Days before our government shut down, and all access to the National Seashore was closed, I went for a walk in the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp near Marconi Station in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.
Normally, I hike with my kids, so I am surrounded by a flurry of noise and activity that keeps most living things with any capacity for movement well at bay. Add to that, the season when I get to spend much time on Cape Cod is summer. That’s high tourist season, and most creatures hunker down during the day and wait for the throngs to dissipate and the cooler, evening air to move in. For these reasons, I did not expect to meet a fox on my walk in the Swamp last week.
I was the only human being anywhere along the trails that morning, and I was walking along, looking down and fretting about something, I’m sure. Then I looked up, and there was a fox. It’s hard to sneak up on a fox, so I assumed he had seen me. I stopped in the middle of the trail, expecting him to bolt. But something in the leaf litter had captured his attention and he readied himself, all four pointed paws gathered up, tense, under his body, and his tidy javelin face motionless. He pounced, looking for a moment weightless at the height of his arc, and came down on whatever it was in the leaves. A moment later, he had turned and was trotting down the path toward me, slender jaws snapping.
I had pulled my phone out of my pocket when I realized he had not seen me at first, and taken a poor, blurry picture of him as he nosed around in the leaf mold. But when I realized he was coming closer, I switched to video and began to record him.
At that moment, I stopped seeing him altogether.
The rest of the time he was close by, I was focused on keeping him in the frame of my video, and on holding my hand as steady as I could. It was my instinct to get this on film rather than just watch him as he approached, then suddenly must have scented me, and bolted into the woods.
What was it meant for, this poorly done, camera-phone video? I won’t forget that this happened to me, no more than I will ever forget coming upon a bobcat asleep on a boardwalk in the early morning when I was sixteen and visiting Florida. The video of the fox is not for me. I was alone when I saw him, with no one to nudge or to whom to whisper “Look!” Humans like to say “Look!” to someone, and I suppose I didn’t think my remembered fox, or the language I conjured him in would be quite enough to keep people’s attention. There is an expression that arose in my image saturated generation a while back: “Video or it didn’t happen.” Now that everyone has a camera in her pocket all the time, what possible cause would there be NOT to film the fox as it came close? Unless it didn’t really happen.
Now, I can prove it happened. I have the documenting footage. But a camera is not the usual lens through which I see the world. My lens is my language. Only rarely do I see things, hear things, or even feel things just for what they are. I add a gloss, marginal notes, an explanation that I will write down, to direct your attention. “Look!” I say with words, “This is how the fox looked. This is how it ran. This is what happened.” There is the world as it is, and there is the world described. Or there is the recorded image of the fox. There cannot be both.
The other day, Malcolm was climbing in the upturned roots of a felled pine. Sitting up there, ten feet above my head, he surveyed the swamp below. “Mom?” he asked, “Do you have your camera?” I didn’t. He was a little disappointed and I felt momentarily guilty that I wasn’t capturing this–a small achievement of his. Photo or it didn’t happen. But he was there, and I was there. And now I’ve written it for you. My son was up in the roots, kicking down clods of dirt, backlit by the sky. My other son was on the ground beside me, looking up. It was quiet, except for a sparrow whose fat body parted the sedges as it foraged through. It all happened, just like that. I was there.