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.
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The Jane Hirshfield poem is wonderful. Those last lines just add mystery! As we don’t get much snow my tracking skills are hopeless! Enjoy the snow; we’ll make do with the rain! 🙃🤣🙋♂️
Hi Ashley, we get a lot of snow and my tracking skills are still poor! I was just outside looking at some tracks in the deeper snow and couldn’t identify it. Once I follow the path to the road and it was in the light snow, I realized it was a deer! Maybe, I can cut myself a little slack because it was dark outside. Talk soon,
On the farm where I was raised, I’d see foxes now and then, although not nearly as often as coyotes (but more often than wolves). I was always delighted to see these tricksters loping across the road in the evenings as if they were trotting on air, their tails a red paintbrush dipped in gouache trailing behind in dusk-light. You’re likely aware of Japan’s rich mythology regarding foxes (kitsune), as well as other Asian myths. In this area, we have plenty of pesky foxtail grass (which can be quite dangerous to dogs and other domesticated animals). I’m sure I’ve picked millions of foxtail spikelets from socks and shoelaces over the course of a lifetime. Anyway, top-notch writing as always, Mark, and the included verses were wonderful to experience. 🙂
Hi Mike, I did notice that the there is a fox festival happening in Japan around this time of year. Interesting legend about the foxes all gathering around a certain tree in the town. I definitely need to do a little more digging into that to find out what it is all about. I have read a fair amount of foxtail grasses and their danger to dogs. Luckily, I haven’t ever had an encounter with that. I am glad that you enjoyed the post. Talk soon!
Reblogged this on Art, animals, and the earth.
After encountering with fox
I wonder would anyone would write a poem
Instead of running away from him
Foxes are amazing animals with a rich history that is a blend of folklore and legend! They are our neighbors up her in the northeast and we have to learn to live in harmony with all beings. They are not that scary once you encounter a few of them.
This is a wonderful post on Foxes! We usually think of ourselves as looking into the woods, but there are probably many more watching us! The poems are great. I love the story of Basho and the Fox story!
Your opening verse grabbed my attention. This is a verse from a great country ballad from the 1960s, sung by Bill Anderson, called “Poor Folks”! I used to sing the whole song with my guitar to my elementary school kids, when I taught school years ago.
Hey Dwight, That is so interesting that you knew that verse. The source I found linked it to a book of nursery rhymes. I actually found a couple of versions out there on the web. It makes sense that someone would make a song out of it. Thanks for sharing! Very fascinating!
I was totally mixed up. Poor Folks was a whole different song. The Fox song was sung by Burl Ives. This is the whole song…
Excellent! Thanks for sharing this!
You are welcome!
foxes are not scary
unless you are chicken
thanks for another beautiful post, Mark
Hi Barbara, I am laughing out loud at that one!
lol – so I get full marks for stating the obvious? 🙂
Definitely! Sometimes we need to someone to point out the obvious.
Even though you weren’t able to identify whether it was a gray or red fox’s prints, you already know way more than me about fox species. Gray can climb trees?! Wow.
My favorite line: “The woods took them back as if they had never been.” That’s the perfect summary of what it feels like to see a fox and then, suddenly, nothing’s there.
Hi Tracy, I agree that Hirshfield poem is wonderful. I fell like I have had that experience before.
Isn’t it amazing that the Gray fox can climb a tree! I actually didn’t know that until I wrote this post. But that is part of the reason I write this stuff. So I can learn more. Talk soon,
I love foxes! I feel like I’ve lived more lives than a cat, so I’ve decided I must be kitsune. I become more bold and clever with age! Great post and poems about foxes!
Hi Melanie, It not every day that you get to use kitsune in a sentence! Or at least it is not an every day thing for me. Thanks for the comment and I hope all is well on the west coast.
I started off on a random journey through the blogger sphere to find inspiration for my own writing and came across a nature blog about foxes which was really interesting and then stumbled onto your blog. Our local sheep farmers curse foxes but they are such a magnificent animal and I still love to see them visiting my property even if the ducks on the dam do not! Loved listening to the Burl Ives song, that took me back to a tiny classroom in a small bush school. Love your blog. Lynn
Hi Lynn, I am glad that you found us! I hear you about that love/dislike relationship with the fox. We don’t have any livestock on our property that they might hunt so it is fun for us to see them run through. But our neighbors with chickens are not such a big fan! Thank for the comment and I look forward to visiting your blog. Talk soon,
Many thanks Mark. I feel energized reading your blog. I applied for a job and had an interview last week but missed out. I don’t have to work but I really wanted to prove to myself that I could still get a job. My lovely fellow poet friend says maybe it is a sign that I should concentrate on my writing. I was a journalist in a previous life but had a career change. Now I’m enjoying writing again along with my photography. Always something wonderful to capture in a picture.
Maybe your next career is as a photo journalist? Yes, definitely keep writing. You never know where it will take you.
A marvellous theme of foxes. Well done!
Thanks! I am glad that you enjoyed this one. I think Hirschfeild’s poem is my favorite out of this group.
Hi only just seen this great post – foxes are very special this is a poem I wrote last year:
The Sacred Fox
alone in this magical autumn forest
I sink into the undergrowth
I know where the safe places are
camouflaged by golden leaves
a triumph of intelligence over malevolence,
I watch you from afar and serve as a warning,
heighten your awareness of your own plight
sense my tenacity that rests upon the wind
and the mystical secrets I keep within.
A J Wilson
This is wonderful! “Sink into the undergrowth” and “the mystical secrets” are such great lines! Thanks for sharing and diving into some of the older posts. I hope all is well. Thank you for the continued support.
Thanks Mark yes I’m fine thanks. ❤️
Here’s the fox
Tracking the footprints
Hi Cogito, Very nice addition. Thanks for sharing.
Thank for the warm welcome, Mark, and for sharing poetic visions of nature.
Mark S, just discovered this post. Can’t say that I have ever written a poem about a fox, but enjoyed reading these.
Have you ever read The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy? It is just wonderful in my opinion, and it can be read either cover to cover or by choosing random pages as there is wisdom on nearly every page. It is a series of calligraphy-like drawings and calligraphy of the text. FYI! ~nan
Hi Nancy, Yes! I do know that book. I wrote a little review of that book and Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder. I only had the audio version of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. But I did go look up the illustrations from his website. They are fantastic. Thanks for reminding me!
I gather that Tim Myers wanted to underline his story’s moral by having the third haiku be a tad clunky, but the simile in it is too good to be confined there. Here is my shot:
Thick and soft and white,
powder snow on mountain peak:
tip of a fox tail.
Yes, I think you are correct about the clunkiness is there to underline the point. Very nice job with the re-imagining the haiku. I bet the fox would like that one too! Thanks for writing and sharing. Have a good day!
Thanks. I made a note about the inspiration, so I can cite your post and Myers’ book if I decide to post my take on fox tails.