Raccoon on a walk through the bitter cold and the most beautiful snow we’ve seen in a long time

“If we turn our minds towards the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” — Simone Weil, “Attention and Will”

Bitter cold came in on Thursday and looks as though it will stick around for a week. Everyone is saying that it’s finally winter. Don’t we say that every year? It seems a year doesn’t go by that we don’t remark on how variable spring is and how winter cold comes later than we expect it to. I realize climate is changing, but I also think Midwesterners love to talk about how unpredictable the weather is. My Ohio grandma used to write the temperature alongside the date at the tops of her letters. She would report on the weather and the soybeans in one paragraph, my grandpa’s circulation in the next, a poem I had sent her in the paragraph after that. The weatherman stood right alongside Cid Corman in her book.

But before the cold came, we had a day of sloppy rain, and the snow became all crusted over. Our dog could practically walk over the top of it. The squirrel excavations were ice caves. Friday afternoon I walked out through the East Woods wearing two hats and a hood and was happy to have them all. A line of about 60 geese headed south as I walked uphill into the Korea Collection. It was snowing lightly, and the white-footed mice and squirrels had started leaving soft-edged tracks. I meandered eastward up a ravine paralleling the main trail, watching the snow drifting down slowly, into the marsh where I’d watched the woodcock dance earlier this spring. A marcescent Hill’s oak stood at the edge of the marsh under a tall white oak (or was it a bur oak? I knew I’d forget if I didn’t write it down). To the east, just across the road, an impressive white oak arches over the trail, which I confess I’d never given much thought to. In the snow, it was magnificent, a gateway to the east woods. The bark was packed with ice and glazed with lichens, which left me wondering how much the freezing and thawing must pry flakes of bark from the tree as it ages, weakened by the Aleurodiscus oaksii and lichens, wedged off by the expanding ice.

I passed the marcescent post oaks (Quercus stellata) in the oak collection. In the East Woods, there were lichens and mosses on the exposed tree trunks. The bark of the larger sugar maples (Acer saccharum) has a whitish, chalky appearance that I’m certain I’ve noticed before, but that struck me especially on this walk. Perhaps this is also a lichen. I will ask Jerry Wilhelm about it this week.

Near the far east end of the woods I was drawn to a honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) that had been broken in a storm. This was a freshly broken tree, no time yet to rot, though I suspect decomposers showed up within hours to survey the situation and consider their options. The exposed wood was clean, bright against the backdrop of the forest. By contrast, a few minutes down the trail there stood a greatly excavated and largely decomposed red oak (Quercus rubra) that appears to have served insects up to as many chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, hairy and red-breasted and pileated woodpeckers as I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s remarkable to think of how much a tree contributes from the moment its main shoot expires to the day it is unrecognizable as ever having been a tree. By dint of its size and the slowness of its decomposition, surely more than a person.

Saturday, snow started before sunset and continued into the night. The flakes were enormous, light, cottony, like something shed from the sky, not like water that fell from the clouds and crystallized on its way down. We awoke Sunday to a clear sky, the east just lighting up, Jupiter swinging up above Venus’s left shoulder, the moon high in the southwest four steps from the planets. The snow had remarkable loft. Our garlic and the forest floor couldn’t ask for softer insulation against today’s low of zero and Wednesday’s forecast negative twenty Fahrenheit.

The snow in Maple Grove Forest Preserve was phenomenal, snowflakes linking arms to extend, light and fluffy, inches off of the branches to which they were clinging. As I crossed the bridge over St. Joseph Creek, I noticed tracks along the icy margin of the creek that I could not put a finger on. I tried as one often does to make them into something plausible. A little coyote? But the gait was all wrong. The footprints went from alternating to right next to each other, and I suspected raccoon. But shouldn’t they all be torpid on a cold day like this? I followed the plodding path south through the woods, around trees and along a fallen log. The route was deliberate if not entirely direct: while there was weaving, and the walk along the top of the log seemed a bit gratuitous, the animal seemed hardly to have stopped along its trail. There were mouse tunnels through the snow here and there, leading to crystal-edged holes where the mouse had dived in. Beneath a log, there were especially clear and very fresh tracks running back and forth before they disappeared into a crack in the log, leaving a dusting of wood crumbs on the snow. The animal I was tracking didn’t so much as chase a mouse. That didn’t seem right for a coyote.

When the tracks I’d been following reached the drainage running laterally out toward the trail, they became clearer. I concluded they pretty well had to be raccoon. The gait–front foot next to the back foot, side by side–and relative size of the feet (big back foot next to a smaller front foot) are distinctive, and there was just enough clarity in the snow atop the frozen drainage to make this obvious. I had been avoiding this conclusion in part because I had assumed the raccoons would be asleep on a cold day like this. I may be wrong still about my identification, and I’ll welcome any opinions as to what animal this was. But for now, I think it’s likelier I was just mistaken about how raccoons behave. Like the spring beauty of early January, the raccoons may not be reading the books.

As I headed back toward the north end of the forest, a coyote inspected me from a distance and then moved on. I returned to the bridge where I’d initially seen the tracks I’d been following, and on second viewing, the raccooniness of them was hard to deny. Hoar frost had sprouted on the ice like mosses sculpted in porcelain. The water was bubbling beneath the ice and rushing along where the ice opened up as I walked out of the woods.

Later in the day, I was drawn to this paragraph from Simone Weil’s essay “Attention and Will”:

The wrong way of seeking. The attention fixed on the problem…. We must not want to find: as in the case of an excessive devotion, we become dependent on the object of our efforts. We need an outward reward which chance sometimes provides and which we are ready to accept at the price of a deformation of the truth…. It is only effort without desire (not attached to an object) which infallibly contains a reward.

This is a strange paragraph to be drawn to as a scientist. Isn’t it problems that I am drawn to? Isn’t it answering questions that keeps pulling me forward? Consequently, isn’t the object of those questions precisely the thing that does the pulling? And if we are not to want to find, what is it we are to want to do? Yet this idea that the joy in our work comes from our work, purely, without expectation of any particular outcome (“not attached to an object”), seems to me to be right. I trail along after trees and raccoons, and it’s the looking that brings me pleasure. Perhaps this is what Weil is talking about, the same thing Teilhard de Chardin is saying in the introduction to Le phénomène humain when he writes, “To try to see more and better is not a matter of whim or curiosity or self-indulgence. To see or to perish is the very condition laid upon everything that makes up the universe, by reason of the mysterious gift of existence.” Just doing this, looking closely to try to see more clearly, trailing a raccoon through the woods or a conversation through someone else’s memories, is necessary. It’s part of what we’re here to do.

As I finish this up and get ready to go to work, we’ve gotten another several inches of snow. The schools have closed and our older son is thrilled. Rachel and I had our dog out for an hour and a half. While Rachel and I talked and walked, the dog ran everywhere, sniffing and bounding and watching and chasing us, the very picture of effort not fixed on a single object. It’s nice to have winter here, finally.

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