Landscaping

Twenty years ago, the idea of an English cottage garden may have seemed like a fantasy. However, with an endless array of plants and flowers available, virtually any home- gardener can achieve the backyard cottage look they desire. There are many different textures available to the home gardener, and many of them are great choices for the garden. The most important part of creating a cottage garden is the sensation of relaxation as you watch the atmosphere develop around you with the plants that you choose. This special treat is something that is so important, especially for those who are gardeners for life, but equally important is the enjoyment that comes from nurturing your beautiful flowers, plants, and shrubs.

 

The cottage design is the most decorated of all designs. In this very relaxed design, there is a feeling of plenty. Exotic flowers and wild plants are fully encouraged to display their beauty, without crowding the garden. The garden tries to develop a sense of balance, thicker and lending a sense of serenity to the garden. As well, an English cottage garden is one that will always attract birds of the woods to the home, and little children as well. This is one area of the design where there is a lot of decoration, even when it comes to the flowers that are in the flower beds, and the nicest of all is the material that is used in this design, because materials such as clay and stone, which is somewhat electric, are strongly recommended as opposed to plastic.

There is also a great deal to be said for the fact that warmer colors such as lemon, light blue, and rose are the best choices to develop a cottage garden. All these colors can create a strong impression, but if the family is not particularly into the tropical look, classic English cottage garden designs, with its pastel colors, are simply out of the question.

One of the features of a well-designed garden is that not only do the flowers and shrubs controlled, but the rest of the garden is controlled in the same way. Large stones set around the garden are used effectively to separate the various parts of the landscaped area. From this point, things such as terraced paths, terraced flower beds, and trellises covered with climbing plants are lined up.

Such a design lends itself perfectly to the country cottage look and it most likely won’t fit in well with a home with a city apartment. This is it is one of the favorite cottage garden designs.

Fern Fiddleheads

Almost everyone has heard of “fiddlehead ferns,” a gourmet wild vegetable found across much of North America in the springtime. Few wild edibles are so well known, so convenient and tasty, or so widely available. Yet unfortunately, few of them are surrounded by so much confusion. Many people mistakenly believe that all fern fiddleheads are edible. Because of this misconception, stories of people getting sick from fiddleheads are common, and this has caused many to steer clear of these wildlings. All of this confusion is unnecessary, for learning to identify the edible species of fiddleheads is rather easy – and the reward is a lifetime of free and delicious vegetables.

There are three main species of edible ferns in North America: ostrich fern Matteucia struthiopteris, lady fern Athyrium filix-femina, and bracken fern Pteridium aquilinum. All of them are widespread and, in certain areas, abundant. For each of these species the part gathered and eaten is the young, tender shoot (called fiddleheads due to the curled tips, which resemble the top of a fiddle) found in spring and early summer. The mature fronds of all of these ferns should not be eaten.

Ostrich Fern

When people say “fiddlehead fern” they are most often talking about the ostrich fern. This is the species often available in produce markets and sometimes even on the menus of fine restaurants. These magnificent ferns grow mostly in shady river bottoms, where often they cover many acres of ground, but they are also occasionally found in rich hardwood forests. Ostrich fern ranges from Newfoundland to Alaska and British Colombia, south to northern California, the Midwest, and the Southern Appalachians. It is abundant in the upper Great Lakes, the Northeast, and much of southern Canada.

Ostrich ferns grow from three to six feet tall. The five to nine fronds (leaves) of each plant are arranged in a rosette forming a large funnel. The fronds emanate from a large rootstock or rhizome, which looks like a scaly clump or mound. Ostrich ferns bear their spores on separate, brown fronds which are smaller than the others and stand erect in the middle of the cluster. These are often collected for dried flower arrangements.

Of course, you’re looking for fiddleheads, not full-grown fronds. The fiddlehead stalks are smooth and naked of any scales or wool, but the coiled tops are full of brown papery flakes. The top side of the stalk (or, the part facing the center of the rosette) has a deep, U-shaped trough running its entire length – this is an important feature to look for.

