“I found something,” one of my team members said, on a chilly gray January day in a Douglas fir and Western redcedar forest west of Snoqualmie Pass. Interstate 90 roared by less than 200 yards away, but might as well have been in another world.
“Come take a look,” she said, and I followed her over the rough, snow covered terrain to a fallen fir trunk. Tucked right next to it, telling a story of movement and negotiation across a landscape, were a pair of the neatest, tidiest bobcat tracks you could expect in snow at least two days old, that had melted out a bit and also been rained on. Which was to say, while they weren’t quite as crisp and clear as the sketches and photographs in our field guides, enough details were discernable to differentiate a bobcat from a coyote, and excite all of us on the team about what we’d found.
I’ve written about my interest in tracking before, but what was notable about this particular experience was its context: the first field trip of my second winter as a team lead for the Community Wildlife Monitoring Project, a volunteer-driven initiative to collect data associated with the crossing structures that enable wildlife to get across Interstate 90 safely. While the crossings themselves have cameras to document their use–including some pretty dramatic events involving mountain lions, fishers, and even a moose–a key element of the project is understanding how animals navigate the landscape on either side of the freeway, how they interact with the freeway itself, and their movements to and away from the crossings. Cameras aren’t really feasible for this, which is where tracking–sometimes described as “the oldest science”–comes in.
Tracking elicits some romantic notions, informed by American Western films and scenes like this one from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which I have to admit is more than a little responsible for my own interest. It suggests a preternatural awareness on the tracker’s part: of the landscape, of animals and people moving through it, of intuitive insight bordering on clairvoyance for where something came from and where it went. The truth is, though, it relies on a set of skills that anyone can develop, a willingness to be wrong, and a great deal of patience.
I’m curious about lives other than my own. I’ve always been into reading, fiction as well as nonfiction, and I think that’s why: that curiosity that facilitates insight without intrusion. Reading isn’t a passive activity, but it’s an engagement with a static object that inspires imagination.
Tracking, I think, is similar. Learning to read marks on a landscape left by animals–and people!–turns what might appear to be a disorderly wilderness into signs that can be reconstructed into a story. In fact storytelling is encouraged by the trackers I’ve studied with, a re-assembly of those marks of passage into a sequence of events that can sometimes, in turn, reveal more marks previously unnoticed.
In this case, the bobcat’s travel along a fallen tree trunk bare of snow had left dirt on its paws, so that when it crossed the snow again we found little brown smudges in spots where the snow had taken little impression of the cat’s feet. I marveled at how light this being’s step must have been; so light that, eventually, we lost the trail and were unable to find it again. So we do not know how this story ended, any more than we know how it began; yet, for awhile, we were able to read it, and imagine the bobcat walking through the snowy woods in January, less than two hundred yards from the roaring freeway.
The purpose of this project is to benefit wildlife, who are negatively impacted–often literally, if I might be permitted a particularly tasteless pun–by human activity and human infrastructure. I-90 is a literal barrier, a roaring and deadly river that hampers movement, and thereby all of the things that animals do that necessitate that movement: finding food, finding shelter, finding mates, reproducing. Research shows that mountain lions on the Olympic Peninsula, for example, are becoming genetically isolated due to the all but insurmountable barrier of I-5. Meanwhile, I-90 through Snoqualmie Pass features multiple crossings, most of them going under the freeway where culverts have been replaced with overpasses, enabling animals to cross without literal risk to life and limb. One major benefit to humans as well ought to be obvious here: hitting a deer with your car isn’t going to be a good day for you, either.
But another is simply this: tracking creates a kind of knowledge and understanding of other lives that live among ours, often without our realizing it. When I hear about people afraid to go hiking because they might get attacked by a mountain lion (you’re far more likely to get into a car crash on the way to the trailhead) or wondering why urban wildlife can’t be relocated elsewhere (move coyotes out of the city and other coyotes will move in) or thinking that bear or elk is the perfect selfie accompaniment (being attacked by either is incredibly unlikely but that’s a really great way to up your odds) I often think that what’s going on here is a failure of recognition.
That recognition, and the understanding it facilitates, is why really skilled trackers can look at what appears to be a disordered landscape and read all sorts of stories in it. I’m only at the beginning of this journey, barely past the alphabet and into reading complete sentences with laborious piecing together of syllables and sounds. But I think it’s important: not only to recognize the places and stories of these living beings in the landscape we inhabit, but also our own.