Subtle: words in brief

The things I track now are subtle. The blooming and fading of the frost landscape on the small window beside which I sit to write each morning daily traces for me the brittle extremes of this year’s cold winter. Each day I notice where the sun comes up: at mid-winter in the far south-east, almost past the window’s right-most frame; and now, this week, at the season’s turning-point towards spring, I see its incremental shift, heading daily slightly east again, where on mid-summer mornings it will rise dead centre, painfully blazing despite blinds tightly drawn against its radiant heat. I could have been tracking wolves and moose in the deep snow of Algonquin Park this weekend, and a few years ago –restless, searching – I would have moved every obstacle to go, and did. But now, something has changed: my insides have shifted. A week ago, I backed out. I want to be here. My attention has shifted its scale, expanded the small life around me like a magnifying glass, revealing an intricacy of patterns I am only now slowly tuning in to see.

Word prompt: subtle. From a daily brief writing practice with three women across the continent who I have never met in person, but who now show up in a very real way with the power of their words in my inbox each day. This is my week to choose the words we write to.

Register: words in brief

Long-legged, four-footed mammals usually move in a direct register walk or trot, hind feet stepping perfectly in the tracks left by the front, imprinting a long, almost straight line that thrills me every time I see it, especially on a wide expanse of clean snow. I’ve learned that it’s important to respect the tracks of animals, that these hold a piece of their spirit, and sometimes, if we’re trailing close behind, a little of their living warmth. I love finding squirrel, raccoon and pigeon tracks in city sidewalks, set in concrete: a gift, a reminder of what can’t be tamed. My younger son and I, rushing somewhere the other day, step directly in a patched square of sidewalk, still setting, leaving our boot prints firmly behind. The next day snow covers our tracks, but I know we’ll encounter them again in spring: I somewhat embarrassed by our carelessness, he beyond thrilled to be thus memorialized.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: register.

Instructions for loving the place you live in

(A guided meditation, a love letter, a poem. Imagine it spoken out loud.)

First, stop, close your eyes, and listen. You may be tempted to open your eyes, but you will hear more that is true if you first keep them closed. Breathe into your heart, your belly, all the way down to your feet. Stand still. Let the waves of sound crash over your head: the hum of traffic, the roar of airplanes thousands of miles above you, the shrieks of laughter, the sirens, your neighbours shouting, sparrows singing, small children’s tears. Keep listening. To love a place you must listen beneath what it pretends to be, listen to what hurts it and what makes it most alive.

Open your eyes slowly. Keep your ears open: to the whispered greeting beneath the noise and bluster, the first sigh of recognition, the soft hello.

To love a place, start walking. You can’t fall in love in a hurry, closed up in steel and glass, shutting out the seasons, blocking out what’s real. Each step is an offering of your presence, a necessary courtship, an invitation to a dance. Under your feet your aliveness meets the streets, it meets the skin underneath the rigid garments, it coaxes and teases and lays down your tracks. This isn’t possession, it’s a rite of celebration, a deep soul connection, a blessing. It’s your way to see and be seen.

To love a place, explore with slow urgency. This is not haste, it’s a courtship of delight. What will you find in the alleyways, between the spreading trees, in the unkempt fields of goldenrod and asters, deep down in the ravines, by the river’s edge? Don’t be afraid to open your senses – what you discover may enchant or alarm you: the rough bark of maples, the smell of the porous earth after a storm, bold green plants pushing through the sidewalk, trees heavy with fruit ripe for your picking, hawks wheeling wide above high-rises, rabbit tracks stretched out beside train tracks, nestlings cast cold to the ground by heavy rain, piles of cigarette butts and indestructible coffee cups, the stench and rot of last week’s compost spilled out by raccoons.

It’s all real; it’s all true: both the pain and the beauty. You’re not perfect either.

To love a place, don’t distain, don’t turn up your nose, don’t turn away, don’t let others shame or disparage. You need to keep coming back. Listen to its stories, tend to its wounds, be mindful of its past, be kind. You can be a healer, a caretaker, a lover, a friend.

To love a place, you must keep showing up. You must map your joys and griefs slowly over its surface and its depths; you must weave through its wide and narrow spaces your own bittersweet life. If you are patient, the place you love will one day shake off its shyness. It will look you in the eye and share its secrets. It will pull back its hair, uncover its shoulders, uncross its arms and legs, let you in.

I tell you, I promise you: the place you love will love you back.


Tracking the language of the wild

Lake Sasajewun

On a late August Friday afternoon I find myself with two friends on a journey north from the city I live in: driving through a series of highways that become progressively narrower, less busy and more winding; watching tall buildings gradually replaced by huge rocks and tall trees; then finally turning left off Highway 60 on to a secluded gravel road into the Wildlife Research Station (WRS) in Algonquin Park.

It’s a place I’ve been getting to know in the past four years or so, mostly in twice-a-year visits which swing wildly between the extremes of deep Ontario winter and its hot summer. Slipping out of the car among the tall pines and small wooden cabins brings all those memories back.

A half hour after we get out of our car we are sliding two canoes into the water of Lake Sasajewun, which I last crossed on snowshoes, and setting off into the late summer dusk.

