The tracker has become the tracked!
We struck out this morning to check on the progress of our snow-bound friends out in the woods. Ari led, while I stumbled behind on my snowshoes and tried my best to dodge branches (note to self: wear lab goggles while following caninaturalist).
Ari’s progress was ambling for the first fifteen minutes or so of our hike: a cynical sojourner might have thought she was deliberately picking a route too tricky for creatures more than 3 feet tall. But it’s a beautiful morning and I’m feeling charitable, so I’ll believe she was just following an invisible path that looked amusing.
She became all business, though, once we met up with the path we had laid a few days earlier. There, much to her delight, we saw that several whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) have been using our trail as their own thoroughfare through the woods.
We decided to follow. Ari tried valiantly to make sense of the smells: the scent of deer made perfect sense to her, but she seemed perplexed by the residual smell of the two of us from several days ago. An existential conundrum too much for a husky brain: but how on earth can I be tracking me when I’m standing right here? I could see the cognitive dissonance in her eyes.
We followed our tracks for a mile or so. Ari kept popping her head up every few steps, as if to confirm that we were the ones right here and not somewhere up the trail. Eventually, she either figured it out or grew weary of the philosophical dilemma. Or maybe the scent of deer was more interesting.
Our travels eventually led us to a tree on the edge of a neighbor’s apple grove. We walked past it blindly just a few days earlier. But the deer didn’t. This was their destination all along. And who could blame them? Still hanging on the trees were dozens of shrunken apples, over-ripe and ready for the taking.
Most of the commercial varieties of apples fall to the ground and rot. But several heirloom varieties common to the boreal forest (Ida Red and Northern Spy are two of our favorites) hang to the trees and even improve with aging.
Ari couldn’t care less about this fruit fact. Instead, she wove us around and around the tree, recreating the movement of the deer (and no doubt looking for scatological rolling opportunities). I looked upward, trying to figure out how in the world a whitetail deer could reach apples eight feet in the air. It didn't make any sense. I leaned against the tree and reached high, but couldn’t touch a single fruit. I gave a tentative leap or two, but to no avail. So how in the world were the deer getting these apples?
We stood by the tree for a long time, contemplating this question. When we were just about to give up: the answer alighted on the branches. A boisterous group of purple finches (Carpodacus purpureus) settled into breakfast, working hard on the high-hanging fruit. For such small, fluid animals, they were surprisingly rude eaters. As they noshed, an apple or two was shaken loose and cascaded down to lower branches or even the ground.
I don’t know about Ari, but I find some unspoken comfort from seeing these accidental relationships in the wild: dogs, deer, finches, and humans have little to do with one another most days. And yet, without even realizing it much of the time, our lives depend upon these occasional connections.