Introduction to The Heart of Tracking

Tracking at its surface is simply the art of identifying animals by their footprints. Scratch this surface and you will find a deep well, a journey that will take you into the heart of nature and into your own heart as well. Tracking will take you directly into the lives of the animals around you, into the world of the plants they depend on, and into the dynamics of the landscape they all live in. You will find that tracking involves the nature of perception itself and will foster a deeper awareness of your own relationship with the world.

Tracking is a vast body of knowledge that goes back to the roots of human consciousness, knowledge that was critical to human survival. Animal tracking was practiced to some degree by all hunter/gatherer cultures, but it was brought to its highest form by our own southwestern apaches.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was witnessing the near loss of this legacy as a child, as the last hunter-gatherer cultures were rapidly disappearing all over the earth. I spent a lot of my childhood deeply immersed in nature. If I was not in school, I was running the hills, stalking animals, feeling like an Indian. I was tantalized by the few stories I read of the legendary tracking ability of the apaches: finding game with the slightest signs on the landscape, being able to read the secrets of nature at a glance, moving invisibly on the land. Cochise, the famous Chiricahua chief was one of my earliest heroes. I knew there must be a way to enter that old world of the tracker. I searched the Boy Scout literature. I read endless animal stories. I looked for tracks on my own.  But I could find only hints and second-hand information. It was a mute book of fading knowledge. I didn’t know how to get the earth to speak, and I gave up on it as I grew up.

Except for a few thin threads of old ways that persisted, and a few Indian scouts who passed this knowledge out of their own culture and into our modern world, the art of tracking, at least in the industrial/agricultural world, was nearly lost by the early 1900’s. Tom Brown, an eight-year old boy growing up in the New Jersey Pine Barrens Wilderness, was selected to receive this tradition by an Apache master scout who had spent his life distilling and refining the knowledge of tracking and the skills of invisible survival. This man, Stalking Wolf, was following a vision that he was responsible for keeping these skills alive instead of being lost forever with his death. He was truly one of the last links to this ancient knowledge and one of its greatest masters. Over a ten-year mentorship, Stalking Wolf passed this knowledge to his very willing student.

Tom went on to found a successful tracking and wilderness skills school and to write a series of informative books that brought these traditions back into modern western culture. I discovered these books in my forties and was amazed to find exactly the information I had been looking for thirty years earlier. I quickly embraced it and began practicing, with immediate and startling results. Encouraged, I began flying back to the New Jersey Pine Barrens for an extensive series of Tom’s classes, working my way from tracking basics to expert awareness and the distillation of native American spirituality that Grandfather had taught. I would come back from one of Tom’s deep immersions full of inspiration and enthusiasm and head out to the hills and beaches to apply some of the things I’d learned. I quickly discovered that it was far more complicated than I’d imagined.  I found that I was quickly lost when I’d try to do tracking on my own. It was very difficult to make progress and very easy to get discouraged.

Tom always had a disconcerting way of loading us up with vast amounts of new and fascinating information and sending us home thinking we were now experts. But, confronted with the complexity of nature, I found myself daunted. I was far from being an expert. In spite of my deep familiarity and comfort in nature, tracking involved a level of observation that was new to me. I knew I needed to find some local trackers to work with

Luckily, one of Tom’s earliest students, Jon Young, had recently moved to California and started a series of tracking classes not too far away. I eagerly signed up and began attending these low-key sessions with a small group who would gather from all over the state. We all made a lot of progress, benefitting greatly from the power of working as a group, combining our curiosity and observation.

I realized that tracking is a social activity as well as a very personal journey. I needed to find kindred spirits to join in this study if I was going to make any real progress. Even in the best classes and workshops, there was not enough time to really rub shoulders with experienced trackers to begin making sense of this complex and subtle world.

It was around then, 10 years ago, that I decided to start a local tracking club based in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. I spread the word and soon I had a core group. I realized that I was tapping into a growing desire in our society to get more authentically connected to nature and the earth, that the old tracking tradition was one of the best ways to do that, and that there was a hunger for this information. We founded the Marin Tracking Club. Trackers were few and far between out here on the West Coast. The fledgling club began to attract interest and we began forming a community of trackers to share this path of learning.

