One time, many years ago, when the world and I were young, I spent a day in a tiny cedar forest with my sister and brother. This was in the marshlands of an island the first people there called Paumanok. This little cedar forest was twelve city blocks long by two blocks wide, for a total of eighty-four acres, and there was a roaring highway at the northern end, and a seriously busy artery road at the southern end, but when you were in Tackapausha Preserve you were, no kidding, deep in the woods, and you couldn’t hear cars and sirens and radios no matter how hard you tried. We tried hard, my kid brother and I; we sat silently for probably the longest time we ever had, up to that point, but our sister was right, and we were deep in the wild.
We saw woodpeckers and an owl and lots of warblers—this was spring, and there were more warblers than there were taxicabs on Fifth Avenue. We saw what we thought was a possum, but which may have been a squirrel with a glandular problem. We saw muskrats in the two little ponds. We saw a hummingbird, or one of us said he saw a hummingbird, but this was the brother who claimed that saints and angels talked to him in the attic, so I am not sure we saw a hummingbird, technically. We did not see deer, although we did see mats of grass, which sure looked like places where deer would nap, like uncles after big meals, sprawled on their sides with their vests unbuttoned, snoring like heroes. We saw holes among the roots of the white cedars, which were so clearly the dens of animals like foxes and weasels and badgers that one of us looked for mail addressed to them outside their doors. We saw scratch marks in the bark of trees that one of us was sure were made by bears, although our sister said she was not sure there were bears registered in the Seaford School District, not to mention badgers either.
We saw many other amazing small things that are not small, and we wandered so thoroughly and so energetically all afternoon, that my kid brother and I slept all the way home in the back seat of the car with our mouths hanging open like trout or puppies, sleeping so soundly that we both drooled on the Naugahyde seat, and our sister had to mop up after us with the beach towel she always carried in the trunk for just such droolery, but my point here is not what we saw, or even the excellence of gentle patient generous older sisters; it’s about what we did not see. We did not see a fox. I can assure you we did not see a fox. I could trot out my brother and sister today to testify that we did not see a fox. With all my mature and adult and reasonable and sensible old heart, I bet there were zero foxes then resident in Tackapausha Preserve, between Sunrise Highway and Merrick Road, in the county of Nassau, in the great state of New York. But I tell you we smelled Old Reynard, his scent of old blood and new honey, and we heard his sharp cough and bark, and if you looked just right you could see his wry paw prints in the dust by his den, and if we never take our kids to the little strips of forests, the tiny shards of beaches, the ragged forgotten corner thickets with beer bottles glinting in the duff, they’ll never even imagine a fox, and what kind of world is that, where kids don’t imagine foxes? We spend so much time mourning and battling for a world where kids can see foxes that we forget you don’t have to see foxes. You have to imagine them, though. If you stop imagining them then they are all dead, and what kind of world is that, where all the foxes are dead?
Brian Doyle is a shambling hirsute mumbling humming doofus who edits Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and is the author most recently of a ‘sprawling serpentine riverine Oregon novel,’ Mink River.
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett