Tracking as a Way of Knowing
Tracking as a Way of Knowing
Published in Written River #10
I was introduced to wildlife tracking several years ago during an immersion course in wilderness survival in my home state of Vermont. My intention then was to push my pursuit of “ancestral skills” further back in time. A few years earlier I’d had a life-changing experience working as a shepherd, a vocation that forms a historical bridge between our species’ Paleolithic and Neolithic ways of life. I worked on sheep and goat farms for several years and it awakened a feeling of purpose that I couldn’t help but feel was connected to the fact that relationships with herding animals were the foundation of civilization (and spirituality) in my mom’s native Greece. “Bushcraft” (a term for wilderness skills) was the next frontier in my hands-on study of subsistence living, because I wanted to know what humans did before they became shepherds.
As I pursued agrarianism I discovered permaculture, a method of designing farm and food systems according to ecological principles. A huge and often overlooked part of permaculture is the many hours of nature observation that are necessary to really understand the principles taught in classrooms and textbooks. One of the central themes in permaculture (as in ecology) is that living beings—both plant and animal—build alliances with each other and form natural communities characterized by certain highly efficient cycles of energy. Part of this efficiency owes to the fact that the structure of ecosystems is the opposite of mechanistic. Everything has multiple functions, and there is no such thing as waste. Naturalist knowledge not predicated on a neoclassical production-oriented view of the environment is critical to the skillful practice of permaculture farming. To this end, tracking seemed to promise a way of beginning to build relationships that lead beyond the boundaries of the homestead and private property, into the wild, where we, as earthlings, can learn to be just as “at home” as we are in domestic places. Getting a better sense of the concentric rings of life and energy in which we are embedded seemed opportune for someone interested in farming and gardening in a paradigm that was non-capitalistic and not based around an individual imposing their will onto a piece of land. Land has a sort of will too; it also dreams. It has slowly dawned on me that there are ways that we can begin to learn the arcane language in which those dreams are inscribed.
Tracking is an umbrella term for discerning an animal’s endeavors from the marks it has left on the landscape. Its subdivisions include things like clear print identification, gait and track pattern analysis, trailing (where you follow a particular animal’s tracks to find out other things about it), and identifying other signs of behavior, like feeding or territorial marking. Tracking is not limited to uncovering the past of animals though. We can use the rings on an old tree stump to diagnose an ancient forest fire or a particularly hard winter, and we can examine the topography of the forest floor to discern the effects of a century-old ice storm. Such things leave their own sorts of tracks. Our ancestors didn’t only track things on the earth—they tracked the skies too, charting movement of constellations, the paths of planets, and the phases of the moon, giving us the basis for our understanding of time.
When I first encountered tracking as a skill set, it was in the limited context of a curriculum focused on the fundamentals of wilderness survival—shelter, water, fire, and food. Hunting especially in a survival situation requires a basic familiarity with tracking. Since then though I’ve put in dirt-time in service of a less particular goal: a glimpse of the unique and specific creatures that live around me. Getting familiar with my non-human neighbors is driven by an open-ended desire for relationship. My wish to track now doesn’t feel so different from my impulse to connect with the spirit-world. After all, the all-but-forgotten root of religion is in part the multifaceted need to relate to something both deeply “Other” and also deeply, invisibly, woven into our lives. The necessity of securing food and resources and the communion with the invisible and holy are not by definition distinct endeavors. In much of human history they have been complementary— they’ve even required each other. The first spirituality had to have been practical. One such practical spirituality is attested to by scholar and healer Bradford Keeney in his recent book conveying teachings of the Kalahari Bushmen. Keeney writes in the introduction:
Of all the amazing accounts about these first people, the Bushmen are most famous for their uncanny and mind-boggling tracking skills. If you want to find a lost person or locate any animal in the Kalahari, a Bushman can track it down for you.
What few people know is that the Kalahari Bushmen are also able to track God. These practitioners of the oldest way find their path to the divine in the same manner that they hunt for any other living presence.
