About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of eight books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

THE BLACK FOX: a Strange Encounter

John Berger, in About Looking, wrote: “With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.”

A few years ago, at an isolated Alaskan fishing camp on Kodiak Island, I was walking along a path between the cabins. Brown bears – grizzlies – are common there, even in the camp. I was not paying full attention, as I should have been. Needing to tip my guide at the end of this visit, I was counting my money. Looking at the wallet, I could see only the path directly in front of my feet.

The black fox 3And then I saw the brightest, most piercing eyes I have ever seen. They shined like stars.

A black fox stood in my way. The foxes on Kodiak are among the largest in the world. This one was the size of a coyote. It was standing three feet from me. Its gaze was disconcerting. And it wasn’t budging. I wondered: was it rabid? We stared at each other for what seemed like minutes but was probably only seconds.

That same year, on the volcanic ledges of the Galapagos Islands, I noticed how aquatic iguanas and sea lions basked within inches of each other. I asked a Lindblad Expeditions naturalist how each species perceived the other. He said, “To the iguana, the sea lion is just another part of the landscape. That’s all.”

To the fox, was I another part of the landscape? Did the fox recognize me as a fellow passenger, or as a simple food ticket?

For such a social animal, Homo sapiens is, as Berger wrote, a lonely species. We recognize our isolation and mortality while other species move within their own nations, unaware of our predicament. Except, perhaps, for dogs. We have shaped them to be aware of us, to know us, to worry about us.

I have often wondered why the eyes and expressions of most dogs seem so familiar, so similar, as if there exists an over species called One Dog. Perhaps when dogs look at us they see One Human, and then looking deeper, they detect a degree of individuality.

In a sense, we have created a species in our own image, re-created from grey wolves. Either that, or, as another theory goes, dogs created themselves in our image for their own convenience. When we human beings look at one other, we look first at the left eye of the other person. We do this reflexively, instantaneously, and then we look at the rest of the face. Of all the other animals we encounter, only dogs look first at our left eye. Only dogs. Wolves do not do this with us. Nor do foxes. Only dogs see us as we want to be seen.

But we want more. Deep down we know we cannot make it in this world only in the company of humans. Recent research suggests that the urban parks with the most biodiversity – the highest number of species – are the parks that have the most positive influence on our psychological health. So, at our best, we surround ourselves with kin of another kind, domesticated and wild.

We seek companionship even from plants.

I am plant blind. I pass by these other nations. I have seldom learned the names of proximate vegetation. Until recently. Kathy and I installed two window boxes, one under each bedroom window, and we filled them with geraniums and Icelandic poppies. The poppies reach high up, on stalks with what could pass as human hair – like the hair on a woman’s legs a week past shaving – and the blooms have personality, character. They express, move, nod, turn one after another and I am fascinated, now caring as I have not cared before about their health, about a plant’s aspirations. They too are companions. Friends with limitations.

And yet, plants and dogs and deer and hawks and mushrooms and songbirds, and even an occasional mountain lion passing through, are not enough for us. We search the sky, other planets and beyond, for new company, entranced with the idea of other beings in our universe, like us. Or not like us. Despite the risk that would come from a visit by strangers.

In the Northwest, fraying men move through forests searching for a being that looks like us, but is covered with long hair and stench. I have met these hunters and seekers. Some of them cannot give up that search. They become obsessed. Some of them lose their human families as they search for the others.

So yes, we look for companionship. But we also search for something more. Looking into the eyes of a dog, I see someone I know. The black fox that I met on the path was from elsewhere. I saw – or wanted to see – kinship, but in its eyes I may have glimpsed only the suns of a parallel universe.

It held perfectly still. I stepped forward and it stepped aside and continued to watch me. I lifted my hand and said, “I’m going to the lodge. Would you like to come with me?” I began to walk, and the fox followed me toward the building. Veering off a few yards from the door, it dissolved into the high grass.

I recall few significant details about most of the people I met at that Alaskan camp that summer.

But the black fox’s eyes are still watching.

 

New Jacket Feb 14____________________

Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. 

Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter

 

Note: Have you had a life-changing or transcendent moment or experience with another animal, wild or domestic? Please share it in the comments below, and/or send it to richardlouv@mac.com

 

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  1. Carolyn Hopper says:

    Your observations touched me in a new way about animals.

