November 5, 2015 / Praxis
If Benedict found inspiration in the desert, so can Rod Dreher.
July 10, 2017
My friend stops and squats at the side of the trail. We are hiking at the base of Mount Hood—called Wy’east by the Multnomah tribe of the Pacific Northwest—an eleven-thousand-foot peak in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest. The loose, sandy soil left after the snowmelt is the perfect medium to read animal tracks. He points to a cluster of imprints, each with a different depth, orientation, and clarity.
My tracking skills are rudimentary. I sound out the tracks like the letters of a foreign language. I struggle to spot the markings, much less understand what they mean in the context of the other prints in the soil. These look like paw prints—it’s a carnivore of some sort. Nearby, hoof prints indicate the presence of some kind of deer. In tracking, as in reading, context is everything. As scholars improve their reading of an ancient text by understanding the cultural milieu in which it was written, so my amateur knowledge of the animals native to this landscape affects my ability to read the tracks.
I’ve also learned that tracks age quickly. Imprints that sink deep into the earth, like the ones I’m looking at now, suggest that these grains of sandy soil can be displaced with little effort. A gust of wind or a drop of rain can disturb the indentation. Soil fills it in, and the edges wear down. A good tracker thus has knowledge of the climate and soil type; a good tracker can judge the age of a track based on their understanding of how the weather may interact with the imprint, of how long it will take to blur it to oblivion.
Trackers are also adept at identifying other signs. They are alert to scent and scat. They consider broken or marked foliage. These signs, or spoor, of various species are learned by trackers and used to understand the intentions of an animal so that they can accurately determine the direction the animal headed.
Legend has it that Apache children could track a rodent across gravel by the age of five. It was into this tradition that the modern tracker Tom Brown Jr. was trained by an Apache elder. He reports that to the precolonial Apache, the world was marked with tracks large and small. They understood the mountain ranges through which they traveled to have been created by the gods. Every valley was an imprint of the divine, and the slopes and ridges that surrounded the valleys were the upward edges of those great footprints.1 The Apache were skilled geologists, seeing in cliffs, peaks, and gorges the same forces that created the miniature landscape of a paw print, the footprints of a mammal that led them to food. In these tracks, big and small, they found life and moved and had their being.
Tracking as Landscape Exegesis
An ancient art as old as hunting itself, tracking was the perhaps the first instance of hermeneutics. The first human hunters did not have written words, but instead, they interpreted the signs of the landscape, extrapolating the movement and intentions of animals based on the marks they left. For these hunters and their communities, proper exegesis was the difference between hunger and a full belly. To be adept at reading the signs in the soil meant not only greater harmony with the landscape but also the ability to live.
Tracking is thus an exercise in landscape exegesis. Every track is a sign on the manuscript of the world. Brown says it this way: “Each track becomes a word and each trail a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter of an animal’s life.”2 Just as the biblical scholar looks at a text in context, so too the tracker reads the trail: the pen is a paw, the sentence is the trail, the page is the landscape, and the message is the intention of the hunted.
The point of exegesis is to build knowledge of the context of a written text in order to better understand it. Without an understanding of the ancient culture in which a book or letter was written, one might read it with modern assumptions about the nature of the world. This is also the case with tracking. The hunter must have a breadth of knowledge of the place—the quality of its soil and how quickly it weathers, the locations of water, the brittleness of various plants in response to creatures rubbing against them, the types of plants and the seasons in which they are most edible for browsing, and the nature of scat from different animals.
The tracks themselves must be correctly interpreted as well. If tracks are like a language, the tracker must learn the syllables and understand the grammar. This requires a steady attention both to how one’s own movements affect the landscape and to the unique signs of various creatures. When I take a step, walking slowly across the silty floodplain of the Sandy River that drains into the Columbia, I don’t realize it, but I am leaving tracks behind. The earth beneath me responds to the pressure of my foot. To the right, my eyes follow a duck making flight off the river, and as I watch, my weight shifts, leaving deeper trenches on one side of my footprints.
Brown calls the topography of a track a “pressure release.” The point of entry, speed, and the shifting of weight compress the soil or track medium. As the foot is raised from the ground, the combination of entry, velocity, and release creates aspects much like geological features in miniature.3 The study of these features, or pressure releases, shows that no matter the size of the creature, the same pressures generate the same feature in a track. Thus, trackers can learn from a particular warp in the soil the direction an animal turned its head.
When one possesses this knowledge, tracks come alive. Subtle depths in an imprint and minute fault lines denote shifts in the body of an animal, a turning of the head or a changing of course. Small variations in the tracks along a trail indicate increasing thirst or hunger in an animal. A ridge here indicates a wound or limp; a ripple there in the track margin reveals a sidelong glance at some distraction. Just as card players look for tells in the faces of their opponents, pressure releases provide insight into an animal’s consciousness.
Tracking as Nature Awareness
This landscape exegesis helps us to understand the world around us. As tracking teacher Jon Young puts it, tracking and nature awareness help us understand who we are in the world, and only by knowing our place in the world can we know the gift we have to offer it. Seeing the trails that other creatures leave leads us to reflect on the marks we leave in the world. This reflexivity awakens consciousness. As novices begin to track an animal, it is not long before they perceive that they, too, are leaving a trail of tracks and signs. The track reader is also a track maker.
