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WHILE the camp-fire was smoking, for the wood was green and I was willing that my companion should worry over it, I strolled up the long, sandy beach with no particular object in mind and quite ready to meet and parley with any creature that I overtook. I saw only evidences of what had been there, or what I supposed had been. There were tracks that I took to be those of herons, and others that suggested a raccoon in search of crayfish. Here and there a mouse had hurried by. What lively times had been kept up at low tide within sight of the tent door! and yet we knew nothing of it. But these tracks were not well defined, and therefore why not misinterpreted? I have not suggested all the possibilities of the case — Here my meditations were checked by the call to breakfast, but I took up the subject again as I walked alone in the woods, for I was but the companion of a worker, not one myself.
It occurred to me that when we read of hunters, or perhaps have followed a trapper in his rounds, we have been led to think that footprints are animal autography that the initiated can read without hesitation. To distinguish the track of a rabbit from that of a raccoon is readily done, and we can go much further, and determine whether the animal was walking or running, made a leap here or squatted there; but can we go to any length, and decipher every impress an animal may have made in passing over the sand or mud? I think not. I have seen a twig sent spinning a long distance up the beach at low tide, making a line of equidistant marks that were extremely life-like in appearance. A cloud of dead leaves have so dotted an expanse of mud that a gunner insisted there had been a flock of plover there a few moments before he arrived. All depends, or very much does, on the condition of the surface marked. If very soft and yielding, the plainest bird-tracks may be distorted, and a mere dot, on the other hand, may have its outline so broken as to appear as though made by a bird or mammal. Still, tracks are a safe guide in the long run, and, whether our opinion as to them be correct or not, the rambler finds something worth seeing, and he goes on anything but a wild-goose chase who sometimes finds himself mistaken. It is well to check our confidence occasionally and realize the limits of our power.
Opportunity afforded while in camp, and I made a short study of footprints. With a field-glass I noted many birds, and then going to the spot, examined the impressions their feet had made. A night-heron did not come down flatly upon its feet with outspread toes, and so the tracks were quite different from the impressions made when the bird walked. Crows, I noticed, both hopped and walked, and the marks were very different, the former being broad and ill-defined in comparison with the traces of the same bird's stately tread. Had the bird not been seen, any one would have supposed two creatures had been keeping close company, or that some one individual had passed by in the very path of another. The purple grakle and red-winged blackbird made tracks too much alike to be distinguished, yet these birds have not the same size or shape of foot. A water-snake came up over the mud and left a line of marks upon the sand that could not be recognized as that of any animal, except it might be a faint resemblance to the trail of a mussel. I chased a dozen crayfish over a mud flat, and their backward and sidewise leapings caused an old gunner to say there had been plover about. A blue-winged teal made a long double line of dents in the sand before it rose clear of the beach, and these were very like many a footprint I had previously seen. 'What, then, must we think of the fossil footprints of which so much has been written? As different species, a long series of these impressions in the rock have been described and given high-sounding titles. I am not entitled to an opinion, but have doubts, nevertheless, of the wisdom of considering every slightly different form as made by a different creature. I have given my reasons, and will only add another instance, one of greater significance than all as bearing upon the question. I startled a slumbering jumping-mouse last summer and it bounded across the smooth sand bared by the outgoing tide. Its track then was one made by its body rather than the extremities, and a curious dent in the river-shore's smooth surface it was; but before taking again to the woods it walked in its peculiar way, and the little footprints were quite distinct and unmistakably those of a small mammal. Had the two sets of markings been preserved in a slab of sandstone, no ichnologist would have recognized the truth, but probably would have said, "Here is a case where some leaping creature has overtaken a small rodent and devoured it."
Difficult as fossil footprints may be to decipher, they call up with wonderful distinctness the long ago of other geologic ages. It is hard to realize that the stone of which our houses are built once formed the tide-washed shore of a primeval river or the bed of a lake or ocean gone long before man came upon the scene.
But the footprints of to-day concern me more. Looking over the side of the boat, I saw several mussels moving slowly along and making a deep, crooked groove in the ripple-marked sand, "streaking the ground with sinuous trace," as Milton puts it; and the school of blunt-headed minnows made little dents in the sand wherever the water was shallow, when they turned suddenly and darted off-shore. This sand seemed very unstable, and a little agitation of the water caused many a mark to be wiped out; and yet we find great slabs of ripple-marked and foot-marked sandstone. I picked up such a piece not long ago on which were rain-drop marks. This is the story of a million years ago; but who ever found Indian moccasin-marks not two centuries old? The footprints that could tell us many a wonderful story are all gone and the tale of a rain-drop remains. This is a bit aggravating. Here where we have pitched our camp, or very near it, was a Swedish village in 1650 and later, and for two days I have been hunting for evidence of the fact, — some bit of broken crockery, rusty nail, glass, pewter spoon, anything, — but in vain. History records the village, and correctly, without a doubt, but there are no footprints here, nor other trace to show that a white man ever saw the place until our tent was pitched upon the beach.
Towards evening I had occasion to renew my youth, — in other words, "run on an errand," as my mother put it, — and going half a mile through the woods, I came to a narrow but well-worn path. This was so akin to my footprint thoughts of the morning that I gladly followed it instead of making a short cut. It was fortunate, for the path led directly to where I wished to go, and our theoretical geography, as usual, was terribly out of joint. As it was, on the edge of an old village I found a very old man in a very old house. His memory as to the earlier half of the century was excellent, and he gave me the desired information and more. I spoke of the path through the woods, and he chuckled to himself.
"Through the woodses, eh? Well, when I made the path, goin' and comin' through the brush that wasn't shoulder-high, there was no trees then. That was more'n forty years ago."
"No, John, 'twa'n't," piped a weak voice from the interior of the little cottage; "'twa'n't mor'n..."
"Laws, man, don't mind her. She disputes the almanac, and every winter gets in New Year's ahead of Christmas."
I did not stop to argue the matter, but hurried campward, glad that, if I could find no footprints of human interest and historic, I at least had followed a path made forty years ago, — a path that had been worn among bushes and now led through a forest. It was indeed suggestive. By the camp-fire that night I vowed to plant a forest where now there was but a thicket, and in my dreams I walked through a noble wood.
Think how much might be done to beautify the world, and how little is accomplished.