Paw Prints

 

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This morning we took what was almost certainly our last cross-country ski of the season. The ground is still covered with snow, but there’s an icy crust on top. The temperature at 8:30 AM was around 13 degrees, so nothing was melting, but there were other signs of the end: the sun was bright, the trees were bare, cracks had appeared in the ice beside the trail to reveal a brook’s rushing water. And there were animal tracks, too, weaving on and off of the trail at various points. If I were a tracker I could identify them for you; all I can say is that there were some medium-sized paws and some smaller paws.

***

We were listening to NPR on the radio yesterday, my two youngest daughters and me. That’s not something I do very often: listen to the news with my children in the car. But I was just happy that they weren’t demanding a Disney princess CD, or — worse — music on the radio. They were tired, half dozing. It had been a busy morning: a preschool visit, a trip to the consignment shop to drop off old baby clothes, a stop at the library for books.

I was tired, too.

The NPR announcer was reporting breaking news about the attack by gunmen on a museum in Tunis, Tunisia, in which 23 people were killed.

“Did you hear that, Mommy?” my 4-year-old piped up from the backseat. “They said people were killed.”

This is my fairy-girl, my unicorn-believer, my sprite who has her head so deep in the clouds that it’s less than 50-50 she’ll hear me when I speak directly to her.

“Yes, honey, I heard that. It’s very sad.”

“But, why were people killed? I know sometimes deer get killed, and foxes,” she mused, half to herself.

“Well, sweetie, sometimes there’s fighting. People fight each other, and sometimes people get killed.”

“So it was an accident then,” she concluded.

“Well…no. Sometimes, in some places, there are wars. People fight each other for land, or for power.”

We were almost home, so I tried to wrap things up. “This happened in Africa,” I added.

She took the bait. “Oh, so it was a really long way away.”

And just like that, the topic switched to airplane travel.

***

On the evening of that same day, I saw two deer. I was driving home from my book group meeting. The deer — two large does, from what I could tell– had just crossed the road and were heading into the trees on the opposite side.

Minutes later, an owl swooped down so low in front of my car that I thought it might hit the roof.

The wildlife sure are on the move tonight, I thought to myself. I figured it must have something to do with the coming of spring.

Whatever the season, we don’t see many deer around here. Since moving to Vermont, I’ve seen far fewer deer than in Berkeley, California, where deer would sometimes strut right down the paved streets of our suburban neighborhood and graze brazenly in garden courtyards.

In Vermont, the deer still have plenty of natural habitat in which to range, so they usually avoid developed areas.

The white-tailed deer that live in Vermont travel in social units, and they tend to move in predictable patterns. Each social unit has a summer range and a winter range of roughly 300-500 acres each.

It appears that there’s a winter deer yard back behind our house. Whenever we take a family snowshoe trek into our backyard woods, we find deer tracks and droppings along the same rocky ridge every winter. It’s like a deer highway.

This clearly wasn’t a secret, because up in the trees above the deer highway are the remains of several old hunting stands. You can’t hunt in those woods anymore, though; it’s too close to the houses.

***

My 4-year-old knocked on our bedroom door at 2:30 AM, holding her pillow and a blankie.

“I’m so, so scared,” she said.

We’re trying to stamp out this kind of behavior, but she started crying genuine tears, so I let her snuggle in with us.

The next day, she told me that she’d had very good dreams: dreams about mermaids.

***

I listened to NPR again this morning while driving down the mountain after our cross-country ski. The announcer was giving another update on the Tunisia attack. The only other person in the car was the baby, although at 20 months old she’s not much of a baby anymore.

I was alone on the road, passing through the Middlebury Gap. To my right was the Middlebury River, to my left was Green Mountain National Forest, and before me I could see the Champlain Valley through a break in the trees.

I thought how, just a relatively short time ago — 150 years? A century? — you wouldn’t know all this world news. If you lived in central Vermont, you’d probably have no idea what was happening in Tunisia.

And, it seemed to me, that wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing. I’m probably oversimplifying, but if your news were limited to a more local range, you’d have a clearer sense of what was expected of you, of how you could make the world a bit better: raise your family with love, tend your land with care, be kind to your neighbors.

They say that knowledge is power, and I do believe them. But I can’t help feeling that the wider the scope of my news, the less I know what’s expected of me.

The little I can do to make the world a bit better seems like one tiny paw print on a mountain covered with snow.

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