February 3, 2013

North Cairn: Voluntary solitary in season

The other morning, for a moment, it was so warm and the snow so scant, I almost felt I was lost somewhere in West Virginia. The feeling didn't last long though, because the gusts were so strong that roof shingles were blowing off, pitching like meat-carving knives into the last lumps of snow on the deck, and the hemlocks were rocking and dipping as though they could bow to the gods of the winds and keep the storm at bay.

I was filling the car with briefcases and papers, and it didn't occur to me that I needed to be watching my footing, except -- as was usual for mid-winter -- to make sure I didn't slip on some hidden patch of ice, barely visible in the snow or under the lawn litter.

And then, while hauling a particularly heavy and cumbersome load, I sank 6 inches into sopping mud.

Mud time actually is one of my favorite quasi-seasons, and though we're not in it yet, the recent temperatures in the high 40s, almost kissing 50, have softened the ground around the boulders on which my little cabin rests. The snow clings as best it can, eroding the yard into sooty, white dunes and what appears from above to be tributaries of green rivers of spring pouring in early, flooding the little hollows.

The effect is the erasure of some tracks and the molding of new ones.

My own shoe print will stay there by the shed until I take a minute to fill it in, which I will do to avoid the inescapable refreezing that will produce a deadly hole right on the pathway to the car. I see it happening already, a good hard frost followed by a few inches of snow, the depression obscured and my sprained ankle when I hit the hole and higher ground at the perfect bad angle.

But I am far more interested in all the other tracks that crisscross the yard and driveway. In winter I can keep tabs on whether someone has driven in -- the plow guy? A mail truck? A random visitor? The total stranger?

It hardly matters. People come and go here, in part because the landlord has friends and family who from time to time drop by to make small repairs or help out with cumbersome chores I never seem to have time to finish: chopping wood, chipping ice, shoveling snow, spreading sand and salt on the walkways.

But when it comes to tracking, it's the footprints of animals that draw me most. Of course, the dog dominates outdoors as in, tromping down cloverleaf pathways and big infinity-sign loops as she makes her daily patrols of the property to make sure no intruders (mouse, deer, coyote, fisher) have been lurking.

This winter, while the snow has piled up, I have had the chance to witness the deer in a way I never had before. The usual tracks are there, naturally, cloven-hoofed telltale signs. But because there have been days and nights when the snow drifted to 8 inches or a foot, I have caught sight of the long-lined, narrow, trench-like tracks left by their lower legs.

At first I couldn't figure out what they were. The tracks almost looked like marks left by stiletto heels sunken into the lawn or lines from a spade pushed into the snow and then rocked back and forth. But the regular spacing and the disappearance in the woods of the Morse code of hoof and leg extension communicated to me the signature of the big ungulates on their routine course across the yard, from one part of the woods to the other.

(Continued on page 2)

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