What Does the Fox See?
By David Brown
revisionist theory about the fox has been circulating for a while that challenges the animal’s legendary
cunning, suggesting instead that the Reynard of fable doesn’t actually rely on wiliness to catch its
prey but more often stumbles on its dinners by accident. This theory insists that the fox, far from
being wise to the ways of the forest, simply puts in a lot of aimless miles until it accidentally cuts
the path of some potential prey, which it then captures thanks to quick reflexes. There is an old
saying, variously directed at wolves, coyotes, and foxes, that they live by their feet. The revisionists
suggest that the fox, at least, does so largely to the exclusion of an intelligent brain.
I’m as susceptible as the next person to the intellectual charms of revisionism, and I had
this theory in mind one winter a few years back when I came upon the trail of a red fox as I
started up the Champney Brook trail on Mount Chocorua in northern New Hampshire. Since the animal
and I were climbing the same mountain by the same route, I was able to examine its trail at length and learn
what I could from the record of its behavior in the snow.
Back in those days, I was still testing the idea that an animal leaves behind a diary from which we might –
with some practice – read intention or accident, success or tragedy, even wisdom perhaps. With enough
careful observation, I suspected, Thoreau himself might have discovered the reason for the hiccup
in the fox’s trail that he observed one winter morning across Walden Pond. For a fox does little
for no reason, and one of the adjectives that well describes its winter behavior is “efficient.”
Unless engaged in the pan-species foolishness of courting rituals, the fox’s movements
are winnowed down to the necessary alone. So, in imitation of Thoreau, I aligned
myself with the fox’s trail so that I might align myself with its wisdom,
if wisdom it expressed.
It was early on the coldest morning yet of the young winter.
The temperature was in the teens and had been below zero
in the valley only a couple of hours earlier when the
tracks had been laid down. They were so fresh
that the crystals of snow around their rim
were still sharp and could easily be
disturbed with a puff of breath.