Animal Tracks in Snow: Why Curiosity May Be More Important Than Answers

“Wow, look at this one. What do you think it is, Joe?”

I spun on my heel to find Jon kneeling in the snow. One of his mittens pointed to a fresh paw print perfectly preserved in the snow. The crisp edges of the track revealed the precise placement of each toe, each pad, each nick of the nail. Down I fell, my gaze sinking into the gravity of admiration. Fully inside, my eyes traversed the highways of that singular paw as revealed in the blue-black liquor of its shadow. White.

“Coyote,” I said, sitting upright and looking into Jon’s sharp blue eyes. Animal, my animal. We looked left, then followed the tracks down the hill, across the road, and out into miles of silent snow-covered sagebrush. Every track was this perfect. Every track was this unique. Every glance, every prick, every moment of that animal embedded in a sea of crystals. The sun. There is only so much time. I stood up. “Looks like he came through recently.”

“She,” Pema answered, the muffled crunch of her snow boots approaching from behind.

“Right,” I nodded. “Could be she.”

I glanced around, eyeing the familiar landscape. A few hundred yards away a sprinkling of earth-colored houses dotted the mesa, streams of smoke hanging like windsocks from their stove pipes. In the distance, the low rumble of an engine. But there were not enough houses, and there were not enough roads, and there would never be enough trees to occlude that wilderness.

“Joe, what’s this one?”

I turned to find Jon once again huddled over a broken patch of snow.

“It’s an elk,” Pema offered.

I looked at the familiar heart-shaped print, only inches from where I had stepped earlier. The diagonal sole of a man who keeps his distance. “An elk,” I said, “but probably a mountain goat, or bighorn.”

“Or a deer!” Pema answered.

“Or a deer…” I smiled.

I walked ahead, letting the children ponder and explore. It was shortly after 9AM on Tuesday, a school day for us. Jon had just been dropped off, and the abandoned dirt road we walk each morning was fresh with new possibility. I hummed with satisfaction at having arranged this contrivance. I could have asked Jon to be dropped off at the house. But the walk from the car to the front door could not possibly brighten our senses the way this meandering dirt road does every day.

In the early fall, we had caught horny toads and whiptail lizards here. I had almost stepped on a bull snake. There had been stinkbugs, tarantulas and towers of ants, and many holes and homes we could not identify. Once, at the end our day, we had walked up a nondescript cleft in the hill, a nowhere place we had passed countless times before, and found the scattered white bones of a deer. Children love spines. A great horned owl had swooped over our heads, not just once but three times. There was thick, gloopy mud every time it rained. And one redwing blackbird. “What’s it doing up here?” my daughter had asked, revealing a sharpness every child once had.

Seasons and place. Rhythm. Common and uncommon. Half a mile of wilderness to call our own. It isn’t the earth that belongs to us, nor its stinkbugs, snakes or sage. It’s we who belong to the earth. Maybe it’s the cultivation of our senses, and the observations of our minds. They weave us, quite literally, into this place. Chasing lizards, following tarantulas, looking under rocks and smelling the dirt. Each step brings a fresh breeze. Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet. These last two lines we repeat each day on our walk, a poem we have memorized. It begins –

Take my hand

We will walk

We will only walk

We will enjoy our walk

Without thinking of arriving anywhere.

“Dad, look!”

I spun around to find Pema pointing to the side of the road. A quick glance revealed a tumble of brown dirt mixed with snow. As I drew closer, I saw that there was a hole – a large hole – dug into the side of the road. But it wasn’t just a hole. It was that hole, the same one we had stopped at many times before. As wide as my thigh, we had peered inside it on several occasions, always wondering if someone lived there. Now it was buried in snow, then unburied. The kids recognized this as plainly as I did.

“My gosh,” I said, fondling the serendipity of the moment, the exact location in spacetime when, for a second, it all made sense.

“Dad, something’s living in there.”

“Well…yeah.”

“Look! Prints!” Jon yelled.

Pema and I followed Jon’s gaze to the ground. The tracks were as smooth and pristine as the coyote’s, and the shape was familiar – a central pad surrounded by four oblong toes. But these prints were smaller and there were no claw marks, indicating the possibility of a feline, though considerably larger than a housecat. Their spacing was about six inches apart, and there was very little “dragging” of the feet in the snow, more typical of a coyote or dog.

“Joe, it’s the weasel!” Jon exclaimed. I smiled. Most of our chickens had disappeared in recent months, and we still don’t know what’s taking them. Coyotes can’t get through the fence and predatory birds aren’t large enough to carry them away. We’ve entertained the possibility of weasels, bobcats, even raccoons.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “A weasel has longer toes. Its prints look more like a squirrel, and it isn’t this big. Raccoons look like handprints, so it’s not that either. Might be a whale.” The kids laughed.

“Maybe it was a little coyote trying to eat whatever lives here?” Pema offered.

“Yeah, good guess.”

“Maybe it was a bobcat?”

“Or a fox!”

I had looked at many of the prints by now, but I couldn’t be certain. “It’s possible,” I said, then stood up and shrugged. The kids got up and raced ahead. They weren’t disappointed, because their goal wasn’t certainty. It was observation, engagement. Next time, maybe we’ll notice something else.

