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Survival of the Fittest
Tom "The Tracker" Brown Teaches That the Way to Stay Alive in the Wilderness is to Enter Into It
by John Casey

The Washingtonian (March 1983)

In the clearing around the lodge, 50 people are trying to start 50 fires. Each has a knife, a piece of cord, and some wood. They have been at it for some time now, and most of them have made several mistakes. There are lots of mistakes to make.

We had watched a demonstration in which the instructor had started a fire with his bow and drill in less than a minute, even going slowly and holding up the pieces of equipment one by one for us to see. From bottom to top, these pieces are:

  1. A piece of bark
  2. Tinder, but not just any old stuff. Fibers as thin as thread, fluffed up into a ball the size of a small bird's nest -- so dry you have to keep it in your pocket where it can't absorb moisture from the air.
  3. The fireboard. At least a hand's length -- from wrist to fingertip -- a hand's breadth, and thumb thick. Must be flat.
  4. Drill. Hand's length and thumb thick also, but must be round -- as round as a dowel. Pointed at either end but not like a pencil. A short, sharp taper, like a votive candle. Must be same medium-grade wood as board.
  5. Bow. Arm's length. Curved. Any wood, so long as it won't crack. Thumb thick or more. Notched to secure:
  6. The cord, which could be a shoelace or twisted plant fibers. The cord should be tied loose enough to twist once around the drill.
  7. Handhold block. For a right-hander, the block must fit comfortably into left palm, or you won't be able to bear down on it.

Assembling these items from scratch takes a while. Except for the bow, we are working with cedar. We have the luxury of several axes and hatchets to split the cedar trunks into chunks, but there is a lot of whittling to get them flat and even more whittling to turn a chunk of cedar into a dowel. Several people try to drill with pieces that are not uniformly round. The encircling bow-string slips to the narrowest part and slides uselessly, or it hangs up on a cedar knot and binds. If the fireboard isn't flat, it's hard to start charring in the hole straight up and down, the drill keeps hopping out.

If the bow string is loose enough to slip slightly, you create just enough heat to fire-harden the hole. The hole becomes quite beautiful, resembling a dark glaze but then you might as well try to start fire with glass. Scrape the hole out if you can, or adjust the bow and burn in a new hole. A dozen people get good holes in their fireboards and handholds. There is a twittering and squeaking noise from these bows and drills that sounds like a flock of angry terms. But, alas, a few of these holes have been burned in too close to the edge of the fireboard and crumble out. Several others are too far from the edge, which makes cutting a notch in from the edge nearly impossible.

The notch is yet another crucial piece of precision. It is the channel by which the hot cedar dust can be made to fall out of the hole onto the tinder, which is clamped between the fireboard and the dry piece of bark, and also fluffs out from the bottom of the notch to form a receiving bed.

There are now more and more twitterings and squeakings. There is also even in this open air, a lovely smell of charring cedar.

The first hole I burn into my fireboard is aslant and too close to the edge. Trying to start a new hole with the point of my Swiss army knife, I snap the blade shut and slice into the pad of my middle finger.

There are three other blood-sprinkled fireboards in the course of the morning. Someone once warned me about folding knives. It comes back to me now. It also occurs to me how hard this fire-building would be with a stone knife. My admiration for our neolithic predecessors rises.

While waiting for the blood to clot, I watch some other people getting close. One woman, very close indeed, arranges her tinder under her fireboard notch. She lubricates the hole in the handhold with some grease from the side of her nose so that the handhold won't have enough friction to burn anymore -- it's the fireboard you want to burn, not the handhold. She twists her drill into the bow string, fits the charred end into the notched, blackened hole in the fireboard, and caps the top end of the drill with her handhold. Her left foot is already on the fireboard. She edges it closer to the drill and gets her chest down on her left knee, her left wrist held steady against the upper shin. She starts stroking smoothly and then leans into it, bearing down harder and harder, stroking furiously. Smoke begins to curl from the drill end. She is panting. More and more smoke. If she goes on any longer the notch will clog with hot dust and go out. She stops and flicks a twig down through the notch, then scoops up the tinder and holds it in part of her mouth, puffing.