Gather the fiddleheads in mid to late spring; they’ll be too old by the time the leaves are fully formed on the sugar maples and oaks. Harvest them when they are eight to twenty inches tall – as long as they are still tender and the leafy portion of the frond is not yet unfurled. Usually the bottom quarter or so of the stalk is too tough to eat; in time you’ll get the hang of knowing where to break them off. You don’t have to cut the fiddleheads; when bent they should snap off cleanly.

Many people only collect the tightly coiled tops of the fiddleheads, leaving behind the juicy stalk which constitutes the greater part of the shoot. I have never been able to figure out why this is done – there is no gustatory, culinary, or practical reason for it. In fact, I greatly prefer both the flavor and the texture of the stalks to that of the coiled leafy tips. Your fiddlehead patch will yield a lot more good food if you harvest the whole vegetable.

Ostrich fern is easy to gather in great quantities and for that reason has long been a popular green to store up for the winter by canning, a tradition that I still carry on. I just open a jar at my convenience and use it in a soup or casserole. But canned fiddleheads are not half as good as the fresh vegetables. Simply boiled or steamed and served with butter like asparagus they are superb. Ostrich fern shoots are crisp and sweet when raw and make a pleasant addition to salads or can be just nibbled on a hike through the woods.

A Note on Cinnamon and Interrupted Ferns

Cinnamon fern Osmundea cinnamomea is common on sandy soil in partial shade where the water table is close to the surface. Interrupted fern Osmundea claytonia is abundant in wooded areas across much of the range of ostrich fern and likes partial shade on rich, moist to mucky soil. In the fiddlehead stage, these two large rosette ferns are often confused with ostrich fern. Both can be easily discriminated by the presence of wool covering the fiddleheads and by the absence of the U-shaped groove running the length of the stalk.

Many people believe that one or both of these ferns are the “true” edible fiddlehead ferns. Thousands of people collect and eat these ferns every year despite the fact that they are mildly toxic. I have, on numerous occasions, seen published photographs of interrupted ferns mislabeled as one of the edible species.

Undoubtedly this misunderstanding is what accounts for most of the sickness associated with eating fiddleheads.
The problem is that these ferns are only mildly toxic, and their bitter taste (which I find detestable) is apparently not repulsive to everyone. It is entirely possible to nibble only one or two raw, or to throw a handful of the chopped-up stalks into split-pea soup, and not feel sick. However, the consumption of a large serving of cooked cinnamon or interrupted fern fiddleheads, or just a moderate serving when raw, can result in nausea, dizziness, lethargy, and headache. Do not eat them.

Lady Fern

The lady fern is found scattered in moist conifer and deciduous forests, where it tolerates a high degree of shade. This fern, commonly used in landscaping, ranges from coast to coast and is abundant in the northern U.S. and much of Canada. Its rosettes usually consist of three to seven fronds which rise from two to three and a half feet above the forest floor. This species also exhibits a groove running down the top of its stalk, only it is proportionately smaller than that of the ostrich fern. The spores of lady fern are borne on the underside of the frond rather than on a separate one like those of ostrich fern are.

The tips of lady fern fiddleheads are not coiled as tightly as those of ostrich, cinnamon, or interrupted fern. The stalk has a sparse coating of dark-brown, curled-up, papery scales which look like short, thick, hairs. Lady fern fiddleheads are much thinner than those of ostrich fern and are also a lighter green.

Lady fern tastes much like ostrich fern, only with an added faint bitterness. It can be used similarly in cooking, but it is advisable to rub off the “hairs,” since their texture is rather unpleasant. I enjoy lady fern fiddleheads but find them les preferable to those of ostrich fern due to the flavor, smaller size, and somewhat annoying hairs.

Bracken Fern

This amazing species is probably the most abundant and widespread wild plant on Earth. In many parts of North America bracken fern carpets thousands upon thousands of acres. Commonly just called “bracken,” this unusual fern inhabits dry, sunny, and often infertile habitats such as pine barrens, open woodlands, young forests, cutovers, abandoned fields, and burned areas. It is found across the northern United States and Canada, extending southward at higher elevations.

Unlike the other two ferns discussed, bracken does not grow in rosettes. Bracken stems grow singly, rising straight up from the ground with no branching and little taper for one to five feet – then the stalks suddenly split into three main forks, forming a large, roughly triangular frond that grows almost parallel to the ground. Bracken stalks are connected by a network of thin rhizomes found a few inches underground, and they often form very large colonies.