For some, following the tracks left behind by a game animal and courting the divine by following a trail of psycho-spiritual signs exist along the same spectrum of activity, both characterized by a sort of sympathetic allurement. Keeney comments later on how this practical spirituality has been largely lost on the modern world: “As we broke the bonds of relationship and interdependency with one another and disrupted our ecological matrix, our link to the divine mysteries became all but lost.”
Lost doesn’t mean non-existent, however. Such links are there, hibernating in a subterranean place in the collective psyche of modern Western culture. Tracks have led me to things that felt like rites-of-passage to someone who didn’t grow up in an atmosphere where ceremony and nature were interwoven. There seems to be something about apprehending the paw or hoof prints that creatures leave on the ground that electrifies that “flashbulb” part of our memory, the attention immediately riveted as if by a powerful magnet, the mind downshifting into an altered state where the categories of “text” and “image” seem to collapse. Tracks glow darkly in the snow like icons, triggering some ancient seeker in us, an invisible string pulling us forward. I often hear an astonished “I could do this for hours!” exclaimed by folks from a wide range of backgrounds who are just learning basic wildlife tracking techniques—confirming that it is far more than just the master trackers among us who are tugged by such strings. The metaphor of the invisible string is well known in some old tracking traditions. Keeney quotes a Bushman hunter explaining the metaphysics of spiritual ropes or strings in the context of tracking:
The ancestors and God can attach a rope to you. When that happens, they are able to pull you to where you need to go; that’s the secret behind our ability to track. A Bushman hunter feels something tapping on his arm when it is time to hunt. It is the ancestors pulling a rope that is attached to our arms. The other end is attached to the animal. We simply follow the pulling of the rope, and it takes us to a kudu, giraffe, eland, warthog, or gemsbok.
I can’t pretend to know what it’s like—that being-reeled-in by the spirit-world—at least not the way this hunter did, because I wasn’t raised to depend on tracking for my survival. But there have been portals that I stepped through, following tracks, unmistakably in some kind of trance and lacking words for it at the time.
Last December my spouse and I got to know a red fox living in the hardwood forest behind my parents’ house. We stumbled across a puzzling triad of holes in deep, crusty snow in the middle of a field with no other visible tracks nearby. In the waning light of dusk, we shined a red headlamp across the surface of the snow around the holes and faint compression marks appeared. A fox had crouched there, nearly untraceable during its foray into the field, kept aloft by the frozen top layer of snow. Then, after hearing the muffled rustle of a rodent tunneling underneath, it had leapt and dove nose-first toward the source of the sound, a characteristic winter hunting tactic (though in this particular context it probably proved a bit painful). As we continued to trail the fox over the next several days, it dawned on us that his persistent marking behaviors and diligent patrols indicated it was time for him to find a mate. We had just gotten engaged and couldn’t imagine a better, more whimsical blessing of our union than a bachelor fox repeatedly peeing on our encroaching snowshoe tracks.
Then there was the time I found the freshest deer tracks I could and trailed them to the animals themselves. In the few minutes before I saw two does jump up from their beds, I had been silently complaining about the thick blackberry brambles I was following them through. It was impossible to be quiet and I swore I was the loudest thing in the woods. How could I compete with the legendary senses (and exasperating concealment tactics) of a whitetail? But suddenly there they were, obviously spooked, but only thirty feet ahead. Then they were gone and I knelt reverently at the impressions their resting bodies had left in the snow. I felt embarrassed that I’d let myself get overtaken by anxious thoughts while these creatures were nestled so close by, on the vanguard of mammalian awareness. Something changed after that encounter and some of the programming within me that casts humans as mere visitors in the wilderness seemed to slip away. It’s not like the deer were about to invite me in for tea, but they had acknowledged me as a forest newbie, a creature awkwardly blundering between worlds. I was never so happy to be called out as a rookie, because now trails appeared leading to the horizon; journeys that will wind through my life like waveforms and will always hold space for mystery, for unknowing, and for humility.
