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In a New Jersey Cornfield, master tracker Tom Brown teaches the art of deciphering the intricate poetry of paws.
Eco-Traveler, Issue #1 (Date unknown)
By Hannah Holmes

It's on your mind: "What if a bear eats my food? What if a mountain lion pisses on my matches?"

This precise eventuality has never occurred to me before, but, pacing like a caged thing in front of a wide-eyed class of 84 students, Tom Brown, Tracker, makes an excellent point: Hunkered between me and a warm relationship with nature is a gnarly, teeth-gnashing beast called fear. We have come to his out-in-the-cornfields farm in Nowhere, New Jersey, to learn how to stalk and kill this vermin.

And we have come, as more and more people do each year, to learn the language of the woods, the age-old skill of reading the wild poetry of tracks, from the master. Make no mistake. Tom Brown is one of the more insufferable human beings you'll ever pay $615 a week to endure. He's a belt-buckle grabber, an elbows-out walker, a chain-smoking, drill-sergeant-type hombre. He's not someone you'd want to go out for a beer with; if no one else volunteered to bust a stool on his head, you'd probably end up doing it yourself.

But when it comes to tracking, he is, he confesses with no detectable modesty, the magic pill. Raised in the wild and mysterious Pine Barrens of southern Jersey, his mentor was an elder Apache scout whose tribal obligation was to know the woods better than most of us know our sock drawer. Tom has tracked down hundreds of lost children and nasty criminals, been shot four times, written half a library of spiritual books about living in harmony with nature, spent years deep in the woods, and otherwise lived an exemplary life of contradictions.

"Any dirtbag tracker can follow a set of lifeless depressions across the ground," Tom bellows, scrubbing a tea towel across his sweating face and gray-blond hair.

"I'm gonna make you awesome. By the time I'm done with you, you will be able to track a mouse across that stone driveway." 

I choke back a snicker. Tired from a day of travel, we are perched on crude board benches in this fly-infested cow barn, cowering under a hail of profanity and promises nobody could keep. In his first minute of speaking, he had said we'd hate him by the end of the week, but I seem to be way ahead of schedule: Ten minutes into his welcome harangue, he's hoisted his tanned, 223-pound hide to the top of my list of people to hit with a rock.

When he has handily crushed the illusions of the students who came from all over the country and four foreign nations to meet their spiritual idol, we retire in glum silence, only to discover why the Tracker School accommodations weren't listed in the Michelin Guide. Those who brought tents erect a colorful ghetto on the lawn. The test unroll their sleeping bags in a sneezy hayloft and get a jump on tracking fleas. Most of us opt to meet our personal hygiene needs in the river, rather than the bucket-powered shower overlooking the crops.

It takes a couple of days to get around to becoming awesome trackers, however. The first full day of "classes" begins Tuesday morning, when the implausibly young and sweet-faced person of Rob Hartman meets our wary stares with a straight faced demonstration of a nose-mounted piece of salivary technology known as the "spit sight." 

Starved for affection, we are cheaply won, and follow docily as he moves on to the topic of making fire without a Bic lighter. Survival skills get equal time with tracking in this introductory course. Tom's hodge-podge presentation of info is confusing at first, but eventually, we see how they are related: Only when we feel at ease and confident in the woods will we be able to open ourselves to nature.

Therefore, the answer to the mountain lion question, Rob informs us, is the bow drill. After much whittling of cedar fence posts, we each have the requisite two blocks and a wood spindle in between. With bows of wood and nylon string, we crouch on the lawn. After a few minutes of fruitless sawing, I seek guidance from one of the ex-students who have come this week as unpaid volunteers.

"Is my spindle too big?" I ask, panting in the cornfield humidity.

"No," says the Earnest Volunteer. "You're not pushing down hard enough." I saw away another hour or two, then take out my knife, slim down my spindle, and have my tinder blazing in seconds. Seasoned cedar posts and nylon twine are rarely encountered in a "full survival situation," but never mind. We are jubilant, dancing with our balls of flaming fluff. We have made fire, and we feel a giddy surge of competence: Cast away the matches! Bring on the incontinent mountain lions!

There is an eagemess to our steps when we head back into the bam for more lectures. Karen Sherwood, a hearty human sunbeam, introduces us to the tinder plants. Then Wayne Walter, a hilariously unintelligible Texan, presents a rock talk, bashing knife-like slivers from hunks of geology before our eyes. These, we surmise, would replace our steel knives in a survival situation.

We break from time to time, just long enough to jump into the river or bolt down a bowl of stew, signature dish of the Tracking School, also notably absent from the Michelin Guide.

