Led Astray by a Bounding Snow Dog

White German Shepherd Dog in the snow

An odd movement just outside the office window caught the corner of my eye. What was that?

I turned to look and saw a column of steam rising as if a whistling tea kettle was coming to a boil. What could be burning outside in the snow? I stood up and saw a sweet white muzzle opening to the sky just below the window sill, howling in answer to the sanctuary wolves. It was that cold.

I kept my daily promise, though, and took my German shepherd Shota for a cross-country ski through the sagebrush fields. A rough dirt track cuts through the sagebrush on its way to the headgate of South Leigh Creek, from which flows mountain snowmelt water in the spring to irrigate our fields. Shota joyfully bounded ahead through the fresh, deep snow, his agile shepherd body weaving back and forth as he investigated this and that. Instead of skiing straight ahead, which would have carved out a smooth trail to ease my return, I found myself, without thought, following the rollicking tracks he made.

Then I caught myself. From what depth did the instinct come to follow a track already made, however faint and irregular (in this case, leaping dog tracks)? Wild animals follow trails we have on the property. It makes sense in terms of pure physics—it requires less use of precious energy. We used to watch in admiration as Pinkerton, our Canadian lynx, would leap over a log, skimming it with mere millimeters to spare. Any extra effort uses calories. Also, if there’s a track, it means some other being was there before and therefore, it may lead to some place interesting or safe.

What intrigued me was that I had started to follow the dog tracks from a place way beneath my awareness, completely subconscious, yet directed by some innate push, a survival wisdom. Is that how instinct works—that which we have in common with animals? Then, with human consciousness, I suddenly realized the absurdity of what I was doing and began to examine my actions. I plowed straight ahead. Shota then returned and used my tracks, messing them up completely.

I experienced something similar while hiking with a friend in untracked desert in Arizona. I led the way back and he remarked what a good sense of direction I had—that I went back almost exactly the way we had come. I hadn’t been thinking about it at all, just automatically walking, but obviously, I had been attending to some cues outside my awareness.

How did I suddenly become aware of what I was doing, blindly following Shota‘s tracks? There had to have been a switch in how I was thinking, or in what part of my brain I was accessing. It was only after this switch was initiated that I became conscious of the absurdity of weaving back and forth in the deep snow. And then I had to apply an objective intelligence in order to analyze what I was doing and why. How did I find and initiate that?

The interplay between directed consciousness and mind/body wisdom is endlessly fascinating, mysterious, and wonderful.

The next day, as I followed my ski tracks that had been mangled by a happy dog, I noticed that in between paw prints were the imprint of delicate deer hooves. They had very quickly discovered the easier path as well.

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