Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Miracle of Tracking

Tracking is a skill that has been around since the dawn of time. It’s not even a strictly human phenomenon. The origin of tracking represents interpretation of life, in the form of story and adventure. The human ability to track, to understand cause and effect within the environment and ourselves, is perhaps what our large brains developed for, and what makes us human. The San Bushmen of the Kalahari are a culture that epitomizes what it means to be master trackers, and interpreters of a landbase – they know the tracks of their Cheetah friends as well as they know the wrinkles on their own faces.

At Sticks and Stones Wilderness School, we consider tracking to be part of the miracle of life. There is truly no better way to understand yourself and your place in the natural world around you. To track, you must become the animal you are following... you must move like they move, see the food that they see and the shelter that they seek, and hear and smell the animals around them that peak their interest. Some say that you can’t know somebody else until you walk a mile in their shoes. And tracking is exactly that empathetic ability.

I came up for a Winter Wildlife Tracking course at the school to better understand tracking. Having grown up in the city, it was difficult for me to realize the importance of tracking in the modern world. Unfortunately, most of our modern lives do not enable us to interact positively with the animals around us. It took me a while to get past the cultural barrier that prevents many of us today from becoming passionate about tracking.

The Bushmen are an example of a culture that has lived in tune with the natural world for thousands of years, and they have done that using tracking as an integral part of their way of life. They track because it feeds them – whether it’s hunting or fueling their souls with natural wonder and curiosity. Their stories are about the beauty of the savannah, their heroes are the great rains that fuel their ecosystem, and their neighbours are the animals that feed them. Asking a child of their culture why they track would be akin to asking a Kudu why it eats grass.

When I really got my face in the snow, I came to a few realizations. Firstly, when you adopt the attitude that everything you need to know is right in front of you, you come to know that you are able to solve any mystery, natural or otherwise. I was never good at math or physics, but I am relieved in knowing that tracking is just as hard, and that if you can track, you can really do anything humans are capable of. If Einstein was indigenous, he undoubtedly would have been a master tracker.

When I first started tracking, I felt dumb. As a city boy, I am not used to questioning and discerning things for myself (the TTC is over there, marked by a flashing sign, great... and oh, the sidewalk is there, with a road with cars on it – all is crystal clear). Skeet and I trailed two deer over the course of the weekend, though I didn’t know the tracks were being made as we followed them. Every once in a while we would come across tracks that showed them stopping to sniff and look at something in the direction we were coming from. Skeet kept asking me what they were doing, and I have to admit it took me quite some time before I came to the obvious (well, maybe in hindsight) conclusion that they were watching us the whole time. It took me a while to build confidence in my deductive abilities, and I suppose that makes sense, because like any muscle, the questioning mind requires exercise.

A white-tailed deer pauses to track us as we drive by

I plan to track coyotes at home in Toronto. I am truly learning how to question things in the wild, and how to read the answers that are always written on the landscape. I’ve also learned that to be a sustainable, Earth-based culture, we need to apply all our smarts usually reserved for physics, engineering, and complex mathematics to the natural world – which is what tracking does. And if you ever take up tracking, you may find it feels a lot more natural than other academic pursuits, perhaps because our brains have evolved to analyze nature.

Why does tracking in the modern world have to be any different for us than it is to the San Bushmen? Do we not all crave connection with the magnificent animals around us? Are we not in desperate need today of cultures that live in tune with their landbases? Does tracking not fuel our natural curiosity, and pattern our brains in a healthy way? Is hunting not a viable way to put food on the table? At Sticks and Stones, tracking is no less sacred to us than it is to the thousands of indigenous cultures in the past who have included tracking in their way of being. The tracks of our animal neighbours are invitations for us to come back to the natural world we have tried to leave behind.