A Little Wild
Summertime, and adventure is afoot. My daughter Ava leads us outside, silencing her younger brother and sister with a hand motion. She stops, tilts her head back, sniffing the air like a cat. A moment of realization brightens her fierce blue eyes.
“Fox urine,” she whispers.
“Monkey shit,” I want to answer, but she fixes me with a stare.
We’ve come out to investigate the frantic barks of our dog, Pepper. This is not unusual; the woods across the street are a constant torment to the little Havanese. As he watches from the window, I imagine the deer that cross over to our lawn beckon to him like burlesque dancers at a bawdy house, looking over their shoulders, making (doe!) eyes at him as they munch our hostas. Sometimes we cannot resist–we open the front door and out he shoots like a pinball, driven not by hunger, but by something more primal. A word comes to him, fully formed from some forgotten language.
True, the wild that calls to him is no more than a narrow strip of greenbelt, a few hundred feet of scraggly oaks and creepers between our development and the next, teeming with ticks and poison ivy and not much else.
No matter. To Pepper, it is the wilderness of Alaska, the forests of Yellowstone, the Badlands of South Dakota. You can see it in his eyes in those moments. The mask of domesticity falls away, and instinct returns like an ancient collective memory.
It returns in the form of a bark with more yip than growl behind it, in the form of teeth, as square and dull as pieces of Chiclets gum, bared in warning. More than anything, it is this incongruity, this vast space between who he is and who he believes himself to be, that endears him to us.
“Peppie, you’re terrifying,” we coo as he chases a squirrel, who has already reached the top of the tree, changed into his smoking jacket, and poured himself a snifter of brandy by the time Pepper reaches its base.
Today, however, it is not the hunter’s thirst that moves him. Today he is a brave sentry standing guard, his bark a siren alerting us to the presence of an invader.
I couldn’t have placed the smell myself, but I trust Ava. Only ten years old, she is my true wild child, my fairy changeling who spends her days crouched in murky ponds, so still that butterflies land in her hair, as she catches the bullfrogs that peer from the muck. If there is anyone who could place the musky scent that lingers in our front yard, it’s Ava. Pepper, offering his input in the form of a low rumble, lets us know that he thinks the fox in question is under the front porch.
So we wait.
We wait and I think of foxes. I grew up in western Nassau County, in a neighborhood of neat suburban lawns and postage stamp backyards, and my encounters with foxes were largely metaphorical. I knew that you could be “crazy like” one, and that, according to my older sister, Scott Baio totally was one. But that was about it.
Since moving out East, I have surprised myself by becoming a collector of nature facts. I know, for example, that female foxes are called vixens, which strikes me as delightful, and that they are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. I also know that they are scavengers, particularly adept at living on the fringes of civilization, making a wilderness out whatever scraps of nature development leaves behind.
Most of what I know I learned from a fox we visit regularly at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge. Un-releasable due to an injured leg, she limps through her enclosure, looking out of her clever, slanted eyes with regal indifference at the children who stare longingly after her.
It’s a regular “island of misfit toys” there; along with the fox, there is a one-winged peregrine falcon, a bobcat, red hawks, owls, and a bald eagle, all of them hit by cars or raised as pets or found wandering along beaches tangled up in fishing wire. They live in a chain-link enclosure at the entrance to the refuge, and it is part of our ritual to greet them before we go on our hikes. A sign warns us not to hoot at the sleeping owls, but I talk to the others.
Do you remember, I ask the falcon, what it feels like to tuck in your wings, to dive at 200mph onto the backs of pigeons and ducks and songbirds? She ignores me, her black eyes inscrutable, and hops off to inspect today’s meal—a dead white rat that the staff has left at the perimeter of the cage.
They are safe here, the animals, but it is a refuge for us as well. When the children were small and I feared that another game of Thomas the Tank Engine would result in a full mental breakdown, I’d herd the kids into the car and set off towards the refuge. Walking along the trails, watching the sun filter through the trees onto their backs as they ran ahead to scan the pond for painted turtles, I could actually feel myself uncoil. Still, the Nassau girl in me dies hard. One minute I am staring wonderstruck at a leaf; the next I am calling my husband home from work to kill what I can only describe as a very aggressive moth in our bathroom.
As the children get older, our days are increasingly spent on soccer fields, and even out East, they look much the same as the fields of my childhood—huge expanses of neatly trimmed green grass, painted white lines meeting at right angles, and a vast unbroken sky. There are no hiding places here, no secrets or surprises, and I find myself longing for an unscripted hour in the woods. Like the fox, I’ve come to crave my own little patch of wilderness.
My son finally spots it when we pull into the driveway later that day. Ava was right: there has been a fox quietly dying under our porch. What desperation has led it to leave its damp cover and venture onto the front lawn in broad daylight I do not know, but there it is. Sparse copper fur clings in matted curls to its emaciated frame, and it lurches in confused semicircles under the hot sun. Dying animals are unpredictable animals, and I usher the kids inside.
As we watch, transfixed, from the front door, I think about how our lives have been shaped by these encounters; by the fox and the falcon; by the sleek backs of the otters we’ve glimpsed while canoeing in the Peconic River; even by the husk of an ancient sea turtle that washed ashore at Pike’s Beach one gray day last summer. It is not very wild, this narrow strip of earth at the edge of the continent where people and nature coexist and frequently collide. Still, growing up here, my children know a whole world of things that I did not: which berries are poisonous and which leaves smell like Fruit Loops; that you can identify a female box turtle by its golden eyes; that most butterflies live only two weeks; that life is strange and surprising and frequently unfair.
Outside, the fox staggers, stops, and finally falls.
We are too far away to see the his last breath, but when we go out minutes later, he is unmistakably dead, his posture slack, his slanted amber eyes staring dully ahead. He doesn’t look like the fox at the refuge anymore.
He looks like the rat.
“Mange?” Ava suggests, eyeing the patchy fur and comparing it to some rather alarming Google images she’s found on her iphone.
“Or hit by a car,” my husband offers, glancing at the busy road that runs perpendicular to ours.
He takes them to bury the fox in the forest. As they march off, shovels slung dutifully over their shoulders, I scrutinize the children for signs of distress at this tragic turn of events. But they are surprisingly fine. After all, their eyes seem to say, not every adventure ends with a daring rescue and a narrow escape from the jaws of death.
Later, at dusk, as the crickets’ song begins to drown out the road noise that is never far away, I doze on the front porch, Pepper stretched languidly by my side. Reaching down to stroke his soft fur, I close my eyes and dream of mountain peaks; of brambles and thickets; of black bears standing six feet tall; of crepuscular creatures that stalk their prey and tiny rodents that skitter under rocks to hide from them. With a last look at the woods, we get up and make our way into the house.
We are both a little wild, Pepper and I, but only a little.