The interesting thing about tracks is that they inevitably lead you to places beyond the purview of science. You hear about strange tracks telling of enigmatic behaviors (like rabbits ‘dancing’ in a circle on the full moon) and no field guide or textbook can shed much light on the matter. Where some elusive species like the fisher (Martes pennanti) are concerned, field guide entries end in a proverbial ellipsis due to the secretiveness of this large boreal weasel and its evasion of modern humans. Track a fisher enough and you will likely encounter behaviors that, even if they’ve been seen or known by someone, aren’t written down anywhere. It is worth emphasizing that such aspects of the hidden lives of wild animals are not necessarily unknown—they likely may have been encountered before, over thousands of years in the interstices between human lives and the lives of Others. Maybe they are precariously preserved in the oral histories of indigenous people, frustratingly unacknowledged by modern science. Or maybe they are virtually unreferenced.
Here in New England, for example, the eastern coyote is bound to baffle us because it’s such a new animal, hybrid of western coyote and eastern wolf. This creature arrived in the northeast only 80 years ago, long after the sickening displacement of an animistic culture that might have engaged with it in a mythopoetic way, finding a place for it in an understanding of reality. Today, coyotes are often considered vermin and viewed with condescension, so who is watching them with curiosity? Who is tracking them with merely the open-ended goal of relationship? Who is telling stories about them? I mourn the loss of those who might have done this in the past, and I want to call out those who might be inclined to do it in the future.
David Abram suggested in The Spell of the Sensuous that the skill of tracking, a necessity for ancient hunters, could have put critical selective pressure on the human mind to expand its semiotic capacity. In other words, our ability for symbolic and abstract thought, culminating in written language, owes much to the fact that human survival used to depend on our ability to decipher marks left by unseen phenomena. As Abram points out, unlike modern letters, numbers, and other glyphs, these marks were rarely identical—in fact each one was unique, not just because of the uniqueness of the individual who made it, but also because of the circumstances of its creation, like what the weather or the substrate was like. Thus, recognizing how and why a certain imprint was made on the ground (or on some other surface) is more complex from a cognitive standpoint than recognizing a letter or word printed on a page. When I encountered this idea it made a deep impression on me, a track, now fossilized in the mud of my inner world. The dichotomy between nature and culture aggravates me (just as it inspires me), and this notion of tracking as a vital engine for human culture seemed to reveal an unacknowledged and seamless link between the two.
The growing field of biosemiotics, sustained by a radical group of biologists, complexity theorists, philosophers, and semioticians, is promising in this regard as a sort of ecological cybernetics, creating a common language for processes of signification across all living systems. In this view, “meaning” in a very broad sense is considered to be immanent in the natural world and a foundational component of evolution and life processes. Life seems bound to patterns; organisms large and small naturally make use of patterns created by others, living or non-living. The metabolic byproducts of a single cell can be envisioned as a type of communication, as can an elk rub on a young aspen.
Though it sounds like a good cover for theories of intelligent design or pantheistic spirituality, it intends to be nothing of the sort. From a biosemiotic perspective, sentience or even any sort of intelligence as we know it does not need to exist for patterns to be recognized and utilized. As the theory goes, out of a great amalgamation of signification systems proceed ever-greater levels of ‘semiotic freedom’ such as tracking knowledge, language, writing systems, myths, and most recently the Internet. What is so compelling about this trans-disciplinary field is that even as it might irk the categorizers among us, it importantly de-centers human meaning as the paradigm for semiotics and centers it instead on the entire biotic world, locating human meaning as a natural and inevitable result of other types of signification processes.
Something about this take on biology seems to mesh with tracking, and really with any mode of awareness that is dependent on the natural world. When I started to realize that “signs” from either animals or non-living animate elements were potentially anywhere and everywhere in the woods, it did the opposite of overwhelm me—it encouraged me, because it meant that there was a story nearly everywhere I looked. That’s when I started being able to pick out the faintest animal trails, disturbances in the baseline texture of a landscape so subtle that they used to be invisible to me.
