Sweet Confrontation On a Path In the Woods

I swerve into the silence of the conifer wood. This will not be a long jog. My sneakered feet glide noiselessly over the pine needles while a refrain from Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado keeps running through my head: ''And I am right and you are right and all is right as right can be...!''

Reasoning out of the humor of Gilbert's words, I ask myself: But is it so ridiculous to believe that there can be agreement without compromise, dissent without dissension -- even confrontation without disaster?

I duck to avoid a branch. Across my thought sweep pictures of all that seems to be going wrong with the world -- from broken treaties to broken homes, from devastating earthquakes to colliding ideologies, from the fate of fisheries to the fate of foxes.

The fate of foxes? I find an easy, contemplative rhythm on this pine-needle path. The Mikado refrain recedes as I think of the current debate in Britain over whether to abolish the tradition of fox hunting.

I am now deep in the wood. Apart from the occasional calls of bickering crows, there is not a sound. Suddenly, the truth about rectitude strikes me in a new light. It is the thought of right as a benign cosmic force: It determines the timing of the seasons or my choice of activity this Saturday morning or the very right to be alive!

The shadows around me grow less intense. All at once, I am at the edge of a clearing. I freeze in my tracks. There, some 15 yards ahead, are four animals leaping and darting at one another in pantomime. No snarling, no growling. Foxes at play!

Two adults and two pups. Tiny whimpers reach my ears as the pups throw themselves at the sprawling vixen, while the dog-fox, with his back to me, rushes in and playfully nips their necks. The whole family is oblivious to my presence.

I fight to control my heavy breathing. I find myself thinking, No, I am no intruder: I am in the right place at the right time. And the foxes, of course, have every right to be just where they are. ''And I am right and you are right and all is right as right can be...!''

No camera could catch what happens next. Without warning, the dog-fox stiffens and swings round. We are face to face. All four foxes are suddenly motionless. Eight eyes are fixed on mine.

Apart from a close encounter with an elk in Germany, this is my first intimate moment with wild animals. Intimate? It is not fear or alienation we share but a deep, almost tender, curiosity.

Sweet confrontation.

As I savor the stillness between us, I get the feeling that this is one prearranged meeting between all of us and I have surprised my whiskered friends by arriving late. The two pups gently touch noses. There is time to notice sunlight moving on orange fur and the slight twitching of white-tipped tails. Then, as if acting on some hidden signal, the foxes turn together, amble unhurriedly into the trees, and are gone.

I heave a sigh and start running again. Having covered a respectable 20 yards or so, I decide to look over my shoulder. There they are! The foxes are back in the same spot, staring after me. I almost expect to see a waving paw.

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