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“Nature in the Little Finger Lakes” by Angela Cannon Crothers

Set Tracks

Angela Cannon-Crothers

January 2017

A fresh stage of snow is honest. Secret lives surrounding us are suddenly cast before our eyes. Even still, tacks, patterns, scats, and eat marks are mysteries to unravel. The children at Forest School tell me they’ve discovered snake tracks under the glazed pines. I smile because, of course, snakes (who are ectothermic) are deep asleep underground this time of year, but I have an inkling about what they are seeing even before I look.

Together we investigate these loops of tunnels in the snow, just an inch wide. We discover a thick layer of ice beneath the ropes of snow, so the rodent - a vole or maybe a shrew - must have had to push, claw, chew, or break its way up into the fluffy layer above in order to travel unseen.

The type of snow on the landscape can provide safe haven or demise to small animals underground. Crusty snows, ice, or no snow at all, aids hawks and owls above to tune in to a meal more easily. Snow is insulation and cover for small mammals, allowing for the ability to go grazing on plant seeds and roots in silence, unseen.

I am compelled into the art of tracking. These are the neighbors I rarely see - some of them the same types who, last spring, nipped off the bright green bean shoots just unfurling in my garden and the curled kale just up. Here is the timeline of a story of a life beyond my own, its past behind and ahead, its next moment. Theirs is a story without words, but instead full of senses and now and then intuition. I come and touch their path not knowing really which direction I should follow, nor which silence will take me there.

I bend to find a clear print in which to count toes—five fingers or four? Are the front and hind feet the same? I look across the white surface to discern the pattern, blue within the snow. What gait do they use? Are they walkers, bounders, or waddlers?

Following such clues I may come upon earthy, dug-out food caches under the snow or a single hair caught on a twig, shiny pellets of scat, or urine that smells of creosote.

Following a set of tracks and scat with a child, we came right upon the animal, who hopped quickly away, astonished at being discovered. And last week I followed two sets of little hands and feet that eventually lead to the base of a hollow white pine, once filled with bees. I wanted to knock, but I assumed they knew I was there. I wonder what the animals know that I do not? What do they track? What do they dream?

I’ve been known to wonder too long, to lose my own sense of time in the long cords of connection that suddenly appear with the magic of snow. Each track is a moment. Each print imprints something in me so much so that sometimes I wonder if I have taken the role of tracker, or if the tracks, instead, have taken me.

Editor’s Note: Angela Cannon Crothers is a naturalist and writer who teaches at Finger Lakes Community College and with The Finger Lakes Museum. Here are some columns that she has written about the Little Finger Lakes. Her columns also appear in the Lake Country Weekender newspaper.

Visit Angela’s website at: Angela Cannon Crothers

Read the Lake Country Weekender at: Lake Country Weekender