09 April 2011

Foxfire

Shapeshifters are cool. As disguises go, theirs is perfect. They don’t just look like somebody else; they become something else. But I never grooved on the werewolf thing. Rigid hierarchies, savage fights for dominance, brutal consequences for going it alone—I grew up an Army brat, in what universe would that be my fantasy? And much as I love big cats, their beauty, their grace, their independence, I can’t help wondering, who’d change the litter box? Raptors? I have a picture of myself sporting a live bald eagle on my shoulder. My smile is a terrified rictus. Have you seen the claws on those things? And that beak…less than a foot from my eyes… That thin whine you just heard was me remembering the occasion.

Maybe it’s because I’m a redhead and short, but I always identified with the wolf’s smaller, smarter cousin, the little red fox. Frankly, when it comes to canids, I always thought we domesticated the wrong one. Given the choice between something that’s pretty, intelligent and ferociously devoted to her family, and something that looks at you and immediately starts prepping a nice Chianti sauce, which strikes you as a better candidate for hearthside companion?

Logic notwithstanding, growing up I often felt like the only person in the whole who saw the fox in that light. Despite their presence in our farms, suburbs and cities, foxes have a bad rep in European and American folklore. Aesop accuses them of sour grapes. People use “vixen” as an insult. In the “Uncle Remus” stories, African-American folktales collected by Joel Chandler Harris, Br’er Fox is the villain, devious and cruel. There’s Zorro, of course, but how many people know his name means fox? In a similar vein, the medieval French and Germans devoted several mock epics to the adventures of Reynard the Fox, but the valor and wit of the peasant hero fox only makes sense if you know a lot about medieval Europe. The oppressive collusion of church and state doesn’t translate well to standard fairy tale compilations.

In one sense, the best part of growing up is not having to read in the kid’s section anymore. You can uncover the historical backdrop of Reynard’s jousts with the wolf Isengrim, and so much more. The Internet added another world of resources. Suddenly, the folklore and fairy tales of every nation are no more than a few keystrokes away. At the same time, Japanese anime was making inroads into American consciousness.


To this lone, fox-friendly writer, anime and Asian folklore came as a revelation. In the place of single-minded EBIL BITCHES—er, vixens, you had shapeshifting fox women and men with adventures and love stories as complex as the humans in their world. Sure, there were evil foxes—those who used their foxfire like will-o-the-wisps to mislead travelers or possessed the unwary to eat their fill of fried tofu. But there were also fox patriarchs who apologized to their neighbors when their kids made a ruckus, maternal foxes who risked their lives to protect the children—human and fox—under their care, devoted wives and lovers wronged…by the human half of the couple. They even hold conventions. According to Japanese legend, all the foxes in an area gather around an old tree at the eve of the lunar New Year to receive their marching orders and strategize the year ahead.

Foxes are the principal servants of Inari, the Shinto kami (a kind of divine spirit) of rice, fertility, agriculture and industry. Asian foxes are shapeshifters extraordinaire, and Inari shares their fluid sense of identity. Depending on the temple, Inari could be a young man, an old man, a young woman or a collective of five different kami. Inari can appear as a pure white fox, but the kami also uses foxes as messengers or assistants, as when she helped the blacksmith Munechika forge the legendary sword Kogitsune-Maru (Little Fox).

Implicit in all the Asian fox tales is the idea of perfectibility. All magical creatures grow wiser and stronger as they grow older. They can always change for the better, whether they are a young fox with only one tail or a semi-divine ancient possessing nine. It all comes down to your choices. This notion resonates powerfully with me as a writer and a person. It’s bigger than redemption. It’s self-determination, setting your own course, mastering your fate—all those expansive, broad-shouldered American concepts we don’t normally associate with the lands where karma reigns supreme.

But what of the fox itself? Can it be perfected—er, domesticated? When I was growing up, the answer—and justification for all those evil fox tales—was a resounding no. The fox was a wild and vicious creature that would always bite the hand that fed it.

Turns out “common knowledge” on that front was wrong, too. At the same time people were telling me how intractable foxes were and would always be, Russian researchers were conducting experiments which proved otherwise. By breeding Siberian silver foxes for “tame traits”—willingness to allow humans to approach, curiosity versus wariness, etc.—they created a strain of silver foxes which act like house pets. They lost their distinctive “musky” fox smell, and their colors changed. Domesticated silver foxes display the wide variety of colors and splotches we associate with domestic dogs—without being crossbred with anything except other Siberian silver foxes. They bark, wag their tails and lower their ears like dogs. If raised with cats, they learn to use a litter box, and they love to cuddle. If they weren’t so expensive, I’d be tempted to look into my home state’s exotic animal laws. (Want!)


The Russians weren’t the first to succeed at this, either. Archaeologists recently analyzed a 16,500-year-old burial site in Jordan. The site provided plenty of evidence of the connection between ancient people and their pets. Dogs were interred with humans, presumably their owners, in graves dating from 13,000-11,000 BCE. The shocker for the scientists was what they found in the older graves: people buried with foxes. There’s even evidence the remains of the foxes were moved with those of “their” humans.

It’s a turnaround worthy of Reynard, and it hit the news the day before 2011’s lunar New Year. Coincidence? Probably, but still, I wouldn’t have minded being a fly on the tree where the foxes gathered that night. Something tells me we’re in for a wild year.

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Illustrations (from the top):

"The Studious Fox", a margin decoration from The Hours of Utrecht (c. 1460).

"The Forging of the Blade Kogitsune Maru (Little Fox)" by Ogata Gekko, 1873. The fox spirit assisting the blacksmith Munechika is depicted as a shadowy woman surrounded by foxes.

"Fox Fires on New Year's Eve at the Garment Nettle Tree at Oji", a woodblock print from Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo series, 1857.

Jean Marie
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