In some places, her prints obscured the marks of human shoes with their feline roundness, their soft clarity. In others, we lost her trail for a few steps beneath the morning’s foot traffic – a runic tangle of rubber soles. To be clear, I’m not entirely sure this cat was a ‘she’ at all. I’m not that good at this yet. But I like to guess, based on my instincts, in order to avoid calling an animal ‘it.’ Even if I’m wrong, ‘she’ and ‘he’ are more intimate pronouns than ‘it.’ They feel like subjects and not objects. So, for the purposes of intimacy and story, and because of the conjectures explored at the end of this piece, I will continue to call the bobcat a ‘she.’
Nine of us – all there together in the hills of the Point Reyes Peninsula, north of San Francisco, to learn about the mountain lions and bobcats who are our neighbours – crouched down by the side of the trail on hands and knees, as if in prayer, and studied those paw marks. We examined the dips and shadows and lines they made in the dust. The steadiness of their pace, hind foot falling a few inches ahead of the front in the quick, overstep walk of a travelling bobcat, a cat on the move.
When hunting, bobcats like to use game trails through grass and brush made by their prey. They walk slow and silent, then crouch, waiting for the voles who move quick as water through their tunnels to slip up, show their faces, take a risk. When travelling to a den site after a night’s hunt, or toward a known prey area, bobcats will often use human trails, which are easy to walk upon and are cut out of the ground in direct lines.
It is sensual to see the outline of a bobcat’s paws so clearly: the three lobes at the base of the metacarpal pad, the four quiet toes, claws retracted, paws a little bigger in front than in the back, to carry the weight of the head with its quick, moth-light ears and strong neck. There is something intimate and vulnerable at once, to see the marks of paws, skin to dusty earth. They make me think of my own bare feet, how full of nerves those soles are, and how it feels to walk barefoot on the ground.
We forget, shod and sidewalk bound, that our feet have their own sensual capabilities, their own touch-consciousness. If you sit still and focus, you can feel your heart beating in your bare foot. It can’t beat through your shoe, but barefoot, walking on dirt, your heartbeat is also touching the ground. Studying that bobcat’s prints, the place she passed at dawn under a harvest moon along the trail called Muddy Hollow, just east of Limantour Beach, we were also looking at the places a small quick heart pumped against the dust. We were encountering an individual, with her own hungers and needs and fears, who could feel that dirt under her paws.
This is the thing about learning to read the tracks of animals. If you imagine it’s like memorising a grammar, quizzing vocab words about gait and anatomy, learning a new way to conjugate, you have forgotten what it means to truly read, to use language to tell stories and to speak. Sure, you have to learn a new vocabulary: metacarpal pad, scat, zygodactyl. You have to learn to conjugate the verbs when you see them in dust, mud, sand, snow: overstep walk, side-trot, rotary lope.
But in the end, we learn language to speak to others, each of us using words unique to our tongues, lips, minds, life-experiences, breakfasts, heartbreaks, seasons. It’s just the same with the tracks and signs of animals: they are attached to individuals. A person doesn’t speak grammar; a person speaks stories. Mood, weather, hunger, longing, slang, fear, adoration. Animals leave behind words that are also stories, and this is where the magic resides. This is the land, the wild, the moving world, speaking.
Of course, to really get the details of gait and scat, of behaviour and track size and ecology in your head and heart, a great deal of focused and specific study is required. Eventually, a ruler, a field guide, plaster casts, a magnifying glass, binoculars, all these tools of western seeing, our ‘Elders,’ as Jon Young would say, are very useful things. But they come later. First, the tracks of a bobcat at dawn in the fine dust, the outlines of metacarpal pads clear as heartbeats and unique as fingerprints, alive with sensation like your bare feet are on sand, will change your life.
There will be a moment when something switches in your mind, a dusty old lock cracked open, when your eyes, which have been focusing on shapes, on this desperate need to categorise and identify and find the ‘right’ answer, will soften. The prints will become deeply intimate, like they could belong to someone you know. Everything will change, then. If you are an emotional type, like I am, you may even feel like crying.
I think there is an essential heartbreak at the core of modern human life. We have made ourselves alone as creatures. We don’t remember anymore the languages of the bobcats, the black bears, the weasels and frogs, the kingfishers, crows, voles, elk and rattlesnakes who are our closest relatives on this planet (not to mention the trees and grasslands, fruits and flowers without which none of us would be alive at all). They speak and sing, love, fight, nest and rage, scream and suffer just as we do, but we don’t know how to hear them. We don’t think we are supposed to. We have made ourselves believe we no longer belong, that we are apart, that this is a good thing, and meanwhile, some ancient grief has lodged straight into our cellular tissue, our dark marrow, and won’t leave. That’s why, the very first time I came to the beach with a teacher and began to read a trail of coyote tracks, in a side-trot, through sand, I woke up later that night with my eyes full of tears.
