Shandaken, New York
December 16, 1997
Our upstairs neighbor, Mike, told us he hit two foxes on a windy night last month while driving home from Kingston. He stopped to check both animals, as country people often do. The first was dead; the second was not. He took the injured fox home and called a wildlife rehabilitator, but by the time she called back the fox had died. She explained to him that, when the wind is high, the foxes can’t hear cars coming, and a lot of them get hit. It was 3 A.M. and the ground was frozen, so Mike threw the fox out into the snow at the edge of the woods, near the swing set. My daughter, Sylvia, plays on the swings every weekend, and he’s concerned that she’ll eventually trip over the fox. It’s already been there three weeks.
December 17, 1997
Last night there was a full moon, and I decided to go outside and look for the fox. In the weeds by the woods I found a lump that felt soft to my foot. Clearing away the snow, I took off a mitten, reached down, and felt fur. The moonlight wasn’t bright enough to reveal any detail. I considered exploring the fox by touch, but then imagined my fingers dipping into an open wound, or teeth snapping around my hand. Even dead and frozen, animals in the dark are scary. I went back inside.
Today we return to the city, and we won’t be back until Christmas Eve.
December 25, 1997
This morning Sylvia and I went out to look at the fox. It was beautiful, with reddish fur on the head and chest, brown fur tipped with black and white on the sides, and a black streak down the back. The tail was dry and fluffy. The mouth was perfect, with tiny white teeth and black whiskers. The ears were tipped forward, as if alert. Examining the neat brown pads on the paws, I had the urge to walk them through the snow so I could study the tracks. It was hard to believe the fox was dead. It’s been frozen for a month and hasn’t decomposed at all. It seems a shame just to bury it. I want the pelt, but where can I find out how to skin it?
December 26, 1997
One of my books, Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, tells how to skin animals: You tie off the penis and anus so no excreta escape and spoil the meat. Then you slit the hide down the legs and up the abdomen, and peel it off. Although I eat little meat, I am intrigued by the elemental nourishment to be found in wild game. But the fox may have thawed and spoiled and refrozen. Eating it is out of the question.
Sylvia wants the bones. Ever since she saw some deer bones at a primitive-tool-making workshop, she has been bone-crazy. Last summer, I took her to a place up the road where I had found part of a deer skeleton, and she collected several bones, including the skull. This obsession is rather charming in a six-year-old.
At the library in Phoenicia today, I looked up books on hunting. According to Clyde Ormond, author of the Complete Book of Hunting, small animals are skinned in one piece, not slit up the abdomen. You slice the hide down the hind legs and around all four ankles. Then you make a little hole at the base of the tail to fit your toe through, stand on the hide, and pull out the tailbone with pliers. The rest just slides off over the head, once you cut the ears from under the hide. It sounds hideous. I read these instructions to my vegan friend Mark, and he changed the subject. But his equally vegan wife, Dana — who is also a real animal lover — seemed fascinated. She came over and asked to see the fox. It was dark, so we went outside with flashlights. It’s such a splendid being, this fox.
December 27, 1997
When Sylvia took my husband, Sparrow, out to see the fox, he said I’d better skin it soon, because the snow has almost melted, and the fox might start to stink. I asked Mike if he minded my skinning his fox, and he said I was welcome to it. An experienced deer hunter, he suggested I thaw it first and salt the hide afterward. Tonight I am going to put it in a garbage bag and leave it in the hallway to warm up, and tomorrow I will skin it. I was going to put it in the bathtub, but Sparrow objected.
December 28, 1997
Last night I went outside to put the fox in the bag. It seemed undignified to cover a wild creature in plastic, so I said a brief prayer to the fox’s spirit, in case it was still around. Then I picked up the fox. The side that had been against the ground was slightly malodorous. I enjoyed touching the soft fur and feeling the fox’s weight in my arms as I lifted it into the bag. It was heavier than it looked. I carried it tenderly up the hill to the house.
