Fox and I

Catherine Raven's memoir is an empathetic and intelligently rendered story about the depths of relationships

By Maggie Doherty

Every day at 4:15 in the afternoon Catherine Raven had a visitor to her tiny cottage, two miles up a gravel road in a remote mountain valley within sight of Montana’s upper Yellowstone River. Thirty miles from the nearest town, guests weren’t a usual occurrence at the biologist’s home. Yet, at the appointed time, one that the guest punctually proposed, Raven would sit outside with him and read aloud from Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” Fox, her four-footed white-tipped-tailed guest became more than a daily visitor. In time, Fox, a wild red fox, became her best friend. 

Raven details their friendship in her 2021 memoir, “Fox and I: An Uncommon Friendship.” A former park ranger at Glacier, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Voyageurs, and Yellowstone national parks, Raven’s elemental habitat is outside, leading an unsentimental life immersed in the natural world. Yet, the friendship between her and Fox is wholly unexpected, and in some sense — one that she uses the book to grapple with — not permissible, particularly for a biologist. “Fox and I” became an instant New York Times bestseller and in 2022 was awarded the prestigious PEN America/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Award. 

Of their afternoons together, Raven writes, “If you were to come by around 4:15 any summer afternoon, the sight of us might bring to mind a couple of middle school truants playing hooky. One is reading something completely irrelevant to any responsible line of work, and the other — who should be nocturnal — is sunbathing and massaging his belly on the warm, gravelly driveway.” Perhaps the two did look like school-aged truants messing about in the sun but they weren’t conducting an experiment, either. Raven’s book seeks to understand their relationship and with her sharp command of science, botany, literature, and philosophy sprinkled with a good dash of humor (see: eagles and their bad moods). She also delves into teasing out the tensions between what is expected (society) versus what one is drawn toward (self).  

Raven, in her careers as a university professor and a field instructor in Yellowstone National Park, isn’t supposed to befriend wild animals. She should study them, and certainly not ascribe any human traits to them, lest she fall into the trap of anthropomorphism. “Anthropomorphism describes the unacceptable act of humanizing animals, imagining that they have qualities only people should have, and admitting foxes into your social circle,” she writes. “Anyone could get away with humanizing animals they owned — horses, hawks, or even leashed skunks. But for someone like me, teaching natural history, anthropomorphizing wild animals was corny and very uncool.”  Having been abandoned by her parents as a young teenager and choosing to live a solitary life amid vast tracts of wild landscapes, Raven discovers during her interactions with Fox that, while he is not her pet, the animal’s curiosity compels it to forge a relationship with her. That relationship gives her pause while teaching field courses in Yellowstone, where she catches herself referring to “Fox and I,” a subject-pronoun familiarity that her students notice. They are curious. What is she doing with a fox? Her angst is palpable on the page, and she explains, “During the previous week’s field class, my students — essentially my peers — had decided that the only acceptable reason to associate closely and regularly with a fox was to objectify, to use it, to turn it into a research subject.” Beyond logging the interactions with Fox and the great literary discussions she lobs at him while he sunbathes, Raven is attuned to those social expectations, many of which she finds mystifying: “Too often in life, I was propelled forward not by what I chose, but by what did not choose me.” In this finely tuned contemplative memoir, Raven unearths the layers of expectations society and culture apply to people and engages in a lively observational conversation with the outdoor world. Her training as a biologist shines on the page, not because she’s trying to objectify the non-human species inhabiting her world but because she’s fully aware of all the plants, animals, and weather that inhabit her habitat. Raven willingly participates in a kind of life that might not be deemed acceptable by larger herds of humanity — she doesn’t have a credit card or watch television at night — but through her friendship with Fox, she comes to accept her true nature. “Playing hide-the-egg chicken with Fox awakened my imagination and attenuated my attitude about realism — the belief that only facts matter. Every game forced me to ask questions that have no answers: What is the extent of Fox’s personality? What is the depth of our connection? Saint-Ex tells us that it’s necessary to ask this type of question in order to be creative. While I am no longer immune to overzealous realism, I am wary of it, thanks to a booster shot from Fox,” she explains. 

“Fox and I” is an empathetic and intelligently rendered story about the depths of relationships, extending relations beyond the human species, and discovering home in wild spaces.