One of the things I’ve missed most in this dry and largely snowless winter has been seeing animal tracks. The clean surface of a light snowfall is like a tightly-stretched painter’s canvas, ready to receive marks that reveal ongoing bustle in a season when everything seems, at first glance, to be in stasis.
After a few inches of snow fell over course of the day on February 10, for example, I came across fresh coyote tracks in front of the barn when I went to feed horses at sunset. The snow was still falling lightly, dotting the impressions with a scattering of flakes: the coyote and I hadn’t missed one another by much.
The wind came up overnight and refreshed the snowy canvas, and by the next morning my bulky footprints from the evening before had been erased. A fresh line of oval pawprints, which I initially took to be the coyote looping past again, lead up to the house. When I went out on the deck for a closer look, however, it was obvious that the tracks had been left by a feline, not a canine. A very large feline.
This is how we usually “see” mountain lions: by their tracks, in winter. They’re discreet, so we don’t generally see the corporeal animal, and I’m not a good enough tracker to notice their tracks without the aid of snow.
Most often, when I do come across the tidy rounded prints, they’re over on the hillside northwest of here, where deer and elk frequently travel. The last time I saw big cat tracks close to home was a few years back, along a game trail that’s bisected by our driveway. This time, though, the house itself—and possibly our presence therein—appeared to be the object of attention.
The oval divots leading up the driveway passed the garage so close the cat might have grazed the wall’s rock facing with its whiskers. On the back patio, the tracks executed a loop around the hot tub and showed a pause at the sidelight window next to the back door. That window extends almost to ground level, and it looked like the mountain lion had peeked through the glass.
From the patio, the trail veered away from the house for about forty feet, but then abruptly doubled back, as if the cat had started to leave but changed its mind. The prints angled to the uphill side of the house, edging close to the low deck outside the kitchen. They recorded another pause, to check out another ground-level window with a view onto the stairway. The cat carried on along the wall, passed under the front door deck, and crossed the planting bed next to the outdoor stairs. It left in the same direction from which it had approached.
This trail in the snow was thought-provoking for the physical evidence of the mountain lion’s presence, to be sure, but even more so for the curiosity it seemed to suggest. Attempting to discern intent from an animal’s footprints is a fool’s business, but as the days passed my mind kept returning to the directness of the tracks’ approach, their steady and unwavering stride, the pauses at the windows.
Large predators have a way of recalibrating how we humans think about ourselves, reminding us that we still qualify as meat. The world can use all the humility it can come by, I think, but beyond this the predator-prey binary seems awfully limited. Assigned to our respective roles, there’s not space in which either the cat or the human might maneuver.
I could easily read menace into the tracks around our house, and there’s little question the mountain lion checked the place out. I doubt it had dinner on its mind, though. I think it was inspecting the building in the same spirit as I would later examine its tracks—as a resident animal keen to learn more about local goings-on. Rejecting the easy antagonism of predator-prey—a variation on the simplistic us vs. them—made the cat seem more interesting, for sure, but it inspired self-reflection too. I spend more time than perhaps I should fretting that my life here is detrimental to the wild environment. Seeing the cat as the observer shifted my optics enough that I was able to catch a reflection of myself as just another critter, settled in my den with my mate on a winter’s night, comfortably at home.