Bracken fiddleheads are not coiled up the way those of ostrich fern are; the top may or may not droop down or curl up slightly, and the three main forks are each coiled up next to one another. These shoots are also sometimes called croziers. A distinctive feature of bracken is two black dots on the fiddlehead where the main branches fork; on warm days ants will be seen feeding on a substance produced by these dark spots. Bracken shoots are covered with a layer of short, rusty-colored fuzz which can easily be rubbed off before consumption. These fiddleheads should be collected when they are eight inches to two feet tall – as long as the forks are still unfurled and the stems snap easily. The lower portion will generally be too tough to eat, especially on the taller stalks. The season of harvest for these fiddleheads is long, as a few shoots will come up into midsummer.

Bracken shoots are a traditional food in Japan, Korea, and parts of China, and today they are still regularly eaten by many millions of people in those countries. The plant was also eaten extensively by native people in New Zealand and North America. The cooked shoots are excellent in soups, pasta, casseroles, and many oriental dishes. (They are even available canned in many Asian or gourmet food stores.) Every year I store some for the winter by canning or sun-drying, as they are conveniently available in copious quantities. It is recommended that bracken fern not be eaten raw in significant quantities.

Bracken fern contains a chemical, ptaquiloside, that is known to be carcinogenic to mammals in high doses. The American Cancer Society places it in the same risk category as coffee and sassafras. This doesn’t mean that if you eat bracken you’ll die of cancer; many things that we commonly eat contain carcinogenic chemicals, such as char-broiled meat, potato chips, and all smoked foods. I still occasionally eat bracken fiddleheads.

Conservation

In some areas ostrich fern has been seriously overharvested by market collectors. Although they are prolific and vigorous, any of these ferns can be over collected due to carelessness. For lady and ostrich ferns, collect only 2-5 shoots per rosette, and never more than once per season. For bracken fern, never pick more than 50 % of the stems in an area, and try to spread out your impact.

Millions of people across North America have convenient access to one or more of these fern species. They are easy to identify, a cinch to cook, a joy to gather, and free for the taking. This spring, why not give them a try?

Whitetail tracks: Is it a buck or a doe?

Imagine a chilly November morning in Jackson County, Wisconsin. The sun has begun to glisten behind the trees just above the horizon. The small storm that blew through late yesterday afternoon left behind two inches of wet snow, the kind that melts in a day from the remaining warmth in the ground. Within hours of the storm passing red squirrels, gray fox, juncos, and whitetail deer have designed a tapestry of tracks leading in every direction. The amount of information on the ground is overwhelming, appearing almost chaotic.

You’re hiking along a familiar county forest trail about one-half mile from where you parked your truck. Anticipation to encounter whatever lessons the forest has in store for you turns to excitement as you move deeper into the woods. Taking the time to sit against a jack pine prior to tracking helps to quiet your mind, allowing it to focus on the subtle whispers of the wind, water, sunlight, soil, and plant life. You watch the sun and note where the warmest edges of the forest are, you smell the crisp autumn air as it flows into your chest, and you hear a muffled noise as a clump of snow impacts the ground.

On the surrounding pin oaks, snow is still clinging to the northeast side of the trunks, a testament to the origin of yesterday’s wind while the snow fell. Walking a bit further you see a distinct pattern in the snow. As you approach, the pattern emerges as a clear series of tracks left behind by a whitetail deer. Snow had accumulated on the southwestern half of each track impression while riding the northeast wind. As the precipitation ended, a cold northwest wind ushered in temperatures at least five degrees below freezing. The center of this storm had passed to the south. With the falling temperatures, the snow cover had developed a thin outer shell, preventing more snow from drifting after the tracks were made. You conclude that this deer must have been active just before the snow had stopped accumulating.

The bottoms of tracks were already becoming misshapen from the contrasting warmth of the soil. The individual tracks look big, but you can’t be sure until you study them more closely. You take out a tracking notebook, pencil, and tape measure from your daypack. You locate a single unblemished front foot (the remaining front tracks lay hidden beneath the rears). The front left track measures 2” wide by 2_” long, and the left rear track 1_” wide by 2_” long. You remind yourself that making a determination regarding the deer’s gender so quickly would be foolish. While shifting perspectives, your eyes catch the golden stem of a bracken fern with its top missing, a possible casualty of this deer during one warm spring evening in May when deer gorge themselves on the new spring growth.

