A LITERARY DISCOVERY
The editors of SI proudly present the first in a series of hereto unpublished essays by one of the great American naturalists of the 20th century
There were four veteran fox hunters and some young hopefuls in my native New England town when I was a small boy. From the veterans I learned—at times by overhearing their talk at the village store, more often by following at a discreet distance when they went afield—that they loved hounds above all other animals, and that in their ears the clamor of a pack in full cry was the sweetest of music. They hunted the red fox exclusively, the pestiferous gray not having yet appeared in our locality; but their pleasure in the chase was more than merely harking to hound melody. When on tired legs they turned homeward in the brief winter twilight, every one of them, even the sorefooted hounds, felt much better if the brush of a fox floated like a banner from a pocket of the old shooting jacket.
Long before I was considered old enough to enter the fox-hunter clan, I had learned a little of fox ways by watching the cubs play around their den and by trailing many a grown fox in the snow to find out what game he ate and how he caught it. One of my small-boy discoveries was that a fox, after hunting all night long, usually returns in the dawnlight to rest or sleep near the den where he was born. All red fox cubs desert the den in early summer, when they begin to follow the vixen afield, and I have never known one to enter it again, not even when chased by dogs. In the autumn they scatter to hunt by and for themselves; but for some reason (by force or early habit, possibly) they spend the daylight hours in a place that is associated in their minds with the feeling of home and safety.
December 19, 1955
Remembering this early lesson when at last my turn came to hunt, I kept the hounds in leash, or trained them to follow at heel, until we were near a recently used den, instead of letting them waste the better part of a frosty morning by roaming at random or by puzzling out a cold trail. Often it happened that they jumped the fox in a few minutes after they were turned loose.
One lucky day while trailing a male or dog fox (you may be sure of that last because he cocks a leg like any proper dog or wolf), a gleam of ruddy color caught my eye, and there was my fox, curled up in his day bed. Unlike bears, that hide away in thick cover, or gray foxes, that often den up for the day, a red fox habitually sleeps where he has a clear outlook on every side. This one lay on a granite ledge from which the sun and his own body heat had melted the snow. He was just a formless mat of fur, golden bright, like a gorgeous cock pheasant half hidden in a white nest. After watching him a while I pursed lips to squeak like a woodmouse, his favorite dainty in the way of food. At the first skeek-skeek up came his head, its black nose, yellow eyes and furry ears pointing straight at me.
Since then I have occasionally gone fox hunting with a .22 rifle when a holiday and a tracking snow lured me into the winter woods. This new kind of sport, be assured, is quite as thrilling as the stalking of any other wary game. If you hit the trail of a fox near the beginning of his nightly hunt, you have a long day ahead; for he travels far, and what reward you bring home will be hidden where a fisherman carries his best catch, not in his creel but in his heart. If luckily you hit the trail where the fox turned with full stomach toward his day bed, what you then bring home will depend on how carefully you stalk and how straight you shoot.
By way of friendly warning let me add: never follow directly in the tracks of game, but keep well to the leeward or downwind side. A sleeping fox, like a sleeping deer, watches his back trail, knowing by instinct or experience that an enemy may follow it. And if you would make your squeak very mouselike, press two fingers against your lips and pull your breath in sharply between them. This call seems to be magical to a fox, even to one that is gorged with food.
One summer day I left my tent on the Castor River in Newfoundland to carry some letters to the nearest port of call. On the bank of a nameless little river I was searching for a place to ford or to jump when a motion that was not of the wind froze me in my tracks. Across an opening on the other side drifted a head that looked foxy, and I gave the mouse call. Bushes quivered as if a great snake was crawling through them. They opened silently; and there, hardly five yards away, stood a fox with raised head—a black fox, with every hair of his king fur tipped with frosty white. He was one of the only two silver foxes I have ever seen in the wild. He had answered my call not because he was hungry, I think, but because he had seen a man for the first time and was as inquisitive as are all his kind.
Years later, on a winter outing in the Ontario wilderness, I camped near a ridge that for ages past had been a denning place for foxes. One evening I wound up an alarm clock, found in a ranger cabin, and covered it with fir boughs beside a runway. Next morning there was a ring of tracks around the clock, with depressions that told where two or three foxes had sat down to watch and listen. Evidently the tick-tock was a new sound in that vast solitude, and they wanted to know what it meant.
