The Laughter of Foxes

I wake to the shrieking of foxes. At first, I can’t place the sound –  still half-asleep, it seems like a scrap of dream has escaped into the attic or the walls, whistling and itching and coughing – but I wake, and yes, it’s the foxes in the garden, back again as they have been the last few nights. I lean across the bed, gently nudge the creaking window open onto the frosty air, and eavesdrop on their behaviour.

Usually, the nights are quiet here in this house among the dunes. Sometimes you can hear the sea, sometimes the motorway. But now breeding season has begun for the foxes, and the turmoil of it echoes through the dark. The vixens are fertile for just a few nights, after midwinter. Last year’s cubs are driven out to fend for themselves and they disperse clumsily through the country seeking new territory. You’ll see them in the mornings in the lanes, looking lost.

The older animals roam with a more certain purpose. Foxes everywhere are suddenly on the move. It’s when they meet that they utter their strange cries -- bark or howl or scream, it sounds eerily human, and always unsettling and surprising the first time you hear it. Listening at the window, my imagination conjures images of devils, half-formed shadowy creatures, marginal scribbles in bestiaries crying and cavorting out there beyond the lamp-glow.

Foxes and devils are old companions of course. I think of Huw Llwyd, and his poem, his cywydd, “Cyngor y Llwynog”, “Fox Council”. Huw was from the north, from Merioneth, (hence llwynog instead of the southern cadno for fox) and his richly adventurous life has passed into legend.

A magician in the Elizabethan manner, a contemporary of John Dee and Shakespeare, Huw believed he understood the influence of the stars and the planets on the events of earth; how everything is chained to everything else. In common with other magicians of his time, he would call and bind and interrogate the elemental devils using techniques gleaned from banned books. He knew how to make events shift in his favour – he was a healer, a finder, a dreamer, a man able to control his own luck. He was also, it follows, a very fine poet. “Cyngor y Llwynog” is an invocation of a fox spirit:

Good morning, fox of the cave,

Every tame fowl’s arch foe-man,

Your ripple I recognize,

Welcome to fertile country…

 

How can we prosper, he asks the fox, how can we achieve success in a wicked world? The invocation has the desired effect. The fox answers, “Seeking success, preferment? / I’d wish you to live… like me.” As the poem continues however, it begins to seem that not a fox, but a devil has answered the summons. The advice it offers invites indulgence in a life of wild greed, cruelty and deceit. “Integrity today, in the world’s view, is foolish.”

The price to pay for success isn’t mentioned, but it is implied. We never learn whether Huw accepted and made a deal. But we do know that he is remembered as a foxhunting cunning man, yn dyn hysbys, and that a rock in the torrent of the Cynfal river is known as Huw Llwyd’s pulpit, where he preached the gospel to his people by day, and by night argued and bartered with the devils of the air.

So the story goes. We no longer interrogate devils. We just hand them the reins and let them get on with it. We no longer read those banned books that fascinated old Huw Llwyd, but still we all make a deal, magically witless as we are, we all come to terms. I switch off the bedside lamp, and leaving the window open, listen for the last of the fox cries.

It’s almost comforting to hear them, year after year, their brief revelry shattering the stillness of the winter nights, their shrieking a language far older than our own. It occurs to me then, as I drift back to sleep, that they’re not shrieking, those fugitive foxes, but laughing. Laughing and exulting in life, dancing their weird annual ritual on the lawns of the world, a carnival, for just a few nights, before dissolving into the shadows of the hedgerows and the dunes, slowly slipping away, gone again, leaving a trail of silence in the dew under the sapphire glow of Venus, the morning star.

 

 

Note: Translations from Huw Llwyd’s Welsh from ‘Medieval Welsh Lyrics’ by Joseph Clancy. 

 

Mugwort

I don’t know how she got here or where she came from but there she is, seven feet tall and standing in the potato patch and now I can’t imagine the garden without her. How often have I wandered away from other tasks to stand in her shade? Bindweed is climbing the onions, there are butterflies cavorting among the broccoli, I should probably have a barbecue and renew contact with my neighbours - but look at her. I stroke the silvery down on her leaves, soft as mouse fur, I rub her flower buds between my palms and breathe their forthright perfume and dream of the dune-side of the hedge, shipibo tapestries, the eyes of honey bees and that moment when the first big drought breaking drops of rain splash onto dusty, hot tarmac. The otherwise wonderful reference book, Flora Brittanica, says she can grow up to four feet tall. Wrong. This mugwort is surely going to double that. I secretly feed her comfrey tea and yarrow beer when no-one is looking. Weeds? No such thing. I’ve been studying the biodynamic methods of agriculture developed by the bracingly practical clairvoyant perceptions of the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. Every plant is an emissary, he says. I’ve begun to consider burying an ox horn among her roots…after all, aren’t bats the night-thoughts of the spiralling cosmos?

