More than what we were

Tracks are easier to read in fresh snow. Just because the traffic across them is lighter. A rabbit skitters into a thicket of trees, a dog lopes in pursuit. Then, just as the story is getting interesting, a ski pole plants its symmetrical mark, interrupting the drama.

On the path to my office, tracks pile up because no fresh snow has fallen in several days. There are enough of us who choose this wooded route to put a considerable record in the snow. Our hours are different; we rarely meet. Instead we are but familiar footprints.

Who belongs to the crenulated soles? The even tread of running shoes, the skidding leather boots wearing down after a fourth winter, the cross-country ski troughs that no one violates -- except dogs in pursuit of rabbits? Each track lets out a secret of our walk. Here one stops to adjust the briefcase. Was it to keep at least one hand warm? There another wanders from the path into deeper snow to locate the woodpecker who interrupts morning resolutions. Then, is this a skip? Well, no one is looking. Near the top our strides lengthen -- we are late now for sure.

Sometimes we obliterate one another's tracks. Today I tried to follow my own two- day-old prints all the way down the hill. My shoes are distinctive enough -- little round cleats in a figure-eight pattern. A snowplow chewed at the top of the path nearest the main road. But farther I picked up the traces of my trail.

Here and there I could find a familiar pattern cut into the crust. I couldn't find a whole print, though. I was distracted by the two-and four- footed traffic on the path. It was as though some child had cut thousands of foot and paw prints from white tissue and strewn them before me. Hansel and Gretel were wise to use bread crumbs; better suffer the loss of your trail to birds than to a crowd.

About two-thirds of the way down the path, I found a complete print. It seemed like mine but just a little larger than I had imagined mine to be. It was headed up the hill. It had the strong imprint of someone ending a day, starting the climb home with the satisfaction of having gotten something accomplished.

If this were my print, what had I accomplished that day? If I could find the prints I made at the start of that day, would they show the same resolve? Did I descend the hill to work as one person, and return another -- going to my desk the learner and coming home the teacher? Which person could I identify as myself -- "I" without question? Perhaps I am more recognizable to myself as the starter, the wonderer, than as the finisher?

I decided to try the print for size. I felt a little like Cinderella or perhaps one of her sisters. As I put my shoe into the print, I recalled another footprint reader, Loren Eiseley, the anthropologist and poet. Once he was wandering in a tropical swamp full of waterlilies and what anthropologists like to call "primordial ooze". As he walked, he contemplated his long- cherished hopes -- probably shared by most of his profession -- that he would be the one to find evidence of the missing link in evolution. Coming out of the swamp onto high ground, he found a footprint in the mud. It had all the marks of some primitive humanoid working its way up the evolutionary ladder. "As I fixed the lowermost footprint with every iota of scientific attention I could muster, it became increasingly apparent that I was dealing with some transitional form of man. The arch, as revealed in the soft mud, was low and flat and implied to the skilled eye an inadequate adjustment to the upright posture. This, in its turn, suggested certain things about the spine and the nature of the skull. It was only then, I think, that the full import of my discovery came to me." He asked himself, "Could it be that I was dealing with an unreported living fossil, an archaic ancestral survival?" He decided to compare the discovered print with his own foot in order to aid in identifying the nature of his find. "A little sheepishly and with a glance around to see that I was not observed, I lowered my own muddy foot into a foot-print. It fit. I stood there contemplatively clutching, but this time consciously, the mud in my naked toes. I was the dark being on that island shore whose body carried the marks of its strange passage. I was my own dogging Man Friday, the beast from the past who had come with weapons through the marsh."

In one way he had actually found the missing link. That link was the self, the ever growing being, urging its questions on every footprint, demanding new life from every path that human kind makes. Eiseley's discovery made me understand why my own trail had been so hard to follow. No other person, no crowd, had obscured my prints on this path, making my trail unrecognizable to me its author. It was growth that had done this. Just as Eiseley found he was his own transitional man, so too I am in transition. The prints I made yesterday were made by a creature of growth. They are no longer me.

For that matter none of us who walks this path could recognize these discarded footprints as his record. We are more than creatures of tomorrow's fossils and more than extensions of yesterday's trails. We are life's own record - - and uphill and down we make fresh tracks every moment.

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