After fresh snow the Irish hares are nowhere all at once. The echoes of their tracks are what remains, and those fast fading as the rising sun corrodes the edges of each foot-fall. I had not meant to come here today, to the bog up in the frost-bitten dome of the sky. I was following fox around the glen bottom, over tiny fields and through trees, places that the hares shun. Head down in my tracking, I was led unawares up onto the open moor. Perhaps to be ambushed.
The wind chars the edges of my ears like damp paper that will not catch. The hares have been here at first light. And here. And again here. A riot of tracks. Their script has only two glyphs. The front feet, lower case, seem not to put much weight onto the world at all. They simply ink the place where they would have fallen, given the chance. The back feet, caps, emphatic.
After miles with the rounded familiarity of fox paw the first individual print of a back foot is a shock. It is an other. A strangeness. I glance around to see if I am prey, if this is some trick. The snow and the burning wind expose me, up here, so far from cover.
Two years have passed since I saw these tracks in snow and like a migrant bird’s song, just now returned, I at once recognise them and yet do not. My eye does not see the blunt-fronted print that you will find in the tracking books. I see instead a gently rounded teardrop in the snow. Long before I can recall the word we use for the makers of these beautiful droplets there is a warmth and an un-named fur that strokes my cheek.
I follow. As I must. The tracks insist. That is the role assigned to carnivores and predators. We restlessly follow the paths of the others even when, as now, we mean them no harm.
It is only as I walk beside the track that the word at last comes to me. Hares. From the incomprehensible scatter of the heavy teardrops and rough, small circles emerges their signal, their pattern. The groups of four; two back prints and two front. Two plus two equals one.
But the oneness is never simple, never in quite the same alignment. The back prints may be ahead of the front or behind them. Imagine that. The front legs folding back under the warm belly as the might of the back legs reaches far forward to gobble up the ground. As I tease out one trail from many there is the melody of a steady trot for a few bars suddenly interrupted by a pause to scratch, the milling of a social encounter broken by the occasional leap and scuffle. Paths cross and re-cross and by some hidden mechanism which I cannot discover, cease.
Bewildered by these endless permutations, the others’ secret weapon, I am rendered harmless; becalmed in the openness at which the hares excel. This is the switchback of a murmuration of starlings which baffles the hawk. Here the dumbfounding by the blizzard of herring that flows around the thrust of a tuna.
Somewhere in this thinning snow-scape the eyes of hares are upon me. In the early spring morning they doze and chew and know me. I cannot see them no matter how hard I try. But their looking gathers me in.