A primeval scream

Lost in thought, I sauntered along on my morning walk, when out of the corner of my eye suddenly I caught movement. I looked up to the left and there they were: two red foxes romping in the grassy expanse by the forest.

One turned tail and disappeared straightaway into the wood; the second stood stock still in profile — triangular ears, pointy snout, long white-tipped tail.

Immediately, I hunkered down and froze, never taking my eyes off the sleek form.

The fox stared at me momentarily, then opened his mouth and emitted a sound like nothing I had ever heard before: a loud short raspy scream.

The sound brought to mind Dylan Thomas’s description of “noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves”— or

…a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time…a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.

Shortly, I heard several distinct distant barks from the wood where the other fox had gone. Then this fox responded with a series of short, high-pitched barks before turning tail and trotting down along the tree line toward the river.

Mysteries abound in the forest, of which we seldom catch but a glimpse: here, a phrase or two uttered in an unknown tongue, surging up from the wildness of nature to touch the core of our primeval being.

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Outfoxed

As I sauntered up the rise I saw him standing in the middle of the road not thirty yards ahead. In the early morning light he looked like a small dog with a delicate pointed snout and triangular ears. It wasn’t until he turned that I recognized the long low body and equally long white-tipped bushy tail.

I slowed my steps as he trotted across the lawn between the houses. Inside a green ranch house a small dog began to bark.

When I reached mailbox at the green house I stooped down and peered through the drooping branches of an old spruce. There he was, standing at the edge of the treeline in the back yard, looking in my direction. I dropped to one knee and waited to see what he would do.

For a long time he stood still, looking periodically to the left. Then he dropped to his haunches, slaked his tail on the grass and yawned. He turned toward me once again, seemingly studying my face as I studied his form. Finally, after several minutes he nonchalantly rose on all fours, lifted his tail, gave me one last look and trotted off into the undergrowth.

As I resumed my walk I could hear the yelps of dogs coming up from the houses below the ridge.

When I made the big turn in the bend of the street down by the river, I sighted another red fox up ahead. This one appeared older, more gaunt. He trotted off into the woods, perhaps on an early morning mission to seek out a kit who had failed to return to the den by the appointed curfew.

Even foxes have their familial concerns, I mused, as off in the distance a pewee called from the wood.

Fox run

While out on an early morning saunter, I rounded a curve in the road to witness a furry bundle tumble four feet from the top of a retaining wall to the grassy turf below.

The ball unfolded, sat up and shook its head, as though momentarily stunned; then looked directly at me and froze.

There we stood stock still, eyeing each other for an eternal moment, before he turned and trotted off across the road and over the grassy expanse into the wood — a red fox, a juvenile most assuredly.

He was uniform in color, reddish grey, with neither a white tip on his tail nor black tipped ears.  The paws seemed oversized, like those of a puppy; and he ran with a lollop, like that of a young dog.

This is the third time I have sighted fox in this stretch of road. Most likely they return to their den from their nocturnal foraging along this run.

It’s heartening to see a young fox in the spring — a sign of health in the surrounding forest.

Vexed by a fox

Driving home this evening along a deserted stretch of divided highway, I saw what appeared to be a fox trot across the road with some sort of rodent dangling from its mouth. He disappeared over the grassy knoll on the opposite side. I pumped the brakes and pulled a U-turn, crossing over the median strip, then drove back up the other side of the road.

Soon I saw the fox standing in the thick grass, shaking the struggling body of the small rodent back and forth in his jaws. Finally, the animal went limp and he dropped it in the grass; then proceeded to pick it up again and crush the head in his jaws. Again he dropped it; again he picked it up, dropping it one last time.

Then the fox did a curious thing. Like a small puppy, he lay down on his side and propelled himself forward with his paws through the grass for several yards, at which point he reversed direction, propelling himself back, this time on his back, revealing his white throat and belly.

He stood up with his back to me. I could see the black points on his ears and his black forelegs and bushy grey tail. Once again he dropped into the grass to perform the same maneuver over and over several more times. After he had finished, he searched for the rodent, picked it up in his mouth, chewed the carcass a bit, dropped it in the grass, trotted off up the slight incline and disappeared behind the grassy bank.

I waited to see what might happen. After a minute or two the fox reappeared, returned to the carcass as if to reassure himself that it was still there, then turned and left.

I signaled and pulled out into the right lane, then drove ahead down to the intersection. As I pulled into the left lane to make another U-turn and head home, I caught one more glimpse of the fox as he continued to trot along the grassy bank up the road.

This seemed a bit strange to me. I wondered why he chose not to devour his prey and eventually leave it behind. And why the seeming rapturous play in the grass immediately after the kill?

Individuals and types

In a retrospective review of the origins of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, Edward Rothstein observes that the children’s book might be ultimately “less about individuals and more about types.” It is an aviator’s perspective, sweeping across the landscape, only mildly hampered by earthly ties and human requirements, being guided by the stars. On the other hand, the message of the character of the fox is “far more grounded, empathetic, more concerned with others.”

“Saint-Exupéry may have often been caught between these two perspectives,” Rothstein writes. “He fought against detachment but also relished it, fleeing for atmospheric vistas whenever possible.”

There, briefly stated, you have the same dilemma faced daily by thousands of clinicians in medical practice.

