I really don’t know what made me take copy of A Black Fox Running by Brian Carter off the shelf in Waterstones, I think it must have been the sleek, midnight blue cover with its gold embossed branches encircling the silhouette of a fox that called to my imagination.
The cover accolades talked of ‘…strange, mesmeric power’; ‘A breathtakingly beautiful novel’, and ‘…lost classic of nature writing.’
Ever since closing the back cover on Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, I had missed my daily escape to the world of my childhood; of innocence, long summer days and endless, flower-filled meadows. In my mind, A Black Fox Running was my return ticket.
The book has a long, rambling forward which I began to read but quickly realised it was an essay on the book and was revealing far too much of the story. I stopped reading it and cut straight to Chapter One. Why do book publishers do that?
It’s like showing the ending of No Time To Die in with the trailers – it’s most annoying!
Why not call it the epilogue and put it at the back instead? In fact, I’m much more likely to read it there because in this case, I still haven’t gone back to read the forward so…mission failed, Bloomsbury. Rant over, back to the book.
It was with surprise that I began reading Chapter One, Wulfgar, to find that the narrator was the foxes. My fear that I may have inadvertently bought a children’s book was instantly dispelled as Brian Carter’s rich, melodic narrative flowed from the opening lines:
‘They came out of the trees to drink at Lansworthy Brook. Wulfgar led the way, stepping gingerly through the reeds. His paws crunched into frail ice where it silvered the hoofprints of cattle.’
The story of Wulgar, ‘a large, dark fox with a brush almost as black as the peaty Dartmoor soil’, and his nemesis, Scoble the trapper, this is a beautifully crafted homage to Dartmoor and nature; a sharp insight into the damaged humanity of post-WWII Europe, and the brutal force of nature during the winter storms of 1947.
Following the dog fox, Wulfgar, as he travels his territory in search of food through the seasons, we encounter the multitude of creatures he shares the moors with, and are gifted the privilege of seeing them through a fellow creature’s eyes:
‘During his hilltop vigil, he saw Isca the roebuck eating bramble leaves on the edge of Wistman’s Wood. The small, red-brown deer crept through the shepherd’s crooks of new bracken, curling his black, velvety upper lip to tug the shoots off the tendrils. The doe sat under an oak, her ears flickering and her nostrils opening and closing. She had dropped a stillborn fawn and was still mourning the loss.’
Carter’s lyrical narrative seduces us into this world while also revealing the inherent dangers that the foxes face as they fight for survival in a world where everyone wants their slice of the bounty, from Scoble and his mad lurcher whose gin traps and obsession with killing Wulfgar present a constant threat, to the hunt whose hounds run them to ground. I found myself constantly cringing, tentatively yet hurriedly turning pages, fearful of reading on, yet unable to stop.
When I finally closed the back cover, I could not get Wulfgar out of my head, nor could I dispel the images of the places Carter had described, some of the names of which are familiar to me now that I live in Devon. I was left yearning to set out on foot and cover some of the same ground I had fallen in love with through the pages, stopping for hours just to watch, to see if I could observe any of the creatures I had come to know so well.
I don’t know if this book will be for you or not but if you love Robert Macfarlane, there’s a good chance it will be. I suspect it’s a book that I will come back to time and time again. It’s a hauntingly beautiful insight into the natural world and a compelling escapism from the reality of our current lives. I wish I could crawl inside its pages and not come out until this is all over.