I go to the Northern Rockies every summer and most winters—not far from where wildlife biologist Catherine Raven wrote her jewel of a book, Fox & I. Most times, I see red foxes, beautiful creatures built for speed and grace. Over the past several years, one of these sleek canids has taken to playing with Ghost, my brother-in-law’s part wolf–part husky. The fox and Ghost dart back and forth—careful to keep a respectful distance, crouching, bobbing and weaving, grinning at each other. Once, in a winter storm, Ghost rolled on his back in the snow, kicking all four feet in the air, and the fox quickly did the same. Raven’s book makes me so want to see them again. I will watch more carefully. I will think of her and the red fox with whom she came to share space and time.
Raven, who calls herself “pathologically private,” writes from a cabin near Yellowstone, a refuge far from people and, less successfully, from a past spattered with cruelty and pain. A shorthand summary of Fox & I suggests succinct clarity. Scientist observes nature in situ and in solitude. Scientist encounters red fox. Scientist and fox become “friends.” Scientist reflects on Fox and friendship. Readers wonder what Fox makes of all this.
Interesting, yes? But no. That description comes close to cloying, and there is nothing cloying about this book. This is something altogether different from the latest “went into the wild to find myself” offering.
Raven’s is a memoir unspooled in nature, a first-person account from an unusually observant point of view. She is alone in rugged terrain—by hardscrabble circumstance and to some extent by choice—thinking, working, writing, watching. Then a red fox pads by to investigate who she is and what she is up to in his territory. He arrives at the same time each day and stays for an average of 18 minutes. It is every bit as remarkable that he is a creature of habit as it is that Raven marks his punctuality to establish and verify his patterns. We are in the hands of a well-trained thinker.
Fox (the author is careful to fend off any reflex to name him beyond that) shows up. Raven is lonely. But she is also used to that. What to do? Read to Fox. It is all spellbinding, and it comes early in the book, hooking us for the exhilarating, often tense and difficult ride. Read what? The Little Prince. A boy, a fox, and the notion that true comprehension comes less from one’s eyes than from one’s heart.
A Thoreauvian cabin, a hermetic wildlife biologist, a red fox that shows up at 4:15 for a regular visit. How could it not be treacly? It is not. Raven knows, and her contemporaries remind her, to give anthropomorphism a wide berth. Even so, it tugs at her (and all of us): she is a teacher, and so she gives Fox 15 seconds of silent time to digest each passage read to him, almost daring him to speak.
Augmenting Raven’s vibrant observations of flora and fauna is her deliberation as a person, scientist, writer. Fox & I balances the fluency of her writing with the pauses she offers Fox—and us. Redemption by way of solitude is offset by the darkness that lurks and lingers. This is the tension upon which the book rides and rests. An irrepressibly cruel father drove Raven from her home at 15, and this is woven through her story by fact and design. Her understanding of mortality prowls page to page; she knows her friend will fall prey either to the mange Raven investigates or to the short life of a Rocky Mountain red fox or to drowning or to the manic antagonism of two dogs intent on running Fox to death.
Raven talks to Fox about natural history, about the geode she produces from her pocket. Fox listens. But he is alert, ready to bolt. The encounter is choreographed. Fox and Raven sit two, maybe three feet apart (measure that: you and a beautiful, wild animal). Raven moves forward two inches. Fox retreats the same amount of space. Raven has written a book about reading to a fox that I want to read to anyone or anything that cares to listen.
Would that I could read it to Ghost and the fox the next time they meet up.•