Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Following the Fox in Fort McMurray

When I looked up and saw it I was completely thunderstruck. That isn't a word I use lightly, or often, but the serendipity of it all left me dumbstruck. It looked down at me from the wall of the art gallery, and the expression on the clever little face said "follow me". It was a photograph of a small red fox, and the instant I saw it I knew I must own it.

A couple of years ago I met someone at a local conference. We were dinner companions, and while at first it may seem we didn't have much in common we found something that night that has keep us in touch ever since. He is an aboriginal elder, with a life experience very different from my own, but that evening in our conversation we connected over talk of community, and making a difference, and our lives. He sent me a message later saying that he believed the Creator had sent me into his life at just that time to remind him that there were those who wanted to hear and tell the stories of those who did not have the means to tell their own tales. I am not a religious person, and nor would I even consider myself spiritual, but somehow his arrival in my life came at the exact right time for me, too, and so I cannot discount the hand of the Creator in bringing us together.

He and I have kept in touch over the years, including recently when I was working on a small project at work that is both a public art project and art program. My friend has an uncanny way of showing up exactly when he is needed, and so it has been this time when I needed his advice and thoughts as I worked on a project centred on a creature synonymous with this region - the red fox.

When the documents about this project crossed my desk I was intrigued. Something about it captured me completely, as the red fox seems such a perfect creature for this place, a resilient and stubborn little animal that learns to adapt to every environment, clever and innovative and so persistent. I was delighted to take this project under my wing a bit, and to write about it so the community could learn a bit more.

The project was recently unveiled at the State of the Island gala at MacDonald Island Park, where I now work, and the name of the project - and the little red fox at the centre of it - was revealed that night. The Miquwahkesis Project came to life when guests at the gala saw the bronze fox statue that forms the basis of the project, and an artist painting the first of several fibreglass foxes that will be installed around the still-in-development Interpretive Trail on the Island. That little fox, and the project, were named through a collective and collaborative naming process with the community, and so the project - and Mihko, the red fox, were born.

Miquwahkesis is very simply "red fox" in Cree, and Mihko is Cree for "red". And this is where my dear aboriginal friend came into play, as I relied on him for assistance with pronunciation of these words, and for a better understanding of the role the fox plays in aboriginal legend and tradition. I researched the fox for weeks, learning that the fox is revered in every country where he appears, and almost always playing an integral part in their legends. I discovered that in Finland the northern lights that appear there are named "revontulet", or "fox fires", and that they have traditionally believed that the northern lights are created by fox tails brushing up against the vast northern skies. I became so close to the fox, and it was becoming such a part of my life when I noticed something. I was seeing foxes everywhere.

Now, I have always seen fox here, but this was unusual. Suddenly I was seeing foxes on a daily basis, and in the most unexpected places. The parking lot at a local high school, and then another one behind a grocery store. On my street, and behind my house. At work, on my way to work, coming home from work, on weekends and on holidays. And even in other things, fox prints on scarves and on mittens, and then even a pop song that asked "What Does the Fox Say?".

One day I was on the phone with my aboriginal friend and I told him about all the foxes I was seeing, and how it seemed like a flood of foxes, a deluge of small furry red creatures, and what an odd coincidence it was. My friend laughed, and then he said, "The Creator sends us signs, but we don't always listen to them. Maybe you are supposed to follow the fox".

After I hung up the phone with him I thought a great deal about that statement. My friend does not and has never suggested I should revisit my relationship with the Creator, but he has said time and time again that the Creator speaks to us in ways we may not always understand. And while I am not religious or even spiritual I began to think that perhaps there was indeed something going on with this whole fox thing, and that the fox wasn't in my life by accident. I thought about my life in the last year, and how I have undergone such tremendous change, including going through some deeply challenging days. I thought about the red fox, that resourceful little creature that has found a way to adapt, a way to blend in, and a way to just keep going when its very habitat was disappearing. And I realized that just maybe he was right, and I needed to follow the fox. Maybe that little red fox was really just a metaphor for my heart, and I needed to stop and listen to see where he was going. Maybe Mihko was supposed to be my guide to help me find my way, and navigate my brave new world where so much has changed, just as his world has changed.

So you see when I was in the art gallery where I work and walked down that long hallway and saw the photograph I was thunderstruck. The photo, by a local photographer, music teacher, and artist named Erin Stinson, sang to me in a way I didn't really understand but that I knew in my heart I had to follow. So I contacted Erin and asked if it was for sale. I was genuinely relieved when she said it was, as I knew otherwise I would need to beg to buy it, because I knew I had to have it, and I knew exactly where I would hang it.

The fox, who I have dubbed Mihko, now hangs in my bedroom and directly across from my bed. Admittedly few people will see it there, but that isn't really the point. You see, I installed it in a place where I will see it every night when I go to sleep, and every morning when I wake up. I put it in a place where it watches over me. I put it in a place where it will remind me, every single day, to listen to my inner voice, find my hidden strength, focus my heart, and follow the fox.

I end this story with what happened this morning. I woke up early, thanks to the time change. I woke up feeling better than I have in days, especially after having been ill for the last two days, and enjoying that time after you have been sick and start to feel better again (it's a bit like coming back to life, I think, and one of my favourite feelings). I decided to head out early, before the Intrepid Junior Blogger awoke, in order to find a cup of coffee and some groceries. I hopped into my car and began to head downtown, and while driving down Thickwood Boulevard I looked to my right and there he was, a small red fox loping alongside the road, and finally diving into the forest. I don't entirely know where Mihko was going, you see, or where he will lead me - but I know that today, and in the future, I will follow him. I have finally learned to follow the fox.

"On Watch"
photography on brushed aluminum
Erin Stinson

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