Walking a country road along the right bank of Agogna (a left tributary of river Po in northern Italy.), I came upon a track of footsteps. They were so neatly outlined in the fine dust that they had to be very fresh. Considering what a wind there was at dawn, they must have been made not more than a couple of hours earlier.
Puzzled, I contemplated them for quite a while. My father taught me to recognize the tracks of many animals, but these were new to me.
It was a small quadruped with a rather commonplace gait. His longest step was 16 cm. He would move forward his left-front and right-hind legs until the hind leg would almost touch the right front leg. Then he would put the two moving legs down, bear all his weight on them and move forward the other pair. It sounds simple but, if you want to do it with a minimum of grace, it does takes some learning. As a young lad I have tried it several times without much success. The problem with us humans is that our arms are too short compared with our legs. We had walked erected for too long, I guess.
He was touching the ground with just four fingers. I could not see anything indicating how he held the fifth finger - he might as well not have one. Each finger had a nail with a round profile. The nails had to arch upward before bending down because the tracks they left were perfect round pits isolated from the much larger imprints of the fingers. The nails were not retractile and they were well kept - not a single one was broken.
There was another interesting set of signs - long, almost straight lines, unmistakably left by a round tail about 1 cm thick.
Combined with the nearby presence of a bridge and one of the small, illegal sewage dumps which are so common in Italy, the data indicated the culprit as a rat. Of course, we are talking about a European, middle-sized, well-educated country rat who has nothing to do with the coyote-sized American town hugs I used to meet, years ago, around the Champain-Urbana campus when returning home early morning after a night at the computer center.
The track was perfectly straight and clearly visible for about ten meters. An overall view of it gave the impression, no doubt correct, that the chap was proceeding with calm determination. He was not running, but he did not have time to lose either. Not even once would he stop or deviate from his course or just hesitate for a moment and drag a foot out of some childish curiosity at this or that. He already knew all there is to know!
He was a male walking with his head up, his eyes surveying the wider horizons. I could tell that much because as he walked, he kicked, without noticing, a couple of small pebbles and made them roll a few times in the dust. Females are more prudent, especially in springtime. You can bet that a female would look where she was putting her feet!
I went back to where the track started and followed it while keeping my head up, eyes surveying the river and the rice fields framed by poplar woods. I was exhilarated by the idea of experiencing the very same sensations a fellow mammal - almost a buddy of mine - experienced only a short while ago.
Then I recognized that there was a substantial difference between us.
The chap who walked the dusty road before me was so sure of himself!
He had no doubts about his position in the world.
He knew what he wanted.
So, after all, he was not like me at all.