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Fox and Geese

The physical appearance of the photograph is itself a metaphor. The Farm Security Administration photographer John Vachon took it, having stopped along the road in Morton County, North Dakota, in February 1942.

There had not been much snow that winter, we know, because there are children in the photo, seven of them, and the snow is less than ankle deep. They are out back of the school, we know, because there is a fenceline running nearby, and close to the area where the children are playing, two wood privies, of the design that marks them as WPA outhouses.

Light snow is falling, screening the view with the sort of scales that blur our squint of any historical event, but we can discern what is going on. The children, taking advantage of the new snow, are playing fox and geese.

John Vachon kept a journal, but we do not learn from it just why he conceived and composed this photo; I suspect it was the elegant geometry of the pie-like circle the children had tramped into the snow to define their game. Vachon’s terse caption, “Morton County, North Dakota. Playing ‘cut the pie’ or ‘fox and geese’ at noon recess at a rural school,” imputes no agenda or significance. But I will, today.

I could say, oh, this is a lost world, so innocent, soon to disappear before the onslaught of what we call progress. I will not. I will say, here are prairie children, engaging their environment, and one another in that environment, after a manner that is vested in tradition and brimful of import.

Like many other recess games of the old country school, fox and geese was a catch game, in which a chaser, the fox, pursued everyone else, the geese. What distinguished the game was that it took place in newfallen snow. Participants, before commencing the game, formed a line and tramped into the snow the pie-figure along the lines of which the pursuit would take place.

The game dates from Medieval times. It was played everywhere on the northern plains. Local newspaper columnists here frequently noted the first instance of its playing early in the winter, because it took place at first snowfall; the game was a marker.

On 23 November 1911, the writer of the “Grade School Notes” column for the Wahpeton Times observes, “‘Fox and Geese’ is the popular sport among all pupils now.” Initial caps for Fox and for Geese.

On 23 October 1913, the “School Notes” in the Hope Pioneer record, “The early arrival of snow has resulted in the discarding of ‘bean bags,’ ‘football,’ and such games among the children for ‘fox and geese.’”

On 30 November 1916, the Stewart School District notes in the Williston Graphic say, “The recent snow has made the game of ‘Fox and Geese’ most interesting.”

On 2 December 1920 the “Gardena School Notes” in the Bottineau Courant intone, “The first real snow was Saturday evening and since, the scholars enjoy playing ‘fox and geese.’”

And now returning to the Hope Pioneer, 6 November 1930, a school correspondent writes: “The first snow fall aroused a great deal of excitement in our room. The boys and girls were anxious to play outside. Although there wasn’t very much snow, we managed to make tracks. After that we played ‘Fox and Geese.’”

This day I vow: one day late this year, when the first decent snowfall accumulates, we will make tracks, and there will be a fox chasing geese on the campus of North Dakota State University.

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