Phantasmic Mr Fox
It’s been a long pasty summer of doughy skies, where the frontier between cloud and horizon has been hard to discern. For the first time since I moved to these parts, I’m looking forward to autumn. To clarity. To fires and quiet and early nights. And to some sort of conclusion to this messy year, a year snarled by a million straggly ends and zero tidy knots.
Fox knew all this of course. Beautiful treacherous Mr Fox. He’d been watching me from the darkened arches of the hazel copse after all. Some say Fox is the Trickster. Others say he’s a spirit guide. But sometimes Fox comes to tie up those fraying ends. To conclude that which we humans are unwilling to. Because Nature is less sentimental than us, always ready to slough off what doesn’t work. No matter how hard we cling, Old Gaia will pry our fingers from the old.
“Hey, have a couple of courgettes!” Brian called from the gate. I ran down to collect my latest winnings in the neighbourhood potluck. Reaching the entrance, I handed him a small pot of jam made from some peaches he’d given me days earlier.
“I’ll come and cut the rest of those brambles this week,” he said, looking typically sun-thrashed after a summer of hay baling. “Just waiting for a nice day.”
I grinned. “Ah thanks! It’s so good to see the land again! I thought I’d lost it.”
Brian turned around, and Julia waved from the jeep before turning the ignition. Good neighbours are gold dust when you abide in nature. Gold dust. I'm swimming in it up here.
I set off back up the hill feeling fortunate. Sadly, it was short lived. For when I reached the brow of my dear land, there in the long grass, half hidden by the dry-stone wall, my chickens were bobbing up and down like a handful of feathered ping pong balls. It took me a minute to register what was happening.
Priscilla the Snow Queen hurtled in my direction, followed by her now adolescent brood. Everyone was squawking for dear life. I counted the birds. Priscilla, Cengiz Khan, Amber, and Lawrence. One was missing. A lurching sense of doom flooded my stomach. Penny Black, the little one who had looked like a penguin when she hatched...my favourite...she was gone.
I shepherded the troop up to the chicken run. It's a rare sight these days. Swathed in rows of electric fence, the chicken estate boasts more security than the Crown Jewels, because hey, this wasn’t Fox's first visit.
Yes Fox, I’d known you were casing the joint since that surreal morning back in July when I’d awoken to a strange noise coming from my bedroom door. Remember that Fox? Remember my trousers? Where are they now eh? Because I saw you, albeit bleary-eyed, as I peered from my bedroom window. There you were, fur gleaming copper in the early morning sunlight, wrestling with a pair of my jeans before dragging them into woods!
Afternoon was tipping into evening, and the slope was turning the colour ofboiled spinach. Clutching at straws – or perhaps their fraying loose ends – I walked down past the barn and the stone wall, to have one last look for Penny Black, or at least some evidence of what had happened. I suppose I got it, because there was Fox wading through the grass, scapolite eyes staring at a part of me I myself couldn’t see. It was a look so piercing, it made me shudder from my crown to the soles of my feet.
Suddenly, with our eyes locked like that, we touched on another plane. And I sensed that Fox wasn’t just a small red chicken-killing hound. He was something else. A spirit of the land. One of nature’s shape-shifters. I could feel it all around us, the cool brush of the phantasmagoric. The sky was turning vaporous now and wafting towards the earth, and at that moment Fox and I were all the world.
“You took my chick, you bastard!” I yelled, the anguish fighting inside me. I stalked towards the mutt, intent on catching him. Fox didn’t budge. His rusty fur glistened in the evening air, fat tail coursing behind him like a dowsing stick. The markings on his face were sheer perfection as he held my gaze. Such beauty! It was hypnotising.
Still I kept striding, until I was three metres away. Finally Fox ducked his head. Faster than I can remember, he slipped over the stone wall, and vanished into the shadows of the woodland behind.
Night fell fast, and a full moon began to rise hauntingly from behind Dragonback Mountain. My ash tree stood still, soaking up the remaining twilight. The landscape was something from a fable. I was no longer in the human realm but the Otherworld, where trees talk, moonlight casts spells, and spirit foxes do Gaia’s bidding.
Dropping to the ground, I winced. Blackberry thorns were stabbing my butt, and I’d lost the little chick. Poor Penny Black. Why her? Why take a little life so innocent and young? These are the questions all of us who live in the bosom of the land must ask. And it is here we are forced to make a choice. Are we going to live by Nature’s rules, or by artificial ones? Are we choosing the riskier living world of quest and adventure, or the ordered death-world of algorithm and program?
Trudging up the hill, I pondered deeply. Suddenly I wasn’t sure. The gridlines of my faith were shifting beneath my feet. Yet deep down I knew what I’d always known, that despite it all, Fox wasn’t my enemy. The land was speaking to me, and firmly.
