Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: February

Melissa Harrison | 12th February 2018

Our current Book of the Month is Brian Carter’s A Black Fox Running. Originally published in 1981, this nature writing classic has just been republished by Bloomsbury, with the help and determination of regular CBTR contributor Melissa Harrison. Here follows an extract from Mel’s introduction to the book:

A Black Fox Running is not a children’s book, but I first encountered it as a child. I must have been seven or eight when my mother first read it to me, the Devon landscape it so vividly described thrillingly familiar to me as the beloved country of our summer holidays. The story of the Dartmoor hill foxes entered my imagination and put down roots far deeper than anything else I’ve since read about the natural world, and its unsentimental depiction of both animals and humans and rhapsodic, protean prose has become a yardstick for all other descriptive writing, and a beacon for my own.

Since then I’ve reread Black Fox at least a dozen times – probably more. I took it with me to university, and then to a series of rented London flats; when at last the pages fell out of my copy I tracked down a replacement online, and was delighted when it arrived signed. In my early twenties I wrote to its author, the Devon artist, poet, columnist, children’s writer, naturalist and broadcaster Brian Carter, telling him how important his book was to me; sadly, it didn’t reach him. Now, though, to be able to introduce his extraordinary novel to a new readership feels like the fulfilment of a promise, and the repayment of a long-held debt.

A Black Fox Running is unique in being just as much a story about humans as it is about animals; people are neither centre-stage, as they are in most writing about the natural world, nor banished to the sidelines in favour of wild creatures, as in most talking animal books, and glimpsed only as some kind of inexplicable force for destruction. In Black Fox, humans and animals are named and treated equally, as highly differentiated subjects, each individual the centre of its own universe. It is necessary to this even-handedness that the foxes speak; to have made them mute, as Henry Williamson did Tarka, would have allowed only the humans in the book to demonstrate their agency and destroyed what is, for me, the most important aspect of the novel: the creation of a world in which the utterly divergent viewpoints of mankind and animals co-exist for us as readers, challenging our anthropocentric point of view and extending our imaginative sympathies. Here, Dartmoor is neither the foxes’ flawed paradise, a trapper’s grim larder nor the Hunt’s fiefdom, but all those things at once; similarly, humans are not selfish and harmful, nor benevolent custodians, but both, because our nature is motley and complex. Indeed, Carter’s writing insists on complexity, however discomfiting it is – and in that subsists the moral truth at the heart of this wise and compassionate book. For any conclusion we draw or decision we make about our relationship with the natural world is flawed and unsustainable if it insists on simplicity where there is none.

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,” Carter said in an interview. “It is an honour to be among those other writers.” It came as no surprise to me to see Black Fox on the list, and when I became a writer myself I took every opportunity to mention it, surprised to find that it wasn’t better known; in 2015 I wrote about it in a piece for the Guardian, and was thrilled to receive a letter from Brian’s widow, Patsy.

Brian Carter – ‘Bri’ – died in 2015, at the age of seventy-eight, having contributed to every edition of weekly West Country newspaper the Herald Express since the early 1980s. As well as Patsy, he left two children, and three grandchildren. Sadly, he and I never met, but to me he remains a true inheritor and disseminator of the passionate love of wild places that has animated so many of this country’s greatest writers on the natural world.

It’s my hope that this new edition of A Black Fox Running will inspire more lovers of the natural world to find their own echoes, just as I did, in Carter’s breathtakingly beautiful book.

Melissa Harrison, 2018


A Black Fox Running is available here in the Caught by the River shop.