Many people think tracking is simply following footprints. They believe its usefulness is limited to hunters and naturalists. Tracking can be seen as arcane and irrelevant in the face of science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and other conventional educational benchmarks.
Yet I suggest that the ancient art of tracking is the most valuable way of seeing, perceiving and learning that you can ever teach a child (or an adult).
While You Were Tracking
While tracking you wait in silence. While tracking you create detailed and progressively more accurate maps in your mind: maps within maps within maps. While tracking you train yourself to see what’s hidden. While tracking you hunt down the information at the edges of your awareness.
The bird tells me where the fox lays. The fox tells me about the movements of coyotes. The absence of coyotes leads me to cougars. The cougar trails the elk as I track it. The elk reveal how spring will unfold this year.
Tracking goes beyond nature. It helped me create a teaching organization (Trackers) that many insisted would be impossible. While starting Trackers, prominent outdoor educators told me:
“That’s not possible.”
“Get a real job… with an established organization.”
“Your challenges are insurmountable.”
In spite of that, Trackers has grown from 40 campers our first summer to nearly 15,000 students per year. Tracking teaches us that “impossible” is often an irrelevant concept. At Trackers, we go beyond obvious puzzles and obstacles to discover hidden opportunities.
When people say, “Look at this problem!” we respond with, “Yes, and now let’s uncover all the unseen possibilities.”
At Trackers, opportunity and creativity are never obvious: They are elusive trails we must hunt down. Anything else would be boring. Tracking does more than teach this awareness, it hardwires mindfulness into our senses, both in body and spirit.
Back to Nature
While some people are able to gain these skills outside of nature, I believe something is still missing. In the long-term, learning to understand only the human world is easy. No matter how complex the jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces are ultimately familiar when the challenge is limited to a human-centric scope.
Nature forces us to empathize in more radical ways. The behavior of a song sparrow proves as subtle as epistemology or metaphysics.
Through tracking in nature we step out of a world designed for humans only; we become ambassadors for a culture that needs to exist. One that respects diversity, mindfulness and creativity.
“Alright,” you’re thinking, “If tracking is so useful, how do I learn to do it or teach my child the basics?” Here’s a good place to start:
1. Find wilderness wherever you find yourself and visit it consistently (morning and evening at a minimum). Wilderness can be a sparrow in your backyard hedges or wildflowers in the city park. Wild is the more than human world.
2. When visiting wilderness, don’t bring your human trappings. Leave behind the field guides, gear, your phone… although you may need pants. Of course, bring the survival gear you need, and train to need it less.
3. Pay attention to what is actually happening around you, not what you think is happening. Silence, stillness and wide-angle vision (we call this Whiskers) prove truly helpful for developing this.
4. Always look at footprints within the context of how that animal is connected to the larger ecosystem. Clear tracks and other overt sign are only single words in a larger narrative.
5. Pay attention to birds and see how they react to you. Then figure out how they react to other animals. Then see how the animals react to birds reacting to you. Finally, get the birds to not react to you. Now you’re invisible.
6. Always be excited to prove yourself wrong. Really excited. Even more important, recognize everything changes. All the time.
7. Follow each trail, thread and connection until you’re exhausted. Then follow them some more. When you’re about to quit, follow them further.
8. Never think anything is impossible. But don’t delude yourself into thinking you have magical superpowers that can accomplish the impossible.
9. Through one thing, know many things.
Of course there are many more techniques we could add to your toolkit: sensory development, mapping routines, and mindfulness training. But these 9 principles could prove a useful start.
Prove Me Wrong
Is tracking really the most important skill? Like any good tracker, I’m eager for you to test it out and prove me wrong. But it’ll be hard. For that to happen, I’d have to see the song sparrow agree with you.
Note to parents: If you let kids develop the above skills of questioning and thoughtfulness and you may asking for trouble. Good trouble 😉