Book Review: ‘Fox & I,’ by Catherine Raven

Here she meets Fox, alongside junipers, magpies, mounds of thatch ants and a field of voles and thistle. At times Raven’s blow-by-blow descriptions of the ecosystem drag (“Keen observers appreciate boring rhythms,” she writes), and her narrations from Fox’s point of view often felt too cute for me. Still, the deftness of her observations erases any suggestion that her connection to Fox is invented or saccharine. It blooms, like any other friendship, from proximity, personality, attention and time.

There is also a backdrop of brutality. Raven tells of farmers bludgeoning foxes in their fields, and of the long horseback hunts in Britain that still end with dogs tearing foxes to pieces. In the early to mid-1900s, U.S. federal land managers left carcasses tainted with mange near den sites, or released infected “Judas animals” to spread the tortuous mites to wolves, coyotes and foxes.

Such policies are possible only because we view foxes as quintessentially different both from ourselves and from our pets. Raven wryly pushes back against the delusion that our “boxed animals” are so different from wild ones, and questions whether humans are as superior in intelligence as we think.

“If I’d kept Fox tethered like a horse, hawk or pet skunk, I would have been allowed to assign personality to him,” Raven observes. But, she later adds, “If I owned him, how could I have called him my friend?”

Allowing every animal on the page its full agency, “Fox & I” crisply upends the hierarchy that places humans at the top of a pyramid. For some readers, this reanimation of wild animals may be painful, a reminder that the ecological destruction we’re collectively perpetrating falls upon conscious, aware beings, who are now tasked with surviving transformed habitats and extreme conditions. Raven eventually turns her powers of observation on the human species itself, gently reminding us that our buzzing, starless, plastic lives are simply “not evolutionarily stable.”

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