This morning I was nervous. Would the fox smell foul after a night next to the radiator? Would blood spurt all over when I started cutting? Should I refrain from eating breakfast in case I threw up? I decided to dig a hole in advance so that, if it proved too horrible to deal with, I could quickly bury it. I got out old clothes for Sylvia and me to wear, and the knife I had bought after taking a workshop in wilderness survival. It was a sharp vegetable knife that cost $5.99 at the supermarket. I assembled other paraphernalia I thought I’d need: string, a bucket, a metal pan, plastic bags, rags, pliers, an adjustable wrench (in case the pliers weren’t big enough), salt, and a shovel. Sylvia insisted on bringing her pitchfork. I dug a hole. She helped by loosening dirt with the fork. Then we went and got the fox.
Sparrow came out to watch. We took turns saying blessings over the fox. I thanked the fox for giving us its body and hoped that working with it would help me to connect with nature and understand the essence of animal life. Sylvia didn’t want to say her blessing aloud, and neither did Sparrow.
I eased the fox out of the bag. It smelled slightly gamy, but not rotten. I laid it on its back and started to cut down a hind leg. Sylvia said she was cold, and Sparrow took her inside. It was hard to figure out where to cut. The skin didn’t slide off easily, the way the book had said, but maybe that only worked on newly dead animals. I let the weight of the fox stretch the membranes that held the hide to the body, and then hacked at them with my knife, too excited by the newness of the experience to be disgusted.
The legs had a lot of meat on them, and I admired the strong curves of the muscles, thinking how fast this fox must have run. I flipped the body over and made the hole for my toe at the base of the tail, but the tailbone would not come out. Finally, I broke the bone off, leaving it in the tail, and went back to cutting the hide from the body. There wasn’t much meat on the torso, which made it tricky to separate the hide without piercing it. I worked slowly toward the head, concentrating on the hide but also trying to extract bones for Sylvia. The rib cage and spine were thoroughly encased in membrane. There was no easy way to free them, so I just snapped off a few ribs and left the rest. With the pliers, I tried pulling two teeth, but they shattered. I cut off the legs so I could give Sylvia the thighbones and keep the paws for myself.
When I got to the head, my hands were freezing and my back was aching from leaning over. I had been at it for almost two hours. The head was the most beautiful part, but I was afraid that, in my fatigued state, I’d make a mess of it, so I gave up and cut the hide away at the neck. Now I had the pelt, with bits of meat and fat still hanging from it. I rubbed salt into the skin and placed it in the metal pan.
Before burying the body, I examined the organs. I found the kidneys, the intestines, the heart, and the liver hugging the fist-sized stomach. I slit open the stomach and dumped its contents into the hole I’d dug, hoping to see what the fox had eaten. All I could identify were bits of fur and tiny bones: a mouse or vole. I saved the stomach in a plastic bag, along with the heart and a piece of the liver, to show Sparrow and Sylvia. Then I dumped everything else into the hole — the head last — and shoveled dirt on top. Before leaving, I knelt and touched my forehead to the ground. The pan with the hide went into the shed, along with a plastic bag containing the legs and ribs.
In the house, I scrubbed and scrubbed but couldn’t get the fox smell off my hands. A hot bath with a generous application of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap finally did the trick.
December 29, 1997
Now I have to figure out how to preserve what’s left of the fox. The meat has to be cleaned off the bones, and I don’t think I can do it thoroughly enough with my knife. My friend Clark said that at the Museum of Natural History they throw bones into a barrel of insects, which clean them completely within an hour or two. Dana suggested soaking them in water and acid. I could leave the bones out in the snow and let nature clean them, but that would take a while, and some animal might run off with them. Maybe I’ll get an old pot at a thrift shop and boil the meat off. Until then, the cold will keep them.
I am at a loss for what to do with the paws. Maybe I could dry them over a fire. (Would my landlord object to an open fire in the yard?) For now, the paws will remain frozen in the bag with the bones.
The pelt is my main concern. Clyde Ormond says to salt the hide until you can get it to the taxidermist. Tom Brown says to soak the hide for a few hours, stretch it on a rack, and then scrape off the fat. It will dry stiff and strong, worthy of the name rawhide. If you want to make it soft and suitable for clothing, you must tan it. I once visited friends whose housemate, David, had studied with Tom Brown. While I was there, David was busy tanning a deer hide. It looked like a laborious process. For now, I just want to get to the rawhide stage. I’ll decide about tanning later.
In the evening, tiny, relentless snowflakes began to fall.