The beauty of the pattern before you in the blanket of snow is breathtaking. Recognizing this as a walking gait you know that another measurement is important, since the length of each leg’s stride will shed light on the size of this deer. Once again you consult your notebook, tape measure, and pencil, this time to measure from the tip of the right rear hoof to the tip of the left rear hoof. Checking a few more stride measurements you find that this deer has walking strides ranging between 19 and 23 inches. The importance of simple measurements is often overlooked. Yet, they are critical when discriminating between the identities of individual deer.

Before entering the cover of pin oak, jack pine, and hazelnut shrubs the deer makes a purposeful decision to listen and take one last glance at the recreation trail before making a commitment to enter the forest. The toes pointing outward at a greater angle with obvious twists, along with a shortening of the strides, indicate the exact spot where the pause took place. Questions begin to emerge. Did the deer hear a downy woodpecker alarm? Did the wind vary in direction and reveal the faint scent of a predator? Did this deer finally decide where it wanted to feed next? Or, was this deer just being careful like he/she always did? From observing deer in this way, you have come to know that not all deer pay attention to the same things. Some are observant, some are impatient, and others are forest ghosts who prize their awareness and stealth above all else. This deer was careful, but not a ghost.

While gazing at the tracks made during the deer’s pause you notice that the track floors appear flat. You know that flat track floors also occur with bucks during the rut, but why? Deciding to unravel this mystery you drop to your hands and knees. One major anatomical change in bucks during the rut is the enlargement of their necks. With this in mind you reach over and grab your daypack, placing the shoulder straps around your neck. Closing your eyes, you can feel the shift in your center of gravity. The added weight around your neck is pulling you forward onto your fingertips. Your natural bodily reaction is to lean backward onto your palms and knees. The bucks must do the same and therefore the front tracks appear more flat. Recreating tracks with your own body is an invaluable tool. Sometimes the only way for you to understand an animal is to become that animal. This “flatness” also occurs during a pause from motion because force is not being exerted on the front portion of the hoof in order to move forward. Instead, the whitetail’s weight is evenly distributed throughout the foot while standing still.

Staring back at the walking pattern before the pause, a slightly exaggerated outward pitch of the front feet jumps out at you. Why didn’t you notice this earlier? Sometimes it takes a while for information to sink in. A sliver of each front foot is exposed from beneath the rear tracks along the outside edge of each rear print. During the rut when a buck’s weight distribution changes the front feet pitch outward to a greater degree than during the rest of the year. All of the evidence up to this point has begun to churn in your thoughts. You are strengthening the probability that this deer may be a buck. Remembering all the while that assumptions in tracking have always detracted from your awareness. Getting up from the ground you brush the snow off of your knees. They ache a bit from the cold, but your appetite to follow this mystery draws your attention back to the trail.

By this time the ascending sun has grown in intensity. The air temperature is just below freezing, yet snow is beginning to melt. The first signs of “track halos” have become evident, where the compacted snow directly surrounding the track is melting at a slower rate than the rest of the snow pack. The only element slowing the melting process today is the wind, at least in the open areas that lack adequate vegetation.

After entering the forest, the deer begins to meander, browsing on shrubs periodically, leaving intermittent clusters of short steps. It appears as if he/she doesn’t spend a lot of time at any one shrub, but rather keeps moving as if he/she has some other destination in mind. The deer has begun to walk without hesitation at a slow, even pace. After a few hundred feet there is a rusty colored urine puddle in the snow. You examine it more closely and see that the urine had fallen slightly ahead of the rear feet while the deer paused. Much of the urine fell onto his/her left leg. Dripping from the thick coat, urine stained the snow for 30 yards. If this had been a doe, the tracks may have indicated a squatting posture and the urine may have fallen in line with or directly behind the rear tracks. (While squatting, the rear feet of a doe pitch outward much more than usual and the dewclaws on the rear feet show up clearly.)

