The Way of the Fox

If the Way of Saint James were to be named after an animal, it would have to be the fox. Fox scats have been more constant than the yellow arrows and way-mark shells of the Camino from the first day that we started in Irun.

I have to wonder how many of these elusive creatures have secretly watched us pass from the shadowy stillness of the gorse, shrub oak or heather. We have been snacking on many of the same foods as the fox as evidenced by the pits and stones and seeds in their leavings: cherries in the Basque Country blended into plums as we progressed into Cantabria, then back to cherries in the high elevations of Asturias and now the occasional blackberry meal is in evidence. Only on rare occasions have we seen evidence of fur or the shiny black of organ meat, but sometimes copious amounts of shiny beetle wings. Never once a fox itself.

If I were to travel this trail alone, I would get up an hour earlier (5 AM) and take an hour to go down some side trail away from the Camino hikers and sit still in one place to let nature come back to equilibrium during different times of day, but especially in the early morning, hoping for a fox. As it is, I am quite happy to be through-walking, keeping an eye out for tracks and signs and an ear to the birds. I still hope to see a fox one of these foggy mornings when we get up extra early, but I know it would only be by the grace of the fox at the pace that we are hiking. Still, it is fun to follow their scats, look down the deer runs where they intersect our path, put little stories together in my imagination. We see scats at trail intersections, scats on nice flat obvious rocks, scats on other scats, what look like fox kit scats. . . . and literally a fox scat almost every 200 meters, often more frequently than that.

I learned today that the red fox is the most widely distributed mammal species on the planet, except for humans. Pretty much the entire northern hemisphere is its range. A remarkably adaptable creature and one that I have grown fond of on this trail, even though I only get to see what it leaves to be seen conspicuously on the trails we are walking, the invisible owner of everywhere!

We have seen track and sign of deer, boar, badger, squirrel, mole, shrew, rat, fox, and . . . . wolf!

Several days ago we hiked to the highest elevation of our journey, 1100 meters, and spent the day traversing rolling open semi-alpine heather and grass summer rangeland cut deeply by extremely steep ravines that dropped into largely unroaded wooded canyons. That is where unmistakeable wolf scat appeared on our trail, large in diameter and full of fur (which I suspect to be wild boar fur.)

More very similar scat appeared the next day even closer to human habitation and we saw Hershey kiss shaped “dollops” of shiny black organ meat scat that reminded me of the alpha wolf scent scats we saw in New Mexico when tracking wolves there. It is always exciting to become aware of the presence of wolves. The literature says that the wolves are valued by the farmers for keeping down the boar population. I suspect that these wolves have learned to stay away from domestic animals for the most part as they have lived near human agriculture for such a long time. I did not expect wolves here at all. What a treat not only to learn that they are here, but to see evidence first hand.

I really wanted to find actual fox tracks and have spent many days looking for them any time we were walking on substrate that would hold a clear imprint. But we are never the first ones out on the trail and often near the last. Two teenagers can be hard to move in the morning, even though they are sincerely doing their best. So the dusty substrate is always trampled with fresh pilgrim boots by the time we pass, as well as the soft muddy places. Foxes and pilgrims walk on the flat, easy part of the trail. Cows, domestic dogs, deer have all left tracks in the muddy edges, but not fox. Then finally I found three preserved tracks in a little soft spot that had been mud.

There must have been some scent or rodent or such thing to investigate, but I was happy to see some footprints that I am pretty sure belonged to a fox, though as I’ve looked at tracking resources on the subject I now have some doubts . . . . I suppose doubt is always good when tracking . . . . .

Yesterday we departed Lugo for the last 100 kilometers of our journey to Santiago. I think we have seen the last of the wolf tracks for now, but I’m quite sure the fox will be with us all the way!

(I tried for hours to upload photos for this post but ultimately failed. Maybe when I get home.)

Butterflies, Friendship and Threads of Connection

For over a week I have been chasing butterflies. This gets irritating to my family as it puts me behind. Actually, the longest wait they had was when I missed a way marker completely because I was working on making a lizard noose out of a piece of grass, but more on that another time . . . I’m getting a reputation for not paying attention, and I will take that to heart.

Still, we have been seeing these beautiful chartreuse blended through bright yellow to orange butterflies for about a week. I have been following them, wanting them to land so that I could perhaps get a picture of one. But unlike other butterflies I have followed, these never, ever seemed to land on anything. They would pause with their beautiful wings open for a moment and settle slowly like most butterflies do when they land but then off they would go. I practically gave up, but they were so attractive to me I just couldn’t stop following them around.

Then, yesterday, I noticed a whitish yellow butterfly on some blue flowers that I hadn’t seen before, it looked like a member of the borage family. I went to take a closer look and it flew off, fluttering its pale yellow wings, and landed on another flower. “Well,” I thought, “It’s not one of those amazing orange butterflies but at least I can maybe get its picture.” I got out my little pocket snapshot camera and started the chase, clicking away, hoping for something to turn out.

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All of a sudden, one of the orange beauties appeared for a dance with my white friend . . . .

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Making friends with other species ends up with remarkable rewards. If you had asked me if I thought it was possible to catch two butterflies in flight with my little pocket camera last week I would have said, “No.” But when one follows curiosity with childlike intensity amazing connections unfold. I find this is true whenever I let myself go free to love nature in a childlike way. I’m always grateful to be reminded of this.

Here is a wonderful teaching from Jon Young’s recent book on bird language , What The Robin Knows, which a friend attributed to a San Bushman:

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I highly recommend the book, by the way. It is available on Amazon and if you get the Kindle edition there are recordings to listen to in the text, which is really fun.

