It is the first week of the year. We have had a number of storms over the last few days and the snow is lying deep on the ground in layers, which has allowed me to follow the tracks of red deer, red squirrel and red fox in a patch of woods I try to walk in every morning. This patch is narrow; found between the river and the meadow five minutes from my front door. It is only forty paces or so wide but it is long; it takes me at least half an hour to wind my way through it, in the slow way that I normally walk, looking at things here and there, backtracking, walking around and between, zig-zagging and stopping for a while just to look and listen.
This narrow strip acts like a transit corridor through which animals move undercover from the lower fields to the upper forest each night. As I walk through here, especially at this time of year, I am hugely conscious of the tracks I make myself, even though mine are usually the only human ones. I am aware of people who may subsequently come after me and see my strange meanderings, even though I have never seen another human footprint in the snow in all the years I have been walking here in this patch of woods. This strip seems to remain largely forgotten by people.
This type of snow is amazing; layers are laid upon other layers and the story of the woods over a few days and nights and can be observed so much more easily than before. Because of the pattern of snowfall happening at the moment, with short bursts of snow interspersed with clear spells, most of the tracks can be pinpointed to the previous night and many of them have been laid down literally in the hour or two before I am here, with some even having been laid down only minutes before, crisp and fresh, like ink that has barely dried on the page. Every time I walk this patch of forest, a new layer of snow has been laid down and new tracks appear on top as if from nowhere.
Half way along the corridor, I spy my own tracks from yesterday smudged and blotted by the latest snowfall, which fell in the early hours and then, inside one footprint, I find the paw print of a fox who stepped gingerly along the trail sometime this morning and I suddenly feel our kinship. We are both animals walking the land, sniffing out opportunities, observing, poking around, skulking, waiting, listening and watching, content to be one with the woods, allowing no separation from it or from ourselves. As I follow fox’s tracks, I see that he has been following me and it feels good to be the one now following him; our worlds intertwine.
I have before observed animals in the woods who have stopped in their tracks when they came across the scent of a human footprint; they usually turned and ran. Not this fox though. He walked for a while on top of my trail and dipped in and out of my prints with mutual understanding and respect and in that moment, I am sharing it all with him again.
The photo below shows where a huge tree fell in a massive storm two springs ago, creating a bottleneck and tunnel of sorts, which guides the animals towards and through a deer-sized space. I am going to set up my camera trap here in the next week. For now, I content myself to sit and see in my mind’s-eye the sharp red of the fox against the snow, snout in an out of holes, as he pads through the space, sniffing here and there for scent of mouse. I also see the rough fur of three red deer passing very close; a family moving delicately through the passage, eyes wide and ears cocked for signs of danger and then I see the wisp of a red squirrel’s tail, having passed by only minutes before my arrival, bounding up and away in the topmost branches of an upright fir tree, still standing in the wood next to his brother who fell.
Winter always acts as a blueprint for me. It is so easy to see where the animals and birds have traversed during the night, that at any other time of year would be impossible to observe. This is when the record of their (and my) movements can be seen as clear as daylight, as nothing can hide in the snow and this is where I start to put two and two together, forming unrelated tracks into familiar patterns to store in my memory for future use.
Fox trots along the path every third morning in this direction. He checks out the mossy holes that are home to several mice (shown by the fairy prints stringing out between one stump to the next) and curves around this fallen tree towards the river where he walks down along the bank for a while. A smaller fox moves in the opposite direction most nights, making for the large wood at the end of the corridor and when she comes back later on, she skirts the edge of the meadow instead of using the cover of the corridor.
I use this blueprint to encounter animals at other times of the year, when the days are longer and warmer and the darkness doesn’t force me inside at 5pm. This is how I saw the young fox gambolling along the long grass at the edge of the meadow one summer evening, as I sat and waited for her to take the route I observed her making in the winter and, by staying silent and still for her, also saw a herd of wild boar and red deer out in the fields in the same enchanted moment.
Becoming one with the land, acutely observing the comings and goings of animals, taking the time to connect the dots and having the patience to stick at it all year round yields the most incredible results. But it is not just results I am after, it is also the sense of knowing I gain, experiencing the movements of these animals as if I am right there with them, ‘seeing’ a long snout probing a mossy stump, the flash of a red flank trotting along the path and the paw placed delicately within my ageing footprint, that makes my connection to this land so intimate and so very real.
And when I can view my own tracks in the snow as an observer would; see how I walked with enchanted steps, twisting around, back and forward, crawling under fallen trees to follow a trail, circling other prints perhaps three or four times, crouching and pondering, standing and listening, I see a creature who was so caught up in the moment that her feet took her wherever the next jewels lay, without a second thought, a bit like a fox would have done.
It is then I know that she must be doing something right.
Come with me on a journey around the circle of the year, I am walking the land detailing encounters out in the forest: animal tracking, bird language, nature awareness, hand-crafting and deeper musings on what it means to live authentically, in true connection and with sacred devotion to all life. My tracks will be recorded on my blog every week or can be sent to your inbox in a series of Full-Moon Missives when you sign up here.