"Not so hard," one of the instructors says. Too late. She has blown it out.

Downhearted for only a minute, she fluffs up her tinder and adds some more to make up for what she's scorched.

"Just breathe on it at first. When it smokes more, blow. When you get thick smoke, blow harder. You'll get it."

The first student fire comes at midmorning. An hour of theory, an hour and a half of whittling and fiddling. It is a doctor who fires first: good manual dexterity, as he is later to illustrate by stitching up a hand.

The woman who came close has shaken out the fatigue in her bowing arm and goes again. Good, thick smoke. She slicks the hot stuff out of the notch and nests it in the tinder. Kneeling, she holds up the fluff with both sets of fingertips. She looks like a priestess in an excited trance, breathing more and more rapidly. She purses her lips -- four good puffs and there is a magnificent burst of flame. Applause from the crowd.

After three hours or so we go back to the lodge for the next lesson -- shelter. Only a third of us have made fire. I finally get mine during a short break the next morning. It is as big a thrill as catching my first fish when I was nine. Part of the thrill is that one's individual initiation is a reenactment of an event that, replicated throughout families and tribes, changed the nature of human life.

Who are all these people? How did they get up to this cleft in the Blue Ridge?

A lot of them are Sierra Club members who read about the course in a club bulletin. Some of them read about it in Mother Earth News. Some more read a condensed version of The Tracker by Tom Brown, Jr. in Reader's Digest and came for his course.

When I saw the ad in the Charlottesville Daily Progress, I thought a lot of these people would be survivalists -- people who have stored food and water in their fallout shelters - but this isn't the case. They are all fairly adept at backpacking and camping, apparent from the neat little tents scattered around the lodge clearing. When everyone leaves late Sunday afternoon, there isn't a trace.

In fact, Tom Brown mocks the survivalists in their fortresses with a ton of canned goods. What most of the people here want for their $175 -- somewhat higher for Sierra Club nonmembers -- is the sort of resourceful skill that would be crucial if they were lost on a hike, benighted, and caught by a sudden turn of weather -- or possibly abandoned in the wilderness by a car breakdown or plane crash.

Part of what Tom "The Tracker" Brown wants for us is something like that. He says that he has taught thousands of people this course in three-day, seven-day, and longer versions, and that hundreds of people have written him gratefully to say that they've had to use these skills. But there is more to it than that. Even though he outlines what he has in mind during the first session on Friday night, the import of it doesn't begin to come clear until later. To some extent, what Tom Brown has to say can't be said.

The flavor of the man also takes some getting used to. It certainly had a push-pull effect on me at first: resistance and fascination.

Tom Brown's first appearance is commanding. He's a bit over six feet tall, with thick shoulders and upper arms, but with a well-centered ease of movement. He has light, almost shoulder-length hair and blue eyes with hazel flecks. The eyes are close together and intense.

Early Friday evening he says, "On your way to the lodge did you see the moon? Is it full? Where is it? Did you notice the wind shifts? Were you aware of the frogs? The ten different frogs? Did you hear the birds? The 40 bird voices? Right here outside the lodge, did you see the weasel? The fox? The deer? The red squirrel? Yes, the red squirrel is nocturnal. Did you see the mouse behind me here?"

Tom Brown is a tracker. He's been called in by the police to find criminals and missing persons. But he's not going to talk about that except to say that he's seen survival situations of both kinds. Both kinds? "I've pulled the frozen bodies out of survival situations that didn't work."

He is going to teach us four basic survival skills. The big three are:

1.How to find and make shelter. ("You can survive naked at 40 below with a shelter you can make with your bare hands.")

2.How to find water.

3.How to make fire without manufactured aid. We are allowed to use knives this trip, but we learn how to fracture rocks to get a pointed tool.