One of my goals as an educator is to foster a sense of confidence in a child’s direct apprehension. I wish I could do this with adults too. I know many, including myself at times, who doubt, disregard or sometimes don’t even engage their own opinions or observations, all in deference to the experts. There are aps for animal prints. There are recipes for dinnertime. There are therapists for depression. Someone always knows better. I don’t like to model that to the kids, because I want them to have something more important than the truth – a healthy regard for themselves. I want them to know that what they think matters.

This is partly what I mean by the “contrivance” of our morning walk. Jon could easily be dropped off at our house. Or, we could go on a walk from there. In fact, there’s really no reason we have to walk at all, but by “contriving” this separate drop-off spot, which we’ve fondly named Moose Crossing, we’ve created a destination which gives us our journey.

Human beings have charted most of the known world, its animals, plants and minerals. What’s more, we’ve made this info readily available. We know earth’s electromagnetic signature, the animals that no longer exist, and roughly when the sun, and therefore the earth, will end. And if we don’t, we can just look it up. This information is astounding and beautiful, but in the face of this behemoth of knowledge we small-timers sometimes believe our own observations aren’t worth much. In other words, the destination has been met. It’s been figured out. And by men and women more capable than us.

But what if it’s curiosity we seek, not just answers? It’s hard to remain curious about the changing colors of the leaves if someone has already told us, usually by the time we reach kindergarten, that it’s because of chlorophyll. How can we compete with that? Maybe its profound truth shouldn’t overwhelm us, but in answering our curiosity it often quells it.

It would be just as easy to have Jon dropped off at our house, easier probably, just like it would be easier to know. But it may be that for a human being to thrive, in all her emotional and physical complexity, she has to walk. She has to see her observations and her knowledge, not to mention her body, as the fount, or center, of everything right and true. Maybe later, in our teenage years, we can dash ourselves against the rocks of certainty. But without that foundation of inner certainty that exercise might prove dangerous. Does anyone think that intelligent people are happy? We founder, no matter how intelligent we are. We become particles orbiting the truth. I want to be the sun.

This is what I mean about the “contrivance” of walking, or not-knowing. In the modern world it may be that we are forced to contrive, or “choose”, ignorance for ourselves (and especially our children) so that we, and they, are able to sculpt it for themselves – from the inside out. At some level, we have no other choice, but the fact remains that most of us accept the fundamental truth of chlorophyll without any direct apprehension of it whatsoever. I certainly did. Do. This is the danger of knowledge, this double-edged sword that is so beautiful and so deadly. And this is why I ask Jon to be dropped off at Moose Crossing. We kneel in the snow, feel the cold air in our lungs, and scavenge those prints not to find animals or the truth but – ourselves.

“Joe, what’s this?”

I turned and spied the familiar three-pointed shape of a rabbit print, a jackrabbit to be precise. It’s not easy to make out their gait in real time, but rabbit prints in the snow make it obvious that they tend to land with both front paws in essentially the same spot, making only one hole in the snow, two more in the back. The result is an odd three-pronged track that, when accompanied by the settling of the body into the snow, resembles one large footprint with an uncanny placement of toes.

“Oh man, look at that!” I shouted, excited at what I saw.

“What, Joe?”

“Guys, that’s a jackrabbit. Look. Here. The two back legs land here,” and I pointed them out, “while the front legs land in one spot, making one hole. But look…” I pointed ahead. “Guys, this is one rabbit. It’s like, this is its whole body.” I made a rough outline of the animal’s shape. “But then, look, it jumps…” I arced my hand through the air in the direction of the next print. My own footsteps were to the side of these tracks and there were six of them between each print. “Guys, that’s more than ten feet. This jackrabbit jumps more than ten feet in one jump. And that’s in the snow!”

“Wow,” said Jon, awestruck for a moment. It was as if we could see the animal bounding and leaping before us, twitching its telltale ears.

“Maybe the coyote was chasing the rabbit!” suggested Pema. I smiled.

“You know, Joe,” said John, “In the summer, I never knew there were so many animals on the mesa. Now it’s like, wow.” I could have melted when I heard that.

“Wait till you see the mouse tracks,” I said, nearly ecstatic. “They have these little feet, and they go right across the top of the snow. They don’t sink in like the rabbits. And their little tails drag between. It’s just…I don’t know. It’s adorable.”

Jon stood up. “I want to see it,” he said.

I nodded and glanced over the mesa. This snow had given us an open book into ourselves and the animals that live in our presence. We, the animals that live in their presence. The feeling was intoxicating. There was warmth in my limbs, frost on my nose, and draughts of cold air in my lungs. These kids. Our kids. Every kid. “Me too,” I said.

*

It is enough to sit and watch one bird. It is enough to scour one track. It’s enough to feel the groove in a rock, or admire the way a blade of grass bends to touch its toes. There are salamanders everywhere. There are animals living in holes that you know nothing about. There is a breath inside your lungs, a chemistry all your own, a universe that belongs to you.

Walk, and touch peace every moment

Walk, and touch happiness every moment

Each step brings a fresh breeze

Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet

Kiss the earth with your feet

Print on earth your love and happiness

Earth will be safe

When we feel in us enough safety.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

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