Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Fox Hunt

I shadowed my father on a few hunting and fishing trips as a kid. He also let me tag along "to the store" -- an excuse to loaf with his buddies, sprawled on benches around a wood-burning stove, sneaking smokes, talking about nothing.

But my begging never penetrated the iron wall of his resistance when it came to fox hunting. No. Never, not even one time. These forays, with his older brother and men they had known for most of their lives, are still burnished with mystery and ritual, decades later.

This was not riding to hounds, with horses and tea tables laid out under a stand of trees. The hunts led by my uncle were far more primitive. Still, rules governed them. And first and foremost, this was a masculine enterprise.

On hunt day, the hounds knew. I imagine they woke up, lofted those fabled noses into the sunlight and smelled what awaited them -- a long sweet chase through the unparalleled beauty of a middle Tennessee night.

Uncle H., a tough old bird forced to leave school and take over a man's roles at the age of 8 when his father died suddenly, trained his dogs with a firm yet loving hand. Once, a lunatic neighbor shot sweet Lucy for running across his property. It hurt her so severely she had to be put down. It nearly killed my uncle.

For these men, the hunt was all about the hounds. We drove up from Alabama, so the dogs heard our car coming first. My father descended the long familiar dirt and gravel road on my uncle's farm, following the smooth limestone-bed creek running parallel to the pasture. Hearing the car, the dogs yipped and howled first in warning, then in greeting after recognizing us from a distance.

I always made a beeline for the barns, which were filled with hay bails and many cats. From my perch in the top, I watched men converge as the afternoon light began dissolving into the treetops past the white farmhouse, making its way to the river and beyond. Men in overalls or jeans and hunting jackets climbed from cars and battered trucks. Some shouldered rifles and shotguns, others clutched flashlights and lanterns.

Every single time, I would ask my father to bring me the fox tail from the hunt. I had visions of fashioning a hat with a fox tail for myself. Or a stole. I'm not really sure. My father would say yes, of course. I made him promise. I badgered, confirmed it with Uncle H.

But at a certain point, they were beyond listening to my prattle. The men were animated, the dogs pacing, pulling, straining on leashes -- anxious to run.

Finally, a sharp whistle cracked through the murmurs and the roar of the barking. The men took off, barely able to hold the leashes of frantic, pulling dogs desperate to be on the run. The men and dogs swelled in the yard, around the smokehouse, spooking work mules and horses behind the house. A swarm now, they flowed finally through the gates of the south pasture along the creek, the one with the sweet cold water waiting to be cupped into dried gourd dippers hanging from nails on the well house. And then, with twilight settling into the hills, they were gone.

I tried to wait up, fighting sleep. I asked again why only men and boys could go. "Some of those men talk rough," my aunt would say, a quaint notion now. So I strained to hear the dogs in the distance. And I could, once they picked up the scent of a fox running a circuit in the night, looking for food.

That sound was a high-pitched howling that the men called fox-hound music. I knew the men were gathered around a fire, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, talking, listening with a faraway look in their eyes. Their minds were on the competition taking place at a distance. The dark, barbed wire fences, steep hills and gullies made following the hunt treacherous. But following wasn't the point. The point was the chase. The men were discerning the sounds from the dogs. They translated for each other, especially for the younger men and boys in their gathering.

They knew which dog was closing in on a fox. They knew who was bringing up the rear, or had lost interest. They knew how close the dogs were, whether the fox was outrunning or outsmarting the dogs. They could tell by the way the dogs "cried" that they had lost the scent. They talked about how much faster Lucy was this year, say, but that Sam was gaining on her. That the younger dogs would need seasoning. That maybe this was old Jack's last hunt.

They could tell by the music they were hearing -- the dog's singing voices. The howls, cries, barks, how long and how high the pitch. These things wove the tale in the mind's eye, painting a canvas of vibrant color and motion to go along with the sound.

They had an idea when the fox ran through a herd of cattle to throw off the trail. Or ran to ground. If the dogs found another fox to chase. And if a fox was cornered or trapped, the men whistled and called the hounds off, fired a gun in the air. These men who could seem so hard, so impervious to death on the farm, wanted the fox to go free. If the fox population had been leaving the farmers' livestock alone, that is. If the wild creature being chased that night was really a fox instead of a coyote that had been killing calves and pets.

There was no need for senseless killing. Or for taking a bloodied fox tail to a little girl who wasn't a hunter or fisher in any form or fashion, whose father amended those trips when she wanted to go, making them into nature strolls, really. Because that girl grieved for days when she found dead minnows in her father's fishing bait pail.

These were men who simply wanted to give free rein to the hounds. Letting them do what they were born to do -- catch the scent of a beautiful, clever, wild creature and track it, sing the fox-hound music. They were men reveling in the freedom and beauty of a deep dark night in the southern wilderness. In the easeful company of other men, they celebrated life. Blessed life.


  1. Wonderfully written account of the hunt. You have a gift Miss C.

  2. A gift of birth, really. Which took me too long and a move hundreds of miles away to understand, finally. But that's an old story.

    Thank you, Anon, for reading and commenting.

  3. wow.
    i can't believe you watch television! if i could write like you i would never stop. you have such eloquence and elegance, such beautiful style, it brought tears to my eyes to read your stories. even in your comment above it shines through. i can't even think of the perfect word to use, to sum up such -ness that you have. thankyou, for bringing such a beautiful moment to my life. i hope to read much, much more.

    love from Me, Amplified.

  4. hi, i have a link to you in my blog today, so come over if you want.


  5. Now I wanna go and now I can't because of the ban...

  6. Amplified: You brought tears to my eyes with that... I'm pretty new at the blogging thing. Just writing what I know.

    My friend Sofia asked me to write about the fox hunts. I thought everyone had one of those in their memory banks. That's why we all need a Sofia (and an Amplified). To let us know about these things.

    Many many thanks.

  7. Just like reading a passage from a novel.

  8. You are very kind, S.D. Momma.