As children, we read short fairytales and fables in which animals joined humans on quests or spoke and explored together. As adults, we may have turned to a reading life of ponderous nonfiction and novels with nary an animal. If so, it’s time to reconsider.
To add one good animal story to your reading diet, try George Saunders’ “Fox 8” (2013). It’s told by a fox who has learned to speak human by listening to a mother tell stories to her children. The fox has also learned the elements of a good story and sets down his tale in an attempt to improve fox/human relations.
It’s an unusually styled story (the fox is not a good speller), which rewards the adventurous reader. The fox’s quaint simple speech, in the fashion of nonnative speakers, lends his words poignancy.
He begins by expressing his appreciation for humans roused when he watches a human mother nuzzling her children in much the same way a fox mother loves her kits.
“It made me feel gud, like Yumans could feel luv and show luv. In other werds, hope full for the future of Erth!”
Later, he expresses admiration for all humans can accomplish, but this is also where the story takes a dark turn and dives into its power.
In a presentation on eco-fabulism, writer Matt Bell pointed to this story and made the case that the literary community should employ the fantastic to bring attention to the world’s ecological problems — climate change, for example.
Imaginative fiction might inspire desperately needed creativity. As Saunders quotes Einstein, “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” Inundated with a world of worthy problems, we need creative solutions and a sense of urgency. Thus, our fate may well depend on fables.
“Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth,” says Saunders.
Speaking at Seattle Arts & Lectures, Saunders talked about the transformative power of short stories. We enter the black box of the story and come out believing less in our own separateness. Stories soften the borders between ourselves and “the others,” he said.
Too often animals are these “others” and in peril because of it. Imagine, instead, the world as the animals do in “Fox 8,” “kwite cheerful.”
“Troting thru a forest, I wud heer such things as Berds swooping down prasing all nature, and Mise saying its is a super day, and Cows in a nearby feeld going, O wow, isn’t the werld grate and so farth, we are reely loving this super grass.”
Listen to the fox wax rhapsodic about his environment.
“O, the lite threw the Trees! The moving shadows when the wind wud blow! The millyun grate smells, such as water not far away! The wind in the hi part of the Trees, and sometimes a branch will crak!”
Tell it like it is, o, talking fox! Saunders says writing helps him counter his own passivity and become more heart full. And so, acting out of love for the animal instead of fear of anthropomorphizing, he expands his circle of empathy to include a fox and give him voice.
It’s a cute story, sure, but not trivial. Short stories spin the smallest details into powerful magic. “We don’t have anything but those small motions of the heart and mind. Short stories remind us of that,” said Saunders on winning the 2014 Story Prize for his collection The Tenth of December.
Before setting out on his hero’s journey, Fox 8 asks himself: “And sinse I luv you, shud I not do my best to save you?”
It’s a question any one who loves animals might well ask. It is a question with great heart.
“I think that fiction has a part to play in urging us, as a species, toward compassion,” says Saunders.
For more fox point of view, watch the luminous soulful eyes of the foxes living in wire cages on the edge of a wood at a fur farm in the documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine (2013). As Saunders says, “The real world is darker than any story.” Still, these foxes might well agree with Fox 8’s conclusion about humanity.