We had snow earlier this week and I like to walk in the woods during or right after a snowstorm. The woods have an extra layer of silence and though some things are covered, other things stand out in the greater contrast against the whiteness.
Before the snow, I came across on my woods walk these tracks by the side of a river. It doesn’t take any tracking skill to know that several deer had been there for a drink.
One of the things I enjoy doing is following fresh animal tracks in the snow. I suppose as a boy and in scouting, I had done some uninformed tracking, but what really got me interested was reading The Tracker in 1979. It’s what I consider to be a classic of the genre and a great story even if you have no great interest in learning to track. The author is Tom Brown, Jr. who began to learn tracking at the age of eight in the southern New Jersey Pinelands with his friend Rick and an Apache elder, medicine man, and scout,
He has since written many other books about tracking, survival, and also about the philosophies of nature. In 1978, Tom founded the Tracker School in the New Jersey Pine Barrens where he offers classes about wilderness survival and environmental protection.
One of the basic classes on tracking covers not only identification but things like pressure releases which Tom describes as a way to “determine not just the animal, the direction it was heading and when it passed but the track becomes a window to the animal’s very soul. ” He makes a distinction between identifying and following tracks, and “sign tracking.”
That snowy day, I set my tracking goal to find fox tracks and be able to stalk, using a “fox walk,” and approach the actual animal. Not an easy thing to do, but very satisfying if achieved.
The tracks of a gray fox are slightly different from those of a red fox, but to a novice, they might look like those of a dog or coyote. All four have 4 toes and claws that do not retract. Male foxes, (both red and gray) are called “dogs.” Females are known as “vixens”.
When you encounter tracks in the field, they are rarely as clear as in the clip art images in books. These tracks in the snow (below) are actually quite clear but they break down as wind and melt occur. And the better trackers can also read into tracks whether the animal is walking, running, or creeping up on prey.
Years ago when I taught a winter tracking class, I called it “Stories in the Snow” with the idea of having students do more than just identify the animal or bird, and try to imagine the situation in the context of the setting.
To quote Brown’s The Tracker book, “The first track is the end of a string. At the far end, a being is moving; a mystery, dropping a hint about itself every so many feet, telling you more about itself until you can almost see it, even before you come to it. The mystery reveals itself slowly, track by track, giving its genealogy early to coax you in. Further on, it will tell you the intimate details of its life and work, until you know the maker of the track like a lifelong friend.”
I would have guessed that my snowy quarry was a red fox for the slightly tighter pads and equal sizes of the front and rear paws. Red and gray foxes live in New Jersey but I have seen red foxes in these woods before, though I’m actually not certain that my fox is red or gray, male or female. I wish I had been able to follow the tracks to their owner.
Not unlike humans in the woods, an animal will take the easiest route of travel unless it is being chased or spooked. It is basic survival: conservation of energy.
There was a point where I could tell that the fox took a leap (like the one pictured above) and a pounce, possibly at a mouse or vole. And finally, there was a place where it climbed up a bare rocky area and despite my best efforts I could not track where it exited. I’m no Tom Brown, Jr.
This was more of a “thought fox” that I imagined walking ahead of me that morning. I take that from Ted Hughes’ poem “The Thought Fox” which is one of his best-known poems. It was inspired by fox tracks outside his home and a dream that the fox entered his room and touched the paper he was writing on.
Here’s an excerpt:
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
The fox’s tracks in the snow are like the words Hughes is trying put on the white paper. We all leave tracks, and in those tracks are our stories.