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August 6, 2008

The Cry of the Gray Fox

It's summertime in the Rockies. Since no one up here has air conditioning, we all sleep with the windows open. With the houses opened up, noises come out of the woods at night that will raise the hair on the back of your neck. Mountain lions and bears are occasionally uninvited summer house guests in the hills, so I keep several guns loaded in the corner.

Last night, I was half-asleep on the couch when I heard a gray fox crying in the distance; A haunting sound that reminds me of how lucky I am to be living this close to nature.

As the sound grew louder, it occurred to me that it was probably a female fox crying for her kits, and she appeared to be heading in my direction.

When I was younger and more foolish, I used to wade into the forest out back with a 12 gauge, a spotlight, and a camcorder. But it's hard to manage all of these at night with only two hands and after I was nearly gored by a mature male mule deer, I gave up such foolish ventures.

So, last night, I contented myself to leave the arsenal in the corner, and the camcorder on the shelf, and sweep the surreal matte of twisted nature out back with a spotlight from the safety of my redwood deck.

The 2 million candlepower beam made the familiar sweep of Ponderosa pines and blue spruce trees.

On most nights that I hear a ruckus out back, I never see anything. Occasionally, the deer and elk make enough noise to wake me, and then I find a sea of eyes staring back at me. But my experience has been that, the more alarming the racket, the less likely it is that I'll see anything at all. Nothing to correlate with the maddening noises that emanate from the subalpine forest. Nothing for the eyes, so the brain just wonders, "What in Tarnation is going on out there?"

Predictably, as I swept the woods with the beam of light, all I saw was the familiar glowing tips of T-bar fence posts, the eyes of the neighbor's neglected horses, and the stoic face of the woods; Trees downed by the wet spring snows, uprooted and scattered in slap-dash disarray, like a giant plate of hash browns.

I've resigned myself that I won't see anything interesting tonight. That the noise has moved on, and I'll return to my 12 month sabbatical watching John Wayne reruns on the couch with Timmy, our backup cat.

I'm just about to lower the beam when this harrowing, visceral cry comes howling out of the darkness.

Suddenly, I'm wishing I had the 12 gauge automatic loaded with buckshot. Wishing I had the camcorder. Glad I'm on the redwood deck.

The brain is wide awake now, drowning in adrenaline. Spotlight skipping "Blair Witch"-style through the forest, illuminating much, but resolving little.

Everything is being carved indelibly into the tin brain, like the images of that man's arm opened by a chainsaw in Monticello. These are things that you don't forget.

This is something we failed to cover in the Hunter Education Safety course. I suspect that, if they had turned off the lights and played recordings of the animals you might encounter in the mountains, people would spend more time indoors.

During the day, the sights and sounds converge. The senses are methodically triangulated in the brain. The world seems cut and dried, like chords of firewood chewed by my neighbor's buzzing chainsaw in the warm, lazy afternoons.

But at night, things seem much more vague. The spotlight probes the possibilities of the feral rocky mountain darkness, searching for the source of this hair raising caterwauling.

I wonder if maybe we haven't understood our world so completely as we might have. If Fallus really did see Bigfoot while hiking in the mountains. If Mark's father really did board a UFO when they were duck hunting in the Mississippi River delta.

But then the darkness surrenders its secret. First the eyes appear, glowing like lasers, staring back at me. And then the body appears....a gray fox searching for her kits, crying out in forlorn desperation.

Standing near the neighbor's matted, dusty horses, she'd turned directly toward the light when she cried out. That's what startled me. That's why she was so much louder than before. Noises that sound romantic in the distance, often sound much less so up close, like the bugle of an elk in the fall. The bugle sounds beautiful if the bull elk are calling to the cows from the valley, but if he's bugling outside your window, it sounds like a serial killer drowning a woman in your bird bath.

The fox paused in the darkness, staring blindly into the light.

Maybe this is the fox that ate our last cat, Jasmine. If so, then I'm not happy about it, but I'm not compelled to kill the fox, either. Was it not my fault for letting the cat out at night? You can't deny a leopard his spots, after all.

I was glad that I escaped from the couch for a few moments to interrogate the darkness with a light. Glad that the brain had captured a visual image to associate with the sounds. Not just a recording on the internet of "this is what a fox sounds like" and the brain agreeing "that's probably what I heard", but a true first-hand validation of "that noise I heard was sure-nuff a fox crying".

The fox stared at into the light for a few seconds, then turned and trotted silently away, leaving me little more than John Wayne reruns and a second string cat.

Posted by Rob Kiser on August 6, 2008 at 9:13 AM


"When I was younger and more foolish, I used to wade into the forest out back with a 12 gauge, a spotlight, and a camcorder, but it's hard to manage all of these at night with only two hands"

There are lights commercially available designed to be mounted onto shotguns, rifles, and handguns; freeing up one of your hands.

For examples, see here and here.

Posted by: Robert R. on August 6, 2008 at 2:05 PM

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