A Cape Cod Notebook 2/19/08

listenNight Tracks

By Robert Finch

The snow began in earnest about seven in the evening, falling in tiny, fast, hard flakes. By nine t here were several inches of fresh, new light snow on the ground. I'd planned to go to bed early, but the snow's steady persistence tempted me out for a late walk. I walked out the drive and flicked on my flashlight briefly, looking for signs of life abroad, but there were no tracks. All things were hid den away. The snow was all there was.

At the end of the drive I veered off onto a footpath that gradually descended through woods down to the road. The moon was hidden, but it dimly illuminated the path as it wound through the crooked labyrinth of trunks. Snapping my light on again, I saw several sets of deer tracks crossing the pat h. The tracks seemed fresh, though the snow was deep and still falling. I could make out the clear spli t- pear imprint of a hoof at the bottom of each narrow white well. I'd never tracked an animal at nigh t before, but this seemed a clear invitation. So I left the path, following the prints with my flashli ght beam into the dark woods.

There were two, maybe three sets of tracks. They would come together, then part for a few yards, th en come together again. They were not easy to keep up with; I had to negotiate the thick underbrush an d watch out for low limbs. I've always been fascinated how animals as large as deer can move so quiet ly through the woods. Now I was amazed at where these tracks seemed to go. Without breaking stride or even disturbing the snow above them, they dipped beneath low-lying branches less than three feet off the ground. Several times I nearly lost the tracks when I had to circle around some obstruction tha t the deer had passed easily beneath. At other times there seemed to be no passage at all for them ahead, and yet the tracks sailed smoothly through, like real prints left by phantom deer.

Still, I sensed I was very near my quarry, that at any moment I might turn and brush up against a wa rm, soft flank. Once I thought I heard a sound behind me, but though I pitched the light over and over out into the darkness, all I saw were bare oak branches, limned with snow, like the bleached interlocked antlers of stags. It was clear the deer were now aware of my presence, even if I could not see them. The tracks seeme d to double back, making frequent sharp turns, Occasionally there were startling leaps of nearly ten feet in the snow, so that again I nearly lost them several times. Then I realized that they were deliber ately circling, that I was crossing not only the same deer tracks, but my own as well.

I stopped, stood up straight, and switched off the light in a conscious effort to break the spell of pursuit. I saw nothing, heard nothing, but the empty soughing of wind through the pines.

All at once the tracking seemed pointless, if it had ever had a point. I had not really expected to actually catch up with the deer. I had only hoped to feel their nearness, to sense their passage in the night . Now what I sensed around me was a silent, annoyed indifference, which, I sometimes think, is the attitude of all wild animals toward us when we disturb them, and even when we destroy them.