What’s Red and Black and Lives all Over?

What’s red and black and lives all over?  Vulpes vulpes, otherwise known as the red fox.  Despite living all over the world, and being abundant in Virginia, I’ve only ever seen a red fox in a zoo or from my car.  So I was delighted last week to catch some nearby movement while taking a morning walk.  It was a fox that I immediately deemed a male, though I have no idea its sex.  He was hunting in a grassy field parallel to the road.  I got to see him make the characteristic pounce often captured in photographs (just search Google images), and then he came bounding toward me with a small rodent in his mouth.  I had my camera out, ready.  He was quite shocked when he reached the fence and finally noticed me.  Perhaps he’d have jumped over the fence and crossed the road if I hadn’t interrupted his path.  Red fox can jump a six-foot fence, but cannot climb trees like the gray fox can.  He froze and we just looked at each other for what was probably only a few seconds.  Then he turned, and fled back uphill, through the field, toward a patch of woods.  He was gone, but he made my day.

Red fox at the moment it first noticed me.

Red fox at the moment it first noticed me.

Actually, he made my whole week.  I kept thinking about him (or her), and how privileged I felt to be able to observe him for a few minutes.  A long time ago – at least it seems so now – I wanted to study wolves, and I’ve come to appreciate all predators as a valuable part of the ecosystem.  They help keep food webs in balance and prey populations healthier.  Maligned and misunderstood, I tend to think of predators as the underdogs of the animal world, and I will root for them more than for other cute critters.

There are different subspecies of Vulpes vulpes all over the world.  Virginia is host to Vulpes vulpes fulva, along with the native gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus.  I picked up somewhere along the way the theory that red fox were nonnative to the US, brought over by Europeans in the 1700s for hunting.  Apparently the red fox provided for a longer chase, and was therefore more ‘fun’ to hunt.  However, it appears that Vulpes vulpes is native to North America, but was not found in eastern US before colonization, and is a distinct species from the European red fox (http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/journals/pnw_2012_statham001.pdf).

Before European colonization, red fox were native to Canada, Alaska, and mountainous regions of the western United States.  By the 1800s red fox were noted in the southeastern US, reportedly expanding their range from the northeast because of anthropogenic changes to the land.  Concurrently, European red foxes were brought over, contributing to the rise in occurrence.  The study noted above used mitochondrial DNA to determine the origin of red fox in newer, expanding populations in the west and in populations in southeastern US.  Turns out the little fox I saw is probably native!  The study found red foxes in the southeast to be closely related to populations in Canada and northeastern US.

What about being out during the day?  It was 9:00 in the morning.  Shouldn’t a nocturnal or crepuscular animal already be holed up for the day?  I later read that a lactating female will hunt during the day.  So maybe he was really a she.  I also read that foxes rarely eat their food where caught, but rather return to their den to eat or cache it for later.  Given the intent of her trajectory once she caught her prey, I guess I did interrupt her path.  I hope she got home safely.

Deciding about me right before it took off.

Deciding about me right before it took off.

Next time, I hope there’s no fence and I’ve no camera.  I just want to watch in the moment.  I just want to wonder about what the fox is wondering/sensing.  It does not matter to me whether it is native or related to the European red fox; to me it symbolizes the wild.  Sure, all non-domesticated animals symbolize the wild to me at one level, but seeing a predator is different for me.  I am worried about our loss of the wild, and will welcome any glimpse I can get that it’s still out there.

An Issue with February

I’ve always liked winter.  As I child I would play outside until my fingers and toes hurt.  I’d construct snow forts, snow people, and once even, a snow grave.  In this cold grave, I lay motionless, listening to the quiet that often accompanies a snowfall.  My mother liked to tell the story of the day her (crazy) daughter gave her quite a start when she saw me seemingly dead from the kitchen window.

In my teenage and young adult years, I enjoyed ice-skating, cross-country skiing, and just the beauty of fresh fallen snow.  Chris and I started a tradition in 1987 that lasted six years. We’d camp out on New Year’s Eve. We’d set up before dark and then take a walk or ski.  Much later we’d start cooking steak or shrimp, biding our time until we could open the champagne at midnight.  Crazy?  Maybe my mother was right!

I still look forward to winter.  I like the change of the season, especially with our hot summers in Virginia.  Autumn’s crisp winds are a welcome relief to summer’s heat.  Much like planning a trip is a large part of the fun and excitement of the vacation (to me), so fall is an exciting time of planning and dreaming in preparation for winter.  So while I really do enjoy winter, especially snowstorms, I find it interesting that I really don’t care for February.

