The Wild Within: Adventures in Nature and Animal Teachingsby Paul Rezendes, Bill McKibben
As Jon Krakauer writes of "the dark side of the wilderness experience," Paul Rezendes writes of the spiritual side. Rezendes is one of this country's most skilled outdoorsmen: a master wildlife tracker with an uncanny ability to communicate the profound lessons he has learned from the wild about territoriality, awareness, fear, the inseparability of life and death, and the true nature of the self. Through hard personal experience, Rezendes discovered how tracking can be a powerful tool for understanding our deep connections with nature and with one another. The leader of two notorious motorcycle gangs in the early 1960s, he faced a ten-year prison sentence for drugs and illegal weapons charges. His sentence was revoked, and Rezendes transformed his life path from gang leader to Zen master, founding an ashram in southeastern Massachusetts and honing the tracking skills with which he was raised. In The Wild Within, Rezendes punctuates a gripping narrative of his wilderness adventures with simple exercises that show readers how to turn off their conscious minds and use their deeper intelligence to enter a state of oneness with the environment and to deal more effectively with daily life. In the words of Dianne Dumanoski of the Boston Globe, "Paul Rezendes's [work] is about tracking, but also much more; it shows how to find your way home to the great web of life."
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
Tracking bobcat can be hell. They just love to take you through the thickest possible terrain, like the hillside smothered in mountain laurel across which I was leading eight students that had signed up for my predator tracking program. On our hands and knees, we pushed our snowshoes ahead of us, our day packs snarled in the laurel's twisted branches. Twigs scraped our faces. I pointed out to the group that the even spacing of the tracks in front of us indicated that the bobcat, low to the ground and lithe, had moved effortlessly through the thickets.
My students and I were getting to know this bobcat, learning how it hunted, where it liked to lay up, where it deposited its scent, how it moved through its territory. This was the cat's domain, heavy cover, perfectly suited to its slinking, secretive nature. We were learning that there is no better way to get to know an animal than to track it; but we were also learning that tracking, and knowing, are often hard work. My students had been grumbling behind me; every so often someone emitted a stifled curse.
Snow cascaded from the laurel tops down our napes and backs. We penetrated deeper into the laurel, and I felt the group become quiet and attentive. It was as if the ghost of the cat was out in front of us. We began to move like the bobcat, see like the bobcat. Its tracks were our tracks, its world, our world. We had found our inner bobcat! A part of ourselves that had been there all along. What a little suffering will do, I thought.
I've told my students that we don't expect to track the bobcat down. That's not the kind of tracking that I teach or practice. Tracking for me is not about the cliched images of a hunter stalking a buck, or a Native American in a Western movie tracking a villain, troops following behind. For me, tracking is an educational process that opens the door to an animal's life--and to our own.
As my students and I moved deep into the laurel, I became wary. I had once found a bobcat den in exactly this kind of country, on the side of a steep hill, deep in laurel. I didn't want to intrude on another den site, especially with a big group--the cat might abandon the den. Bobcats usually don't den when they're done hunting. Instead they have lays throughout their territory. The lays are like motel rooms. They go from one to another--one day here, one day there (these cats are nocturnal). Or they may stay in a favorite lay three days running.
My students followed me onto the face of a wide spur that jutted from the hillside. We were approaching a steep incline scored by ledges. I sensed our bobcat was heading for those ledges, where it had a lay, and, sure enough, the cat led us out along shelves of rock, slick with ice and snow.
I cautioned my students to take care, to keep themselves mindful and in the present, to take the journey along the ledges step by careful step. The ledges were very slippery. The drop-off on our left is about twenty feet straight down to jagged rock outcroppings and a steep slope of snow-covered scree. The rock wall on our right bellied out. We had to squeeze along it, making ourselves thin and flat, feeling the rock up against our shoulders and knees, pressing cold and hard against our faces, pushing us out toward the edge.