This is part of our heritage as human beings, part of our tangled psychological and biological make-up: we were made to read the tracks and signs of animals as they move through ecosystems. We were made to do this before we ever passed on mythologies, or wrote down songs. Our brains themselves developed as we followed elk tracks through sand, as we ate and worshipped and sang to the animals that we depended on both for our survival and, I would like to argue, our sense of self.
So, crawling around with your nose in the dirt after bobcat tracks, poking at scats with sticks to find the gopher jaws or rabbit bones inside, scanning the coyote brush chaparral and red alder riparian corridor for possible den areas – for me, all of this is an act of healing. It is medicine. It’s a little step toward repairing some broken bonds, both inside myself and my own nature, and between ourselves and the beasts we share the world with. Even when my friends think I’m a little bit mad for bending over animal shit on the ground and whipping out a field guide detailing all the possible bowel movements of coyotes, bears, weasels, birds – you name it – even when hikers stop, and laugh, and say, ‘you’ve got a poop book!’, this new language, this new way of reading and storytelling and connecting, has me addicted. There’s no going back – and who would want to?
Bobcats are solitary animals, except during the brief days in which they mate, and the months when mothers raise their kittens in well-hidden and frequently relocated dens lined with pine needles, grasses, duff. They mark territory with scent that must read something like the graffiti that claims city block, train track, overpass, keeping well clear of each other. So it was interesting to notice, that morning on the Muddy Hollow trail just before the harvest moon – like an unexpected plot twist – that another set of bobcat tracks was walking the other way beside the first ones we’d found.
This other set was older – less clear in the dust by a matter of twelve hours or so, maybe less – and bigger. The metacarpal pad, that sensitive pink heel, was at least a quarter inch wider. The two sets of bobcat prints were, in some places, right on top of each other; they both preferred the brushy edge of the path. The bigger tracks continued up the trail, past a stand of young bishop pines, while the smaller tracks seemed to have emerged from a narrow run off the main path, where one Indian paintbrush bloomed a bright crimson, like a little flame. If both sets were clear enough in that dust fine as silk-powder for our human eyes to make them out, then no doubt those two cats, attuned to deep levels of smell, knew about each other’s presence.
This is where the storytelling comes in, the mind’s love of narrative. This is where tracking becomes a doorway into the goings-on, the daily activities, of the animals who live just over the fence – bobcat, raccoon, rat and bluejay alike. Here is one possible answer to the plot twist presented by those two different sets of bobcat tracks: a mother cat and her adolescent child were co-habiting the territory until the young one was big enough to strike out on her own, or take over her mother’s area.
Generally speaking, mother bobcats will give birth to their kittens between April and June. Those kittens will stay with mom for six months, at which point they will start hunting on their own near her until they are ready to wander off and claim their own turf. Indeed, some female kittens will stay on in their mother’s territory when they are grown, and eventually take over a portion of it. The time frame was perfect – the mother cat, with the bigger paws, gave birth to her litter back in April. Now, six months later, in the last days of September, one of her kittens, a female, almost fully grown, stayed near, the successor to the matriarchal homeland. They utilised the same travel paths, though on different days, at different times. Sometimes they encountered each other, though often only in print and smell and scratch, in the quiet sisterhood of felines.
Of course, there might have been several kittens still living with mom, waiting to fly the nest. Or, those smaller prints could have belonged to a young male, getting ready to leave. We only saw a little snapshot of a great network of lives along the Muddy Hollow trail. There might have been other, smaller bobcat tracks beneath Nike-prints that we didn’t see. Or, the trail might have marked the boundary between two territories – one male, one female – the cats tolerating only a fraction of one another’s presence, just on the edge. Or, something else entirely, something I haven’t thought of yet.
The beautiful thing is – I don’t mind this ambiguity at all, these open-ended stories, these endless questions. I have developed an appetite for, even a love of, unanswered questions and mysteries with only half their parts in place. One day, maybe I will be an expert, I will be able to glance once and tell you the answer, like the legendary Tom Brown. But the beauty of this process of learning to read and interpret animal signs on the land is that I can hold these two ways in my head at once – precision and curiosity, answers and questions.
In my imagination, I see a mother bobcat and her young daughter, sharing the path. That’s how they come to life for me. But I also see a pinwheel of other bobcats, a circle of possibilities, each leading to a slightly different story, a slightly different dawn walk, belly full and warm with vole. It is this initiation into mystery that is the medicine, the reason to bother at all, knowing how little you know or will ever know. It is about following tangible paw-prints – three-lobed, overstep walk, one and one-sixth inches wide – into the wild heart of things, the unknown, the feline and the feral, the thicket just over the fence, where our natures are waiting for us to come, barefoot, and find them.