    And I want to tell you about a woman in San Jose del Cabos who is doing astonishing work for birds at San Jose Estuary and in Baja. She is a trained guide, knowledgeable about birds, history, culture and avid follower of the principles at engaging children (and adults) with nature. The tourist culture in Cabos needs nurturing in order to get the “where’s the action?” crowd to slow down and help protect the few areas where, among other birds, the Belding’s yellowthroat makes it’s home.
    For the last 10 years some one , as yet unknown, is trying to burn the estuary, render it free of birds, so he can build some monstrosity there.
    There are Mexican organizations who are doing some good work to save it, but more needs to be done.
    If you have time you can read about the estuary and Birding-Los Cabos and a little about Maria Elena Muriel. Among many other connections, we share “Last Child in the Woods”
    I am a writer and I will be helping the estuary and Maria from Montana.
    Perhaps you might have an idea about places to send information about the estuary.
    And one last note – about flowers…my husband and I have a wildflower hike website for the Bozeman area. My first love is surrounding myself with wildflowers. Then I slow down enough to watch for who ever else shows up. We are blessed to live near Yellowstone National Park.

  2. Sandy says:

    After a major detonation to the very foundation of my life, I lived with my children in a little bowl of a mountain. I had crows who lived in the woods near me. They would follow me on walks, once alerting me to bears around the corner. One day, I was sitting on my porch, my little dog lying in the sun nearby. I heard my crow friends screeching in alarm. I looked up to see a falcon dive-bombing towards my porch. Then the most remarkable thing occurred. A sortie of crows targeted the falcon, sending it careening into the hillside, about 15 feet from where I sat. It finally was able to gather its bearings, and flew off. But those seven crows perched themselves all around the porch railing, so that the falcon would not think of trying to attack again. I recently walked the mountain roads in that neighborhood, and I swear my crow friends followed me the entire way.

  3. Millie Heur says:

    In an isolated area in the Southern California desert near Mexico and after a morning of an intense yoga practice and meditation sit, I went outside to contine to sit on the deck and saw a lizard. I said to myself and I guess to the lizard, “Will you come over to see me Mr. Lizard and give me your company?” Like a dog would do, the lizard came right to me and stayed at my feet. In that moment I felt a part of everything in the lizard’s natural desert environment and the little fella felt safe to come to me. It was, to say the least, sublime.

  4. Byron Luke Felde says:

    I once walked up on a mountain lion in the woods.

  5. Susan McLoughlin says:

    I have two 12 year old semi-feral cats. Every day they share their food and water with a racoon. Even though they are within a few feet of each other there is no conflict. They have an unspoken agreement that I am not party to and I stay out of the way. I know that my presence could upset the balance of this interesting relationship.

  6. Elizabeth A Asch says:

    What if the black fox did see you, Richard, as an individual? And if he also sees you not only as a member of the domineering human race, but as a man who is part of the effort to re-kindle our connection to the natural world, to his world? This could explain why he accepted your invitation to walk down a path together, and why you feel that his eyes are “still watching,” even a few years later.

  7. I had a similar encounter with a badger while walking through the woods on my family’s farm in northern Michigan. Given the reputation of this animal I felt fear. As I remember it was about 20 feet or so up the path, and I was relieved when it scuttled off in the other direction. Not too long after that I encountered it again, this time while driving my van down a nearby road as it was crossing. It stopped and looked up defiantly. I was closer this time and happy for the barrier around me. Then it moved away on its own terms, in its own time back to the woods. In the years since I was a child, our farm has become home to coyotes, turkeys, and badgers, in addition to the usual raccoons, deer, and creatures I grew up with. I am happy that they still have space to take sanctuary there. Some others, sadly including so many moths and Monarch butterflies, have grown more scarce with the passage of time.

  8. Tori says:

    Many years ago, while living in a small village in bush Alaska, I was out on a beautiful winter day with the man I was dating at the time. We were on a snowmobile (“snowmachine” to an Alaskan.) riding around out on the tundra… tracking a small pack of wolves and enjoying the warm weather. We didn’t see a wolf that day, but we did see a bright white snowy owl flying low over the tundra, just a few yards from us. The white on white of the owl and the snow cannot be described! It was breathtaking and I will never forget the sight of it or the way that blue- sky day felt in the middle of winter. To this day, I feel like that owl was perhaps an omen, or maybe even my totem animal.
    I’ve always been partial to raptors and owls are my favorite. On that particular day, having a close encounter with a snowy brought back memories of growing up in the country on a small farm. My brothers and I would play outside, in and around the barn, ALL the time. I was probably in late grade school when, on one particular day, I was playing in the barn (hay storage side) when I looked up into the barn rafters right into the eyes of a huge barn owl. It was quietly hidden in the peak of the roof and solemnly sat watching me while I sat watching it. It felt like we stared at each other for hours… finally, I made my way out. Over the next few weeks I would return to the barn to look for the owl – I never saw it again.
    These days, when I’m out walking the neighborhood at night or hiking in a nearby state park.. I often seem to hear the hoot of a great- horned owl, or a screech or saw whet owl calling to me. (and I know it’s just for me!)