December 30, 1997
It snowed all day. I got up with plans to build a rack for the hide, so I slogged down to the woods through a foot of snow to collect branches, then brought the pelt in its pan to the spigot at the side of the house and rinsed off the salt, leaving red-brown stains on the snow. I wiped the hide against the snow, filled the pan with water, and laid the pelt in it, skin side down. On my apartment’s little porch, I set up shop with my branches, twine, and knife.
I had a vivid memory of a project in Girl Scouts for which I was supposed to lash sticks together to make some kind of frame. I was at the troop leader’s house for a meeting, and everyone had left but me; I had to stay and finish this frame. The troop leader’s son, a Boy Scout, showed me how to lay the sticks at right angles and wrap the string around the ends to anchor them. I watched mutely, cowed by the older boy, feeling ignorant and insignificant. But I learned how to lash.
Despite this long-ago lesson, my stretching rack came out sloppy and unstable. I’m learning by doing, I keep telling myself. I value the experience more than the result. Besides, my main goal is to interact with this fox and make it a part of my life, rather than just an object to be stroked a few times and admired before burial. I want my initial awe to persist.
I made two more trips into the woods: first because one of my sticks was too short; then because I decided I needed a diagonal support to keep the frame from collapsing. Finally, the rack seemed done. I set two sawhorses next to each other, placed my rack across them, and laid the dripping hide on top. Then I punched holes along the edge of the hide and began stringing it to the frame.
I wished for a teacher to answer my questions: Should I use one string for the whole thing, or several different lengths? How tight should it be stretched? Is the point of stretching it to make it easier to scrape, or will the hide cure improperly if it’s not taut? It doesn’t matter that much, I reminded myself; I’m experimenting.
I was proud of my racked hide. It wasn’t neat and symmetrical like the picture in Tom Brown’s book, but it was flat and stretched, and I’d done it myself.
When I went to the bathroom to wash my hands, Sylvia was in the tub. “You smell like fox,” she said. I was actually beginning to like the pungent fragrance.
After lunch, I rummaged in the kitchen for a scraping tool and came up with a butter knife. Then I changed back into my fox clothes and went outside. By now the snow was almost two feet deep. Scraping away at the hide with the butter knife, I noticed an area in the middle that seemed to be bare skin. It was pale blue and translucent and showed the dots of hair follicles, while the rest of the hide was covered with yellowish fat, white membrane, and dark red chunks of meat — all of which needed to come off. Moving nearer the bare spot, I scraped and sawed, gradually freeing strings and chunks of tissue, which I threw onto the snow.
It was pleasant to work outdoors. A cable-TV truck stopped at a utility pole next to the road; the snow has been breaking tree limbs, and some must have fallen on the lines. I found myself wishing the two workmen would ask what I was doing. Maybe they were hunters and could give me some advice. Mostly, though, I wanted attention. I have a knack for doing things that waver between the foolish and the sublime. In conversation I tend to throw out lines like “I skinned a fox yesterday,” just to get a reaction. Usually my friends don’t know what to say next, and neither do I.
After an hour and a half of scraping, I’d cleaned the central portion of the hide pretty well. The outer regions still had some fatty membrane attached, but I was getting worn out.
When I went to hang the rack in the shed, the sticks shifted, loosening some of the strings. I rearranged and knotted them. Running my hands over the fur, I found that beneath the long black-and-white hairs was a layer of curly brown down, as soft as baby-bird fluff.
Tomorrow we have to go back to the city for two days. I’m worried about leaving the hide unattended. Maybe it will dry before it’s all scraped and will be wrecked. At least the cold will keep it from rotting.
January 3, 1998
Last night, in a gift shop on the way back to Shandaken, I found a book called How to Spot a Fox. Though I rarely buy books, I forked over $12.95 for this one, which was full of gorgeous, glossy fox photos and facts about den selection, communication by ear position, and the like. I read several chapters before bed, then dreamed of red-and-white-striped fox kits romping in the brush near my childhood home. Later in my dream, a man was dissecting a human cadaver at a drafting table, and I eagerly asked if he was a taxidermist, hoping he could give me advice. He drew a knife on me.
