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Branching Out: Dear mountains

Locations: Columns Published

I see an orange flash amid the mowed green clover and brome, roadside. Fox. Dead. Fur, still like down fluff. Its form is lithe, not yet bloated. Heading to a favorite fishing hole late in the day, I can’t stop. Can’t do both. I’ll come back tomorrow.

Early morning, now. I check my mirrors — clear —  and brake sharply. In the coolness of the morning, her decomposition and musk are pungent. Dead as she is, rushed as I am, I am still overcome. She is breathtaking. I place her on the roof of my car, arranging the final rictus of her face tenderly upon the alloy pillow of my roof rack.

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I’m planting garlic with volunteers now, pitching in for a farmer who works her ass off to grow crazy healthy food for locals. Hands in the soil; mind on the fox. On cars. Forests. People.

On animals. The wild ones, of a world so different from ours. A world of listening, a daily rhythm centered on food. Family. Health. Life. What else would they possibly want? 280 more characters of Twitter? 

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Molecules of her decay float to me, over downy tips of thistle. They rustle through dry, feral oats, the pearlescent husks of spent milkweed. The scent of her fumes scrape and fight their way through sun-baked kochia and tumbleweeds. Weeds to us. Protein and carbohydrates to voles, grasshoppers, ants. Food to the migration of fallen birds strewn across the map of September’s cold snap. 

This fox is food now, too.

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Indian summer and rising heat. I feel it in the rivulets sliding down the ravine of my spine; I “see” with my nostrils: the black tissue of her groin, writhing in a multitude of maggots. I’ll have to act fast. Pack, collect my daughter with friends, and get to the forest clearing, where we’ll camp for the night. 

Cliches and catch phrases have become meaningless to us: we love you to death and keep coming, anyway. My domestic mountain bike comes before mountains. Before wildness, before creatures, before declining water levels and rising stream temperatures. 

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And now we have eBikes. We can go everywhere: declining herd numbers? “They don’t make any noise.”

I’ve seen a fox in the mountains twice in my life. A badger once. Recreation fragmentation: “But I love my dog.” “Mine doesn’t chase animals.” “I don’t like leashes.” “It’s just poop; it’ll compost.”

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I question everything I do now: Why is my camping trip more important than keeping carbon out of the air?  What do I say to myself to justify filling my tank and burning it all the way up McClure? What of the trail shoes I pack? Or the three different puffy coats — second hand, to be sure; but really — three? “I don’t want to be cold. But I don’t want to be sweaty, either…”

We pick my daughter up from school in my friend’s king-cab, extended-bed, lifted diesel truck and new, walk-in camper. It’s quite a sight, but I don’t want to embarrass her, the weird mom with the stinky dead fox on her roof. Our pollution and impact must be worth it, I tell myself, because she’ll sleep under the stars. See the amber aspens, collect leaves from green to blush to gold.

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Arrival. I unwrap this fox’s body and her stench hits me, even through my respirator mask — all the more reason to honor her. Allow her dignity. Make her life meaningful in death. Prove to myself that the wild things aren’t simply disappearing by sharing these moments with her.

I lay her upon the richly-hued confetti of the forest floor. Urine, musk and rot curls in my nose; brings life to her velvety black ears. I note for the first time ever, how orange flows along her back and limbs, the hints of espresso and gold dusting her flanks. Ebony foot pads, so tiny, soft, unmarred by seasons of scampering. 

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The stereotype of “fox,” the idea, the “thought” of fox, is not present. Taking in the gray of her ankles, her bushy tail, weightless upon my fingertips, I feel her. Slicing her open, seeing what she’s made of, I know her intimately, more than I’ve ever known “fox.” And in her stillness, in her parts, she is ineffably alive and real to me. I cannot un-know this moment.

I drive slower near dusk, and through the night, by lifelong habit, scanning the roadsides for Life. Rural dwellers know this. Or those that have plowed an animal. No hurry of mine will steal life. I like biking more, anyway. A decade old, my bike looks like hell. No worries about theft. I can fix anything on it. You can’t pay me to buy a newer one, a nicer one, a smoother one, because now? The fox comes first.  I— we — can no longer do both.

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