When things are stripped down to their bare elements, it gives you a chance to see more clearly what you’ve overlooked, to see what is really there. That’s what makes the Maine woods so compelling in late winter. The hardwood branches are now completely stripped of leaves and the undergrowth is reduced to bare ganglia running low across the forest floor. This year, for lack of snow-cover, a hidden treasure springs even more vividly to the eye: speedways in the forest, deep-set, well-honed, beautifully-wrought paths through the woods, created by deer. I discovered these surprising sylvan by-ways while searching for a trail through the forest as an alternative to walking the ice-slicked gravel roads of Johnson’s Point. Now, thanks to the deer, I can walk out of the house, amble over our fields and step directly onto a thoroughfare that circles the Point — without ever using a gravel road.
The hidden paths created by deer that lace our woods constitute a remarkable feat of natural engineering. These trails are no fly-by-night constructions, although their purpose may be exactly that: to enable the deer to fly by night, to move with speed and safety from feeding grounds to bedding areas and back again under cover of darkness. The trails are deeply set into the forest floor, in many places more than a foot wide and nearly a foot deep. They are sunk so profoundly in the earth because of an enchanting feature of the northern woods. Here, ground moisture is plentiful and in every season the light is diffuse and dim by the time it reaches the base of the trees. And so the forest floor is transformed into a soft, rich carpet of viridescent mosses. Countless species of bryophytes combine to weave a forest-green tapestry accented by many shades: glaucous and jade, olive and emerald, loden and lime, pea and sea, to name only the greens.
For ages, the deer have trampled timeless trails through the ancient moss. Ancient is the word for it: moss is among the oldest of plant forms, first appearing along lakes and streams in the Silurian period, four hundred and forty-four million years ago. Who knows how long the deeply-set paths themselves have existed? Were they always here, before the Spanish, French, Dutch and English settlers arrived, before the Penobscot Indians, from the beginning of the deer thirty-four million years ago, or from times even further back, from time out of mind?
Curiously, these deeply-entrenched, moss-lined paths are not so easy to spot unless you are standing right over them. The difficulty has much to do with our habitual point of view. Unlike humans, deer keep low to the ground when they travel, as do most wild animals. The thicket of branches hanging four to five feet above these paths is no impediment to the crepuscular creatures that use them at the end and beginning of each day. But the underwood of the trees prevents us from having a clear view over these trails into the woods. Tied to the obvious, unwilling to adapt our point of view, we miss a good deal of what is below and above our eye level. With deer-paths as with much of life, what we cannot easily see isn’t there for us and we are the poorer for it.
Following deer trails becomes easier when you take along a dog like Molly, our pathfinding English Lab. Molly can sniff her way through any forest. She covers three times more territory than we do on every outing, but she is aways in sight, sticking faithfully to the trail. She starts by reading our body language to get the basic direction and then fast-trots her way along the path, staying thirty to fifty feet ahead, sniffing as she goes. Periodically she doubles back from reconnoitering to greet us and urge us forward once again. She seems to know when we’re uncertain whether we’re still on the trail. That’s when she’ll go ahead only half the usual distance and stand and wait for us to catch up before moving on once again. Molly may not be the equal of Lassie, but she’s saved us from a lot of back-tracking in our explorations.
I was out with Molly on the deer-paths yesterday when I slipped on a root hidden below the moss and fell down a hill. I remember thinking as I tumbled, “This is nothing serious.” But as I hit the ground, I rolled and didn’t come to a stop until my back slammed into a tree, my spine hitting the tree-trunk at a right angle. As I lay there, I felt the narcissistic shock to my psyche as keenly as the slamming blow absorbed by my body. My first thought was, “I can feel my entire skeleton,” and the second was, “I’m not designed to last forever.” Then Molly rushed back to lick my face, as if she were telling me, “Enough philosophizing, get yourself up when you can. We’ve got a hike to finish!” Eventually I made it to my feet and slowly set out for home. I must have looked like a wounded deer; I felt like a wiser man.
Today is Ash Wednesday and I turn, as I do each year, to the poem of the same name by T. S. Eliot. This time I read with particular interest the poet’s lines about singing bones, scattered and shining under a juniper tree. In the Lenten days to come, I will be reminded of Ezekiel’s rattling skeletons and hear again the psalmist’s lament, “they have numbered all my bones.” And at some point in this season, I will be invited to pray “as the deer pants for cooling streams, so my soul longs for you . . .” Yesterday, on the deer’s mossy way, my bones were rattled, numbered and bruised. Today, the soreness has almost gone and I set out on the path of this stripped-down season hoping to keep my head down and my feet on the ground; hoping, also, to catch a glimpse of a treasure I’ve often overlooked but one that has always been there, like deer paths, from time out of mind.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012