In the autumn season, a paradoxical new life is given to nature. Deciduous leaves lose their suppleness and healthy green colouration to give way to shades of brittle yellow, orange, red, brown and purple. The trees shed these garments slowly, soon to be skeletons with skirts of decaying plant matter. It is part of a cycle of death and eventual rebirth; but so flagrant and beloved a death can rarely be found, in nature or anywhere else. Forests ignite like a star in heat-death, or a phoenix commemorating its life, its plumage flaring up one final time in an awesome blaze before it lies down to rest beneath a commemorative white sheet. The trees aren’t the only harbingers of the radical new season, either; every animal in the taiga is thickening its coat and preparing dens and stashes; V-shaped constellations migrate across the sky to the south, rather loudly; the rivers flow backwards from the oceans and lakes in silver and red arcs. The season of autumn is Mother Nature’s quintessential emblem of change.
Dusk encroaches on the Pacific Northwest, earlier and earlier with every day that puts distance between itself and the summer solstice. As the temperature declines and the ecosystem prepares to hibernate through winter’s white embrace, there is one creature who will continue to forage and hunt when cool becomes cold, on the fringes of our waking hours. At present, its orange coat suits it better than ever as fiery leaves blanket the forest floor.
Chestnut paws tread lightly on the crackling carpet as night sets on, bushy tail gently trailing. The cool breeze caresses the red-yellow fur on the animal’s hide, tickling its pointed ears and sensitive whiskers, carrying scents of vegetal rot and tart berries to its sharp nose. It surveys the darkening forest with eyes like the amber sap that leaks from trees this time of year, its ovular pupils subtly dilating and contracting as it continues to search for a meal.
Padding softly, the fox pauses occasionally to turn its triangular ears in all directions. Then it catches something: the familiar scritching sound it has been trained to heed its whole life; the sound of food. Its tail no longer drags; the predator’s head is high as it stalks forward, periodically monitoring the closeness of the skittering as it nears. The gentle breeze now delivers the fox the scent it’s after: buried under dank earth and decaying leaves and moss, beneath the olfactory layers of wood, scat and impending rain, the scent of an unsuspecting rodent is found.
The fox stops at the foot of a flaming maple, stock-still. Over a thick root, it identifies a patchy growth of leaves and grass, within which the minute noises of the fox’s interest reside. Although foxes have magnificent eyesight at close ranges, their perception is greatly dependent on movement; in the absence of visual cues, the other senses have a great role to play.
The fox circles the target carefully. If the sun were visible on the horizon, it would now be at the fox’s back-left flank. At a range of about four feet, the fox has judged its prime position.
It now leans its head down to meet its front paws. Its hind legs are taut, tail poised for balance. One final moment of stillness, ears facing forward. Then its front legs push up, tucked to the chest, and the rear knees bend like springs and launch the fox in a graceful arc. It uses its tail to make minor adjustments to its orientation as it glides over the forest floor and lands with its front paws digging into the underbrush, pinning its prey with deadly accuracy.
The creature’s frantic exclamations and spasms of terror are quickly ended by the fox’s jaws, a single snap severing the small mammal’s ties to life. With delight, the warm, familiar taste of vole enters the fox’s maw, and the meal is devoured whole.
The fox straightens, licking its teeth and paws clean of blood. Sated for now, it begins to tread through the forest back to its den, night life emerging as the pale yellow visible at the lowest point through the trees slowly becomes blue. Directly above, the sky is extremely dark and murky, and not only did the fox recognize the scent of encroaching rain well in advance, but a cool speck of moisture now announces itself on the fox’s snout. A few drops quickly become a fleet, descending through the canopy, and in no time the forest is victim to a downpour, every kind of plant life amplifying the sound to deafening degrees. The fox dashes through the overgrowth, soaked to the bones, hoping to reach its den as soon as possible. It bounds uphill along the bank of a swift river, the water rushing harder thanks to the rain. The river’s crests are silver in the dim forest light, making the stream shine like fish scales.
The fox slows to a canter, despite the rain seeping beneath its still-thin coat. It’s not the water that looks like shining scales; the river is full of fish, and it’s a sight the fox has rarely had the pleasure to see. It widens its vertical pupils, maximizing its night vision to take in the wonder of nature before it.
Kokanee salmon of all shades and sizes muscle their way upstream, fighting the current in their timeless evolutionary battle. Many of them are still silver, but as they will all become on the return journey to their spawning grounds, some have taken on striking shades of red. Bright-red scales and green heads and mean, hooked jaws denote the males, while the females turn a darker red and retain their typical shape. The fox identifies the smallest as being around as long as its tail, and the largest at roughly the same size as itself, a jarring fact.