The fourth survival skill is how to find food. ("Any one of you here could survive for 20 days without food. I've gone without food for 40 days and not been debilitated. I just lost 20 pounds.") We took up fire-making bright and early Saturday morning because it's the most physically difficult. Now we're back inside the lodge after a quick lunch of stew from the 20-gallon caldron over the communal campfire. A slide show of shelters --wickiups, wigwams, tepees, hogans -- ends with step-by-step directions for the Tom Brown special, the debris hut, good to 40 below. This is something I know a little bit about, having spent several days alone in a snow cave of my own construction. That was in Maine in February. On other days of that trip I'd been in a tent and a couple of nights in a botched three-person igloo. I'd learned that a tent was the least warm and that almost anything else was better insulation.

As with almost all of the techniques we learned from Tom, this shelter had an animal slogan. "How do you build a shelter? Go ask the squirrel." This style of instruction was something he had learned from his mentor, an old Apache. Tom met Stalking Wolf when Tom was eight years old, Stalking Wolf 83. He spent all his spare time from eight to sixteen with Stalking Wolf and his grandson, who was the same age as Tom. If you listen to this style with a cynical ear, it can sound like Tarzan comic-book bubbles. Simba, the lion, Tantor, the elephant. "Taste the bite of my steel tooth," Tarzan is apt to exclaim as he swings down on a charging warthog.

But all good ideas have their burlesque possibilities. The particularity and accuracy of the Stalking Wolf propositions make them attractive, rather like Tai Chi's mnemonics, little crystals of appreciation for animals. What is additionally attractive is that the instructive animals in Tom's primer are everyday ones like mice, squirrels, and chickadees -- Stalking Wolf's favorite.

The debris hut is a squirrel's nest rigged on the simplest frame. We built one at a leisurely pace. A single person might have to spend an hour or two once a good spot is found. The design is simple. Prop a ridge pole against a rock or a tree notch -- the notch should be three feet high, maximum. Anchor the foot of the pole on the ground and run ribs from the ridge pole to the ground. Keep the interior space only slightly larger than body size. Pile leaves, ferns, pine needles, moss, twigs -- anything -- on the ribs. Keep the pile in place with interlaced vines and sticks. Pile on more debris, more vines and sticks. Keep the general shape slanted so rain will run off. Add more debris until you can sink your whole arm into it: the debris doesn't have to be dry -- just thick. Crawl in and look for light coming through chinks. Crawl out and cover the holes. Then fill the interior with debris. Crawl in. Crawl out. Fill the hole you made with more debris. Crawl in, crawl out. Add more debris. Make a bundle of leaves and bind it together with vines, grasses, or flexible twigs -- or, for the more advanced, weave a basket and fill it with leaves. Crawl in and plug the entrance behind you with the bundle of debris.

I crawled into the shelter we'd built. It was dark -- good, no chinks -- and noisy from the rustling leaves. After a while, I could feel my trapped body heat. To be sure, this was a pleasant, dry fall day, but the leaves felt as surprisingly cozy as a goose-down coat. I should not have been surprised. The shelter works on the same trapped-air principle as insulated coats and bags, and what we'd done with our clumps of leaves snd sticks was to make a giant sleeping bag with four feet of "loft" rather than four inches.

Back at the lodge to learn about water. Of the big three survival skills, finding water is the easiest, according to Tom. As there was a lake practically at our elbow, this proposition didn't seem unlikely.

We learned about solar stills, getting water from trees and plants -- you can get water from a wild grape vine by clipping a runner near the bottom and letting the liquid flow back into your cup. You can even get it from as simple but plentiful a method as sponging up dew with a T-shirt.

The main problem with water in America isn't finding it, it's getting rid of the pollution. More and more, previously safe streams and groundwater have dangerous organisms. Most of these can be killed by a ten-minute boil -- up from the five-minute boil suggested in most survival manuals: the bacteria are getting hardier. But there's not much that can be done about chemical pollutants. Even sand and charcoal filters don't work.

