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A Natural Man
National Wildlife Magazine (June-July 1984)
Richard Wolkomir

One April morning, 20-year-old Tom Brown walked into New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, a wilderness the size of Yosemite National Park. Removing his clothes, he stepped naked into the forest. He was determined to spend the next four seasons – spring, summer, fall and winter – entirely alone, with his food, clothes and shelter supplied only by the land.

“I wanted to test myself completely,” says Brown, a muscular six-footer with intense blue eyes. “I’d been thinking of it ever since I’d learned, as a child, that Indian scouts frequently spent a year alone in the wilderness.”

For most residents of New Jersey, the nation’s most urban state, the Pine Barrens is a forbidding place – 1,000 square miles of dense pine and oak forest, sandy soil, streams and cranberry bogs. But Tom Brown grew up in Beechwood, at the Barrens eastern edge, learning from childhood on to be at home in the forest in any season.

Brown’s year in the wilderness proved the value of that childhood training. He emerged from the woods clothed, healthy and strong, having honed his survival skills to an edge almost unknown in modern times. Now, fourteen years later, he operates a wilderness school, teaching some 2,000 people annually to survive in the outdoors. An expert tracker, he has also found hundreds of lost hikers and fugitives in recent years – feats that have been detailed in several books and many television shows. Brown also teaches tracking to police officers and rescue crews as a public service. Observed renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson: “Most people have drifted so far from their natural origins that the wild world is foreign ground. Not so in the case of Tom Brown, a completely natural man who has developed his extraordinary skills as a tracker of lost people and fugitives by learning to read the outdoors. I have never heard of anyone quite like Tom Brown Jr.”

Brown began his woodcraft education at the age of seven. His teacher was his best friend’s grandfather, Stalking Wolf, a lean and taciturn 83-year-old Apache from New Mexico. The Indian had come east to be with his son, an Air Force officer. And in Tom Brown and his own grandson he saw a chance to hand down his tribe’s lore. He tutored them in the Pine Barrens for nine years before returning home.

“A week before he left, when I was 17, Stalking pointed to a track and asked me to read it,” says Brown. “I said it was made by a two-year-old female coyote, weighing 25 pounds, carrying a rabbit in the left side of her mouth, and that an old injury to her right rear leg – probably she had been hit by a car – was causing her to put her weight more on her inner three toes.”

Stalking Wolf regarded his student. Then, slowly, his wrinkled face broke into a rare smile. “I felt I’d passed my final examination,” adds Brown. Nevertheless, the youth still wanted to test himself. And so, four years later, unsure what to do with his life, Brown walked into the Barrens naked, determined to live off the land for a year.

For his first night's shelter, he built a hut of leaves mounded on a pole frame, with the thick walls and floor all the blankets he needed. He wove cedar bark fibers into a loincloth. He lunched on edible plants -- the leaves and ten­drils of greenbriers, wintergreen leaves, last year's berries still attached to their stalks, the corms growing from cattail roots. With an ancient Indian weapon, a short, heavy stick hurled with great accuracy, he bagged a cottontail for dinner. He skinned it with a tool known to the earliest humans: an eolith – a simple stone, it’s edges broken to sharp­ness with another stone. To create a cooking fire. he used a bow drill.

In the weeks that followed, Brown chipped stones and bones into knives, arrowheads and fishhooks and carved a powerful hunting bow. Soon he was wearing clothes made from woven plant fibers and hides tanned with enzymes from the animals' brains. A snug mud hut replaced the leafy shelter. As he hunted, gathered plants, fished and studied the forest, spring faded into summer, summer into fall. Then it was winter, white and frigid.

One sunny day, Brown tracked a fox across the glittering snow. When he awoke the next morning, he was snow-blind; his eyes had become inflamed from too much light. Feeling his way on hands and knees, he gathered sticks to keep his fire burning for 24 hours. Then he lay in his shelter, listening to the windblown snow. "It wasn’t so much terrifying being sightless in the woods as it was an adventure,” he recalls, "because it was part of Stalking Wolf’s teaching to have us spend at least two weekends each year living in the woods blindfolded.”

In the morning, his vision began to return. Years later, he would exploit that brush with disaster in his woodcraft courses, teaching students to experience the outdoors blindfolded, thus sensitizing their hearing.