This became the basis of my approach to teaching: “Tracking With Trackers”. The key ingredient was simply the opportunity to debate, to guess, to disagree and to come to consensus with others, each of whom brings his or her own experience, viewpoints, observations and knowledge base. The real payoff for me was that I learned much faster once I started teaching. The opportunity to teach taught me more about tracking and about myself than I had expected. I slowly developed my own style of teaching, of explaining what I was seeing, connecting with others, and inspiring a passionate curiosity about our surroundings. I encourage anyone interested in going deeper into nature to find others to work with.

Not long after we started the tracking club, Jim Kravets, the editor of a new local newspaper, The West Marin Citizen, asked me if I’d like to write a monthly column about local nature. We called it “Tracking Notes” and thus began my writing career. With Jim’s help and encouragement I got a feel for it. It was a great opportunity to bring tracking forward, out of the mists of the past and into modern life. Through these essays, I’ve explored the world of tracking and my relationship with it. It seemed time at last, to collect and expand on the essays and gather them in this book. It has been a great journey.

This book is several things at once: it is a story of animals and their lives; it is a guide to tracking and an exploration of the many levels of nature awareness; it is also a journey into the spiritual skills that tracking teaches, of moving into the moment and opening the senses, of being present in everything we do. It is a also a story of my personal journey, of my travels along the road of confronting demons and past traumas when they block the way, and of finding the way back to my true path and how nature has aided me so greatly in this journey.

My purpose has been to revive some tools from the Old Ways to help bring us all closer to the earth. Tracking operates on many levels at once. It can make our walks in the surrounding countryside richer by simply helping us notice more of what is going on right around us. It also has the potential to bring more joy and peace into our lives through the simple practice of relaxing and appreciating the present moment.

It is no small accomplishment to learn something that can reliably bring this benefit. In this simple practice lie spiritual depths that have the ability to bring about true healing of our grief and troubles, and potentially our consequent physical ailments as well.

We have been raised in a culture that has largely forgotten how to heal from our losses, having substituted busyness, avoidance, and material distraction for actual health processes.  The losses we suffer can have the effect of driving us inward, into an illusory safe, desensitized place inside our minds. This habit cuts us off from the world. We participate in a culture that has done this, but luckily, we can just jump over the back fence or step out of the car at one of our trailheads, and set out on a healing journey, on a path that leads back to ourself.

It can feel strange to drop out of our mental rush and simply appreciate such utterly simple and lovely things as the feel of the sun on our skin, the patterns of wind rippling through the grasses, the calls of the forest birds, or seeing the stories in tracks, because to be present is also to take off the armor against our wounds. Taking this step creates depth and dimension and a relief from the flatness of our experiences when we are lost in our minds. For instance, listening deeply into the surrounding symphony of birdcalls can elicit a profound sense of three-dimensionality in the forest, while also enriching our sensitivity to the feelings and messages in individual birdcalls. Sensing the aliveness around us awakens our own aliveness. The very practice of being aware, then, is a process of becoming more alive. It cleans us up, so to speak, and nature can feel this, and tells us quickly how much it appreciates our progress by revealing more of its intimate secrets.  It is a win-win situation.

I invite you to immerse yourself in the stories and concepts that follow. Move slowly, like a tracker, drink it all up, just as you will learn to do when tracking out on the landscape. Come back several times and read again. The writing works on many levels. You will gain an understanding that will greatly increase your awareness and enjoyment of your nature experiences, and you will find skills that you can apply to every aspect of your work and your relationships. No part of your life will be left untouched.

I took the cover photo early on a mid-winter day at Abbott’s Lagoon on the Pt. Reyes Peninsula, three days after a rainstorm.  The weather had warmed and the nights had been clear. The animals had responded. It is one of the most awesome scenes of exuberant life in the dunes that I have ever witnessed. Just about any animal living in the area, insects, amphibians, birds and mammals, seemed to have been out crisscrossing the sand in foraging, hunting and interacting. This interwoven record of what would normally be virtually invisible to us is there to be read like a book for anyone with a basic understanding of tracking and awareness.


Richard Vacha



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