This is depressing to contemplate. But it was somewhere around this stage of the weekend that I felt either a change in the instruction or, possibly, more at ease myself. One of the surprises about Tom Brown's instructions is that there is no separation between the "go-ask-the-squirrel" mode and his summarizing the latest report from a university testing laboratory. Like many bright, largely self-taught people, Tom Brown has an occasionally contemptuous attitude toward, say, PhDs or lawyers. But this is not a rejection of logic or science.

Later in the evening -- after water, deadfalls and snares, and edible plants when we are sitting around in small groups making cordage out of fibers, Tom mentions that pokeweed looks as if it has some cancer-inhibiting qualities. I'd heard a lot of this talk about miraculous nuts and berries during the Whole Earth Catalog days, not to mention the later Laetrile stories. I say a little wryly to the oncologist who is braiding his rope beside me, "Use much pokeweed these days?" He says, "Not yet. We're still testing it on animals. It looks promising."

But it isn't the confirmation from my own off-and-on camping experience or this spot-check scientific validation that warms me up. It is a combination of a great many things that begin to fit together in a coherent picture. There is a romantic and a horrific side -- for example, Tom Brown's story about tracking a deer, lying in wait in a tree above its run, dropping on it, missing the clean kill because his knife handle broke, and having to strangle it, an avowedly painful process. He says that at last "I felt the deer's spirit slip through my fingers." When Tom told Stalking Wolf about it -- so Tom must have been sixteen or younger -- Stalking Wolf said, "When you can feel that spirit in a blade of grass, then you will become with nature."

This narrative gives me some trouble. I finally realize that it is more my own discomfort, the incoherence of my own attitudes toward nature as well as my literary preference for understatement and indirection. One can even suspect that Tom Brown is telling the story in part for the shock value, and still be grateful for the confrontation with one's own killing for meat, even if only by the agency of slaughterhouses. It reminded me of rabbit, quail, pheasant, turtle, fish, and shellfish of several kinds that Id killed and eaten -- some with attentiveness and some not.

By now there are several clues that, whatever strong macho scent of the man I might have sniffed initially, there is another savor of attentiveness, enthusiasm, and marveling tenderness. I am reminded of the man who taught me how to fish for striped bass. After he'd taught me some of the where and how, he took me out one night when there were a good many phosphorescent plankton in the water. We hung over the gunwale and simply watched the flashes of light in a couple of fathoms of salt water. Every time a fish moved at speed, it left a brief comet's trail. Dashes and swirls flared as fish fed or ran for cover. A globe of light came where a big fish fanned its tail. Some time later I saw a bar of light -- probably a striper -- grab a flicker of light that might have been an eel, and there was an explosion of phosphorescence. "That's what goes on down there. You ought to have some notion of what you're getting into. Aside from just killing a few of them."

It was, of course, a much longer story. What striped bass eat, where what they eat comes from, what they in turn eat. Even just a little watching of a single fish stirs the larger web out to its invisible edges.

As I traced through what Tom Brown had been saying, I realized that very little of his time outdoors is spent in anything like blood sport. It is looking, inferring, and connecting what he sees going on. His ideal is "gentle wandering", rather like Thoreau's ideal -- to be a sojourner in nature.

Saturday was hard to take in. It consisted pretty much of uninterrupted alternations of lecture and outdoor practice from 8 AM until past 11 PM: fire, shelter, water, deadfalls, snares, throwing sticks, edible plants, cordage, tanning, which we in the short course didn't practice.

Sunday was shorter -- 8 AM to 4 PM -- but in a way it was more bountiful. We took another quick shot at fire, or whatever we hadn't achieved the day before, and then spent some time learning to look and listen, which sounds dumb. But it turned out to be the most ingenious and mysterious suggestion of all.