Continuing to walk, the deer approached a small valley with a crystal clear stream. While admiring the gentle slope, the white pine branches bearing the weight of snow, and a crisp set of wolf tracks nearby a sense of thankfulness washes over you. Your eyes are getting a bit tired as early afternoon casts its warm glow over the landscape. You’ve become engulfed in the trail, the quiet, and the clarity of mind resulting from slight hunger. But for whatever reason, being in this place, using your body and mind in this way, and doing it all alone feels right. The insignificant troubles of daily life melt away and are replaced with the genuine feelings of being fully alive.

After urging yourself to continue you find a substantial deposit of scat. The small raisin-like pellets are scattered in the snow and partially frozen. Upon closer inspection with a stick you find that some of the pellets closest to the ground are still soft. Breaking them apart they appear to contain a fair amount of green plant matter nothing like the browse you found along his trail up to this point. His scat would look much more fibrous if he had only been consuming shrubs. A single pellet measures _” long by _” wide and you notice that the pellets vary greatly in length, but the widths tend to be very similar throughout. It has been your experience that bucks have longer pellets than females and tend to have a larger variation in pellet size within a single scat deposit. This scat looks more typical of what is found in early spring when the deer have access to some new herbaceous growth. Where does this deer spend time to find such greenery this time of year? Nearly everything you’ve seen until now has been dormant or dead. Reaching into your pack, you flounder for a canteen. Taking a few sips you feel a bit agitated for allowing yourself to get dehydrated. Headaches never did help your concentration.

Looking around the forest floor you realize something is missing. This deer is alone. There are no other tracks within 50 yards except from those of a gray fox and ruffed grouse. Sometimes it pays to notice what is missing. Typically, mature does will have their offspring from the past couple of breeding seasons close by. Does will move about the forest by themselves, but bucks typically prefer to spend more time alone. This solitary behavior adds to your growing belief that this deer is a buck.

Another significant message emerges from the leaf litter beside the trail. Stooping lower to investigate the cleared patch of ground, you find two front tracks. The snow has been scraped away down to the sandy soil. At the wood’s edge just behind the ground scrape is a jack pine sapling that obviously has been rubbed by antlers, exposing the white sapwood. Small bark shavings and short branches lie scattered atop the veil of snow cover and with a gentle touch the rub reveals its age as flowing fresh sap sticks to your fingers. Studying the pattern of gouges and scrapes left on the young tree tells you that the deer held its head tilted to the left while raking the bark. The left track found in the ground scrape is slightly ahead of the right, indicating his leaning posture was indeed toward the left with a broad stance. With his work complete he stepped from the scrape and continued on. Your evidence has become overwhelming. Your sense of uncertainty is beginning to shift, being replaced by increasing confidence and awe. You can’t help feeling thankful for the chance to spend a day discovering and reading the unique secrets bound to the life of this buck.

Moving down the north slope of the valley toward the creek the tracks lead to a resting place. The deer had lain down in the snow facing southeast about midway down the ridge. You can see the impression of his knees where his front legs folded close to the body and where the rear legs were tucked alongside the belly. With the northwest wind to his back, any possible danger would have been detected with his powerful sense of smell long before it could prove harmful. Sheltered from the wind, he could hear more clearly, bask in the morning sunlight, chew his cud, and command a clear view of nearly the entire creek bottom. The weight of his body compressed most of the air from his dense fur. This allowed his body heat to melt the snow beneath him. In the areas furthest from the center of his bed the snow had not melted as much. Fragments of the buck’s coat remained behind partially encased in ice. Checking the size of the bed with your tape measure it becomes apparent that at 24 inches wide and 42 inches long this whitetail bed falls within the large end of the spectrum.

Leaning back against the trunk of a basswood tree, you rest your legs, taking in the incredible view of the valley. A much older story begins to unfold before your eyes. You notice that many raspberry stalks, Virginia waterleaf plants, and dew berry vines along the stream bank are still green from being exposed to a greater amount of sunlight and water rich soil. Quite a few large green ash and red maple trees have been toppled by the wind. Debris caught in the roots along the bank three feet above the current water levels attest to a flood that happened in the past two years. The high water level probably weakened the soil’s grasp prior to a healthy summer storm, which downed the large trees. The new gap in the canopy provided an opportunity for herbaceous plants to prosper on the fertile moist stream banks. Could this be the place where the buck began his morning routine yesterday before the snowstorm while grazing on raspberry and dewberry leaves? With the passing of the storm his attention will most certainly return to the local does and the rut. Kneeling down next to the buck’s bed and feeling content with all that you’ve learned, you place your hand into the depression while closing your eyes and silently send the gratitude within your heart.

