In loving memory of Linda Lee Noell
In a desperate act of balance control, I manage to don my second winter boot. Once outside, my eyes squint from the sunlight’s intensity, and the Wisconsin January air freezes my eyelashes together. I gently rub my eyes and adjust my parka hood to better protect against the stinging wind. I’m off, eager for discovery on my most anticipated winter event, a walk through the “wilds” of our property.
I travel only a short distance in the crunchy snow before I find my first tracks. It’s a meadow vole. An important prey species sought after by just about every local predator I can think of. I recall some of the scenes I’ve witnessed in the past, such as a red fox nose-diving in the deep snow and resurfacing with a vole in its mouth, or a vole standing on its hind legs with teeth baring trying to intimidate a least weasel. I expect to finds dozens of vole tracks today, a sign of a healthy ecosystem.
I walk through the dried prairie grasses and forbs, mostly still upright and resistant to the weight of the snow, and flush wave after wave of dark-eyed juncos and tree sparrows. The birds leave clues of their presence with little bird tracks and scattered seeds everywhere in the snow; evidence they've picked at favorites such as Indian grass or coneflower. Also present are little holes in the snow where mice and voles leave the security of their vast tunnel networks to join the feast on prairie seeds.
As I leave the prairie and enter the oak savanna, I find my first marsupial tracks. It’s a “grinner,” or more commonly called an opossum. The term grinner, a slang term depicting the animal’s teeth-revealing smile, originates from my youthful days of chasing Bluetick and Walker coonhounds around in the nighttime November woods. It’s hard to mistake an opossum track due to the very prominent opposing thumb, and most times drag marks from the hairless tail can also be observed.
Also present are whitetail deer tracks. It looks like the whole herd recently passed through. There are extensive areas where the deer pawed through the snow to uncover any remaining green foliage or hidden acorns. Countless tracks surround hazelnut patches and oak grubs (oak re-sprouts after being top-killed by fire). Close inspection of the branch tips reveal that many of the buds have been nipped off. I fondly recollect some of my earliest up-close encounters with deer - recurve bow in hand, a quiver full of wooden arrows, and my youthful resilience of waiting motionless in the cold for hours.
I find a distinct set of tracks weaving back and forth through a maze of squirrel, rabbit, coyote and raccoon tracks. It’s Pepé Le Pew, as my wife, Debra, so fondly proclaims every time she see spots a striped skunk. More memories flood in, such as the scene Debra made when a mamma skunk with six incredibly adorable kits in tow paraded by us on a distant spring day.
I pass through a large stand of dried hyssop and sweet Joe-pye-weed stalks. Six months ago, this spot was a glorious place to be. Life filled the air as pollinators of all kinds tended the showy flowers looking for pollen and nectar. I wonder if any hibernating queen bumble bees are in the frozen soil below me now. Or if a descendant of a monarch butterfly presently overwintering in Mexico will find its way here next spring.
I walk out to the edge of a rock outcropping and lean into the full force of the winter’s wind. My eyes sweep across the white valley and over distant tree-studded ridges. The wind batters me, and occasionally I adjust my bracing stance, but I hold my position. The starkness of winter tests all the inhabitants of this land, myself included. Loss, illness and other life trials shove their way front and center during the black and white silhouette of winter.
I back away from the precipice, and return to the animal tracks in the snow. Grateful for my winter companions, the memories they represent and their tenacity that life’s color will return once again.