After a break in the recent and glorious rains, I went out to ‘read the mud’ on a few hiking trails, and view the sand-scape of a creek’s sandbar that has been wiped clean as an old-fashioned chalkboard. I was also hoping to do some snow-reading, but the recent snowfall in our county didn’t quite drop enough of the wet, white stuff to create a literary animal-scape for tracking critters in the snow. I don’t always know whose tracks I’m seeing, but frequenting the same spots, again and again, gives me a pretty good idea, since I know which creatures I’ve seen there in the past. When I’m not sure, I consult my two trusty tracking guides, Animal Tracks of Northern California by Chris Stall or Scats and Tracks of North America by James C. Halfpenny, Ph.D. A few years ago, it was fun to find the tracks of the California grey squirrel in the snow on a recently downed oak that created a bridge across the creek. While anthropomorphizing, I liked to think that Mr. Squirrel found it very convenient to have this new pathway to the lands across the creek now, especially when it contained a snowy-velvet blanket on which to traipse.
During the shelter-in-place I stayed put for the most part, and, like many others, took lots of Zoom classes online. One class in particular that stays with me was given by Meghan Walla-Murphy through Sonoma State University’s Center for Environmental Inquiry, called ‘Deep Dive: Animal Tracking Art and Science’. Walla-Murphy has an impressive resume, including wildlife ecologist, author, Santa Rosa Junior College instructor, leading California Naturalist Program workshops, tracking the world over, and more. Walla-Murphy emphasized that while tracking, an animal’s tracks are only one way to read the environment. It’s also possible to read the environment via plate tectonics or changes in the geologic features. In addition, you can read water tracks by noting patterns or any changes in the flow of a stream or movement of a body of water. Often, tracking is all about paying attention to patterns in nature. Of course, another tracking method, noting animal scat, can often explain which creature has passed by. Because animal scat can sometimes be difficult to discern, one tell-tale sign to look for is any scraping in the dirt along side the scat. A bobcat will kick his back feet in a scraping motion on the ground near his scat. Since Walla-Murphy’s work has taken her around the world, she discovered that “a line of people stand behind us”, and we are all descended from trackers. We inherently know how to track, since our ancestors utilized tracking skills in locating plants and animals throughout time. While she was in Africa she learned that what she loved to do, tracking, was called ‘kyk mooi’ to look beautifully at something; to look deeply while slowing down to really honor what is there to see.
As I try ‘kyk mooi’ I note that a couple of brown, as yet unidentifiable-to-me birds make their way ever closer to where I sit. Since I am still, I have been rewarded with a closer look at my companions for the day. I also note a puzzle-piece of bark that has scattered itself under a fir tree. The bark contains notches and squiggles like a child’s crayon drawing, that makes me wonder just which woodland critter engraved the bark.
I took pleasure in learning about deer tracks. I know, we have all seen them, the hoof-marks that resemble inverted hearts, but did you know that you can tell the difference between a doe and buck by its prints? Since the female has narrow shoulders with wider hips, her hind foot would naturally produce a print further to the side, while a buck who is built with large shoulders and narrow hips would display a track that depicts his hind hoof angled naturally to the inside. Both the doe and the buck, being ungulates possess hooves that are smaller in back than in the front.
Today we may not need to rely on our ability to decipher signs of the species that surround us, but it has become important for scientists as an indispensable tool to aid in wildlife surveys, along with critter cams, night vision scopes and thermal imaging technology. Tracking can teach us the skill of paying attention and how to give ourselves over to the wonder of our world. And just like in the old days, today tracking tells us stories of the landscape showing us that we are all connected.