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Of Grapes and Foxes

Bill Meredith

Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes.

                     …The Song of Solomon

February is here again, and it’s time to prune the grapevine. I do it more out of tradition and the sense of caring for an old friend than for the promise of jelly or wine; it’s over the hill and on the down slope of life. When my wife and I started dating in 1951, it was already old, growing in the yard where she lived in Jordan, W. Va.. Shortly after we married in 1955, her parents moved to Fairmont, and they took it with them; they pruned it back, and it survived the transplanting to flourish in their new yard. A few years later they moved again, but there was no place for the grapevine at that house, so they gave it to us. We planted it in what was then the corner of our garden, now the yard of our new house. That was not a particularly good place for it… too wet and shady… but it survived, and remains there now, 50 years old plus whatever age it had attained before I met it.

I pruned the vine last spring and was rewarded by a good growth of new branches, which bloomed well and set on a promising crop of grapes; but the weather turned dry in June and they all shriveled up. Late last summer I was sitting on the porch one evening contemplating my cigar, the state of the world, and the field mice in the flowerbed when a gray fox appeared under the grapevine. It sniffed at the mummified grapes, trotted over to the plum tree in front of the house to sample the fruit on the ground, and then investigated the mouse trails in the flowerbed. I watched it several minutes until the neighbor’s dog started barking and it darted away.

We have two kinds of foxes in this area. The red fox, which is more abundant but also more wary, is variable in color; it sometimes is gray, and may range from the textbook tawny reddish color to almost black. It has a long nose, which gives it a shifty, devious look. The gray fox is more consistently colored, grizzled iron-gray on the back and tail, reddish on the neck and head, white under the throat, and with a black tear-streak extending from each eye down to its muzzle. Its nose is shorter and more shapely, resulting in an alert, intelligent look; it is a beautiful animal in every respect. It eats mice, insects, and whatever else it can find; it can climb small trees if the branches are right, to reach fruit or to escape from pursuers.

The first time I saw a gray fox around here was in the spring of 1989, when we still lived in the old house across the alley. It was a warm, sunny afternoon in April; I was recovering from the flu, and had a backlog of exams that needed urgently to be graded and returned to my class. I was desperate to get out of the house, so I bundled up, got a lawn chair, and sat down in the sun in the back yard with a pile of exam papers in my lap. Now, reading exams is the most boring task ever invented by God or man; the sun was in my eyes; and heat waves were rising off the ground, giving a wavy, dream-like motion to the landscape. All this, plus my flu medication, had its predictable effect. I was just nodding off when a gray fox slipped through the barberry hedge and started across the yard. It seemed to be trotting along in slow motion, but its feet weren’t touching the ground… it appeared to be floating on the heat waves. I stared at it in wonderment; the realization dawned upon me that gravity doesn’t work on foxes. Then it occurred to me, still in slow motion, to go and get my wife so she could share the excitement of discovering this new law of physics; but as soon as I moved, both I and the fox came back to reality. The fox turned in mid-air and hit the ground running, and was through the hedge and gone before I was out of my chair.

We built our new house that summer, and the fox took up residence in a brush pile behind the back yard. We surmised that it was a female with a litter, because we often saw it carrying food toward its burrow. That winter, we regularly saw it eating crabapples under the tree in the back yard, and I was concerned because it seemed to be injured; it walked on three legs, carrying its left front foot, although it would run on all four when alarmed. One evening as I watched, it limped behind the crab tree, but when it came out the other side it wasn’t limping any more; and then I noticed that it had lost two-thirds of its tail! After a moment I realized that there were two foxes under the tree. The newcomer was a big, rough-looking male who bore a strong resemblance to T. S. Eliot’s Growltiger cat; he was obviously the survivor of many battles, and had ragged ears to go with his battered tail. A relationship was evidently well under way.

There is a narrow line between lovemaking and aggression among most carnivores, and our foxes were no exception. We heard them yapping and snarling at each other late into the night for the next several days; from the bedroom window we could see them darting among the shrubbery like shadows, and each morning brought to light additional tracks in the snow all over the yard. They especially seemed to like the area behind the boxwood by the porch. The male left after a while, but we saw the female occasionally throughout that spring; and late in June, still limping, she brought five kits out to play in the back yard on sunny afternoons. They were in the puppy stage, falling over each other and tumbling about, while she sat in the shade and watched them with an anthropomorphic expression of mixed weariness and pride on her face.

She stayed around for the next three years. She was courted by another male, this one with a full, handsome tail, and she appeared to be lactating when we saw her in the summer, but she did not bring families into the open yard any more. Eventually she disappeared.

On my walks over that period of time, on several occasions I found dead foxes; most were young ones found in the early winter, killed by dogs or shot by hunters. Gray foxes have been known to live 10 years in captivity, but in nature they lead a precarious existence; even in the best of times, not more than one in four survive their first year. Through the ‘90’s we occasionally heard them barking in the woods behind the house in the springtime, and would see them in the winter under the crab tree or sniffing for mice around the woodpile; but for the past few years there were none. But then, last month the one that came to the yard last summer reappeared under the crabapple tree, accompanied by an enthusiastic partner. Hope persists:

There are shadows in my yard at night;
They run and play and growl and fight,
And dart behind the yews and boxes
To work at making little foxes.

The old grapevine still waits in the corner of the yard where the crippled vixen and her bob-tailed mate courted twelve years ago. It hasn’t produced many grapes, tender or otherwise, in recent summers; but maybe this year will be different. It would be nice to have some little foxes to share them with.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith