Looking for a sign

Rabbit tracks, the neat silhouette where a deer has slept, the sharp outlines of a coyote’s claws, these imprints are crisp and clear. After a long stretch of single digits and snow on top of snow on top of snow, the melt has begun. The now grainy surface takes an imprint as clear as the concrete in front of that Chinese theatre with hand marks of the Hollywood famous.

There is still a deep base covering the undergrowth in the forest, the dark tree trunks rise from the smooth expanse of snow, and there is no indication of a path or trail. With snowshoes, the woods are open in every direction. It is so free and different from summer walks, when paths are followed and trails lead around rocks and stumps. These obstacles are now deep beneath the surface we walk over.

There is so much to see. Years ago I took a class taught by a student of Paul Rezendes, author of Tracking and the Art of Seeing. He emphasizes sign as well as track, and I find his big picture approach gives a more complete understanding of whatever animal we might be tracking. Instead of just looking for the next paw print, going where the animal went, we crouch to see what it saw, notice when it paused to eat, and where it sat and scratched, leaving a small tuft of fur.

One of my husband and my first dates was a hike up the Pot Hole Trail on the side of Cadillac Mountain. The trail begins and ends here in our village of Otter Creek, Maine. The pitch pines were shrouded in fog, there was ice along the rocks, and I bent to poke at coyote scat with a twig. He bent too, and together we speculated on this animal’s recent meal, and where it had been to find it. A bond was formed.

We hike regularly, as much for what we can see and learn as for the exercise. We spend this afternoon in the forest behind our house. A raven’s call causes us to look up, and we see a pair spiraling together. We sniff an astringent scent, and then see the straight focused path of a red fox. Signs are all around. Bright orange drops of urine dot the snow, possibly part of a courtship for snowshoe hares. One of a mating pair of will leap in the air, scattering the orange spray as the other hare runs under it.

The art of seeing is a part of Rezendes’ book title, and it is a phrase I am cognizant of every day. I extend it to the other senses, and as we walked the distant rhythmic crash of waves was constant. I hear it now. We passed a ledge that had spent months deeply encased in frozen water, and was now dripping from a thousand tapering points of ice. Quick high-pitched splashes kept beat with slower louder drops. There was the smell balsam fir as our heads brushed a branch. And for touch, there was the spongy softness of a new polypore. This is the season when they grow on the sides of birch, and their creamy freshness stands out brilliantly, a contrast the to white snow and black bark. And we are back to sight.

We went seeking signs, and found them, but they also they found us. As I left the woods for our back yard I passed a dead poplar trunk, broken off about five feet high. There was a thump on my arm and a whinnying call, and I watched in amazement as a downy woodpecker flew past after hitting me, and landed on the branch of a nearby tree. The small round hole she came from was two feet from my shoulder. I left quickly, hoping she will return and nest there.

We saw sign- scat and fur and stained snow and hare chomped twigs. Late winter is a time of connecting with the world out there, and I am not ready for this season to pass. The downy woodpecker gave me an irrefutable message however, for she is surely the sign of spring.

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