 

But mugwort seems to inspire superstitions, if superstitions are what they are. Of course I try to keep my mind open. But not so open that absolutely any old bats can get in. (Perhaps this is a tricky balance to strike in these times of fear and fantasy). Here in Wales it was the custom to hang sprays of mugwort over the entrances to houses on St. John’s Eve, June the 23rd, to protect the dwellers from evil. Throughout Europe, the plant is associated with midsummer - the strength of the sun - and the banishing of bad spirits. There’s a curious consensus that mugwort protects the traveller from tiredness, wild animals and sunstroke. An old Scottish story records the words of a mermaid, a selkie, a seal-woman, who observing the funeral of a girl who died of consumption, sang out this verse as she swam through the bay:

If they wad drink nettles in March,

And eat muggons (mugwort) in May,

Sae mony braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.

 

Her botanical name is Artemis vulgaris, Artemis after the virginal Greek Goddess of the wild and of childbirth. I realise I must be careful. In the ancient story, Actaeon, a young hunter, glimpses the naked Artemis as she is bathing in a lake. There are differnt versions of what happened next, but most agree that Actaeon was punished by being transformed into a stag - while retaining his human mind - and was hunted to exhaustion by his own hounds, and killed.

 

Modern day explorers and dabblers, rescuers of old recipes, druids and witches, suggest that smoking the leaves can alter the perceptions and induce lucid dreaming. I give it a try. I pick some leaves and dry them on a plate in the noon heat. Later, as the sun is setting, I crumble some into my pipe and take a few tentative puffs. A pleasant taste of bitter sage and maybe thyme, but nothing much happens. It’s unlikely that mugwort will be outlawed any time soon. But who knows how these things work? Because that night I do indeed have a dream…

 

I’m standing in my kitchen, struggling to open the fridge. I’m not strong enough, but I tug and heave and finally it bursts open and huge bales and bushels of mugwort leaf pour out and unfold themselves, covering the floor and now the door is open I can’t shut it and the leaves are pouring out. I open a cupboard and the same thing happens, mugwort leaves pouring everywhere, a torrent filling the kitchen up to my waist so I’m wading in leaves and some of them are popping like gorse pods and turning into mice - mugwort popcorn - and the mice are scampering everywhere and everything I touch turns into mugwort and pops and turns into mice and I’m drowning and I need to get out of here and then I notice her. Sitting calmly at the kitchen table. A seven foot tall woman with skin the colour of a sand lizard and a smile like foxes finding the hen coop and ‘Yes’ I try to say to her, ‘ok, yes, the world belongs to you now, yes….’ But my tongue was a mugwort leaf and my lungs were full of pollen as fine as the dust on a moth’s wings.

 

But now I’m awake. A world that belongs to plants? Aren’t humans the global superpower? But I think about it as I make a bowl of coffee. Professor Richard Doyle suggests in his dizzyingly strange recent study Darwin’s Pharmacy that the Bush government in the United States effectively ceded control to the plant kingdom when they decided on a strategy of adaptation to the realities of climate change, rather than attempting to halt or reverse it. And what the plants decide, in this scenario, if we can think in terms of agency - the world as “Gaia,” a self-regulating super organism - what they decide, we have to try to live with.

 

Madness or real politik? I think of that old saw: the universe is not only stranger than we suppose. It is stranger than we can suppose. If that’s true, then rationalism is narcissism. So I stir my pot of comfrey tea and brew my yarrow ale. Yes, I try to take good care of my unexpected visitor.

 
 

First published Fri, July 25, 2014


Kenfig Journal by Kristian Evans

Kristian Evans is an artist and writer from Bridgend interested in ecology and the ways we think about and interact with the “other-than-human” world. He has lived in Kenfig for five years. His performance installation “The Mirror’s Grain,” written with Tracy Evans, was launched at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve Centre in May 2010, as part of the “Mouth to Mouth” series of events organised by Arts for the Earth. The Kenfig Journal will appear here regularly.

@kenfigdunes on twitter