Small Beauties, Big Lessons

One of the things that I love most about wildlife tracking is that it demands a focus on small things, tiny details, signs of life’s everyday activities for animals that live in the wilderness or even in our midst in less wild places. Learning to accurately read these signs or just moving through the world with the senses open to them takes some practice and attention. But the best place to start is to slow down, open up, and start looking. You never know: you might be walking down a town sidewalk and come face to face with a diminutive meadow vole. It’s a good thing I was ready!

A meadow vole finds itself on a sidewalk in West Stockbridge, MA

During my early training experience as a tracker, I aspired to be the person who had the skill, intuition, and persistence to find a single hair in the middle of the woods, grasp it between my fingers, and with absolute certainty rejoice in finding that one tiny but indisputable trace of the animal I’d been seeking out. Remarkably, it actually did happen. While exploring a transect with two other trackers, I came upon a snowy tree stump that a fisher, a powerful carnivore in the weasel family, had been recently scent marking. By rubbing their long, lithe bodies all over a rough surface, animals in the mustelid family, including the fisher, weasel, otter, mink, and others, communicate about themselves to fellow members of their species. There, amidst the tracks in the snow on and around the splintered wood of the stump, was the hair I had dreamed of.

Fisher marked stump with hair (knife points to hair, lower right)

While that was a eureka moment for me, over the years I’ve had many revelatory experiences out in the woods when something tiny or inconspicuous and ever so spectacular presented itself and I was tuned in to notice it.

Mouse tracks

Of course, we miss innumerable traces our fellow inhabitants leave behind as we go about our daily lives preoccupied with the tasks at hand. Even in the process of looking we can miss a lot or misinterpret what we see. Sometimes we can’t come to a definite conclusion about what we’ve found. Accepting that a good guess has to be enough can serve as a motivation for doing more research or perhaps consulting with experts.

Opossum tracks with tail drag marks

This, too, has helped me develop a healthier way of moving through the world, developing a practice in which I take note and let go.

Beech tree with bear claw marks

We don’t always look in the right places; we don’t always spend enough time following an educated hunch or building the experience we need in order to know where to look. But it is hard to match the thrill when, among thousands of trees in a forest, we come upon one with four or five small marks made by the sharp tips of a bear’s claws during a climb, or a few strands of black or sun-bleached brown hair snagged in the bark of another tree that had served as a signpost advertising a bear’s presence and perhaps its amorous or territorial intentions.

I have found that the practice of attending to intuitions keeps them sharp and well-tuned in any context. While knowing where to look is critically important, for me, maintaining openness to the intuitions that come into play in tracking brings the whole practice into a higher order of sensitivity. I doubt this is learned, but the kind of openness I am referring to requires subtle attunement and a powerful kind of listening. Being alert to the array of signs that abound in nature, stopping to notice them and to affirm the profound and often ephemeral beauty that can so easily escape notice, gives me opportunities I might not otherwise have to feel gratitude for the world and for being in it. Such quiet focus helps me live in the moment and accept impermanence, the beautiful, poignant transience of life.

Butterfly’s end

These concepts have been particularly difficult for me to grapple with over my lifetime. Thanks to my time studying nature, I think I am finally beginning to accept them.

Hermit thrush

No matter how fraught, broken, and distressing this world may be, the process of engaging with animal sign helps me steady my mind and recenter. Not everyone can or would want to get charged up over coyote scat, but there are those who do so with great enthusiasm, so much so that in the company of other trackers they’ll admit to the collection of samples they’ve got stored in the freezer. Whatever the sign may be, for me the process of looking for it and understanding it has become a practice that, like meditation, allows me to more deeply appreciate my time here in this life and develop my awareness and appreciation for all life.

Ravens have investigated here

By nurturing a deep sense of connectedness in my wilderness experience, I learn compassion and altruism. As with the connections that can be made with other people through writing, teaching, or artmaking, I have found that I can carry this endeavor over into my presence in the human world, too. In this way, walking in the wilderness, studying the traces of those who have been there before me (or are possibly still there watching me as I wander by), makes me a better, more caring, respectful citizen of the world.

What a gift it is to be lucky enough to capture a single one of these moments in an image. I cherish the art of photography because it can tell a story, it can be as suggestive as a piece of poetry, and it can simultaneously reflect the spirit of the subject and the sensitivities of the photographer. I have touched on this in my piece about portraiture.

Beetle spied upon by its own shadow

Ultimately though, while there is a revelatory element in capturing or bringing forward the spirit of someone or something in an image, just observing a thing of beauty is enough.

Fungus family

Stopping to notice is enough. Recognizing all the forms of art created by a frozen stream is enough to lift our own spirits and remember who we are.

Ice rings

We may be struggling with much bigger things: questions about our purpose, the future, the problems we humans cause each other and our fellow inhabitants of this planet. Our inability to change direction when it most matters. Our fears of the unknown. The inadequacy of our collective memory. The devastating experience of loss. The scarcity of humility and civility. The persistence of war, poverty, injustice. The list is long.

After the ice storm

The distress we may feel over these and other large concerns makes it even more important—if not urgent—to take time to seek out and attend to those small beauties, gifts to be shared, and in this way affirm the parts of ourselves that can rise above, give us moments of peace, teach us compassion and reverence, and maybe even inspire hope.


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