Crossing the road

red fox at night

Our motor vehicles speed away on ribbons of asphalt. We run along them as they cut along the cities and suburbs but also as they wind their way through the pastures and cornfields and the stands of forest that somewhat resemble wilderness.

Our roads intersect their trails. The wild beasts scurry across them when they cannot hear the whirring of tires and the humming of the internal combustion engines. They race across hoping almost as an act of instinctual faith that that vehicles won’t slam into them and take the great toll of impersonal and unintentional predation that we call roadkill.

And so one night this week, I found myself winding along desolate roads in Western Pennsylvania. The darkness of night enveloped all around me. Only the lights on my vehicle pierced this veil.

And as a rounded a bend in the road, my headlights scanned down upon what I instantly recognized as a deer. But as I motored in closer, the lights revealed a massive buck with a great crown of white rapiers. The rut is nigh, and this is the time of thick necks and grunting and long solitary perambulations through the darkness. Soon, the sensual scents of the does will cast into the wind, and the ancient rites of courtship and copulation will commence.

And the bucks that once wandered around as comrades in the oak woods with velvet headdresses as the deerflies tore at their ears in the July swselter are now turning into the worst rivals.

But by mid-December, the does will stop their sweet waftings, and the testosterone levels will drop in the bodies of the bucks. By January, the antlers will fall, and the rivals will bunch up as comrades again, ready for the long freezing time where the mast of autumn better be bountiful enough to see the deer until first green grass of March.

I shouted with elation from my driver’s seat:

“Look at that buck!”

The buck looked alarmed at my stopping then moseyed into the woods along the road. I motored on.

Jenna asked,  “Would you have shot that one?”

And all I could say is, “Yes.”

That same night, on another desolate road in Western Pennsylvania, I made a turn onto a crooked course that skirted along the edge of a uncut cornfield.

As I approached the edge of the cornfield, a red fox charged out of a hidden covert, and then darted into the tall corn.

He was a beautiful specimen, probably looking at a nice night of mousing where no one could lay eyes upon him, especially not someone with a nice little predator rifle.

We are not long before the days of the foothold traps set in for the red fox and all the other little fur-bearers of the forest and field. Those traps won’t fool many of the old veterans, the ones that have run that gauntlet for a winter or two or five or six,  but the young rangers of the year will surely fall.

But in the next spring, the vixens will whelp in their dens, and the fields will fill with young rangers again.

We watched the fox slink into the corn.

“That was the first red fox I ever saw!” Jenna shouted at me. I guess Florida is pretty depauperate of wild canids, for she told me that there are no red foxes in the lower parts of the peninsula. They are so common here outside of the subtropics. They appear as eternal as the hills and the rocks and the streams, but the truth is they were absent in this part of the continent until the Europeans came. Then, they wandered down out Canada and New England into the newly cleared lands. The legend goes that they were stocked here from England or Germany, a legend that goes in nicely with the repeopling of this land with people mostly of that ancestry after having driven off and subjugated the descendants of that first colonization from Siberia.

As we motored along back into Ohio, the deer stood along the road, almost daring themselves to jump in front of our vehicle. One stupid little button buck staggered out in front of us. He stared up at the headlights in the cliched expression and then turned his head to stagger around to the opposite side of the road.

And we motored on in the darkness. My mind was on the road, but I thought of the paradox of the blacktop. The road and the motor car have given us what appears to be unlimited freedom.  We can cross the continent in a matter of days, if we just get in our vehicle and go on the road.

But in that freedom, we are limited. We must follow that road, as does everyone else who travels.

But the deer and the foxes and all the wild beasts of the fields roam their trails. These paths might be ancient, but they are made through the inertia of instinct, always seeking the path of least resistance to get from the bedding areas to the grazing or hunting grounds.

The beast that thrive here now thrive mostly because of us. We have killed off the wolves and the cougars, and then modern agriculture has made Appalachian hill farming mostly unprofitable.  Farm families are rarer and rarer upon the land, and the thickets and coverts grow to hide the wild creatures more completely.

And so we’ve let these parallel worlds grow up in our wastegrounds.  Most of us never pay much attention to these worlds, but when we go upon our ribbons of blacktop at night, our paths meet. Sometimes, we slam into deer and crush foxes and raccoons. But more often, we just meet. Our headlights illuminate the denizens of that other world.

Perhaps we allow ourselves the chance to marvel at them, and maybe we can consider their plight as beings more deeply tied to the ecosystem. We can maybe consider them a bit, and then realize that we are also tied to it. We’ve built walls around us to insulate ourselves from the realities of the cold, heat, parasites, and hunger.

But these walls are but edifices of delusion. Nature’s laws still abide with us, and that our dominance is only temporary and maybe only illusory.

And when we consider their plight, their existence, we must ultimately fully consider our own.

At least, that is what I’d hope we’d do as the night draws in darker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Natural History

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