News We Need in the Darkest Time of Year: “The Search is on for rare Sierra red fox” (San Francisco Chronicle, Monday, December 13, 2010) and other Good News About the Earth as poets are brought into play for the question of what this news means to us.
I am Reynard,
I am Zorro,
I am Kitsunami, I am the red fox. Wise men respect my council. You, too, can learn from my kin. That’s Brian “Fox” Ellis, “Song of the Red Fox,” and this is Professor Barbara Mossberg, on The Poetry Slow Down, with Producer Sara Hughes at our KRXA 540AM Studios. So what is the red fox doing on our poetry hour where we slow down to get the news we need? It’s the darkest time of year, cold, wet, slushy, at least for most of us here in our listening community; the headlines are harsh on our spirits! Wars, corruption at home and abroad, violence, negligence about our babies, our rivers and bays. Poisoning ourself. That news. And do you remember Woody Allen’s joke in “Annie Hall” where his aunts are complaining about a restaurant? The food is so terrible, one says, and the other says, yes, and the portions are so small! That’s the “news,” both terrible and abbreviated these days to sound bites, literally being downsized. Yet our perception of the “news” shapes our connection to our world, our sense of what needs to be done, what can be done; if the news is never new, always a tedious and demoralizing succession of bad news, disappointments in humanity, we can feel apathetic. So the other morning, beginning the darkest time of the year with news old-school, I open the old-school newspaper, The San Fransisco Chronicle, and the front page story, above the fold, the right hand column, is “Search is on for rare Sierra red fox, with the subheading, 2 more sightings prompt scientists to look for clan.” The story is by Kelly Zito. “Federal scientists [by the way, thank you John Muir for piloting the role of scientist in federal policy, thank you Wordsworth and Milton and Shakespeare and Homer, forgive me listeners, but I’m just sayin] . . . federal scientists revealed this month that they detected two more of the foxes in September in the same region, the only known specimens outside of a tiny clan in the Mount Lassen area. . . there’s a fairly robust population. . . . that’s what got us hugely excited when we got these results.” Really? A red fox sighted earlier this summer now has a few companions. Front page! Federal scientists hugely excited! The story goes on, “the fox, once plentiful across California’s snow-capped mountains, hasn’t been seen in the southern Sierra Nevada in decades. . . decimated by hunting in the early part of the last century. . . . among the most elusive and least understood mammals in the United States, biologists say.” Well, and so: front page news, and back page, a headline clear across the whole paper, five columns, half inch font: Search is on for clan of rare foxes after 2 more seen.” OK, so this does seem to be “news,” unlike so much of what else we read (“Taliban bomb, mideast storms, tax cuts, tough loss, serial killer”). But what does this news mean to us? Why should we care that a few red foxes, so ancient, appear to have survived the equally ancient desire of human beings to . . . catch them—do you remember the nursery rhyme game, a hunting we will go, a hunting we will go, we’ll catch a fox and put ‘im in a box, and never let him go. I just remembered that. Fox in our human imagination, our racial memory. What is a fox doing in the front page news of our times? Think of the expression, to be foxy . . .hmm, and, to be called a foxy lady, I’d like that, wouldn’t you? If you were a plump middle aged woman, I mean . . . to be foxy is to be –let’s look it up . . . a burrowing canine mammal . . .long pointed muzzle and long bushy tail, noted for its cunning. The fur of the fox. Other definitions, 3. A sly, crafty person. 1. To trick, outwit, to make drunk, intoxicate. To stain, as in timber, with a reddish color. To make sour, as in beer, fermenting. To repair or mend, as shoes, with new uppers. To become drunk, to become sour, to become reddish in color. Foxy, of or like a fox, crafty. Defective, impaired, improperly fermented. Denoting a wild flavor found in wine made from some American grapes. Hmm, first, these seem contradictory definitions–repair, defective, ferment, positive, sour, not– we seem to be all sixes and sevens about this fox, and besides, this is not what I imagined went into being called foxy on my better days. All these definitions are pretty interesting, an archeology of attitudes and experiences about the fox that make their way into our language and way of understanding. So, the fox is categorized by federal biologists as the “most elusive and least understood” of mammals . . . and yet our definitions of fox, foxed, foxy, imply a vital knowledge of the fox, of its intelligence, yes, its ability to figure things out, almost like Ullyses I’m thinking, wily, resourceful, tricky, clever, “crafty,” sly, discovering the un-obvious solution or path—goal-oriented—if you ever said to my mom, I’ll try, she’d say, don’t try, succeed! The fox would succeed! How otherwise did it get this rep to have the word mean this essential creative ability? And this kind of distrust . . . grudging respect? I also thought it was interesting that it is a word we use for transformation, both in catalytic processes such as making wine, one of our most ancient human occupations, but when things go downhill in the process, and for repair on the other hand, making things better . . . we could have used other words, we could say, it’s elephanted, it’s spidered, it’s salmoned, it’s turkeyed, yet we say it’s foxed; we have direct and immediate and graphic knowledge of this creature, somehow; foxiness is in our human imaginations . . . I began to think about what the poets—you knew—YOU knew—where we were going on this—what the poets have had to say about foxes, in figuring out this mystery for us today, Poetry Slow Down, the front-page news of possibility that the red fox, once so prevalent, may not be extinct, may be making a comeback so that two or three are front page news . . . so they must be valued as important to us, even as they are considered to be so elusive, not understood. It appears foxes have been long on our minds. Let’s see what the poets say, and what we may learn, how to interpret this kind of news, that they may yet be alive and well and living perhaps not in Paris but on some snow-capped peak . . . is this the news we need, in today’s times? What is at stake in the sighting of a red fox? What does a red fox mean to us? Poets, what speak you? Well, I began to summon in my mind a list and you are doing the same right now, let’s see, there’s, well of course Jemima Puddleduck and Aesop’s The Fox and the Grapes and —and then the poets start to weigh in, whoa, Poetry Slow Down, we’re in luck, great poets—winners of prizes and city, state, and national laureates, beloved authors, have their say, their poetic way with the fox, urban African American Lucille Clifton, city-girl Marianne Moore, eco-Buddhist Gary Snyder, grounded Wendell Berry, translator, editor, teacher, poet Robert Bly, iconic nineteenth century poets John Greenleaf Whittier, Rudyard Kipling, Emily Dickinson—what? Yes; Carl Sandburg, a city guy, Chicago, civic culture, right out there with a poem called “Wilderness” that fathers Bly and Synder, and there’s grandfather Henry David Thoreau, and elegiac native voices, voices close to the fox, journalists, and W.B. Yeats, Antoine St. Exupery’s The Little Prince, for our pilot listeners, Al Addig Al-Raddi from Khartoum, Isaiah Berlin, Socrates, Margaret Atwood, Robert Haas, Barbara Kingsolver, joyous manifestos, and I contribute a poem I wrote—who knew how or why?—on the red fox, too . . . . Dr. B., you forgot Blake! I know, I know, as it turns out, the elusive and not understood red fox has on our minds long as the red fox tail—and so has its hunt. Across age and gender, race and time, cultural experience, are there common truths and understandings in this “news” of poetry to provide a lens into the meaning of the headline news for us in these darkest days of the year? Hark! Thank you for joining “the hunt,” and write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.