Tracking and the Art of Seeing
For Paul Rezendes, sign tracking is, at its core, a meditation.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of Spirituality & Health.
When we learn to read nature's signs, everything we encounter is what we're looking for.
Surely we were insane. Struggling knee-deep through back-country snow (sans snowshoes), we toiled up a mountain slope on the most Siberian weekend of the year. So frigid was the weather, so biting the wind, tears froze on our cheeks despite protective face coverings. Already, half our small group had turned back, fearful of frostbite. Some, in fact, hadn’t made it past the glacial parking lot. “We’ll have the hot chocolate ready when you return, if you do.” They chuckled cheerfully, as they scuttled off to centrally heated comfort.
Despite two pairs of long johns, three pairs of socks, ski outerwear, insulated boots, and the brutish exercise, keeping warm was impossible. We’d already been told that if our feet or other extremities started going numb, we must go back. Our guide was pointing to a patch of yellow snow (who hasn’t known since kindergarten what that signifies?), and telling us to pick up a handful and inhale deeply. “Yup, it’s urine, deer’s to be precise,” he told us. “Take a deep whiff.” Oh, boy, I thought, if I was nuts for joining this trip, the man charged with getting us out of here alive was clearly certifiable.
“Whaddya know, it smells great,” pronounced one of the less craven of our party. “Very piney.” He was right. But pleasantly perfumed pee was only one of the many things we learned about life in the wild, and about ourselves that day.
We were deep in the woods of Mt. Tremper, some 100 miles north of the city of New York, with Paul Rezendes, internationally recognized wildlife expert, photographer, and author, on an intensive weekend workshop: “Tracking and the Art of Seeing.” It was organized in conjunction with the nearby Zen Mountain Monastery, where we retreated at the end of both days, although neither Paul nor most of the participants were Buddhists. During our stay, however, we were expected to take part in monastery life, which included meditating with the Buddhist monks in their magnificent Zendo meditation hall, a soaring and soothing space of light, thick wooden beams, and utter silence counterpointed with periodic chanting and melodic bells.
For Paul, sign tracking is also, at its core, a meditation. “It has more to do with stillness than with movement. It is about slowing down and blending in. It is the ability to melt into the forest,” he says. Tracking allows people to drop their everyday personae, until the forest no longer realizes that you’re there. When you become the forest, when you’re silent inwardly and outwardly, the forest starts to wake up, to move. “It’s amazing what can happen,” says Paul. “And we become more sensitive to what usually goes unnoticed. This kind of intimacy then naturally begins to manifest in our everyday life. By seeing, feeling, and following without threatening or disturbing, we discover that everything we encounter is what we’re looking for. ”
Like Henry Thoreau 150 years before him, Paul is concerned that humans are sleepwalking through life, that we are using our intellects to filter out and separate us from the natural world. He believes that since we began objectifying thought, possibly when the alphabet was first developed, we’ve been subsuming the ability to simply feel in favor of analyzing how we feel. We mistakenly believe that intelligence is mental gymnastics, or measured by accumulated information. He’s found that as people become intimate with the outer landscape, it is easier to encourage them to explore their inner landscapes. Through this process, we start to expose all the different ways we isolate and fragment ourselves.
“We are becoming more and more removed from our essential essence,” he says. “And yet people wonder why they feel so disconnected, why life seems meaningless. Why we so often crave to touch or experience something real. Going into the forest can be a sensual experience. The opportunity is there to embrace the vital elements that contributed to our biology.”
If we pay full attention to every footfall, every breath, every sound we make, each nuance of landscape, wind, humidity, teaches Paul, we will be able to move away from the perspective of thought and self, into an all-encompassing awareness.
Sign tracking involves reading the many and varied signs in the forest the way hunter-and-gatherer cultures once did, and today’s oral cultures still do. It’s a misconception that ancient man tracked down animals to catch them; it would have taken far too much time and energy, says Paul. Such trackers listened to the different sounds in the forest, observed what was and wasn’t growing, or was disturbed in the forest. All these things told them where to sit and wait, or to set traps.
