Animals make more trails than humans do, in the Oregon woods around our home. It’s easier to follow their paths in winter, even if snow hasn’t yet fallen. Mud carries marks of hooves and paws. Snow carries magic, though. Snow illuminates animal ways.
I love winter hikes along animal trails. Most undergrowth has fallen away. Blackberry thorns persist, but poison oak has surrendered. I can scramble through untamed woodlands without worry over weeks of rash. I still have to be careful: bears and cougars roam freely, and might not accept my presence. I rarely see them, but their wild evidence is frequent. Deer are even more profuse.
Deer trails are nonlinear compared to human paths. Animals’ aims and needs differ from mine. While they forage for food and shelter, I seek subtle adventure.
After forty years of hiking this land, I still find new places where only animals dwell. I can follow their lead to discovery. What’s in this tiny grove? Can I reach a creek bend no one else knows? Even if a deer trail’s familiar, a year of growth or a day of rain will have changed it. Any moment may hold a discovery as tiny and expansive as the landing of a leaf. It didn’t land here last year.
Animals follow our human trails too. We collaborate on creating paths through snow and brush, without even sharing a language. Our lives overlap. Our spirits and days are centered in one realm. We have more commonality than difference, in our needs. I too seek food and shelter daily, even if not specifically along this trail. The forest provides me spiritual shelter—on some level, the animals and I do share that.
The winter holidays provide spiritual shelter too, at least in intent. With faith in nature, I diverge from formal paths of religion as much as from paths of animals; yet I find kinship with those who follow faith’s other trails. We walk in parallel too. Our shared refuge is precious.
Faith’s aims are often the same, when the thickets of beliefs and rituals fall away: Connection to greater spirit. A peaceful way of being in the world. Solace and direction. A path to forgiveness, compassion and gratitude. Reverence for creation. I celebrate the beauty within religions I don’t follow, especially when their winter holidays descend.
May we recall that we all share the same path, no matter if we leave different tracks in the snow.