It’s funny; when I’m working on the hide, I don’t have any particular feeling about the fox — I’m just worrying over the task — but reading this book made me yearn to observe live foxes in the wild. And when I came across the pictures of foxes caught in steel traps, my heart lurched in pain.
It was warm today, in the fifties. The hide was very soft, and the string had broken through some of the holes, so it wasn’t stretched as tight as before. The softness and looseness made it harder to scrape, but I pulled it taut with my hand and toiled away at the portions still coated with membrane. In the warm temperatures, the fat was soft and smooth as butter.
January 4, 1998
This morning I went out to the sawhorses and immediately noticed that the bits of meat and fat were gone from the ground, and there were five-fingered paw prints in the snow. Raccoon, I thought at first, but when I followed the tracks across the yard, I saw that the hind feet tilted sideways, at right angles to a prominent thumb. Must be a possum.
January 5, 1998
One chapter of How to Spot a Fox describes urine-marking behavior, which the author, field biologist J. David Henry, has studied intensively. He describes experiments he has done, such as smearing strong-smelling substances like dog food or gasoline on the ground and counting the number of times foxes mark them. These experiments seem silly and intrusive to me, and I’m annoyed by Henry’s attempts to recruit readers into careers in field biology. I also feel envious of him, however, for getting paid to spend hours observing foxes. Maybe I should become a field biologist. If only I could avoid doing those ridiculous experiments.
Writing about my work with the hide has made it easier to describe the experience to people. I am now able to turn their horror into fascination, once they realize I’m not just being weird.
For homework, Sylvia had to write something about her vacation. She wrote, “My Book, by Sylvia. The snow is fluffy stuff. My mom skinned a fox. The End.”
January 6, 1998
Last night I dreamed I found urine marks in the snow; I was amazed that I had missed them before. Today I’m going to the library to look for more fox books.
January 9, 1998
Deciding to tan the hide after all, I called David, the man who had studied with Tom Brown. He was happy to tell me what to do. “First,” he said, “get some brains from Balducci’s,” which is a gourmet grocery in Greenwich Village. “You don’t need much for a fox — about a pound, a softball-sized lump.”
“Any kind of brains will work?” I asked, relieved I didn’t have to dig up the fox’s head.
“Yeah. Probably they’ll have calf brains,” David said. “When the hide is dry, scrape it again. There’s a paper-thin epithelial layer you probably haven’t gotten up yet. It’ll be easier to scrape when it’s dry. You have to get it off so the brains can penetrate the skin. Then you warm up the brains and squish them with your hands until they’re the consistency of porridge.”
That sounded like fun.
“Rub them into the hide really well, twice, and then roll up the hide with a damp cloth over the brains and let it sit overnight. In the morning, rack the hide again, tightly. While it’s drying, you’ll have to keep pushing and stretching it to break up the glue between the fibers. That’s what makes it stay soft after it’s dry. Actually, with a fox, the hide’s small enough that you could run it over a shovel handle, or even your knee.”
“How long does it take to dry?”
“An hour to two.”
Before we hung up, David gave me some encouragement: “It’s not that hard. You’ve gotten this far; you might as well finish it up. Let me know how it comes out.”
I wonder how much brains cost.
January 16, 1998
Sparrow and Sylvia are home in the city, and I have come up to Shandaken alone to attend an animal-tracking workshop. Today I went to the shed to check on the hide, and it was unchanged: moist, flexible, sticky, fox-smelling. It still had to dry out. With no one else here, I dared to bring the hide inside and set it up next to the radiator in the bathroom. I opened the window to disperse the odor, set the thermostat at sixty-five, and left for my workshop. I hope it’s dry by the time I get back, in two days.
January 18, 1998
The hide has dried. The skin has turned from glowing white, yellow, and blue to various glum shades of translucent brown. It’s stiff and, because of the unevenness of the rack, lumpy. I’m afraid that if I scrape the irregular surface it might crack. I will have to soak the hide again, make a better frame, restring it, and dry it out again. The hide still smells, but the house doesn’t. I will leave it in the bedroom and work on it next weekend.
January 24, 1998
Lying in bed with a cold today, I suddenly remembered that I once rode in a fox hunt, when I was about thirteen. It was a real hunt, with horses, hounds, horns, red-coated hunters, and a fox. We charged across the farmlands of Dutchess County, and in the end the fox was killed. I was even “blooded,” meaning that the bloody end of a severed paw was pressed against my forehead: a sign that I had taken part in a successful hunt.