The cat's tracks padded blithely ahead. I almost called everything off and turned the group around when the ledges opened a bit and we had room to breathe. But I still kept the group tight behind me and en garde, because of the drop and the icy patches on the path. We came to a place of beautiful little semi-caves scooped out of the cliff face. Shelves of stone overhung these little snow-free cubbies. The bobcat had checked each one, until it came to a particularly attractive cubby carpeted with dead leaves. In the leaves was a small, matted impression where the cat had rested. It was a hard-to-approach, snug, hidden spot.
I've found more bobcat lays than I can remember, and almost every one had a scenic view. This one was no exception. It looked south, out over the rolling hills and dense woodlands. In the distance, I could see water. We were in northcentral Massachusetts, on the protected lands around Quabbin Reservoir, one of the wildest places in southern New England. There were no houses in sight. No sound of traffic. Only the moan of the wind.
We stood there, taking in the view, looking at the lay, all of us feeling very close to that cat and exhilarated that it had led us to one of its secret places. After our hard morning tracking, we had a sense of completion and closure, as though we had come to the end of a journey.
But the bobcat wasn't through with us yet. Its tracks led from the cubby along the ledges to where the ledges broke and the hillside sloped steep and slippery downward. The slope was snow-covered, and under the snow I knew were loose wet leaves, slick as banana peels, and shifting scree.
In my tracking workshops I usually have a rule that we don't disturb an animal's tracks. I like to leave them as pristine as possible. I want to make sure everyone in the group has the chance to read what's written in the tracks. But I also don't want to interfere because to me tracks are an animal's signature, a way in which it communicates to the world, an essential and dramatic part of the environment.
With our clumsy human movements, our whole day, so far, had disturbed the bobcat's trail. It was impossible not to muck up the tracks through the laurels and on the ledges. And now it was impossible to get down the hillside without sending rocks avalanching in front of us, half standing, half sitting, making a racket, coming to the base of the scree and brushing each other off. We looked horrified at the slope that the bobcat had descended without disturbing a leaf. Now it looked like a herd of buffalo had stampeded down its side.
The cat continued to move down, down, down through the hardwood forest of beech, oak, and ash toward lowland marshes, wet meadows, shrub swamps, and bogs. This is typical. Bobcats will lay up in the highlands and hunt in the wetlands. The cat moved toward the shrub swamp but then veered westward. Had I been wrong about where it was going?
Behind me, a student asked why the cat had changed direction. From long experience tracking, I've found that it's better to wait and see, not to force explanations. Often my students are too anxious for answers. I tell them to be patient, to let the animals tell you about their lives.
The cat took us into an area of forest where young hemlock saplings had sprung up close together, their limbs almost interlocked. It was a dense, sheltered place, scruffy and remote. We picked our way through, slowly and carefully, pushing back branches, ducking low, shielding our eyes with our arms. We broke out into an opening. Big hemlocks towered overhead, dimming the winter light. The snow in front of us was blotched red and yellow from the spilled body fluids of a dead deer. Pieces of the deer's carcass were scattered about, its hair strewn in a twelve-foot radius. Half a leg, the spinal column, and the head with some hide clinging to it were all that remained, except for the deer's rumen (the stomach contents), which few animals will eat. The snow in front of us was completely matted with tracks of various animals--coyotes, fishers, and domestic dogs.
The group was shaken. Some of them turned away while others looked on, unable to take their eyes off the carcass. One student asked me what happened. They all fell silent, waiting for the reply. I glimpsed tears in one student's eyes, expressing the raw emotion that such a scene can evoke.
"Let's see if we can piece it together," I said. "A scene like this can be hard to take. But perhaps when we come to an understanding of exactly what went on here, you may respond to it in a different way."
"Who killed the deer?" someone asked.
"There's no way to know that," I said. "The deer died here about two days ago, maybe less."
"Come on! There's hardly anything left!"
"Things can happen very quickly at a kill site. There have been many animals feeding here. Let me paint as full a picture as I can of what has happened here. To begin with, this deer, in essence, has grown up not only in the forest but from the forest." I saw I was getting blank stares, so I tried to explain. "When it was born it weighed only four to eight pounds. When it died, I would guess it probably weighed in just over 100 pounds, a young adult. It doesn't look like it was very big."
