Back home, hummingbirds are beginning their dives. I can see the purple glint of their faces in my mind’s eye, flashing in the winter sun. Up, up, up they rise — hovering for a moment, an exquisite whirring of wings — and then plunge, fill-tilt, toward earth. “TEEp!” A sharp, high whistle as they pull suddenly out of their aerobatic display. The sound is generated not by vocal chords, but by the vibration of tail feathers at speed.
This time last year, when not watching hummingbirds, I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains. I’d recently been introduced to the art and science of wildlife tracking. My perception radically opened to the more-than-human world, I explored the habitats of bear, coyote, deer, beaver, otter, owl, jumping mouse, and more.
One trip brought me to the home of the Lookout Pack, a group of wolves who had recently crossed the border into Washington State. Our group of trackers spent several days in their territory, searching for signs of these powerful, iconic animals. We found what appeared to be one wolf trail that split into two; they’d walked in each other’s footsteps through the deep snow, much like we did on our snowshoes. We also found signs of a potentially mated pair; two sets of tracks side by side along a ridge, punctuated by urine with traces of blood, indicative of a female in estrus. Just the other day, I read a report of three wolf cubs in the Lookout Pack’s area.
I’m in Devon, England now, far away from hummingbirds and wolves. The absence of wilderness is palpable here. Narrow lanes and tall hawthorn hedges crisscross rolling pastureland. Some things help ground me here. At the outer edges of winter, I feel the delicate joy of a snowdrop, holding white petals gracefully above wet ground. I watch magpies building nests and jackdaws peering down chimneys. But I miss the characters, great and small, from this season back home. The place where I live is the place where they live. I miss scanning the sky for hummingbirds, and sharing ground with wolves.