This memory now embarrasses me.
I remember the pleasure, however, of riding a horse that was at times completely out of my control as we were swept along by the galloping mob, following the fox up and down hills and over fences. I was captivated by the sensation of the horse’s body surging between my thighs (a first inkling that my childhood passion for riding had something to do with sex).
Through interaction with animals, I think, we seek contact with our own smothered animal natures: the instincts we deny, the skills we have lost — what an inspiration to be near them again! Even my cat, Gummy, who can be pretty annoying, earns my admiration for the way he devotes himself so completely to the moment. While I pet and hug him, he’s not debating what to do after dinner or checking to see if the hamsters are awake. His whole being is in the petting. Or at least it looks that way to me.
Sometimes I try to imagine skinning Gummy when he dies — a repulsive idea. You can’t skin someone you love. Yet I have come to love the fox from handling its hide.
January 31, 1998
Yesterday Sparrow came back to Shandaken and promptly banished the hide to the enclosed porch, fearing that it harbors bacteria. But then, as we were about to go to sleep last night, he suddenly said he missed the fox being in our room.
This afternoon was brilliant and balmy. I vowed to do the rack right this time. I measured the hide before going out for sticks, picked only stout, straight branches, and broke them exactly to length. Following David’s suggestion, I lashed short diagonals at each corner for stability, then restrung the hide on the new, firm frame and tried scraping it with my sharp knife. It looked as though I wouldn’t have to resoak the hide, after all. With the more secure stringing job, I felt confident about scraping along the ridges and valleys, which turned out to be more pliable than I thought. As I worked, fatty white flakes collected along the knife blade, and I wiped them off on the snow. The hide’s shiny surface developed a texture like suede. Surely, after this treatment, the brains would soak in properly.
Caressing the pelt before hanging it back in the shed, I discovered a layer of the softest gray fur beneath the tawny down. How could I have missed this before?
February 3, 1998
I went to Balducci’s and asked for brains. After making a few brain jokes, the young man behind the counter said he’d have to order some for me. I found the meat department unexpectedly revolting. Cutting up one dead animal seemed normal, but this mass of dead animals was creepy. Two blocks away, at Jefferson Market, I found frozen brains for $5.98 a pound. I went back to Balducci’s and canceled my order.
I just finished reading Running with the Fox, by David MacDonald, a British naturalist who did fifteen years of intensive field research on the social life of foxes. His writing is unsentimental and full of dry British humor, but it’s clear that he really loves foxes. (Why else would anyone spend nights freezing in hedgerows and days sleeping with orphaned fox cubs that will only lie still if he lets them keep their noses in his ear?) Unlike J. David Henry, MacDonald makes no attempt to recruit readers, and even takes pains to emphasize the frustrations and discomforts of wildlife research. Nevertheless, his detailed accounts of fox family life have only magnified my emotional attraction to the animals. Toward the end of the book, many foxes are hit by cars or caught in snares, and though MacDonald describes the events matter-of-factly, his grief is palpable.
Today I told my therapist about the book, and she asked what fox characteristics I would like to have. I came up with adaptability, playfulness, and awareness. She asked me to make up a short story about myself as a fox. I was resistant to the idea. After struggling with it for a while, I blurted out, “I don’t want to be a fox! They’re too vulnerable! I don’t want to die!” And I started to cry.
February 5, 1998
My new rack is already getting wobbly. The lashings come loose pretty quickly. I imagine the Indians used soaked leather, which shrinks as it dries, to make the lashings tight. Maybe next time.
I finished scraping the hide and took it off the rack, then unwrapped the brains. They were pale pink, with thin red lines around the edges and a layer of creamy fat underneath. After warming them on the stove, I mushed them up with my fingers. I felt slightly squeamish when I thought about the brains’ having been the seat of a calf’s consciousness, but otherwise it was a rather pleasant experience. I massaged the soupy brain-mush into the hide, covered it with a damp towel, rolled it up, and left it on the kitchen floor in the big metal pan. Every time I walk into the room, it reminds me of a furry little animal curled up asleep in a basket, and I feel sad that it isn’t.
