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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Lessons in Survival

Air Date: Week of June 7, 2002

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Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg found a fox hiding in his barn one morning. He tells the story and how it changed his ideas about the wild.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Every once in a while, something happens that turns all our assumptions upside down. Commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg says these moments can challenge our most deeply rooted myths.

KLINKENBORG: The other morning, I lifted a bale of hay from a loose pile of bales on the barn floor and a fox jumped out from under it. The fox ran to the back of the barn and turned to watch me. It was a moment of pure transgression. All the old story lines broke apart, the ones about farmers and foxes and chickens, and just when the old story had been going so well.

The fox had stolen a couple of our chickens. I had chased it off several times. It would lope up the hill in the middle pasture and sit on the ridge looking back at me, waiting for my next move. We hated to lose the chickens and we hated the fox for taking them. But it was a conventional hatred, a part we knew we were supposed to play.

There are no stories where the fox sleeps overnight in the barn, on a bed of hay, only a few feet from three horses, and a big ambitious dog in his kennel. The fox always keeps its playful distance, respecting the invisible boundary between wildness and not wildness.

But the other morning, that fox ignored the boundary completely. The reason was obvious. It was dying from a terrible case of sarcoptic mange, an all too common disease caused by mites that infest the skin, and cause severe inflammation and hair loss. Foxes with mange die from malnutrition or else they freeze to death. The night had been frigid with a blowing, soaking rainfall. Even the driest den would have been insufferable. And so, the fox took refuge where I found it, in a burrow among hay bales in a dry barn.

Ever since we moved to this place, my wife and I have been seeing foxes. But because they always kept their distance, they were platonic foxes, storybook foxes with sharp muzzles and thick red fur and bushy tails and the gloss of wild health, the way you’d imagine a fox looks.

But seeing this nearly hairless fox shivering at the barn door, its tail a pitiful file of vertebrae under bare flesh, I couldn’t help thinking what a thin concept of wildness I had been living with. The wild was where the archetypes lived, negotiating their survival. Each animal embodied its species, which means that it lived up to its portrait in the Sibley Guide to Birds or Walker’s Mammals of the World.

And though I had a rough idea of how creatures died in the wild, I had never come across an animal driven out of the wild, across that taboo boundary, and into my barn by the extent of its suffering. The fox and I looked at each other, only a few feet apart. It paced a few steps, uncertain, and then scurried under the door and out into the cold rain. If had been a dog, I could have helped it. But even the pity in my eyes reminded it that it had come too close.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: Commentator, Verlyn Klinkenborg, writes about "The Rural Life" for The New York Times.

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