Aside from the fun of trailing game in the snow, any sportsman may in a day or two learn more than by a whole season's hunting. One lesson that soon became obvious, even to the boy, was that a fox hunts slowly, going at a leisurely trot until his keen nose picks a whiff of scent from the air. Invariably he stops, holding motionless until he locates the direction of his game, and then reads up to it as if walking on eggs. And the moral was, as now I think of it, that sportsmen who train bird dogs to run at top speed are heading the wrong way, because it is a wholly unnatural way. At field trials I have seen excellent running dogs that hunt with their legs, as the trainer intended; but I get far more pleasure from a dog that hunts with his nose, as nature intended.
HE LIKES TO RUN
Another early lesson—this one learned by following the fox hunters but keeping out of sight because they did not want a boy to spoil their sport—was that a red fox, unlike the gray, keeps on his feet instead of taking to earth because he likes to run. I have known one fox that came on a winter night to yap-yap his challenge at a pair of kenneled hounds—the same hounds that had chased him only a day or two before. The red fox is by nature cunning; his lean body has plenty of muscle, and he can be amazingly fast, like a red streak across the snow, whenever he has need of more speed. So he runs ahead of the hounds, hour after hour, with the notion in his foxy head that he can both outwit and outrun his dog enemies. I have yet to see the hounds that can catch him in a fair chase.
The nearest approach to a draw occurred when I went out, after a 10-inch snowfall, with a grand pair of slow—running hounds. They jumped a fox and trailed him among echoing hills all day long; at nightfall, when I turned homeward, they were still running. Next morning I went out, and by sheer luck—for there was no trail cry to guide me to a runway—saw the fox on a steep hillside with one silent hound following only 20 to 30 yards behind. Both were walking in the deep snow, the fox too tired to run, the hound too tired to give tongue. Somehow the fox scrambled over the rocky crest of that last terrible hill and vanished. Under the crest on this side the hound fell down, and it seemed to me that he was asleep when he hit the ground. I carried him home in my arms, a dead weight. The other hound, his bracemate, was curled up on the straw of his kennel, and he, too, was dead to the world.
Like every other wild animal, a fox has his own range, which he regards as home, and it is next to impossible for hounds to drive him out of it. When he reaches its limit in any direction, he invariably turns back. The only exception is a tramp fox, this name being applied to a male or dog fox that in late winter leaves his own range in quest of a mate. If he finds one he stays on her range and follows the new runways as if he had known them all his life; otherwise he heads back to his home range, after emptying his stomach to lighten his heels for the long run. In a few minutes he takes the hounds out of hearing, and you will not see them again that day.
Of all the lessons learned in boyhood the one that most elated me, naturally, was that the foxes had some runways and crossings of which the veteran hunters were unaware. How it helped me to become an honorary member of the foxhunting clan happened in this way:
Chief of the clan was the Squire, a peppery and profane old gentleman with a toddy-blossom nose and gouty foot. For these features he had an alibi, saying that the devil had sorely afflicted him; everybody else knew that the affliction came from frequent potations of port. Because of the gout, which made walking difficult or painful, he hunted after every snowfall in a sleigh drawn by a fast horse. Being thus handicapped he could take his stand only at a road crossing, where he might be heard cursing his luck or his gout or his horse when he arrived at the crossing too late by a minute, only to hear the chase pass with a sound as of trumpets and bugles over a wooded hill where he could not follow.
On a December day when I was fishing with homemade tilts through the ice of Turnpike Pond, my eye alert for the dip of a red flag while my ear followed a trail cry that had been sounding near or far since early morning, the Squire's hunting sleigh came tearing down the pike. At the pond's edge he pulled up, with difficulty because his horse was fighting the bit. Over the ice came his bawling summons, "Hey, you boy! Come here! On the jump!"
With alacrity I went, hoping for adventure more thrilling than that of fishing, though the pickerel were biting well.
"Has that fox taken the bridge crossing?" roared the Squire, cupping hand to ear for my answer while I was yet 40 yards distant.