Tracking, it turns out, is nothing less than an epistemology: an ecological way of knowing, a green hermeneutics. It is not just a way of seeing “how things are connected,” it is a discipline that redefines and expands what connection and relationship even is. As such it seems to have something to add to nearly every realm of experience and knowledge—an interdisciplinary skill to the core. It blurs modern distinctions between art and science, because it is at once a contemplative practice and also an empirical and quantitative study. It blurs our distinctions between fact and myth because though it is a deterministic study in physical cause and effect, it inevitably lends itself to forming personal relationships with spectral creatures, telling stories about them, and dreaming dreams about them. Eventually, beings are “known” through their tracks, and archetypes emerge. These archetypes have great value to an ecosystem as ways of mapping the world so that a near infinite number of facts can be codified and passed on to future generations. Tracking is unequivocally poetry and it is also unequivocally ecology—at least as long as we humans are involved—and both dimensions are necessary, two halves of a whole. Tracking always leaves room for Mystery with a capital M—it’s impossible for it not to. Whereas in their most dogmatic guises religion protects Mystery sometimes too fiercely, and science perhaps does not defer to it enough, tracking stands innocuously in the middle as the symbiosis of mystery and knowledge.
As a humanities graduate student I immediately recognized tracking as an essential skill for historians because it is the earliest forensic science—prehistoric historiography, so to speak. Tracking that is driven by curiosity and allurement (and not driven by the need to prove an abstract point) constantly reveals assumptions that I make and inevitably forces me to question them. In this it reveals the fundamental narrative nature of human cognition; we are story-seers and storytellers. At best this is a culture-enriching gift with the power to enchant, teach, and inspire; at worst a pitfall into hasty conclusions and a know-it-all outlook that closes the mind rather than open it. In history as well as in science, the social, political, physical, or chemical effects of an event (sometimes more apparent than the event itself) are often how hypotheses are made about the nature of the event. To excel at tracking, then, one cannot help but become a scientist in the truest sense. Yet tracking is also artful—people talk of tracks as containing songs, lyrics, and poetry. So the gaze of a tracker cannot be solely scientific—she must also utilize empathy to cultivate qualitative meaning, and to see beauty.
Humans aren’t the only animals that track. Many other animals do too, but each has unique ways of doing so. Wild canines have a super-human sense of smell that can detect creatures a mile away and can discern yet unimaginable quantities and types of information from scents left behind by other animals. Birds track by receiving and transmitting alarm calls through the forest at up to a hundred miles per hour, allowing them to be aware of a prowling ground predator that may be several miles away. By human standards these abilities border on the omniscience of gods, yet they are completely natural—they come from below, not from above. We are special too, and we have a special way of tracking. We have not only a strong penchant for pattern recognition (which many animals have) but we have a way of holding those patterns in our mind, cataloguing them and compounding patterns upon patterns—synthesizing vast quantities of data and then storing it in myriad ways for later use. Perhaps, to the coyote and the raven, these ways of tracking seem like magic, as theirs do to us.
Tracking has something profoundly spiritual to offer, but also profoundly pragmatic. It is a method of more deeply engaging with our ecological niche as a species, but it also serves to discern our unique capacities as individuals. Maybe it can even offer up an image of the human soul as itself an ephemeral series of tracks—a pulsing, organic trail rippling, and eventually fading, in an immeasurable cosmos. Tracking can hold up a mirror to the patterns within, but does not promise transcendent rules or ultimate answers. Something akin to this is common knowledge in some tracking traditions. In Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez describes the permissiveness of indigenous knowledge about one iconic wild predator, the wolf: “Always, to requests for generalizations, [the Nunamiut] say that each wolf is a little different, that new things are always seen. If someone says big males always lead the pack and do the killing, the Eskimo [sic] shrug and say, ‘Maybe. Sometimes.’”
It is worth emphasizing that in the tracking modality of every animal including us, all knowledge begins as hypothesis and error is inevitable. No wild animal is right or successful all the time, despite some of our misguided fantasies of them. For one of our favorite lone-hunter archetypes, the tiger, failures in the hunt far outnumber successes. Though knowledge can seem like something abstract and disembodied, the wild ones remind us that all knowledge starts in the senses, in apprehension of the earth. It’s something worthy of remembering.
