I have been shopping around for some winter boots lately. I have been wearing light and minimal shoes, some call them barefoot shoes, for a couple of years now for running, hiking, and working and my old heavy work boots that get me through the snow are dragging me down. On a hike around the lake yesterday the weight was especially evident to me as my legs grew weary quickly. Our director, Mike, and I were stalking some geese and ducks who were enjoying the relatively warm water flowing from the spring. Stomping and stumbling through brush and deep snow, I was not likely to sneak up on those jumpy critters before they lit off with honks and quacks of protest, whistling with every beat of their wings. It got me to start thinking about walking lighter. With the moccasins I wear at home and on nicer days here at the Watershed Center, I can feel and adjust to the ground constantly, making each step deliberate, intimate, and responsive. As we continued around the trail, we saw tracks of every kind, except those from people. We were the first on the trail after the snow and got to witness animal trails crisscrossing in every direction. It was amazing to see the deer trails as they followed our man-made path. Some very small tracks, perhaps from one of last spring’s young, show light tracks in between the deep ones. I can just picture this young deer in its first winter, unable or unwilling to pick its feet up high enough to leave clean tracks like those of its mother. Squirrels and rabbits have been active out here as well. One can make out the angle of descent as the rabbit plunged into the deep snow with every bunny hop. Squirrel tracks, running in indiscernible paths from one dug up cache to another, clump together and appear different with nearly every jump, as scattered and random as the edgy critter that left them. Even tiny bird tracks trailed by the soft imprint of a dragging tail can be found crossing our path. Oh! to be that bird! Able to sit atop the deep snow and leave hardly a trace! As we walk, eyes gleaning detective’s clues from the snow, our imaginations constructing the scenes from the night before, we are careful to walk intentionally and softly. The tracks of those before us occupy the main trail, so we walk at the edges, slipping now and then on a rock or a slope. The difficulty is worth it though as we preserve the natural history for the hiker that might follow us.

What is it to walk softly? We did our best to walk softly, in the literal sense, but really our actions followed a less literal idea, the idea that we ought to walk as to not disrupt the beauty of the natural surroundings. Sometimes to walk softly is to be diplomatic and amiable, as in “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” (It might have been speak softly, the idea is the same.) To take it further, walking softly may refer to reducing our impacts on the world. Sticking with the feet, we often seek to reduce our (carbon, energy, slavery, conflict) footprint by being conscience consumers and seeking methods for being wise with our resources. Walking softly is not always viewed in a positive light either. When confronted with a particularly difficult or delicate conversation, one is forced to tiptoe around the issue, or walk on eggshells.

I can stand to walk a little softer in my own life. In relationships, work, my own self-image and ideals, I tend to be a bit heavy handed. Are there ways in which I might lighten my step? Many seek to be more assertive in the impetus of a new year, but perhaps there are ways that I can yield a bit more. Can I reduce my carbon footprint by using electricity wisely and sparingly? Better yet, can I walk softly with friends, family, and neighbors who may have a different perspective on the energy system as I explain why conservation is a good work? Can I walk so softly that I leave no tracks on our Ozarks streams, reservoirs, or aquifers? And, if I do make a footprint, can they be like those of a tinny bird, gently hopping along the surface?

Rob Hunt

Watershed Center Coordinator

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