Our elders tell of a simpler time. One closer to the land, closer to each other and closer, even, to what really matters. The days before MySpace, digital photography, and microwave dinners were certainly different. My grandfather told of pulling farm implements with a team of horses. Today, horsepower measured in the hundreds is towing huge multi-row implements around fields measured in the thousands of acres.
The great outdoors has felt the onslaught of the technology boom also. I got out ice fishing once this winter and felt quite ill-equipped, as nearly every other group was staring into a screen displaying the output of an underwater camera. Walk through the aisles of any sporting goods store and the latest and greatest equipment beckons to the prospective buyer with all sorts of bells and whistles. Yet I wonder if we are missing something.
Nearly thirty years ago, I read a book by a New Jersey fellow named Tom Brown Jr. titled "The Tracker." In it he describes a chance meeting with an elderly Apache which kicked off an apprenticeship of sorts between the two. What Brown learned from the Apache is a skill set largely lost on today's population. This old man - a Stalking Wolf - bestowed upon Brown a deep understanding of his natural surroundings that is virtually inimitable in modern times. Beyond the incredible survival skills and Native American spirituality Brown writes of, it was the tracking techniques that held my attention.
I don't claim to be much of a hunter and do very little of it in reality. But tracking, that is reading the signs and clues left by a critter, has always held a particular fascination for me.
Some years ago, a friend and I were snowshoeing near the Sheyenne River south of Leonard, when we came upon tracks we could not ignore. It was obviously a deer with its split, heart-shaped marks. But it was the prints accompanying the deer's that made the scene so tantalizing. They were large and dog-like, complete with the four toes and claw marks. Neither one of us had seen coyotes bring down a deer but knew it was possible. Onward we trekked.
A few bends of the river later, flecks of blood in the snow and deer hair were scattered about an area where it appeared a whirling, desperate struggle had taken place. Ultimately we found the dead animal, still steaming warm, near a log jam. Apparently, we had been close enough to scare off the coyotes.
A similar incident took place when my wife and I lived in Spokane, Wash. While riding up a ski lift, I noticed a trail of prints from a cottontail rabbit that came to an abrupt end in the snow below. Along either side of the last set of tracks was a fairly large swoosh, resembling the sweep of a broom. It was apparent that a great horned owl had seized the animal, leaving its wing marks in the snow.
Just the other day there was an array of feathers from a dark-eyed junco in my back yard. It wasn't readily apparent to me what had dispatched the bird. But it was likely a Northern shrike or a merlin; both predators have been seen frequenting our yard.
What these stories represent is not a ghoulish preoccupation with death, but more an enchanting magnetism toward the tales told by animal spoor. Again, I'm no great hunter or tracker. It's just that I have a tendency - likely more than most - to notice things like this. And once a person makes the decision, conscious or not, to truly study their surroundings, nature begins to reveal itself in wondrous ways.
Brown writes, "Only by silence and rapt attention can anyone hope to feel the ripples in the flow of life in the woods." Perhaps the over emphasis on modern technology is dimming that attention of which he speaks. Attention, I believe, a generation before us possessed in quantity.