Two of the students taking the course on tracking animals in the desert were former members of the LAPD drug squad. I speak to Dennis, the older of the two. He tells me he was an only child in a poor family. They lived in a wooded area far from town. He loved the outdoors, but his father wasn’t a sportsman. “I asked my dad for a certain kind of fishing rod for my birthday. He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. But he saved up. When I finally got it, I went to the trout stream near by. But I never fished. Every day I’d stand in the stream and, wearing goggles, put my head under water, and watch the fish, studying what they did, how they moved, what they went after for food. At the end of the summer, I tied my own lure and cast the rod. I caught my first fish. I still never miss.”
I wonder if this was the beginning of his path to becoming an effective detective. The subtext.
Dennis was intriguing, and very sweet. Perhaps because I liked him, I couldn’t bear to ask how he could possibly make a living looking for lost dogs in L.A.
“Are you going to be writing a story about this weekend?” he asked me. I said I didn’t know. “You kind of talk in riddles,” he said.
“I can’t really disappear desert animals.”
“I know you can’t.”
It turns out I don’t sleep very well in the same room with a stranger named Doris. At 3 a.m. I finally decide to make my way to the washrooms which are 50 yards away. Because the centre is run on solar power, all the lights are switched off at 10 p.m. It doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten my flashlight: the pitch black sky is charged with plump stars throbbing above me, so near I could reach up and haul them down to send them skipping off the lily-pad-pond. The stars, too, are like tracks, left by light rather than animals. Some of the stars might even be burned out by now, their light still travelling although the source is extinguished. This sky puts paid to such a strange, sad idea. Everything is incandescent. In such a place, under such a sky, it seems worthwhile to have the washrooms 50 yards away.
John Updike said there didn’t need to be so many stars in the sky to get us to understand how humble we should be. For some reason, I don’t feel humble. I belong.
Orion, the Hunter, strides mightily overhead, as I return to my room and the sleeping Doris.
Class starts early. Jimmy says “You need to get used to the subtlety of animal tracks; you need to develop your sense of discernment. Figure out an hypothesis about what you are seeing, and then check the evidence. And always consider that the tracks might be of a domestic dog. People take their dogs to weird places.” We are all intense; we are learning.
I crouch over what could be a smudge in the sand and declare “these are the tracks of a grey fox.” My teacher nods.
I remember as a little girl staring at what my grandmother was wearing. She had a fox around her neck. Down one side of her chest hung its head and down the other was its tail. One of its front and hind paws joined at the space between her bosoms. (That’s what my sister and I called them. We couldn’t call them breasts.) Because my grandmother wasn’t that friendly, I thought she had killed the fox.
And my mother’s astute personal observations were often couched within sayings. (Maybe that’s where my riddling nature came from.). Many sayings involved foxes. Her brother was “shy like a fox”. The neighbour was “clever like a fox.” Our small town was peopled with foxes.
The subtext of my family emerges in this desert place.
And then I remembered Ted Hughes’s poem “The Thought-Fox” and the lines:
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.”
Jimmy sets the next task. Each team is assigned a category of animals; we’re to make a track box. It’s not really a box but a location we’ve chosen in the desert because we figure our assigned animals will walk over the square of sand we’ve smoothed and prepared.
My two friends and I are supposed to track predators. The drug squad is assigned rabbits. They seem happy with their assignment. With perfect acuity, Jimmy will have them shift from tracking heroin addicts to tracking rabbits.
Jimmy says, “Some of you might find the tracks of shrews.”
I can only think of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. “What are shrews?” I ask.
Jimmy says, “They are like long-nosed mice, but they aren’t rodents, they’re more like moles. You could put 8 shrews in a package and mail them for 49 cents.”
I have a feeling he’s done that.
“A white-tailed deer, when they run, spread their toes and then the dew claws hit the ground.” He holds up the hoof of a white-tailed deer. It looks like an evening glove. He goes to a green tote bin of hooves and holds up another. “But caribou alway show their dew claws even if they’re not running. And remember, the fox will have its nose to the ground, so its front feet are going to dig in a little deeper… A domestic dog, scuffles. It isn’t moving efficiently. Not like a wolf or a coyote.” I look to make sure Dennis of the drug squad is paying attention. He is.
We learn about the gates of animals: bounding, diagonal, gallop, lope, pace, trot. We watch a film showing all of these different ways of moving.
The younger member of the drug squad pipes up. “Why don’t people just use dogs to find these animals.”
I laugh out loud. Because, as I’ve learned, these are lessons in looking at the evidence of gods who seem to have disappeared. They are lessons which back up faith, or perhaps show us how to find it in the first place.
I see you’ve been
standing outside my bedroom window
all night long.
But I don’t know who you are.
I wonder why you’ve come.
I want to know.
In the rocky cliffs near home base, my team decides this is where a bobcat would go to raise her young. We prepare the box on a path leading to the cliffs. We also create another box near a mesquite grove, where foxes might like to sleep.
The next morning we go to the locations where the teams have set their boxes. Doris and her friend walked five kilometres from our base camp to set their box. We drive there.
We are in the scrub desert, barren, full of hidden life, each of us walking slowly, looking, scorched under our hats by the hot, dry sun. “It’s somewhere around here,” Doris says. I’m hoping for her, yet it seems quite difficult to find where Doris’s team went the previous day.
Finally she finds it. “Here, this is where we set the box. We were aiming to get kangaroo rats.”
There are paw marks in the sand.
Jimmy falls on all fours to examine what’s there. “Yes, there were kangaroo rats here. And a coyote.”
We all cheer.
When we get to my team’s boxes, the tracks have an evanescent quality, as though they’ve come up from beneath the sand. There are the marks of a coyote, but not a bobcat. At the mesquite grove, there were foxes. It’s like being found by these animals, rather than finding them.
Back in the classroom, we are given various plaster casts of footprints and asked to identify them. As I stare at one, the teacher comes over and says, “There’s something very special about this print. If you don’t see it, you aren’t paying attention. The track will tell you.”
I think back to the subtext of my declaration at the beginning of the weekend, that I want to see things but they disappear on me. My statement was blind. I thought we were going to track the animals to find them. This is a different kind of engagement. We’re not looking at the tracks in order to find something in the present. We’re looking at the tracks in order to know something about the past, and, perhaps, a promise for the future.
Most important for me, I have the sense that there is a presence in the world which has not disappeared. It’s not even invisible; it’s there for me to know.