On a cloudy winter day, I hike with a friend’s three-year-old. The butte is snowy, and as we tromp through the snow, little William notices the paw prints of dogs alongside the footprints of their human companions. I ask him what his footprint looks like, so he stomps his foot in an undisturbed section of snow by the path. His eyes brighten as he realizes that he, too, is leaving tracks as he walks. What follows is a joyous jaunt along the trail, with frequent glances backward to see the tracks being created with each step.
As the tracker learns to read the signs, a realization happens. They suddenly understand that the earth is a canvas and that all living beings write their story upon it each day. An owl leaves small scratches on the tree it grips with its talons. A fox leaves a trail of indentations in the soil and displaces leaves in the grass where it moved its body against them. Deer create paths by their repetitive movements through the forest, wearing out the plants under them and leaving bare, compact dirt. And these stories interact. The young tree scratched by the owl is investigated by a hungry deer; the leaf fibers from that tree are found in deer scat farther down the trail; then, days later, the tracks of the deer stop at the imprints of a mountain lion, and nearby, one might spot bones, slowly decomposing and settling into the landscape. The world is full of these stories, and the tracker reads these tales in bent twigs and faint footprints pressed upon soil. If each track is the sentence of a story, one learns quickly that the sentences write their protagonists into the undulating plot of the universe.
A Catechism of Creatureliness
As they scour the landscape for details—the pressure releases described above—many trackers recount an experience of mental metamorphosis into the animal they are tracking. As Louis Liebenberg describes in The Art of Tracking, the hunters of the Kalahari say they feel the sensations of the quarry they are trailing. One hunter explains that as he followed the tracks of a springbok, an antelope species, he began to feel the aesthetics of it. A tickling at his legs and feet told him the springbok was hiding in bushes. A sensation down his nose and around his eyes mimicked the black marks on the antelope’s head. As he approached, he felt blood running down his legs, an anticipation of the kill. Just as reading a novel might help modern readers understand the worldview of another, in reading the tracks of the springbok, the hunter perceives the world from its point of view. The hunter, in a way, simultaneously becomes the hunted.4
Even westernized trackers talk about tracking as a way to get into the mind or intentions of an animal. The language they use often reads as explicitly spiritual. Consider Brown’s description of the tracking experience:
Yet I could also call tracking a philosophy and a deep form of spiritual communication. First we enter the world of tracking as a science, in which we learn all the cold, hard facts about the track. These basic techniques must be understood before any further building can be done. Then, and only then, can tracking develop into an art, where one begins to see the beauty of the tracks. This mastery of the artistic form then leads to the more spiritual aspects of tracking. Spiritual tracking is what Grandfather [the Apache elder who taught Tom tracking as a child] deemed most important. It is here in the spiritual consciousness where the animal comes alive in its tracks. It is here that we fuse our mind with the animal and feel the animal moving within us. Finally we become that animal, moved by its spirit.5
Tracking is thus a form of inverted theosis—a taking on of godliness—not by looking up, as humans have done for so long, with tower and gothic spire, but rather by turning our gaze to the ground. In tracking, we gain a greater sense of our embodiedness.
The Genesis account attests that we are, after all, formed from the dirt. As we move across the landscape, chasing tracks and simultaneously making our own, we become more animal. We see in the tangled interface of trails the intricate interplay of life with life. We discover in our own footsteps that our tracks connect to this network of stories. We look in an animal’s tracks and see our own search for food, shelter, and companionship reflected back at us. By doing so, we reject the dualism and technologies of civilization that would have us believe we are divorced from the same world inhabited by beasts. In becoming animal, we become more human again.
For the ancient Israelites, the primeval lesson in becoming human again occurred as they wandered the desert. Here, the tribes unlearned the trappings of civilization, with the longed after “flesh pots” and the despised brickmaking (Exod. 16:3 and 5:16 KJV). In the wilderness, Israel chased the tracks of Yahweh, by day trailing the cloud and by night following fire. While Egypt put its hope in storehouses of grain, they put stock in the beneficence of Yahweh, found daily in the manna miracle. Just as trailing is a discipline of thinking and acting on the move, requiring constant response to the subtle changes in tracks and the soily medium in which they imprint, so too did the desert wandering require a reorientation to living on the move. Food was prayed for, not predicted, and water was a response of the divine. Life was a gift of Yahweh, to whom Israel was obliged.
So crucial was the wilderness time for Israel that centuries later Isaiah would relate the story again. This time, Jewish exiles in Babylon would be retracing their own steps, following the trail backwards from Jerusalem to Babylon. Again, this called for a theology on the move—Isaiah says of this time that God is doing a “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19 NRSV) in repatriating exiles back to their homeland. Traveling the wilderness from Babylon to Palestine would require a newfound trust in the beneficence of Yahweh. The captives in Babylon had been exposed to another rich imperial center, full of royal splendor and brimming with wealth levied from the provinces. Though expatriates, they were accustomed to an urban existence. Senses dulled from decades of city living would reawaken in the desert. Just as hunters inhabit the minds of their prey through tracks, the captives would reinhabit their own story through their desert steps on the way home. Only by knowing their place in the world would the people of Israel know the gift they could offer it. The desert journey home would open their awareness of the wider community of creation they were to inhabit.
