Yesterday’s post was a bit of a trial. Not of course, as harrowing as Isobel Gowdie’s trial would have been but the devil definitely played some games with me nonetheless. I realised I had spent most of the day writing what I thought was going to be a simple reflection on routine but it ended up a whole lot more complex and serious. It was a very scholarly day yesterday, so today I want to address that by having a pause.
TRACKS AS GLYPHS
Every day, I go on the same route out of my front door, across the bridge and up into the forest on a rough gravel track that I like to call my ‘Morning Path’. In the summer, I stick to it like glue and although gravel gets tipped and spread onto it every few years, it manages to retain some lusty mud patches and puddles along the way, which are my source of constant delight and excitement – especially when the weather is wet, like it seems to have been a lot this summer – when the mud holds all kinds of gorgeous detailed track and sign. I follow the animals that use this path regularly and from tracking their footprints and noting other signs, I have been able to single out individuals and follow them to their dens and I have also managed to see most of these animals in the flesh by sitting out many evenings waiting for them to come by. There is something magical about tracking; it is a language that takes a little bit of patience to understand but once the ‘dirt time’ has been spent looking with great detail the ground and the nuances of all the marks have been understood and deciphered, the beauty of the language reveals itself in all its glory. I use tracks as glyphs to give me a fuller picture of the behaviour of the animals who live in the woods and I also use them to understand how these animals are affected by the moon, the seasons, the weather and other natural and manmade occurrences.
THREE SETS OF PRINTS
This spring, after finding a certain recurring pattern of fox prints, I was able to find a den occupied by a mother and two cubs and I have been following their progress as they grow and discover the world around them ever since. Most nights, they come down from their den, which is up on a wooded scree and play along the path, leaving many lovely tracks, which I have been completely engrossed in and eager to discover every morning. Their tiny paw prints have explored further and further afield and as they have grown: I have witnessed them chasing frogs at the edge of muddy puddles, dragging a large chamois hip bone out of the scrub to chew upon, chasing mice at the edge of the undergrowth and jumping on and off logs as they played with each other in the dusk. In the early days, they followed their mother on their nightly outings, three sets of prints visible in the mud patches but more and more these days, I see their tracks stepping out alone, sometimes hesitant over what they encounter but still inquisitive and getting more certain by the day. I am sure that they have begun hunting for themselves and will leave the comfort of their maternal den soon to strike out on their own. The set of tracks above I believe has been made by one of the cubs, nearly full grown now, tentatively walking along the path alone through a patch of mud; the fur between her paw pads showing in such exquisite detail in the slanting rays of the morning sun.
What I believe to be the father comes and goes from time to time, I call him Old Pintail and he is to be found in the field opposite my house at dusk, scanning the edges for mice and frogs, too busy in his own business to notice me watching him until he is almost on top of me and darting off into the bush. The mother has been intent on looking after her cubs and I have spied her carrying squirrels back to the den in the mornings for her babies to feast upon. She is very wary of me however and is usually very difficult to spot. The cubs, on the other hand have had no problem rough and tumbling right up to my feet, only stopping to sniff and feel that there is something wrong with the smell in the air, not seeing me hidden behind a pile of brush, watching them from a few feet away.
Without tracking, I would never have these encounters with animals in the woods; I would never be able to follow them and sit and wait for them to pass by without being sure of where they went each night and I would never have gotten to know them as individuals with their own quirks and characteristics, personalities and traits. It is my doorway into their hidden lives and I will be forever grateful that I took the time to learn its language.