What began for me as an interest in the technical dimensions of survival evolved into the awakening of something else: cultural survival. This kind of survival is not solely defined by the preservation of our individual bodies, but rather it is defined by something much bigger than ourselves trying to survive through us, even in spite of us. This something is, in part, a way of knowing. Ultimately, tracking points to the paramount importance of encounter in a system of knowledge, of relationship as the place where we experience the sacred, the holy, or the meaningful—no matter where we are on the spectrum of theism and atheism.
Tracking personally and collectively benefits us by vastly multiplying our encounters with the non-human world, giving us the opportunity to form high-priority relationships with animals, plants, places, or other entities. It is obvious that emotion and feeling are the heart and soul of human relationships, but the notion that emotional connections are integral to non-human relationships is not as much a part of our paradigm. When this latter notion does show up, it is often minimized as romanticism, shamed as sentimentalism (the dreaded result of ‘too much’ emotion), or associated with obsolete beliefs that have since been superseded by monotheism or science. These sorts of attitudes are neo-colonial in nature. Some cynicism at the politicizing of environmentalism is understandable, but if critiques of environmental thought are intended to silence or discredit the need for nature-connection in general, they have outlived their purpose. It would do our society good to be open to the idea that there is ecological, maybe even in some sense quantifiable, intelligence in empathic bonds to the non-human world that are characterized by feelings.
The idea that increased ecological literacy could help knock modern Western culture out of an ecocidal amnesia is not new. I have only been repeating what I have heard many times by different indigenous voices regarding our relationship to nature. Ecologist Dennis Martinez points out that unlike the “biocentric” Euro-American model of conservation and land management, a model that can be drawn from Indigenous methods of land management is what he calls “kincentric”; it neither idolizes nor alienates humans, but cherishes and enshrines the alliances among and between humans, animals, plants, and the earth.
The words conservation and ecology, as we use them in the Western sense, don’t exactly fit what Indian people did or do with the land. It was their livelihood, which depended on reciprocity. Thus, the trees were not seen just as trees, they were also seen as relatives. The trees are relatives and other species are relatives and they watched you all the time.
In this view, feelings of solidarity, love, and belonging that traverse the boundaries of species and beyond are not luxuries or overly sentimentalized notions; they are functions of ecological interdependency and are integral to survival. Seeing as the majority of beings on our planet (as well as the rest of the universe) are non-human, we can expect a limited view of reality if we aren’t welcoming efforts to soulfully relate to them. Let us see beyond the jaded (and polarizing) caricature of the nature-hippie who escapes from civilization to the forest. If the intention is not to leave but to enter, not to hide but to belong, relationship with the non-human brings back deep value to human community and enriches culture. This is loud and clear in nature-based spiritualities, but it is also buried in our most dearly held stories—whether you view them as fact or fiction. In Moses’ apprehension of the burning bush, or the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth to the edge-dwelling shepherds, is the theme of encounter with the wild, the yet-unknown, the other, as the secret valve that opens to bring meaning and novelty into our world.
1. Bradford Keeney, The Bushman Way of Tracking God, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2010), x-xi
2. Keeney, xi
3. Keeney, 60
4. For a fuller explanation of meaning in biosemiotics, see Jesper Hoffmeyer. “A Biosemiotic Approach to the Question of Meaning,” Zygon 45 (2010): 367–390.
5. Dennis Martinez, Enrique Salmón, and Melissa K. Nelson, “Restoring Indigenous History and Culture to Nature,” in Melissa K. Nelson, ed., Original Instructions: Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future (Rochester, VT: Bear and Company, 2008), 89.
6. Martinez, Salmón, and Nelson, 92.
Sophia (“So”) Sinopoulos-Lloyd is a queer Greek-American who feels at home in Vermont’s northern hardwood forests as well as on the dry, scrubby hillsides of Greece. So’s fascination with the connections between ecology and human notions of the sacred fueled the completion of an MA in Religious Studies from Claremont Graduate University and has inspired immersive studies in earth-based living skills. So apprenticed as a seasonal shepherd during college and currently works as a nature educator in Colorado.