Tracking begins in earnest the next morning. Tom, his smoldering wife Debbie, and their baby Coty had informally circulated among the fire-seekers the day before, and we are beginning to think Tom isn't going to punch us after all.

It's a stupefying day in the corn, but when Tom lectures, we are so riveted that we don't even blink. The flies themselves seem to sit still. Tom attacks the blackboard with colored markers, showing us how to measure tracks, how to know if an animal is right- or left-dominant. This will tell us which way an animal (or person) will circle, where we can expect to find the next track.

With a whirlwind of geometry, he illustrates the "shape classifications," which reveal an animal's family in a few prints. Then he's on his hands and knees, pounding across the plywood dais in a demonstration of gaits, the track patterns that tell whether an animal is walking, bounding, galloping.

He sends us out to practice the gaits, and we lurch, hop, flop, and gambol across the lawn. I steal away to look for tracks in the lush tree lines that divide the fields. And as ever, I am disappointed. In this agricultural desert, there are no creatures but birds, mice, and possibly raccoons; this I deduce from the corncobs dragged into the woods. I yearn to be back in my own bioregion, using my new eyes to unravel the secrets of my own wild neighbors. 

Then, suddenly, I am looking at a track. It leaps up from the yellow soil at the edge of the field, an enigmatic, sun-lit indentation. I creep up and kneel beside it. I can pick out two toe pads, a claw hole, the ghost of a heel pad. I stare at it for 15 minutes, and find another toe pad. I am entranced as the print emerges from the ground. I soften my gaze and a second claw hole pops up. I can almost smell the fur of the creature that stood here.

I run to fetch Rob, and he kneels beside me, our noses dripping sweat into the print. He traces the outline with a weed, and says, "Flounder."

My mind is racing through the possibilities, a prehistoric fish endemic to New Jersey? So exotic ! 

"Tom's dog," Rob says gently.

I slither home beneath a sea-sick sky, and hear the Earnest Volunteer telling my classmates, "I think this storm is going to miss us." I am a fast learner, and I hustle to secure the fly of my tent.

As we enter the barn for the next lecture, I nod smugly to the Earnest Volunteer. I seat myself and suddenly Tom's yelling at us again, struggling to hide a grin behind his mustache. Eighty-three of us, it seems, walked into the barn without noticing the two volunteers standing motionless in the rafters. A smaller number of us unknowingly planted our heels in the ribs of a volunteer who lay beneath our bench. 

It is the first of many lessons in Awareness, in which instructors plummet from the sky, erupt from the vegetation, and otherwise court heart failure. I award myself consolation Awareness credits, however, when the sky opens up and dumps water into the tents of my new friends - but not mine.

Throughout the week, the instructors put us through our survival paces, until we feel positively immune to the vagaries of fate and cantankerous mammals alike. We carve ingenious little traps from sticks, and crush our fingers beneath the rocks we balance upon them. Over and over, we practice the snap release of a throwing stick. until we can cleanly take the life of a piece of cord wood from 50 feet. (In a survival situation, Tom reminds us, vegetarians must choose between starvation and joining the gory ranks of carnivores.)

And we learn stalking, the molasses-slow steps used to get close enough to an animal to smooch it, photograph it, eat it, etc. (We all enjoy an excellent demonstration of stalking one morning when a hapless classmate spends half an hour crossing the cornfield before realizing that the deerish object of her desire had been born of cardboard on the previous night.)

We take a trip to "Vole City," a small field, for an exercise in "sign tracking." As we train our eyes to look small, smaller, smaller, we find an amazing universe: sand-size mushrooms, dust-size spiders. vole teeth, vole hairs, little green vole poops. Then we practice looking big, unfocusing our eyes and taking in giant hemispheres of earth and sky, trying to see the fiendish instructors before they scare the little green vole poops out of us.

Then, Friday night, with Tom's introduction of pressure releases, my life changes. Outlandishly obvious in the damp, white sand of the tracking box, small geological features of a track indicate everything from an animal's head movements to its heart rate, breathing, state of hunger and whether it prefers boxers or briefs.

Tom walks through the box, turning, bending, gesturing, then he points out features in the resulting tracks: Plates of sand shift away when he turns, sandy discs appear beneath the ball of his foot when he accelerates.

SURVIVING SURVIV AL TRAINING - Little Luxuries You'd Die For

  • Gorp and dried fruit: The heavy schedule and heavier meals will make a wasteland of your interior. Coffee lovers should bring beans and apparatus.

  • Butt padding: Claim your seat early and near a window.

  • Tent: Or be prepared to change your underwear in clear view of 40 loft-mates.

  • Checks and cash: The granola bars in the school store look like ambrosia by mid-week, and they don't take plastic.