They stood there, next to the kill, taking it in. I explained that the deer was able to grow, gain mass, by feasting on acorns in the fall, putting on as much fat as it could to carry it through the winter. During the winter months, it browsed on hemlock, juniper, dogwood, viburnum, maple, oak, witch hazel, and many other types of woody plants and fungi. In summer, it gorged itself on all kinds of herbaceous plants and leaves, including some of its preferred foods, like jewelweed, wild lettuce, and dogwood leaves.
That organic mass contained in the trees and shrubs, in the light, air, water, soil, and microbes, is the living forest. The deer had, literally, materialized from this. The deer was the forest breathing, walking, mating, living, and dying.
The organic mass of the deer had come from thousands of elements, from all directions in the forest, to this one point at the kill site. Now it was returning to the forest in every direction through the animals feeding on the carcass. Our bobcat had come to the deer and taken a few scraps. Coyote, fisher, weasel, fox, raven, crow, even the chickadees flitting from branch to branch, had fed on the carcass.
It was evident to our scientific minds, looking at the kill site in this way, that on a fundamental level the deer was the forest and the forest was the deer--both were inextricably part of the web of life. But the deer's carcass also exposed another facet of the web of life that was difficult for our intellects to grasp. There are some aspects of life that thought cannot understand. Thought works by compartmentalizing, creating boundaries--dividing the whole into parts. In order to fully comprehend the meaning before us, we had to go beyond thought.
The deer's death had changed the direction of the bobcat that we had been following--not only the direction in which it was traveling, but its whole life. When a bobcat hunts, timing is critical. When and where the cat is in relation to its prey often determines whether the prey dies or the bobcat eats and lives. Whatever happens to the bobcat at a given moment changes everything else for the rest of the bobcat's life. The vast matrix of timing that affected the movement of the deer had affected the movement of the bobcat, too. Because the deer had died, the bobcat had veered from its path to the marsh and we had also veered.
Seen in this light, it becomes dear that no movement on this planet is separate from any other movement. The planet moves as a whole. We, too, are part of this movement. What happened at that kill site and the path the bobcat was traveling were the same movement as all of us tracking, walking, living, and dying.
One of my students seemed to want to say something, so I nodded in her direction. "You seem to be talking about two different things," she said. "First you were talking about organic mass, the interconnections between the microbes in the soil, the deer, the trees, and other animals. Then you started to talk about timing and movement. I'm not sure I understand the connection."
"It's tricky," I said. "In nature there is just the movement of the present. All organic exchanges are that movement. They are in flux, all happening together in the now. Thought divides that movement up into past, present, and future, thus creating the idea of time. But the past and the future are happening in the present. If you can see it that way, you can understand that the organic interconnectedness of the elements is not static. The mix is constantly changing. Who we are now is all that has happened before us, happening as us, in the now. Who we are moves us into the next moment and the next. All our ancestors and everything they did, every decision they made, everything they learned is happening now. And our ancestors are not only people--but also the river, mountain, rock, fire, land, ocean, forest, bobcat, and deer."
We can say that it takes an hour to go from point A to point B, but that whole hour is in the moment, and each moment is constantly changing. Sometimes we try to stop the movement, because we are afraid of change, the unknown, and death. The movement of life, however, is constantly bringing us into the unknown. This is why it can be so hard for us to be really present, to be in the moment, in the now. We're afraid to be. So we escape into the past, our memory of what happened, which doesn't seem to be changing. It is static, safe. We cling to it. But by doing so we make ourselves into static beings, which puts us into constant conflict with the ever-changing movement of life.
Trees, stones, earth, deer bones, bobcat are constantly changing form, one into the other. You might say all these elements constitute movement over time. They are not really static objects if they are constantly changing. This kill site was an example of change. The fact that it represented change was why many of my students have found it disturbing.
