Footprints in the Snow

A couple of days ago I trudged out into an unshoveled 4” snowfall to get the morning paper, shivering against the breezy 4° air.  A single set of animal footprints crossed at right angles to the walk from the front steps to the driveway, then angled down toward the driveway and the street.  Near the street the single set of prints became two, one heading straight across the street and the other angling slightly to the right, uphill.

Without even looking at the prints closely I could be pretty sure a fox left them.  Fox prints look a lot like dog prints in their pattern and their shape.  The distance between steps suggested something about the size of a fox.  But of the possible animals of approximately that size and gait that could have left the prints, only the fox has the distinguishing characteristic of habitually walking exactly in the set of prints it (or another fox) left earlier.  The animal in question probably came (as the foxes around here often do) around our house from the back in the frigid near-zero pre-dawn, crossed the street on its “daily rounds,” and returned from up the street (which had been plowed) before rejoining the trail of prints it had already blazed.

Songbird prints

Songbird prints, headed toward the lower left.

A while back a light overnight snow left a powder in which foxes, dogs, and songbirds left their marks.  The birds leave tiny little tracks with three toes forward, splayed out, and one toe back.  So you follow their direction by going in the opposite way from that pointed to by their arrow-like prints.  Dogs, which by law here in the built-up suburbs must be on a leash, almost always leave a print-trail next to a set of human prints.  They are characteristically near or on the sidewalks, and they have a certain meandering quality that reflects the dogs’ tendency to sniff around, chase off after scents, and stop for toileting purposes on occasion.  After all, most of them get out only about three times a day, and they have to collect the most possible information from the “news of the day” left by their canine peers.

fox prints

Fox prints, headed toward the right.

Foxes are far more purposeful.  They leave largely straight-line tracks, and those lines may just as easily skirt the drip lines of foundation plantings, where the snow is shallower or absent and potential prey may be nested, as go along the sidewalk.  Fox prints usually suggest a brisk trot, with four paws coming down at equally spaced intervals, but on occasion break into a swift run that has more of a two-by-two pattern, and snow scuffed by rapid foot motion.  On the earlier snow dusting, there were parallel single fox tracks between our house and the neighbors’, which then turned uphill and past the side of their house.  The interval was so consistent that I guessed the prints were left by a pair walking together, but the closer inspection showed one set coming and one going the opposite way, so they probably represented just one animal on its rounds.  But these tracks are the ones that piqued my curiosity enough to do some online research about tracking foxes.  I found a veritable trove of information on the Internet, on which my current knowledge is based.

Dogs and foxes have similarly shaped prints, with four oval pad marks clustered in front of a larger, more triangular rear pad.  Most dogs have paws with a bigger contrast in size between the rear pad and the others; in foxes the size is much more nearly uniform among the five.  Front and rear feet are subtly different, but I’m not confident of telling them apart.  The claws do not always leave a discernible mark in the snow, while some dogs’ do and some don’t.  I don’t know if the distinction is one of breed or grooming.  And fox prints are often more blurred than are dogs’, because there’s much more fur on the bottom of fox feet.

Squirrels and rabbits also leave prints around here fairly often.  They of course represent one of the principal reasons for the tracks of the foxes, who need food to metabolize as they ward off the extreme cold of mid-winter.  I looked at those tracks one that recent frigid morning and thought winter gives our foxes a very hard way to make, quite literally, a living.

And here, apropo of nothing but the title, is Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys playing a song dating back to 1945, “Footprints in the Snow.” The elegant, subtle fiddler is Kenny Baker.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.


The Ride Before the Storm

Today is a national holiday (and anniversary of the second inauguration of President Barack Obama), and the weather was mild at mid-day.  Mild, that is, by mid-January northern Virginia standards.  The average high for the date is 43° in the District of Columbia, and probably a few degrees cooler out this way.  Today the high in Vienna topped out at 52°, but the sun set about an hour ago and it’s already fallen to 43°, to which typically it would have risen.  The holiday is the Monday chosen to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which actually fell on the 16th.

At the same time, we are expecting quite a different scene tomorrow.  The high temperatures will be in the mid-twenties, the wind will be howling at 10 to 15 mph from the NW with gusts, and somewhere between 4 and 7 inches of snow will be falling to the ground.  These weather phenomena will all happen precisely as described, of course, because the professional meteorologists have all predicted they will, and the prognosticators are never in error.

Let it not be said that this area boasts only a few winter cyclists.  Spurred by the free time, the relative balminess, and the dire forecast, they were out in droves today.  On my 24.2-mile ride to Herndon and back on the W&OD, I passed 128 cyclists who were headed in the opposite direction.  I also was passed by (10) and passed (6) riders going my way.  A neat 8:1 ratio.  Many of them had snazzy winter gear (black and white is much in fashion right now) and snazzier bikes (black, often matte, is now fashionable—ugh!), quite a few looking like brand-new Christmas toys.

We were all—knowingly or unknowingly—sons and daughters of Horace, because we were seizing the day, even if the diem we were carpe-ing was not exactly what that playful Roman poet had in mind.  But who knows what might happen if we’re all snowed in at home tomorrow?

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

Ten Poems about Bicycles

One Christmas gift I love is a little book bought in the British Museum by recent travelers.  It is: Ten Poems about Bicycles, ed. Jenny Swann. Arnold, Nottingham: Diversity House, 2009.  It comes with a bookmark and a mailing envelope.  The poems range chronologically from about a century ago to the present, but several of the more recent ones evoke those ineffable early days of cycling.  One of the best is by Jonathan Davidson, entitled “A Lady Cyclist Learns to Cycle (England, 1917)”:

They led it round the garden and yard
on a long rein.
They fed it oil.

It was black as my jet black boots,
heavy as a gate.
It ticked, shone.

Climbing on it, I felt it shy,
lunge beneath me,
clatter to earth.

They held me up, the men, laughing,
shouldered me round,

The guns of Passchendaele bellowed.
The men held me.
It shook, I shook,

but when they let go I did not
let go, but moved
forward, shouting.

(From Moving the Stereo ISBN 0948282126, Jackson’s Arm, 1993 and forthcoming in Selected Poems, Smith/Doorstop 2013)


The romance of women’s cycling

We can all appreciate that on the first couple of tries, the bike seems like an animal with a mind of its own (think of the amusing perception of a bike by the tribesmen in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart—they tie the European’s bike to a tree so it won’t escape).  So here it’s as if they were teaching her to ride a horse, which they “led . . . on a long rein” and “fed.”  It is “black” and “heavy,” it shies and lunges.  Of course it is also mechanical, needing oil, ticking, and clattering.

The historical setting of 1917 could not be more telling.  It’s the age of suffrage and emancipation in England, as in America.  It’s also the age of World War I, the Great War, the “war


The reality of women’s cycling

to end all wars.”  Passchendaele was a small Belgian town near Ypres (pronounced “Wipers” by British troops), where a military campaign, typical in its dreadfulness, massive carnage, and indecisiveness, was waged in 1917.  When its guns sound in the poem the speaker shakes, and “it” shakes.  Is the “it” the bicycle, the ground, the foundation of society? Probably some of each.

At the poem’s end the female speaker is emancipated.  She does “not let go”; she masters the bike and the brave modern world into which she moves forward.

I love poetry, especially poetry about bikes.  Thanks, Anne and Henry.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.