We watch for wildlife along the edges, skirt around the deadfalls and rocks, alternate between boisterous laughter and silence. We cautiously navigate through the narrow channel in the lake and spend some time stilling our canoes together in the marshes on the northern end, breathing deeply, taking it all in, swatting the occasional mosquito, keeping our eyes open for the moose that Sue saw here last summer. As we turn back south to get through the rocks before darkness falls, I start to see the first stars appear in the still blue-gray sky. This is not like the city.

We’re here for a tracking weekend with Earth Tracks. Many of us – and others who join us that evening and later in the weekend – have completed an apprenticeship program (or two, or more…) with Alexis Burnett.

I’m here because although I love many things about my life in the city, there is this pull also to be out in the wild, to understand how the bigger pieces of my ecosystem work and how I fit into them, and also how I can help keep them as healthy as possible. And I’m here because tracking is something I have come to love intensely and want to keep cultivating, keep practicing myself and introducing to others.

I stumbled upon tracking in a one-thing-leading-to-another kind of way about four years ago, and I fell in love. I fell in love with many things about it, but mostly with the experience of paying attention. Alexis says a mentor once told him, “Tracking and awareness are the same thing.” There is a vocabulary to learn, but in many ways it’s not much more complicated than giving my attention fully. I used to walk through the woods simply enjoying the feeling of being there, and I often still do, but now I also know how to notice the little things that tell big stories.

There is that saying about not judging a person before walking a mile in their shoes. Walking following the trail of an animal, or even picking up a few of the clues it left behind, is similar. This is daily life that is unfolding before you: eating, sleeping, elimination, reproduction, play, fear. And death. Death is often spelled out very clearly. Giving our attention to all of it hones empathy and connection – with the creatures around us, with each other, and within ourselves – and brings our human lives into context.

The next morning, when we each talk about our intentions for the weekend, keeping eyes and ears open and paying attention to the little things is a common theme. There are also some shared questions about bear tracks and sign, and about learning how to find faint tracks in debris (pine duff, leaf litter). I am feeling drawn to bears this weekend, after having spent other visits here paying more attention to moose, wolves, and some of the mustelids: martens, fishers, otters. At this moment, I want to understand more about the life of black bears: their feeding strategies, their reproductive cycles, the ways they raise their cubs.

As we move out along the grounds of the WRS, Alexis points to broken branches, indentations where bear feet landed, scratches and bites on hydro poles, a few hairs caught in the wood. Some of us take turns acting out the bear turning its back on the pole and biting over its shoulder, each trying to figure out the placement of its teeth and claws. Acting things out is often the only way to really see them with our minds and feel them in our bodies. I’ve examined these particular hydro poles before – bears come back and mark the same spots year after year. But now I am starting to see how the pieces fit together. We talk about what the bears eat at each time of year; the huge number of calories they need per day, especially as they prepare for their winter sleep (not a “true” hibernation, as I’ve learned); how constantly they need to eat to make up those calorie needs. Right now they will be moving between berry season and mast season (acorns, beech nuts). We’re not seeing a lot of recent bear sign here, and we talk about the large range they need to move through to find their food, and where else they might have moved to in the park to find late crops of berries.

In the same area we find moose tracks, and branches pulled down by moose to get closer access to tasty foliage. We have a discussion about the identity of a particular shrub. I know it as hobblebush, but Christina tells me it’s viburnum. Later on we realize that we are both right – score! We look at miniscule incisor marks on an old plywood shed and wonder about what is in the plywood (salt, glue?) that appeals to rodents of various sizes.

We ask a LOT of questions, many of which we may not ever find answers to in books, even though later in the evening we’ll spend some time excitedly reading out loud to each other from field guides Alexis brought.

The afternoon brings another paddle across the lake, where some of our group elects to follow a moose trail for a short while. Our canoes lie overturned amidst sweet gale, leatherleaf, steeplebush, wintergreen, mint, and some stunning indigo-blue gentian flowers. I nibble on a wintergreen leaf as Kaleigh searches through a plant guide to identify the gentian. Moving into the trees, I spot an ideal giant rock to sit on for an after-lunch meditation: watching for birds and being watched by a curious red squirrel, smelling the air around me, listening to mysterious splashes in the lake. An hour later we paddle back – my canoe still smells like mint – and make time for a pre-dinner swim and some research on pressing questions from the day. Dinner is delicious and also rather riotous.

There is a lot of teasing and banter that happens when tracking. Maybe it’s all the time spent looking at animal scats and talking about mating strategies, trying to viscerally understand the ways animals move. People get a bit goofy at times. That evening we read technical terms in a glossary and try to figure out how to incorporate them into our vocabularies, with varying degrees of seriousness. “Crepuscular” seems to win out in its usefulness – not nocturnal, not diurnal, but active at dawn and dusk, a word applying to many creatures we track. Victor repeats it over and over again, planning to introduce the word to the primary school students he will be teaching in the fall.

