Contrary to habit, I have been
tracking deer through the clean snow, following
the prints and drag marks and sizing the tracks
while I await sunset, and dark, and the end
of another bowhunting season.
I eat well these days, and I am
not hungry enough tonight to sit quiet in the bitterness,
in the twenty-below cold, listening to the trees pop
while the feeling goes out of first one, then the other, foot, nose, finger,
and I debate whether my cheeks are really frostbit --
though I have gladly spent so many recent evenings just that way.
Tonight I am moving, tracking, carrying my bow, arrow on string
as an afterthought, more than half amused
to see the leavings of those I have come to know:
I see many, many places where Momma has led her tiny twins
up, down, around through these acres. The yearling has been here
and there, hungry, and generally out foraging earlier
than the others. The big doe and her single fawn appear here
and there. A larger set of prints, solo, jags through at odd angles
and I wonder: A buck I have not seen? Or is it
that screwy forkhorn I have glimpsed a time or two? Though
I did not think his tracks would look so large?
I wander along the trails, down between the swamps and up the far slope
and I begin to look ahead. I am thinking now not about the deer but
about my woodpile, and how I burn through so much oak
when the cold draws the mercury so far down, down, down.
I am looking for seasoned wood I can burn yet this winter, and
I find myself standing, looking around, planning for the next few months' heat
and for the summer's wood-gathering, and for the winter after that,
sizing up trees and trails and saw-blades and whether that space is
wide enough for my trailer. I realize I am standing
in the old ox-cart trail that enters the property at the north end and wanders
like a dotted line, appearing and disappearing,
to the south. Shy of two hundred years ago, before these oaks appeared,
they drove here, the ox-carts. I imagine the interminable screech of those
wheels without bearings, screeching for bear-grease,
bearing furs and goods from Pembina to St. Paul.
They say two thousand a day, sometimes, came hauling wealth
into that infant city, plodding behind the oxen. They were so many
and so often and so long, they wore deep trenches on this land
that stand still today where the housing developments and highways
and plows and tractors have been merciful.
I cannot help but think of those drivers and their quiet beasts
day after day on this track, and what they must have been like,
living their unremarked lives out while doing their erosive part
to leave a mark, a route, a trench.
I am standing in one of these, half a grave in depth, looking back to the history
that made me, and the tracks that I have left this year, and the ephemeral
web of which I am a part. Then, too, I am standing, peering
forward to tomorrow's weather and next summer's work
and next fall's hunting, and next winter's heat. Wiser
than a year ago, perhaps, and more free? It may be
too soon to tell. I wonder. The future is dim at best,
and as much as I wish otherwise, I can only watch,
and wait as the light fades and the stars like fiery swans
appear silently overhead.
I turn back on my own footprints
pondering paths taken and paths left, and in my mind weighing
that big chunk of oak in the woodbox and whether it
will be warmth enough for tonight.