A Lesson in Awareness

It was a warm day in late spring along the Rock River when I decided to run a few errands in town. The cornfields had been planted, but the seedlings hadn’t pushed through the soil yet. The evidence of this past winter lingered on the landscape, but spring’s influence had finally taken hold. Birds were building nests, fox pups were exploring outside their den, and the air still smelled clean and slightly pungent from damp leaves on the forest floor. On my way to town, I chose to take my time and follow a road less traveled. It was bordered by a small cattail marsh, surrounded by dense clusters of sandbar willow.

As I passed the overlooked marsh and slowed to cross the railroad tracks ahead, something caught my eye in the dusty field to the left. A mother sandhill crane stood next to her fluffy, sandstone colored chick. I drove past them and parked my truck behind a large berm. The two cranes were exposed in the middle of the field, vulnerable to local dogs, fox, and coyote, or so I thought. I crawled up the embankment and parted the tender grass at the edge of the field. Spellbound, I watched as these magnificent birds poked and prodded the soil for seeds and insects. Over the course of a few minutes, the mother casually moved west toward the marsh, with her youngster close behind.

At the opposite end of the field, I began to hear a series of bird alarms, interrupted by excited chipmunk calls. This wave of noise and disturbance was moving in my direction along the tree line that separated the field from the railroad tracks to the east. I knew something was coming; a predator. Within two minutes the culprit of this commotion revealed himself. A red fox appeared on the scene along the trees trotting toward me.

Fortunately, the wind was not in his favor to detect my presence. The fox hooked away from the tree line and entered the barren field, remaining motionless. With an intense gaze he scrutinized every detail of the field in a few moments, directing most of his attention toward the marsh. I had been so focused on the approaching fox and all the alarms that I had forgotten about the cranes. To my amazement, they had disappeared into the cattails and willow thickets just before the fox made his debut.

It was strange for a fox to be so far from adequate cover in broad daylight. He didn’t appear at all concerned about masking his physical presence. I guess even this fox understood that people are too busy to glance into his field as they race by. At least birds and chipmunks aren’t as easily fooled. I’m sure the fox knew this young family of cranes and was hoping to catch them off guard. Fortunately for the cranes, they detected his approach minutes before I did, having listened to the wave of excitement wash across the landscape. I can only hope that some day I will possess such an awareness of the woods.

Interrupting the fox’s pursuit, a car hurried by with a bad muffler. That was all it took to send him back where he came from at a fast clip. Now I was able to hear the original bird alarm sequence moving in the opposite direction. The alarms persisted for some time in the far corner of the field, well out of view. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the fox crossing the railroad tracks, so I crept over to the railroad bed. To my surprise, two deer skirted across the tracks away from the fox, possibly uncertain as to what had made such a torrent of alarms in the forest. With a big grin and deeper understanding of bird language, I strolled back to my ruck and continued on my way to town. Watching the other cars on the road, I had to wonder, what did they learn driving to the store today?

Wisconsin Wolves

I’m up early and excited on a late-January morning, knowing that the tracking conditions are great today. Six inches of snow lay across the state forest floor in eastern Jackson County. Two inches fell yesterday on top of a crusty, thick four-inch base. The precipitation came to an end at about 8 p.m. last night. Turning south off of Hwy 54, I noticed the road wasn’t even plowed yet. My enthusiasm began to peak.

As I turn onto a sandy secondary road my eyes begin to read the tracks, discerning deer from turkey and coyote from a gray fox with each release of my foot off of the gas pedal. The road ends at a turnaround one and one-half miles into the state forest. After parking my truck, I decide to head southeast on foot.

My pace is significantly slower in six inches of snow since each track demands closer inspection to identify it before moving on. Walking slowly brings my mind to life. A slow gait is a perfect speed in which to absorb and to notice everything else in the forest that may hold clues pertinent to finding wolf tracks. The wind, moon, snow, birds, sun, and temperature all guide my ideas and instincts as to where the wolves “should be” given the present conditions of the forest.

