The impact of nature on mental wellbeing is a thriving area of study. Hunter’s research, which asked participants to seek out regular “nature experiences” in order to ascertain an optimum dose, found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped after a 20-30 minute experience of nature, in a local park, or even sitting in the front porch taking the air. She is exploring ways to redesign cities to build nature into their very layout – so a street might yield a horizon, or “What’s the minimalist form of the great wildland right in the middle of the city that will help people be restored?” she asks
For those who live in towns where foxes live, the answer is easy. A fox’s size alone makes him or her an arresting sight, and the pleasure and incongruity of seeing a large untamed animal in a built-up landscape makes the wildness seem all the more precious for being fugitive.
British cities are full of foxes. Within a mile of my home in east London, there is one with an organic gastro menu, one stuffed with feathers that, when plumped, makes my desk chair more comfortable, and another, in pen and ink, on the masthead of the Hackney Citizen. There is one on a mug, another on a toast rack, one on a poster advertising the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. And then, of course, there are the two – one a little mangy, the other fine and bushy – that visit my back garden. I say “visit”, but I doubt they see it like that.
Foxes are having a moment in popular culture. Admittedly, I have a highly sensitive fox radar, because four years ago I started to write a novel, called How to be Human, about a woman who sees a fox on her lawn one day, and thinks he winks at her. She becomes obsessed with him – she never doubts he is a he – and undergoes a, let’s say, emotional rewilding. I had only written two chapters when Sarah Hall won the BBC short story award with Mrs Fox, and the Norwegian duo Ylvis released their song The Fox (What Does the Fox Say)? I remember feeling aghast that the fox was finished.
But of course it wasn’t. Foxes have thrived across the cultural spectrum with the sort of virility that people living in cities often ascribe to the creatures themselves. Foxes have stolen into our homes. There are fox tea towels, mugs, greetings cards and even – despite all those tabloid stories about foxes who want to eat your children – foxy babygrows. There are more than 5,000 listings for fox cushions on Amazon. Once upon a time, foxes were just a nuisance that crapped on the lawn. Now they have been appropriated by product designers, and seduced the suburbs. I doubt there is a clearer testament to this animal’s middle-class acceptability than its starring role in the John Lewis Christmas ad.
The trend runs through all price points from a £1,400 dress by Dolce & Gabbana embroidered with foxes down to a Peacocks fox sweater. At one recent literary event I attended, two members of the audience were wearing fox jumpers. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a homage, just the law of averages in a room of a hundred people. In literature, so far this year, a fox stalks across a car park during a key erotic encounter in Ross Raisin’s A Natural; another sparks a rare moment of human connection in Gwendoline Riley’s brilliant First Love, and foxes adorn the covers of Sara Baume’s A Line Made for Walking and Laura Kaye’s English Animals. No wonder Apple decided to help humans communicate their vulpine obsession by launching a fox emoji.
What is it about the fox right now that is striking a chord with humans?
“The fox is the supreme multimodal all-rounder,” says Charles Foster, an academic, barrister and author who used to sign off his letters with “a little fox head”. In his book Being a Beast, Foster spends a chapter living as an urban fox, and scampers around Bethnal Green on all fours, nudging fortnight-old mouldy pizza slices with his nose. I had always assumed some degree of opposition between humans and foxes – because of the effect they have on fences and lawns, and because of the love-hate relationships explored in documentaries such as 2013’s Fox Wars. But Foster disagrees. His friends “are only too glad when a bit of the natural world deigns to nest under their garden shed … I think we have lessons to learn from the foxes about how better to be human. We all feel dispossessed. We don’t feel properly local. Foxes can lead us to possess a place and therefore feel at home in it in a way that we don’t normally.”
It is true that foxes are the ultimate outsider, their passage from the countryside to the city echoing the migration of humans during the industrial revolution. Increasingly at home in our homes (on all those mugs and cushions) and gardens (in real life) they have never shaken their image as visitant, immigrant. They patrol their territories, a task they perform on a sort of never-ending loop, but their presence in towns can still seem startling, transgressive. They are native but appear intrusive. They are predator and prey. They are wild, yet occupy all our most cultivated spaces, our lawns and borders. Maybe these are themes we can relate to. Are foxes proliferating in popular culture because we feel increasingly alienated ourselves?
