New miniseries "Snow Tracks". It's about how snow is such a blank slate, how it records everything that passes over its surface. Mostly about animal tracks, though. But not these: take a close look and you can see recent history of loose snow on spruce boughs, a warm sunny day, crystals melting together, and gravity succeeding--5 times--in pulling chunks down to earth. The record shows how each found a different path down the hill, and left a uniquely irregular track, finally stopping where the slope was too shallow for its particular shape and mass. The curves they left behind are so clean you could write a mathematical equation for each one. And if that doesn't impress you, consider it just lesson #1 in reading snowscapes. Go ahead, zoom in!
Little Mouse in the Big Woods... Part 2 in Snow Tracks. Snow, the great recorder, captured this little rodent's foray into the forest one winter's night. Who knew something so tiny as a deer mouse could travel so far on a frozen surface? Something that weighs no more than a handful of Ibuprofens, something shorter than the length of your hand, could be so tough, or driven? Being a lightweight worked to this mouse's advantage... it hardly sank into the fluffy surface. The tracks make a beeline across the clearing, and tell a tale of a little being traveling at a hurried pace, intent on getting to those trees over there, worried about a quiet attack from above. Someone familiar with every dimension of their home range, even when it has been transformed by snow.
Part 3. You can tell those wild turkeys were busy. Back and forth, moving with purpose. Their three-toes-forward looking a lot like the dinosaur tracks over on the side of Gunnison Gorge, or the smaller ones traversing a mudflat, captured in sandstone in the Dolores River Canyon. Some of the same things were going on here, but with snow instead of mud. The surface was soft, but hard underneath, so the turkeys didn't sink in much. The snow had probably been lying around for a while, melting from top and bottom, its crystals rounding off, turning sugary, freezing hard every night, the sun softening its surface by midmorning. The turkeys came along, their warmish feet pressed in half an inch, the loose crystals momentarily melted, then forged together into a thin sheath of ice. Sometime later, the wind blew, scouring off the loose crystals surrounding the tracks, redistributing them in a micro kind of way, with tiny drifts on the lee side of the icy casts. And there you have it, Nature's art, a collaboration of sun, wind, water, temperature, and turkeys!
Part 4: An ode to the two-toed. A skiff of snow over ice makes for a detailed track. Look closely to see the hint of each toenail's concavity, with most of the deer's weight borne around the edges, and the fine line that shows the division between them. Now hold your third and fourth fingers together and look at them on end, imagine your nails lengthening, thickening, enclosing each fingertip leaving just the callus part exposed. That's the deer's hoof... basically the same as those two fingers, with the other two tucked up above in dewclaws, and a few bones fused together. A story of evolution and adaptation bent on achieving speed, agility, and strength. All written in snow, if you look hard enough to read between the lines.
Part 5: Here's a peek into the secret life of a snowshoe hare, with snow recording it just as well as any wildlife camera could have. These are elusive critters, turning white in winter to match the snow, and waiting 'til dusk to come out of hiding. But they can't keep the snow from showing what they've been up to. Hop, hop, hop, in 4' bounds, big furry paws keeping them from sinking in deep. This one likes it here where there are twigs and branches to chew on. You can see it was also here not too long ago, and before that too, with the older tracks muted by snowfall. Returning to the same spot in its twenty-some acre home range every few days, thinking maybe enough snow has fallen those high-up twigs, needles, and buds will be close enough to reach now. And with the days getting longer, maybe dreaming of of a doe-eyed mate and a burrow full of leverets to come.
Part 6. One look at how snow transforms a landscape, and you can't deny it's something special. Snow isn't just a semi-solid form of water concealing everything underneath, it's a story-telling phenomenon. Like a good reporter, it objectively covers what's happening around it. Snow falling off a tree limb? The snowy slope underneath documents impact and the pull of gravity. A mouse's courageous nighttime journey? The fluffy crystals preserve each jump along its way. Turkeys traversing a scrubby woodland on a sunny winter afternoon? The flock's movements are first penciled in, then rewritten in icy sheaths that reveal the snow around them was scoured away. Snow records wind and sun, storms, and passers-by. Layer by layer, these events of Nature are written down, then carefully covered up as time moves onward. Like these late-season coyote tracks on a firm snowpack. Was it one walking slowly, taking tiny steps? or more likely two hustling along, easily placing their hind paws in the tracks of their front paws. Either way, the tracks were made on well-seasoned snow that was solidly frozen together after warm days had melted and rearranged the crystal fluff into something more substantial.
These snippets of snow recordings make a tiny, temporary archive of what happened this winter: a snowshoe hare's nightly activity, a deer in passing, snow melting, drifting, freezing and thawing, and the stories of lives and processes hinted at. Like Nature's other masterworks, heartbreakingly beautiful, and all the more so because it is so quick to melt and vanish.
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