CITY BOY & COUNTRY FOX

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One of the nice things about growing up a city boy is how dumb we are about a lot of things. We're supposed to be so smart, New Yorkers and other city people, but we're not. We're so dumb we still see wonder in nature; what is commonplace to country folk is strange and even magical to us.

If you've grown up in the rural West where an elk might wander across the front yard and you hear coyotes howl at night, the sight of a hawk circling in the sky is nothing. To a kid from Louisiana or Georgia, accustomed to the occasional cottonmouth or moccasin, the garter snake that lives in the brick of my patio generates little excitement. Up the Three Mile Harbor road from my house out here in East Hampton some folks keep a billy goat and a pig. The pig is approximately the size of "The Refrigerator" Perry. I drive up there from time to time just to slow the car and look at that damned pig. I even get exercised when the goat looks up.

Old McDonald on his farm would laugh me out of the country. But then so too might Jack Rowe midst his avocados in the hills northeast of San Diego where, according to a scrawl at the bottom of his Christmas card, "A coyote, German Shepherd-sized, was in our front yard, bold as brass, a few mornings ago. Hungry for cat, I guess."

There are coyotes here in the East, too. I know, because I've read about them in the newspapers. Never seen one. But the other day The New York Times ran a piece about deer in the Hamptons. And I've seen a few of them. Around here people drive carefully on Route 114, the road to Sag Harbor, because of the deer. The Times says among recent car collisions with deer was one involving "the senior planner of East Hampton" and another, "a police officer." Then there was the deer who tried to get into the King Kullen supermarket in Bridgehampton. "With our waxed floors," the store manager marveled. "And it was Saturday afternoon. We were jammed."

So here in the final years of the second millennium, 500 years since Columbus, nature keeps bumping up against civilization. Against supermarkets. Cars. And even me.

Early on in "Gatsby," where Nick tells us about his place at West Egg and his cousin Daisy's place across the bay at East Egg, Fitzgerald refers to "the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound," which he describes as "the most domesticated body of water in the Western Hemisphere." I've mostly felt that way about Long Island itself. Not quite as wet but just as domesticated.

Not any more. Not this winter.

First I saw the deer. Fifteen years I've had the house on Further Lane just off the golf course of Maidstone and I'd never seen a deer here, what they call South of the Highway. Once or twice, tracks in the snow, but never an actual deer. Then on an early morning hike along Middle Lane, looking back toward the fairway abutting the Olshan place, I saw the two deer browsing. They were without antlers, either quite young or does. They watched me warily but didn't run. I watched them as well for a few minutes and then went off. They were still there, still browsing the late grass, right by the margin of the wood.

That should have made my year. But there was more to come. And better.

One morning a week or so before Christmas I was walking the mile and a half from the house to where the jitney picks up passengers for the hundred mile ride to Manhattan. It was about 7, not quite dawn, and as I hiked past the Olshan house (yet again) what I thought a large dog bounded through bushes to my right and onto the golf club's fairway. I caught only a glimpse. But as I got past the intervening stand of brush there, about 30 yards away, the size of a mid-sized collie, stood a full-grown fox, half-turned from me but looking back. Standing still.

Last summer, once again at dawn, maybe 5 a.m., I'd seen a young fox. But this fellow was grown, collie-sized as I say, but the red of an Irish setter rather than gold.

Although I am ignorant, being a city feller, I am not stupid. So I froze, as still as the fox, and we regarded each other for a few seconds. Then I said in what I hope was a conversational tone, "Good morning, Fox."

He (or she) did not reply. Neither did he run. Or growl. Emboldened, and remembering childhood tales where the wily fox was always French, and known as "Reynard," I again addressed him (it?).

"Bonjour, Monsieur le Reynard. Vous allez bien?"

Once more, no reply. But it turned and galloped off, only another 20 or 30 yards, before turning again to look at me, ears pointed, bushy tail down. I don't know the sign of a fox on the warpath but certainly this chap seemed quite peaceable, so I walked a few feet toward him.

At this, he broke off our discourse, such as it was, and trotted off, not hurriedly, into the woods and was gone.

All that day, walking to the bus, sitting in the bus looking through the sun-streaked window, and during the city workday, I kept seeing my red fox and feeling absolutely wonderful.

I recognize there is something simple-minded about all this. I've been closer to lions and tigers and bears, oh my! than I ever was to this one fox. But that was in zoos, with bars and moats and such. For all its vaunted domesticity, Long Island, or this wooded, half-empty part of it, is still country, a rural relic at the edges of civilization. That patch of forested golf course was the fox's turf and not mine. And I felt pretty good about that.

We've had two snows since then and I've been out there looking for tracks. But again, my ignorance gets in the way, because I can't tell the difference between a dog's paw print and that of a fox. Perhaps I'll get a book. Or look into an encyclopedia. I am full of good intentions like that. And rarely do anything about them.

Maybe the best part is my daughters understand. The Monday after Christmas one of them had to make the 6 a.m. train into town to go to work and I drove her to the station in the chill dark. As we passed the Maidstone course she said, "Slow down, maybe we'll see the fox."

We didn't. But that's no matter. For I know he's out there, just a few yards off the old country lane we share.M

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