectator.

I hurry down the back porch stairs to shoo Rocket away again then with a pole drive the chipmunk out of the space where it has trapped itself. Once more, I don’t see where it goes but expect it has at last done the usual thing and bolted for the woods. I walk into the garden to cut chives but again hear the chipmunk sounding alarm. Rocket has returned. She has treed the chipmunk in a wild rose bush growing against the house. Again I chase her and Carmella away then try to roust the chipmunk. Exhausted and afraid, it chirps and barks frantically but refuses to leave its thorny refuge. I don’t know what to do. I consider grabbing it but decide the risk of being bitten is too high. I’m not as fast as I was back when I captured snakes, lizards, mice and other small creatures barehanded, partly because I decided to let that particular talent fall by the wayside. I hit upon the idea of taking the cats inside for the moment to allow the chipmunk time to escape.

I wake my daughter who corrals the cats and brings them in the house. Carmella often takes our interference as endgame, but Rocket can be obsessive about completing her kills. She’s frustrated with being housebound and prowls restlessly, repeatedly asking to be allowed back outside to make the kill. I refuse. She darts rapidly back and forth across the floor in front of me, her irritation building.

Half an hour later I check the rose bush to find the chipmunk still there. Another half hour after that I look again. There’s no sign, no sound. Thinking the little animal has finally worked out its escape I let anxious Rocket outside, but within minutes the drama renews. Hearing the chipmunk’s cries I dash out and discover Rocket has chased it back into the rosebush. I clap my hands and shout at Rocket. She startles and bolts around the end of the house. At the same time the chipmunk runs out of the rose bush and back beneath the porch. I watch, my own frustration building. Why does this animal return to the very places that put it in within reach of the cats? I decide it must be crazy with fear. I grab my shoes then run to look to for it and make certain that it gets past Rocket. As I walk beneath the porch, the chipmunk come out of hiding behind me. It darts up the little rise abutting the house and bolts through the side yard. Although I don’t see exactly what happens, I believe its mad dash takes it right past Rocket. I trot around the corner to look. The chipmunk has made it across the side yard and taken sanctuary in a derelict vehicle on a neighbor’s property. I can hear it chirping madly, scolding. Rocket crouches beneath the vehicle, watching me warily. I pick up a stick and throw it. It strikes the truck and Rocket skedaddles. At last, the chipmunk seems to have reached safety.

* * * * *

Close observation of nature, including of our house pets, shows that many species, if not most, live in similar and perhaps even more profound states of obliviousness to the mindstate and experiential aliveness of other species, treating “not us” creatures as stocks of resources to supply their own larders and to service their genetic imperatives. Some ants keep slaves and war with each other as well as prey on other species of insects. Hawks and owls hunt rabbits, rodents, other birds, and house pets. Foxes hunt rabbits, rodents, birds, and house pets. Coyotes hunt just about everything, including foxes. Wasps hunt grasshoppers, flies, beetles, and spiders. Viruses make hard use of many species. The local mistletoe species kills the juniper trees it infests. Some animals and viruses can and will kill or eat humans, like the cytomegalovirus that liquefied parts of my daughter’s brain before she was born. They do these things without exhibiting a twinkle of awareness of the terror and suffering they cause their prey species. They do this without the technologies and language that Abram says uniquely fit humankind to abide in blind-minded objectification and exploitation of everything nonhuman.

It’s certainly true that we people do this on a massive, self-serving scale (perhaps much to the joy of viruses that take advantages of just such behavior). But when it comes to exploitation of the earth and of Other, we humans do not really live any more parted from the environment, physically or emotionally, than other species and are not unique in our predilection to objectify Other, including others of our own species. In fact, it seems much more apparent that in this case we exist on a continuum with most other species in their varying levels of unawareness of and unresponsiveness to the expressive natures of other forms of life surrounding them. The problem might not be that we humans, through civilization and technology, have removed ourselves from nature, which has led to objectification of the earth, but rather that we haven’t yet shifted very far off that common ground of reflexive predatory impulses we share with many other species. Technology, language (including the philosophies Abram traces that gave rise to the subject-object split and our free-booting treatment of the nonhuman world), and civilization might make possible our entrenching of the objectification of Other in the same way that evolving sharp claws or a flexible backbone enables a predator to ensnare or outrun its prey, but such adaptations don’t cause exploitation.

Thus Abram’s assertion that people are unique in this condition of unawareness, especially in comparison to our prehistory and history, returns us to the position of human specialness he seeks to disabuse us of.

The disservice Abram does language, written language in particular, may be quite profound. Any progress we’ve made in recognizing this animal orientation in ourselves and in awakening to the savagery of it, any dawning awareness of other possibilities for relation with each other and with other species, might be precisely the result of our developing the language to see, describe, address, legislate, critique and move up from it. Human language might be the living, changing key to creating a new experiential environment, both for humanity and for nonhuman species together.

