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The Wildlife Watch Binocular
Spring 2005 Issue

Footprints in the Snow:
Animal Tracking as Spiritual Practice

By Jeff Davis

            Animal tracking is not just for hunters seeking deer or for police hot on the trail of an escaped convict. Nor is it simply a game of “Who made this print?” As tracker Joe Krein recently told me via e-mail, “Tracking is about looking more deeply into the nature of everything, not just tracks, or animal life.” For some people, tracking is an ancient art that orients one’s self to the wild and to wildlife.

Establishing intimacy with the wildlife with whom we share our planet’s space is one reason many of us track.

Luckily for us, this ancient art derived from Native Americans is not lost. Tom Brown, Jr. tells in his autobiography The Tracker how as a twelve-year-old boy in suburban New Jersey he learned this art from an Apache scout named Stalking Wolf. From that life-altering experience, Brown founded in 1978 the Tracker School in New Jersey, the largest of its kind in the country. From this “lineage,” Jon Young founded in 1983 the Wilderness Awareness School based in Duvall, Washington, while in 1999 Mark Morey and others founded the Vermont Wilderness School. closer to home, Charles Purvis, David Brownstein, and others recently established Red Fox Friends.

But you need not go to a formal school to start tracking.  Step outdoors to the edge of your backyard, and you may find signs of an animate world often hidden from your eyes.

And no better time to begin practicing tracking, perhaps, than when snow has just fallen. The soft white stuff makes a pure canvas for foxes and bears, fishers and deer to leave their mark. “Tracking in the snow,” says Hillary Thing, a tracker for several years, “also allows you to follow tracks for a longer distance” that might lead you to an animal’s den or the “dining room” where he had his most recent meal.

Getting off the beaten path and into such intimate spaces, Thing says, helps us begin to wonder how fishers live, what a deer’s fears are, how a coyote spends its day. We begin to see the woods and meadows, the mountains and valleys not from our point of view as we set out only to spot or view wildlife. We actually start to understand our natural surroundings from the perspective of the skunk or bear who snuck across our yard over night. Recently, Thing found a hollowed tree trunk where a family of coyotes had slept the previous night. She crawled into the space and imagined what they smelled at night, what they hungered for, what made them howl in a cacophonous choir. In other words, following tracks leads us more deeply not just into their physical world but also into their hearts and minds.

Here are suggestions for learning wildlife’s ways through tracking:

1.      Wander and Wonder. That’s how Thing phrased it.  In other words, let yourself get off the path, and just have fun wondering what’s happening with the wild animals around you. Krein calls the Catskills Trackers Club with whom he meets each Sunday “a bunch of big kids full of wonder.”

2.      Sense first. Identify later. When you spot tracks, refrain from guessing too quickly, “That’s a coyote track!” Instead, just see with your eyes a track’s texture, its size and shape. Notice footprints’ patterns, their depth or shallowness in the snow. Drawing prints in a notebook helps hone your vision. As Paul Rezendes notes in Tracking & the Art of Seeing, even veteran trackers must keep their minds clear of preconceptions that could cloud their vision.

3.      Awaken your awareness. Many of us may walk blithely through the woods, caught up in our thoughts or caught up in what we expect to see outdoors. Tom Brown, Jr. discusses in the book The Vision that, to his mentor, awareness “was the doorway to the grander things of the spirit.” Tracking is about awakening and awareness. Thing suggests you try to “sense simultaneously.” For instance, while tracking, smell what’s right around you while opening your ears to the most remote sound. Doing so helps you begin to experience your natural surroundings in a more acute way not unlike how a beaver or groundhog, for instance, might experience any moment in the woods.

4.      Seek signs. Look around for other signs of life. Scat is the most obvious, but like an investigator alert for subtle clues also look for urine, nibbled plants, scratched bark, holes, nests, or hair that give you more evidence of who came before you. Doing so is not about simply “hunting” for pieces of evidence. Instead, this practice alerts you to how one part of your natural surroundings relates to another, and thus helps you enter more intimately (and knowledgeably) the world of rabbits and squirrels.


5.      Develop your inner senses and empathy.
Jon Young suggests you “air sculpt.” That is, imagine with your mind’s eye how large the animal who made the tracks must be. See her head in relation to her tail, her back in relation to her paws or hooves. Air sculpting helped my imagination during my first time tracking to infer that the tracks before me were left not by a belly flopping mouse (as initially assumed) but by something much larger (and much more obvious): a galloping deer. The air sculpting practice helped me feel the presence of the deer who had made the tracks. Also, ask yourself, “How do these tracks feel?” and “What was the animal feeling at the time?” These questions, I’m learning, require you to be more intuitive than analytical. Intuition and imagination help you break down boundaries between you and wildlife as you begin to empathize with the animals whose space you co-inhabit. Exploring these questions helps you feel that animals do experience fear, anger, excitement, curiosity.

6      Humble yourself and have more questions than answers. Ask yourself questions such as, “What was going on here?” “Why was this individual animal here?” “When was he here?” “Where was he coming from and where was he going?” Suspend immediate answers. On his tape “Tracking,” Jon Young points out the humbleness required: “You’ll never feel like you’re a master of tracking.” And I heard Mark Morey recently say that in tracking, “We’re stacking up the mysteries and suspending the conclusions.” As with tracking, so with life.


Finally, as an eager novice, I’m learning patience. The sacredness of what’s before me surfaces quite often only when I stop doing so much, stop thinking so much, and stop trying to accomplish so much. The art of tracking, it seems, is less about accumulating a list of “tracker tales” in which we regale our friends with stories about how we spotted mountain lion tracks or the trail of an elusive red fox. Nor is it about acquiring fur and feathers. It’s more about creating time enough for nature’s many mysteries to reveal themselves to us. And it’s often when we’re not trying so much to figure things out about tracks that we actually get some insight into the footprints in the snow.

How to find out more about tracking workshops and schools:

The Catskills Trackers Club Meets every Sunday for trekking, tracking, and community in West Hurley. Email Joe Krein at joek@ towerpower.com
Red Fox Friends Offers summer camp and workshops focused on creating community. Call Charles Purvis at 845.626.2474 David Brownstein at 845.255.7175 for information and newsletter.
The Trackers School, the largest school of its kind in the country. Founded by Tom Brown, Jr.  www.thetrackerschool.com
The Vermont Wilderness School Offers workshops and summer camp focused on mentoring communities. www.thevermontwildernessschool.org
The Wilderness Awareness School Founded by influential naturalist and teacher Jon Young for environmental education. One of the most comprehensive schools of its kind. www.thewildernessawarenesschool.com

This article is the first in a series for the Wildlife Watch Binocular related to tracking.

Jeff Davis, a newbie tracker, was part of Woodstock’s first biodiversity assessment project sponsored by Hudsonia, an environmental research institute for the Hudson Valley in New York. Author of The Journey from the Center to the Page (Penguin 2004), Mr. Davis writes about education, the environment, and other topics for magazines such as Conscious Choice and Enlightened Practice.  www.CenterToPage.com   jeffdavis@centertopage.com

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