I breathe a sigh of relief when February is over.  I can’t wait to switch the calendar to March.  Sandwiched between holiday festivities and hints of spring, February drags on seemingly in conflict with natural rhythms.  I have less energy.  I can’t seem to get anything done.  My to-do list stares at me forlornly while I lament my inability to multitask.  I am often heard saying that I need to get my “umph” back.  I am starting to wonder if this February phenomenon is related to society and not just me.

I’m sure every era in human culture has had naysayers proclaiming that “things” are moving much too quickly, or new technologies are useless or even scary.  Fans of Downton Abbey will have noted how some people received the advent of electricity and the telephone.  So it’s nothing new.  However, I am no Luddite.  I have a smart phone, a computer, and I love much about the digital world.  Our continued space discoveries thrill me.  I find applications such as 3-D printing fascinating, and I wonder what we will think of next.

Despite embracing much of technology, I still feel society’s pace is frenetic.  We seem to treat our symptoms, not our ills.  Two recent news stories demonstrate this tendency.  One was of a discovery of antibiotic properties found in our sweat.   The report went on to detail how it is hoped that a new family of synthetic antibiotics will be developed from this finding.   And I wondered, shouldn’t we just sweat a little more?  Or worse still, will my sweat no longer have useful antibiotic properties once bacteria develop resistance to yet another new synthetic antibiotic?  The other news was about a new app created because of the habit people now have of texting while walking.  The problem being that people are bumping into things with a resultant rise in injuries.  The app shows users objects in their path so that they can continue walking with their head down.  I was dumbfounded!  Shouldn’t we just take texting out of our overwhelmed multitasking load?  Didn’t our parents teach us to look where we were going?  Of course, we learn best by example, they say.

I think the reason I dislike the month of February is related to this tendency we have to treat our symptoms rather than looking deeper at what might be wrong.  Maybe I need to look more closely at why I feel out of sync with life in February, when winter is nearing its end.  When I do this, I come up with concerns related to how people distance themselves from nature.  Maybe I am not embracing February in ways that could repair the disharmony I feel.

So I came up with a solution – something radical, something really wild.  Instead of fighting February, perhaps I could join in its rhythms like my distant ancestors did, and how my wild kin do still.  Maybe I’m supposed to have less energy.  I could go to bed when it gets dark and rise with the sun.  I could keep the house colder and spend time and bodily energy keeping warm – I do this already to save money, but instead I could embrace it as a seasonal need.  I could eat from food “put up” for the winter instead of getting fruits from California or South America at my grocery.  I could eat less.  I could feel hungry for a while every day.  I could let myself nap.  I could walk to wander, not to burn calories.  I could withdraw from Facebook for a month.  I could stop planning and just exist in the moment.  Basically I could slow down, engage in a sort of hibernation.

Before you agree with my mother about my sanity, consider this:  Costa Rica is home to Earth University, a school dedicated to sustainability; Ecuador has a “rights of nature” in its constitution; and Bolivia has initiated a Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth.  These latter two have inspired the United Nations General Assembly, in April 2011, to organize a conference on harmony with nature during Earth Day celebrations.  Their general report urged for a reconnection with nature.   It comforts me to know that there are people everywhere concerned with healing our estrangement from nature – even if they’d scoff at my idea.

I’m intrigued with my “hibernation” idea.  I am seriously wondering how to implement it in part at least next February.  Ironically, I got to experience what hibernation could mean for 39 hours, the day after I drafted this post, though I hadn’t intended mine to be sans electricity.  We lost power, as did thousands of others in our county and surrounding areas of Virginia.  In winter at Halcyon that means huddling around the wood stove unless walking or working outside, and heating up food on our propane range.  It means no water from the pipes, no lights, no movies, and no Internet.  It means cooking dinner before it gets dark and eating by candlelight.  It means going to bed pretty early because it is annoying to read by flashlight, and awakening before dawn listening to the silence of the house, while steeling oneself to venture out of the warm covers.

View from our balcony on 3/5/13

View from our balcony on 3/6/13

It was a good experiment.  It took me several hours to “go with the flow”, but in the end I enjoyed a lot of reading, a puzzle, and a walk in a landscape not usually known to Halcyon.  I felt I could stoop under a snow-draped branch and find myself in Narnia.  By the second day, I felt resigned that the outage could take awhile, and apart from worrying about the food in my freezer thawing, I enjoyed the withdrawal.

Our biggest tree dressed in snow.

Our biggest tree dressed in snow.

I can’t say though, that I was bummed the power returned and interrupted my unexpected experiment.  Hot showers are one of the best inventions ever.  Instead, I take my ponderings into March as I look forward to being very busy outside this spring and summer season.  Maybe being in tune with nature for part of the year will have to be enough.  Or maybe, come next February, I’ll decide to do a little hibernating.