After dinner, we get further wound up in silliness and debate, until Alexis gracefully shifts our energy to a walk out to the swim spot on the lake to try out some owl and wolf calls. Sending these sounds out onto the darkening lake is a powerful thing, and while we don’t get any responses this time, we can feel the change in the movement and sound of the birds around us, responding to the threat of a potential predator (the barred owl). We sit silently by the lake for a while. I feel a quiet intimacy between us growing in the falling darkness and silence here. When we get up, we can barely see the slope behind us. We challenge ourselves to walk back up the hill and along the paths without artificial light, feeling how easily our other senses kick in when our dominant sense is hampered. As we reach our cabins again, I break into a run, feeling the exhilaration of the dark night around me, celebrating how good I feel at that moment

The next day we compare dog and fox tracks on the road on the way to the lake, we find a fox scat with an entire shed snakeskin within its twists (wow!), we find the remains of a turtle egg, we speculate on the identities of particular plants. Paddling again across the lake we see beaver scent mounds and muskrat latrines. We talk about castoreum, the beaver secretion once used in perfume manufacture. We put our canoes up in a new spot, and make our way along a long trail, stopping to look at trees drilled by pileated woodpeckers, giant bear scratches on conifers dripping with sticky sap, deer antler rubs, and moose tracks. Marten scats appear periodically along the trail. We take our rain jackets on and off as gentle rain alternates with bright sun.

Before we turn around to go back, we do an intuitive tracking exercise, trying to really feel the energy of an animal from a single track and predict with intuition, empathetic understanding, and maybe with experience, where it might have gone next and where we will find more tracks. As we gather up to dip our feet in a cool creek that crosses the trail, we talk about intuition, empathy, imagination, storytelling, vision. About why we care so much about what we are doing. About what it teaches us. We walk more quickly back along the trail to our canoes. I feel satiated and also inspired.

Tracking is like visiting a country where I can speak a different language. It takes practice, and the practice helps me build on what I already know, but in the practice is also the cultivation of relationships. My attention honours that which is around me; it honours both the reality of all the life that tells its own stories separately from mine, but also the connections between my self and all of these stories. It is a form of deep listening with all my senses. It is a form of empathy for all the creatures around me. I can practice this anywhere, but some experiences are more immersive than others. Here, I am on the land of these animals, the land of all of the humans that came here before me; I am this in my own city home as well, but here I aware of this in each moment.

I feel the grace and gratitude of being a visitor, a relation, a friend.

Thanks to Christina Yu, Sue Gulley and Lianna Vargas for photos!






The promise of spring

I have been feeling a fire lighting in my belly again, or perhaps simply an ember which will grow into a fire with tending. Last year at this time someone told me that early February is the pre-ovulation phase of the earth. The world looks and feels like winter, but there are hints of life starting to stir below the surface: the sap is beginning to move, there is quickening underground, there is a rumour in the air of the fertility and abundance to come.

Last year, on the coldest day in February, when the temperature had dropped into the -20s (Celsius) and heavy snow covered the ground, I stood at the bottom of a Toronto ravine and heard the courting song of the cardinal. It was my first sign of spring, and now I know it will come again soon.

Last weekend, I trailed two moose with a group in Algonquin Park: huge frozen lakes, tall trees, deep snow, the crunch of snowshoes, hand signals and hushed laughter; an hour sitting and watching one female moose closely across a small stream as it relaxed into our presence, with her calf moving in silhouette on a slope in the distance. It was my only opportunity for real tracking this winter, and it was like a blast of warmth to feel the return of the joyful, boisterous, alive, and profoundly connecting energy that came with it.

The new moon, the lunar new year, the lengthening days, Imbolc – I am open to tapping whatever influences are available, real or metaphorical. One way or another, I have felt myself emerging from winter’s dark, at first gradually, and then with a jolt.

As I stumble through my internal swamp, I see in a moment of clarity that meaning is something I will need to create, that it won’t offer itself up to me on one of the heavy brown plates passed down to me with my mother-in-law’s wedding china. I will need to find the will to mold it out of the clay of my life. It will have to be a choice.

I can pause, I can rest, I can mourn; but every day, I need to make the choice to re-engage with the world, both as it is and as I wish it to be.

I am sometimes tripped up by the cultural pressure to be happy. And this is a hard one to unravel – I am grateful for everything that the Earth provides; I feel awe and wonder and love and the electricity of being alive. I am often deeply joyful. But not to see the grief that is also always present in the world, to brush it aside, that seems to me a profound dishonouring of the fullness of living experience. Being fully present both to celebration and to grief – that is part of what it means to be a spiritually healthy human being. It means being able to hold that tension.

Grief is the awareness that our time here is short, that we are all broken in some way, that there is great pain in the world we live in, that so much has been destroyed, that we are clinging to a life raft and may never make it to shore. But in that grief, we can also see the beauty of the everyday, because in this moment we are alive.

Gratitude and grief are two sides of the same coin. Here we are: so much has been lost and continues to be, and we are committed to a lifetime of mourning. But here we are: we are alive, we have the fierceness and tenderness of love, we have sunshine and water to drink and the crunch of the snow under our feet and our hearts which beat day and night without stopping. We can laugh. We can reach for each other.

