2023 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest Winner, Kathryn Ganfield

Kathryn GanfieldKathryn Ganfield is the winner of the 2023 Paul Gruchow Contest for her essay “Tracks” Congrats Kathryn. She is a nature writer and essayist in the river town of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work focuses on family, environment, and the climate in crisis. She is a 2022-2023 Mentor Series Fellow in nonfiction at the Loft Literary Center, a winner of the Writing By Writers Short Short Contest, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her words have been published in Creative Nonfiction and Sleet Magazine, among other journals. Find her online at www.kathrynganfield.com.


Girl running on grass path

Exploring the prairie biome at Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne, Minnesota.

The land is scrubby, though I suppose it’s short-grass prairie, a restoration work in progress. Early April, a dry spring, and no plant here is green yet, only the bleached yellow left from last November. My children’s boots kick up the trail dust that masks the wet scent of the Mississippi a five-minute walk away. Then their chubby hands drop down in the dirt, and they’re crawling on all fours—springing actually—like deer fleeing or fox pouncing, just like the man teaching us to track the animals today.

“That’s right, that’s right,” he encourages them, loping down the trail on his fingertips and toes. He may say more than that, but truck brakes protest on the bridge above us, and his voice is lost to the industry that surrounds this small nature preserve.

Too self-conscious to imitate a deer, I hoof it on my two human legs, lag behind the herd of students. As I catch up with the class, the instructor whips a white ruler from his cargo khakis.

“An animal tracking essential,” he tells us, with the gravity of a magician or a nun. He crouches near a pawprint preserved in dried mud and lines up the ladder rungs of black inches with the lobe of the back pad. My kids are too young to measure, so our tracking teacher turns to the retirees in the class. That’s who’s here today for an intro to animal tracking: retirees with bountiful time and undivided attention, and me, a stay-at-home mom with my two preschoolers and a 2-year-old—who may have the free hours but not the attention spans. I wonder if we should be fingerpainting instead of tracking paws.

Paw prints in the sand

Dog tracks in Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Everything but the crawling is above my children’s heads, but they are content to follow this silly, serious man who treats them and teaches them no different than the adults. “Count the toes, count the pads,” he says. OK, the kids can do that. Have we caught a raccoon in the act? A raccoon, I’m sure of it. Long-fingered and sneaky-thieving. Oh, no, perhaps it’s an opossum? They’re handy too. But mum’s the word. I keep my answer—if it’s even the right answer—to myself and let the children play, and propose, and wonder what animals came before us.

It’s challenging to keep the kids on track, but something in me compels, impels, propels me. Says this nature preserve is the place to be today, in the ugly stage of springtime, with the unslakable ticks, and the fast-food wrappers rustling in the grasses, all of us smeared with mud instead of tempera paint, trail dust instead of sidewalk chalk. A few years later, when my kids are older and long-legged, a raccoon will scale an office tower a bit more than a mile from here, a youngling black bear will wander to the train depot, a beaver will pad the sidewalks of Lowertown. Nature is here, undeniably, assertive even in the city, and I know my children need it, need to know it. More so, will need it when the time comes, and they inherit this broken earth.

They need to know what this khaki-clad man can teach them. It’s not the tracking per se, it’s the observing. Notice, take measure, breathe slow and silent, and you will be better prepared for the earth ahead of you. I have to believe that, or I will cry. I have to mother them with these messages. Here in this nature preserve, outdoors, but indoors too. Thank you, Super Grover 2.0 on Sesame Street, my kids’ must-see TV, and his trumpet voice intoning: “Unleash your powers of observation!”

Sesame Street is good storytelling, but so is tracking. To track an animal is to tell ourselves its story. From our raccoon handprint, we work our way backward, to the earliest indentation we can find, by an overturned grocery cart beneath the bridge pilings. Here, we think the raccoon made a meal of a Big Mac box, licked it clean and washed its hands of it. Then we follow the tracks forward, ‘til all trace of this rightly cagey creature is lost. Based on what facts we could gather, we weave an animal fiction. We read its palm; we tell its future.

* * *

Five years later, I’m in another tracking class. No kids with me this time, and the class is more broadly called Animal Signs, because we seek pawprints and hoofmarks, but also all the signs of life: eating, digesting, denning, dying, resting, rutting. These signs are sometimes obvious, if you’re not oblivious, as we all inevitably can be in our bustling human lives. We search for tracks in the substrates of mud and sand and snow. But also ID broken branches where rabbits nibble, owl pellets peppered at the base of trees, roughed-up bark where white-tails scrape antlers. We ask: what scat is that?

This class meets in a 100-acre suburban nature center, surrounded not by industry but by green manicured ChemLawns. It is peak January, the green is cloaked by white feet-deep, but the day dawned warm enough for me to take notes with my mittens peeled back at the fingertips. I crouch low in the snow and balance on my boot treads.

“The first rule of intelligent tracking:  Don’t step on the tracks,” the naturalist says. “Don’t poison the path.”

Deer in the snow

Herd of white-tailed deer in the snow at Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul, Minnesota.

A John Deere chugs by on the dirt road that marks the prairie edge, drowning out the teacher if he said more wise words than that, as he too crouches, pointing at something in the snow. Morning light bouncing off the snowpack, I just make out the tracks he’s describing: mice tracks. So delicate I’d call them star-flakes. The s-swish of the mouse tail between them in a perfect register. Dashing, dashing, I imagine the dark mouse body exposed against the snow, chancing the owl’s talons. It would only take the lightest swish of my mitten to poison this path, to scrub the mouse and its record from the books. How easy indeed to wipe away wild creatures who are sometimes obvious in their lives, sometimes—oftentimes—subtle and full of secrets. We don’t even know all we are losing.

* * *

I’m perhaps annoying to my children in my earnest amateur naturalist know-it-all-ing. But I can’t help it; it’s my nature. The wild world demands my notice, inspires my possessiveness. Here is wolf scat, I say, here’s how you know. Here’s a wasp gall, shellacked on the stem of a goldenrod. Here are deer beds, perfect circles in the prairie, like the whorl of hair on the back of your skull, warm where I kiss you goodnight. Annoying as I may be, the kids are game. They give it a go. They want to know. So, we track backwards, to see what was, what perhaps was just passing through, what was lost and will never be again.  Together, we step forward. Mark all the signs of life as we go, on a shared pursuit to find the future of this animal—if we can.

That raccoon and his Big Mac sesame seeds and special sauce is doomed to a bellyache, but he need not be doomed—I have to believe. In tracking, I can find consolation, for myself and for my children. Comfort in the infinite possibilities of the rise of the trail, the bend of the river, the turn of the seasons. In tracking, we find the former, the faded. But every sign of animal life is also an arrowhead. The two toes of a deer, leaping forward, pointing to the future. For what is a fresh track, if not a step toward survival?