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker suggests that human language and the expansion of literacy (by “literacy” he means the reading of written language), which began in the eighteenth century, may be playing a powerful role in the gentling of humankind. Pinker calls written language and our ability to read it “technology for perspective taking,” connecting it with the quality of human empathy, which he notes is not solely a matter or “feeling compassion” for another. For Pinker, empathy is also the state of mind that occurs when you step “into someone else’s vantage point”. Such movement inside another’s words “reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.” Not only might such experiences make it possible for us to connect, even if just here and there, with another human whose experiences and ideas differ from ours and with those who might suffer as a result of their fellow humans’ behavior, but reading another person’s narrative can give rise to moments of learning and, even more importantly, the sharing of perspectives, which can in turn help us break out of the animal tendency to defend and protect only members of our own pack or tribe while making war on others or exploiting them with no capacity at all to acknowledge their plight, even as we cause it.

So those earlier philosophies like Platonism to whose account Abram lays the origins of the problem of objectification might not provide in their writings the evidence of the break with older, deeper ways of being in the world that Abram supposes they do. They might simply express animal nature at earlier points in the evolution of the human brain and of language. The phenomenology of Husserl that Abram cites, Merleau-Ponty’s springboarding off of it, and practices of cultural reciprocity might not represent a rediscovery of the broken primordial connection between humans and the rest of the living world. They might be advancements in the technology—evolving  language that has enabled early discoveries of ways we might live beyond how our species has commonly behaved, clear back to its earliest roots in the animal, pre-language world. It’s more likely that we have been treating nature as an array of resources all along. Perhaps that is why, in the past, we have required shamans to ensure “that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it” (Abram, p. 7). Otherwise, why would we have needed such mediators at all? The development of human language’s mainsprings of metaphor and other elements for perceiving and making connections may well be leading us out of the reductionism our species has lived with for so long with most other creatures, opening ways for our living more deeply in relation with and for acceptance of the never-ending stream of offers life makes to us for deeper engagement with those creatures whose lives flow up to and mingle with ours.

* * * * *

I walk out of the house and climb into our vehicle, which always sits in the driveway facing west. As I start the car, a mature red-tailed hawk—one of the most impressive sights there is, especially close-up—flies across my field of view forty feet from where I sit. It takes a split second to realize it’s carrying an animal in its talons. It’s a fully-grown prairie dog, probably just taken in the field across from our house. The prairie dog’s limp body hangs like a rag beneath the hawk, swaying lifelessly in time to the beat of the bird’s wings.

Although I’m late for work I stay to study the image as the hawk flies past with its prize, perhaps to a mate waiting on a nest. Poor prairie dogs, I think. They get it from all sides: from the air as eagles and hawks prey on them, from the ground where foxes ambush them and coyotes dig them out of their burrows, from the bacterium that causes eruptions of plague in their communities and that decimates their population every 5-10 years.

Then there are the men, boys, and young women with guns, who, when this keystone species emerges in February from its burrows, prey upon them from a distance, making sport of killing these animals on the argument that they’re destructive vermin that ruin crops, damage golf courses and lawns, and carry plague. Their burrows, as the narrative take goes, undermine the surface soil so that horses fall through and break their legs. Tractors working fields that have prairie dog subterranean towns similarly drop through the ground into burrows and break parts.

Shortly after we moved into the area, we confronted a neighbor who owned the field across from us over his shooting prairie dogs illegally from a position within a couple hundred feet of our house. The noise often disturbed our peace, including in the mornings, after we’d spent long nights helping Teah through an illness or other crisis. He took offense at our request that he respect the law and move off to at least the legally specified distance of six hundred feet from our living space before letting the bullets fly. His outrage that we didn’t acknowledge in his right to “protect his crops and property” was real and visceral. Like the hawks, owls, foxes, gopher snakes, the Yersinia pestis bacterium, and coyotes, many people treat with prairie dogs in terms of what will benefit their own survival.

Human language has changed and continues to change both itself and us. Even as its unique capacity to enable advancement and innovation beyond the abilities of animals confined to animal communication systems sets us apart from them, it still bears markers of very old, very deep behaviors we share yet with many creatures—among them, territorialism, competitiveness for dominance, the tendency to look out for our own at the expense of others, the impulse to exploit the Other. Yet if Pinker is right, along with the development of human language has come the flowering of empathy, the ability to look more deeply into the experiential worlds of other people and creatures then shift our own position to become more inclusive, to grow more invested in aiding others to improve their condition, and to see what else we may all become, and not as a mere matter of how others may be of greater use to us.

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pic of mePatricia Karamesines {p.karamesines@gmail.com} is the author of The Pictograph Murders (Signature Books 2004), an award-winning mystery novel set in the Four Corners area. Her poetry appears in the landmark anthology Fire in the Pasture (Peculiar Pages 2011) and has also been published in Dialogue and Irreantum. She is the founding editor of BYU’s literary journal Inscape, a feat she remains satisfied with. She has won numerous awards for her poetry and essays. She writes for A Motley Vision and runs the nature writing blog Wilderness Interface Zone that advocates for the greening of human language. Currently, she is an English tutor and adjunct at Utah State University-Eastern Blanding where she works closely with the university’s Native American student population. “The year of the fox” is a chapter from her work in progress, Crossfire Canyon, a book about language and landscape.