We'd heard a little preaching Friday night about dulling habits, narrowed attentiveness. I thought it might be a case of preaching to the converted. But the more concrete explanation Sunday was amazing. Most people focus most of the time. Animals don't. So the first effort is to see more by unfocusing, then focusing on whatever seems of interest. Unfocus again. Hold your arms straight out to the sides. Try to see the fingers of both hands. Keep this breadth of vision -- this unfocused vision -- and move slowly through the woods. In just a short while, you'll begin to notice more.

Even this slight modification of habit was startling and, for a brief while, alarming. It felt as though protective parts of my skull were missing.

We were told that this unfocused vision was probably less tiring than the uninterrupted darting focusing that most people use most of the time.

It must have been an odd sight -- 50 people fanning out from the lodge, their arms stretched out and fingers wiggling, moving like sleepwalkers, but it was odder yet to see the stalking walk.

"Go ask the heron" was the motto for this one. This exercise would clearly take a good deal of "dirt-time" -- meaning field work, or on-the-job training. The one immediate realization was that all those Indians in literature, from James Fenimore Cooper's to Zane Grey's, actually could have moved noiselessly. We did learn how to step on a leaf or a twig without making it crackle. It's a matter of rolling the unweighted foot sideways then backwards, then forwards, then letting the weight flow forward through the hips onto the foot that is resting on the gradually and softly flattened leaf. But it's easier said than done, and next to impossible in hiking boots. Tom and the staff wear moccasins or thin running shoes.

Tracking is the most complex subject we undertake. The hour of lecture is chockfull even though Tom has it well broken up. "I'm not going to teach you the details you can get from Peterson's Field Guide to Animal Tracks. I'm going to give you the basics you can hang that on. And enough so that you can improve if you spend some dirt-time."

We get an outline of the most common prints and another outline telling which animals walk diagonally, which ones pace, which bound, which gallop. We learn how to tell a buck from a doe by the straddle of the hoofprints.

We go down to a mud flat by the lake. The mud is a Reader's Digest of what went on the night before: huge heron tracks, beaver, dog, deer. A few of us are able to pick up the trail of a deer leaving the lake and follow it back into the woods. I find myself standing amazed at this profusion, but it turns out there are even more tracks than the fraction I notice.

More instruction on signs. The basic technique here is to have some idea of the way everything usually is and then to notice what's different. In Tom Brown's book The Tracker -- the first volume of his autobiography -- there is an account of his tracking a retarded man who'd been missing for a couple of days. The police had given up. The account is like a Sherlock Holmes story, but the number of deductions is squared or cubed. It's not done by eyesight alone but by a delicate touching with the pads of the fingers. A good deal of time is spent on hands and knees, squinting along the ground against the light to pick up the slightest bas-relief.

The faintest glimmer of how satisfying an art this might be, of the sort of ramifying awareness it might lead to, comes during the last dirt-time period. We've learned that the most active part of the outdoors is neither the deep forest nor the open field but the brushy transition areas near both food and cover. We string out along what could be any roadside tangle, the sort of matted grass and weeds one passes even near city vacant lots. Following Tom's suggestions, I pick the grass apart and peer down. After only a little probing, I find a vole run. The vole is a squat little thing -- "the Volkswagen of rodents" -- and is prey to almost everything bigger than it, and even to shrews, which are smaller. The clear network of worn paths, tunnels really, arched over by the tangle, is astounding. Tracing along this delicate labyrinth I come on some vole scat -- tiny enough to pass through the eye of a darning needle but a perfect segmented turd, perfect in a way that suddenly brings my eye into the scale of vole life, the tiny grooves of its runs through the vast forest of grass blades in which it lives.

I wander over toward Tom with this find on my fingertip to get some pointers on guessing the age of the scat. Tom is off with two of the teenagers who are taking the course. He is the most relaxed I've seen him. The reason may be, in part, that this session is almost over. He and his instructors have been going practically nonstop all weekend. But from the attitude of this trio, it's more likely he's at ease because this is the part he likes best: he's listening to the two boys, who have found a print and have figured out it's a fox. Good. Now what? They guess rightly that the fox jumped over the little gully, and they begin to hover over the ground at nose length looking for a deeper print.

