I walked from the hollow underneath a leaden morning sky. In a bare-bones season all I carried for the hike was a camera, binoculars and walking stick. Passing through my grove of pine and spruce, I knew it was almost time for my annual “thinning of pines” ritual. At the end of each year I took a handsaw and removed dead branches and a smattering of invasive spruce. Pruning, for me, isn’t a vain attempt to manage nature or to bring order out of chaos. Rather, it’s a vain attempt to have fun while struggling to get a handle on the Norway spruce invasion. But this annual labor helps the new year’s sun begin its penetration of the densest groves.
So what was this thing? A sculpted evergreen the size of a bowling ball, all of its pieces– twigs, moss, leaves, and grasses– woven into a sphere and lying on the ground beneath the spruce trees. Red squirrels? But the structure had no opening whereby something could pass in or out. Another mystery. And it added to the questions I often asked myself when passing through the grove. Like, why did some idiot plant these trees so close together that, in the early days, I had to crawl inside to start the pruning and cutting? And why do I even bother with the work here, winter in and winter out?
Climbing the seasonal roadway toward the top of Dryden Hill, I left the personal domain behind. I left my baggage, my problems and property, at the bottom of the hill. The hills have a life-force, even in winter, and I aimed to rediscover it. I sensed it in the flight of birds, in the few ravens, crows, jays, and tree sparrows I encountered. It helped to sponge up the anxieties linked to human life while preparing me for something else. I felt ready to be taken over, mind and matter, by some plant or animal or maybe even by an oncoming storm. Then I spooked several deer at the roadway and they bolted for the hinterlands. They must have recognized the foibles I displayed.
Stop… The tracks in the snow were new to me. I stooped to the fresh tracks and fumbled with my camera. Each track was one to two-inches long. Five toes were set symmetrically on the foot. The middle toe was slightly longer than the rest. Claw marks were obvious on some of the prints. These were not left by raccoon or red squirrel, not by fox or bobcat, and not by porcupine or opossum. Could it be a fisher’s? I would have to do some research when I got back home. Fishers have been seen occasionally or photographed by trail-cam on the rivertops, and even I may have seen one several months ago. I can’t be sure that what I saw running in the distance of a forest edge was the bushy-tailed superweasel, but it certainly made me think it could be.
Recharged, I scrambled upward through a tunnel formed by native pines. At the junction of two gravel roads I passed the old McKenna farm and then the former one-room schoolhouse. All was quiet except for echoes in my head and the sudden arrival of wind. Valley folks tend to forget how the winter winds rake across the hilltops!
Greenwood township had installed a road sign here at close to 2400 feet above sea-level. The sign warned of “Merging Traffic” at the junction I had passed. Yeah, traffic can be a problem here. One or two passing cars per day could make you want to move to the Adirondacks.
On a clear day up on Dryden, you can see for miles to the south and east. With luck, you might see clear across the world and glimpse the back of your own head. But on a day like this, with a promise of snow, you might not see beyond the wooded slopes of Bootleg Hollow. Somewhere down below me stood the old house where I live. Closer at hand were overgrown remnants of a cellar from a farmhouse gone for untold years, perhaps a century. My house in the valley is to this stone specter as a human body is to the soul of a man or a woman. This foundation is what endures when all is said and done. Or so thought a hiker with his brain still on vacation….
I returned to the hollow by following a deep ravine through the woods. Back on the margins of humanity, I studied a group of milkweed pods and then reentered the house. I checked the Web for fisher prints. Reading from apparently reliable sources, I confirmed my hunch. A loping fisher has a 3-4 track pattern, which I clearly saw. Front feet land in the snow before the hind feet do; one back foot steps inside a track up front. Whereas the heel of each foot is a minimal thing, it does contain a noticeable C-shaped pad. [See updated view on fisher vs. raccoon track, Feb. 2012]
I thought back to the site where the tracks were found. I had hoped to follow the tracks for a ways, but lost them where the fisher had crossed a stream. I had heard that fishers in this region of New York had likely ventured from a reintroduced population in northern Pennsylvania. It was good to have a spirit of the wild forest scoping out your place of life. I wished the hunter well– with plenty of red squirrels and porcupines (yes!) and feral cats to keep it in the neighborhood.