Tracking a Thought Fox

We had snow earlier this week and I like to walk in the woods during or right after a snowstorm. The woods have an extra layer of silence and though some things are covered, other things stand out in the greater contrast against the whiteness.

Before the snow, I came across on my woods walk these tracks by the side of a river. It doesn’t take any tracking skill to know that several deer had been there for a drink.

deer tracks
deer tracks

deer tracks

One of the things I enjoy doing is following fresh animal tracks in the snow. I suppose as a boy and in scouting, I had done some uninformed tracking, but what really got me interested was reading  The Tracker in 1979. It’s what I consider to be a classic of the genre and a great story even if you have no great interest in learning to track. The author is Tom Brown, Jr. who began to learn tracking at the age of eight in the southern New Jersey Pinelands with his friend Rick and an Apache elder, medicine man, and scout,

He has since written many other books about tracking, survival, and also about the philosophies of nature. In 1978, Tom founded the Tracker School in the New Jersey Pine Barrens where he offers classes about wilderness survival and environmental protection.

One of the basic classes on tracking covers not only identification but things like pressure releases which Tom describes as a way to “determine not just the animal, the direction it was heading and when it passed but the track becomes a window to the animal’s very soul. ” He makes a distinction between identifying and following tracks, and “sign tracking.”

That snowy day, I set my tracking goal to find fox tracks and be able to stalk, using a “fox walk,” and approach the actual animal. Not an easy thing to do, but very satisfying if achieved.

The tracks of a gray fox are slightly different from those of a red fox, but to a novice, they might look like those of a dog or coyote. All four have 4 toes and claws that do not retract. Male foxes, (both red and gray) are called “dogs.” Females are known as “vixens”.


When you encounter tracks in the field, they are rarely as clear as in the clip art images in books. These tracks in the snow (below) are actually quite clear but they break down as wind and melt occur. And the better trackers can also read into tracks whether the animal is walking, running, or creeping up on prey.

Years ago when I taught a winter tracking class, I called it “Stories in the Snow” with the idea of having students do more than just identify the animal or bird, and try to imagine the situation in the context of the setting.

To quote Brown’s The Tracker book, “The first track is the end of a string. At the far end, a being is moving; a mystery, dropping a hint about itself every so many feet, telling you more about itself until you can almost see it, even before you come to it. The mystery reveals itself slowly, track by track, giving its genealogy early to coax you in. Further on, it will tell you the intimate details of its life and work, until you know the maker of the track like a lifelong friend.”

fox tracks

I would have guessed that my snowy quarry was a red fox for the slightly tighter pads and equal sizes of the front and rear paws. Red and gray foxes live in New Jersey but I have seen red foxes in these woods before, though I’m actually not certain that my fox is red or gray, male or female. I wish I had been able to follow the tracks to their owner.

Not unlike humans in the woods, an animal will take the easiest route of travel unless it is being chased or spooked. It is basic survival: conservation of energy.

There was a point where I could tell that the fox took a leap (like the one pictured above) and a pounce, possibly at a mouse or vole. And finally, there was a place where it climbed up a bare rocky area and despite my best efforts I could not track where it exited. I’m no Tom Brown, Jr.

This was more of a “thought fox” that I imagined walking ahead of me that morning. I take that from Ted Hughes’ poem “The Thought Fox” which is one of his best-known poems.  It was inspired by fox tracks outside his home and a dream that the fox entered his room and touched the paper he was writing on.

Here’s an excerpt:

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near

Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

The fox’s tracks in the snow are like the words Hughes is trying put on the white paper. We all leave tracks, and in those tracks are our stories.


Getting Lost Again

Getting lost has continued to be a popular post on this site for a few years. That tells me that I am not alone in my interest in the idea that getting lost is sometimes the path to getting found.

I surprised myself when I noted in the site statistics how many times “lost” has turned up in my posts.  My interest in getting lost has always been balanced with a desire to be found or find myself.  I have played with that idea both literally, getting found in the woods, and more figuratively in those times when I feel lost in the more psychological, lost days sense.

