Parabola, Summer 1991
(Excerpt from The Tracker, by Tom Brown Jr.)
The first track is the end of a string. At the far end, a being is
moving; a mystery, dropping a hint about itself every so many feet, telling you
more about itself until you can almost see it, even before you come to it. The
mystery reveals itself slowly, track by track, giving its genealogy early to
coax you in. Further on, it will tell you the intimate details of its life and
work, until you know the maker of the track like a lifelong friend.
The mystery leaves itself like a trail of bread crumbs, and by the
time your mind has eaten its way to the maker of the tracks, the mystery is
inside you, part of you forever. The tracks of every mystery you have ever
swallowed move inside your own tracks, shading them slightly or skewing them
with nuances that show how much more you have become than what you were.
Man goes through the world eating his mysteries. I have followed
every mystery I could in the twenty years since I began my apprenticeship with
an old Apache tracker named Stalking Wolf. I have had no choice in this.
Mysteries are irresistible to me, and a trail is something that must be followed
until it gives up its secret or puts me onto the trail of something even more
amazing. Tracks fascinate me.
I watch my own tracks constantly. They go like a dog with a curious
nose always catching scent of something unidentifiable hovering just out of
reach. If I go to the store for milk, my trail winds a quarter of a mile to go a
block and a half. Even in a small New Jersey town, the landscape is as full of
invisible animals as a child's puzzle.
One winter after a moderate snow, I went out to get milk and found
the track of a small gray bird called a Junco. I like the silhouette of the
Junco; its head rounds so smoothly into its back that it looks like it ought to
be made out of chrome. Birds are always mysteries. They leave their track in the
air most of the time and I don't have the nose to follow it. Their tracks on the
ground were irresistible.
I crouched down and looked at them, judging the size and shape of
the prints to get the type of bird. I watched its ease of movement on the ground
and knew it wasn't a finch or a sparrow. The tracks went from seed to seed in an
easy zig-zagging line. Looking close I could see where the bird had stopped and
leaned a little to one side, breaking down the side of its print while it ducked
and then craned its head up. I saw where it gave a little defensive hop as
something that seemed threatening must have gone by overhead.
The movement from a hop to a better balanced stance said there had
been danger. The way the toes went into the snow and curled under told me that
more weight had been forward on the foot, as it would have been if the bird were
ducking its head and then swiveling it to look up.
I had learned what track is made by that gesture the only way
it can be learned, by watching a similar bird do a similar thing on the ground
and then going over to see what the track looked like. By doing this time after
time with bird after bird, animal after animal, person after person, I became a
Since I began tracking at the age of eight, I have never seen
a track being made without wanting to go over and examine it. With each track I
add a little information to what I have been able to gather so far. Bit by bit,
I learn to track more completely the mystery at the end of every track.
The tracks painted in the living picture of a bird, a picture
indistinct at first but clearer with every track, until I could see the small,
sleek, gray head swiveling, swiveling as he picked up the seed and looked for
cats, dogs, children, cars, birds after his prize, and bigger, hungrier things
looking for an easy meal. His tracks hopped forward and I could see, as I
crouched, the brushings of his wings in the snow as he took off. He was gone
from the ground, but I could still see him in my mind, darting through the air.
I looked in a straight line for the most prominent tree and walked toward it.
Juncos do not waste time cruising for bugs or soaring around
sightseeing. They live the pragmatic life of the straight line. They go right
down into the jaws of sudden death, down onto the ground, and live by their wits
and their prudence. Birds are a delicacy on almost every predator's menu, and
when the Junco lands, he hops around watching and watching, pecking and dropping
half of what he pecks at because his head comes back up so fast to see what's
after him next.
I brushed the pecked and dropped seeds aside. With a
mouthful, he had gone flapping off toward the tree, and when I got to it, there
were seeds at the foot of the tree that were like the ones where he had taken
off There was a fresh dust of snow around the seeds and beneath some of them,
where he had knocked snow down off the branch as he landed.
He must have felt safe sitting there ten feet above half the
things that would like to eat him. He must have known that he was hard to see in
the trees and that the hawks would rather take him flying anyway. A fleeing
animal is a vulnerable animal, and every carnivore in the forest likes an easy
When he changed the position of the seeds in his gullet, he
dropped some of them down over the snow that had fallen from the branch. There
were hop marks where he had come down to get the dropped seeds later, but the
fact that there was a fine dusting of snow on some of the seeds indicated that
he had probably come to that branch before to swallow what he had grabbed from
There were other hop marks under the snow dust when I blew it
away, and they seemed to have the same jittery prudence that the other tracks
had had. Of course, I knew the bird, I had seen it around my own feeder. Every
species has its specific behaviors, but every individual performs them
differently. They're as un-alike as people.
I recognized the jittery little tremors, the half steps
thought about but left untaken. I had gone out and examined his other tracks
after I had watched him one day from my window. I could see him pecking and
ducking in that jittery, cocky style of feeding that was as individual as a human
gait. I checked how the lighter dust of snow from his takeoff had scattered
I checked where it had fallen in relation to the other fall, and I guessed
that either the wind had been drifting in that direction or the bird had taken
off in the opposite direction sending the branch back and down as it left and
dusting the snow further out than the first fall.
Since it was all I had to go on, I went as I had been taught from the track
to the trail, looking far ahead to see where it might be going. I could read the
identity from the individual print, but I needed the context in which the trail
occurred to make sense of it entirely, The bird was feeding, the branch fall
indicated he had flown in the direction of my house, and when I walked back
there, I found that same jittery Junco near my own feeder. I sat down to watch
him pecking - watching- pecking - watchingpeckingwatching - pecking - watching,
until someone finally came out of the house and asked me where the milk was.
From Tom Brown, Jr., The Tracker. Copyright (C) 1980 by
Tom Brown, Jr. and William Owen