A biologist finds solace in a wild animal's friendship

Spiegel & Grau, 304 pages, $28

The words Catherine Raven chooses to describe her first encounters with a wild fox are like something out of romance novel. “My fearfulness of the wrongness of the act soon overwhelmed the happiness it brought me,” she writes. Anthropomorphism isn’t her thing: She’s a biologist with deep knowledge of zoology. And yet she finds herself looking forward to his daily visits, reading aloud to him, seeking him out for expeditions.

Because Raven accepts that communicating with an animal is not the same as conversing with a person, and that the bond she shares with a fox can’t replicate the intimacy between humans, she’s not certain, to start, how to capture the enduring satisfaction of her life with him. What emotional vocabulary can express both the joy and the doubts she experienced devoting copious time and love to a wild creature? This fanciful, literate, unsentimental, and yet deeply felt memoir is her answer.

A former National Park ranger who desired to live far from people after a difficult early life, Raven got to know Fox, as she calls him, after he began visiting every afternoon, settling down in the bunchgrass not far from her cabin. His regular visits, she recognizes, are against the natural order of things: Foxes avoid people as a rule. Yet Fox would remain in his spot, even if she sat barely six feet away in a camp chair, a book in her lap. When she starts reading aloud to him, she selects The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in which a fox plays a small but significant role. “It is only with the heart one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” the fictional animal tells the prince. Clearly, Raven wonders how Fox will teach the same to her.

Books had kept Raven company while living alone in a mountain valley, two miles up a gravel road, 60 miles from a small unnamed city in central Montana. Saint-Exupéry is a favorite author, along with Herman Melville. Raven likens herself to Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick, who cured anxiety and boredom with jobs in wild and beautiful places. She refers glancingly to the abusive home she left at age 15 and the conclusion she came to that “when your own parents don’t want you, no one else will.”

This background explains her need for Fox and her ease with his mute companionship as they begin spending more time together. She locates his paths, and they traverse her land in tandem. In one scene the author and Fox follow several deer in the evening light, and Raven observes aloud that the bright white markings on the animals’ backsides are “glowing like highway markers.” Perhaps, she speculates, this enables the deer to follow each other easily even in the dusky twilight, and the straight file they form confines their scent, making them less vulnerable to predators. That Fox is unable to understand her does not lessen her enjoyment in discussing “a limitless number of engaging topics” with him. And his habit of presenting himself — standing on his hind legs, pressing his nose against her front window — provides a lonely soul with incomparable solace.

Every story demands a language of its own and Raven chooses a fluid, swift-moving style, which takes some getting used to. Her consciousness flits unpredictably from explaining the geological heritage of a boulder to a short history of fox hunting in England to recalling her memories as a child riding in a vintage T-Bird with her gun-toting grandfather. She’s a superb nature writer, who also delves into cultural topics, such as the fox icons found in Inari temples in Japan.

More than most books, Raven’s sets out unique, even eccentric, terms, and she uses fictional techniques to round out her account, including sections told from Fox’s perspective. If a reader is willing, the experience of journeying alongside her as she lives with Fox and meditates about him is extremely rewarding. When the animal disappears for many days, Raven’s frantic distress, her imaginings of Fox “dead, caged, or manacled,” her bargaining with God for his return, are wrenching. The vulnerability of animals, tame and wild alike, pierce the heart, and while Fox comes back to Raven that time, in the end, of course, she loses him. Wild foxes do not live long lives.

Fox & I will appeal to those who despair about human depredation of the natural world and sense climate change as the looming, existential threat to life. But Raven’s book isn’t a treatise, it isn’t a call to arms, it isn’t political. Perhaps it is best understood as a plea for understanding. Raven needed Fox: He changed her, made her more comfortable in the world. He showed her that even when padding along under the glorious full moon’s light, it’s better to have someone at your side. 

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