01 June 2007

Life in Recovery: Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Several of the neighbors along my walking route have small dogs with furry feet. And, in a less than perfect tracking medium, even house cat's prints can look very fox like. I should have known better, though, since the tracks were in such a neat, straight line. Also, there seemed to be a regular route from day to day.

That regular route makes the red fox fairly easy to trap, IF you are clever in hiding the set and keeping it free of human scent. Gramps taught me to make a red fox set when I was about 10-years old. We had seen the big dog (male) fox a few times, and it followed a regular route across a ridge through a cluster of house-sized boulders. Although he pumped an oil lease on the New York State side of the line where there was no bounty, we lived in Pennsylvania and I had learned that the commonwealth paid the princely sum of FIVE DOLLARS. Wow, a lot of money to a kid who got a nickel for running errands for neighbors, and a quarter for clearing their sidewalk (front, side, and steps) of heavy snow.

Gramps fished a #2 jump (flat spring) trap out of a corner of the powerhouse, then told me to dip it in the crude oil separator and hang it in a hemlock tree for several days. In the meantime, I found and shot a porcupine, and buried it in a protected location where it could ripen. I watched carefully as Gramps carefully placed the set in a small depression of earth and covered it with dry grit from an anthill. He wired the end of the chain to a chunk of fallen tree as a drag, and hung a few grouse feathers over the trap. The trap was a bit off-center in a narrow dead-end slot at the base of a boulder. The stinking half-rotten porcupine he placed at the end of the slot.

The next morning, we had our fox. Gramps dispatched it with a club, cased (skinned) it carefully, and put it atop the chains and wrenches in the narrow box of the F-2 Willys. He showed the pelt, received the bounty, and handed it to me; he sold the hide -- for about two dollars, as I recall -- and he kept that money.

Thrilled by the thick and beautiful fur (and the five dollars), I was also inexplicably sad. Years later I came to terms with this sadness and decided it was better not to kill red fox for their hide. This realizaton came as I was "walking down" a trapped fox -- i.e. standing on its chest until its life expired, a method taught to me a friend in order to avoid bloodying or damaging the pelt. I looked into the eyes of the terrified, gasping animal and that was that. No more fox.

Since that time I formed something of a bond with red foxes. I watched them in the areas I routinely bowhunted, and followed the seasons with a fox and pups from a den near my wife and my first house near Rew, Pennsylvania.

As EcoRover reported earlier [Why I Hate ATVs, May 07, 2007], fox have been colonizing Butte's recovering ecosystem. The grassy mining restoration areas and the fencing around Big Butte have aided this process. [As I write this, RTD is lying at my feet, barking softly and twitching her feet--no doubt deep in a foxy dream--she loves their scent like nothing else.] As sad and angry as I was to discover my red fox acquaintance murdered by the ATV kids, I was equally ecstatic to meet a new friend this morning:

I first noticed her this morning as she stood at the top of the ridge in the shaded rocks, watching RTD head down the trail in front of me. Once RTD was a safe distance away, she approached the trail but immediately halted and looked at me as I pulled the camera from its pouch on my shoulder strap. But -- unlike several previous mornings when I have seen her -- she did not bolt. Instead, she sat down, perhaps wondering if I had spotted her. I slowly backed off, and she came a bit closer (perhaps to get into the brush along the edge of the trail):

It was clear that she badly wanted to cross that path. I say "she" because the fox routinely crosses in this area, and I believe she was on her way back to the den after a night of hunting. I am usually on the trail much earlier (c. 7 am) when I have glimpsed her (or her fresh tracks), and I think she was out hunting a bit late (c. 8 am) this morning.

Speaking softly, I walked on by and then turned and walked backwards. When I was about a hundred yards down the trail, she crossed and entered the gully area where I believe the den lies.

Our habitat is, it seems, ideal for fox. Plenty of mice and an increasing rabbit population, plus the occasional apple tree and chokecherry patch, provide all the major food groups for my little friend. In arguing the impossibility of "empty" space and the way air rushes in behind a moving object in order to sustain that movement, Aristotle said, "Nature abhors a vacuum." Similarly, animals and plants and life in general quickly move into a "vacuum" created by hunting, poisoning, predation, or other causes. That assumes, of course, that there are other critters out there to replace those that die. Though the individual red fox dies, the species goes on.

I'm not vouching for the correctness of Aristotle's reasoning. More importantly, just as he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of momentum, we today probably misunderstand much about the nature of ecological restoration. Though we try harder to devise experimental tests of our science than did Aristotle, there is still an important lesson to be learned. We should be humble about our ability to capture, predict, or control natural processes. And we should not fail to appreciate the profound beauty of such processes, either.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pat... you are making me SO homesick! Thanks for converting to being one who appreciates rather than hunts the little red fox!! I had to leave Anaconda in 1987 and get to return in 2010. Can't wait! The Dexter boots are still in my closet waiting for me. And I'll pick up a new ZEBCO when I get back. heh heh! THANKS for your posts! They are awesome! L~