The Three Signs

1 03 2016

I have a fox in my freezer.

A gray fox. Possibly one of the most beautiful wild animals I have ever had the privilege of seeing in its natural habitat.

I did not shoot the fox, nor did I trap it. In fact, I had only seen it once before, crossing the road and running down to the creek. The sight thrilled me. In almost six months of living here in the redwood forest, I have seen relatively little larger scale wildlife. I have heard a deer tromping the forest duff high upon the hillside, but a glimpse has been elusive. I can find a newt with little effort and, recently found my second Pacific Giant Salamander beneath a pile of trash as I helped the haulers load pieces of scrap wood and broken down cabinets into their truck. Before the weather turned dark and cold, we enjoyed the nightly ritual of sitting out on the deck and waiting until precisely 6:55 p.m. when the bats would fly out from their various hiding places. I’d heard from two workers, while the house was under construction, that they’d spotted coyotes in full daylight on our road, yet I have never actually seen one. The owls that call in the darkness and swoop low in search of small prey — a flash of white against the night sky. We have so many birds that the ground is constantly moving with them, and the butterflies. What can I say about the butterflies? The forest floor is carpeted with Cardamine californica (Milkmaids) at the moment and, while the Monarchs aren’t due to Natural Bridges until October, we are seeing our first glimpses of these gorgeous little faerie wonders in every color and around every corner.

Danae has seen skunks traipsing across our deck at night and has actually given a raccoon a spanking with a handy plank of wood when it wouldn’t back away from drinking at our deck top fountain. I’ve read that you don’t want to encourage any type of animal to live around your house, as it might just attract a cougar to your doorstep.

In a way, I count myself fortunate. The creatures I see make me happy. We do live in cougar habitat and the desire to see all the animals that live here comes with a “be careful what you wish for” price tag. To me, the number and diversity of animals you see is indicative of the health of the land, so our bats, newts, salamanders, skunks, raccoon, and the multitude of bird species and butterflies we see make me feel like this is a good place to be.

The story of how the fox got into my freezer however, is a sad one and, in a way, contradicts something that I said about the land. I want to make clear that, while it is possible that this fox could have been the culprit that gave us a tailless chicken, it could just as easily have been a raccoon, so there were no hard feelings.

One thing I know for certain about about this fox, is that she knew a lot more about me than I knew about her. While the sight of her thrilled me, the sight of me must have filled her with dread and fear. Each and every time I walked up to check our spring box for flow and debris, I had the feeling I was being watched. The spring box is in a ravine away from the house a couple hundred feet. At dusk, especially, it feels like a place I shouldn’t be. The spring box is where I found my first giant salamander. It was slow moving, lethargic even, with a bit of foam coming from its mouth, and one day after I discovered it, I found it dead in the seasonal creek. It seemed unlikely that it would have moved to that place and into that position on its own to die. Now I think I know how it got there.

Friday afternoon I returned home from a long day. My mother had had surgery on Tuesday and I had planned to go visit her in the nursing facility where she was recovering. I ran a couple of errands before getting a call from my sister saying that our mother was demanding to go home. Going home was not an option for her, or us. None of us was in a position to give her care to the extent that was needed, and if she left early, against medical advice, she would lose her benefits for this surgery. I rushed to the facility where my sister and I worked with the director to get her a better, more quiet room, and to reason with her that she would need to stay until the following Tuesday.

I unloaded the car — several trips up the deck stairs — when suddenly I felt a call to walk up to the spring. The call was strong enough to cause me to leave groceries in need of refrigeration in a bag on the table. The workers had just finished framing in the new patio, so I surveyed the job before heading over the footbridge and up the hill into the ravine. I knocked on the water tank to check the level, as I always do, then made my way up the narrow footpath and back into the ravine toward the spring. I kept my eyes peeled on the ground, not wanting to step on a Banana Slug or newt, but as I crested the small hill, I lifted my eyes to the spring box. There, laying over the cover, was the fox.

I gasped audibly and felt an instant of dread. My first thought, this was a cougar kill and I might be in immediate danger. I checked my Spidey Sense and felt nothing, so my thoughts turned to concern for our water. How long had the carcass been there? I stepped closer. Her eyes were half open, her nose was still glistening in the light. Her fur was perfect — no sign of injury, disease, or of other creatures feeding on the carcass. Her fur was dry, seeming to indicate that she had not died in the night, when most things tend to dampen with dew. Soon I heard Danae’s car pull up and called to her and Gwen to follow me up the hill.

