If you have followed this blog, you know that the naturalist and anthropologist Loren Eiseley is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. Decades ago, when I read a collection of his essays called The Unexpected Universe, it changed my life forever, and I think, for the better.
In a prior post, I shared some passages from an essay called “The Star Thrower” from the book. I hope you’ll take a look at it if you haven’t read it already. You can read the excerpt here.
But today, I want to share an excerpt from another story in this collection called “The Innocent Fox.” It’s about Eiseley’s chance encounter with a fox pup after a night of wrestling with deep questions about the meaning of life, of death, and man’s purpose and place in the universe.
Like his story about his encounter with the “star thrower” on the beaches of Costabel, “The Innocent Fox” has the power to change your life if you open your heart to it. I know it changed mine. It’s a story I come back to again and again, because it’s a kind of revelation of what we’re here for and “what it’s all about,” because in the end, it is all about love.
See if this encounter doesn’t move you as well, when for a brief moment, we see the true face of the universe in the innocent face of a fox pup, reflected in the great heart and mind of this remarkable naturalist.
I offer this quote from The Unexpected Universe as a kind of prologue or introduction to where I pick up this essay:
“Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war… Mostly the animals understand their roles, but man, by comparison, seems troubled by a message that, it is often said, he cannot quite remember or has gotten wrong… Bereft of instinct, he must search continually for meanings… Man was a reader before he became a writer, a reader of what Coleridge once called the mighty alphabet of the universe.”
The Innocent Fox
by Loren Eiseley
(excerpted from The Unexpected Universe)
We inhabit a spiritual twilight on this planet. It is perhaps the most poignant of all the deprivations to which man has been exposed by nature. I have said deprivation, but perhaps I should, rather, maintain that this feeling of loss is an unrealized anticipation. We imagine we are day creatures, but we grope in a lawless and smoky realm toward an exit that eludes us. We appear to know instinctively that such an exit exists.
I am not the first man to have lost is way only to find, if not a gate, a mysterious hole in a hedge that a child would know at once led to some other dimension as the world’s end. Such passageways exist, or man would not be here. Not for nothing did Santayana once contend that life is a movement from the forgotten into the unexpected.
As adults, we are preoccupied with living. As a consequence, we see little. At the approach of age some men look about them at last and discover the hole in the hedge leading to the unforeseen. By then, there is frequently no child companion to lead them safely through. After one or two experiences of getting impaled on thorns, the most persistent individual is apt to withdraw and to assert angrily that no such opening exists.
My experience has been quite the opposite, but I have been fortunate. After several unsuccessful but tantalizing trials, which I intend to disclose, I had the help, not of a child, but of a creature—a creature who, appropriately, came out of a quite unremarkable and prosaic den. There was nothing, in retrospect, at all mysterious or unreal about him. Nevertheless, the creature was baffling, just as, I suppose, to animals, man himself is baffling.
The episode occurred upon a unengaging and unfrequented shore. It began in late after of day devoted at the start to ordinary scientific purposes. There was the broken prow of a beached boat subsiding in heavy sand, left by the whim of ancient currents a long way distant from the shifting coast. Somewhere on the horizon wavered the tenuous outlines of a misplaced building, growing increasingly insubstantial in the autumn light.
After my companions had taken their photographs and departed, their persistent voices were immediately seized upon and absorbed by the extending immensity of the incoming fog. The fog trailed in wisps over the upturned ribs of the boat. For a time, I could see it fingering the tracks of some small animal, as though engaged in a belated dialogue with the creature’s mind. The tracks crisscrossed a dune, and there the fog hesitated, as though puzzled. Finally, it approached and enwrapped me, as though to peer in my face. I was not frightened, but I also realized I was not intended immediately to leave.
I sat down then and rested my back against the overturned boat. All around me the stillness intensified and the wandering tendrils of the fog continued their search. Nothing escaped them….
Finally, the dawn began to touch the sea, and then the worn timbers of the hulk beside which I had sheltered reddened just a little…It was then that I saw the miracle. I saw it because I was hunched at ground level, smelling rank of fox, and no longer gazing with upright human arrogance upon the things of the world.
I did not realize at first what it was I looked upon. As my wandering attention centered, I saw nothing but two small projecting ears lit by the morning sun. Beneath them, a small neat face look shyly up at me. The ears moved at every sound, drank in the gull’s cry and the far horn of a ship. They crinkled, I began to realize, only with curiosity; they had not learned to fear. The creature was very young. He was alone in a dread universe. I crept on my knees around the prow and crouched beside him. It was a small fox pup from a den under the timbers who looked up at me. God knows what had become of his brothers and sisters. His parent must not have been home from hunting.
He innocently selected what I think was a chicken bone from an untidy pile of splintered rubbish and shook it at my invitingly. There was a vast playful humor in his face. “If there was only one fox in the world and I could kill him, I would do.” The words of a British poacher in a pub rasped in my ears. I dropped even further and painfully away from human stature. It has been said repeatedly that one can never, try as he will, get around to the front of the universe. Man is destined to see only its far side, to realize nature only in retreat.
Yet here was the thing in the midst of the bones, the wide-eyed, innocent fox inviting me to play, with the innate courtesy of its two forepaws placed appealingly together, along with a mock shake of the head. The universe was swinging in some fantastic fashion to present its face, and the face was so small that the universe itself was laughing.
It was not a time for human dignity. It was a time only for careful observance of amenities written behind the stars. Gravely I arranged my forepaws while the puppy whimpered with ill-concealed excitement. I drew the breath of a fox’s den into my nostrils. On impulse, I picked up clumsily a whiter bone and shook it in teeth that had not entirely forgotten their original purpose. Round and round we tumbled for one ecstatic moment. We were the innocent thing in the midst of bones, born in the egg, born in the den, born in the dark cave with the stone and ax close to hand, born at last in human guise to grow coldly remote in the room with the rifle rack upon the wall.
But I had seen my miracle. I had see the universe as it begins for all things. It was, in reality, a child’s universe, a tiny and laughing universe. I rolled the pup on his back and ran, literally ran for the nearest ridge. The sun was half out of the sea, and the world was swinging back to normal. The adult foxes would already be trotting home.
I think I can safely put it down that I had been allowed my miracle. It was very small, as is the way of great things. I have been permitted to correct time’s arrow for a space of perhaps five minutes—and that is not a boon granted to all men. If I were to render a report upon this episode, I would say that men must find a way to run the arrow backward. Doubtless this is impossible in the physical world, but in the memory and the will man might achieve the deed if we would try.
For the moment, I had held the universe at bay by the simple expedient of sitting on my haunches before a fox den and tumbling about with a chicken bone. It was the gravest, most meaningful act I shall ever accomplish, but, as Thoreau once remarked of some peculiar errand of his own there is no use reporting it to the Royal Society.
Books by Loren Eiseley (click for link to Amazon.com)