As I rounded the corner of the snow-covered field, I noticed the run of tracks pressed into the fresh powder. I know dog and deer and these looked like neither. They were small and thin, like contrails and if there were indentations for paw or claw they didn’t reveal themselves. Rabbit maybe. I ventured further on the walk and encountered new sets of tracks. These left soft pockets and you could see the smaller indentations of hooves: deer. They went up over a short incline and disappeared into the tree line. The further I walked, the more I encountered both types of markings. At times they intersected, in other places they ran almost parallel to one another vanishing at the edge of a narrow stream cutting across the landscape.
I played my own little game, wondering at what I was witnessing. Frightened rabbit startled into high-tailing it for cover? Giddy rabbit tromping along without a care in the world? Anxious deer, pausing for a drink with one super sonic ear cocked listening for the seer of gunpowder leaving the barrel? Arrogant deer brazenly reclaiming field and yard and territory where houses and people have encroached? Maybe this is what keeps archaeologists going when they excavate the tiny fins of a prehistoric fish—they get to play author, making connections, weaving story.
I felt guilty leaving my own footprints in the snow. I had no business intruding on whatever dance had unfolded, disturbing whatever balance hung together in this bleached territory. Who’s to say that I belonged here at all? I just showed up, which is how a lot of American history seems to unfold. But now my prints are part of the story. My footfalls leave a legacy for someone else to find and think, “Someone out for an easy stroll on a winter’s day? Someone out hunting? Someone moving through this field trying to outpace a person, a heartbreak, a life?”
It seems to me that we’re all leaving bread crumbs behind in some form or another, traces of ourselves. We even talk about leaving “digital footprints:” photos, tweets, videos, posts. There are loved ones who curate the Facebook pages of people after they’ve made their final exit. These are just more refined tracks, but even they don’t tell the whole story. As hard as we try to cement legacy, we’re really just scattering pieces for someone else to find, and once we move on, we have no say in how those parts fit together. Unnerving. The notion that some day your tale assumes a new ontology, becomes animate again in a way you could never have envisioned. It’s enough to root you where you stand.
But you musn’t let it.
You have to venture out into the snow or mud or other stretch of rough earth to make a print; you have to move with intention, allow the heft of what you carry—your joys, your fears, your weariness, your desires–to show up in your stride. You have to be in the world in a meaningful way in order for your way to have meaning.
Otherwise you leave no gift, no story for the world to find, nothing but the stark, unbroken landscape of a field in winter unfolding before you like a blank page.