By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
June is the traditional, astrological, and physical birth of summer. In June, you can witness the stately elderberry unfurling its huge white flower umbels to the blue sky, or wander through dense blackberry thickets filled with ripening fruit. Somewhere in the deep, shady woods the wild turkey hen lays her clutch of eggs in a neatly cloaked bowl of leaves and sticks, female deer give birth to spindly spotted fawns and golden fox kits are born in shallow dens. June is the month with the longest day and the most violent thunderstorms. It is that unique combination of warmth, moisture and long sunlit days that stoke the fire of creation. In June, life rushes to complete yet another circle in the endless journey of seasons.
Yesterday, our dear friend and neighbor, Lindsey, went out of town. He stopped by the day before to ask if we could feed and water his old yard cat, Tom. Tom is almost 12 years old, and though he’s spent most of his life fending for himself, these days he doesn’t stray far from beneath Lindsey’s old farm truck.
Of course, Lindsey doesn’t live but across the road from us, so feeding Tom is no problem at all. Besides, I always enjoy the short walk to his place because I get to look at his barn. That may sound strange, but I have a thing for old barns. The one that sits alongside Lindsey’s steep gravel driveway is especially large and rustic, boasting double bays, a massive hay loft, and weathered oak clapboards. The barn is in fairly decent shape and still stands smartly on its dry-stacked stone foundation. I can’t think of a time when I’ve walked up that drive and not run my eyes over that gorgeous old barn.
In the morning, Dean and I set out to feed Tom and as usual, I was admiring the barn as we climbed the driveway. But just as we passed the broadside of the barn, a sudden movement in the deep grass near the corner foundation where the clapboards had rotted away caught my eye. I stopped short and gave it another look. It was hard to see the ground through the wire fence of the barnyard, covered in multiflora rose and blackberry canes as it was. I turned to Dean, who had stopped just ahead and was looking at me curiously and asked, “Did you see something move?”
Just as he was shaking his head “no”, a little black nose popped out of a hole in the rotted clapboards and went right back in just as fast.
Dean and I looked at each other and smiled.
Not a second later the nose was back, followed by the soft golden head of a baby red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Suddenly, another head appeared above the first and the two kits wrangled for top position within the opening, each trying to be the one on top. Suddenly, the precarious balance was tripped and the kits tumbled out of the hole head first, followed immediately by a third, previously unseen kit, who now pounced upon its siblings in mock attack. After a brief skirmish, the first two turned in unison and attacked the prankster. Then the three of them rolled around on the ground in a rough tumble of fur and teeth.
Dean and I must have laughed out loud, because all at once all three kits froze and looked right at us. Expecting them to run and hide, we were surprised when they actually began to walk towards us!
Not sure what to do, my mind reeled with the possibilities; where was the mother fox and what would she do if she returned to see us so close to her babies? Any mother can be vicious in defense of her young, but the kits were not at all afraid.
Suddenly, Dean and I were a part of the trio’s game. One would pretend to stalk us and the another would ruin it by jumping on the other’s back. The third would jump in the tumble seemingly for fun. The three of them would have another brief tussle and then suddenly run back to the hole in the barn and disappear. Within moments, the whole game would start all over again.
This little game went on quite a while before a noisy car passing on the road below sent the kits again running back to the safety of the den. We waited for another minute or two, but the kits did not return to the opening.
We decided that we ought to skedaddle before mama fox decided to return. We sure wouldn’t want to spook her away from such a safe and sturdy den as this. As we proceeded up the drive, I looked back just in time to see two little heads sticking out of the hole watching us go. Suddenly the kits fell forward in a tumble of golden fur in a repeat of what was apparently a very long, ongoing game.
That was the first of several encounters we would have with the three fox kits born in Lindsey’s barn. And until now, we never even told anyone that they had been there – just in case.
About a month later, I was in the kitchen preparing dinner and watching the sun set from the kitchen window. The sun had just begun its descent behind the great branches of the Granddaddy oak at the end of the drive and was spreading a luminous golden light over everything. Suddenly, the light glimmered off of something in the meadow.
At first I wasn’t sure that I believed what I was seeing – three young, golden-haired fox. Could these possibly be the same fox kits that Dean and I had seen at Lindsey’s barn last month? They almost had to be.
At that time, they were just babes playing innocently outside of their den in the barn while their mother was off hunting. But now they were adolescents and apparently out for a hunting lesson. Although a bit darker now, their coats were still a tawny, flashing gold that had not yet turned red like their mother’s.
In the last rays of the day the adolescent kits pretended to stalk and pounce on their prey, perhaps using the grasshoppers for practice.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t at all surprised to see them in our yard on what appears to be one of their first hunting expeditions with their mother. My lack of surprise was partly due to the fact that we have worked hard to make our property inviting to all creatures, including predators like the fox, and partly because I sense that they are here because of the contact we made with them when they were just tiny kits falling out of their nursery and tumbling over one another in play.
I like to think that the fox kits remember us from our encounters at Lindsey’s barn and somehow, they know that their secrets are safe here.
Excerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country
© 2013 Jill Henderson
Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one. Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor. This is one journey you don’t want to miss.
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.