Eventually, Brown's year in the wil­derness came to an end. "I went into the Barrens naked and I came out 20 pounds heavier, totally relaxed, twice as strong, in tremendous shape," he says. Walking out of the forest, he came to a highway just as a garbage truck roared by. Bearded, weathered, dressed in skins, carrying a bow, he watched the truck with horror. "It shocked me -- the rumble, the smell of the diesel fuel, the stench of society after I'd been living so long in pure pine air,” he recalls. "I felt as if my body wanted to run, and I knew I wasn't ready to come out.” Brown went back into the woods. He stayed there for three more months.

In time, Brown returned to society, married and settled down in New Jersey, not far from the Pine Barrens. Local law enforcement officials soon began to take advantage of his talents, enlisting his aid in a number of outdoor search efforts. In 1977, Brown found himself in the headlines. After he helped police successfully track down a lost child, a dangerous rabid dog and a wanted rapist, the New York Times ran a front-page account of his activities. Shortly thereafter, a publisher contacted Brown and the result was a book about his exploits. The book, entitled The Tracker, attracted broad media attention. In the months that followed, Brown received more than 10,000 letters, many of which were from readers who wanted him to start a school that taught wilderness survival skills.

At first, he balked at the idea. From childhood on he had craved a quiet life in the woods, and running a large school would be anything but quiet. One day, however, he took his infant son into the Pine barrens to look at Stalking Wolf’s old camp. He was appalled to find that it had become a garbage dump. “I realized my son couldn’t do what I had done because we’re eating away the natural world around us,” he says. He decided to start the survival school after all.

Brown held his first classes in 1978. Since then, some 10,000 people have passed through his school, headquartered at the Asbury, New Jersey, farm where he lives with his family. The courses, taught by Brown and his assistants, are intense. They include such activities as creating fire by using a bow drill, improvising animal traps, making bows and arrows, chipping arrowheads, and creating debris huts and other wilderness shelters.

Bill Donohue, chief of police in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, believes that Brown’s lessons on Tracking can be especially helpful to police departments. “We’re often called on to find lost children, for instance,” he notes. “Usually, you call out volunteers, but it’s much easier if you have a trained tracker on the police force.”

While demonstrating his tracking talents, Brown becomes electric. “Tracking is the process of answering a series of questions about a beast and its interactions with the environment,” he observes. Reading a print in detail takes years of study, adds Brown. He relies on “pressure releases,” specific spots in any print that reveal how the foot interacted with the soil. He points out, for instance, that as a person ages, his or her bones change. Brown can “read” that status of a person’s muscles and skeleton, and hence the person’s age, by studying two specific spots in the footprint: the outside-edge of the foot and a hook-shaped motion of the ball of the foot, in conjunction with the person’s stride.

Recently, Brown took a visitor tracking in a field seemingly bare of animal signs. “Tracks are everywhere,” he pointed out while kneeling. “See how voles chewed this grass blade?” He rubbed a hand across the ground. “Feel this,” he said. Pressing his palm against a leaf, the visitor felt an indentation. Brown peeled away the leaf to reveal a perfect deer print. “Put your eye next to the track and study it from all angles.”

“Now this is a buck, and he was walking along confidently,” observed Brown, scrutinizing the track a few inches from his nose. “But this print, with a little eddy of dirt in front, shows he stopped abruptly, and the way the print is slightly indented at the left rear, shows he was looking toward the right – there’s a little tremor in the print’s walls, which shows he was suddenly nervous.”

Brown darted to the next print in the sequence, to the visitor just a faint indentation. “Here he’s still looking, and the imprint is lighter, which shows the buck was behaving cautiously,” he said. “Now the toe is deeper, showing the weight has shifted to the front – with a little eddy of dirt at the rear. He’s sniffing.”

At the next track, Brown pointed out that the print has less wobble, indicating that the deer is becoming more confident again. “He’s caught no scent,” he said. “The front of his hoof hit, went in deeper, then rocked back, which means he bent his head to feed – look, see how this sweet clover has been cropped down?”

But the fourth print, he pointed out, was a repeat of the first. Again something has alerted the buck, for a series of short steps indicate hesitation. “Something on the right has him worried,” added the tracker. “And look! Suddenly the prints are blown out in the back, because he exploded off in that direction, peeling out.” Brown walked to the right staring intently at the ground, and then pointed: the print of a large dog.

Another of Tom brown’s fortes is stalking. He moves like a heron, each step precise. The stalker brings down his forefoot lightly, letting just the outer edge touch the ground, followed by the heel. Only now does he allow the body’s weight to bear down. Thus, stalker can feel any twigs under his sole before they snap.