  • Humor: Laughter, especially in the first couple days, will save you $615 and a long walk back to Newark. Powerful bonds are known to spring from survival situations, so a condom might also be a good idea -- unless you prefer to fashion your own from birch bark.

He has to scare us away from the tracking box at midnight; we are completely obsessed. At dawn, I find my first fox track, near the path to the river, and study its tiny ridges and plates for clues: How fast was it moving? Which way was it looking? What time was it? If I sat here in the evening, would it trot past me?

And Tom has another Epiphany up his sleeve. He, too, has walked the path to the swimming hole this morning, and left a trail of Popsicle sticks. "Coyote," one is labeled. "Rabbit," reads another. "Deer," says a third. And sure enough, writ in matted grass and dust, pressed delicately into dry leaves and debris, are the breathlessly fine outlines of paws. We are speechless as we kneel over the little dents in the foliage and find a super-highway of animal life. We crouch in the sand and see Brooke's clear signature. On our stomachs in the driveway, we can pick out the footprint of a mouse on a rock. The musty mélange of crow rises up in my mouth.

"If it ain't flat, folks, it's a track," I remember Tom growling, and I look around at the countless thousands of silent creature statements imprinted on every patch of grass, mud and leaves. "You find a piece of leaf that nothing stepped on, that's rare," I recall him snorting. "Frame it." When I next meet his eye I try to grin, but the crow feathers show through my teeth. The afternoon is spent wandering over hill and dale and poison ivy at Karen's direction, harvesting our dinner from the top of nettles, the bottom of burdocks, the innards of day lilies. Free for an hour from adult supervision, our days of fatigue and awe bubble over into lunacy. We howl at our own impressions of Tom barking out the geology of a track: "DIGITAL-THREE-EIGHTS-DISH-CRESTED-RIDGE-DASH-CRUMBLE!" We hoot still louder when we realize Tom could be standing behind any given bush.

Later, as we prepare our last supper, we take turns lolling in a curative jewelweed mush to counteract the poison ivy. We serve up a giant foraged salad, followed by clover-blossom fritters, and a meltingly tender stir-fry of wild veggies wallowing in wild garlic. Karen's husband and co-instructor Frank produces a mess of trout. It's the best food I've eaten in a week, and fireflies are rising from the field like champagne bubbles in candlelight, but I dine on the prowl, my face turned grassward, hungry for more tracks.

I want to find my own. I need my eyes to learn this new poetry. Already in this life, I have missed a tragic amount of subtle beauty. In my ignorance, I have trodden flat the delicate scrawlings of countless wild creatures.

And eventually, there is one. In the grass by the cornfield, there is a round impression, visible only if you're not really looking. It sinks down through soft grass and into the dusk. I drop to my knees and gently stare. I can make out ghostly toe pads, a heel pad. My intuition is warming, and I look ahead for the next track. Matted in the grass, the edible siftings of yesterday's dish-washing tell me I'm smokin' hot: I've found Flounder again.

If Tom Brown ever loses his dog, he knows who to call. Where Flounder is concerned, I have become awesome.

Learning to read

Tracking is taking off. The introductory classes at Tom Brown, Tracker, Inc., sellout months in advance, and there are long waiting lists for some advanced classes.

"People are searching for more meaning, more depth in their lives," Brown explains in a quieter moment. "When you get track conscious, you also get more aware."

John Stokes, director of the Tracking Project in Corrales, New Mexico, tells a similar story. His week-long hike-and-track trips through New Mexico fill up fast, and he may expand his limited offerings in the future to accommodate the droves.

If Tom Brown is the drill instructor of tracking, John Stokes is the fairy godfather. A soft-spoken man, he dabbles in music and storytelling, and weaves these "arts of life" into his courses. His classes are well-staffed and small (20 people) and the food is gourmet vegetarian. "We've taken the skills of tracking and extended them. So now we teach awareness  -- of self, of others, and of nature," says Stokes. 

Paul Rezendes, based in north-central Massachusetts, also takes a gentle approach to tracking. He and his wife, an edible-plants expert, lead a variety of trips in New England, including a 10-day wilderness canoe trip and a Zen Mountain Monastery retreat. Rezendes, a photographer, specializes in reading signs, the subtler evidence that animals leave behind -- hair on a tree, or browsing marks on the shrubbery, etc. 

Also dabbling in the field is Doug Elliott, a naturalist and herbalist who mixes a dash of tracking into his classes. Based in North Carolina, Elliott travels widely to give an eclectic range of presentations.

Hannah Holmes is an environmental and outdoors writer living in Maine, and is a fromer editor of Garbage magazine.

This website has no official or informal connection to the Tracker School or Tom Brown Jr. whatsoever


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