Not seeing things in the natural world is, after all, the norm – knowing that animals, birds, northern lights, are there somewhere, but out of reach, hidden. Still, there is such a pressure on people to go home having ‘ticked all the boxes’ that they may choose to sacrifice a real experience for an artificial one – a trip to a ‘reindeer farm’ for instance, rather than their own version of a walk on the wild side. They get to see the reindeer, but may have short-changed themselves in terms of an experience. The organised experience may be educational, and fun, but the real thing – which may involve not seeing the object of your desire, just waiting, or looking – is the one I think would stay in the imagination, and heart.
One of the things I enjoy not seeing is the arctic hare that visits our garden in the late evening. I’ve seen him a few times – a pure white animal that sits calmly, almost disappearing into a pile of snow. In the summer he turns brown to blend in with our bare unkempt back yard. But weeks or even months can pass and I don’t see him at all. What I do see, very clearly, as I look out the kitchen window in the morning, is his paw prints in the snow, creating a trail down one side of the house to the garage and back and up the other side. I know which parts of the garden he sniffs most (though I don’t yet know why) and I know how long a distance he can leap. It always makes me smile.
A hare’s trail is very easy to see because it looks like three paw prints but is really four – a triangular shape made by the two back paws pushing off and landing together ahead of the front paws that have left prints one just ahead of the other. Almost daily the trail is erased by a layer of falling snow, and every morning it reappears.
Sometimes there is a second trail next to the hare’s – smaller paw prints, clearly belonging to a small dog. We don’t have a dog, and our neighbour’s dog doesn’t wander – it’s very uncommon for dogs to be off a lead in Sweden. We have seen this dog now and again – whether it is just allowed to roam, or whether it sometimes escapes, we don’t know.
Snow tells stories. When I look out the window in the morning and see human footprints around the house, I don’t think ‘burglars’. These footprints are totally erratic – don’t lead in a clear line from one object to another but waver to and fro and double back on themselves, sometimes appearing to go round in ever decreasing circles, then leading to a final unseemly shuffle in the middle and a determined stride out in another direction. I know the story these tell; it’s the story of guests getting excited seeing the northern lights….
There are footprints inside the house too – boots at the front door. These boots, and their absence, can tell me where people are, sometimes even where they have been. Waking up in the night, I’ve sometimes peered into the hallway to see if people who went out in search of the northern lights have come home. Knowing their rather inadequate clothing, and that the temperature is below minus 15, it’s reassuring to see their boots. At seven in the morning I’m also reassured to see the boots missing of the people who were catching an early flight.
Empty vehicles by the roadside are people’s cast-off shells. Often there’s a snow scooter track nearby, trailing off into the birch scrub, or over the near horizon. There may be a single vehicle, on a part of the road where there appears to be nothing at all within sight – no apparent reason for anyone to park there, leave their car, and go off. At first I used to imagine there had been accidents, or even robbery and kidnapping. Now that I’m more used to seeing these empty shells I know, and am glad, to think that their owners have just happily disappeared into the landscape.