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WHERE CIVILIZATION MEETS THE WILDERNESS

 

Henry David Thoreau believed the best life is lived on the margins -- where civilization meets the wilderness. I think so, too.

I often imagine the fence behind our summer cottage as Thoreau's border. I think of the amazing creatures who climb over, through, or under this fence as ambassadors, bringing the soul of the wilderness a short way over on the other side where we can see it.

The fence has a gate, which we often pass through, going the other way -- taking our human souls into the wild places. Beyond the fence are steep cliffs and the mouth of a deep canyon. To me, it is the most beautiful place in Arizona.

The ancient Greeks built sanctuaries for the fierce, virginal goddess, Artemis, at places like this. Their word for such an in-between place was eschatiai. The Greeks though a good place for the eschatiai was on the far edge of a cultivated field, at a place where the mountains begin to rise. The site of our summer home meets these criteria quite well.

To me, our fence is a magical threshold, presided over by the Lady of the Wild Things. At our eschatiai we see skunks, squirrels, white-tailed deer, raccoons, rabbits, deer, javalinas, diamondback rattlesnakes, and an amazing variety of birds. The primitive, juniper fence is a place of love songs, territorial disputes, and narrow escapes. The flowers on our side are cultivated, but those beyond are entirely wild. The wind and rain affect her flowers and ours equally.

Our tiny village is oriented as many ancient temples were -- facing a land formation that looks like the recumbent body of an immense goddess. No one in Portal does much of anything without occasionally looking up at the awesome cliffs and distant green peaks which dominates the southwestern horizon. There is an unspoken assumption that everything we do has meaning only as it relates to these awesome mountains.

We often remove the glass from our dining room window, then use the opening as a photography blind. One day, when Terrie was videotaping hummingbirds, she saw a fox standing on Thoreau's border place; its nose was in one of the red feeders, its tongue was licking up sweet water and drowned honeybees. I came to the window and saw it, too.

The fox seemed magical. This pointy-eared, narrow-nosed creature reminded me of Anubis the Egyptian jackal god, who often sits or stands on top of tombs. When the gray fox on Thoreau's border turned to look at us, we saw it was not afraid. Why should he be? He was the magus of the non-human world.

The gray fox walked across the fence with its long, bushy tail dragging behind -- and curled slightly upward. Its legs were long, and its feet surprising large. The fox emptied another feeder, then turned to study us again--sizing us up, perhaps, for a sarcophagus. Then it moved farther on down the fence, jumped into the brush, and was gone.

Foxes are animals of the in-between-time, usually seen at twilight and dawn. The Apaches, who once lived in this exact place, have a story in which the fox brings fire to human beings. It happens after the fox accidentally backs up into the celestial flames and ignites its bushy tail. The fox is a creature of mystery, In many legends foxes can shape shift and take on different forms. Several native American legends tell of men who accidentally discover their wife is a fox.

There is a fox in all of us, a camouflaged slyness, a furry, lightweight bundle of energy that trots tiptoe, pausing, turning its big ears in all directions to hear the faint peeps of tiny mice. With fox ears we humans can hear the spirit world. With fox feet we can walk the rustic border between civilization and the wilderness.

For eight weeks we saw this red-and silver beast at least once a day. Once, while walking on the path between the Little House and Cave Creek, I saw a rabbit run out of a clump of catclaw with the fox right behind him. The fox saw me, then skulked back into the brush as the rabbit scampered off. I stood there for a moment, and the fox came back out, no more than twenty feet away, standing on the path in mid-stride, a perfect profile, turning his head to look at me in obvious recognition. I nodded and the fox, I think, nodded back. Then he walked off, showing no fear or anxiety.

I wouldn't say he trusted me or even liked me, but he knew me as neighbor, as distant kin, as a fellow traveler, as members of a different nation who peacefully coexists with him and his secret family. I will always be kind to this fox, for I know he is a psychopomp who will someday lead me to the kingdom of the dead.

1998 Larry Gates

 

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