An unforgettable memoir about the friendship between a solitary woman and a wild fox. When Catherine Raven finished her PhD in biology, she built herself a tiny cottage on an isolated plot of land in Montana. She was as emotionally isolated as she was physically, but she viewed the house as a way station, a temporary rest stop where she could gather her nerves and fill out applications for what she hoped would be a real job that would help her fit into society. In the meantime, she taught remotely and led field classes in nearby Yellowstone National Park. Then one day she realized that a mangy-looking fox was showing up on her property every afternoon at 4:15 p.m....
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (July 6, 2021) Hardcover: 304 pages ISBN-10: 1954118007 ISBN-13: 978-1954118003 ASIN: B08W32N6D4
Catherine Raven is a former national park ranger at Glacier, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Voyageurs, and Yellowstone national parks. She earned a PhD in biology from Montana State University, holds degrees in zoology and botany from the University of Montana, and is a member of American Mensa and Sigma Xi. Her natural history essays have appeared in American Scientist, Journal of American Mensa, and Montana Magazine. You can find her in Fox’s valley tugging tumbleweeds from the sloughs.
The stories in this book reflect the author’s recollection of events. Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Some of the dialogue has been recreated from memory.
A double rainbow had changed the course of my relationship with the fox. I had been jogging when I realized that he would live only a few years in this harsh country. At the time, I believed that making an emotional investment in a short-lived creature was a fool’s game. Before the jog ended, a rainbow appeared in front of me. One end of the rainbow slipped through an island of tall dead poplars drowning in gray sky, their crowns splitting and spraying into each other. I stopped. A second rainbow arched over the poplars. How many rainbows had I seen in this one valley? A hundred easy, and I always paused to watch. I realized that a fox, like a rainbow and every other gift from Nature, had an intrinsic value that was quite independent of its longevity. After that, whenever I questioned devoting so much time to an animal whose lifespan barely exceeded the blink of an eye, I remembered rainbows.
For twelve consecutive days, the fox had appeared at my cottage. At no more than one minute after the sun capped the western hill, he lay down in a spot of dirt among the powdery blue bunchgrasses. Tucking the tip of his tail under his chin and squinting his eyes, he pretended to sleep. I sat on a camp chair with stiff spikes of bunchgrass poking into the canvas. Opening a book, I pretended to read. Nothing but two meters and one spindly forget-me-not lay between us. Someone may have been watching us—a dusky shrew, a field mouse, a rubber boa—but it felt like we were alone with the world to ourselves.
On the thirteenth day, at around three thirty and no later than four o’clock, I bundled up in more clothing than necessary to stay comfortably warm and went outside. Pressing my hands together as if praying, I pushed them between my knees while I sat with my feet tapping the ground. I was waiting for the fox and hoping he wouldn’t show.
Two miles up a gravel road in an isolated mountain valley and sixty miles from the nearest city, the cottage was not an appropriate arrangement for a girl on her own. My street was unnamed, so I didn’t have an address. Living in this remote spot left me without access to reasonable employment. I was many miles beyond reach of cell phone towers, and if a rattlesnake bit me, or if I slipped climbing the rocky cliff behind the cottage, no one would hear me cry for help. Of course, this saved me the trouble of crying in the first place.
I had purchased this land three years earlier. Until then I had been living up valley, renting a cabin that the owner had “winterized,” in the sense that if I wore a down parka and mukluks to bed, I wouldn’t succumb to frostbite overnight. That was what I could afford with the money I’d earned guiding backcountry hikers and teaching field classes part-time. When a university offered me a one-year research position, you might think I would have jumped at the chance to leave. Not just because I was dodging icicles when entering the shower, but because riding the postdoc train was the next logical step for a biologist. But I didn’t jump. I made the university wait until after I had bought this land. Then I accepted and rented a speck of a dormitory room at the university, 130 miles away. Every weekend, through snowstorms and over icy roads, I drove back here to camp. Perching on a small boulder, listening to my propane stove hissing and the pinging sound of grasshoppers flying headfirst into my tent’s taut surface, I felt like I was part of my land. I had never felt part of anything before. When the university position ended, I camped full-time while arranging for contractors to develop the land and build the cottage.
