Forest Bathing is a new fad but listening to the forest is as old as time.
The constant small snowstorms we have had in February have made it a great month for seeing wildlife tracks. The small amount of snow means the tracks are more identifiable. And the regular storms clean the slate.
The only tracks I have come to be able to solidly identify are those of the porcupine. They are wide, mostly straight with a little sashay, and an occasional tail drag mark. Looking at porky tracks every day gives me a report on our resident porcupine’s routine. He comes out from underneath the barn at a spot under the front sill that has become worn with his comings and goings. He walks past the barn hydrant and proceeds down the driveway and across the road; sometimes he takes the easy route straight out the driveway and sometimes he climbs over the stone wall.
Does he also sometimes leave the barn crawl space and head out to the back woods? Tracks leaving there go up the hill that the carriage house is built into and then down the hill on the other side, over the two stone walls that create the cattle chute, through the burial grounds of the first owners of this house, across another tall stonewall and then through the field.
But wait. Fresh tracks in fresh snow on the same morning, one going out the back of the barn, the other out the front. Now I know that two porcupines are wintering under the barn.
Porky tracks are my specialty. I still pause before realizing that the tracks that look sort of like a rabbit’s are gray squirrels—mostly because I have never seen a rabbit on our property and I have seen a ton of squirrels. But pawprints along the trail through the woods leave me puzzled as to whether they are dog or fox or coyote. And small prints that are slightly obscured by blown snow or melting could be a cat or a small fox.
I was fortunate enough to be gifted an incredible book on tracks: Tracking & the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs, Second Edition, by Paul Rezendes. This 336-page book (published by Collins Reference and still available on Amazon.com or by ordering from your local independent bookseller) is much more and much different from the tracks field guides that most of us have on hand. You can definitely flip through this book and browse the pictures and look at the tracks and scat photos and sketches. But this is a tracks book you can read.
One thing I like about this book, among many things, is that Rezendes emphasizes the importance not just of the tracks but the story they tell. “Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal.” But, he says, “We don’t need tracks to track an animal. For much of the year, the forest is far richer in sign than it is in tracks. Sometimes there are no tracks at all, but there is never a square yard in the forest that does not tell us something about the wildlife within it. The forest is speaking to us all the time.”
The fact that we can see tracks certainly tells us a wild animal has been around. Our field after each of these small snowstorms has been absolutely crisscrossed with tracks. I do not have to examine the ones going up the hill carefully to know what they are. Deer tracks are deep and often have a foot drag and often go in a line as an animal that is inclined to go from point A to point B and not meander a lot. And I know deer are in our field all the time, I see their glowing eyes in my headlamp when I feed the horses after dark.
Walking the dogs a couple weeks ago, I once again picked up a porcupine trail. One thing I have come to realize over this snowy month is that the porcupines are all over the woods. This particular trail came to a stop at a place where the snow was scratched up to the leaves underneath. The only animal I have associated this activity with is wild turkeys. But there was not a turkey track in sight, only porcupine that I could see. It did not seem to be signs of a struggle but more something grubbing under the snow for a yummy treat. The tracks seemed to end and, as I think back on it, I do not know why it did not even occur to me to look up. Porcupines spend a lot of time in trees. And now it is unlikely that I will run across that situation again. But if I do, I will look up.
The forest is speaking to us all the time. That may be one of the most compelling thoughts I have ever read. These are the motivations to get back out into the forest and listen.