Deer Tracking involves so much more than following deer tracks. Today was warm and clear and beautiful, perfect for tracking fresh prints in the melting snow. The chickadees played around us, seemingly wherever we went, exulting in the bright rays of January sun. I traveled ten minutes to the local Montessori school and had a blast with the students, tracking in the woods and pretending to be animals. The school is called Stepping Stones and the group is Club Rewild, Lily’s method of bringing primitive skills,tracking, and nature observation into the curriculum – that is, providing young people with structured and unstructured time to be outside, learning from people who are fascinated with the survival stories that play out in the landscape of Maine up to and including our backyards.
Anastasia, Jarius and Tavin crouched with me at the base of a pine tree on the edge of a field, picking at the pine cone scales and cores, postulating on whether a deer could pick off the scales and reach the pine nuts with such precision. They are in fourth grade. Their minds alight like butterflies on the tracks we followed to this point, the five clear fingers of the squirrel in the melting snow on this anomaly of a fifty degree day in January. Does a squirrel live in this pine tree? Where was she when she dropped these scales – on the ground or up in the branches? Where does she shelter and does she travel far for food and water?
The piles of deer scat were of special interest. We could see from its tracks how the young deer stood as it dropped this pile, and from there we could shape the body with our hands, guessing age and disposition. As we followed further tracks which Tavin kept finding and raving about, we stopped once in a while to perk up our ears for the sound of predators approaching. We cupped our hands to our ears, turning this way and that as the deer do, alert to the possibility of death approaching over the next rise, in the form of coyote or human. Then one of us would become the coyote and the rest of us would run for our lives. Mimicking the gait of the deer, we found ourselves tracking their trails as we ran.
These children are wide-eyed, keen observers, helping me to expand my awareness in turn as I offer stories about the lives of the animals whose tracks we saw. At a moment’s notice they are ready to run from an imagined predator just for the fun of it – with them it is easy to slip into the mindset of the cautious deer, the enterprising squirrel, the hungry coyote. And at the end of the afternoon they have also removed hair from a deer hide and felt the potential of that hide, a beautiful soft smoked buckskin, with their fingers. In sharing this process with the kids, Lily realized how much she has learned over the past few months through her own passion for tanning hides.
At the end of an action-packed two hours, we gathered to share stories of close encounters with wildlife. Anastasia’s father, who hunts with bow and rifle, happened to stop by. He shared amazing tracking stories with the group. Seeing turkeys in the backyard and following their tracks is what Anastasia remembers. Her father told us of sitting in the woods before dawn in camouflage, watching the raccoons wake up and venture out. And the owl that swooped down just missing their heads as they strolled at dusk. He even told of the bobcat patrolling the woods near their house, stopping to sun himself on a rock. All of us were riveted, and Allesandro and Jarius shared stories too, of seeing white-tailed deer, five of them in a field bouncing and leaping away. Another beautiful day not far from the Kennebec…