Erica Wheeler: inspiring connections between people and place

January 2011/The Art of Seeing

January 2011The Art of Seeing
“Following an animal’s trail may bring you closer to that 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.”from “Tracking and the Art of Seeing” by Paul Rezendes

I’m blessed to live in an area with some master trackers. They can tell what animals have passed through, where they were going and what they were doing. They can read the tracks the way you and I read a book. It’s part science and part intuition.  It’s a trade passed on from hunters, although some just take photographs these days. You don’t need to be a hunter to do it. (I’m more the gatherer type myself.) But I am in awe of the intimate way these people know the woods. Spend some time tracking and I guarantee you you’ll see way more than you ever have before.

Listening to the Land
This New Year’s Day we walked down the road, following its curves, the way it bends and follows the now half-frozen brook. A Belted Kingfisher took off in flight down the waterway.  It stopped on a pine bough and flew again. Its flight and pauses were like a needle and thread, looping down the brook. The water rushed and tumbled. Farther on were fox tracks in the field. Along the far side of brook there were small tracks leading out to the water’s edge and back again. Our walk was brisk and blessed.

Noticing these tracks connects me to this place, reminding me how rich it is with wildlife. Even if I do not see the animals who made the tracks I know they’re here.
Sometimes I lie in bed at night and reflect upon the tracks I have seen in the snow. I see the animals in my mind’s eye: the fox wandering across the meadow, the mink running up and down the banks of the brook, the deer walking slowly down the steep hill, steady on her thin legs.  I think about us all here sleeping and dreaming under the same birches, maples and pines.

My Story
Last winter we were hiking down a snowmobile trail and we saw a grouse take off. (Yes saw it, not just its tracks!) My partner, who has been on many more tracking trips than I, said, “Lets go see if it left a track.” I was thinking,  “Well it flew… I don’t know… how can it leave a track?” We tromped over to the tree from which it had been flushed. (It was an evergreen with long, low boughs that were covered with snow, creating a protective “skirt” that made it a good place for an animal to rest under.) And there they were. Wing beats in the snow of the bird we had just seen fly away. They looked like angel wings. I touched them with my hand. I can still see the bird who took flight.

Your story
Any snow or mud in your backyard? Then there are probably tracks. Look with new eyes and you’ll see much more than you ever thought possible. Follow the trail and find out what story it tells.

I can recall one afternoon we spent with our friends’ four-year-old daughter following squirrel tracks in her backyard. We discovered which trees they lived in, where their piles of acorns ended up. We found a rabbit track and followed that too. Our excitement and curiosity matched hers. Taking a kid outside, or even going by yourself, and following an animal track just to see where it goes is sure to restore your sense of wonder. I promise.

Journal This:
Did looking for tracks make you “see” and connect to your place in a new way? Let me know what you found. Post on my blog! Link below

Try this:
Visit a science museum
The Boston Science Museum has a great exhibit called “A Bird’s World.” It features some cool info about how birds communicate and was designed by some animal trackers. There’s another exhibit on the same floor about a mountain lion and her tracks. Author of “The Tracker,” Tom Brown, narrates it.

Take a Program
The Wilderness Awareness School, founded by Jon Young. (Interesting trivia: Jon Young was mentored by Tom Brown.) The school (based in Duvall, WA) has affiliate programs all over the country. Here’s their great website, full of resources and even online home study programs you can enroll in.

Study a Book
Scats and Tracks of the Northeast by James Halfpenny.
(Editions also available for other regions.)
I like this series put out by Falcon Books because they are small enough to slip in your pocket, they have real-size tracks so you can hold it up to the actual tracks you find. And they narrow down your choice of tracks to what you might find in your region.

Coyote Mentoring by Jon Young and staff members of the Wilderness Awareness School. Packed with wisdom, activities and practices to help mentors connect people to nature.

Tracking and the Art of Seeing by Paul Rezendes. A book that goes beyond identification. It’s a whole way of looking at the world. A must for your reference library.

Post a comment below! Do you track? What have you seen lately?

updated: 6 years ago