“They have been the ultimate icon of anti-establishment feeling,” Foster says. “They have always been the ones that, with fewer resources, have got the upper hand, or upper paw, over the slower forces of the establishment.” Certainly literature, film and music are full of foxes who thwart the odds with imagination or strategy, from Aesop through Fantastic Mr Fox to The Prodigy’s video for Nasty, in which a fox enchants its hunters and turns them into foxes. As Taylor Swift put it, and subsequently printed on a range of bomber jackets, “They got the cages, they got the boxes and guns / They are the hunters, we are the foxes and we run.” Maybe it’s not so much a case of us and them these days as a more inclusive, wilder us.
Lucy Jones, whose book Foxes Unearthed was published last year and who owns some fox socks and a fox candle holder, believes that “the fox on the cushion and the fox on the necklace are a different character to the fox in the garden. It’s a muted, antiseptic character, it’s anthropomorphised and it’s a clean beast. Some people are happier with that.” She is right that it is quite a leap from wearing a fox on a sweater or chucking a foxy cushion on your sofa to warming to the real thing. But I wonder if the more foxes, of any kind, we see, the more they are on our minds.
The truth is, almost everyone who lives in a place where foxes live has a fox story.
Since the first week I took my story to a workshop, all kinds of people have shared tales of their own encounters. Given the number of fox videos that go viral – like the one in which a fox follows a man on his way home – it seems clear that foxes capture human imaginations, and the common thread is the idea that when a fox and human cross paths, some sort of meaningful exchange takes place. “You don’t get it with birds or squirrels,” says MaryCarol Hunter, an academic researching human connections with nature. “They look at you sideways.”
A fox will meet a human eye without flinching. Its first response is rarely to run, and in the space that its hesitation creates, it is easy to intuit curiosity, interest. The moment can feel like an interaction in a shared language, which might be why foxes are so often anthropomorphised or deemed to hold some kind of answer (see the fox who says “Chaos. Reigns” in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist or “What does the fox say?”) The character in my book takes this sense of communication to extremes. But, outside of fiction, I wonder how prepared we are to risk seeming strange in order to interact with wildness.
Sam Hobson is the photographer who took the image of a fox that appears on the posters for Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He spent weeks embedded with a family of foxes in Bristol. At first he would just turn up, make a little squeaking noise, and sit near them. After a while, “they would sit right next to me as if I was part of the gang. If anyone else came walking down the street they would run off and hide, leaving me sat there by myself in the street with no foxes around, looking a bit weird.” It requires a degree of immersion to believe that it is stranger to sit on the pavement alone than to sit with a family of foxes. But this is the point.
Hobson, who has a “normal amount” of fox stuff, including a fox mug and a fox bath mat, had to wait for his most prized fox encounter. A few months after he completed his project, he returned to the spot where he used to find the foxes, and squeaked. At first, nothing happened. He sat down, “and this fox just appeared, came over, and sat next to me. We looked at each other and weren’t quite sure. I said, ‘Is that you?’ We shared a little moment of recognition.”
MaryCarol Hunter (who owns a fox hot water bottle and a fox badge on her car) has a phrase for such encounters. They are “iconic riveters”. Like seeing a rainbow or a sunset or a comet in the night sky, they have “the same riveting effect on people. It doesn’t take much more than a fleeting experience of that to feel you have had a gift.” In her academic work at the University of Michigan, she is trying to quantify such moments as part of her research into a so-called “nature pill”.
The impact of nature on mental wellbeing is a thriving area of study. Hunter’s research, which asked participants to seek out regular “nature experiences” in order to ascertain an optimum dose, found that levels of the stress hormone cortisol dropped after a 20-30 minute experience of nature, in a local park, or even sitting in the front porch taking the air. She is exploring ways to redesign cities to build nature into their very layout – so a street might yield a horizon, or “What’s the minimalist form of the great wildland right in the middle of the city that will help people be restored?” she asks.
For those who live in towns where foxes live, the answer is easy. A fox’s size alone makes him or her an arresting sight, and the pleasure and incongruity of seeing a large untamed animal in a built-up landscape makes the wildness seem all the more precious for being fugitive. In the meantime, we fill our cupboards and paper our walls with them, and with owls, stags and hares, much as we once decorated the walls of our cave. It is a celebration of the natural world – and a reminder of what we have lost.
• How to be Human by Paula Cocozza is published by Hutchinson. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only.
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