I have been thinking about how in the first half of life we gather and accumulate: things, accomplishments, energy, love, people, our own gifts. And for a long time we might feel that there will always be more. But, if it hasn’t happened earlier, there is a moment at midlife when we will look around us and sharply catch our breath, because we see that every mortal thing will one day be taken away. And it’s like that moment in late August, when we become of aware of the setting sun while still eating dinner under the trees, and  feel that bittersweet turn between summer and fall, and anticipate the harshness of winter.

And now, it’s February, the month of the Hunger Moon. We’ve made it through the darkest nights, but there is still some danger. In an earlier time, in this northern climate, we would now be living at the limit of our stored resources and our body’s reserves. We would need to look out for ourselves and for each other. Perhaps we would start to feel the quickening in the air and in our bodies, but we would need community and compassion and resilience and faith to believe that the world would come back to life for us once more.

After I wrote that it had been a hard January, some people said “I know exactly what you mean,” and a few people said they were sorry to hear it. But I don’t think there’s a need to be sorry, only to be present. The darkness doesn’t feel good, but it feels necessary. It is part of being human. It’s not the last time it will come. I can come through darkness with a renewed sense of strength and purpose; a renewed sense of what is possible and what isn’t; a renewed sense of what to hold on to and what to let go of in my life.

And I have kept my commitment, over the winter months, to be gentle with myself.

Now, I am grateful for the lengthening days, I am grateful for newfound energy, I am grateful for the physical and spiritual nourishment around me, I am grateful for compassion, I am grateful to see others emerging from the dark: I am grateful for the promise of spring.



Pema Chödrön on self-compassion and compassion towards others. Over the past few weeks I have started working on a daily Book of Hours – an illustrated book compiling  quotes, poetry, meditations, and other wisdom – inspired by a workshop with my friend Rozanne Lopez.




The beach in winter

beach in winter

We went down to the beach on Sunday, on Lake Huron. Conan’s grandparents lived their final decades in this village, and their house has been kept as a family cottage. The kind of cottage that features Arts and Crafts wallpaper and antique lamps. Winter might be my favourite season on this beach, but I love all of them, maybe with the surprising exception of summer days, when the beach is a crowded jumble of towels, umbrellas and swimmers; on those days I prefer to wait until evening to visit, bobbing small in my red swimsuit among the big waves as the warmth drains out of the water, then sitting west-facing on the sand to watch the huge and incandescent sky while the sun sets over this lake that feels like an ocean.

Once last summer I sat here after dark and watched lightning on the horizon. At night the waves appear to trace the edge of the lake instead of moving towards the shore. That particular night, the waves jolted across the edge of the dark water like a white serpent, moving with the electric sky. I sat on the beach and felt the pull of the endless lake. From where I sat I imagined the water not as cold, but as warm and dense and heavy, with a surface as smooth as silk. I wondered if there was gravity to a vast body of water like this, something that lures you to want to walk in and never stop walking. Like the pull of standing on a cliff edge and holding yourself back from the voice that says that you can fly, that you could jump right now and soar above the valley. That maybe it’s worth a try, all prior evidence to the contrary.

But now it’s winter, one of the coldest days of a cold winter. There are no other people in sight. As we walk and slip down the snowy path to the beach, we look ahead and see that there is no separation between the beach and the lake. The snow is pristine, the beach still after a night of fierce wind blowing from the west. We had walked towards the water the previous afternoon, when the rest of the village was still calm, and found ourselves at the top of the slope pushing against a wind so bitter that our temples ached, our lashes froze, and there was nothing to see or feel but the swirling, stinging snow. Malcolm turned back, and I stayed with him, but Conan and Lachlan pushed on down to the beach and found shelter behind a snowdrift. A shelter from the wind that the wind itself had created. The storm blew in across the lake, and by the time we had walked home and lit a fire, the wind howled around the house.

The day after the storm, there are no human tracks at the bottom of the slope. Our previous day’s descent has left no trace. I see only the narrow, undulating trail of a small canine with furry feet, who has left some pungently smelling urine as its calling card. I stop to examine the trail, wading through the deep snow to puzzle out direction and gaits and whether maybe, just maybe, on this Valentine’s Day weekend, there had been two foxes on the beach instead of one. But finally I am drawn to follow my family towards the lake and on to it, on to the huge icy drifts formed by that west wind that howls across the frozen water. The landscape is unearthly, like the surface of the moon; or at the least like the frozen Arctic, where ahead there is only white snow and sky, and all of the obstacles are internal. The line of drifts has been carved out like sand dunes, the lake side hollowed into gigantic and perfect snow forts; but the snow is also a layer of meringue over the beach, swirled and crunchy. The snow’s surface is polished with silver, patches of frost that catch the sunlight as if someone has dripped silver glitter paint across the beach.