The fish move powerfully through the rushing water, leaping above the surface often to gain more ground, so to speak. The leaping becomes more frequent; the salmon’s iridescent scales glitter as their bodies twist and maneuver through the river, through the air, through the falling rain, up and up and up–
The fox barely registers how it happens. Before its amber eyes, the salmon are climbing ever higher into the air, ceaseless as they rise above the river’s surface. Their silver and red bodies shimmer with every twitch of their indomitable muscles. Their scales push against the oncoming raindrops as they gain height with every thrust, as though there were no gaps in the flow of fresh water from the sky. Each heavy droplet that collides with their slick sides careens away in starburst fragments, precious gemstones being scattered like grain; yet neither the opposing force of millions of drops of water nor the ever-present, omnipotent pull of the earth can chain these kokanee to the meagerness expected of them. As though their purpose was beyond any other mortal creature, the living epitomes of determination and defiance rise to complete their journey, whatever that may now be.
The fox watches captivated as fish hang suspended in the air like fruit from trees. If it were human, it would be at an utter loss, since humans know (or think they know) the laws that every animal is bound to, even specimens with such unique inclinations as salmon. Most importantly, they feel the need to know, the right to know. To the fox, the sight is novel and wholly inexplicable; but that’s an unnecessary statement. When you’re a fox, the novel isn’t inexplicable, it just is. If a fox spent its time worrying about how to explain the things it experienced, it wouldn’t be long before it began to question itself and fall into the same existential trap that has imprisoned humans since the dawn of time. To a fox, simpler desires than knowledge are at play, far simpler. The simplest of all? Hunger. The fox isn’t hungry right now, not after that tender vole; but it will surely be hungry later, and though foxes rarely catch fresh fish for themselves, how could it resist a selection from the levitating buffet before it?
The fox, now ignoring the pelting rain on its frigid back, paces around the river bank, thrusting its head over the water on occasion to see if it can snatch up one of the vivacious fish. It misses its first lunge and receives a tail smack to the snout in return. It shakes the blow off and tries again, rearing on its hind legs to extend as far as possible into the salmon-thick air. The image is scintillating in the innocence of the animals taking part. The salmon have only one fixation, as animals of their simple nature often do. It can’t be helped to wonder whether the urge that drives them is the same as was always observed if their trajectory has so drastically and impossibly shifted, but that would require consideration of whose power the phenomenon is owed to, something the fox has a blissful unwillingness to ponder. It must be bliss to partake in such a breathtaking display and not wonder its mechanisms and trappings like the clutter-minded humans. A calling to return home, and a hearty meal for future days. Simple desires.
Leap after leap, the fox dances with its prospective prey. The salmon take no heed of the predator in their midst, as though they weren't creatures at all but leaves floating down a lazy river, or snowflakes drifting to the earth. Their disregard is a tantalizing invitation to the fox: we're right here, what are you waiting for? Knowledge may be beyond the interest of foxes, but they remain ceaselessly determined in pursuits of curiosity.
One final time, the fox bows its back legs and springs into the air, its sharp eyes monitoring every movement in its field of view. Its tail corrects for every minute change of position as it rises. Its head moves as though magnetized, darting with fine precision, wide-open jaws enclosing at last over bright-red scales. Its canine teeth sinking into tender flesh, gripping tightly.
It lasts for a single breathtaking moment, the fox outstretched gracefully with its cleanly caught meal, suspended amidst the dozens of pristine salmon that will live to reach their final destination. None of the creatures have the ability to truly appreciate the composite they are a part of; for only with the curse of knowledge comes the blessed ability to appreciate art.
In the early evening darkness, the instantaneous burst of white light that fills the fox's fully-dilated pupils is sharper than a bear's claws. The fox cries out with pain and flails, losing all sense of direction as it plummets and crashes into the river. As it is swiftly enveloped in the rough current and swept away, the source of the blinding light will take its moment, its treasure, and leave without a trace. It is not for the fox to ponder.
The river bleeds into a serene lake surrounded by birches and hemlocks. White-tailed deer graze at the fringes of the forest, watching as the fox emerges from its tumultuous cruise. It limps ashore, battered and breathless. The mouthwatering taste of its lost catch is still on its lips and teeth, a disappointing remnant. Its retinas are burned with the after-image of the light, causing it to stumble on the river bank while its sight adjusts.
It is pitch-dark; the constellations are ablaze in the sky. There is no more rain, there's barely a cloud visible against the blue-black canvas above. The thunderous sound of pelting drops has given way to gentle cricket song. The river is calm, with no traces of silver or red. All is as the fox has ever known it to be.
When it feels ready, the fox begins to trek back into the forest, toward its den. It plucks blackberries and mulberries from nearby bushes as it gingerly walks, and leaves be the crickets and beetles it passes.
It descends into its shallow hole in the earth, nestling in the dirt and debris with a desire for rest. When it wakes, it may forage for more berries or catch insects or stalk a fresh rodent. It will not go to the river.