This past week I came upon some old hardcover copies I had of two  James Hilton novels. One was Goodbye, Mr. Chips. That nostalgic book that became several films was one I read the summer before I became a teacher. It was a good injection of hope with a touch of sadness for the profession that I have been doing for 40 years. Hilton based it on his father, who worked as a school headmaster. Now that I am at least semi-retired from teaching and only doing it part-time, I can identify more with the “goodbye” part of Mr. Chips’ story.

The other book is Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It was published in 1933 and my copy is one that was on my parent’s bookshelf that they bought after seeing the 1937 film adaptation by one of my favorite directors, Frank Capra. His films are sometimes labeled “Capracorn” because they often slide into sentimentality. I never agreed with that completely. I actually think his holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life, is quite dark. I would teach it in a film noir class without hesitation.

Lost Horizon brought us the term Shangri-La. It is Hilton’s fictional utopian place (like Paradelle) that he located high in the mountains of Tibet. The protagonist, Hugh Conway, escapes his life in the British diplomatic service and finds inner peace, love, and a sense of purpose in that mountain place. It sadly seems always-timely that Conway fears that another cataclysmic world war is imminent.  Hilton turned out to be correct. I wonder if the book came to mind for my father a few years later when he went off to WWII as a sailor.

Hugh Conway had to be lost before he found himself, and that idea came up again this week when I read an interview with Reese Witherspoon about her latest film, Wild, which comes out in early December.

Now, I have had a sitting-in-the-audience crush on Reese since I spotted her on the TV film Return to Lonesome Dove (1993). She was great in Election and Pleasantville and lovable, popular, and smart in the Legally Blonde films. She probably still has to deal with the image of being a romantic comedy actress. But she got serious praise for Walk the Line. And I really enjoyed her work in Water for Elephants and Mud, although those two probably didn’t get as much praise or box office – not that those things should mean anything to viewers.

In that interview, she says “Honestly, I’ve done some movies that were really challenging, and I’ve done some movies that aren’t challenging at all.” I found another article that talked about a Reese “renaissance” – a term that would piss me off if I was her as much as the term comeback – but she has been following some new paths recently.

She had a starring role in the drama The Good Lie, and she produced David Fincher’s Gone Girl which comes out in October. She has a smaller role (like in Mud) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and I like it when “stars” do small parts too. But the film that most interests me is Wild .

The film is based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. A friend gave the book to me the year after my mother died, but I wasn’t ready then to read it.

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is about her solo hike on the PCT after her mother’s death and the dissolution of her marriage. It was a best-seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, but a tale of grief wasn’t what I wanted then.

Still, I did page through it because a solo hike of the Appalachian Trail has been on my bucket list since I graduated college. I did the prep, read the books, got the maps, joined a hiking club, and did some sections of the AT. But then we had kids. And my knees started to give out on me, so I stopped hiking and started walking.

The book should have grabbed me. It could sit comfortably on a shelf with the story of Chris McCandless, Into the Wild, and my well-worn copies of Walden and A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and everything I’ve read that touched on wilderness salvation.

I think what held me away from the book was that I didn’t have the kind of crisis that Strayed had. I didn’t have spontaneous sexual encounters outside my marriage. I didn’t fall into shooting up heroin.

When I considered my long hike I was prepared. Strayed, like McCandless, was unprepared for the journey. If you are an experienced hiker, you will cringe at their lack of preparation. A friend who sails felt the same way about the Robert Redford character in All Is Lost. He told me, “He did everything wrong!” She takes along books (again like McCandless, overly inspired by literature) – Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Adrienne Rich poetry, but not the right hiking boots.

But the upcoming film will motivate me to read the book.  The film seems very promising. Reese looks scrubbed and natural.  It was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). It was adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity). Laura Dern plays Strayed’s mother.

I suggested just last week to my friend Scott (who is newly retired and moving to Virginia) that we do a Shenandoah hike and get a little lost. Scott and I can talk for hours and solve all the world’s problems. He works as a substance abuse counselor and knows all about finding yourself. I don’t know if the soul-searching I am feeling as autumn arrives this month requires a thousand-mile hike in order to center myself, but you have to be open to getting lost if you want to be found.