When I talked to Tom for a half-hour earlier in the day he was less pleased with most of the group. He wasn't unhappy with our accomplishment but with what he took to be our holding back. He wishes people taking his course to get into it completely.

I said that maybe some of us were taken aback by how much he was top-dog, even with his group of instructors. This remark, like the rest of my questions and comments, didn't irritate him, nor did he even feel the need to present a defense. I asked some of the instructors about Tom's being the alpha-dog, and they knew what I meant, but they too didn't think it needed explaining. It seemed perfectly natural to them in light of what they were all trying to do for us in a short time.

I ask Tom what he thinks of Outward Bound. He says that it's good at what it does, but what it does isn't what he's after. I suggest that there is at least some common ground. He listens to what I have to say. Then he mentions that several of the Outward Bound instructors have come to him to take his course. Okay. I understand that he doesn't wish to be measured by that stick.

On reflection I can see why he doesn't, although there is common ground. Tom, though he is an educator, is not part of the human potential movement -- at least not in the sense that he wants an experience of nature to be a means to the end of a better person. Nature is the end: Nature is Tom's religion. If you become more aware of nature, you'll be a better person, but the splendor is nature, not you.

It is also true that Outward Bound courses are not how-to. You do pick up a little rock-climbing, some survival techniques, and other skills, but the course is designed to leave you with a sense of accomplishment. The accomplishment is to be continued, to be sure, but it is also to be savored then and there.

Tom's courses are hard-core how-to. The thrills of accomplishment are, for the most part, prospective. You get them after more dirt-time, when you go off on your own. And even then awareness, at the standard Tom sets, will be beyond what most people will attain.

I ask Tom whom he admires, apart from Stalking Wolf. It's a short list: Thoreau; John Muir -- "He's a romanticist, but his early life is admirable" --; Robert Bateman, a wildlife artist; and Roger Tory Peterson, who in turn admires Tom Brown. That's the standard he sets himself -- complete dedication.

And yet, to return to the final hour of the course, there is Tom clearly enjoying enormously those two boys finding and figuring out a couple of fox prints. There is Tom responding with enthusiasm to the perfect little vole scat I present to him on the tip of my finger. And there is the Tom Brown who, when he finally tracks down the retarded person, amid the clatter of the helicopter he's radioed in and the squad of troopers it disgorges, realizes that he is the one who knows the lost man best, and he hugs him as the man bursts into tears from fear and relief.

We heard many more details of plant and animal lore and native American technology than I've recorded here. These stick pleasantly to my thought as I walk around my home landscape, beggar ticks and hitchhikers on the cuffs of my attention.

Tom Brown, the man, is worth the trip, too.

But what I'm happiest about in a way is the prod to my historical imagination. The parts of history most easily accessible to us are, naturally, those most fully recorded. But once in a while I've read something that made me think I was neglecting the prehistoric, or, more accurately, unchronicled history. Two remarks come to mind. Johnny Caldwell, former U.S. Olympic cross-country ski coach, says parenthetically in his book on skiing that he's always admired that prehistoric period of technology that gave us such functionally beautiful and simple objects as the ski, the bow and arrow, the paddle -- all of which originated sometime between 20,000 and 10,000 B.C. Claude Levi-Strauss in his book Tristes Tropiques argues in several ways for an appreciation of neolithic culture, its rhythm of work and invention, and leisure and imagination.

What I liked best about the Tom Brown course was the amplification of those two points.

One doesn't have to reject modern life to be moved by what we've lost, or at least misplaced, from the neolithic heritage. Native Americans, who came to this continent during the neolithic age, preserved a great deal of it. Tom Brown, by an odd piece of luck in his childhood, got hold of a thread leading into it, and has followed it on his own terms actively and intelligently. All the course's survival techniques -- how to get out of the woods alive -- while potentially useful and compellingly ingenious, aren't as important as the suggestions about how to get into the woods.

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


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