February 6, 1998
Tanning day dawned utterly cloudless, the sky an incandescent blue. I brought the hide outside and unrolled it. A wheelbarrow was frozen on its side near the barn, and I stood with my back to the sun and pulled the hide back and forth against the underside of the wheelbarrow handle. I settled into a slow rhythm, one hand on the tail, the other on the neck, swaying with each pull. Despite the sensual, trancelike nature of this motion, I worried I couldn’t keep it up for two hours, and David had said it’s imperative to stretch the hide until it’s completely dry, or it won’t stay soft.
Suddenly, I realized I was stretching only in one direction. Wasn’t I supposed to work the hide every which way? I began turning it every few pulls. It was amazingly elastic, becoming first long and narrow, then short and wide as I changed direction. I fretted about the clumps of hair that kept falling out, but they were around the edges and would be trimmed off anyway. Caught up in the pleasure of handling the pelt, I lost track of the time. Finally, I stopped and took a look at the skin. It was soft and flexible, a beautiful creamy white stippled with gray-brown. I bent to caress it and was astonished to find it had turned into leather. And no ordinary leather, either, but a thick, plush leather that seemed almost alive. Exalted, I went on working the hide until it began to crease. I couldn’t tell if it was dry, but, worried about the creasing, I decided to stop. Fur was falling out all over the place. I put it back in the shed so the apartment wouldn’t be inundated with hair. I was delirious with joy.
February 7, 1998
Last night I called David with news of my success. He said the hair was probably falling out because I hadn’t gotten to the animal right after it died. Before bed, I went out to check on the hide and thought it damp, so I brought it into the house. There was definitely a moist area in the middle, and the whole thing seemed a little stiff. I tried pulling it back and forth over the shower-curtain rod, but I was too tired and fur was flying all over the bathroom. I went to sleep jumpy and tense.
As soon as I awoke this morning, I went to check the hide, which was dry and slightly stiff, with none of the luxurious softness of yesterday afternoon. Either I hadn’t worked it quite long enough, or it had gotten damp in the shed, or both. I picked it up for a moment and came away with hairs all over my sweater. Despite being determined not to care about results, I felt despondent.
I now see that this whole experience has been about death. I could not accept the death of the fox, so I’ve been struggling to resurrect it, and now it’s “dying” again. I’ve been handling a corpse. I wear leather shoes every day and rarely think about their source, but in this case I took the skin from a dead animal with my own hands. Of course, I didn’t kill the fox, and I certainly wouldn’t have killed it just for its hide. If I lived next door to a hunter, though, and he was butchering a deer, I would ask for the hide. Is profiting from someone else’s killing any different from doing the killing myself?
Animals kill each other constantly. Foxes kill insects, mice, and rabbits, and are themselves killed, mostly by disease and humans, but sometimes by wolves and bears. Killing is required to prevent overpopulation. Only humans think it can be avoided. But if I accept the necessity of killing, where does compassion come in?
When my cat catches a mouse in my apartment and plays with it, I am loath to interrupt, believing he is exercising his natural instincts. But as he looses the mouse and catches it again over and over, I begin to think my well-fed cat is not hungry enough to kill, and the mouse is simply being tortured. So I catch the mouse in a plastic container and release it in the parking lot next door. Then my cat cries in frustration.
Maybe it’s the manner of killing that matters. Maybe there’s a way to kill with respect that makes some kind of difference to both the killer and the victim. Never having tried it myself, I cannot say. But I am now full of the awareness that death is part of our animal nature.
So I will probably stuff the shedding fox hide into a paper bag, since I can’t bear to remove all the fur and make the leather usable. Maybe eventually I’ll smoke it to get rid of the smell, and hang it on the wall to look at and show my friends. But right now I am grieving over my failure to resurrect the fox.
February 21, 1998
Today, while Sylvia played on the swings, I followed possum tracks through the snow. They crossed the back yard, looped around the knoll, then entered a pile of branches at the edge of the woods. I leaned down and saw a shallow hole beneath the branches, just a depression, not a den. What was that possum up to? Then I caught a whiff of putrefaction and realized I was standing over the fox’s grave. For a moment, I felt warm and happy.