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Posted on 5 Aug 2021 in Non-Fiction |

CATHERINE RAVEN Fox and I: An uncommon friendship. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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A reclusive scientist and a wild fox form an unusual bond in Catherine Raven’s memoir.

I needed to be thinking of how my relationship with the fox began and why we rendezvoused every day at 4.15 p.m. We were meeting, after all, under odd and uncomfortable circumstances. Foxes are supposed to avoid people, free spirits are supposed to avoid schedules, and everyone except a person with the wit of a nit is supposed to avoid humanizing wild animals.

Yet, a wild fox visits Catherine Raven’s isolated mountain cottage every afternoon at about 4.15, stays there within arm’s-length of her while she reads to it, and shows interest in her ‘show-and-tell’ of found objects. Clearly this wild fox is choosing to turn up, on schedule, every day, and interacts with Catherine Raven, who certainly does not have the wit of a nit.

Raven has a Ph.D in biology and is a member of Mensa and of Sigma Xi. As a biologist, she is trained to examine facts objectively and she is desperate not to anthropomorphise and attribute human characteristics to this fox. ‘I wanted to believe that Fox and I were meeting every day because we had followed a logical and inevitable path,’ she writes:

Anthropomorphism describes the unacceptable act of humanizing animals, imagining that they have qualities only people should have, and admitting foxes into your social circle. Anyone could get away with humanizing animals they owned – horses, hawks, or even leashed skunks. But for someone like me, teaching natural history, anthropomorphizing wild animals was corny and very uncool.

So, she tells the story of her relationship with Fox in the same way that she tries to divert her students’ attention from it. She digresses into scientific facts; writes about her life and about the plants and animals around her Montana mountain home; describes in gruesome detail confrontations between animals and their prey; discusses the way wild animals and solitary humans (like herself) appear in books ranging from The Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry through Melville’s Moby Dick and Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!; explains hunting and fire-fighting techniques; and, occasionally, rants about such dissimilar things as academic scientific research and fox-hunting. All to no avail.

Fox steals the show and I, like her students, just want to know more about him. We want to know how she and Fox met, how their relationship developed, where he was when he suddenly vanished, how they dealt with the deadly fox-mange, and whether he survived the fires which destroyed his habitat and almost destroyed Raven’s cottage. Raven does tell us all this, but, in spite of the imaginative and humorous way in which she writes, her memoir can be a little frustrating when you are just waiting for more fox-news.

Fox, however, is not the only wild animal in this book. Raven has spent almost her whole career working with and observing wild animals and she firmly believes that some do exhibit individual traits that could be called ‘personality’. Fox, unlike all the other foxes Raven had observed over the years, was less timid about approaching her. She saw, too, how, as a young fox, he seemed to pretend to hunt when his mother was watching him to make sure that he ‘didn’t expose himself needlessly’ and would stay alive.

She would see him posing between spring and vole, water and food; his upright ears tilted forward as if listening to prey. Raising his rump, he rocked back over his heels. He looked like a normal fox preparing to pounce. Like any one of her ordinary offspring … He had fooled her. He was not hunting. He was spying on someone, wasting time watching another animal that wasn’t food or foe.

Raven’s ‘roof-thumping’ magpies also seem to display personality. They wake her early every morning by thumping on the steel roof and portico of her cottage. Knowing that ‘none of their biological obligations’ required the use of her roof, she concludes that they are thumping simply to annoy her. She arbitrarily gives the two largest magpies names and gender: ‘Tennis Ball had a big round belly; her mate, Torn Tail, crossed his wings behind his back like he was handcuffed’. A brief digression into Darwinian evolutionary theory explains why Raven’s efforts to appease the magpies by placing egg-yolks in empty egg-shells under their favourite roost never works. TB, the matriarch of the group, seems to croak, ‘Don’t trust … Don’t trust the hand that baits you.’ It is the egg-yolks, however, that first attract Fox, and TB seems often to accompany him and, even, to help him hunt. When a wild cat stalks Fox, Raven watches as TB sees it and tries to distract it.

Raven also tells us much about her own life, which has been challenging and unusual. She admits to being claustrophobic, socially incompetent, and to having a problem recognising people: she sees herself as similar to Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick – she doesn’t ignore people, she just ‘has trouble focusing on them’. She writes of being an unloved child, of enrolling at the age of 15 in a university summer school, then waitressing and washing floors to pay her way through more university education. She did voluntary work for the National Parks Service, became a fire fighter, a hunter, and a park ranger before earning her doctorate. Teaching allowed her to buy the land on which she built her cottage, then she juggled her wildlife observation with part-time teaching and writing. Until she decided to document her relationship with Fox, she had written only academic textbooks and scientific journal articles. Imagination, she came to believe, is destroyed by scientific insistence on objectivity.

I had taught from dozens of college-level biology textbooks. All of them introduced students to natural history by keeping them inside memorizing facts and formulae about chemicals and molecules and energy. They could have been written by Victor Frankenstein.

So, in Fox and I, she lets her imagination shape the text. There are chapters in which she imagines things from Fox’s perspective. He reacts to unexpected danger with the expletive ‘Weasel pee!’ Hunting strategies are ‘On plan!’ or ‘Off plan!’ He watches ‘Hurricane Hands’ wield ‘gimpy tools’ in a ‘battle between person and plant’ as she tries, unsuccessfully, to clear a weedy thicket. Sometimes she descends to Fox’s height and sees the world as he would: tumbleweed balls blocking his favourite paths; tall weeds obscuring his view.

‘Russian tumblers’ (tumbleweed), she writes, while characteristically offering a detailed botanical identification of the various weeds around her cottage, accidentally entered the United States in the 1880s in a bag of seed sent from Russia. Since then, tumblers have ‘interloped’ into an area the size of North and South Dakota:

Rolling across sets of iconic Hollywood Westerns, they have accumulated a substantial number of fans eager to believe that any dueling façade is real if tumbleweeds and dust blow between the shooters.

Raven writes fluently and evocatively, and she has a dry sense of humour. Fox and I has charm and depth, and there are some beautiful descriptive passages. As a storyteller, Raven has tried hard to balance scientific objectivity and imaginative empathy, but when Fox gazes into her eyes trustingly at arm’s-length, and when one moonlit night he brings his four bouncing fox-kits down to her cottage and leaves her to watch them whilst feigning sleep – well, what could she do but regard him as a friend?

Catherine Raven Fox and I: An uncommon friendship Scribe 2021 PB 304pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Fox and I from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

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