“He’s really spooky in the woods,” says Brown’s wife, Judy. “Once we were walking side by side along a stream in the Pine Barrens when suddenly he wasn’t there – he was 50 feet farther along the trail, up in a tree.” But Tom Brown, who grew up wanting only to be alone in the forest, rarely disappears into the trees these days. New book deadlines loom and students arrive in an endless stream, making him a prisoner of his school – a predicament he has finally come to accept.

How to Tune in to the Wild

According to Tom Brown, many of us enter the woods as if we were driving Sherman tanks. Our noise sends wildlife fleeing, and we are blind and deaf to our surroundings. He believes that anyone can get more out of the wilds by using some simple techniques. Here are some suggestions:

  • "Our society is highly goal-oriented, but when we're in the woods to enjoy nature we should remember the old saying, 'Happiness is not found at the end of the trail but along the way,'" says Brown. When I go for a walk, I'm going nowhere in particular. I never say, 'I'm going to the top of the hill,' and I may travel only 30 feet in five hours." If we are not hurrying toward a goal and worried about the time, our perceptions can open up.
  • "If I set out to see deer, I probably won't see any," observes the tracker. Concentrating on what you expect to see closes your perceptions to other possibilities. You may see deer, but miss the ruffed grouse pecking at apples in the tree over the deer's heads. Concentrate simply on being in the natural world, alert to everything, he advises.
  • To prove that we are prisoners of habit, Brown watches where people look when they enter a room and then stands where they do not look, becoming invisible. "I might stand on a table next to the wall, unhook a painting, and hold it in front of me. I look ludicrous, but people walking past don't even see me," he says. In the woods, he suggests, try taking a different trail, or no trail at all. Lie down, for a chipmunk's view. Sniff the earth. Instead of focusing on the ground a few yards ahead, look up in the foliage. Look into dark places.
  • "Everywhere the landscape is full of tracks, whether it's a tuft of bear hair in a tree or the Grand Canyon, which is a track made by water," notes Brown. "Not a square inch of ground is blank." he advises studying a tracking guide, such as his own Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking or the Peterson series' Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus Murrie. Then put in a lot of "dirt time," studying tracks where you find them and observing animals as they make tracks, learning not only what species make which tracks but also how configurations reveal a creature's behavior.
  • Almost always we walk too fast in the woods, says Brown. The solution is simply to walk at a third or a quarter of our normal pace. That automatically makes us less noisy, and opens our perceptions. Perhaps an even better idea is simply to sit and let yourself vanish into the landscape. After a while, the animals ignore you. "People ask me how I can sit for three hours on a stump in the middle of the woods. I ask them how they can sit for three hours in front of a television screen," he muses.
  • One key to seeing more animals is to know where to look. Wildlife concentrates in transition areas, like the edges of forests, fields and streams, which offer a variety of food and cover as well a water. The best time to encounter many animals is at night. Just before and after a storm animals are especially active. Brown also points out that most of us look too high -- instead of looking over a bush, look into the bush. Animals tend to be smaller than we think. We should also be alert for parts of animals, an ear or a tail, because usually much of the creatures we see is obscured by foliage. Look also for movement.
  • As we look around at the world, most of us focus on a small area, something like a flashlight beam. To see more wildlife, Brown advises adopting the native American way of looking, which he calls "splatter vision." Instead of focusing sharply, look toward the horizon and take in everything directly ahead and to the sides at once, as if you were looking through a wide-angle camera lens. Your focus will be abit fuzzy, but you will pick up any movement. Then you can focus sharply on the movement to see what it is.
  • Unlike those of rabbits, deer and many other animals, human ears are too small to pick up faint sounds. You can partially correct that deficiency by cupping your hands behind your ears and aiming toward a faint sound that you are trying to tune in on. You also can use the system to get a fix on the location and distance of a sound, such as an elusive bird call: using your cupped hands, aim in the general direction from which the sound is coming, then slowly turn one ear down, until the sound seems to be coming from the middle of your head. Then cup both hands in a circle around one ear and focus in on the sound, which should give you its maximum volume and a good sense of its location.
  • To hide your scent from animals, try bathing before you go out, using a natural soap such as pine tar. You also can rub your clothes and exposed parts of your body with pine needles, catnip or any other aromatic herb; thoroughly smoking yourself in front of a campfire also does the job.

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


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