The next day I drive by myself to a small conservation area, strapping on my snowshoes, which at first feel awkward on the trail packed by boots and cross-country skis. It doesn’t take long to step off the human trial onto a deer trail, and I follow it east over deep snow, criss-crossing other deer trails from all directions. Ducking under cedars, dodging around tamaracks, stepping over fallen branches of all kinds, I follow the deer trails into a cedar swamp, where the trails are many, pellets of scat lie in large piles, and I count at least nine deer beds close together. I’m happy to find this. These cedars house a deer yard – where the deer choose to spend the cold months, nibbling on conifer boughs and staying out of the wind. I see that the cedars still have plenty of nourishment to give: they are not browsed out of reach like some I have seen this winter. I circle around the swamp, conscious of the deep dips in the snow where I know there is likely to be moving water underneath, and I find myself back on my own snowshoe trail. And I follow it back as the sun dips down below the treeline.

A few nights ago I had a version of my most recurring dream. I was packing a backpack, putting things in and taking them out, trying to pare down to the essentials. Sometimes boots are important in the dream, the right boots to walk for as long as is needed. I don’t know exactly what these dreams mean, but they have been with me for all of my adult life. My new snowshoes give me the same deep satisfaction as the bag packed right, the boots that will carry me where I want to go. They give me the freedom to roam. They make me feel that I am ready.

The previous weekend, in Algonquin Park, I wore these snowshoes on a group weekend of tracking and trailing. There were many things that happened that weekend, among them a significant encounter with two moose, but the snowshoes taught me something else. Near the end of our first day, we pushed back towards the road through another snow-covered swamp. It was hard going to break the trail, and this time we all took turns, each person taking as long as they could before stepping off to take a breath. When it was my turn, I looked ahead of me, and saw that there was no right way to go, no way that was any easier than another. Every option would involve dodging boughs, pushing through dense branches, stepping awkwardly over obstacles in deep snow. I tried to trust my instincts, to find the clearest way, but so often my path seemed to me awkward and circular, deviating from any possibility of a straight line; my way forward, a struggle, as I wrestled with everything in my path. When I was ready for a rest, I slipped to the back of the line. And now, suddenly, the path was no longer a set of difficult choices; it was simply a fact. The path was in front of me, and one foot in front of another, without any thought, I could follow it.

The way forward is never obvious when you are breaking trail. You orient yourself in the right direction, and then try to find the clearest way ahead. There is some exhilaration in the struggle. Like the perfectly packed backpack, the beach still and pristine after the storm, the deer trails that all lead to the same place, the perfect trail emerges after the fact. And then it is a blessing to be on a trail that just is; to drop back to the end of the line, put one foot in front of the other, breathe in the quiet and stillness, to trust the path you’re on and the people on it.

I have learned to love the winter and what the snow reveals.

beach in winter 2

Reading the Stories in the Snow: tracking evaluation in Algonquin Park

I spent this past weekend at the Wildlife Research Station in Algonquin Park, standing around in below -20C temperatures, poring over indentations in the snow, snowed-in trails of all sizes, mysterious scrapes and holes in trees, pungent urine marks, and other clues of animal presence. I do this kind of thing for fun as often as I can, but this time I was participating in a Track and Sign Evaluation to test my skills. I’ve been working on tracking skills in a focused way for about two years now, perhaps peripherally for a year or two before that. I’ve written previously about what drew me to this learning, and why I find it so compelling and beautiful and important, both on this blog and at Sense of Story. And so you might know that for the past two years I’ve been involved in an apprenticeship program with Earth Tracks, spending many inspiring weekends hiking around forests, swamps, cliffs and fields in every possible kind of weather, learning about the ecology of this land that I live in and about the creatures who inhabit it with me. I’ve learned to measure, sketch tracks, journal, draw maps, do species research, observe weather patterns, and tease out the stories left behind on the land.

When the evaluation was first scheduled, I hesitated to sign up. I had some nerves and doubt and plenty of ego to untangle when I considered being put on the spot for my skills in this way, skills that seemed so emergent and fragile to me. I didn’t know what it would look like and how it would feel to be required to move from wonder and speculation to firmly committing to an answer, my own answer, to each puzzle pointed out to me. What did I actually know? But specific goals are motivating, and risk is a powerful teacher.

So I found myself on a late January Friday bunking with three other women, fortunately all of them friends, in a tiny cabin in the woods of Algonquin Park. In between sleeping and evaluation time out in the field, our group of ten or so participants gathered together in the Director’s Cabin at the Wildlife Research Centre to warm up, cook our meals, and socialize.

One of my bunkmates, Tamara, had made up study notes for herself, and we lay in our beds on Friday evening as she read tidbits out loud by headlamp, all of us easing our nerves with raucous laughter.

Our humble but cozy accommodations.

Our humble but cozy accommodations.

The next morning, with feet already freezing from the cold cabin floors (note to self: bring slippers next time!), we gathered with snowshoes and notebooks to start the evaluation. George, the evaluator – who had come up from the U. S. – had scouted out some tracks and sign the day before. But nature is always in motion, and recently fallen snow and new tracks meant that many of the questions he ultimately gave us were spontaneously found or had already changed slightly by the time our group reached them. With each new track, trail or sign we might be asked: “Who made this?” “What gait is this?” “Which foot is this?” or the all encompassing “What happened here?” Ecology, habitat, behaviour, as well as our knowledge of track and trail patterns and typical animal sign all informed our answers. We moved from one set of tracks to another, each person taking as long as they needed to decide on an answer, although the bitter cold certainly encouraged closure. Our answers we gave one by one to George or to Alexis – who was assisting – either whispered or written in a notebook (my preference). The evaluator’s job was to hear our answer with a neutral face and record it.