Outside the cottage, from where I sat waiting for the fox, the view was beautiful. Few structures marred my valley; full rainbows were common. The ends of the rainbows touched down in the rolling fields below me, no place green enough to hide a leprechaun but a fair swap for living with rattlers. Still, I was torn. Even a full double rainbow couldn’t give me what a city could: a chance to interact with people, immerse myself in culture, and find a real job to keep me so busy doing responsible work that I wouldn’t have time for chasing a fox down a hole. I had sacrificed plenty to earn my PhD in biology: I had slept in abandoned buildings and mopped floors at the university. In exchange for which I had learned that the scientific method is the foundation for knowledge and that wild foxes do not have personalities.
When Fox padded toward me, a flute was playing a faint, hypnotic melody like the Pied Piper’s song in my favorite fairy tale. You remember: a colorfully dressed stranger appears in town, enticing children with his music to a land of alpine lakes and snowy peaks. When the fox curled up beside me and squinted, I opened my book. The music was still playing. No, it wasn’t the Pied Piper at all. It was just a bird—a faraway thrush.
Having slept since midmorning in the shade of his favor-ite boulder, the fox woke to the heat of a sinking sun. Pointing his butt skyward and his nose windward, he stretched his neck along a foreleg that was naked as a newborn mouse. The fur wasn’t actually gone, just misdirected. Turning tail-ward, he discovered his fur blowing flat back, leaving the hide on the front of his legs exposed but warm.
A mouse was scraping through the gravelly soil with footsteps as heavy and hesitant as a pregnant female’s. The mouse was almost close enough when a wind whip cracked the dried grasses and wiped out the soundtrack. Weasel pee! And his day was just starting. Below, on Alfalfa Flat, the wind was not blowing. A tangle of mice tumbled under a shadow of shrubs, and partridge bustled in the hedgerows. But not for him. The flat belonged to his mother, and she permitted access to only her mate and their freshly weaned kits. Her permission, however, rarely got in the way of the fox’s plans. He was a yearling now, with agility enough to test her vigilance. In fact, trespassing forays frequently topped his agenda.
For now, he planned to avoid his mother’s territory and visit the house with the shiny blue roof. The house perched on the hillside below his den and above his mother’s. Its roof appeared to sit directly on the ground, with sagebrush and juniper spilling over its north and south flanks. In fact, it was situated much like his own den. Both homes burrowed into the same mountainside and ex-posed themselves fully to the rising and setting sun. Both faced the curvy, glinting river and hid from the cold north wind.
He scanned the hillside, checking possible routes that led to the house. The dry channel was noisy, but he wasn’t on a covert mission and it presented fewer challenges overall. Picking up the channel trail required traversing a windy ridge. Ahead of the wind, a gigantic cloud was colliding with Round Hill. Crouching between a couple of thin-high cactus blades, he nearly stopped breathing to keep their spines from poking his chest. Fair price to watch a cloud performance. After crashing into the hill, the cloud burst open and flew into pieces. On plan!
Thick clumps of perennial grasses rattled in the dry channel, their stalks bending under the weight of ripe seed heads. Long and thin as fish bones, grass seeds matted his fur and pierced his hide. Stopping at a smaQll rose bush, he combed himself against the thorns. Now lighter, he skipped down the draw, tilting side to side as if he were a vole-thieving hawk on low glide.
Cactuses, wind whips, fish-bone seeds: these were not optimal digs. The Alfalfa Flat foxes were probably half-asleep on their green field, mouths open, waiting for some errant mice to run blindly across the short soft grasses and impale themselves on undeserving canines. Those were optimal digs. Well, they would be if you were one of those foxes whose only purpose in life was commanding a hunting ground with a high density of dimwitted mice.