At 23 degrees Fahrenheit, the level of animal activity is high. Tracks of snowshoe hare, white-tailed deer, and short-tailed weasel criss-cross the landscape before me. Since I left my truck the vegetation has changed from the open edge of pin oak woods into a damp substrate interspersed with jack pine, white pine, and wild cranberries just under the snow. I can’t resist nibbling on the cranberries, just as other forest dwellers do.

I stop for a small break on the south side of a large cluster of hazelnut shrubs. While dusting off a log to sit on, I take a reading from my compass. The westerly wind is gentle and complements the warmth of the sun on my face. My direction of travel is changing slightly toward the south. I pull out a canteen and drink some water before continuing on. The snow is fresh, but it isn’t cold enough to make the classic “squeaking” sound as I walk upon it. My thoughts are beginning to wander a bit. It isn’t easy to maintain a mental focus for long periods of time.

Peering ahead, I see that the surface of the snow is broken, yet this disturbance has unique characteristics, differing from all of the previous patterns. As I approach the new trail, something inside of me seems to relax. I’ve found them! Standing a few feet from the trail I make sure not to damage any part of the trail that I haven’t had time to look over.

This wolf is trotting, placing each rear foot into the track of the corresponding front foot. The pattern is the same when a wolf walks, only when trotting the strides are longer and the body has a single airborne phase, as diagonal legs leave the ground in unison. Measuring from the toe of the right compression to the toe of the left compression reveals a 30″ stride. This is on the short end of the spectrum for a wolf, but he/she probably feels safe and comfortable in its home range without any recent human activity to cause him/her stress and spark increased caution.

After sliding a daypack from my shoulder I take out a notebook, pencil, and tape measure. Journaling my encounters have proven to teach me even more after I revisit the entries at a later date. I take my time to draw one relatively clear print. My eyes squeeze details from each toe, claw, and heel pad, while my fingers do their best to replicate this beauty onto a piece of paper. Closing my eyes, I’m able to see the track clearly in my mind. Being able to see the track in this way tells me that I can stop drawing, since the track is a part of me now.

The tracks are heading west into the wind, and in the general direction of the road I came in on. Slight paw drag marks are present in the snow, but appear odd since the marks are so wide and erratic. The tracks are relatively clear, yet the compressions seem larger than normal. This trail is fresh, probably only 4-5 hours old, since the tracks are still soft to the touch and fragile. It doesn’t take long for track walls in snow to firm up, even when the temperature remains below freezing.

The wolf moves with an effortless stride, creating the feeling of its tempo in my own chest. This tempo is old, as old as the earth and it reminds me to pay attention to my own thoughts and actions. The pattern left behind by the wolf tells me that he/she is healthy, highly alert of its surroundings, and has very advanced forethought about where it wants to go and why. Nothing the wolf does is without a reason, knowing full well how to conserve its own resources in accordance with Creation’s basic laws.

The tempo changes, but is not broken, as the one trail becomes five in an instant. I’ve seen wolves move together like this before. No matter how the leader places his/her paws, the others follow in an exact fashion, moving through the forest as a fluid unit. The wolves help each other in this way to conserve the precious calories with which they need to survive the cold.

The break in this single-file pattern occurs as the wet sparsely vegetated habitat melts back into a pin oak forest. The largest wolf’s tracks indicate a pause and left rear leg lift to urinate on a young jack pine tree. The urine volume is no greater than someone spitting into the snow. Yellow, stained snow is on the small pine 18 inches above the ground. Wolves wish to announce their presence, especially to other local packs. Urine is just one of their calling cards. The human family also has numerous pack territories, but their conflicts are far more brutal and affect all life on earth.

Two of the wolves travel abreast to one another after leaving the urine post, while the other three travel together in a less certain manner. The two small sub-groups seem to ebb and flow toward each other and then back away, always remaining in sight or earshot of the other group. I feel as though I am in the center of the most efficient hunting party on earth and they have become my silent teachers.