We are used to seeing things as living or dead, existing or not existing. A deer is a deer, not a bobcat. We see things as separate, but we need to explore wholeness. We need to understand what keeps us from embracing all of life, which includes death. We need to journey into the totality of who we are, into the web of life that connects us to all things in an eternal present.
My students and I left the kill site and picked up the bobcat's tracks on the perimeter of the track-matted snow. The cat continued on its way to the lowlands, into the swamp. It had taken us through laurel thickets, along slippery ledges and down the face of cliffs. Now it was leading us into the swamp, an environment with its own challenges and perils.
The swamps were frozen, and tracking through them was a tricky business. The snow cover made the thickness of the ice we walked on impossible to gauge. I tuned my ears, listening for the sound of running water, which meant thin ice. In the past, I'd seen the person right next to me fall through thin ice, while beneath my feet the ice was thick. The water in the swamp was probably shallow, but you never know. There are places where the water is deep. If one of my students got soaked, hypothermia was a real possibility. I told them to follow in my steps. If I didn't fall in, most likely they wouldn't.
Many types of animals are part of the shrub swamp ecosystem--frogs, salamanders, snakes, mice, voles, wood ducks, beaver, bears, and bobcat. Not one creature in the swamp escapes being affected by a single leaf that falls. As a fallen leaf begins to decompose, it is fed on by zooplankton, tiny microscopic animals and their larvae. The zooplankton, in turn, are consumed by immature fish and the larvae of predatory insects, which themselves are food for amphibians, reptiles, larger fish, and birds, all the way up the food chain to our bobcat. Shrubs such as viburnums and highbush blueberry, which attract feeding snowshoe hares to the swamp in winter, pick up nutrients from the decomposing leaves and zooplankton. The falling leaf, the blueberries in summer, darting minnows--all are part of the trail of our bobcat.
Although the going was rough, there was no way we were going to give up the cat. I could tell by its trail that it was beginning to hunt. An excited student asked me what in its tracks indicated this. I pointed to snowshoe hare sign, low branches of shrubbery nipped to a forty-five-degree angle. Browsing hare often leave this angular bite: a snip, sharp and clean. Deer browse tends to be blunt, horizontal. I reminded the group that we had seen no deviation in the cat's tracks when it crossed the trails of squirrel and deer. From that I deduced that the cat wasn't in a hunting mode at that moment but was headed for hunting grounds. Now, in hare country, we could see by the cat's tracks that it was checking each nook and cranny of every stump and hollow. All the while the snowshoe hare sign kept increasing.
The cat brought us into thick highbush blueberry. I scanned the terrain. "We're in for it, again!" I remarked to the group.
They were good-humored about it, fortunately. Everybody removed their snowshoes. We pushed through the wiry blueberry branches on our hands and knees as the bobcat wended its way through the lowlands. Hare runs are like little highways, and by the side of the most heavily traveled run this cat picked a spot to sit and wait. This is often how bobcats hunt. A bobcat's sitting place in the snow shows the cat turning in one spot as if it were on an axis; its front paw prints face outward in the circle that it has made. I try to take a lesson from bobcats. If we could sit like they do, for hours, with the kind of attention they use as they wait for prey, we would discover much about ourselves.
With great cunning, the cat had picked a place where a downed tree blocked the hares' run. The tree trunk was close to the ground, but with enough room for a hare to squeeze underneath. Well-worn tracks told us that this is just what the hares had been doing. The cat had hidden itself behind a stump just past the fallen tree, so it wouldn't be seen by a snowshoe hare coming down the run until the hare ducked under the tree, came out the other side, and was face-to-face with the cat. This looked like a guaranteed meal. It was amazing that the bobcat had picked such a strategic place to position itself.
We investigated further. A story was written there in the snow. We saw that the hare came along the path, but not from the bobcat's right, under the tree, but from the bobcat's left, where the cat had no cover. The hare spotted the cat. Its tracks indicated a quick turn, and the chase was on!