Who made these tracks?

Who made these tracks?

After each group of five or so questions, George took up the answers. Obviously, the evaluator’s tracking skills are put on the spot as well, and there is room for debate and the occasional question thrown out if there is too much disagreement (it is amazing, for example, how much snowed-over moose tracks and human tracks can look alike). After the first group of questions, I knew I would be fine, and I threw myself into the exuberant fun and adrenaline high of it all.

George and Alexis, practicing the poker face. George has an excellent frost beard.

George and Alexis, practicing the poker face. George has an excellent frost beard.

As I knew, my weak point was bird, insect and mammal sign on trees. On the other hand, I had some strokes of luck, pulling an answer out of nowhere – certainly not from conscious memory – a few times and then discovering it was right. I was struck by how often a seemingly random guess can have a solid deductive process going on behind it. I loved what I learned about my instincts and my reasoning process, how good it felt to follow my intuitions on each question, and how often my mistakes came out of not doing so. I also loved dispensing with the need for measurement – measuring tools weren’t allowed – and tuning into my love of patterns and context to summon my answers. I checked off correct and incorrect answers in my notebook, and although the answers are weighted for difficulty, making it difficult to calculate a score ahead of time, I could see as the weekend went on that I was mostly on a roll. I had told myself that what I wanted from the evaluation was a really great workshop – which it was – but I could see quickly that my competitive drive was kicking in.

Who made this trail?

Who made this trail?

Among what we saw in the snow were tracks and trails of pine marten, fisher, mink, river otter, short-tailed weasel, shrew, deer mouse or white-footed mouse, grouse, moose, white-tailed deer, red squirrel, red fox, and eastern wolf. On a range of trees, hydro poles and on one plywood shed were marks from black bear, porcupine, pileated woodpecker, and many other smaller creatures.

What happened here?

What happened here?

Our most intense moment was being led to a fresh moose carcass at the bottom of a slope on the side of the highway. The next few questions set the scene: Whose tracks were leading up to it? What did we see at the top of the hill? Was this all related? If so, how? It was potent and moving to visualize the scene of the hunt, what might have happened here and how. To place it within the statistics on wolf on moose predation in the park; to feel the agony of the moose’s death alongside gratitude for the role the wolves play in the health of their ecosystem. In the woods with senses wide open, you can’t avoid the cycle of life and death, its solid and fleshy reality, and the bigger knowledge that every living being, every possible nutrient, is eventually recycled and reabsorbed into others and into the Earth.

A beautiful otter trail.

A beautiful otter trail.

I was grateful to have been part of this experience and process. Putting myself into a situation where I needed to decipher the clues on my own, to commit to answers and really trust my gut, and the excellent outcome that came out of this for me (Level III Track and Sign) gave me a huge boost of confidence in the skills I’ve built up over the past few years. The testing situation put a higher stake on using the knowledge I had in contrast to the more relaxed energy of tracking as naturalist learning. It connected me in a deeper way to the instincts my ancestors would have used, that I could still use, in a situation where tracking had a stake in survival. Reflecting on the experience in the week afterwards, I thought a lot about how to apply that intuition, that trust in myself, to other situations in my life. Like any experience where head, heart and body are engaged, it gifted me more than the sum of its parts.

Pine marten at the back window of the Wildlife Research Station.

Pine marten at the back window of the Wildlife Research Station. Photo by Lianna Vargas.

A week later, I’m driving up to Algonquin Park again, this time with the apprenticeship program, for a weekend of a different pace, which will be both more relaxed and more physically demanding. We’ll get onto some moose or wolf trails, read the patterns, immerse ourselves in the exhilaration of movement, observation and connection with the more-than-human world. I’m glad not to be tested this time, but I know I’ll bring the energy of last weekend forward into this one. And I suspect that when the evaluation comes around again next year, I will be keen to do it again.

Me, with my usual tracking grin.

Me, with my usual tracking grin.

Creating habits of awareness: or why I’m spending so much time on tracking journals

fox journal pg 2

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently working on tracking journals. For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been involved in a tracking apprenticeship program through Earth Tracks Outdoor School. The year before – having  developed a deep curiosity about plants, especially their edible and medicinal uses – I’d signed up for a wild plants apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. I signed up impulsively, but with an instinct I trusted. I had taken a couple of workshops with Alexis and had a really good feeling about his teaching style. I knew I wanted more grounded knowledge of ecology and nature. After many years of education, I was suddenly stunned by my own ignorance about the natural world. I wanted to zoom in on things, see the details, really know what was around me. I wanted to be outside all day, learning cool stuff.

The monthly commitment felt daring and kind of improbable – my younger child was only three, and we had rarely been apart. But sometimes I set my mind to something, and I can’t turn back.

