The fox and the hound
Istill haven’t got used to the idea that summer is really over. the weather has been mild and dry all autumn and the trees are by no means bare. there was a young vixen, little more than a cub, sitting in a pool of pale sunshine in the middle of the boreen this afternoon.
Darling, who could not be described as a brave dog, gave her an extremely wide berth, ran a short distance ahead and sat down to see what i would do. i slowed my pace until i was about 10ft away from the fox, which observed me with interest, but no sign of fear. i took a dried liver treat from my pocket and dropped it on the grass. the fox sniffed, pushed back her ears and angled her head so that she could pick it up without taking her eyes off me. Holding it carefully in her mouth, she got up, made slowly for a gap in the hedge and vanished.
i have always felt that Aristotle had a great deal to answer for when, in his scala naturae (or great chain of being), he created a hierarchal structure for all life. Humans were placed above all other creatures, a concept that was taken up and developed by st thomas Aquinas, who declared that animals were dumb.
it is a philosophy that explains, in part, why many humans believe it’s morally acceptable to exploit other species. in one respect, however, i feel that Aristotle may have got it right. He placed wild animals, such as foxes, above domesticated animals, such as English pointers.
Once Darling was absolutely certain the coast was clear, she began rushing backwards and forwards, barking loudly: ‘there was a fox. leave it to me. i’ll catch and kill it. Don’t try to stop me. i said, don’t try to stop me.’ i gave her my most withering look. she as good as blushed and suddenly became intensely interested in a clump of hogweed.
leaving aside birds, this year, i have seen the following wildlife: from a distance, rabbits, hares, several foxes, a red squirrel and a seal; in close proximity, a pair of lizards, a frog, a rat, a pine marten, a hedgehog and, today, the vixen. Each of these encounters has been thrilling and strangely emotional. As John Muir said: ‘Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.’
There are, despite the season, still a surprising number of flowers in bloom: the abovementioned hogweed, of course, as well as fuchsia, honeysuckle, clover, roses and a profusion of violets. Our coastal village, touched by the Gulf stream and protected by sloping hills to the north, was once the violet capital of the British isles with dozens of plantations supplying Dublin, Belfast and london.
When, in the 1940s, a protectionist UK government banned their import, the loss of business was considered so detrimental to the irish economy that it was raised several times in the Dáil, although to no avail. the industry may be long gone, but our highways and byways, fields, woods and ditches are still filled every spring and autumn with carpets of violets.
Pliny recommends violets as a hangover cure ‘to dispel the fumes of wine and prevent headache’. the Celts soaked them in goat’s milk to increase female beauty, a 16th-century herbal remedy recommends them for ‘he that may not slepe for sickness’ and they have long been a popular ingredient of drinks, salads and cakes. After the vixen had departed, i gathered a large bunch and, tomorrow, i will prepare them using a recipe of my grandmother’s. Beat two egg whites until frothy, paint the mixture onto each flower (something that requires a remarkably steady hand) and then sprinkle lightly with caster sugar. leave the crystallised flowers to dry on wire racks and hide them from your family if you don’t wish them to become shrinking violets. they make the perfect decoration for Christmas biscuits and chocolates.
‘Darling, who could not be described as a brave dog, gave her an extremely wide berth’
The shortest day of the year is nearly upon us. Night fell so quickly today that i found myself walking home in total darkness. Every time i passed a cottage, i couldn’t resist glancing through the lighted windows (how few of our neighbours draw their curtains) at the tableaux within: a woman cooking, a little boy playing in front of an open fire, an elderly man watching television, a family at high tea.
Each scene had the effect of hurrying me on as i thought of the evening ahead with Rose and the children. ‘i heard a bird sing in the dark of December,’ wrote Oliver Herford almost exactly 100 years ago. ‘A magical thing and sweet to remember. We are nearer to spring than we were in september.’