Fox & I, An Uncommon Friendship – Catherine Raven’s strong narrative voice engages and educates readers in her moving nature-writing memoir.
I have always been drawn to nature writing. When I was teaching, I often designed classes that began with Henry David Thoreau and then moved quickly to Edward Abbey and beyond. I also offered creative writing classes that urged students to generate their own particular senses of place. That was key for the genre, to bring to life a setting and scenes in ways that pull the reader into the landscape, too. Two other aspects of nature writing are equally essential. The writer needs to generate a strong narrative voice so that the reader personally interacts, and the writer must educate the reader as well. I wanted to learn something when reading nature writing, so I insisted that my students include lots of local information. Catherine Raven must have been reading my mind. Fox and I far exceeds my criteria for excellence.
Her book would be a joy to teach, to hold as an example of the best that nature writing can offer. A strong sense of place, an engaging narrative voice, and a plethora of biological facts, geographic and geologic trends, historical contexts, and literary allusions. Plus, she writes well, with an eye for detail and a metaphorical flair that I quite enjoyed.
Raven’s secluded home lies at the edge of a glacier-carved valley in eastern Montana. There, she has built a two-room dwelling with windows galore and a sweeping view of the foothills and mountains that surround her special place. She had the building contractor, much to his annoyance, place each window helter-skelter but precisely where she wanted it for the best view. She also is surrounded by “a weed sanctuary” and by mice and voles and rabbits and deer and magpies and foxes and more. Throughout the pages of Fox and I, Raven combs through precisely what grows on her property and describes the countless critters that share her land.
One of those creatures is Fox, a scrawny wild fox whose den hides nearby. For some reason, Raven and Fox intrigue each other. They regularly sit outside “together,” not far from one another, and Raven infers that Fox finds her habits puzzling and peculiar. She imagines, for example, that he calls her “Hurricane Hands” while watching her futile attempts to grub out some of the invasive weeds that threaten her space. She, on the other hand, is fascinated by Fox’s joie de vivre, the pleasure he takes in hunting, in sunning himself, in occasionally behaving like a trickster.
Here is where Raven brings so many literary allusions into her tale. She begins with Antoine St. Exupery’s Little Prince, who similarly befriended a fox. In fact, she often reads that book and Horton Hatches a Who aloud to Fox. She tells Fox about Lafcadio Hearn’s Japanese foxes, and she talks to Fox about Ishmael in Moby Dick, a loner with whom Raven feels great affinity. I enjoyed all the literary references, which Raven often internalizes, and even more so I appreciated all the scientific information. A Ph.D. biologist, she brings her training to bear on everything she sees. Not only does she visually dissect the flora and fauna around her, but she clearly has investigated a wealth of other relevant information. Almost every page of Fox and I carries meaningful facts and figures, all presented in accessible language both scientific and figurative.
Finally, there is Raven herself, a self-possessed woman who lives alone in isolation and who prefers the company of Fox to that of human beings. Ironically, she communicates her enigmatic personality with insight and clarity. Eccentric, yes, but welcome company for anyone who applauds nature writing at its very finest. Most readers, I think, will bond with her as I did, in “an uncommon friendship” that parallels that of Raven and Fox. Fox and I is a must-read for anyone who embraces the spirits of Abbey and Thoreau. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Catherine Raven: Forestry.
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