  9. Joanne says:

    I was visiting Muir Woods and, upon the park closing that night, my ranger friend and others invited me to join them in their “after owlers” group that voluntarily surveys the resident spotted owls of Muir Woods. We spotted an owl high up on the branch of a nearby redwood and my friends asked me to keep an eye on it while they traipsed off looking for its mate.

    I settled down on the forest floor keeping an upward gaze at this tiny dot up in the tall trees. I got restless quick and decided to rustle some duff on the ground to tease the owl. I also jangled a silver chain around my neck. Suddenly and silently the spotted owl swooped down to a fallen log less than 10 feet from my face. For twenty minutes this football sized creature and I had a staring contest. My friends returned and counseled me that the owl could have easily flown straight at me to grab my shiny necklace yet this owl instead chose to get a bit closer to determine what I was. Magical moments in this close encounter with a spotted owl in an old growth redwood forest.

  10. Wendy James-Aldridge says:

    Orangutan Holly was learning sign language. A student had made her an official sock puppet with a red felt mouth and button eyes. The puppet didn’t last long, but we used it as our initial exemplar for the “friend” sign. I’d slide my hand inside the puppet; Holly would do her surprisingly tiny-sounding mouse-squeaks at it. When the puppet finally bit the dust, I improvised with a red bandana draped over my hand, some of it stuffed inward to make a mouth. When I would make the crude puppet “talk,” Holly would join in with her squeaks. Did she believe in magic? Did she really think the cloth on my hand became another animate being? And then one day she answered my question–or part of it anyway. We were sitting on the floor together. She picked up my hand, held it in the air momentarily, then let it go while she fished around in the toy crate. Watching her, I absentmindedly allowed my hand to relax and drop. She quickly picked it up again, then resumed her rummaging in the crate. She finally pulled out the red bandana. This time I had left my hand where she had put it. She shook out the bandana, draped it over my hand, and then sat back, waiting. Having begun to get a clue (humans can be very dense sometimes), I tucked the mouth bit inside my hand and turned my hand towards Holly. Only at that point did she begin her social mouse-squeaks. She liked playing with her puppet friend, but clearly knew all along how to make it. It was, after all, just a bandana draped hand. Or was it? Maybe we all believe in magic….

  11. Matthew Jones says:

    I have been blessed with several interesting encounters in which the other animal engaged me at some level. Those encounters include (aside from the domestic animals we have had-some interesting interactions there)a red fox, a gray fox, a raven, a herd of mule deer and a baboon (not all at the same time).
    Of all those, the baboon encounter was slightly bizarre. I was sketching the Hlwehlwe/Umfalozi game reserve I was camping in and herd a troop of baboons headed up the ridge my way.
    I chose a very open area to sketch in because baboon were not the creatures with which I was most concerned. The closest scrub and tall grasses were well beyond sprinting range of anything wild I thought might be interested in me (save the cheetah).
    What I didn’t expect is for a baboon scout from the approaching troop to appear at the margin of the scrub. He was foraging as he went until he noticed me and then turned toward me-face on.
    My pulse quickened and all sorts of thoughts ran through my mind as to my reaction.
    We stood poised and gazing at each other as if assessing the common threat.
    Thinking primate-to-primate, I didn’t want to seem weak, defensive, aggressive etc., I raised one hand open and palm forward-as if to wave “hi” at my distant neighbor (relative?).
    I will swear to my end that this baboon, after sizing me up, nodded his head (in acknowledgement?) and then went back to foraging.
    Shortly thereafter, the troop made its way well around me. This I could tell from the barking sounds growing more distant than before and remaining so until out of earshot.
    Was this an actual “I-see-you-for-what-you-are” encounter? Was it just circumstantial and a simple contrivance of my imagination?
    I choose the former-I have had too many other circumstances to all be dismissed casually.

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