University City

Fox reminds us of a rite of spring

We've been seeing our Autumnwood fox a bit more often lately, since a family at the edge of the woods above Toby Creek decided to raise a flock of suburban chickens for fresh eggs.

Funny thing: Foxes are making a comeback around Charlotte and other cities at the same time urban chickens are becoming more popular.

You can hear the hens clucking when you walk by the creek. Reckon the fox hears them, too.

Urban chickens - a subject featured in the New York Times Business Section, of all places - are not just tempting to foxes. They make good fodder for jokes about America becoming a Third World country. One of the panelists on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" recently defined Third World status as when you can hear livestock in your neighborhood.

By that measure, Autumnwood has arrived. Though locally it just means keeping up with the Joneses, those edgy urban pioneers of NoDa, Plaza Midwood and even Dilworth, who've had chickens for several months already.

Ah, but they don't have foxes like we do.

Actually, they might. Red foxes are known for their sly and adaptable ways. According to the Brandywine Conservancy, foxes thrive in urban areas, along with squirrels, rabbits, raccoons and whitetail deer, all familiar species in Autumnwood backyards and on the UNC Charlotte campus. Suburban patterns of checkerboard development, where wooded areas are clear-cut to make way for shopping malls and housing tracts, provide foxes with just the kind of "edge" environment they prefer.

The latest reports in Autumnwood say the fox family has expanded, with reliable sightings of fox pups in a thicket at the end of Rockland Drive. This is creating as much local buzz as that wedding last Friday across the pond.

It's reassuring that foxes, rabbits and possum live in the Toby Creek woods. Not to romanticize the situation, it's also true that roughly half the foxes tested in North Carolina recently carried rabies. We've got to vaccinate our pets and not pretend wildlife are cuddly friends - they deserve a wide and respectful distance.

All the same, to see these storied creatures running free is a hopeful sign, reminding us that our woods and open spaces have a value that transcends their role as a holding pattern for future football stadiums and megastores.

A recent consultant's report on sidewalks referred to University City's large amount of "vacant land." Planning organizations that ought to know better dismiss our woods and farms as "undeveloped" or "open space" - a vague, green-tinted noncommittalism beloved by urban planners.

To Br'er Fox and his kin, it isn't vacant land at all. It's home.

Not only that, it is a home that is able to regenerate and grow more foxes, rabbits and tall oak trees when the strip malls are abandoned once we use up all the oil.

Today is May Day, when the druids danced round a maypole to celebrate the return of spring. It is a particularly appropriate time for appreciating foxes, forests and farms. The Puritans tried to snuff out May Day paganism, but Merry Monarch Charles II brought the celebrations back, just about the time Europeans were beginning to arrive in the Carolinas in growing numbers, during the mid-1600s.

University City Partners held its own green event Saturday, and included goats in the festivities. It's to the organization's great credit, even if the goats had to be imported, that this group celebrates the University City's healthy "green infrastructure," to use another bit of planner-speak.

There's a difference between "vacant land" and "green infrastructure," however. Words count, even in the bureaucratic lexicon. Natural areas, and the agricultural ecosystems where we grow our food, are just as important to a city's health, sustainability and quality of life as bridges, highways and utility lines.

The stories of Br'er Fox, lessons learned in the woods, and the sermons of Jack in the Pulpit - now in bloom along Toby Creek - are just as significant as anything you can Google or find in a brick-and-mortar library.

Natural areas remind us that humanity cannot, and should not, attempt to control, shape and profit from every square centimeter of our living planet, and that we should begin by being good stewards in our own home communities. Land with trees and streams, wildflowers and crops isn't vacant - it's vital. Now that's a lesson worth running up the maypole.

And if you don't believe me, just ask Br'er Fox and his growing clan.