A foot or two of snow has accumulated on the ground over the last four days and with the snow, as always, have come the dots and dashes of tracks. We are in central Pennsylvania for the long weekend, so the ones we’re attuned to right now are largely of the animal variety.
Yesterday, in the woods, I came across a long dent in the snow – roughly 4 inches wide – that began a foot from a tree base and extended across the trail for about 8 feet before stopping abruptly. My first thought: a dead branch had fallen and sunk into the snow. But there was no branch, and the edges of the mark were crisp, indicating that it was pretty new.
In the past we had made many great finds in that particular section of the woods: a perfect little vireo nest hanging from a witch hazel branch – spider silks improbably cupping the swirled layers of grass and tiny bark strips; a porcupine skeleton with its tell-tale yellow teeth and quills; and always new selections of deer bones, often with gnaw-marks around the edges, where some small mammal has sought its calcium fix or sharpened its teeth. I sank down into the snow to see what a little pause and silence would bring.
With my shift in position, I could suddenly see where the mark became a well-formed tunnel at the non-tree end, diving down through the 18 or so inches of snow and straight into the ground. It was the extension of some small mammalian den: the creature had tunneled up through the snow, bellied across at the surface, then leapt to the trunk of the tree – or maybe the reverse since its hard to imagine the snow supporting the pressure of leaping feet. There were no obvious footprints, but chances are it was a chipmunk.
In recent years here, we have learned more and more about tracks: we follow the fishing-wanderings of long-fingered raccoons, creekside. We read the deer’s wariness of cars in the way the gaps between their hoof prints lengthen as they near the road. After witnessing a prolonged skirmish between a red squirrel and a pair of grey squirrels a few weeks ago – the differences in their gaits and trajectories, their distinct ways of moving to the trees – we learned to see who had jumped and dashed and dug where. A few weeks ago we caught sight of a muskrat – normally nocturnal but, in this long cold-stretch, driven to the one unfrozen edge of the pond during daytime in search of food. From the spot where it dove into the water and swam back under the ice, we followed its tracks backwards – slim-fingered paws, segments of dragging tail, double-backs, and occasional nose-pokes in the snow – as it meandered along the edge of the pond in and out of the frozen cat tails on its quest.
When my kids were little we came into an old copy of Millicent Selsam’s How To Be a Nature Detective (Scholastic, 1963, ill. Ezra Jack Keats — more on Millicent Selsam and her oeuvre another day); the book sensitized us to the ways stories and vignettes materialize in tracks. Selsam and Keats do a masterful job of clueing kids in to simple ways of reading footprints and the landscape for animal stories that may be embedded there. Tracks really do tell stories: some stories worth following through to their ends, some raising more questions than answers, some too predictable to warrant much attention. But the stories stick, and they give a collective identity to a place.
A few weeks ago we saw a mysterious and complicated set of tracks in a thin layer of snow that coated the pond ice. As a family we pieced it together: “See, a blue heron landed there and it skidded – that’s why there are all those long lines — then it kept sliding a little after that when it walked –- see how the middle toe is long and straight but the others puff out? — then it walked this way and stopped to poop — and then it took off again!” Whether or not we were right, the story seemed perfectly plausible based on everything we could see. And chances are that that pooping, sliding blue heron will now inhabit our memory of this place — right alongside another blue heron who, back in the summer, regurgitated a few pellets full of grasshopper legs on the nearby dock and left them for us to discover.