Tracks told of tremendous leaps and zigzag scurries. The hare streaked one way, then another, trying to throw the cat off. The cat pursued, at first making short thirty-eight-inch leaps, then astounding ninety-three-inch leaps! There was incredible pressure in the tracks where both animals landed. Snow was thrown for quite a distance. The bobcat chased the snowshoe hare for about one hundred yards, then gave up.
We were exhilarated to see all this played out for us in the snow. We'd seen a graphic example Of survival in the animal world. This time, the hare had escaped. Next time, who knows? In tracking the bobcat we'd become intimate with its world and its life, and most important, we'd come to see that its life and world were not separate from our own.
In order to embrace the web of life yourself, try tracking an animal. You don't have to go to some exotic place. You don't have to track a bobcat, a mountain lion, or a wolf. You can track in your own backyard, in little pockets of woodland, in suburbia, or even in a city park. It doesn't matter what kind of animal you track.
A fascinating exercise is to track your house cat. You could actually start indoors. After all, tracking is observation. It is learning about an animal through observing its movements via its tracks and trail patterns. If you could follow a wild animal, watching its every movement without disturbing its natural behavior, that would be by far the best kind of tracking. With a wild animal, that's next to impossible. But with your house cat, you might be able to pull it off.
The trick is to watch your cat without the cat being aware that you're observing it. One interesting behavior a house cat might exhibit is pointing its rear to an object like a table leg. Its tail will be up and quivering. This is what a bobcat does when it urinates on an object to mark its territory. Note where your cat places its feet when it exhibits this marking behavior. If you follow your cat's tracks outside in the snow, mud, or sand, you can get a clue by the placement of the tracks as to whether your cat is marking its territory.
Observe your cat outside, anywhere near your home where it leaves tracks. Watch the cat as it walks, trots, runs, or bounds. Note the behavior first, then examine the different tracks and trails the animal leaves. Through persistent observation, you'll learn what track patterns are associated with each gait. Eventually, you'll be able to figure out your cat's gaits just through the track and trail patterns.
You'll be amazed as you uncover your cat's world. See how far it roams outside. See how many animals it kills--birds, shrews, voles, mice. Perhaps your cat's tracks will meet up with those of a red fox. Maybe your cat has made friends with it! That's been known to happen.
Try tracking a rabbit as it seeks out food in a suburban area. Find out what the rabbit eats. Find its form (nest) and where it has its young. Track a white-footed mouse. The mouse may reveal secret entrances to your house, putting an end to a lot of problems. You can track a raccoon at the water's edge in a city park. You'll be surprised to find them there. I've actually seen raccoon tracks in an alley in the Bronx, deep in New York City.
The day moved toward evening, but I could still see the sun through a film of clouds. Dead trees with stumpy branches, shorn of bark, poked into a steely sky. My students were cold, and I wanted to get them moving again. We picked up the bobcat's tracks where it stopped chasing the hare. The cat moved to the swamp's edge, where the ice was thin, almost wispy, cracking and crinkling beneath our feet. I was relieved to see that the cat moved off the ice into a lowland forest of conifers. It had picked up another cat's trail, and it walked in the first cat's tracks. We followed the two cats through the forest. They picked up an old stone wall and walked along its top for two hundred yards, then they jumped off and began moving uphill.
We noticed that both cats seemed to go out of their way to inspect an old, soft, punky stump. One or both of them urinated on it. The second animal stepped so precisely in the other's tracks that it was hard to tell which animal was urinating. The tracks revealed that one or both cats had backed up to the stump and squirted backward onto it. The cats then left in the direction that they faced when they urinated. As trackers, our group didn't take things like this for granted. Each piece of information brought us closer to the life of the animal.
Knowing the bobcat's direction was crucial information when we next tried to track the animal without the aid of its tracks. Amazing as it sounds, it's possible to track bobcats with your nose. Following the bobcat through the day, we had seen that it urinated frequently. And even with just this one day tracking, my students had learned that there are certain objects that cats prefer to mark with their urine. Especially here in the woods of New England, cats gravitate to soft, punky stumps, like dogs to fire hydrants, perhaps choosing them because they absorb urine and scent.
