The Things We Leave Behind

Chickadee wingprint

Chickadee wingprint

One thing I’ll say for this snowy winter—it’s been good for tracking. After a fresh snow, I thrill to see the first prints. Bird, cat, maybe a fox, a wing impression, blood spatters.

The wandering track of something clearly not a squirrel crisscrosses my yard. Cat? Fox? The snow is too deep to tell. Squirrel tracks tend to run a direct line from tree to tree. Unless they stop at the hole where a hawk landed and imprinted its wings in the snow.

I’ve found wing prints and stray feathers. Perhaps a mourning dove became breakfast. A splotch of blood on the snow bank. Perhaps a squirrel became lunch. Footprints, feathers, blood. These are the traces left behind, soon to be covered or blown away.

You can tell a lot about a creature from its tracks. Where it feeds or drinks, where it spent the night—the melted snow under the juniper in the shape of a huddled cat, each front paw pad leaving its own neat indentation. The mystery track that begins at the fence post. I happened to see that track being made as a cat walked gingerly across the pickets to avoid the deep snow then, with nowhere else to go, leaped into it at the end. The imprint of my license plate, pressed into the snow between cars, only visible once I backed up. Me, in reverse.

We all leave tracks, traces, if only the lingering waft of cigarettes dragged back into the building after a break. Books and photographs are more permanent than prints in snow or smoke on clothes.

My book-collecting phase began with a first edition of Out of Africa. Since then, I’ve found and treasured many original editions. To clarify, I don’t care about pristine first editions so much as any edition the author might have held—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Amelia Earhart’s 20 Hrs., 40 Min. I even have her Last Flight, but that, of course, is not one she could have held.

Boxes in my basement are filled with photos—slides, prints, and negatives. I also have my mother’s photos and my grandmother’s. The world according to three generations of one family.

Petroglyph, Petrified National Forest, Arizona.

Petroglyph, Petrified National Forest, Arizona

Digital photography makes it possible to take thousands of photos and store them on the computer. I might have just as many photos stored on this laptop I’m typing on as I have in the basement. Backups are on an external hard drive, more are on the desktop computer downstairs. I almost never get around to printing them.

I like that I can look at them any time: just click open the folder and browse. No pulling a heavy album off the shelf, dusting it, separating the stuck-together plastic sleeves, worrying about it falling apart from age.

But falling apart is a huge risk to everything we store on computers and servers—the “cloud.” A Google vice president, Vint Cerf, recently warned of a coming “digital Dark Age,” as hardware and software become obsolete (thanks a lot, Microsoft). I already can’t access the files from my old Macintosh. Even an ill timed cosmic ray can fry our archives.

Also in my basement are the hard drives of four old computers that have been sent to the recycler. The thousands of kilobytes of data stored on them are contained in one shoe box. Those old drives are useless to me. Unlike the file cabinets and boxes, I can’t just pop the lid and browse.

Vint Cerf’s idea to protect this digital archive is to also archive every bit of software and hardware needed to read it. Like a museum of slide projectors and lamps. I don’t know if that will work. The software, at least, would be as vulnerable as the documents it is meant to read. What good is a hard drive with nothing to run on it?

Back in the 1970s, a trove of photographs were found in a Montana basement. The photographer had been a woman, Evelyn Cameron, who during the late 1800s and early 1900s took hundreds of photos of the people and places of eastern Montana. What is so astonishing about the images is their quality. These weren’t the posed, dry portraits we associate with that time of long exposures and slow, glass plate negatives. These are candid, almost journalistic shots of people at work and play and the landscape and wildlife of the Wild West. She took a “selfie” standing on a horse. She also kept meticulous diaries. Together, they give a full sense of life on the plains at that time. This is the sort of record that could be so easily lost, but it wasn’t.

All that was needed to bring these hundred-year-old photos and diaries back to life was light. No operating system, no Photoshop 2050, just light. Same with books. What attic or basement can store ebooks for a hundred years? Yet, in a dusty bookshop in Owls Head, Maine, I found Out of Africa and original editions by Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.

My boxes of prints and slides take up a lot of space, but no matter how technology changes, they will always be viewable. Just hold the slide up to the light. The sun isn’t going away anytime soon. When tornadoes hit, what do victims mourn most after lost loved ones? The photographs.

These are the things we leave behind. Our tracks.

Soon I’ll be leaving my own trace in the world. My book, Wishbone, will be published. First as an ebook then as paper. The ebooks will sit on hard drives until the technology no longer exists to read them, or a cosmic ray wipes them out. The paper has the potential to last longer.

Maybe in someone’s attic, long after I’m gone, a young woman will wipe the dust from the cover and wonder, “Who wrote this?”

 

If I’ve made you curious:

Google’s Vint Cerf warns of ‘digital Dark Age’

Evelyn Cameron

Photographing Montana: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron (1990, Knopf) is out of print, but Donna Lucey deserves credit for resurrecting this amazing woman and leading to all the Google pages on her.

More about Wishbone.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for this, and especially for the Evelyn Cameron link. I need to get that book!

    i’m frustrated this year when it comes to tracks. I like to tramp out through the woods looking for deer tracks and others–I know folks have seen moose around here, but all I’ve found so far are very occasional tracks. But the snow is too deep now for simple tramping through, my snowshoes are long gone, and it’s been so long since I used my cross-country skis that my boots are stiff with age and unwearable. Plus my knees are what they once were. The snow is even too deep for the deer to travel much, so I probably wouldn’t find their tracks anywhere close to home. I do worry about the creatures out there. Plenty of birds and squirrels right outside my window, though.

    1. The snow has been too deep for good identification. What you really want is a thin layer. My knees can withstand snowshoes, but I worry about skis and falling and twisting! Evelyn Cameron is wicked cool! Thanks for stopping by!

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