Walking and Thinking

I’ve been thinking a lot about human origins as we walk this trail. On the plane I read The Scars of Evolution: What Our Bodies Tell Us About Human Origins by Elaine Morgan, a book exploring the hypothesis that humans evolved from primates that became adapted to life mostly in the water when an isolated population was cut off from the rest of the African continent by an inland sea. The idea is that they then stayed bi-pedal after the climate changed and the sea that had surrounded them dried up. The book explores a lot of curiosities of human anatomy which stand us apart from our closest primate relatives, our hairless bodies, the fat layer under our skin and other anomalies which a period of water adaptation would explain, not to mention that the only time chimpanzees and gorillas consistently walk on two feet (which they are capable of doing any time) is when they are crossing bodies of water.

Still, the question for me is, if our early ancestors did spend a period of time adapting to a watery existence, why did we stay bi-pedal when the water dried up. What advantage did bipedalism give us on land? Whether or not we evolved from “sea-apes,” I have not really heard a satisfying theory concerning why standing erect and walking on two legs would give us an evolutionary advantage, especially before our brains developed to the point of using tools and language.

One of the most “primitive” methods of hunting is to run down an antelope or other ungulate. Humans are good long distance runners and ungulates are not. They are awesome sprinters and leapers but their bodies overheat when forced to run long distances. In an open grassland or desert setting where tracks can be followed while running, many aboriginal people use running as an effective method of hunting. But still the transition is a weak link. We didn’t just stand up and run well, nor did we emerge from the water as skillful tracker/runners . . . .

The sea monkey hypothesis explains more about us than the stand up and run theory but neither really completes the picture. In addition here is still a gap in the bone record between our ape ancestors and our early erect primate ancestors. It is clear from the archeological record that our erect posture preceded our brain development. So walking is older than thinking, in a manner of speaking. But there is likely a very strong connection between a walking existence and a thinking existence. This is interesting to think about while walking so much. Though I think Linden and Daisy my tire of my ponderings.

We also got to visit a cave art museum and replica cave at the site of the Altamira Cave.

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This area in Northern Spain has many caves with cave art and a lot of artifacts from early human inhabitants. So that has kind of put the questions about our origins in my head as well. Anyone know of any resources that shed light on this question?

Questions about our origins are fascinating to me, I think because I believe that our history as a species is etched inside our genes, our form, our patterns of social behavior, our perceptive capacities. I believe that somehow solving the riddle of the present state of human affairs can be helped by understanding the forces that shaped our origins. How we responded to those ancient forces and evolved the capacities with which we are now struggling as a species can perhaps shed important light upon the paradoxes of ingenuity. How can such advanced intellect lead to
catastrophic short-sightedness?

Shells

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Daisy wanted to spend the whole day in this spot, for good reason. I could have, too. But it was windy, and Kelley and Linden had gone on ahead. There are so many things we pass each day that could take hours or weeks to explore. I am not so much a fan of through hiking. I like to hike to a camping spot and then explore and explore, so this is a new experience. But there is a current to the Camino that carries on along. Today we are stepping out of the current to let Linden and Daisy sleep in (once every week or so) and to visit the megalithic cave art museum and medieval church and cloister. Also taking healing time for Kelley’s really bad blisters.

Flax

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We stayed this night in the medieval town of Santillana. This town became wealthy in the Middle Ages from the wool and linen trade, linen being made from flax fibers. Two days ago, as we left the most excellent albergue in Guemes I spied a few flax plants growing among the roadside weeds. I pulled them and began extracting what fibers I could. Like many fiber plants, other than cotton, the useable fibers lie along the inner “bark” of the plant’s stem. With a bit of experimentation I was able to extract some strips of fiber mixed with some of the outer bark which gave it a green color. The fibers themselves were pure white and only two inches long or so, but the outer bark came off in strips which held the fibers together enough for me to play with them. To make linen thread, the flax requires “retting,” a process of rotting away the outer bark and sap from the strong white fibers. Then some kind of pounding and carding process to remove the woody inner stem. But for now, I contented myself with making some very strong double strand twined cordage. It is quite beautiful.

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This simple activity, which I worked at slowly while walking the paved roads to the beach cliffs, has taught me a lot about flax and has caused me to reflect on the other fiber plants I have played with and used – hau, nettle, red cedar, milo. It has raised questions about what the old tools and processes were for the production of linen, which I may learn about as we explore the town museums today.

But most importantly it has deepened my friendship with flax and the kind of understanding that comes from friendship. It is hard to explain this at the deeper level, and it is something that I often struggle to express with others when they ask me why the the hands-on learning part of nature awareness mentoring is so important. You can read all about a person, even an entire biography, and learn all about a person’s life, b ut there is quality of knowledge and understanding that you can never gain unless you become their actual friend in real, three dimensional, fully sense experienced life. It is just like that with plants, animals, birds and insects. The quality of the bond of connection is altogether different when you take the time to interact, to make a friend. This is the heart of nature awarenes mentoring, and the deeper reason to learn the primary skills of fire making, cordage, shelter, wild edibles and medicines, weather, animal tracking, bird language, etc. is really very simple: friendship with nature. And not friendship in an abstract and general way, but in specific and definite ways. Friendship not just with “nature,” which is a concept, but with an actual living landscape, a place and with individual plants, animals, birds and streams and mountains.

From friendship springs care and understanding, and from care and understanding springs the will to take care of our friends. This is the most important force that humans must harness at this time in history, toward nature and toward one another.