Caught by the River

Nature Book Reader

Melissa Harrison | 5th July 2012

Melissa Harrison’s recommendation for the Caught by the River Nature Book Reader is, A Black Fox Running by Brian Carter:

When I was a child we spent our holidays on Dartmoor. There were six of us kids, and sometimes friends came too; we rented an old stone schoolhouse in a tiny hamlet on the flank of a steep, wooded valley, collected warm, unpasteurised milk from the farm opposite in the mornings, and spent the days climbing tors, paddling in the Dart and picnicking on the high moor.

Devon writer Brian Carter’s A Black Fox Running came out in 1981, when I was six. My mum read it to me a couple of years later, and I have re-read it countless times since. Set on Dartmoor, I know the villages, tors, farms and rivers it describes: they are my sacred territory, the magical land of my childhood, my blue remembered hills.

Set in the 1940s, it takes for its subject the life of a dark-furred Dartmoor fox and his battle against a local poacher, Scoble, and his mad lurcher. It’s a classic work of animal anthropomorphism, and those irritated by talking wild creatures should probably look away now. But Brian Carter was a naturalist of rare abilities, and a writer of extraordinary power; there is nothing twee about this book. Neither is it sentimental; for one thing, Carter (and the foxes he so loves) believe in the hunt as ‘the good death’ for a fox.

Carter had a cinematographer’s eye, and one of his most effective skills is to ‘pull focus’, zooming out from his subject – say, a fox curling up with its brush across its nose – to a wider picture, taking in the tormentil opening its petals on the high moor, a farm dog barking half a mile away, and a raven flying far overhead. Done right, it’s a magical trick, and one I’d love to be able to replicate in my own books, if I only knew how.

In 2005 A Black Fox Running was nominated as one of the classics of British nature writing by readers of The Guardian. “I couldn’t believe it when the book appeared on the Guardian list,” said Carter. “It is an honour to be among those other writers.” For me, his place was more than well earned.

Melissa’s first novel, Clay, published in January 2013, is set in a city’s secret wild places. She blogs about London’s natural history at
An edit of this piece can be found in our Nature Book Reader, here.