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Imprints on the Land

By Joshua Brown Article published March 5, 2008

Animal tracks
Doctoral student Matt Kolan examines a set of tracks with students in his Place-Based Landscape Analysis course. (Photo: Joshua Brown)

An animal track is more than a mark in mud or snow that says a fox or flock of turkeys passed by. It's a lens into a shadowed world of animal intentions. The single strike of claw and toepad can summon a vast ecological narrative for those with skill to read what's there.

But to get to this elevated state requires a whole lot of what trackers call "dirt time." Which is why Matt Kolan leaps like a giant wool-clad claymation weasel along a snowy roadside in Cambridge, Vermont.

"This is a lope," he says to a group of graduate students in his course, Place-Based Landscape Analysis. He gets down on all fours, butt up and head down. He again charges forward through the snow, his boots deftly coming forward to land in the mark where his mittens just were. "A lope means that all its feet are on the ground only once per stride," he says.

Kolan, who graduated from UVM's Field Naturalist program, is a doctoral student in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. He's had a lot of dirt time. And now he's trying to help his students understand who made a line of glinting gray depressions that run in staggered pairs across the pale blue snow.

It's a fisher, he says, a solitary and energetic member of the weasel family. He studies the track, pointing out the "strong leading foot," and the way the footprints are filled with fresh snow. It's a female, he decides, in a 2/2 lope — an easy-going stride where front feet hit and then the back follow, directly registering on the same spots — definitely before Sunday morning," he says, when new snow fell.

Animal intentions
"When you start to move yourself like an animal, your perspective changes," he says, standing up. And trying to understand an animal's perspective, Kolan believes, starts to carry the tracker beyond a checkbox mentality — Fisher Was Here — and into a story about how it lives. Perhaps there is no adequate narrative of an animal's mind — what does a fisher think of itself? — but Kolan is sure that "different gaits tell us something about how an animal feels."

A few hours later, the students cross a red fox's businesslike tracks on a steep embankment. Its gait suddenly lengthens to a gallop as it crosses the frozen Brewster River, perhaps wary of being spotted by coyotes or people on a nearby bridge.

Just upriver, a tiny trail, like handwriting in the snow, shows how a red-backed vole scuttled in arcs from hiding place to hiding place. Was it mindless habit, or does this small creature constantly fear the owl's talon? Earlier, the students huddled around a love scene — for those with eyes to see. A male fisher "in baseline 2/2 gait made a T-stop right here," Kolan says, pointing to a pair of large five-toed tracks, side-by-side. A much smaller set of five-toed tracks crosses directly in front. "This is the female," he says, "And the male dropped his nose into these tracks and then, here, he followed her for a few feet." Too bad it isn't mating season.

Meaning in the marks
The narrative of a track, like any good story, is intrinsically interesting. Backtrack a bobcat track for day, as Kolan does with groups, and see how the cat follows a contour, how it stops to look downhill for any lunch that might be afoot. Stop to smell where it urinated on rocks to mark them. But, also like many good stories, the superficial plot of where an animal goes reveals larger patterns.

"If you've been trailing a fisher, and it's been moving in a straight line for a kilometer and then it starts to zigzag and circle back on itself: why has it changed? It's hunting," says Kurt Rinehart, UVM class of 2007, another tracker with a lot of dirt time who now runs a tracking business. "And why did it start hunting? Oh, it left those big hardwoods and now it's into brush, where cottontails hide." The track illuminates a web of ecological connections.

Crouching on a slab of frozen river, Kolan and his students look at the bounding steps of a female otter as it moved from ice-hole to ice-hole hunting for caddisfly larvae. They'll include this in an inventory of the animals they detect here. But they're also taking note of many other features too, like vegetation, soils and rock walls. "Vermont Land Trust was given this old hill farm and wants to revitalize it," Kolan says a few minutes later, as the students work their way up a crumbling skid road. "They asked us to help them understand, ecologically and culturally, what is happening here. We're trying to tell the story not just of the wildlife, but of this whole place."