The next day I called Julia. “Can I give you my chickens? They’re all going to be picked off if they stay here. Fox is back, and not giving up.”
“Yes yes, bring them this evening,” she said, generous as ever. “We’ll take them. Our grey one is all alone anyway...” Her voice trailed off, and I bit my lip. The predators are everywhere after all.
It was mid-afternoon when I let my chickens out for one last run on the land, albeit under my watchful gaze. Off they trotted, jumping and scratching as if nothing had ever happened. I looked at Priscilla in her resplendent white plumage and felt a pang.
The air turned a little chilly as the shadow of the great ash trees lengthened, their dark bony fingers reaching over the land. I turned my back. Just for a minute. And at that very second Priscilla let rip. I spun round. Fox had leapt into the fold. He saw me, but carried straight on! Aghast, I charged full pelt, not at Priscilla but at Fox. He paused, shoulder blades raised, head lowered. He was measuring. Could he get his paws on Priscilla and bring her down, before I reached him? He decided he couldn’t, and fell back.
Now I was in the tricky position of having to move four panicking birds back into the run-fortress without Fox picking one off. This was of course what Fox was banking on. Chaos and panic were all to his advantage. I stood between the predator and the prey, waving my flock upward. Fox darted behind the wall. I stared in trepidation as he sniffed the air, gauging the chickens’ exact whereabouts by scent. It was a race now.
I galloped uphill. My four chickens jumped onto the roof of their mud coop, which was unhelpful. One by one I picked them up and threw them into the run. I’d just closed the door when Priscilla squawked in terror once more. And to my disbelief, there was Fox like an apparition, scratching furiously at the base of the run.
Now I hurled myself at the power pack and flicked on the electric fence. Then, stick in hand, I belted round to Fox. He legged it under the fence, but was zapped, upon which he turned and stared at me once more. My hair roots twisted in my scalp. Something from the Otherworld was here. This was the look of the Reaper, of Death himself.
“Leave them here and I will take them all,” he was saying. “There is nothing you can do. I am magic. I am the force of Nature.”
It was like a dream. The way he was appearing and disappearing. The speed. The stealth. Fox possessed superpowers I couldn’t match. I was a bumbling mortal, and he was a daemon.
I waited until nightfall, until my hens were in some sort of half sleep, eyes vacant as the spark in them made its nocturnal journey to the Otherworld. One by one I squeezed them all into a cat carrier. Then I drove them a mile up the mountain to Middle Earth, to my neighbours and their new home.
How silent the land is now. How strangely spacious the days, free from the clutter of feeding and coop cleaning. An end has been tied very conclusively. By Fox. Who has of course vanished into the thinnest of air now his work is done.
But while I sense the eerie gap that has opened around me, I also feel the caress of Gaia. Running my fingers down the ash tree’s bark, I watch the sky turn unicorn silver. The vista has turned the deepest emerald, with peaks appearing and vanishing into cloud worlds like fairytale cities. I inhale the sweet air, and the earth speaks to me; not in words, nor through image, but in that other ancient language we Gaians speak, even if we’ve long forgotten how.
Nature is immortal and always finds a way. It’s not just because Nature is ingenious (which she is), nor simply that she’s tenacious (no one persists longer and harder). But there’s something more fundamental to Nature that the rationalists never grasp for the simple fact they don’t believe in it. The natural world is in fact supernatural. And when you live alone on a mountainside, watching deer leap through your trees and badgers waddle under starlit skies, witnessing the fantastic and the fearsome, hearing owls call and wolves howl, when you sniff the air, see wild horses on precipices, and look deep into the eyes of both predators and prey, you know. There’s something far more extraordinary going on, something that artificial intelligence has no chance of assimilating, nor old-school ‘Science’ any hope of understanding.
Immortality, shape-shifting, invisibility cloaks, extra sensory perception, interspecies communication, enhanced strength, wall-walking, sixth, seventh, and eight senses, magical cures, and telepathy. All these magical powers exist in the natural world, along with many more. We’re not spectators living outside that world and looking in, despite what biology class told us. No, Nature is within us and without us. It’s our family, our home, and our very bodies. Those supernatural powers are ours too somewhere, if we can just remember where we left them.
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Life becomes a magical adventure when we inhabit the wider, more natural aspect of ourselves. We have the power to change the course of our lives, our landscapes, and to thrive well beyond the limitations of our (failing) modern systems. It’s about sorting out what’s truly natural within us, from what’s not.
Join me as I share with you my own experiences and means of hearing the land around me, and how I follow her nudges.
Atulya K Bingham
Author, Lone Off-Gridder, and Natural Builder.
"Reality meets fantasy, myth, dirt and poetry. I'm hooked!" Jodie Harburt, Multitude of Ones.