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Fox Holes, Talk of the Town

A FRIEND who lives way upstate writes:           This is kind of an embarrassing confession to make, but this fall I’ve been between projects and I’ve got deep into golf.  What interests me most about the game is its unconscious, Zen aspect. I’m practicing what I call “calm recognition”-taking in the flowing contours of the links, drawing strength and inspiration from their open vistas, and letting the swing and the path of the ball take care of themselves. Sometimes, on a beautiful, crystalline afternoon, my game will suddenly fall into place. For four or five holes, one shot after another will sail exactly where I had planned it to go, and I’ll start slipping into this blissful state I’m talking about. But then I tell myself, “Hey, this is serious golf I’m playing out here. Four more holes like this and I’m going to break par.” And I get excited and score-conscious, and everything rapidly falls apart.       Sometimes my wife, who has just taken up the game, comes along. We throw our clubs into the pickup and drive over to Craig Wood, a scenic mountain course outside Lake Placid. Late one afternoon, as we were walking down the twelfth fairway my wife noticed a fox sitting on the edge of the rough. It was a red fox, against a reddish backdrop of foot-tall poverty grass. I’ve caught foxes in my headlights plenty of times, but this was the first good look I’d ever had at a stationary wild fox, and I realized that I’d never fully appreciated what an acutely attuned, refined-looking animal the fox is.

       My wife, who grew up in a village in Uganda, was apprehensive, because the fox looked like the jackals that had occasionally attacked children there. I found it a little unusual and unsettling myself-this fox just sitting there in broad daylight, completely unintimidated. Then I thought, Maybe it has rabies. But it wasn’t staggering around or foaming at the mouth; it looked perfectly healthy and in full possession of it faculties. (A few days later, I called up Kenneth Kogut, a senior wildlife biologist in the Department of Environmental Conservation, and he assured me that I had nothing to worry about on that score-that the nearest rabid foxes were in northern Franklin County.)

       My wife and I went on with our game, a little nervously, and stepping up our pace a bit. But the fox stayed where it was. The next hole was a par 3 known as the Quarry. The pin is a hundred and seventy yards away, and you have to carryover a gully between a sandy, thinly vegetated slope that comes steeply down from the left and a spruce swamp, to the right. The tee is at the level of the spruces’ bristling, blue-green crowns. I took a reading on the wind with a finger and pulled out my 7 iron, and as I leaned down to tee up my ball I noticed that the fox had followed us. We watched it pick its way furtively down the slope and curl up under a bush right on the line to the pin. It almost seemed to be taking an interest in the game.

       Both our shots cleared the gully. The path to the green traversed the slope halfway down, and passed twenty feet below the fox, which didn’t bother to move. It lay there on the sand, in the shade of the bush, panting softly, its pink tongue drooping from one side of its long, pointed muzzle, its ears erect, and its unfathomable eyes gazing past us, avoiding contact.

       Later in the week, we played the course again. We reached the Quarry a few hours earlier this time, and there were two foxes, standing on the slope below. It was clear from their relaxed, proprietary stance that they were at home-that their lair was here. The next day, I went to the library and did some reading on foxes. One book said that sheltered, well-drained slopes or gullies are among their favorite den sites. Often they will enlarge an existing woodchuck burrow. The purpose of the den is to provide privacy and protection for the vixen and her pups-she delivers as many as ten, usually in late March or early April, in a grass-lined chamber ten feet or so below the ground. (The tunnel system of the whelping den can be seventy-five feet long.) Most of the time, both adults sleep on the ground outside the den’s mouth, even after the ground has frozen.

       We passed within feet of the foxes, played out the hole, and went on to fourteen. As we prepared to tee off, two more foxes dashed out onto the fairway, one with a chipmunk in its mouth, the other hot on its heels. These foxes were about three-quarters the size of the others-surely their pups. They were playing tag. The first was racing in circles, glancing back over its shoulder and dodging to the left or right in a playful burst of speed whenever the other closed in. We had good views of them both, and their coats weren’t blazing red, like those of most red foxes, but more like lions’ tawny gold, with black swaths of fur across their shoulders and backs, and dark-brown tails and underfur. According to another book I’d found at the library, they were what are known as “cross foxes” -with a genetically governed color phase that shows up in maybe twentyfive per cent of red foxes. I also learned that the present-day red foxes of the northeastern United States are crosses in another sense-between native red foxes and European ones, which tox hunters began to import in the seventeen-nineties. The fox is one of the most versatile and adaptable carnivores on the planet. Urban foxes are thriving in city parks in London, Minneapolis, and the Bronx, I read, and golf courses, with their intermittent brush, open meadows, and stands of trees, tend to be crawling with rodents and are therefore prime fox habitat.

       When we returned to Craig Wood the following week, we got to talking about the foxes with a ranger, Al Glass, who was sitting in a cart at the first tee. He told us that they had been around for a couple of years, but he couldn’t say exactly how many there were. “We found a thousand balls in one of their dens,” he said. “They think the balls are eggs. They’ve been known to run out on the fairway and make off with your ball right under your nose. They actually improved one guy’s position. As I understand it, if a wild animal moves your ball it’s legal.”