In ancient Babylon, where Israelite exiles had made a new life, imperial hubris reigned. This arrogance was manifest in the art, architecture, and religion of the city, and it is this religious hubris at which Isaiah takes aim. Marc Van de Mieroop, a scholar of Babylon, notes that a yearly festival to the patron deity Marduk involved carrying the statue of Marduk from the ziggurat in the city center out into the uncultivated steppe outside the city gates.6 The symbolism is clear: Babylonians, the recipients of Marduk’s blessing, have a privileged relationship to the world. As Marduk slayed his mother Tiamat, city conquers countryside, and humans control nature. In Babylon, nature was walled out of daily human life to the margins by brick and myth.
The prophetic words of Isaiah confront this Babylonian theology of human supremacy over nature. Undoubtedly the Jewish audience of Isaiah 40–43 would recall this ceremony. The Isaianic passage critiques Babylonian theology on two fronts. First, it mocks the very idea of Babylonian idols, which are created by human hands and, more importantly, are inanimate. “Do something,” says Isaiah to the cast idols (41:23 NIV), playfully taunting that the idols must be nailed down so that they do not topple over. These idols make no impact upon the world—they have no tracks indicating their aliveness and agency. Whereas Yahweh is trackable through pillars of fire and vapor, Marduk and the Babylonian pantheon are lifeless and inert.
Second, Isaiah is clear that humans are a part of the community of creation and not above it. “All people are like grass,” proclaims Isaiah (40:6–7). Just as grass has a life cycle of growth, death, and decay, so too humans grow and then eventually wither away. This theological assertion relates to the ecological principle of trophic levels. All organisms depend upon nutrients to grow and survive. Grass grows by harvesting sun and soil. Insects and herbivores eat grass to gain its energy. Rodents eat insects that ate the grass, and carnivores prey on deer and other herbivores that ate the grass. Ultimately, all these forms of life die and decay, and the grass eats their decaying bodies through the uptake of nutrients in the soil that are released by rot.
Exiles relearn the contingency of life in the wilderness journey that they must undertake as they track Yahweh back to their homeland. With the wild animals (43:20), they honor the quotidian need for water in the desert, and they come to know the fragility of life. Tracking Yahweh in the wilderness gives the people of Israel a renewed sense of their obligation to an animate God in their animal bodies.
Tracking helps us to better understand the world and our place in it. As a spiritual discipline, it can widen our vision of the world. We come to notice the bent grass on a hillside that belies the past bounding of a rabbit. We become aware of our impact upon the world, from the path of our footsteps across a muddy field to the larger and much more serious imprint of our garbage on the landscape. Even the weathered paw prints of a dog on a trail might remind us of both our creatureliness and our corresponding susceptibility to the ravages of climate and time.
You can track anywhere, as animals are everywhere disturbing the landscape, leaving their mark. When we track, we observe the little changes, and cultivating this awareness can be simple—it only requires intention. To start, find a sit spot. Make time once a day to go to this spot and just sit. During sit-spot time, you will begin to notice the creatures that surround you. Document the birds you see. Notice their markings to identify from a reference book later. Listen to the sounds at dawn or dusk. Be aware of the alarm calls when a predator, such as a cat or hawk, approaches and then the silence that ensues when it is very near. See how a dog hurdling through bushes disturbs the branches with bent or broken twigs.
Next, tune your vision to the details of the landscape itself. Human footsteps across the lawn bend the blades of grass such that, at a certain angle, there is an obvious color differential from the undersides of the upturned leaves. In the city, one can notice a half footprint in the detritus on the edge of the street or in the fallen leaves of autumn. By starting big, with human footprints, your awareness can develop, making it possible to begin noticing smaller things. Find a squirrel on the ground, and study the fresh traces it has made by its scamper across the grass or soil as it speeds away. Take advantage of the snow as a way to easily track game through the woods or to imagine the path of people in the concrete jungle of the city. Make use of a sandbox as a medium to quickly watch how wind or rain erodes a footprint.
Most importantly, keep watch. To the one tuned to tracks, life is happening all around. Footprints are being made and weathering away constantly. Trails thread together all around us, weaving a tapestry of stories, and by learning the language of tracks, we may follow the footprints of the divine on the landscape of our lives.
Dave Pritchett lives in Portland, Oregon, and as an associate medical director for a detoxification center and as a permaculture teacher and designer, he works for the health and recovery of both people and landscapes. His research and writing, which has been featured in Watershed Discipleship (edited by Ched Myers), combines his curiosity at the interface of ecology and theology. Pritchett enjoys volunteering his skills in organizations like Ecofaith Recovery and Portland Fruit Tree Project, and he cherishes time spent with the Wilderness Way community.