Eric Mayer

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We haven't seen the white cat with the black spots today, which isn't surprising since snow's coming down and the cat usually comes out when the sun does. We suspect the cat belongs to a neighbor because she looks well fed although she supplements her diet by hunting. There's nothing like glancing out the back window and seeing a cat with the squirming hind legs of a chipmunk hanging out of its mouth.

The cat always follows the same route: across the back yard, behind the shed, along the perimeter of the yard next door where the grass meets the woods, then through a gap in the pines, onto the next property and down past the side of the house there, vanishing from our sight in the direction of the road. She returns along the same route exactly. There might as well be cat road markers pointing the way.

I wonder does the cat invariably take the same route out of habit? Has it been the cat highway since time immemorial or did this cat choose it? And why? Merely because cats prefer to skirt the edges or because it takes her past the best hunting spots? Does it intersect a chipmunk thruway? It would be faster to simply cut straight across all the yards.

When I was growing up there were ant paths worn into my grandparents' front yard. In several places they led from the flagstone walk to the big, partially hollow maple trees in front. The paths were no wider than a child's finger, but distinct. How many ants and how many years does it take to wear a tiny rut from which no blade of grass emerges? The paths were always busy. The ants hurrying toward the sidewalk were unburdened, those returning to the maples, where they must have had colonies, carried bits of leaves, or maybe a dead aphid or even a cracker crumb. If you dropped a twig on their road the ants would quickly congregate to remove the obstruction.

I once lived in a house where generations of mice had gnawed a gap in the corner of a plank door. An indentation had been worn into the floorboards where a procession of mice had scurried through the gap on their way along what was no doubt a well established route.

The beginning of the year is a time for thinking about paths. I suppose most of us will tend to take familiar paths. Do we do so for a reason or from habit? It's comforting to have a path to follow. Whether it is always good or not is another question. Some years the path ahead looks obvious. This year, perhaps, less so.

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