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  • “The unspeakable chasing the uneatable” is what Oscar Wilde had to say about fox hunting — the anachronistic Sunday-morning pastime of the well-bred, old-moneyed, mostly rural, super-rich.

    In parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and other centers of early American gentility, the tradition continues.

    I’m home for Thanksgiving, visiting my Dad, and he lives in Chester county Pennsylvania, not far from Unionville, which is home to the Cheshire Hunt — one of the last great fox hunts on the east coast of America.

    Every Thanksgiving, the local landed gentry put on riding pants, leather boots, tweed coats, bow ties, and black velvet hats, and get into their trucks and drive their metal trailers through the fields and over to the kennels, where they get out of their trucks and up onto their horses, and mill around the hillside, waiting for the huntsman to blow his bugle horn, while ordinary folks in fleece coats and parkas and Phillies jackets shoot digital pictures and pose with the horses, gawking at the regal display of aristocratic pomp.

    There is a tent by the kennel, where the local library sells instant coffee and cocoa to raise money for books. There are people tailgating, serving Bloody Mary’s and Swiss Miss from the backs of SUVs and mini vans. People have dogs, but they keep the dogs on leashes, so the dogs don’t mix with the hounds. The hounds are whining and yelping and howling and screeching, impatiently eager to locate a fox.

    The people on the horses are rich, and their clothing seems to give them strength. Their numbers (so many of them) make their collective presence powerful, but in another way their numbers (really not so many of them) make their collective presence specious.

    Whether specious or powerful, they are really just people on horses. And nevermind the horses; they are really just people, breathing in the morning air.

    They chat with each other, joke about the weather, trade gossip, plan dinner dates, ask about each other’s kids, compliment each other’s haircuts, sip hot chocolate or coffee, inhale the cool November air, squint their eyes at the low sunlight, and pat their steaming horses around their braided manes.

    Their kids are with them too — some of them not older than ten, but already suited up for the hunt on their own little ponies, wearing riding pants, leather boots, tweed coats, bow ties, and black velvet hats, just like their parents, but smaller.

    You look at the kids and part of you hates them. You think how easy they’ll have it, and how all they have to do is put one foot in front of the other for the next twenty years and then they’ll be running the firm or the town or the country and their father will hand them the keys and say, “Here, son, here are the keys — all of this belongs to you now.”

    You look at the kids and part of you hates them, but another part of you feels a kind of pity, because you’re pretty sure the world will be a very different place in twenty years or even five, and that the world these kids have grown up to expect probably won’t be there to greet them, and that this could hit them very hard, and that they will struggle like any of us — if not with money, food, and shelter, then with feeling loved, accepted, and happy.

    The huntsman blows his bugle horn, and the hounds go leaping around, barking and squealing with desperate joy, and lusting after the fox. The people on horses turn to the huntsman, and he tells them to wait, while the hounds stream down the hill to the little patch of woods below, to see if they can sniff out a fox.

    We get in our car and we drive to another part of the land, and the road is quiet and empty and the sunlight is coming down all dappled through the canopy of naked trees, when all at once the hounds appear on the road, flying down the hill and over a brook, and the horses follow after them.

    The more time you spend with the hunt, saying hello to the people who pass you on horses, the more familiar it seems, and the harder it becomes to hate it.

    You come to know their language, and the weird terms they use for things we call by other names — the woods are the “cover”, the fox hole is the “ground”, the dogs are the “hounds”, the horses are the “field.”

    You look at the little kids in bow ties, and you don’t so much notice their clothes or their ponies, so much as you notice their faces — filled up with excitement and terror and joy and the sense that this is hard and scary and strange, but that this is really living and they are really growing.

    You look at the people on horses, and they start to look like people anywhere. You see them trying to balance, and trying not to fall, and you have seen this look of concentration. You have seen it on the faces of truck drivers trying to make an icy turn. You have seen it on the faces of roofers trying not to fall from a roof. You have seen it on the faces of surfers trying not to fall from a wave. You’ve even seen it on your own face, that one time at Coney Island, when the roller coaster attendant showed you the photo they took of you the moment you started to fall and you dealt with it by going, “Ahhhhhhhhhh!”

    You think how the strange things are becoming familiar, how this morning with the 1% is really very normal, and suddenly you think of Occupy Oakland.

    You think of the 99%, and all of the posters and speeches and rhetoric. You think of the cops, and the tear gas, and the flash bang grenades, and the all-night protests, and the handcuffs, and the awful night in jail, and the dirty, smelly, hungry humans, fighting for a fairer world.

    You think of these things and you think of the fox hunt there in the woods, and you think how these worlds are like opposite extremes of America — and how each extreme is filled with contempt for the other.

    But you have seen both worlds, and you know they both make sense from within, and that both worlds are made of ordinary people, trying to live their lives. Once you’ve come to know a world it is very hard to hate it. You can see its flaws and cruelties, and you can see the people in it being complicit with very ugly things, but now you see these flaws with empathy and love. You understand that every world is made of people, and that the people in the world do the best they can, based on what they know. Sometimes their best is not very good, and sometimes it hurts other people, but still it is very hard to hate them, or want to fill them up with pain. Instead you want to show them all the other things you’ve seen. You want to show them better ways of doing things. You want to show them beauty and art. You want their help — not their resistance — in making things more fair and full of joy.

    The rich people on horses and the poor people in tents are really not so different — they just wear different clothes and sleep in different places. We travel different paths in very different forests, but every path is rough and dangerous, and the riding is easier when there’s good light in the sky, a good horse to carry us, and someone who loves us to show us the way through the woods with compassion.

    We all have stories and wisdom to share, but the stories are more powerful when we tell them to people who haven’t heard them before, and then, when we’re finished, we sit down and listen to theirs.
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