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Whose watching who?

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By Matt Dickerson

The contrast in our tracks was startling.

Hers were light — a barely visible skittering along the powdery surface, emerging from a hole in the snow to my right, and disappearing down another tunnel a few feet away. Four tiny feet, with a tale brushing the snow behind like a miniature paintbrush. A breath of wind, or a leaf blown across trail, could hardly have made less imprint.

Even in my snowshoes, I sank nearly to the ground. In the fresh whisper-light snow, the cumbersome attachments to my boots served only to enlarge my tracks, but did not allow me to glide across the surface like that small mouse, the entire evidence of whose passing I obliterated with a single step.

It was Thursday morning. The day before, a moderate nor’easter had canceled school for the day. But by midnight on Wednesday, the storm was petering out. Thursday was another working day and school day. Feed the pets. Put cereal and juice on the table for the humans. Stoke the wood stove and empty the ash. Carry in some wood. Life as usual. Except when the family breakfast was finished, and my wife Deborah and I donned our parkas for the daily walk down our quarter-mile long driveway to the school bus, we strapped our snowshoes over our boots. When the bus had come and gone, we would break off the driveway into the woods, and take the more rare opportunity to enjoy a morning tromp through the fresh deep snow.

It was Deborah who pointed out the mouse tracks, not more than five steps off the driveway at the start of our tromp. A few yards beyond that, we came on the deer tracks, at least three sets. They were not fresh. They must have passed some time late in the blizzard because an inch of snow had fallen in them, making them less distinct — though still clearly visible. But for a hundred yards or so they were using the same trail as we were, and so we followed along with them.

Around the third or fourth bend of our trail, I half expected a grouse to explode out of the snow at our feet. Grouse do that, and this was a part of our trail, near a stand of fir trees mingled with the pines and black birch, where I have often seen grouse in wintertime. They like the shelter of the fir trees, but in a blizzard they sleep on the ground. If you are close enough when they panic and burst free from their snowy cover, those first few fractions of a second can be rather startling, until the rush of wind, the thumping of wings, and the puff of snow, ceases to be some nightmarish ghost and becomes a winged bird flying off into the woods. Then, in the moment before it disappears, the brief panic turns to a thrill of relief and perhaps even a little awe.

Unfortunately, grouse never seem to fly out of the snow when I’m expecting them. And our woods, having grown over somewhat in the past decade, has become less of an idea habitat for grouse anyway. This day, we saw no grouse.

As we circled around the side of our hill, the pines gave way to mixed hardwoods: paper birch, black birch, ash and our best stand of beeches. The black horizontal stripes across the bright white of the paper birch is especially lovely against snowy backdrop. In the winter, with the leaves off the trees, it is also easier to see further into the woods off the trail, and to notice which trees are dead or dying. The short-lived paper birch are the first trees to go, as the forest matures and they get squeezed out by the bigger maples, and even their black birch cousins. That many of my beech trees are also dying is also more obvious in the winter, and more disturbing. Some are still healthy. A few months earlier, they bore a bumper crop of nuts — a mast year, greatly appreciated by the turkey, bear and deer of the neighborhood. On several occasions, just before and just after the turkey season, I wandered out to find a large flock of bearded birds among those beeches. But others are succumbing the beech blight that is sweeping across the Northeast.

I make a mental note of this all. Whether I try or not, I cannot walk my woods without noticing trees in need of cutting, making mental notes where I need to return for my next year’s supply of wood. I don’t burn the paper birch in my woodstove, but it makes a nice fire in the fireplace on those cold nights when we need some extra heat, or when we want the beauty that goes with the inefficiency of a fire in a fireplace. Beech, on the other hand, though not among the most fun wood to split, makes a good burn in the stove.

We have circled all the way around our house, though not in sight of it, when we come on another set of deer tracks. These are fresh ones, laid in the past eight hours since the storm came to an end. The first two sets meander alongside us and then across our trail and up the hill, through the deep snow. The third set crosses further ahead, in great leaps and bounds of 10  feet or more. Something had clearly startled it to make it leap like that — perhaps us, a few minutes earlier when we left the house going in the opposite direction.

I feel guilty. It takes a lot of energy for deer to bound through the deep snow like that. I wonder if they are close, watching us, or aware from our scent and quiet voices just exactly where we are. We walk in their trail also, obliterating it as we had the mouse trail earlier. I cease feeling guilty that I have startled them. Later in the morning when I have gone inside — in the evening, on the morrow and the day after the morrow and the day after that, until the next big snow comes — they will almost certainly be making use of our snowshoe tracks, walking in my big clumsy footprints that sink almost to the ground, to ease their cumbersome passage. Maybe they’ll be thankful.

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