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At one time, being able to read tracks and sign was a matter of life and death. Knowing where the food was and what the predators were doing could mean the difference between survival and extinction. Most of us would have to go back pretty far to find ancestors for whom that was literally true. I believe, however, that in a different way, it is still true.
Many people today think tracking is simply finding a trail and following it to the animal that made it. They conjure up images from old Westerns in which the Indian scout helps the good guys find the villain. Or they imagine a hunter "tracking down" a large game animal in the deep woods. Even those with some tracking skills think that the most important aspect of tracking is finding the next track. I've been asked if I could track a grasshopper over a rock. I've seen a couple of trained trackers study a track carefully-go through a few complicated techniques designed to determine whether the animal turned or nottrying to find the next track. And when I asked them whether they knew what animal they were tracking, I found that they often did not.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that finding the next track isn't important, because it is, or that following an animal's trail through the forest has no significance, because it does. But I think the true meaning of reading tracks and sign in the forest has been pushed into the background by an overemphasis on finding the next track.
As I said, I think reading tracks and sign in the forest is perhaps as much a survival skill today as it was to our ancestors, but I'm talking about a different kind of survival. What I'm not talking aboutis putting food on the table. Although I have been a vegetarian for more than thirty years, I don't have a problem with people who hunt for food. I currently devote much of my time to landscape photography, but for many years I made part of my living as a wildlife photographer. In that sense, I was an avid hunter, and all the skills involved in hunting an animal for food apply to hunting an animal for a photograph. As any hunter knows, finding the next track is one of the hardest ways to find the animal. In a survival situation (or for a wildlife photographer trying to make a living), spending a lot of time and energy finding the next track could mean starvation.
Tracking an animal is opening the door to the life of that animal. It is an educational process, like learning how to read. In fact, it i's learning how to read. Following an animal's trail may bring you closer to the animal physically, but, more important, it brings you closer to it in perception. The longer you follow the animal, the deeper you enter into a perceptual relationship with its life. If you spend half an hour finding the next track, you may have learned a lot about finding the next track but not much about the animal. If you spend time learning about the animal and its ways, you may be able to find the next track without looking.
If you know an animal well, you will know where to look for it and when. That is one kind of survival knowledge. If you are to be successful in your search for an animal, you must sit and wait for it, and sitting and waiting isn't much good unless you're sitting and waiting in the right place.
You will also know yourself better. That is another kind of survival knowledge. The more intimate we become with other lives, the more aware we are of how those lives connect with and affect our own. There may be only a few obvious connections at first-two animals in the same woods, hearing the same sounds, smelling the same smells-but as we track the animal farther, we find that its trail is our own trail. As it moves, it affects its surroundings. What changes the animal changes its environment, and thus changes us. There is no separation; its fate is our fate. We are tracking ourselves in a sense.
We don't need tracks to track an animal. For much of the year, the forest is far richer in sign than it is in tracks.
Sometimes there are no tracks at all, but there is never a square yard in the forest that does not tell us something about the wildlife within it. The forest is speaking to us all the time. Some of my tracking students have looked curiously at me when I've said that, but it is most certainly true. The trees speak to us. Like the good Duke in As You Like It, the attentive tracker "finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones." Sometimes sign speaks in a whispera bent twig indicating that a deer has stopped to browse; at other times, it's a loud scream at the top of its lungs: massive hemlock diebackporcupine! We can ask the bobcat where the snowshoe hare is, and he will leave us a trail to it. But we can just as easily ask the blueberry bush; its nibbled branches will say "snowshoe hare" just as assuredly, and be much less dependent on snow or other substrate conditions. Corn in a raccoon's scat will tell you where he has been. There is a whole novel in an owl's pellet. Unfortunately, most of us just walk by these signs, not hearing or noticing a thing.
Ultimately, tracking an animal makes us sensitive to ita bond is formed, an intimacy develops. We begin to realize that what is happening to the animals and to the planet is actually happening to us. We all are one. Tracking and reading sign help us to learn not only about the animals that walk in the forest-what they are doing and where they are going-but also about ourselves. For me, this interconnection is survival knowledge and the true value of tracking an animal.