Cats will also urinate on the underside of a leaning tree. This may protect their scent from weather. They will mound leaves, small piles three to four inches high and around six and one half inches in diameter. These seem to be made specifically as urine repositories and are almost always located under rock overhangs. Bobcats are inclined to urinate at the edges of these rock overhangs, usually when they are leaving an area. These scent markings are clues to the direction in which the bobcat is moving.
The more time you spend tracking bobcat, the easier it becomes to pick out bobcat scenting objects. Knowing the direction in which the cat is going will guide you to the next scent mark. Eventually, you won't need tracks to follow a bobcat or know whether it's in a certain area. All you'll need is your sniffer.
After it scented the punky old stump, our bobcat followed the other bobcat through the woods. Both cats liked to walk along narrow logs whenever they got a chance. They took to these logs like high-wire artists, catwalking along their narrow rounded tops as if to show off their balance and poise.
Eventually, our bobcat veered off the other one's trail. We could tell it was our cat because its tracks were fresher, vividly incised in the snow. We came to a small clearing where our bobcat seemed to walk right up to a gray squirrel, and the gray squirrel seemed to hop right up to the bobcat, giving itself to the predator's jaws. There was no evidence in the squirrel's trail of any effort to bound out of the bobcat's way. The cat hadn't even broken stride. There was a round circular area in the snow where the cat had put the squirrel down and eaten it. Nothing but a little fur, specks of blood, and the tip of the squirrel's tail remained.
The group stood in a tight circle, silently looking at the kill site. We all sensed that in this clearing something of great importance had happened. After our day of tracking, after all the time we had put in becoming intimate with the bobcat's movements, the squirrel offering itself to the bobcat's jaws was not something that was just happening "out there," in a world separate from us and our concerns. It was an event that was happening to us as well.
I told my students that to become intimate with the outer landscape it is important to become intimate with the inner landscape. The two are not separate. The inner landscape is as vast, deep, and wild as the outer landscape--and the path into the inner landscape is a path less traveled. The path into the outer landscape is well-worn and well-explored. We can scientifically grasp the connections between all living things. We can empirically prove the web of life. But the path into the inner landscape is obscure and difficult. There is an animal there. It's a domesticated animal that is cunning, calculating, and very shrewd. It is full of secrecy and fear. It hides its tracks. That animal is the self, the thinker of the thoughts, the feeler of the feelings.
The light was draining from the clearing where the squirrel's track had come to an abrupt end in the snow. The forest was clothed in shades of gray. I knew we would soon retreat to the warmth and safety of our cars and homes, the human environment of food and talk and laughter. The bobcat would rouse itself from its lay in a bed of leaves. As the stars poked through the hardwoods and the temperature dropped, the bobcat would start hunting, moving over the land, down into the swamps, its eyes bright and its tracks silent.
I asked my students to embark on another, perhaps even more fascinating adventure--to track the self. Track it like we tracked the bobcat. Figuratively, there would be snow falling down our backs, branches scraping our faces. We might tumble off cliffs or into the tangled swamps of thought. There are lots of things inside us that we might not want to discover, encounters we might not want to have, things we might not want to see. But we would learn much about ourselves: who we really are, and our place in the web of life.
Meet the Author
Recognized as one of the country's leading animal tracking experts, Paul Rezendes has taught thousands of children and adults the language of the forest, deeply committed to helping people to not only observe nature, but to connect with it and themselves in a profound and often totally new way. He is the author/photographer of the highly acclaimed guide Tracking & the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Sign, a stunning photography book coauthored with his wife, Paulette M. Roy, Wetlands: The Web of Life, Martha's Vineyard Seasons, and a series of Lighthouse Companion Guides for New England and Long Island Sound.
Paul is also an internationally published nature photographer whose photos are featured in hundreds of calendars, magazines, books, brochures, and promotional materials each year. He retired from teaching tracking in 2004 to devote his energies full-time to his photography. He lives with his wife in a remote forest on the Millers River in Athol, Massachusetts.
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