A fox jumped out one winter’s night,
And begged the moon to give him light.
For he’d many miles to trot that night
Before he reached his den
(Excerpt from “The Fox's Foray”, Anonymous)
Early one morning I was walking down the road with my dog. It was early enough that the sun had barely risen and the freshly fallen snow hadn’t been disturbed by the cars. As we meandered along, I noticed regularly spaced tracks along the edge of the road. These tracks were small, oval-type prints with noticeable claws and distinct divisions between toes and paw pads. They looked very similar to my dog’s prints but smaller.
Where I live in Vermont we have both red and gray foxes. The gray fox is a native species, and the red fox was introduced to the area by European settlers. The gray fox is smaller than the red fox and has the ability to climb trees and retract its claws. The red fox paw is usually larger and has more fur on the pad that can sometimes obscure parts of the print.(1,2) Both animals often travel with a direct register gait. What this means is that their rear foot lands squarely on top of where the front foot had just stepped.(3) All these basic clues support my general identification that what I noticed this morning was a fox track.
Noticing fox tracks is a reminder that we are not alone in our neighborhoods. There are animals that emerge after dark and explore our yards and streets as we sleep. Sometimes, they may make their presence known by tipping your trashcan. But most of the time, the only way you would know that they were there is by the tracks they leave behind.
If you happen to be lucky enough to have an encounter with one of these animals, you may be inspired to write a poem about it. Alice Oswald (b.1966) did just that in her poem “Fox” which was part of her 2016 book Falling Awake.
“Fox” by Alice Oswald
I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air
a fox in her fox-fur
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house
(Excerpt from “Fox”)
Oswald’s poem continues with an exploration of this imaginative encounter with the mysterious fox and then ties it back to her own life and experience as a parent. (Read the complete poem here.)
“Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight” is another great poem about a fox encounter. In this poem, Jane Hirshfield reflects on her experience with three foxes as she is out walking.
“Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight” by Jane Hirschfield
her nose to the ground,
a rusty shadow
neither hunting nor playing.
One stood; sat; lay down; stood again.
One never moved,
except to turn her head a little as we walked.
Finally we drew too close,
and they vanished.
The woods took them back as if they had never been.
I wish I had thought to put my face to the grass.
But we kept walking,
speaking as strangers do when becoming friends.
There is more and more I tell no one,
strangers nor loves.
This slips into the heart
without hurry, as if it had never been.
And yet, among the trees, something has changed.
Something looks back from the trees,
and knows me for who I am.
There is something about this poem that I really enjoy. Perhaps it is the uniqueness of the encounter, or perhaps it is the mystery in those last few stanzas. It could also be that this poem highlights what can happen when you encounter wildlife. Sometimes your life just changes.
Kobayashi Issa wrote a few haikus about foxes. Many of them were set in the spring.
showing a sake cup
- Kobayashi Issa
The following is one of the few fox focused haikus that was set in the winter.
a wild fox celebrates
among rice sheaves...
My search for fox-inspired haiku by Basho came up empty. However, I did find that Tim Myers wrote a children’s book called Basho and the Fox (2000).
In this book, Myers tells the tale of Basho’s encounter with a fox. The fox, who wears an ornate robe and stands on his hind legs, is eating the cherries out of one of the trees near Basho’s hut. Basho tries to shoo the fox out of the tree. Only being slightly effective in his efforts, Basho engages the fox in a discussion that eventually turns to poetry.
The fox says that all foxes are better poets than humans. He also makes the claim that the human’s greatest poems were whispered to them by foxes.
Next, the fox makes a deal with Basho. If Basho can write him a great poem, he will leave the cherries alone and Basho can have them all.
Basho accepts this challenge and begins writing. Basho has three chances at this challenge. The fox dismisses the first two haiku by saying that Basho can do better. One of these poems was Basho’s famous frog pond haiku.
an old pond.
a frog jumps in.
the sound of water
On the night before Basho was supposed to present the third haiku, he still didn’t have anything he liked. And as he approached the fox, he quickly wrote:
summer moon over
mountains is white as the tip
of a fox’s tail
This one, the fox enjoyed very much! Basho was very confused because it wasn’t his best haiku. In questioning the fox about why he liked it, the fox said “This one has a fox in it!”
This left Basho frustrated and came to the conclusion that poems should be written for the sake of writing poems.
- Red Fox; Vermont Fish and Wildlife
- Gray Fox; Vermont Fish and Wildlife
- Fox Tracks: WildernessCollege.com
- Alice Oswald poem “Fox” can be found in her book Falling Awake (2016). You can also read the full poem at PoetryFoundation.org.
- Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven books of poetry, including Ledger(2020) Come,Thief ( 2011) and a collection of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1997). She also wrote The Heart of Haiku, an introduction to Basho and haiku. “Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight” was retrieved from Poets.org
- Kobayashi Issa’s haiku was retrieved from David G. Lanoue’s Haiku of Kobayashi Issa at the Haikuguy.com
- “The Fox Foray” was retrieved from PoetryFoundation.org.