A brief trip south this past weekend to a place with no snow, plenty of sun, and warmer temperatures has put a pause to my enjoyment of winter. It is a bleary day here, ice thick on the river, blowing snow, and cold, cold, bitter cold yet again. One wonders if someone is holding Punxsutawney Phil accountable for this year prediction.
To lift spirits I am reflecting on my upcoming spring. Little pink flags line the trails around the cabin marking the various spring ephemerals I will photograph from the point their little green nubs emerge from the thawed ground to the final brown remains of their seedpods. The sugar maples have sap buckets on them and the change of their flow will direct my attention upward to the trees budding out on a schedule I have never closely followed but will track in my journal.
In addition, as if to remind me that I pay so little attention to the critters that I live alongside, the deck and path was littered with the tiniest of tracks. Nature literally at my doorstep! Sure, I have a vase full of twigs, dog-eared identification books, a pile of fossils to examine, but right now, I would like something dynamic and alive to ponder on these bleary days. Tracks!
Fresh snow, fresh tracks! Critters are going about their business even in these bitter still days. I have not mastered photographing tracks, so difficult against the white snow, so I have resorted to grabbing my field book and sketching what I see. I have been able to draw and identify some of my neighbors: the red fox, deer, flying squirrels, deer mice, grey squirrel, and porcupine. Some of the tracks are hard to identify and wind up in a pile marked “thankful it’s not coyote”. Like pulling a thread to unravel a sweater, finding and identifying the tracks has led to so many observations and “ah ha” moments.
Watching where the tracks lead is like following someone’s route to the grocery store, which aisles they shop, what they stopped to pick up. The red fox normally did not come to this part of the road. This summer, utility crews cleared the side of the road leaving brush piles, which now apparently house a large rodent population. There are abundant mice tracks, fox tracks showing where they leapt after small prey, and even marks from an owl capturing his dinner on the run. I am thankful the fox has found his way to the top of the road. He is doing a good job keeping the outside mice from becoming inside cabin mice!
The tracks are giving me not only a sense of what animals live here but also the range of their homestead and where they are hunting or foraging. I look anew at the plants of the woods seeing which ones have provided foodstuffs, shelter, and more. I am amazed at how one observation of a single set of tracks has reminded me to see the whole system that surrounds me. It is truly a “community of life” as David Haskell coins it in his book A Forest Unseen. He recommends a type of contemplative practice to connect with the natural environment around you. Although not skilled in this, what I have done on his guidance is peaceful and eye opening.
I live in a busy place. I take up the most amount of space and resources in this neighborhood but I am only one critter in the forested track that houses mostly unseen thousands. It reminds me that when I teach that it’s not just how to identify the track (or the tree, or the flower) but also the animal, and the animals relationships to others, and the animals relationship to us. I must make sure it relates to the big picture, show interconnectedness. It reminds me to be considerate to my neighbors as I plant this spring. I’d love to see forsythia along the bank but now I’m thinking elderberry and little bluestem. The grouse will appreciate it more year-round than I will for the few weeks it would have provided a rush of yellow.
Track hunting will be my bridge through the cold days to come. It will be the lively thread that will pull me into spring when it will be more difficult to “see” my neighbors. My hope is that by spring I will not only see the camp across the road but also can see the range of the fox, see the paths of the deer, see the trees the flying squirrels frequent, see better my world.
Here are some books that are helping me “see” nature at my doorstep…
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell www.theforestunseen.com and Mammal Tracks and Signs: A Guide to North American Species by Mark Elbrock.