From the first weekend, the time and space and all-day immersion in nature tapped into to something that I had been longing for. As the eight-month plant apprenticeship wound down, I wanted to continue learning in exactly this way. I found out that Alexis was offering a ten-month tracking program, which would start just a week after the plant course finished. As we drove back and forth together the last months of the course, my new friend Lee and I gradually talked each other into it. It was a leap of faith, because at that time I knew little about tracking, but it also felt right, because I knew how much the weekends had nourished me the previous year. I knew also that in nature nothing is separate. Tracking was connected to a huge web of naturalist learning that I wanted to dig into. And I also felt, in a way, that a wave was carrying me that I couldn’t really stop. And didn’t want to.

Now, I am in the second year of tracking apprenticeship with Earth Tracks. Along with a couple of others, I’m participating in a pilot second year program in a work/trade role. I’ve also practiced tracking in other contexts over the same period, in the midst of homeschooling my kids and other responsibilities: a week-long immersion course in Algonquin Park run by Earth Tracks and White Pine Programs; helping run a monthly drop-in tracking program for the PINE Project; and time on my own when possible. And now, I’m also working my way through lots and lots of tracking journals. The ones we use for the apprenticeship are based on the Shikari template, with two pages of more reflective questions added by Alexis. Each journal is six pages long in total, and completing one involves mapping, sketching, measurement, weather observations, ecological observations, species research, observations on one’s own patterns and gaps, and reflection on the more intuitive and personal aspects of tracking. Another set of journal pages, also part of the homework, are focused on species research and field observation. With these, I was initially a bit fixated on making them “complete” and now I’d like to work on making them shorter and more concise instead.

On top of all that are ecological mapping exercises, seasonal nature observations, and tracking exercises of various kinds. Whew! It’s going to take me a while to get through it all. But as with so many things, I’m finding that as I make a habit of it, I’m drawn further in. I’m learning to love my tracking journals, picking away at the homework bit by bit each day. And doing this kind of recording, questioning and puzzle-solving is reinforcing the experiential naturalist learning I’ve been doing the past couple of years. This is field research, but it’s not detached. It’s detailed, but it’s also personal and reflective and connecting. In the past, most of the academic work I did involved writing and more writing: long essays about patterns and theories. I liked making leaps of intuition; I avoided methodical work. This uses a different part of my brain, one which needs to be present to the details. Slowly I can see that paying close attention and recording observations is training me to see better. The more I learn, the more questions I have. I’ve realized that this kind of learning is a life-long commitment.

Here are some more (non-matching) example of individual journal pages. Some of these are finished, some are not quite. They are teaching me the importance of just showing up and doing the work, of slowly bringing small pieces together into something substantial, of creating methodical habits that over time create big changes of perspective.roe deer journal page

allan park map journal pagesnowshoe hare journal pageracoon species journal

muskrat personal reflections journal page

tracking binder on kitchen table

Moose and wolves and bears, oh my! Summer tracking in Algonquin Park.

I spent last weekend in Algonquin Park, staying at the Wildlife Research Station by Lake Sasajewun. I was there as part of a 10-month, one-weekend-per month, tracking apprenticeship with Earth Tracks that I’m doing for the second year in a row, this time as part of a pilot second-year program in a work-trade supporting role. The past few months I’ve been helping to write up detailed stories of our days for the Earth Tracks blog. This month my two fellow second-year apprentices took on that task for the entire weekend. So I’ll take share a few of my highlights here, without feeling any need to be comprehensive, and without giving away anything like all of the weekend’s stories.  And I’ll share some photos, to balance out all of the writing – the inner tracking – I’ve been sharing recently.


Blueberries are in season. Even if we hadn’t seen any bushes, we would know, because everything is eating them. And mostly they don’t get chewed or digested very well. We came across blueberry scats of all shapes and sizes. Also, sarsaparilla berries in scat – a good mystery that took us most of the day to identify. The clue was their D-shaped seeds. Yes, we do spend a lot of time poking apart animal poop with sticks. But it’s such a wealth of information. Coins, while not much use in the woods, are always useful for scale.


My hand inside a black bear track. There’s something very powerful about putting your hands inside the track of a huge animal like a bear. This track was hard to photograph on its own. A vague shape in the moss caught our eyes, but it was putting my fingers inside it that gave me the jolt of identification. My fingers fit so neatly into the impressions of the bear’s toes. The moss was soft on my hand and I could imagine the spring of it under the bear’s feet. Tracking by feel is surprisingly effective in debris like leaf litter and pine needles, especially with a heavy animal like a bear or moose, or one with sharp-edged tracks, like a moose or deer. Also, it’s exhilarating to take in information through non-dominant senses.


Blissfully cool and beautiful water on a blazing, hot August day. Algonquin Park reminds me of why we gave our older son his name, Lachlan: “from the land of lakes”.


We found huge old moose bones half-buried in the ground, just starting to decompose back into the earth. This is the pelvis. I find the pelvic bone strangely beautiful. I can imagine long ago – or not even so long – in a time and place where everything had a use, these bones being used as masks or fulfilling another ceremonial function. They are gracefully but solidly sculptural, and hold the residual power of reproduction and birth. 