The largest wolf stops every 250-300 yards to urinate on another territorial marker and he also pauses very consistently to check his rear for danger. The track pattern reminds me of the hook in the letter “J” when he pauses to look back over his shoulder. I make note of these “J-turns” in my journal and how he does them less frequently in dense cover. Obviously, he is aware of maintaining safety for himself and pack members. Irresponsible hunters have illegally shot wolves not far from here in the past couple of years. In the past, Lakota hunters would return to camp after a successful hunt and sing a Wolf Nation Honoring Song. They knew that tracking and observing the wolf could increase and deepen their knowledge of the landscape, including where to hunt for food.

Suddenly, the entire trail veers toward the base of a white pine and urine is left at the base of the trunk. Then, just as quickly, the wolves resume their original direction of travel. I notice an unfamiliar set of tracks near the tree. The tracks plow through the snow and have an almost serpentine curvature to them. A noise comes from the treetop as I spot a porcupine starting to climb higher. To the wolves, nothing is unimportant in their territory. Even the tracks of a lone porcupine are acknowledged.

I am growing tired. The excitement, cold, and distance have begun to take a toll on my endurance. The sun is beginning its descent toward the western horizon as the wolves’ tracks enter a tag alder swamp. Gliding above, around, and under the maze of branches, I move closer to the center of the tag alder swamp when I notice something that few people ever get to see in their lifetime. Scattered across the ground are the impressions of five wolf beds in the fresh snow. It makes so much sense to me now. Looking toward the sky I feel the warmth of the afternoon sun, there is a lack of wind against my face, and the density of the tag alders provides a fortress of security from troublesome poachers. I carefully move toward the center of where the pack had rested only hours or minutes before I had disturbed their siesta in the sun. I can see where each wolf was facing, where each leg was placed, and how each head was positioned. Small numbers of guard hairs line the snow in each bed. I take my time studying each one, noting the differences in color and length. After learning what I can, I decided to take a short nap myself. What better way to learn about a wolf than to sleep where it sleeps and expose myself to the same elements, sounds, and smells that determine how a wolf must live?

Waking up, I feel refreshed. The sun has fallen considerably in the sky, so I decide to begin my walk out to the truck. Before leaving, I kneel down, placing my hand delicately onto one of the wolf beds. Closing my eyes, I visualize the wolf that slept here. Without words, I express my feelings of thanks to the wolf for teaching me its secrets this cold winter day.

It is near dark as I reach my truck. A crescent moon is floating low in the sky, pointing out the cardinal directions to those who understand its silent language. I’ve tried howling to wolves in the past with little success, but since I am so close to them today, I decide to try it again. I take a deep breath, cupping my hands around my mouth, and bend over slightly before releasing a long, low howl toward the sky. After waiting just ten seconds, the pack responds all at once, their beautiful voices filling the still night air. The pack is only one-half mile ahead of where they were sleeping earlier today. They must have moved from their beds when I arrived and settled in somewhere nearby until dark. Content with this last communication, I start my truck and begin the drive out.

My lights hit the intersection of the gravel forest road and something is steaming in the middle of it. Getting out of my truck, I decided to investigate. Crouching in the road, the object is unmistakable. It is a wolf scat one and one-quarter inches thick, eleven inches long, and full of deer hair. The pack came from the woods to the south and beat me to the road, leaving me a final farewell and then re-entered the forest heading northwest on an ATV trail a short distance down the road. My emotions are somewhat mixed about this message, but as I resume my drive home I decide to tell people that the scat meant the wolves “liked” me. This sounds better since the other explanation in human terms would be pretty hard on my ego.

In any case, the wolves had shown me a tremendous amount today about the landscape and its secrets, simply because I was willing to walk, listen, look, and feel what was taking place. I can’t help but ponder what the rest of the world did today.

Welcome!

Tracks and Trees Learning Center was formally founded in the spring of 1999 on a secluded farm along the Rock River in Watertown, Wisconsin. Year-round workshops are offered at this site, in addition to classes held at a location near Black River Falls, WI.

Animal tracking, fire making, shelter-building, basketry, foraging, predicting the weather, and making medicine are interrelated wisdom of the landscape which are best approached with sensory awareness, humility, laughter, and dedication. With these reasons in mind, the staff at Tracks and Trees Learning Center pass on these ancient skills through activities, demonstrations, short projects, and stories.