In Fox and I, her remarkable book about life in a tiny corner of Montana’s Big Sky country, Catherine Raven quotes a passage written by a Hungarian biologist, Albert Szent-Györgyi.
Szent-Györgyi, who won a Nobel prize for isolating vitamin C, decided late in life he had taken a wrong turn in trying to understand life by dissecting it into ever-smaller pieces. “I ended up with atoms and electrons which have no life at all,” he said. “Somewhere along the line, life had run out through my fingers.”
For decades Raven carried with her a photocopy of that quote, which guided her work as a biologist, teacher and author of school textbooks. More than that, she has lived its message.
Fox and I is her story of what happened after she met a wild red fox. As she sat on the steps of her small home waving away an annoying fly, she realised that the fox had laid down within a few metres of her, watching her and the fly. They made eye contact, and he remained while she performed a show-and-tell with odd trinkets from her pockets.
He revisited her at the same time the next day. To hold his interest, she took to reading from The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. She would pause at intervals to allow the fox to have his say, as it were, before resuming the story. Their meetings continued through a year and into the next.
This was a relationship of equals. The fox had instigated the friendship by approaching her and continuing to make the daily journey to her house. He remained simply “Fox”; bestowing a name would be to assert some sort of ownership.
In all their time together she never touched him. “You don’t just reach out and grab someone because you can or because he’s smaller than you,” she says. “That’s one important difference between a pet and a friend.”
Like all friendships it had benefits for both sides. He provided her with companionship, while she was for him a convenient friend whose hands enabled her to do things for him that he couldn’t, like managing plant cover to make it easier for him to catch voles.
They played games. Chicken was one, in which they moved towards each other and the first to back off from the other was chicken. She always lost, fearful of his sharp teeth. Or hide-the-egg, where she had to find an egg, supplied by her, which he’d hidden in full view. She never did. He gave her every indication of getting pleasure from winning.
Just as we get to know the ways of our human companions, Raven learned and admired the fox’s nonverbal communication skills. “Actions and eyes; subtext without text” was how she described his glare when displeased about something she did.
Not one for making friends easily, Raven enjoyed her own company. She sensed some of her peers looked down on her for “unscientific” engagement with this wild creature. Her scientific training taught observing, recording and analysing animals in the wild, not making friends with them, but she could not bring herself to end it.
But this is not just about a fox and his human friend. The two shared their high-altitude desert patch, with its stunted plants, poor soil and scarce water, with a huge array of animal life: elk, deer, cougars, eagles and magpies down to the minuscule – all subjects of Raven’s scientific curiosity.
Raven celebrates this diversity in numerous passages of her book, describing the intricate web of relationships between species –foxes and magpies, bluebirds and blackbirds, and all of them with the various plants that made up their habitat – in prose that soars and dips like birds in flight.
“Why do different species of birds huddle together?” she asks. “It’s the wrong question. Lots of wild animals are less finicky about whom they socialise with than we are. The right question is Why don’t people socialise with [wild] animals?”
Many of us do, of course, each in our own way. But Raven’s concerns are about humanity as a whole, concerns she shares with many students of animal behaviour: Carl Safina, Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal, to name a few.
We have come to see humanity as apart from nature, a mindset which in this age of automated technology has created bubbles so impervious that whole populations of our species can live entire lives inside them. Now, as the bubbles pop around us, Raven invites us to experience the terrors and joys of the world outside. It can’t happen soon enough.