Animals hide from us visually but, at the same time, show us that they are there. And we don’t need to see tracks to know what kind of animals are around.
We learned that freezing day that the forest is constantly speaking to us, that there is never a square yard in it that doesn’t tell us something about its wildlife. A massive hemlock dieback, for example, means that porcupines, who are tremendous climbers and lovers of hemlocks, are in the area. And the sweet smelling yellow snow tells that deer are present.
Every shrub, piece of scat, or the knowledge of which trees are growing where, communicates something about the inhabitants of the environment. (On Mt. Tremper, bear, beaver, deer, coyote, fox, raccoon, squirrel, and other species can be found.) The pelletized scat of deer indicates that a severe winter is forcing them to eat twigs, which can’t sustain them. Since yew trees are the favorite food of white-tailed deer, when the trees grow proliferously, they’re a sign that no deer are around. Sometimes the forest speaks in whispers, such as the nibbled blueberry bush, which says a snowshoe hare was here. “Once we know the language, the forest comes alive and starts to speak to us,” says Paul.
Too many of us, however, never learn that language. We go through life observing without seeing. “That’s a white pine, or red oak,” we might remark, as we stroll past it. But identifying a species is not seeing it, not if we haven’t noticed the delicacy of the tree’s leaves, or a tree frog on a branch, or bear claw marks on the trunk. Sadly, we recognize and label the tree, but we don’t sensually experience it. Our thoughts intercede in our sensual appreciation, and our intellect cuts us off.
“We spend too much time in our heads, and need to get back into bodies where we actually experience, where the real perception is,” says Paul.
Time spent with the 55-year-old, bearded wildlife expert, who from his work is as muscular and sinewy as a bobcat he might spend hours observing, soon teaches that tracking requires “a degree of quietness, alertness, and aliveness” that he insists we all possess but must practice to unfold. Wading through gelid streams that day, following him up and down steep inclines beneath the snow-laden trees, struggling through ice-rigid brush, we found that acquiring this discipline wasn’t easy. My mind’s internal dialogue was more often focused on the bone-numbing cold and that promised hot chocolate, than the glorious natural beauty surrounding us.
But if we do practice, the rewards can be great indeed. We will come to understand what Shakespeare did when he wrote in As You Like It that we can “find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones.”
And when we’ve opened a door to a wild animal’s life, we become intimate with it. We also begin to understand where we fit into this vast web and cycle of life. “We understand at last that we are far more than our occupations,” says Paul. “That we are the stars moving in the galaxy and the fishes in the sea and the snows on the high peak. That our ancestors are not only people, but also the river, mountain, rock, fire, land, ocean, forest, bobcat, and deer. And once we can embrace this, our lives become much easier.”
Practicing the Art of Seeing
You don't need to be in the backwoods to practice what Paul teaches. The following exercises, taken from his book, The Wild Within: Learning from Adventures in Nature and Animal Teaching (J. P. Tarcher, January, 1999), can be done anywhere. They are reminders that help us live in reverence of the circle of life.
1) So much in our lives is invisible, such as a phone call, or the electricity coming into our homes. Every time you go to make a phone call, take a minute. Visualize the invisible. Before you turn on a light switch or get in a car, stop, really stop, and take a moment to reflect on the invisible elements in each action you take.
2) When you sit down for a meal, really look at what it is that you're eating. Acknowledge what that food is, where it comes from. Blueberries, for example, are surprisingly cool to the touch, and yet in the berries are the sun, the moisture in the clouds, and the air. They are the sandy soil, and the decomposition in the bog near where they grow. When you put a handful of berries in your mouth, the whole universe enters you: dunes, earth, light, and water.
3) Imagine that it's night and you're flying in an airplane above New York City or San Francisco. You're looking out the window, down on the glowing city with its millions and millions of lights, it's a beehive of activity, it's a hustle-bustle of consumption. Embrace the magnitude of it.