In the last days of August, after a rainy July, we’re working hard to get in the hay crop. Every summer, I help the dairy farmer next door by raking the mown and tedded hay into windrows. There it finishes making and is scooped up by the baler, which mysteriously spits it out as rectangular bales. Today is bright and clear, and the hay hisses as it rolls into the neat windrows behind my rake.
The tractor is almost as old as I am. It’s a 1946 Allis Chalmers, which putts along steadily, pushing exhaust back at me from the rusted pipe above the engine. But I don’t inhale the fumes, since I’m usually looking back over my shoulder to line up the rake-edge with the swath of hay.
I see the fox as I round the corner by the old barn. She trots along between the second and third windrows, ignoring me and the tractor.
I’m close enough to see that she is dingy brown, not the bright red color of spring, and her rat tail is no bush. But she fox-trots effortlessly on scrawny legs as she turns and moves back up the windrow. The she calmly sits down like a dog and watches me. Even when I stop the tractor, she is not alarmed.
At first I think I will watch until she moves, but she does not have hay to rake before the baler arrives, and easily outwaits me. As I put the tractor back in gear, I see her lying on her back and writhing, just like my dog after she jumps on the bed.
This hay field is right across the road from my house. After looking from my porch windows into the hay field for 23 years, I find it odd to look back at the house from this angle. I realize that the vixen is used to this view. She has watched me for years, I think. Watched me hang out wash, start off down the road for a run, and pick petunias from the old water tub. Most of all, she has watched my bantam chickens and, no doubt, helped herself to dinner.
My thoughts move along with the tractor as I rake the lower end of the field by the woods. This fox could not be so old. She has not watched me for 23 years. It’s her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother who have watched. But why am I thinking in matrilineal terms? Maybe because I can easily back trace the patterns in my own life: my mother passing on to me her own mother’s ways, grandmother learning from her grandmother, Nana, who raised her.
I heard in an anthropology class that the Inuit think every seal they catch is the same seal. I’ve often puzzled over this. There must be a translation problem. But when I see a chipmunk outside, or hear a song sparrow, I don’t really see the individual animal.
In 23 years, how many song sparrows, sitting on a hop vine singing their familiar notes, have I watched? How many different chipmunks have my dogs chased onto the stone wall? They all really do look the same to me. Each species is one. Each individual animal is in a stream of DNA flowing through time. Am I any different?
My thoughts have taken me all the way around the field, and there she is, trotting up and down the windrows again. I’m surprised. This isn’t merely a quick encounter leading to discursive musings. I’m curious now about what this fox is doing today
Is she catching mice disturbed by the rake? Seems likely, but I don’t see her doing it. In fact, she starts accompanying me along the front of the field, just one windrow away. She doesn’t look over at me, but we round the corner together. I lose sight of her as I go down the slope towards the woods.
Oddly, I feel honored, although I know this is ridiculous. Maybe with the smell and noise of the tractor, she does not even realize a human being is here. But wait. Foxes are smart—foxy, even. Stories describe the fox as a trickster.
This girl knows I’m here, and she is trotting the windrow again. And she stays for an hour, usually near the barn but sometimes going all the way around the field with me. Across the road, my horses doze in the barn, away from the day’s flies. My phlox is in bloom in the front yard, brilliant white and thick this year. I’ve planted a succession of flowers, starting with the snowdrops in April, then daffodils, tulips and lilacs blooming in turn.
The fox and I look across the road at the white cape house. She owns and knows this section of field and woods better than I do, with my yard of planted flowers, my car taking me to work, my trips to Europe.
When I finish the last tucking in of hay and turn off the tractor in the middle of the field, the silence is stunning after the past hour of bouncing and putting. The fox moves to the edge of the road and her color blends with the goldenrod in the ditch. I walk toward the goldenrod.
Feeling very foolish, but too punchy from heat and thirst to care, I call, “Vixen?” No movement in the ditch. As I step closer, I see her trotting down the road. She slips into the north pasture. Or should I say her hunting ground?
The next day, my collie runs across the north pasture barking. I’m just in time to see the bright face and pointed ears of a half-grown fox kit disappear behind the stone wall.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Jean R. Goldfine