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Would you be my neighbor?
Kathy Bradley
Kathy Bradley

A mother and her kit stood at the very edge of the road, on a mound of red dirt that had been pulled from the ditch by the big yellow machines belonging to the county. The mother wore the usual red ruff about her neck; the baby was completely gray.

Here at this spot we call the bad curve I am accustomed to encountering my neighbors, but not usually in the middle of the day. Raccoons, rabbits, opossums and the occasional bobcat have all crossed my path at this place of thick trees and even thicker vines, but it is in the bright glow of headlights that they are most often caught and frozen for a moment, their eyes reflecting halogen and a plea that I slow long enough for them to move on. None of them are daytime wanderers. The foxes, for some reason, on this day at this time were.

My approach did not, apparently, frighten the two. They stood still as I approached, the motor of my vehicle humming its unnatural tune. Since I’d never seen foxes out in sunlight I supposed that they may have never seen an SUV. They were, I decided, curious.

As was I. Watching them slowly slide off into the woods after getting a good look at me and my machine, I asked myself what would have brought a mother and child out into the open unnecessarily.

The explanation upon which I landed centered upon the fact that for the last week or so our road has been being worked on by the county. (When I say county I mean county employees directed by the county manager who answers to the county commission, but at least in this part of the rural South, we tend to anthropomorphize institutions in a way that prevents us from blaming or getting aggravated at people we meet in the grocery store or sit across the aisle from in church.)

In dragging the ditches, the road at that particular spot has been widened a bit and the creek that runs under it has been diverted a little as a result. I decided it was most likely this disturbance of their habitat that flushed the two foxes from their lair. There is, of course, no way to confirm or disprove my theory, but it made even more sense when I found a webpage maintained by the Wildlife Land Trust indicating that foxes, while generally living in areas that are a combination of brushy woodlands and forest, also live near farmlands and have adapted to the proximity of humans, perhaps as a means of protecting themselves from predators. That is, they have decided that I am less scary than a coyote. I am not, of course. I, in the communal sense that I represent humanity, am not less scary than a coyote. Coyotes can kill or maim a fox, but it cannot destroy the fox’s habitat so that no other fox can ever live there again. The harm a coyote is capable of inflicting is limited by the length of the coyote’s life. The harm that I, we, human beings can inflict as we imperially exercise dominion over the earth is limited not by time, but only by our will. Poor foxes, they have no idea. I have lived out here among the wildlife for over 45 years. I understand that they cannot be treated like pets, that some of them are, in fact, pests. I understand — though I do not participate in — the sport of hunting, and I won’t turn down a plate of corn dodgers and redbreast that recently swam in the Canoochee River. I understand that deer can ruin a peanut crop. I also know that two conflicting ideas can be held in comfortable tension, that I can want to save the animals and my family’s crop just as I can love someone and disagree with his or her behavior. Last night I went outside to call Owen in and, just as I opened the front door, an armadillo crossed the bricks at the bottom of the steps. He, like the foxes, appeared to be totally nonplussed by my appearance. And, I felt simultaneously an aversion to his presence so close to my realm and an appreciation of the perfect symmetry of his scutes shining in the floodlights. Coming back inside, I realized that being forced these last five months to keep my distance from my own species I have grown more observant and more tolerant of the ones who are my neighbors. I have slowed down long enough to see the beauty in an armadillo, the curiosity in a mama fox and her baby, the gracefulness of deer eating acorns in my backyard and leaving hoof prints the size of my hand. I am more grateful for their presence and more protective of their place. And I suspect that by being more observant, more tolerant, more grateful for each of them that I shall, in the days to come, be more observant, more tolerant, more grateful for my own kind. Whatever — masked or unmasked, Democrat or Republican, black or white — they are.
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