"No, sir. And he won't take it, not today. He was on the runway, all right; but the crows mobbed him, and he turned back into the pines where they can't see him. The hounds must have jumped him in— —"
"I know where they jumped him, for I was there," blustered the Squire. "In the Moses Blackington woods, on the Watery Hill road. Where is he now?"
"He's heading for the bar crossing, this side the Tucker farm. But he'll go 'way round the pond before he shows himself in the open again. The hounds are hot on his trail. That dog Trump you bought from Wally Franklin is in the lead. The others are alone behind and bunched. Hark to 'em, Squire. They're running with heads up, whooping glory hallelujah."
Over the Squire's face, reddened by pelting full tilt into a cold wind, swept a change, a softening, a look of vast surprise tinged with wonder, "Praise the Lord for a coming fox hunter," he breathed. "Jump in here, boy, quick. Never mind the tilts. I'll buy you a barrelful if you show me that crossing before the fox gets to it."
In a half minute I was beside him and we were flying down the pike. Hoof-driven clods of snow whizzed by our heads like flushed quail. Around a corner we slowed on one runner, and charged up a mile-long road at a hard gallop. All the while, an hour it seemed, the clamor of hounds drew nearer, grew louder, until even the Squire could hear it. "Pull up, pull up," I yelled in his ear. "There's the crossing, just ahead."
WHUMP WENT THE GUN
While the Squire was getting his gouty foot from under the buffalo robe and reaching for his gun at the same time, I had a blanket on the steaming horse and was holding him by the bridle with plenty of trouble on my hand. Any horse, even an old plug, gets excited by the hunt and wants to join the clamoring hounds. This blooded brute was on fire, jerking at the bridle, until suddenly he stood as if carved from stone, head high, ears cocked, eyes lit by an inner flame. In a pasture lot to our right a fox had blossomed out on the snow like a gorgeous flower unfolding its petals. On he came at an easy lope, straight through the bar-way into the road. Two jumps would have carried him into the brush on the other side; but he made only one. Whump bellowed the gun, four drams of black powder, and whump the second barrel. Through a cloud of smoke the Squire was hobbling forward, as fast as one good and one gouty foot could carry him, when the enormity of his offense swept over me. Forgetting all respect for age I yelled at his back, "Hey, you, stop it! You're breaking the rules."
Well he knew the unwritten law, that a dead fox must not be touched until the hounds have had their turn, but now had for the moment completely forgotten it. Like a man caught chicken stealing he turned with a grin that seemed to widen from ear to ear. "Thanks, boy, for reminding me," was all he said. At his shot the hounds had instantly ceased to clamor. Leaving the trail they came straight to the kill, every tongue silent. The older hounds thrust a nose into the reek that for hours had held them in a spell as of ecstasy; when the younger had "mussed" or worried or shook the fox, each to his heart's content, they all lay down to roll on their backs in the snow.
And then the old Squire came limping back to hold up for my admiration his first fox of the season—no pale-colored vixen but a big dog fox in the splendor of winter pelage. "Boy, you are now and forever a fox hunter," said the chief of the clan, with solemnity, it seemed to me, as if it were a ritual. At the words "now" and "forever" he tapped my left and right cheek with the fluffy brush of the fox. So in olden times did royalty confer knighthood by the tap of a sword. In the Squire's face, from which age lines had vanished as if by magic, I saw with wonder what could not then be put in words—the eternal boyishness that sportsmen find in their hearts when they drop work and worry to go afield with rod or gun on their precious day off.
About the author
To the present generation of Americans, Dr. William J. Long is hardly a familiar name. Some 50 years ago this Congregational minister, naturalist, explorer and writer was one of the best-beloved—and most controversial—figures of his day. His fiery arguments with Theodore Roosevelt on nature subjects made headlines; his 30 books on wildlife were familiar to children and adults everywhere, and his History of English Literature is still a standard work in present-day high schools. After his death in 1952 at the age of 86, his daughter, the writer Lois Long, discovered a sheaf of never-published works in a safe in his Stamford, Connecticut home. It is these essays which SI is now privileged to present. A collection of these and other works by Dr. Long will be published by Doubleday & Company, Inc. in the coming year.