Fox and Bear: A Tender Modern Fable About Reversing the Anthropocene, Illustrated in Cut-Cardboard Dioramas
By Maria Popova
When Kurt Vonnegut reflected on the secret of happiness, he distilled it to “the knowledge that I’ve got enough.” And yet, both as a species and as individuals in an industrialist, materialistic, mechanistic culture, we are living under the tyranny of more — a civilizational cult we call progress. We have forgotten who we would be, and what our world would look like, if instead we lived under the benediction of enough.
How we got here, and what we might do about it, is what photographer, writer, illustrator, and wilderness guide Miriam Körner explores in Fox and Bear (public library) — a love letter to nature disguised as a modern fable of ecological grief and hope, partway between The Iron Giant and The Forest, yet entirely and consummately original, painstakingly illustrated in cut-out dioramas from reused and recycled cardboard, narrated with poetic tenderness and a passion for possibility.
Every day, Fox and Bear went into the forest to gather what there was to gather and to catch what there was to catch.
Day after day, the two friends forage and hunt together, watch the sun set and listen to the birds sing.
Life was good, thought Bear.
Picking berries and mushrooms,
hunting ants and mice,
catching rabbits and birds
kept them busy day after day.
But eventually, these joyful activities turn into tasks and the two friends get seduced by the trap of efficiency — that deadening impulse to optimize and operationalize doing at the expense of being.
As Bear and Fox begin gathering more and more seeds, catching more and more birds, laboring to water the seedlings and feed the birds, they suddenly find themselves with no time to watch the sunset or listen to birdsong.
This is how the allure of automation creeps in — Fox sets about inventing mechanical means of accomplishing the daily tasks, in the hope of liberating more time for leisure: an egg collector, a bird feeder, a water sprinkler, a berry picker.
Instead, the opposite happens as the forest begins to look like an industrial palace evocative of the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray’s cautionary observation that “we worship efficiency and success; and we do not know how to live finely.”
All this enterprise ends up consuming the time for leisure, subsuming the space for joy, affirming Hermann Hesse’s century-old admonition that “the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”
Every day now, Fox and Bear cut down more trees to burn in the steam engines, so the egg collector could collect eggs and the water sprinkler would water the plants. At night, they filled the bird feeder and fixed the berry picker and built more cages until it was almost sunrise.
As Fox keeps dreaming up bigger and bigger engines, faster and faster machines, Bear finds himself “so tired he had no imagination left.”
Suddenly, he wakes up from the trance of busyness and remembers how lovely it was to simply wander the forest “and gather what there is to gather and catch what there is to catch.”
And, just like that, the two friends abandon the compulsions of progress and return to the elemental joy of simply being alive — creatures among creatures, on a world already perfectly tuned for every creaturely need. We have a finite store of sunsets in a life, after all.
Couple Fox and Bear with the Dalai Lama’s illustrated ethical and ecological philosophy for the next generation, then revisit the forgotten conservation pioneer William Vogt’s roadmap to civilizational survival and Denise Levertov’s stirring poem about our relationship to the natural world.
Illustrations courtesy of Miriam Körner
Published July 1, 2023