One snow melted away to reveal animal tracks… another fell to conceal them

“The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real.” — Simone Weil, from “Attention and Will”

Last weekend’s thin layer of snow gave the mice and voles a little room for tunneling. Temperatures stayed at or below 30 degrees Farenheit from Saturday through Tuesday night, but Wednesday, they rose to just above freezing. The afternoon was bright and clear. I found a cranefly roosting on the snow beside an exposed branch in the East Woods. A snow that falls when it’s cold and is left untouched until a day like this is a blank canvas for animal tracks, capturing every toepad and brush of fur in perfect detail. Virginia opossum were particularly evident near the open west edge of the Korea Collection. Hartley Jackson describes the opossum’s gait as a “slow, heavy, plodding, and awkward… and ambling pace.” Opossums’ legs work in unison on each side–both left legs forward, then both right legs forward, then both left–turning the body back and forth as they walk. The effect is distinctive when the snow is the right depth, as their claws inscribe terse, repetitive arcs that run parallel to their line of travel. This, combined with the prominent opposable thumbs on the rear feet makes their tracks unmistakable.

White-footed or deer mice (Peromyscus spp.) tracks crossed the trails and darted through the woods. Peromyscus are readily identified by their galloping gait with the tail dragging between the legs. Their tunnels had begun to collapse in the melting snow, and I could follow them from tree to tree through the woods. In Madison, I had always thought of the meadow voles (Microtus) as the tunnel-formers, and perhaps they were, but I also saw Peromyscus a lot less there than I do in DuPage County.

Saturday morning, we awoke to several inches of snow, and the snow fell through midday. When I arrived at Maple Grove Forest Preserve, the snow was six to eight inches thick. It had drifted up in ridges off of fallen logs, in places higher than our dog, in other places scraped down to the leaf litter. In the floodplain along St. Joseph Creek, the American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), honewort, grasses and goldenrods were tipped over, their bodies shadowy under the snow up to the point where they emerged from it. I thought of Dante’s description of the 9th ring of hell, where the treacherous are trapped in a frozen lake, only their heads exposed above the ice:

And as the croaking frog sits with its muzzle
above the water, in the season when
the peasant woman often dreams of gleaning,

so, livid in the ice, up to the place
where shame can show itself, were those sad shades,
whose teeth were chattering with notes like storks’1

The west side of the forest across the bridge was all sugar maple (Acer saccharum) saplings poking up through the snow. The snow was peppered with fallen debris from the trees: sugar maple samaras, needles from a homeowner’s Norway Spruce (Picea abies), bits of bark and white oak leaves. There were no animal tracks, save one: a gray squirrel had come down from a white oak to run across the snow, but the tracks evaporated about ten feet from the tree, erased as the wind blew snow into the divots left by the squirrel’s paws. Exposed leaves, pathways, I imagine, for mice, were protected from snow by the edges of fallen trunks.

Partially-hidden mushrooms were everywhere. There was a great white ash cloaked in turkey-tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) in the middle of the woods that I only noticed because there was no foliage to distract me. The ash was broken off about 7 feet above the surface of the ground, exposing creamy white outer layers of wood and zone lines demarcating the edges of fungal individuals. A few meters away, a white oak was covered in tiny, withered white cups of Aleurodiscus oakesii, the fungus that makes white oak bark slough off, scale-like. A shelf fungus of some kind (Ganoderma?) was shielded from the snow in the hollow at the base of a decaying stump in the marsh in the middle of the woods. The orange mycena and mosses I was watching two weeks ago are hidden under snow for now.

This past week, Mary Oliver passed away. In July, Rachel told me about Krista Tippett’s interview with Oliver. I had stopped reading Mary Oliver for several years, but this interview woke me up again. It turns out that she wrote “Wild Geese” as an “exercise in end-stopped lines.” This is one of the mysteries of art: true, beautiful things can arise from attention to the craft itself. She also wrote this, which I consider the most apt description of the writing I like best: “The poem is not a discussion, not a lecture, but an instance—an instance of attention, of noticing something in the world.”2 As I was finding fungi under the snow and marcescent leaves of ironwood and red oak and white oak, I thought of Mary Oliver drafting her poems on foot, collecting food from the woods, returning to her desk to write. We are all lucky that she chose to write.

This morning, Venus was perched above Jupiter as the nearly-full moon was setting. The temperature was a few degrees above zero. I see that on the last morning of the month, Venus and the moon and Jupiter will all be lined up on the horizon in the hours before dawn. It’s one more thing to look forward to.


1 From Canto XXXII, Dante Alighieri, Translated by Allen Mandelbaum

2 Mary Oliver. 1994. A Poetry Handbook. Harcourt Brace & Company, New York)

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