At the outset medical education consists largely of learning how to recognize and diagnose illness. Students are taught to look for disease patterns, clinical signs that when taken together as a whole point to one specific medical malady. Unfortunately this method cultivates an attitude toward human beings as disease entities. Students, residents and even attending physicians are apt to refer to “the cholecystectomy in Room 508,” “the schizophrenic in 212,” “the diabetic in ketoacidosis in the ED.”

Such shorthand nomenclature provides a synopsis of the clinical condition and by implication, a plan for treating it. Yet if we are not careful, referring to patients as diagnostic entities or classifying them as types allows us to dehumanize them. If we come to regard patients as mere disease entities, we are less likely to suffer emotional attachment, more likely to maintain our clinical objectivity; but at what cost?

Patients who perceive that their providers are not interested in them tend to linger longer in the throes of illness than those who feel validated and nurtured as individuals. It has been shown that providing terminally ill patients with good palliative care dramatically improves the quality of life during their waning months.

At some point in their medical education it would behoove clinicians to move toward an attitude of empathy, to take a compassionate stance in dealing with patients entrusted to their care.

Perhaps that is what Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince has to teach us grownup clinicians who have chosen a career in medical practice.

In the words of the fox: “Here is my secret. It is very simple. One only sees rightly with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye.”

El zorro ha fallecido

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No sooner had I stepped inside the backdoor than my wife informed me that the fox was dead.  “I saw him lying by the side of the road when I was out for a walk earlier today,” she said.  “Must’ve been hit by a car.”

The fox had taken up residence in our village several years ago. There were periodic sightings in the neighborhood.  I had seen his silhouette cross the street on one of my pre-dawn excursions, and caught a glimpse of his red bushy tail along the retaining wall on Wood Duck Lane.  Our friends on Winthrop had seen him roaming the cemetery, and my daughter and son-in-law discovered his lair in a pile of fallen tree trunks near their home.

When a free-range rooster and hen disappeared this past summer, we figured the fox had gotten them.

After dinner I pulled on my plaid woolen jacket and walked down Elm Street with my daughter to see him.  The carcass was still there, nestled among the brown leaves in the grass.  He had a thick grey winter coat and amber eyes.  With his fore-paws bent he looked so life-like, almost as if he were poised to dash off into the woods.

“This is so sad,” my daughter said, “so very sad.”

It was almost as though a local human inhabitant had passed away.  A queasiness rose in my stomach as I snapped a few digital photos to document the death.

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El Zorro

After a mid-afternoon meal of tortilla, consumé and hunks of the deeply textured heavily crusted bread that I have never eaten any place on earth except in the region of Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain, we sat on the bench in the narrow cobblestone street outside the house to talk.  Later, my wife joined me for a leisurely stroll.  We headed up the steep hill on the narrow sidewalk past the concrete row homes with the old wooden Dutch doors to the Capilla da Magdalena, the small chapel from which that section of the village takes its name.

At the very top of the rise the houses fall away, leaving only a narrow stretch of macadam road that winds back down to intersect the carretera where the ancient eucalyptus tree stands at the edge of town.

Across the way you could see the tiny houses along the road as it ran through Cuiña, Senra and San Claudio to Mera.  The railroad tracks crossed this section of the estuary and ran past the old stone mill that operated with the rise and fall of the tides, the only such mill in the entire region.

As we descended the narrow road past the grassy fields hemmed in by thick brush and blackberry bushes, we saw two massive horses grazing, each lifting its head periodically to look at us.  I noticed something moving in the tall grass by their haunches—a furry animal built low to the ground, brownish grey with a long bushy tail.

“Look!” I said.  “Un zorro!”

“Are you sure?” my wife asked, straining on tiptoes to have a better look.  “Yes, it certainly does look like a fox, doesn’t it?”

We watched as the fox moved back and forth through the grass, approaching the horses, which seemed to pay it no mind.  At one point the fox stopped and lifted its head to look at us.  Surprisingly, it didn’t run away; but held its ground, seemingly unafraid.

It was the first time I had seen a wild fox in the campos of northwestern Spain.

Back at the house my mother-in-law told us that there had been several sightings of fox in the area.  “One used to come out of the pines and walk down to the ria at low tide to hunt for something to eat on the mud flats,” she told us.  “It never seemed to be afraid of me when I saw it.”

I thought of Saint Exupéry’s fox in the Little Prince, and how he begged the little prince to tame him to make him his friend.

“If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”

The fox gazed at the little prince, for a long time.

“Please—tame me!” he said.

So the little prince tamed the fox. And when the hour of his departure drew near–

“Ah,” said the fox, “I shall cry.”

“It is your own fault,” said the little prince. “I never wished you any sort of harm; but you wanted me to tame you…”

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“But now you are going to cry!” said the little prince.

“Yes, that is so,” said the fox.

“Then it has done you no good at all!”

“It has done me good,” said the fox, “because of the color of the wheat fields.”

Two days later I arose early while it was still night to take leave of my wife’s family and return stateside.  My nephew drove my son and me to the airport.  There was a light rain falling.

As we left the town, following the winding road along the edge of the ria, a waning gibbous moon broke through the misty clouds above the mountains that slept in the distance.

Later, the mountains would turn a deep rich green in the afternoon sun; and I would remember the fox playing in the field among the horses, unafraid.