“It snowed last night,” said my wife as I hauled myself out of bed. She was performing a daily ritual I call “the struggle.” It’s an unfair thing of me to say. In my eyes, my wife is lovely. What she’s really doing with her lotions, potions and nostrums is re-accenting for me the physical things I so like about her.
Cinching my robe around my waist, I leaned toward our second-floor bedroom window, taking in the inch of snow that covered everything below me, wondering whether it would affect business that day.
I was thinking so much about business that I almost missed the rabbit tracks.
I looked again to make sure. Yup. Rabbit tracks. A big one at that, judging from the size of its tracks.
As I studied the tracks, scenes from long ago began flirting with my mind, and without help from me, my brain began searching dusty old files in my head.
Simultaneously, I was overwhelmed with a sense of apprehension caused by the ratcheting sound of a squadron of approaching snow blowers. We live in a townhouse complex that contracts for lawn care and snow removal, and the fast approaching snow blowers were just a few moments from whisking away the tracks that were now rimmed with sparks of morning gold.
For the briefest of moments as I looked at those tracks, I heard again the steady but far-away drumbeat of horse hooves and I saw myself aboard Dolly, my fine featured Morgan mare as we sailed across the Southwest Nebraska prairie in search of adventure, which usually meant tracking critters.
I’ll never know why, but my parents — in a rare blaze of intelligence, insight and magnanimity — bought this beautiful little Morgan filly for me when I was 11 or 12. As it turned out, Dolly was my bridge to the other side, my portal from human to animal, to a world of mostly silent creatures whose very silence is an eloquent language of its own.
There was a fair amount of prairie and open pasture where I grew up, and Dolly and I covered almost every square mile of it. As one summer turned into another, and then another, we became more familiar with the country, and I slowed down and began watching.
One of my favorite things to do was to lay down on Dolly’s bare back. I locked my ankles over her rump and lay forward, resting my cheek on her withers so I became invisible to any human or wild creature observing us . . . or so I believed. Who knows? Perhaps the two of us locked together that way looked like a horse with a really bad back problem.
All I know is, I began seeing things, like the coyote and her pups. Dolly and I found her den while I lazed across her back late one afternoon. We visited them often that summer, keeping our distance, and always approaching from downwind. Sometimes she was there and sometimes she wasn’t. I watched her pups grow from woolly little things to inquisitive snoops who got into everything . . . often getting their ears nipped for the trouble they caused.
I wouldn’t say I learned to track because of my summers with Dolly, but the more I looked, the more I saw, and I believe I learned an appreciation of what was going on with the animals I observed by the signs they left behind, or the signs that led me to them.
In those days, before irrigation became so prevalent, deer were scarce in my part of Southwest Nebraska, so when I happened on to a set of tracks that were unmistakably deer hooves, I slowed Dolly to a walk. It was a chilly, foggy spring day, and the earth was wet, but not soft. Yet, the tracks were deep, indicating a heavy animal, or an animal with a heavy load. I was curious.
Keeping the tracks in sight, I lay across Dolly and gently urged her forward. We made our way into a field of tall grass. The field of grass and brush rose in the mist to a stand of timber at the far end. Either Dolly sensed the moment, or my imagination was working overtime, but Dolly fairly tiptoed through the grass. I lay as still as I could.
We were creeping along in the damp grass, headed for the timber farther up on the high ground when I felt Dolly tense. She stopped dead still and stiffened. I recognized the gesture. In fact, I wondered whether she had pointer blood in her. She was a horse, but like a hunting dog, she was on point.
Then I saw them . . .just a few yards away . . . a doe and her tiny fawn laying absolutely still in the tall grass. The fawn was no more than a few minutes old. She was still partially covered with a slick, shiny membrane. Its little head shivered, but she held her position. She and her mother, listening to silent and ancient instructions in their brains, lay absolutely still.
I lay still, too. I could hardly breathe. I’m still not sure what happened that day. Perhaps I just held my breath until I became light headed, but there was a special stillness about that place, like the sound inside a seashell lined with cobwebs and velvet. Then my eyes met the eyes of the doe and something passed between us. For the briefest of moments, I shared her dread, and, as best I could, reassured her that we meant no harm.
My left hand dangled beside Dolly’s ribs on the blind side of the doe and her fawn. I gently nudged her ribs. As if reading my mind, she moved off slowly, making her way up to the timber. I waited until we were well clear before sitting upright. I looked back.
I saw nothing but the tips of tall grass rising to the timber. But somewhere in there was a brand new life, which, at that moment in time was one of the newest members of the world community . . . a tiny, shivering thing with big brown eyes who asked for nothing.
I watched awhile longer, but I knew I would not see them again. At length, I turned for home.
It wasn’t long before I got caught up in other things . . . being a teenager, and all that goes with it. That was followed by graduation, the military, marriage, and raising fawns of my own. Somehow, the years whizzed by, until I forgot about animal tracks.
Today, we live in a world where expediency is all . . . where it’s important to get the snow off the walks before dawn . . . to make it look as though we alone inhabit the planet.
But briefly, just briefly, before the snow removal crew roared down the sidewalk, I glimpsed something that reminded me we are not the only creatures on this planet and I revisited a place I had all but forgotten, a place where our co-habitants are less demanding, where they are smaller, where they have big brown eyes and they shiver in the cold, but ask for nothing and when your eyes meet theirs, they give you something you can’t name, something that, if you’re lucky, you’ll never forget.
As I watched the snow blower whisk our walks clean, I saw again in my mind’s eye a horse and rider far out on the plain, lolling along, doing nothing in particular. And then the rider leaned forward and locked his ankles over the horses rump, and laid his cheek against her withers.