We all stood there looking at this animal — she was beautiful. Gray-blue eyes, gray fur on her back, red on her chest and belly. And her tail, so full and long. She was the size of our dog, Oliver. Her paws were clean and the claws on them looked no different than those of our dogs.

Danae went down and got a bag to put her in. She lifted the body into the bag. It was dry and clean, no wet spot underneath, no signs of trauma on her other side. That’s when it hit me.

Rat poison.

We know from abundant evidence that this house was infested before the previous owner put it on the market. There was steel wool in every crevice, mouse droppings behind every bookshelf, more mouse holes than you could count beneath the baseboards. And when we had some windows installed in the garage office, our friend, Jim, pulled no fewer than six rat carcasses out from the walls. There was poison left in the laundry room, in the bathroom, I think the previous owner had every indication to think we might need it. I disposed of it readily, fully aware of its dangers — not only to our pets, but to our ecosystem. Once the intended pest eats the poison, it dies a slow and painful death — spending it’s final hours desperately in search of something to quench its insatiable thirst. I have seen it happen. Many years ago I saw a mouse crawl out from a wall after ingesting poison. It moved slowly and stopped to look up at me. It’s eyes were pleading. Poison is second in cruelty only to the glue trap, which I have also witnessed (some things you can never unhear). The intended victim is desperate, slow, an easy catch for whoever might be up for a game or a quick snack. Most often pets become the unintended target, and that is how we learned to be aware, but now, living where we do, we are stewards to all who live here, and yes, that does include mice and rats as they are part of the food chain.

In all likelihood, our gorgeous friend, who nature intended to help keep the rodent population down naturally, got hold of a critter who had recently ingested poison that was scattered beneath the office floor. The floor is plywood on skates, so up 3-4 inches from the slab creating a perfect environment for growing a rodent population. I know there is poison still there, because a couple of months after we moved in, I smelled new death in the space. Suddenly, my plans to take the floor down to the slab, have become more urgent. Truly, there is no other way to get rid of the rest of the poison, and to naturally deter any more rodents from setting up house beneath my office.

The fox’s den was a place I was familiar with — a perfectly round hole up the banks from the spring. I had no way of knowing that the den was active, or what kind of animal lived there before Friday afternoon. But now we know that she likely enjoyed her meal (a rat?) at home before growing very thirsty. Maybe she came out for a drink several times in the night before that final time when she climbed down to her water source and found that no amount of water could save her.

We stood over her and thanked her for being a part of our home and asked her spirit to watch over us. We apologized for not being able to protect her from someone else’s actions. Just as we have saved the bones that we have found on the property (some believe that the bones of animals fallen on your land have the power to protect you), we have decided to save her as a reminder of our responsibility here. Not in the freezer, of course, but in taxidermy — not something any of us has ever been into because we are not hunters. We may only have five acres (so much less than any of our neighbors), but they are our five and we intend to imbue them with love and respect in order to preserve the magic that we fist found here more than eight months ago when we sat on the deck with Bradd, asked about making an offer, and just couldn’t conjure a desire to get up and leave and go back to the madness we were living in.

And what madness it is. Fewer than six months after moving into our old house, the new owners decided to move back to Maine. They got a cash offer $70k over what they paid us for the house. They are still taking a hit — after realtor fees, moving costs and capital gains, they will realize no profit.

Danae and I talked it over. Would it have been better for us to wait six months before we sold? Both of us give an unequivocal no. We wanted out. Our family desperately needed a change of scenery. When we look back on the experiences we’ve had in just six short months — the people we’ve met, the things that we’ve learned how to do, the new places we have discovered, this new way of life — neither of us would trade any of it for money.

Just yesterday I was up on the top level of my house sweeping tree droppings, cleaning out the gutters and cleaning out the stove pipe before heading back up to the spring to clean out the spring box (we gained eight inches of depth), create a rock bed and cover the source with pond liner.

I asked Danae, “How many people do you know that work on their spring box?”

Danae replied, “How many people know what a spring box is?”

I thought about how sad I would be if I lived in a “done” house with a manicured yard, fences all around. Our world is definitely not for everyone, but life is so much more interesting to me now.

I stopped pounding stakes into the surrounding banks and logs to secure the pond liner.

“How many people have a fox in their freezer,” I asked.

“Just two,” she said. “Just you and me.”

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