Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Drawing of fox and tracks © Cicely Combs

I really ought to have minded my business instead of getting involved with the fox.
© Cicely Combs

December 2009

Following a fox track

Figuring out the tale of the trail.

Story by Justin Isherwood. Illustrations by Cicely Combs.

It was innocent enough in the beginning. I find it embarrassing to find the number of things that start this way, common projects that for some reason evolve from simple enthusiasm into some other kind of project. How it was that reroofing turned into a steeple; a muffler repair evolved into a valve job with new seat covers; and how a used couch became an addition to the house.

I had put on my skis – a pair of cheap cross-country laths, the kind you can buy at second-chance stores – plastic skis, plastic shoes, plastic fish scale. So equipped, I set off on the trail that led around the east end of the house, followed last year's corn field with the outside few rows left standing. Halfway across the forty, I came on a fox track that wound among the corn, working that realm of succulence that corn is known to attract in winter – deer, mice, rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, crows, grouse, blue jays, woodpeckers, chickadees. This is the very reason I leave rows of corn uncombined at the field edges in the first place, the same reason God left his apple tree unattended in the garden – to provoke complication.

The corn would have been another hundred bushels in the bin, worth $250 if we're lucky, which the price of corn generally isn't. After property taxes and other expenses, maybe it was worth a day at Busch Gardens where I could be treated to watching a porpoise or an economically-sized whale jump out of an oversized pool for an audience that thinks it's terrific to see a porpoise jump in close proximity to corn dogs and souvenir shirts. My field does not offer T-shirts, but wild things jump out pretty much the same as at Sea World if a little corn is left standing in the middle of Section 12 Township 22 Range 8E.

I really ought to have minded my business instead of getting involved with the fox. Dark was near, supper not long away. I had a book to tend to on a long winter evening, but the fox track intervened.

It went northwest, kitty-corner of the field in the quick stride of a red fox, the tracks so singularly placed as to constitute a straight drawn line. I followed.

The fox made for the highway but, before reaching it, veered north and took the trail through the pine plantation that links the south field with the next. From there it went due north. Me too.

It stopped to sniff at a hollow chokecherry. I hadn't known that it was hollow but saw now where a sucker had broken off exposing inner wood that rotted. A well-used mouse trail was evident though apparently nobody was home.

The north field is called Bessie's for she who owned it last. It is a farm tradition to name the fields after those who came before. So long as you own the field, it is called by the name of someone who doesn't, and as soon as you don't own it, your name is on it – a strange backhanded justice in this farm kingdom. The fox turned west.

Following the edge of a pine plantation it detoured into a thicket of elderberry whose position I promised to try and remember. Not that I favor elderberry wine, that too-famous embellishment of widows. I have told my wife, who is a wine maker, that she may make elderberry when I am safely dead, but not before lest this be seen by our neighbors as haste for my waste. A rabbit had barked the new elderberry canes but gave up, finding better company at the hazel bush.

The fox must have found some new thing distracting for it went off on a most excited path zigzagging like a PT boat laying depth charges. The tracks were no longer easy to follow. Instead, they ricocheted from a smell of something here to a smell of something there. The path volleyed back and forth like a hard-played tennis ball. The earth under a nearby pine was torn open to bare ground exposing some sumac leaves and oak. There was no forensic evidence of the victim – no blood, no fur. My guess is it was newborn mice.

The fox continued west. At the center pivot it turned north again, crossing last year's cornfield to the hedgerow that Willie planted 40 years ago. West again, the fox followed a hedge, dodging here to inspect a stump, there a dead-fall. To follow a fox is to realize the vivid role of deceasement in the woodlot, even if it is the lingering kind. You note what lightning struck, what the wind broke, what diseased spot soon became an oasis and accommodation for new life.

At the base of a white pine a hundred yards further on, the fox stopped. From the castings littered round on the ground, this must be an owl tree. Sure enough, overhead was the crude twill nest of a horned owl. The fox, I suspect, took the scat pellet if nothing better was at hand, same as I had borrowed my father-in-law's 10-year-old station wagon for a honeymoon trip to Ely – good enough for my purpose.

West again, circling behind the neighbor's house, it then moved obliquely back to the old woods where there is soft maple and scattered pine. When installing a center pivot there, I left the edge of the field out of line for the sake of a dozen nice specimens. A decent farmer wouldn't do that. Neither would he follow a fox in the dark.

Author, essayist and farmer Justin Isherwood writes from Plover.