The Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013, 3:01 AM
By Todd R. Nelson
It is 4 in the morning. My mind is a blank page. Our dogs are insisting that something unusual is taking place out in the moonlit yard. I peer out the front door at a long-tailed shadow dancing on a crusty sheet of snow.
It’s a red fox, oblivious to our stares. Perhaps he was enjoying the sunflower seeds scattered under our bird feeder, digging and nibbling on the kernels scattered by brash, greedy chickadees and nuthatches during the day. Or was he pouncing on the unsuspecting mice and moles that had tunneled to the same spot to pilfer their share of scarce food?
I had been on this page before. In my mind, a poem was surfacing:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow.
“The Thought-Fox,” by Ted Hughes, was playing out in the forest of my sleeplessness, the pallid March moonlight of my native Maine, and the alert of our dogs. But for Hughes, the poem was the fox, pawing and sniffing around the corners of his imagination until it finally jumped from the verge of consciousness into clarity as verse. Some poems show up when least expected, midnight intruders on sleep – just like some woodland denizens that prowl in the interstices of today and tomorrow. This real fox was pawing around the corners of my sleepy consciousness, as if reverse-engineering a poem.
And isn’t that just like the month of March, to lurk fox-like beneath the bird feeder and then suddenly wake my dogs and me? This soft-furred, sharp-toothed month is an interloper between winter and spring. By day, it turns the driveway into mud and then stiffens the ruts back to solid winter for the night; releases the sap on warm afternoons and then hardens the maple arteries with a sudden arctic night; provides snow days followed by shirtsleeve weather; and constantly nips at our heels.
March is a feral month. It preys on our yearnings. We are slowly realigning our hearts with the warmth and light of the season that is appearing, and distancing ourselves from the cold and dark of the season we have been trudging through, hunching against the headwind. Then along comes this fox-month to ransack the bird feeder, easy prey in the last leg of a long, hard winter.
Other wild things have also been on the move. By day, the dogs and I hold vigil, our chins on the windowsills awaiting the appearance of anything curious. Deer, skunks, and porcupines oblige. Even a secretive fisher cat cruises through our field one bright day. Though our big dog, Gus, can’t see, smell, or hear them, he knows they are there, lurking, attending to the wild business of spring.
I can at least sense the atmospheric charge and read the poetry inherent in the moment – the breakthrough couplets of unexpected wildness. When his thought-fox moves on, Hughes writes, “the page is printed.” I return to bed, and my blank page of mind has new footprints.
What will appear next on my page of inter-seasonal observations? Bears are still slumbering, but not for long. In a few more weeks, will the wee-hour ruckus be the local black bear dismantling the bird feeder altogether, as he did last year? If maple trees are making sugar, can the thought-bear and her cubs be far behind, ambling across this page with premature yearning for summer berries?
For now, sunflower kernels must suffice. But my inner bear has been awakened. My hibernation is on the wane. I am ambling toward the vision of picking July raspberries. But for now, pawing at the pleasure of printing these words on a crusty sheet of snow must suffice.
Todd R. Nelson is head of school at the School in Rose Valley. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.