Saturday after dinner, we went for a sunset paddle on Lake Sasajewun. The lake was still and the sky clear. It was the night of the August full moon, the “super moon”. My camera never does justice to a photograph of the full moon – oh, I try, believe me!  It never looks anything as spectacular and huge as it does in real life.  But here is the sky to the west instead.  Ohhhh….  We paddled to the north end of the lake, watching beavers and herons, peering into the trees for a glimpse of the moose and bear and wolf we had tracked earlier in the day. As the sky darkened fully, we paddled back south and rafted up in the middle of the lake for a glorious wolf howl. The wolves didn’t howl back… not this time. But they sometimes do.

So many more stories and mysteries from the next day. But I’ll leave it at that. Check out the Earth Tracks blog for more.

Grateful for these wild spaces and the creatures who inhabit them. Grateful that I’ve had the space and support in the past few years to take part in these adventures, and to bring these stories back with me.

The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part Two)

The first part of this post is The rivers tell stories. Can you hear them? (Part One).

Some time last year or the year before, I dipped in and out of a book called Spiritual Ecology: the Cry of the Earth. It was a collection of essays and interviews, and I found it wildly inspiring. One of the pieces was an interview with someone named Sister Miriam MacGillis. I don’t know much about her. But I love what she said:

Typically the religious meanings we hold are still based on our separation from nature – the pursuit of God is equally separated from nature – and so they do not bring us to truly reverence nature. We don’t go out into our backyard and kneel down before the soil and know that we are in the face of sacred mystery.

She went on to say that Western religions, although they have explored the sacred in other realms, have never fully explored the spirituality of the natural world. And then she went on to say – and this is what has stayed with me and what I keep turning around in my mind – that if you see the Universe “as the process by which God created”, then the Universe becomes “a primary sacred scripture.”

Whether my view of God – which is vague and questioning and uncertain – matches hers, doesn’t matter to me right now (one of my only strong views about spirituality has always been the less certainty, the more openness, the better). What I’m holding on to is the idea of the Earth – in all its earthy beauty and messiness – as the primary sacred text. It captured my imagination. It fit beautifully into what I saw emerging for me in my own life. The sacred is here, not out there. Not a new idea – a very ancient one. One that bears revisiting.

I see that our responsibility, as humans, is to pay attention to the Earth with our whole selves: to read, to witness, to trace the connections between one being and another; to study each tree, plant, track, bird, insect; to connect the web of influences. It’s the closest thing to a spiritual creed that I’ve approached in the more than twenty years that I stopped identifying as Catholic, a part of me that lay fallow for most of those years. I’ve so long been cagey on the subject of belief, it’s like opening that proverbial kettle of fish. It’s where I am right now.

I see that part of reading the Earth is learning facts and information. Those are useful; they can be crucial. They are what accumulate from time spent immersed in the natural world, wherever we live. We need to see the details. We need our relationships to be grounded and specific. We need to know, practically, how we can steward the land. We need to know what animals live around us, what plants, what trees; what was here in the past and could be here again. We need to be in relationship. We can’t care for nature unless we know it intimately. We need to actually know what is here.

But I’m also learning that some reading I need to do with my heart. I read the text, but I want to read behind the text. I find that symbols and metaphors bring me into deeper relationships.

I don’t think looking for symbols is naïve or superstitious. Perhaps it can be, if it’s without context. But it can also offer another, very rich, layer of understanding.

Each animal I form a relationship with, each plant and tree, has a story to tell. When I see how they connect to my own story, my relationship with them deepens. If I repeatedly see deer and start to ask and read about what meaning deer could hold, I learn that one of the qualities people have traditionally connected with deer is gentleness. Not pushing, not forcing things. I find this reminder to have a lot of relevance to my life right now. I also see grace, awareness, finely tuned senses, speed, the ability to suddenly change direction. Can I develop these qualities in myself?


I sit with the images I uncover; my intuition pulls me towards the symbolism that has meaning for me. Discovering that meaning becomes part of my relationship with the deer, along with factual knowledge about their tracks, feeding patterns, mating behaviour, habitat. Along with what I know about deer in general and about the particular deer I encounter. Each creature is a mentor.

I’m finding that hearing the stories of the Earth means listening carefully for the metaphors. Being able to hear the stories in a personal way creates personal relationships. When we believe that everything around us has the potential to speak to us, to tell us a story and to become part of our story, we are held in a web of relationships and of responsibility. This is not human-centered narcissism; it’s the most ancient way of connecting to the Earth in all of its intricacy, one which all of our ancestors at one point or another shared.

To open myself up to the possibility of dialogue with everything in the world has been transformative for me. It has helped me fit different parts of my life together that previously seemed disconnected. It has helped me see that each of our stories holds a richness of meaning way beyond the human details of our lives. I has helped me know that I am never alone.

I live half way between two rivers. They are real and specific. They have a history; they are part of a watershed; their health or lack of it is an indicator of the health of their ecosystem; their health foretells our health.

And I live between other rivers, less tangible, and equally full of possibilities.