The mystery, wisdom, and peace of Little Foot
After World War I, Midwestern farmers began using machinery to expand their fields.
They plowed up land that once grew drought-resistant grasses and planted wheat, but the market soon became glutted, and people couldn’t afford to buy much food during the Depression, so prices plummeted.
Desperate to make a living, farmers plowed up more and more grassland, upsetting the delicate balance of the prairie.
By the 1930s, searing temperatures and severe drought fostered not only the Dust Bowl, but also black-tailed jackrabbit populations which devoured everything in their path.
To protect their crops and gardens, farmers organized jackrabbit drives.
In one massive effort, 35,000 jackrabbits were clubbed to death, most being fed to other animals since people feared “rabbit fever” which had become prevalent in the early 1930s.
I often think about those early drives, the thousands of carcasses, and the imbalance caused by uninformed farming techniques.
Since my great-great-granddad, Thomas Henry Bradbury, homesteaded in Kansas, my family no doubt took part in those desperate measures to feed their families. They did so to survive.
Utah, on the other hand, never suffered from a jackrabbit explosion, and the black-tailed population is currently stable.
Unlike cottontails, jackrabbits, which are actually hares, are born with fur and open eyes, so the young are quickly mobile.
As they mature, they can run in a zigzag pattern up to 40 miles an hour, leap more than ten feet in the air, and thump one or both back legs to communicate danger.
Their long ears, which have extensive blood vessel networks, cool their bodies and help them conserve water by reducing the need to pant, but they also get water from plants and even from eating their own feces if necessary.
Their feet are fur covered to insulate them from desert rocks and soil.
Because of their wariness, I usually see only their black-tailed backsides bounding away, but one day I was sitting on a bench-like rock overlooking Westwater, practicing Sheng Zhen Gong – a type of Chinese exercise.
Bored, Oggie had dug a hole under a small juniper and was chilling.
When I finished, I heard a noise from the slope above us and turned to see a doe and a jackrabbit coming down the trail together.
They paused as I made eye contact, and when Oggie rose, growling, they ambled off.
According to Li JunFeng, the Chinese master who developed Sheng Zhen Gong, the earth is alive and affected by those who inhabit her.
He thinks we’ve been too greedy in the past, causing too much conflict and competition, too much time in the head instead of the heart, and too much stress and busyness, imbalances which affect the earth.
He feels we should slow down and open our hearts. “When we have big hearts,” he says, “we have love. We are one family. We are all brothers and sisters.”
Early in March I was contemplating our effects on the earth and the reverse – how much better I always feel when Oggie and I walk in the canyon – a fact that science now verifies.
Those benefits include the reduction of inflammation, anxiety, body acidity, pain, and chronic illness and the promotion of energy, healing, emotional well-being, mental clarity, and quality sleep – bonuses that most of us in San Juan County enjoy.
I was studying tracks when I spotted a mysterious one in a sandy wash. Although it looked nearly human, it was the size of my little finger with ridges running beneath the toes and across the heel.
Deer and bird tracks scuffed the soft sand around it, but I saw only one humanoid print, a little foot that had intimately connected to the earth.
When Oggie and I returned home, I scanned through my tracks and scats field guides, but couldn’t find any drawings that matched my photo.
Puzzled, I texted it to a friend, labeling it, “Little Foot,” and the next day she forwarded it to her friend who works for the BLM.
While I waited for an expert opinion, my brain tried to identify the track even while I cleaned house, did laundry, and fixed lunch.
That afternoon it donned on me it must be the hind foot of a jackrabbit or cottontail even though their feet are covered with fur.
The next day, the BLM employee verified my guess.
In the last month, our world has undergone a drastic shift. Here in San Juan County we’re fortunate because we can go out into nature and still maintain mega social distancing.
Despite this time of fear, financial stress, loneliness, and grief, connecting to the earth and her creatures can bring healing and peace on many levels even if we don’t go barefooted like Little Foot.
However, we need a deeper healing than returning to status quo after the crisis is over.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I often spend more time in my head than heart; I have a flash temper that regularly runs away with me, and I always have places to go, people to see, and toilet paper to buy.
Or I did.
Now is our opportunity to slow down, to address imbalances, both personal and societal, and to open our hearts.
“If we are full of love,” Master Li says, “the place becomes holy. Love purifies the area, purifies the environment, and purifies society.”